The other evening I was on the phone with my best friend Chele, who lives in Michigan’s wild, wintry Upper Peninsula. I was sharing with her a meditation from Being With Dying, Zen priest Joan Halifax’s reflections from decades of helping the dying and the living consider the inevitability of their own deaths.
Chele then shared with me what she was reading in front of a wood stove fire, her little dog curled on her lap: a primer on furnace filters. I was not surprised; the modest library in her cozy cabin is composed mostly of technical manuals and how-to books.
Supremely capable in practical matters, Chele is the most down-to-earth person I have ever met. She dwells entirely in the World of the Concrete, into which I occasionally journey with mixed results, evidenced by amusing home improvement outcomes. I dwell mostly in the World of Abstractions, with a pronounced focus on spirituality.
My recent reading list includes Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? cartoonist Roz Chast’s graphic memoir of caring for her parents at the end of their lives, and A Widow’s Story, Joyce Carol Oates’ recounting of the months following her husband’s unexpected death. Before that came C.S. Lewis’ emotionally scalding classic A Grief Observed and Guy Newland’s contemporary A Buddhist Grief Observed, each of which puts a belief system — Christianity and Buddhism, respectively — to the excruciatingly personal acid test of a beloved spouse’s death. (It’s a testament to the authors’ candor that both systems substantially fail as spiritual support, at least in the short run.)
Here, discerning readers might be forgiven for observing that my reading list could use a little less Nietzsche and a little more Disney. I agree, and I thank you. This frolicking bunny and deer photo is for you.
I am not much for fiction, unless it meaningfully explores the real-life themes that compel me to nonfiction: Love, loss, struggle, meaning; how we get through it all, or don’t. (Marilynne Robinson took my breath away and never returned it with this line from her slim, elegant novel Housekeeping: “When she had been married a little while, she concluded that love was half a longing of a kind that possession did nothing to mitigate.”)
My mother, on the other hand, is an inveterate reader of make-believe, especially detective series, mysteries and spy stories; she favors the kind of intricate plots that first challenge and then exhaust me. Mom reads primarily for entertainment, escape, distraction.
You might be wondering at this juncture about some sort of point I might eventually get around to making. Me, too. What I apparently have instead is a soft oblong, or possibly a mobius strip — no end in sight — or some indeterminate shape that will not be wrestled into precision. I hate that, and if you were counting on me, I’m sorry. But maybe you’d be willing to pick up the slack.
I rarely — OK, never — do participatory blog posts, but the notion that what we read captures a truth about our essential natures has me curious. So, in lieu of a point, this question –and, I hope, your answers:
What do you read? How does it reflect who you are?