We’ve been writing about commonplace books –these old fashioned collections of quotes from books and readings– and working on our own versions for a few months now. When we started, a little bit of digital sleuthing quickly showed that most people break their CPBs down by category. I considered this for a few days, and even tried to come up with a short list of categories for my collection, but it seemed an impossible task. It’s hard to think about organization when you have nothing but blank pages in front of you. Now that we’re getting to the end of the year, however, I can look back and see some categories starting to emerge.
2017 has been a difficult year. My husband received a big and terrible diagnosis early in January and one of my ways of coping has been to just write this year off –I’ve said at least a dozen times something along the lines of “2017 isn’t a good year for me for ______. Let’s talk next year.” It applied to everything from socializing to taking on big projects to traveling to spending money. Although it sounds kind of pessimistic, I actually found it quite freeing — it was a little confirmation to myself that yes, this year would suck, but with any luck things wouldn’t suck forever. As long as you see an end to a difficult time, it’s much easier to get through it.
And I think because of this state of mind instead of using my reading to escape I’ve dug deep and read little that wasn’t about K’s illness or about how others have dealt with a shitty turn of events.
The big question that has been running through my head all year is “how do we comfort the people we love?” and the truth is that I’ve yet to come across any great answers. But I have started to build up a pretty sizeable fountain of other people’s wisdom when it comes to dealing with hard shit. I have lots of thoughts on this and will probably post about it again, but for now I thought I’d just share a few of the quotes from this year’s reading that have resonated the most.
“The secret of life is not about knowing what to say or do. It’s not about doing love or loss right. Life cannot be handled. The secret is to simply show up. It’s about witnessing it all, even the pain, and letting it touch you and make you not harder, but more tender. Showing up, feeling it all — this is my new kind of prayer. I call it praying attention, and it’s how, for me, everything turns holy.” Glennon Doyle, “The Secret of Life Is Simply Showing Up”, O Magazine July 2017
“We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.” (found on a comment on a Humans of New York Facebook post 7/25/17)
I am reminded of an image…that living with a terminal disease is like walking on a tightrope over an insanely scary abyss. But that living without disease is also like walking on a tightrope over an insanely scary abyss, only with some fog or cloud cover obscuring the depths a bit more — sometimes the wind blowing it off a little, sometimes a nice dense cover.” Nina Riggs, The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying
“I began to realize that coming in such close contact with my own mortality had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.” Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air
“Every love story is a potential grief story.” Kyo Maclear, Birds, Art, Life
These are only from things I’ve read in the last ten months. I find myself wanting to go back and reread things I read long ago, things I read before I was keeping track of quotations in my commonplace book. I want to re-read Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking, the best book on grief I think I’ve ever read, about the terrible year that Didion lost both her husband and her only daughter. I want to go back and re-read Late Fragments by Kate Gross, which I listened to on a solo road trip through the desert a few years ago. It was wonderful, if wonderful is an appropriate word for the memoir of a very young woman with a horrible cancer that kills her soon after she finished writing the book. I want to go back and re-read Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Lifeby Amy Krouse Rosenthal, a book that I absolutely adored when I read it more than a decade ago. Rosenthal died from ovarian cancer earlier this year, just ten days after the NYT published a heart-wrenching dating profile she wrote for her soon-to-be widowed husband. I want to revisit the wisdom in Will Schwalbe’s The End-of-Your-Life Book Club and Abigail Thomas’ Three Dog Life.
I see now that this is not a new category for me. It’s just become more important to me this year. So, what should I call this category? Illness? Grief? How to live with death in your rear-view mirror? Oh. I guess that’s just called Life.