Putting Life Back Together, Piece By Piece


I haven't written a review of an adult book in quite some time, which isn't to say I haven't been reading them. As a matter of fact, with each book I've read in the last six months or so, I've been holding my breath a bit, hoping it would be the one I would feel inspired to review next. Unfortunately, I ended up reading a lot of decent books, but nothing I felt was really very, very good, which is quite different from 2013, in which I read several books I couldn't wait to crow about. 

To be completely honest, there is one book, which I finished in June, that I thought was worth writing home about. Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, which seems to inspire either hero-worship or hatred in readers, in my opinion was fantastic. I know it was long (a whopping 800 pages or so), and complicated, and many argued could have used a harsher editor. But I cannot get enough Charles Dickens, and if Tartt's writing is anything, it is very Dickensian, featuring multiple characters developed over a long period of time and managing many story lines and subplots, all while remaining true to major themes of morality, good vs. evil, and survival. So, if you remember hating Great Expectations, The Goldfinch is not the book for you. For the rest of us, including the Pulitzer Prize committee and the National Book Circle, it is a book of wonder. 

One reason I chose not to review The Goldfinch in depth -- the ten thousand plus Amazon reviews available on it, plus the fact that it remains near the top of the bestseller list. Both factors generally indicate that about a bazillion people have already heard of (if not read) the book, so my thoughts on it are hardly new. I prefer to write about something people actually might not have read yet. :-)

Oh and that reminds me, I also very much enjoyed the second book in J. K. Rowling's pseudonymous detective series, but again, she certainly doesn't need me to recommend anything she publishes, either. I'm still amazed that she can write across genres so effectively. 

So, back on task. About three or four months back, I picked up Anne Lamott's newest non-fiction title, Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair. You may have heard of Lamott before, as she writes essays, novels, and memoirs, and has garnered quite a following in the last twenty-plus years. One of the most captivating things about Lamott's story is her journey from addiction to recovery, which involved accepting and embracing faith, including a Higher Power, despite growing up in an household in which such leanings were not valued. If you're not a believer, please don't let that deter you from Lamott's books. Although she identifies as a Christian, Lamott has an extremely open view of faith and what lies beyond the beyond, and her writing reflects that openness. Lamott is just as likely to argue with God as she is to revere her/him. And she's hardly here to tell us what to think.

Lamott has a self-deprecating sense of humor that is sometimes so painfully funny it hurts. It's this sense of humor that makes her quite adept at writing about difficult topics like pain, death and grief. Lamott was inspired to write Stitches after the Sandy Hook massacre, which affected her deeply, as it has many of us. In a short 80 or so pages, Lamott writes about how we hold onto hope in a world that sometimes seems overwhelmed by personal (like the loss of loved ones) and public (i.e. 9/11) loss. Lamott doesn't offer any easy answers, but describes how we sometimes, in the company  move forward by picking up a shred of what's left after tragedy, and slowly, slowly stitching the pieces back together. 

This is not a self-help book. I'd argue that it's not even a religious one. Rather, this is a book that will provoke you to contemplate what it means to live in a beautiful, terrible world, and reassure you that it's okay to feel the pain and sadness that come with life on Earth. That may seem like a given, but for many of us, beating the hell out of ourselves in an ill-advised attempt to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps comes more naturally than accepting and moving through grief. Stitches won't deign to solve the pain of world, but Lamott does remind us that if we're willing to love ourselves through life's trials, we can continue on, with hope.

Here are a couple of my favorite quotes from Stitches, which I hope will inspire you to read it once, read it again, and mark your favorite parts for future contemplation:

"We live stitch by stitch, when we're lucky ... And maybe the stitching is crude, or it is unraveling, but if it were precise, we'd pretend that life was just fine and running like a Swiss watch. This is not helpful if on the inside our understanding is that life is more often a cuckoo clock with rusty gears."

“As far as I can recall, none of the adults in my life ever once remembered to say, “Some people have a thick skin and you don’t. Your heart is really open and that is going to cause pain, but that is an appropriate response to this world. The cost is high, but the blessing of being compassionate is beyond your wildest dreams. However, you’re not going to feel that a lot in seventh grade. Just hang on.” 

“But what if the great secret insider-trading truth is that you don't ever get over the biggest losses in your life? Is that good news, bad news, or both? . . . . The pain does grow less acute, but the insidious palace lie that we will get over crushing losses means that our emotional GPS can never find true north, as it is based on maps that no longer mention the most important places we have been to. Pretending that things are nicely boxed up and put away robs us of great riches.” 

“When we agree to (or get tricked into) being part of something bigger than our own wired, fixated minds, we are saved. When we search for something larger than our own selves to hook into, we can come through whatever life throws at us.”

“I know God enjoys hearing my take on how best we should all proceed, as I'm always full of useful advice. I'm sure God says either, "Oh, I so love Annie's selfless and evolved thoughts," or else "Jeez. What a head case.” 

“To heal, it seems we have to stand in the middle of the horror, at the foot of the cross, and wait out another’s suffering where that person can see us. To be honest, that sucks. It’s the worst, even if you are the mother of God.” 

“Ram Dass, who described himself as a Hin-Jew, said that ultimately we’re all just walking each other home. I love that. I try to live by it.” 

stitches 2

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