The Books They Gave Me

In which we reflect on books given us by loved ones.

Dyer.

image

J gave me this book. He never stops talking; he loves to talk about India. What the place means to him I don’t really understand. I don’t think I need to. We all have our own India. And in pointing me to this book, he put his finger directly on mine.

Varanasi is an ancient city—legendarily, the most ancient in all of India, the root of the Ganges and the root of the people. There, on the ghats, bodies are ceremonially burned and the ashes are swept into the river. In which supplicants also bathe, because the holiness of the waters there renders any concern for hygiene ridiculous. Hygiene is a ridiculous concept in a city awash in filth, anyway. Because the spiritual wealth of this city is what matters; die here and be cremated on the ghat, and your soul will be freed from the endless cycle of death and rebirth. Die on the other side of the Ganges’ bank and your soul will be downgraded; you will be reborn as a donkey. Varanasi is a good place to die.

Reincarnation is poorly understood by Western minds. Is it really such a bad thing to be born as an animal instead of a human? Does a donkey mind that it’s a donkey? Buddhism can point us to a different way, helping us to let go of concern for our selves and our tiresome vanity, our need to be “happy,” to be fulfilled, to be appreciated. Keeping your head above water as you navigate life’s currents is essential, but often we jump into deep waters when we could just as easily wade nearer the shore. We always seem to complicate things for ourselves, and, lacking the austere self-control of Buddhism, sometimes we need the shock of death to steer us out of the complexity of deep water and into the shallows where we can travel more simply through our lives.

For some of us, that death can be our own. Dyer’s nameless narrator comes to Varanasi, exhausted, jaded, and numbed by life. He intends at first to stay for a few days, and ends up staying for months. Living cheaply, immersed in immersion, he just stays. And as he does, his sense of self and his attachments to the world slip. Immolation and annihilation ensue. Finally scoured clean, seared inside and out by a wicked intestinal virus, the fever-scorched and brittle narrator has a barber shave his head, then promptly runs into an old acquaintance from before Varanasi, who eyes him, terrified. Dyer writes: “I am in mourning for myself…my old self refuses to die. The new is struggling to be reborn. In this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” 

And this is the moment in the text which grabbed me, the passage where I could not stop my feet from dancing against the subway car’s linoleum, when my heart leapt, when I could not blink the tears from my eyes before they fell; the moment that mirrored my own life in a way I can never adequately explain to my new friend. For me it was not a virus, but my own body that turned against me—for reasons no one will ever know. The cure was: scorching, searing chemicals pumped into my body via a port embedded under the skin below my collarbone. Right side. Its installation and removal left a pair of scars that now resemble a small, faint pink lipstick kiss mark.

But the chemicals did their work; carefully dosed acids poured right through my heart killed the errant cells and burned out of me all laziness, all hesitance, all patience for bullshit and distraction, and, once I was well again, pushed me onto a surer path. Immolation. The old must die so the new can be born. And we are born bald, bald as a chemo patient. 

Varanasi is on the Ganges river. My rebirth took place on the shores of Lake Michigan. And how very sad it is that some of us need to be pushed to the brink of death before we see who it is we were meant to be, and the way to change. 

This is a relationship about which no predictions can (or even need) be made. But this moment of connection, fostered by the sharing of a book, is real. 

Uris.

image

My cousin gave me this book for Christmas one year and told me she learned a lot from it.  It made me angry and it made me fiercely proud; I learned so much about what it meant to be Irish Catholic.  This book gave me respect for ancestors I never knew.  It was passionate and raw like no other book I’ve read.  I will forever be grateful to my cousin for this wonderful gift.

This is new.

He gave me a book. It’s a new kind of book, a new gift. It’s his own work; an ebook of his own poems, lovingly arranged, carefully composed around a theme: music. The mixtape.

The first story I ever wrote for this blog was about music. It’s not on this blog anymore; you’ll have to grab a copy of the book to read it (page 2). And here we come around again, two years after that first gift. This time, the giver compiled fifteen of his own poems about music. And pop, and camp, and fame, and what songs do to us and the way we fall in love with them and the artists who created them the same way we fall in love with books and the authors who wrote them.

He made me an ebook, a test trial so he could figure out how to publish in iBooks. And maybe this will amount to something more than a trial run. We don’t yet know.

These songs narrate me: “I am human, and I need to be loved.” “I wear black on the outside, because black is [sometimes] how I feel on the inside.” “Girl afraid: where do his intentions lay?” Just the same, whenever I do my hair for a night out, I flash back to Margaret’s single backwards curl in Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. Every bath I take is Esther’s deep, hot soak in The Bell Jar.Richard Yates’ adept portrayal of April Wheeler’s swirling frustration gave power to my own flight from suburban stagnation. 

The songs and the books, they are the same. They offer us the same balms in different flavors. Poems ride the line down the middle—lyric words never meant to be sung, except in our own hearts, our own voices. 

A book of poems is a mixtape; a collection of songs you get to sing in your own head. This is what he gave me. 

joberholtzer:

Petals, Wine and Books
In which a few bottles of wine and this pile of books distract me from my purpose.

I Love Charts blogger and author Jason Oberholtzer is looking for love. He’s looking in books, which may or may not help, but at least we know he’ll have a fine time along the way. Especially if he starts at the bottom and works his way up. (Full disclosure: I gave him the galley copy you see at the bottom of the pile.)
What book would you give if you wanted to impress a crush?

joberholtzer:

Petals, Wine and Books

In which a few bottles of wine and this pile of books distract me from my purpose.

I Love Charts blogger and author Jason Oberholtzer is looking for love. He’s looking in books, which may or may not help, but at least we know he’ll have a fine time along the way. Especially if he starts at the bottom and works his way up. (Full disclosure: I gave him the galley copy you see at the bottom of the pile.)

What book would you give if you wanted to impress a crush?

SIlverstein.

image

As a child, it is hard to understand the rarity of a truly happy ending.  Because they are everywhere for us when we are six and seven.  We don’t have to look very far to find one.  We are, in a way, sheltered from the cold, cruel fact that happy endings are less likely than sad ones.  The thought does not compute.

When my mother gave me “The Giving Tree,” I couldn’t contain my excitement.  I loved Shel Silverstein’s poetry and knew this book would be no different.  I read the entirety in less than 20 minutes.  And I didn’t love it as much as I thought I would.

“Mom, what is this?”  I asked, and she simply looked at me.  ”What is this?  Why would you let me read this?”

She didn’t understand.  She just continued looking at me.

“That boy is TERRIBLE!  The tree loved him, and he used her!  He forgot all about her and then he just USED her!”

I remember she smiled a bit, but just continued to look at me with simple curiosity.

“Well?!  That’s not fair!”

“Is it unfair?  Or is there something beautiful in a love like that?  It’s endless and unconditional.  Isn’t that beautiful?” she asked me, and I just stared at her.  Beautiful?  How could that be beautiful?  It felt nothing but lonely to me.

“That’s what happens, sweetheart.  People change and they move on.  Things change.  Life changes.  We grow up and grow old.  It’s inevitable - the passing of time.  But love is always there, surrounding you.  And that is beautiful.”

Years later, I still get sad and feel terribly lonely whenever I read this book.  But it has shaped me in a way that no other book has.  It opened my eyes, it forced me to question the “happy ending” and, more specifically, change.  And made me - just a little bit - begin to admit how beautiful that can be.