No Cure For Being Human

No Cure For Being Human (And Other Truths I Need to Hear) by Kate Bowler. 

Wow.

And then after the initial “wow,” several adjectives come to mind — beautiful, heartbreaking, touching, profound, funny, moving.

I am blown away by the incredible way in which Ms. Bowler wrote her story — being diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer in her 30s. She didn’t just write about it, she invited readers in. And along the way, shared some truths I know I needed to hear.

Here are just some of the passages that moved me:

“Before when I was earnest and clever and ignorant, I thought, life is a series of choices. I curated my own life until, one day, I couldn’t. I had accepted the burden of limitless choices only to find that I had few to make.”

“From my hospital room, I see no master plan to bring me to a higher level, guarantee my growth, or use my cancer to teach me. Good or bad, I will not get what I deserve. Nothing will exempt me from the pain of being human.”

“It’s easy to imagine letting go when we forget that choices are luxuries, allowing us to maintain our illusion of control. But until those choices are plucked from our hands — someone dies, someone leaves, something breaks — we are only playing at surrender.”

“The problem with aspirational lists, of course, is that they often skip the point entirely. Instead of helping us grapple with our finitude, they have approximated infinity. With unlimited time and resources, we could do anything, be anyone. We could become more adventurous by jumping out of airplanes, more traveled by visiting every continent, or more cultured by reading the most famous books of all time. With the right list, we would never starve with the hunger of want.
But it is much easier to count items than to know what counts.”

“I did not understand that one future comes at the exclusion of all others.
I had wanted two kids.
I had wanted to travel the world.
I had wanted to be the one to hold my mother’s hand at the end.
Everybody pretends that you only die once. But that’s not true. You can die to a thousand possible futures in the course of a single, stupid life.”

“The terrible gift of a terrible illness is that it has, in fact, taught me to live in the moment. Nothing but this day matters: the warmth of this crib, the sound of his hysterical giggling. And when I look closely at my life, I realize that I’m not just learning to seize the day. In my finite life, the mundane has begun to sparkle. The things I love — the things I should love — become clearer, brighter.
Burdened by the past, preoccupied by the present, or worried about the future, I had failed to appreciate the inestimable gift of a single minute.”

“It takes great courage to live. Period. There are fears and disappointments and failures every day, and, in the end, the hero dies. It must be cinematic to watch us from above.” 

“It became clearer than ever that life is not a series of choices. So often the experiences that define us are the ones we didn’t pick. Cancer. Betrayal. Miscarriage. Job loss. Mental illness. A novel coronavirus.”  

“Time really is a circle; I can see that now. We are trapped between a past we can’t return to and a future that is uncertain. And it takes guts to live here, in the hard space between anticipation and realization.”

And the book’s appendix is brilliant. Ms. Bowler has written a list of “clichés we hear and truths we need,” including:

Things People Say: Make every minute count. 

A More Complicated Truth: Life is unpredictable. You’re a person, not a certified account.

Where the Light Enters

I admit. I didn’t walk into the bookstore looking for First Lady Dr. Jill Biden’s book. I was vaguely aware of it, but it wasn’t at the top of my ever-growing want-to-read list.

Yet, turns out I couldn’t resist the buy 2 get 1 display. And Where the Light Enters: Building a Family, Discovering Myself  was one of the books I purchased that day as part of that sale. And even after buying the book, it didn’t sit on my shelf for months before I picked it up. I felt there was something about this memoir. And I was right. 

This week, I’d like to share some of the passages that touched me:

“Every scene on those walls, every role I’ve played, has taught me so much about what family means. I’ve learned — and am still learning — about the bonds that make up a family. Few of us would reduce those bonds, that gravitational force, to something as simplistic as blood. Families are born, created, discovered, and forged. They unfold in elegantly ordered generational branches. They are woven together with messy heartstrings of desire and despair, friendship and friction, grace and gratitude.”

“I realized early on that teaching was more than a job for me. It goes much deeper than that; being a teacher is not what I do but who I am.”

“There’s always a part of you that wants to step into your children’s lives and make the right decisions for them — pick them up when they stray and put them on the safest, easiest path, just as we did when they were small. But the tragedy of being a good parent is that the better you are at your job, the less you will be allowed to swoop in and protect the people you love most in the world. You have no choice but to trust that they’ll do their best and hope that fate will be kind.”

“Over the years, I’ve heard so many people talk about teachers in a way that doesn’t reflect the reality of teaching that I know at all. They think it’s a job for people without ambitions, that teaching doesn’t take a lot of skill, and that teachers have short hours and summers off. I’ve taught in a lot of different environments, but one thing is always the same: teaching is rewarding, but it’s a tremendous challenge, too.”

“There’s something profoundly optimistic about teaching. We are taking the best of what humans have to give — lifetimes of knowledge, wisdom, craft, and art — and handing it over to the next generation, with the hope that they will continue to build, continue to make our world better. It’s a conversation with our past and future selves at once, a way of saying, Look what we’ve done! Now what will you do with it?

“So why do we do it? We do it for that spark in a student’s eye when an idea falls into place. We do it for the moment when a student realizes she’s capable of more than she’d thought. For the chance to hold a student’s hand as she begins to explore this wild, incredible world through books and equations and historical accounts. We do it because we love it.”

Reaching For the Stars

Months ago, I listened to a virtual author talk sponsored by the Los Angeles Public Library System. As a bonus, everyone in attendance was eligible to enter a raffle to receive a free copy of one of the author’s books. 

You probably guessed by now that I was lucky enough to win a copy — José M. Hernández’s Reaching For the Stars: The Inspiring Story of a Migrant Farmworker Turned Astronaut

For most of my childhood (fourth grade to eleventh grade), my dream was to become an astronaut. And today I am just as curious, just as awe-struck of those individuals who do become astronauts. 

This week, I’d like to share a few passages that stood out to me during my reading. What really struck me were the supportive words and encouragement the author received from so many members of his family as well as several of his teachers. 

“That is why the individuals who are named José are known as creators. You have the power to create a reality out of your dreams and shape your life accordingly.” Encouraging words spoken by Mr. Hernández’s abuelo. 

I loved reading about Mr. Hernández watching Neil Armstrong on the moon and deciding he wanted to be an astronaut:

“When I heard these words, I felt indescribably shocked. I was captivated by this man, by this science, which left me in awe. Absorbed in the broadcast, I got up abruptly to get closer to the television screen. I had an epiphany. During that exact moment, I discovered what I wanted to be when I grew up: an astronaut, or un astronauta. And from that moment on, I was determined that absolutely nothing would get in the way of my dream.”

And while strapped in and waiting for space shuttle Discovery to launch, Mr. Hernández thought:

“La magia, or magic, is hard to discover, but I believe that passion in the heart and positive thinking in the mind are the two ingredients for achieving something extraordinary. Just ask a scientist, an inventor, or an artist — a simple idea or dream has given birth to some of our history’s greatest inventions.”

You can also learn more about Mr. Hernández and his Reaching for the Stars Foundation by clicking here. A Netflix film is being planned about Mr. Hernández’s life and journey into space. 

An Unlikely Ballerina

I admit to not knowing a whole lot about Misty Copeland. But after watching the segment of “Dear…” on Apple TV+, which profiled Ms. Copeland, I wanted to learn more. 

Recently I read her memoir Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina and was left in awe of her talent, her spirit, her poise.

I’ve never read ballet described quite this way:

“Ballets are just stylized versions of these seemingly basic movements on a grand scale. If the basic strength and elegance of a barre class is like slipping on a little black dress, the challenge of dancing a full three-act ballet is like learning to accessorize for any occasion.” 

Though we may appear to be vastly different, there were also several passages I read that made me feel as if Ms. Copeland was writing about a younger version of myself.

“I was a nervous child. And my unease, coupled with a perpetual quest for perfection, made my life much harder than it needed to be.
“I think I was born worried. There wasn’t a day that I didn’t feel some kind of anxiety, especially in school, and my panic would begin from the moment I woke up, fretting that I would be late to homeroom, until I came back home in the early evening. I was just nervous about life, period. I felt awkward, as if I didn’t fit in anywhere, and I lived in constant fear of letting my mother down, or my teachers, or myself.”

“When I was a little girl, I lived in terror of being judged, of letting others down. I was the people pleaser.”

I really thought the only thing Misty Copeland and I would have in common was the fact we both grew up in Southern California. Reading her book made me realize there’s more to it than that. 

And this is one of the reasons why I read as much as I do. This powerful feeling of connection and understanding.

Cancer and Fishnet Stockings

As I continue working on my own memoir-in-essays, I find myself reading more memoirs. Partly because I’m curious about other people’s lives. But also because I’m curious to see how other writers did it. How did they structure their memoirs? What does their table of contents look like? Does their book include photos?

I discovered Cancer and Fishnet Stockings: How Humor Helped Me Survive a Life-Threatening Disease, the Loss of My Favorite Nail Polish… and Other Calamities by Maryann Grau when our family spent a few days in Cambria (one of our most favorite places, along California’s Central Coast). The book was for sale in one of the shops in town, and when the cashier told me it was written by a local author, I knew I had to buy it.

While reading the book, it’s impossible to miss Ms. Grau’s positive outlook and spunk. 

Here are a few gems:

A few of the patients aimed weak smiles in my direction. My heart ached for them and their predicament, as though I wasn’t facing initiation into the same club. The question Why me? flashed through my mind followed immediately with the obvious answer …Why not me?” 

Thinking back on the past hour of excruciating pain, I was reminded of an Ayn Rand quote I had read many years ago in her novel Atlas Shrugged. In discussing emotions, Rand begins with the premise that ‘joy is not the absence of pain.’ I understood and accepted the concept immediately, but never was it more self-evident to me until now. To not feel pain, physical or emotional, is a good thing, but it is a neutral feeling at best. Joy comes when you awake to find yourself wrapped in the arms of someone you love.”

Just a little more than a year after the operation, and I sometimes think, my cancer may be back. The thought hits me hard. Not the cancer itself – the revelation that I used the word my. The acceptance of it, the familiarity with it, the ownership of that dreaded disease by referring to it as ‘my cancer.’
Don’t we hold things that belong to us as good, desirable, worthy, or even cherished? Does the word ‘my’ presuppose that the things that belong to us are good for us; things like my home, my career, my garden, my child, my love? Shouldn’t cancer belong in the category used to describe words that distance themselves from us, like ‘that thief, that scoundrel, that crummy movie, that poison, that killer disease’?

And from her last chapter, where she offers “words of wisdom”:

“Every one of us will face death…eventually. But why help it along by standing still? Instead, learn something new to keep your mind active, to grow intellectually.

Keep moving! Especially outdoors. That’s where most of life happens.”

“Let others help you. If you’re stubbornly independent like I am, get over it!

“Indulge in your favorite things.”

Between Two Kingdoms

Sometimes you read a book, and long after you’ve finished it, and read the acknowledgements, and re-visited the author’s note at the beginning, the book stays with you.

You can’t seem to get the author’s voice and story out of your head.

That’s what happened with me and Suleika Jaouad’s memoir Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted.

While the specifics of Ms. Jaouad’s life vary greatly from mine — her travels, her leukemia diagnosis, her epic road trip — so much of what she wrote really touched me. So much so, that my library copy is full of sticky notes.

Allow me to share some of these passages with you:

“How do you react to a cancer diagnosis at age twenty-two?
Do you break down in sobs?
Do you faint, or scream?
In that moment, a feeling flooded through my body, unexpected and perverse: relief. After the bewildering months of misdiagnosis, I finally had an explanation for my itch, for my mouth sores, for my unraveling. I wasn’t a hypochondriac, after all, making up symptoms.”

“While my medical team was intent on saving my life, preserving my chance to be a mother someday hadn’t seemed to be on their radar. It was my first indication that, no matter how brilliant and compassionate my doctors might be, I would have to be proactive and learn to advocate for myself.”

“I understood now why so many writers and artists, while in the thick of illness, became memoirists. It provided a sense of control, a way to reshape your circumstances on your own terms, in your own words.”

“We were both forging unlikely careers: Melissa painted self-portraits from bed; I wrote self-portraits from bed. Watercolors and words were the drugs we preferred for our pain. We were learning that sometimes the only way to endure suffering is to transform it into art.”

“As a patient, there was pressure to perform, to be someone who suffers well, to act with heroism, and to put on a stoic façade all the time.”

“To be a patient is to relinquish control — to your medical team and their decisions, to your body and its unscheduled breakdowns.”

“I used to think healing meant ridding the body and the heart of anything that hurt. It meant putting your pain behind you, leaving it in the past. But I’m learning that’s not how it works. Healing is figuring out how to coexist with the pain that will always live inside of you, without pretending it isn’t there or allowing it to hijack your day. It is learning to confront ghosts and to carry what lingers. It is learning to embrace the people I love now instead of protecting against a future in which I am gutted by their loss.”

In Celebration of National Book Month

Missing from the photo – March’s book (I read a library copy) and June’s book (Another library copy, though I plan to buy it and add it to my almost-full bookcase.)

October.

Time for pumpkin-flavored everything it seems. 

Time for small bite-sized candy bars. 

And time to talk about books.

Because October is also National Book Month.

I tried to think about how to commemorate the month. So in honor of National Book Month, I’m taking a look back at the books I have read during 2021. I’m sharing one stand-out book from each month. Maybe you’ll find yourself adding to your “want-to-read” list. 

Or maybe you’ll find yourself adding to your holiday gift list. Because October also means the holiday season is just around the corner.

January:

This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett

I’ve read this book more than once. It’s that good. From a reader’s standpoint, and a writer’s standpoint, I’m just in awe.

February:

The Authenticity Project by Clare Pooley

A true test that I really enjoyed a book? When I order my own copy after reading a library copy. And that’s what happened with this novel. I just found myself really caring for these characters. And, it’s another good reminder that people are often not what they seem at first glance. You can’t know what someone is really dealing with just by looking at them.

March:

How to Astronaut: An Insider’s Guide to Leaving Planet Earth by Terry Virts

For most of my childhood, actually until my junior year of high school, my career goal was to become an astronaut. And all these years later, I’m still incredibly curious and interested in learning about astronauts’ lives. This isn’t a dry memoir at all. You’ll find lots of humor and fun observations.  

April:

Beach Read by Emily Henry

Such a delight to read about these two authors and go along on this journey with them. This was my first novel by Ms. Henry, but certainly not my last. (People We Meet on Vacation was published in May and is on my ever-growing want-to-read list.)

May:

Bravey: Chasing Dreams, Befriending Pain, and Other Big Ideas by Alexi Pappas

I was reading a copy of Bravey I had borrowed from the library. But, I found I was putting sticky notes on so many pages, that I ordered my own copy before I had even finished reading this powerful memoir. Honest, raw, touching. 

June:

The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary

Mixed within this sweet, original love story are some serious topics – emotional abuse, wrongful incarceration. It’s a story I didn’t want to end. And now I’ve added Ms. O’Leary’s other novels (The Switch, The Road Trip) onto my want-to-read list.

July:

Surviving and Thriving with an Invisible Chronic Illness: How to Stay Sane and Live One Step Ahead of Your Symptoms by Ilana Jacqueline

When a patient is given a chronic illness diagnosis, they should also be given this book. It’s an important, valuable resource that would have been so helpful when I first became ill.

August:

Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah

Wow! This book is everything — heartbreaking, funny, touching, devastating, enlightening. I didn’t realize how little I knew about South Africa and Apartheid. Just an incredible read. 

September:

Dusk, Night, Dawn: On Revival and Courage by Anne Lamott

There is no one quite like Anne Lamott. It’s that rare combination of what she says and how she says it. She writes with such warmth and honesty about the big things (climate change) and the small things (like pants not fitting).

October:

I’m still reading the first book of October. Stay tuned!

Readers, have you read any books that blew you away? That touched you? That made you smile? That you can’t stop telling your friends about? Please, do share. 

Dusk, Night, Dawn

Is there anyone quite like Anne Lamott?

Her latest book, Dusk, Night, Dawn: On Revival and Courage includes her answers to the questions many of us have but may be afraid to speak out loud. 

From the book jacket: “How can we recapture the confidence we once had as we stumble through the dark times that seem increasingly bleak? How can we cope as bad news piles up around us?

And within these pages, Ms. Lamott gives us answers. Glimpses into the big and small. Rays of light and hope. 

Here are just a few of the many gems I marked with sticky notes while I read:

“I told them my stories of mess and redemption, because stories can be our most reliable medicine. I told them that, yes, it was going to be really hard to turn the environment around, but that we can do hard and in fact we have done hard before — World War II, vaccines, antibiotics, antiretrovirals. We are up to this.”

“So to answer my earlier question of where on earth we begin to recover our faith in life, in the midst of so much bad news and dread, when our children’s futures are so uncertain: We start in the here and now. That’s why they call it the present. We start where our butts and feet and minds are.”

“We excel during tragedies, bringing our best selves to serve the suffering in a devastated world, nation, community, family. We keep each other company when children or pets are missing, when our last auntie or old dog dies, while waiting for prognoses. Our human response to each other’s hurt and loss is what gives me hope, along with science and modern medicine. We rise up to help the best we can, and we summon humor to amend ghastly behavior and dismal ongoing reality. Help and humor save us.”

“Friends save us, service to others save us. Books, nature, community, and music save us.”

“People like to say all sorts of stupid bumper-sticker things that aren’t true and that in fact can be shaming, such as that God never gives us more than we can handle. What a crock.” 

“It is too much. You steadfastly love and serve everyone, see people through tribulation, savor the relief, and give thanks. Then boing — a new setback. It’s like tucking an octopus into bed at night: new arms keep popping out.”

“When people know you too well, they eventually see your damage, your weirdness, carelessness, and mean streak. They see how ordinary you are after all, and that whatever it was that distinguished you in the beginning is the least of who you actually are. This will turn out to be the greatest gift we can offer another person: letting them see, every so often, beneath all the trappings and pretense to the truth of us.
But can you love me now?”

“Love will have to do, along with bright and dim memories, some that still hurt, others that we savor like Life Savers tucked away in our cheeks.” 

Born a Crime

Confession – I read Trevor Noah’s memoir as much for his story as well as a way for me to study memoir structure. It’s something I am incredibly curious about – how do other authors determine how to best organize their memoir? It’s something I’m trying to figure out as I write my memoir. 

But after reading Mr. Noah’s memoir, Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood, I am just in awe.

And not just by the structure of Mr. Noah’s book, including the historical context for his childhood. Not just for giving me a peek into a world, a lifestyle, a culture I had limited knowledge of. 

I’m also in awe of Mr. Noah. And his powerhouse mother. 

If you haven’t read the book, I highly recommend it. (A few friends have told me they enjoyed the audio version which is read by Mr. Noah.)

This week, please allow me to share with you parts that really stood out to me, parts that made me take notice and grab a sticky note.

“I grew up in South Africa during apartheid, which was awkward because I was raised in a mixed family, with me being the mixed one in the family.” 

“In any society built on institutionalized racism, race-mixing doesn’t merely challenge the system as unjust, it reveals the system as unsustainable and incoherent. Race-mixing proves that races can mix – and in a lot of cases, want to mix. Because a mixed person embodies that rebuke to the logic of the system, race-mixing becomes a crime worse than treason.” 

“Estranged from her family, pregnant by a man she could not be seen with in public, she was alone. The doctors took her up to the delivery room, cut open her belly, and reached in and pulled out a half-white, half-black child who violated any number of laws, statutes, and regulations — I was born a crime.”

“As a kid I understood that people were different colors, but in my head white and black and brown were like types of chocolate. Dad was the white chocolate, mom was the dark chocolate, and I was the milk chocolate. But we were all just chocolate. I didn’t know any of it had to do with ‘race.’ I didn’t know what race was.”

“That, and  so many other smaller incidents in my life, made me realize that language, even more than color, defines who you are to people.

I became a chameleon. My color didn’t change, but I could change your perception of my color. If you spoke to me in Zulu, I replied to you in Zulu. If you spoke to me in Tswana, I replied to you in Tswana. Maybe I didn’t look like you, but if I spoke like you, I was you.” 

“My mom raised me as if there were no limitations on where I could go or what I could do. When I look back I realize she raised me like a white kid — not white culturally, but in the sense of believing that the world was my oyster, that I should speak up for myself, that my ideas and thoughts and decisions mattered.

“We tell people to follow their dreams, but you can only dream of what you can imagine, and, depending on where you come from, your imagination can be quite limited.” 

“But I was blessed with another trait I inherited from my mother: her ability to forget the pain in life. I remember the thing that caused the trauma, but I don’t hold on to the trauma. I never let the memory of something painful prevent me from trying something new. If you think too much about the ass-kicking your mom gave you, or the ass-kicking that life gave you, you’ll stop pushing the boundaries and breaking the rules. It’s better to take it, spend some time crying, then wake up the next day and move on.” 

“I don’t regret anything I’ve ever done in life, any choice that I’ve made. But I’m consumed with regret for the things I didn’t do, the choices I didn’t make, the things I didn’t say. We spend so much time being afraid of failure, afraid of rejection. But regret is the thing we should fear most. Failure is an answer. Rejection is an answer. Regret is an eternal question you will never have the answer to.” 

The Black Friend

I was an elementary school teacher for twelve years. There’s an unfortunate pattern I noticed – the parents you most want to speak with, the students you most want to help – are, often, the ones you can’t reach.

Literally, can’t reach. Parents don’t return phone calls. They don’t show up to Back-to-School Night or attend parent conferences. And it’s not for lack of trying. I used to start my conferences early in the morning, stay late in the afternoon, do everything I could to work around the schedules of the families of my students. After Back-to-School Night, I even sent home a stapled package of all the handouts I had presented the night before, and a note inviting families to come and visit the classroom at a more convenient time.

I kept thinking about all that when I read Frederick Joseph’s powerful book The Black Friend: On Being a Better White Person.

I don’t think I’m the target audience except that I am a white person. My husband is Black. Our son is bi-racial. Yet I acknowledge my own lack of information, lack of understanding. Just because my husband is Black doesn’t mean I have nothing to learn. 

So I read the book. At times it was heartbreaking. At times I just couldn’t believe the things Mr. Joseph heard and experienced. The book is written in a rather conversational style and each chapter ends with a discussion the author had with a different artist or activist.  

The people who most need to read this book, unfortunately, probably won’t.

However, that’s why this book, this powerful tool, should be used in classrooms (middle school and up). 

The problems don’t just go away. The wrongs don’t just get righted. 

They need to be confronted.