It’s no secret that I love books. Not only reading them but also writing them. There are few pastimes more enjoyable than hunkering down with a good book – anywhere really. We all have our favorite spots. From the beach to the bed, the bus or the back seat of the car, the lunchroom or the living room, the front porch or the backyard hammock. Wherever, it doesn’t matter. You get the picture.
Years ago, when I was commuting to work in Toronto via the subway, my fondest memory of that time was the twenty minutes when I was completely and totally absorbed in a book. Lost in time and space. For those glorious twenty minutes, the only world that existed was the one between the front and back cover of whatever book I was reading. It was a little piece of serenity in a crowded smelly noisy dreary subway car. A good book has the ability to drown out all distractions. It’s that powerful.
My love for reading preceded my love for writing, although not by that much. They go hand in hand for me really. As soon as I could read, I started to write. As a shy child, it was my go-to form of communication and creative expression. It’s not that I didn’t speak because I did. With some people I could be a downright chatterbox. I’m sure there were many times when Ma wished I would stop talking and go back to the book I was reading. But I always felt more comfortable expressing myself through the written word, over the spoken. Not much has changed.
Writing, although equally enjoyable, is in many ways much more difficult. Writing requires a greater degree of commitment, discipline, dedication, engagement and practice. Lots of practice. It’s one of those skills that seem to get better, the more you practice, the more you do it. Like learning to play an instrument, it requires daily focus and persistent work. Some of it is very foundational and fundamental, often tedious and mundane. Like playing scales or learning the rudiments of grammar, mastering Twinkle Twinkle Little Star or composing a simple coherent sentence. Even then there’s no guarantees you’ll be able turn out prose like Margaret Atwood, but you’ll be a hell of a lot better than when you first picked up a pen, or in my case, a pencil.
There is so much about last year that I would like to kick to the curb. Leave behind without a backwards glance. But I also don’t ever want to forget last year either because it was so full of lessons to be learned and cautionary tales to be heeded. It was so full of all the frightening things I had been reading about for years but was in out-and-out denial that they could happen in my lifetime. Of course, they did. They happened and continue to happen.
Books are my favorite gift to give and to receive.
One of the saving graces for 2020 was the diverse books I read. Many were gifts from my family, some were spontaneously purchased from the books section of our local grocery store, others were borrowed, on loan or were hand-me-downs, and then there were the perfect gems I picked up at one of our neighborhood little libraries. There was something about every book I read last year that I loved. I learned something new. About the world, our community, my family, friends, the work I do, the things I believe in, truth, faith, and most importantly I learned new things about myself and about my lifelong love affair with writing – not just the manner in which I write but the subject matter of my writing.
I not only read for the sheer pleasure, I also read as a student of writing. Every book teaches me something about my craft. Word choices, sentence structures, expression of ideas in unexpected ways, the sound of words, the visual beauty of letters strung together to create thoughts, the poetry and lyrical nature of well constructed prose, the tension and release, the contradictory and complimentary colliding in climax, the playfulness of alliteration, the joy of breaking grammatical rules, the unexpected plot twist, the fine art of character development, the surprise ending, and the final resolution that leaves the reader one hundred percent satisfied. Time well spent. A book worth reading.
Last year began with a work of non-fiction and ended the same way. In between I read everything from suspense thrillers by my favorite British authors, the story of the band Talking Heads, essays by Jia Tolentino, an autobiography by Metis-Cree author Jesse Thistle and one of my all-time favorite novels, Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, which is quite simply a master class in fiction writing. I finished the book, held it close to my heart and said a little prayer. God, one day may I have the intelligence, skill and talent to write something even half as good as this wonderful book.
The first book of 2020 was a Christmas gift from my daughter Melissa called The Universal Christ by Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest and the last book I borrowed from my daughter Aimee called Why Fish Don’t Exist by Lulu Miller. One book explores religion, specifically the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth while the other is a tale about the scientific obsession of taxonomist David Starr Jordon.
Both books were about faith, from two different perspectives, and were the perfect bookends for a year that tested my faith repeatedly, that brought me to my knees in tears of heartbreak, dragged me kicking and screaming through the mud of despair and disillusionment, raked me over the bitter coals of fear, loss and vulnerability but ultimately brought me to a sacred place of humility, acceptance and grace.