Milestones forever linked to what you were reading at the time
1966: The power of a story forever changed me
Mrs. Handy, a teacher I didn’t even like, changed my world with a book.
Every day, after recess, Mrs. Handy read a chapter of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit out loud to a split class of second and third graders. I don’t know how the rest of the kids reacted, but I was enthralled, absolutely spellbound by the story. (It makes me wonder if there’s some genetic link to word-wonder bound into our DNA…but that’s fodder for another piece.)
Let me be clear. I was terrified of Mrs. Handy, a youngish, pretty woman. She was not a warm and fuzzy teacher but a firm and demanding one, and my soft nature was intimidated. But she gave me The Hobbit and changed the course of my life.
Stories and worlds were out there, just waiting for me to walk in. The turning point into my literary life is forever marked by a book.
The Hobbit was followed by hundreds of children’s biographies, mysteries, (Nancy Drew, of course, along with some old copies of Cherry Ames and The Boxcar Children,) and whatever else looked good to me.
The rest, as they say, is history. Reading became an essential part of my life, and books are emotionally linked to every momentous occasion of my existence.
1982: The strength of women inspired me
Book-of-the-Month Club selection, Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey by Lillian Schlissel came to my door.
I was building a career in teaching with two young children and a husband who didn’t affirm me but depended on me for everything. I was exhausted and struggling.
Then I read Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey and learned how other women faced incredible odds and came out on the other side. I was mesmerized and inspired by the real stories of ordinary women who — often without a choice in the matter — trekked across the western plains to hold their families together and start new lives, with or without men. They had mental fortitude and a survivor mentality. I could, too.
Reading that book made me stronger, fiercer, and more independent — whether or not that’s a good thing. It was the start of my belief in myself as a woman and a writer. It made me understand the importance of observing human nature and recording the daily trials and triumphs of life — which are universal throughout time.
In the Introduction to Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey, Lillian Schlissel notes that women
“…do not write of trailblazing or of adventure but of those facets of living that are unchanging. In reading their diaries we come closer to understanding how historical drama translates into human experience. Through the eyes of the women we begin to see history as the stuff of daily struggle…
And Carl Degler adds that
“We will exclaim at their achievements and their failures, at their affirmations of life, and at their stubborn resistance to failure and death.”
That book changed my future and helped me discover the core of strength that exists inside me. (My husband and I divorced sixteen years later.)
1994: The force of a book identified me as a writer
My fervent desire to be a writer was forged into iron-hard determination after reading one book: Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. If you haven’t read it, you should. It still works. Her funny, sometimes irreverent observations were dead-on. I mean, what reader and aspiring writer doesn’t relate to Lamott’s ideas?
“I read more than other kids. I luxuriated in books. Books were my refuge. I sat in corners with my little finger hooked over my bottom lip, reading, in a trance, lost in the places and times to which books took me. And there was a moment during my junior year in high school when I began to believe that I could do what other writers were doing. I came to believe that I might be able to put a pencil in my hand and make something magical happen.”
“…writing brings with it so much joy, so much challenge. It is work and play together.”
I got it. Bird by Bird expressed my own desire to write and is intertwined with my hope for a literary future. My dog-eared old volume is still one of my favorites to pull off the shelf and browse through highlighted passages.
If you’re a writer, (really, really a writer and not just someone who thinks about it), this book will speak to you. Maybe it will mark the start of your identifying yourself as a writer as it did me.
1996: The beginning of decline marked by a novel
My beloved, compassionate, father, a man filled with joie-de-vivre every day of his life, had a stroke. It was a long recovery, and we were unsure of his ability to resume activities of daily life. He wouldn’t run any mini-marathons again. He probably wouldn’t go to the Y to swim laps. He may not even tell stories, sneeze loudly, or tell the same old bad jokes over and over.
Returning home from a conference after Daddy’s stroke, I sat on an airplane and sobbed big, heaving, wet sobs. The passenger next to me must have been worried about my mental state, but I simply couldn’t stop.
I was reading Nicholas Sparks’ book, The Notebook, a sentimental love story about an elderly man named Noah trying to help his Alzheimer-afflicted wife remember their love. In reality, the only similarities between the book and my life were that two elderly people had loved each other for decades, and one was declining rapidly, but the plot was similar enough to what was happening to my parents that I reeled from the impact.
For me, The Notebook will always mark the beginning of the decline of Daddy’s health.
2017: The death of an author altered my perception of time
I first heard about this book in March of 2017 when the author, Amy Krouse Rosenthal died at the age of fifty-one of ovarian cancer. You may have heard of Rosenthal. She wrote children’s books and was known for penning the poignant “You May Want to Marry My Husband” in the NYT’s editorial section ten days before she died.
Her book, Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, is a lovely, interesting, unique sort of book where she condenses individual facets of life into short, snippet descriptions. Filled with warmth and humor, the book tripped all my triggers.
I was writing my first full-length manuscript, part memoir and part eulogy to my dad, an ordinary guy who made life magical. We were ordinary people living an average life. I was just like Rosenthal as she explained herself in the foreword:
“I was not abused, abandoned, or locked up as a child. My parents were not alcoholics, nor were they ever divorced or dead. We did not live in poverty, or in misery, or in an exotic country. I am not a misunderstood genius, a former child celebrity, or the child of a celebrity. I am not a drug addict, sex addict, food addict, or recovered anything. …”
The Encylopedia of an Ordinary Life packed a wallop for me, pushing me to work hard, every day, at writing.
First, she had written a cool, quirky book that I admired. (I still hope to come up with an original concept like she did before I die.)
Secondly, her idea of “ordinary” jived with mine. (Only she expressed it so much more brilliantly than I ever imagined possible.)
Thirdly, and most importantly, reading that wonderful book instilled a sense of urgency in me. Rosenthal’s death at fifty-one reminded me that life is short, and I have no time to lose.
2017 — Again: Clarity from a book when I needed it most
My mother was dying a slow, painful death from congestive heart failure and kidney failure. Stoic. Strong. Stubborn. Mother refused to acknowledge that this was an illness she wouldn’t overcome, as if her sheer determination could keep her going without air or urine.
But I was informed, encouraged, and strengthened by Atul Gawande’s book, Being Mortal which discussed the idea that the end of life should be focused on the quality of life, not the length of it.
My understanding of the end stages of life was permanently altered by Gawande’s premise that while modern medicine is a wonderful thing, it can’t cure old age or terminal illness, and we shouldn’t ask it to try.
Sitting with Mother and watching her final struggle was a sad and difficult journey made easier by reading Being Mortal. It’s a book that drastically affected my thinking on how I want to live the last days of my life if I have a choice. It’s just one of the many books that are woven into my psyche and intertwined with my memory, commemorating the major events of my life.
My life is book-marked, indeed.
I bet yours is, too.
Read more about how books impact our minds, our hearts, and our lives in Book Talk.