I have been sitting here staring at the screen for about 20 minutes. I have been avoiding this post for about 4 weeks. I don’t even know why.
About a month ago, I read two books back to back: The Still Point of the Turning World by Emily Rapp and Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala. I read both of them in about a week and a half.
The Still Point of the Turning World is a poetic, literary, philosophical look at what it means to be a parent, to have a sick and dying baby, and our obsessions with expectations for everything. It was lovely, gripping, and made me think, think, think about my kids, my life, and how I need to continue my struggle to live in the present. Wave is a memoir of a woman who lost her two elementary-aged sons, her husband, and her parents from the tsunami of 2005; she was the only survivor from their Christmas vacation. It is a harrowing story of the struggle to make meaning of your one life–for years and years afterwards–when everything and everyone that defined you as you suddenly disappears. It made me ache.
I am a big fan of memoir as a genre, but the fact that I found, bought, and read these books one after the other was a strange coincidence.
Believe it or not, living the lives of these women through text for 10 intense days wasn’t all that bad. I found myself thinking, feeling, and pausing a lot more than normal–acts of meta-cognition I feel I can always use more of. But whenever I tried to talk about these books with coworkers, friends, or other parents at birthday parties NOBODY wanted to talk to me. I got confused looks, causal exits that said “Let me just move slowly away from that weird mom,” and quick ends to the conversation. I could not find many to engage with me in conversation. Only my friend Kat–who lost her husband at age 33, found out 2 weeks later she was pregnant, and now, 6 years later, has a 5 year old son–talked with me and expressed interest in reading the books. And my friend Judy, who is in her early 60’s. This would not surprise Emily Rapp, author of The Still Point of a Turning World.
The question most asked me was, “Why are you reading that?” I thought, why would you NOT read them?
Emily Rapp explains the difficulty of talking to other parents about parenting when you have a terminally ill child. She says the mere existence of parents of dead or dying children is too clear of a mirror for the rest of us and that, “Nobody wants to know the truth about their children, about themselves: that none of this is forever” (p. 18).
When I first read this (and heard her speak of it on an NPR show and say something similar), I was offended. I thought, “No, some of us want to know. Some of us have already been through great loss, and we wonder how we’d ever survive what might be categorized (in my mind, at least) as a loss even greater…” And then I began to realize why I read these books: I read them to know that people can survive. I know better than to believe that I can prepare for the worst, but I do read them to believe and to be told again and again that we–humans–are far more resilient than we could ever imagine. I have seen this again and again as I grow older and witness more struggle and victories and loss, but I don’t feel like I can hear it enough.
That said, Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala simply slayed me. Gutted me. I found myself teary many many times or having that feeling of not being able to get a deep breath, and, to reference the title of this post, one time while reading the book I actually threw up. A book has NEVER done that to me before; it made me feel so much emotion that I literally barfed into my mouth. It was Friday, and my two sweet kids were nestled down in front of the TV watching “The Little Mermaid” (Friday night they can watch a movie and eat dinner–sometimes I join them on the couch, sometimes I read/have a beer at the table and drink them in from afar) and the song “Under the Sea” came on. The stark contrast between my life and the life of the author, between my two kids watching this film about the sea and her children (and entire family) who were eaten alive by the sea, between the abundance of life that I have before me and her singular self navigating life–everything just reached an emotional height in my head that I had never before experienced via a text and I THREW UP.
Now that’s powerful.
I talk a lot about reading to my students. I told them about reading this book and how it made me throw up. They looked at me quizzically and asked, “Is that a good thing?” and, of course, I threw the question right back at them. “Is it?”
I just started reading Kylene Beers & Robert Probst’s new book Notice & Note: Strategies for Close Reading. I am a big fan of Beers’ book When Kids Can’t Read What Teachers Can Do and was very excited to hear about her new text. In the first chapter, the authors talk about reading, rigor, text complexity, independent mastery, and all the jargon that exists out there about reading instruction. But, they argue, the real essence of good reading is for the reader to read a text, notice something in the text that leads them deeper into it, and this depth of understanding/engagement helps the reader realize something about him/herself as well. They call this a textual transaction: there is a give and take between the reader and the text.
The textual transaction between myself and Wave happened page by page. Every page, I found myself falling deeper into this woman’s grief, not in a sad way but in a human way. As a mother, a wife, a daughter, a professional, a woman, a homemaker–so many elements of her life resonated in me. Reading that book was equivalent to washing the window to my life–suddenly I could see my kids, my husband,our small apartment, our smaller bank account, my job, my students, my grey hair, the 10 lbs I can’t seem to lose–clearly and with a deep appreciation. I must admit, I am usually in awe at my little life and very thankful on the daily, but this book gave me a depth of gratitude that felt a little desperate (as if it could all be whisked away by a wave) but also beautifully profound.
I am constantly in search of books that can have this effect on my students; a just right book for each student that will crack them open and leave them vulnerable yet full. And I always feel lucky when I have found a book like that for myself.