Reading Life

When your oncologist says your particular pattern of cancer “freaks her out,” you might find yourself thinking about death—yours, in particular. You can try to distract yourself, but the real distraction is people living their ordinary lives all around you. Children are the worst. So full of life it hurts. During chemo, I would watch my young sons chortle as they jumped on a whoopee cushion. One minute I’d think, “They’ll be so screwed up if I die,” and the next, I’d be devastatingly comforted by a voice saying, “They’ll be fine.”

After a particularly bad week, I sat at my kitchen table and read George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo. It turned out, farting ghosts and a grieving president were just what I needed. The book’s elevated vocabulary and shifting POVs are demanding, but what I found the most challenging was that it asks the reader to just be. To watch. To listen. To trust that this is it. Don’t get me wrong, the book has a plot, and the last few pages are some of the most satisfying I’ve ever read, but if you’re not willing to give yourself over to it, utterly and completely, it’s a tough read.

When I first opened the book, I would have done almost anything to get away from my worrying and nausea. Thankfully, Honest Abe and some troubled ghosts delivered, and for a few precious hours, I got a break from my self.

Five centuries before President Lincoln was cradling his son’s limp body, French authorities were busy burning a woman named Marguerite Porete. Her crime? She wrote a book positing that a person could become “an annihilated soul” by reading her book. I’m neither religious nor spiritual, but I wrote a too-long dissertation on Porete’s text because I wanted to understand why she thought the act of reading could so profoundly change a person that their soul—and death itself—could be annihilated. (The Church probably wasn’t wrong to fear such a woman.)

I don’t expect quite such a dramatic transformation from every book I read, but like Porete, I believe that the self (what she called the soul) is not a fixed state but rather an activity. I also know that the self likes to think of itself as stable and constantly needs to be reminded that it is not a solid. And this is where the practice of reading comes in for Porete, and for me, and why I found Lincoln in the Bardo so satisfying.

In Porete’s allegory, Lady Love often tells Reason that he has understood nothing and needs to shut up and read some more. As someone who has dyslexia, I wouldn’t say I enjoy reading. I have never “breezed” through a book nor picked up a “quick read” at the airport. But I need reading, and the books I love are the ones that require so much of my attention that my little self agrees to sit down and shut up for a few minutes. I can never predict what books will keep me quiet, but a few authors who have done the trick include Zadie Smith, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Martha Wells, Octavia Butler, Liu Cixin, Boccaccio, Ralph Ellison, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Montaigne, Italo Svevo, Pierre Hadot, Michel Foucault, Katy Simpson Smith, Kazuo Ishiguro, Andrew Zawacki, Anne Leckie, and yes, George Saunders.

After I finished Lincoln in the Bardo, and with two more months of chemo in front of me, I decided to try my hand at fiction. “Write what you know” seemed reasonable. I had worked in finance, earned a doctorate in philosophy of religion, and lived in Oregon, so I wrote about clever women who pulled off a financial con with the help of a spiritualist in 1890s Portland. Eighteen months and several revisions later, I finished my first novel, and I’m now halfway through my second.

My current health status is “under surveillance,” and I continue to write every day because when I’m describing how a character eats her sandwich or noodling over a ghost’s POV,  I’m not thinking about forest fires, my son’s shoe size, or my next oncology exam. I read—and now write—because when I do, I disappear. And more importantly, because when I reappear for family dinner, the self that shows up is better able to enjoy the sound of my children giggling as I sit on a whoopee cushion, knowing in my bones that this is it.