While my writing habit is still (and likely always will be) under construction, reading on the other hand is a part of what makes me who I am, seemingly fully formed within my DNA. Reading is also a way to escape. Sometimes I escape a bit too much, but that’s a story for another day. Most of the time, I manage to strike a good balance.
The only time in my life when I haven’t been able or wanted to read was right after my husband Doug’s stroke. My mind could not latch onto the information and in any case, if I had a rare few spare moments, I spent them sleeping or just sitting. Stories held no interest for me, as nothing in them spoke to me, and any escape felt impossible anyway.
That went on for nearly the whole first year. I slowly but surely started to have the mental and emotional bandwidth to re-enter into words and ideas outside my own lived experience. I realized that it requires empathy and engagement to be a good reader, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. Thankfully, I am back to my old self, the person who wants to read every book I see (my NWC pals and I just went to Third Place Books and two out of three of us walked out with yet another tome for the pile while the third one said he found “$180 worth of books” to desire just on the first display table). Book lust indeed.
These days, I find myself reading two or three books simultaneously, in part due to all the platforms on which you can now read. I still prefer actual pages to feel and flip through (and smell, if it’s an old book), and I like reading non-electronic books at night, but I’m totally happy to read on my phone on the train. Yes, phones are tiny and therefore challenging for us aging folks, but I just bump up the font size to grandma and it works fine. I have to scroll about every second, so my finger (or thumb, depending on how crowded the train is; you CAN read on a phone with one hand if you have to) gets a good workout.
After perusing my writing friend Peg Cheng’s 2016 reading list, I picked up a copy of “Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms” by Katherine Rundell*. The ambiguous, joyful-yet-ominous title grabbed my attention. This is a book for “young readers” but I’ve never let that stop me (and neither have you probably…Harry Potter, Hunger Games, etc.). Books are books, I don’t care who the supposed audience is.
I knew the book had a great story and protagonist (a fiercely independent and happy girl named Will growing up in Africa who, due to some unfortunate events, is sent to London to a girls boarding school). Sounds entertaining, right? Strong female character, right on. So, totally worth reading on those merits alone. Will’s childhood in Africa was a revelation, in how utterly aware she was of her vitality and the joy she found in every moment of her life. Too often, I feel like we don’t appreciate what we have and we can only look back and realize how good it was later. A good reminder to stay present and stay grateful.
Even though the story sounds a bit unconventional, many of the themes are really universal. For example, as kids (and adults, if we’re being honest), most of us have had the experience of being “new” and like a fish out of water, getting made fun of (or outright bullied), and feeling mystified as to why people don’t seem to get, or worse, hate, who you are. To maintain your sense of self when you’re being battered by these forces is a fight, and many of us give up, capitulating to conformity.
For me, the theme that resonated the most was about coping with loss and change. Life can change dramatically at any given moment. We know this, and yet until we’re actually faced with a situation like this – where there’s the “before” and the “after” of your life’s story – we cannot know how we will respond. I won’t say much more since I don’t want to reveal anything, just that I wasn’t expecting to find clues to solving my own life mystery in this wonderful book. That’s what I love about reading, from any and all genres – you might only be trying to escape, but instead you are being found.