Writing Memoir

How the right books found me at the right times

Island of the Blue Dolphins fed my melancholic soul when I was a child. I wasn’t naturally sad, but after my father’s death, I felt very alone and withdrawn. Island of the Blue Dolphins is about a girl stranded alone on an island (and interestingly enough was based on a true story), and it comforted me more than family or friends.

The only other book I truly remember loving and reading was D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths (which I adored so much I stole from the library). I think I loved the art work as much as I did learning about the Greek gods and goddesses.

Yup. Not too proud of this, but that’s how bad I wanted it.

But I didn’t turn into a big reader until I moved away from familiarity at around 13 years old. After a childhood of playing outdoors, being forced inside created a new space to explore reading, writing and a different take on imaginative play. I read a lot of ‘age appropriate’ books, high school dramas, mysteries, romances, historical and fantasy novels. Whenever I walked into Waldenbooks, I made a beeline for the YA or Young Adult section. After a while I started to look around and explore other genres and even adult books.

My best friend gave me a huge book on poetry when I was in high school. I was surprised and looked at her.

“Because you love poetry,” she explained.

I hadn’t realized until that moment how much I gushed over the poems we were learning in English class. It’s funny how unaware we can be of what we say and how we behave.

In college though, a book found me and changed me, it was Marianne Williamson’s A Return to Love. My friend Sara introduced the book to me and our friend Kara. We were going on a road trip from Durango, Colorado to her parents’ home in Tustin, California, and she had brought the book along on audiotape.

“So, we’ll listen to this and when you guys want to, just pause it. Whenever you feel like you want to say something or whatever or add to it, just stop the tape, okay?”

I was excited. In Hawaii, where I grew up, we didn’t have road trips. Not really. It takes about 2 hours to drive around the island. The last road trip I took was from Barstow, California to Des Moines, Iowa when I was 14. It had been awhile.

That road trip turned out to be a therapy session and has forever changed the way I think about road trips.  Armed with cigarettes, full tanks of gas and girl-power, we listened to Marianne talking about her journey towards finding meaning, forgiveness and spirituality. We laughed and cried and paused the tape whenever we wanted to share something that resonated with us or ask a question.

Well, to be honest, it was mostly Sara and I sharing our wounds. Kara sat silent in the backseat, crying with us. When we needed a break from the heaviness, we’d smoke a joint and popped in some Enya or classic rock. The wind blew our cares away as we melted with the desert landscape. I loved the openness, the endless skies, the isolation, all of it. I’m a West Coast gal through and through.

When we returned home, I bought A Return to Love and read it until I felt like I had memorized it. The book opened up the “Self Improvement” or “Self Help” genre for me and I began to read her other books and similar ones, too.  College not only transformed me because I was living in a radically different environment than home, but because I started down this road of self-reflection and self-awareness.

I went through a phase (my 20s and half of my 30s) where I was addicted to these kinds of books. They gave me hope for humanity, that there was a better way and that we are in control of our lives. But most importantly, they taught me to forgive. I had a lot of forgiving to do back then and I’m glad I did the work because now I feel relatively free from past mistakes, problems, people who hurt me and all that nasty garbage we carry around on our backs and in our brains.

Of course, this doesn’t mean life stopped throwing challenges at me. Ha! Hardly.

During my Waldorf teaching years, I was in the worst job of my life, the target of mean gossip, and had a lot of growing up and a lot of letting go to do. But first I struggled and fought with my situation, which was the worst thing I could have done, but that’s what we’re programed to do. This was coupled (pun intended) with the fact that I was in the worst relationship – a man who I referred to as Mr. Angry in my missing teacher memoir.

Despite living a rather isolated life due to the shame I felt about what was happening at work and at home, my friend Gina got through to me and recommended The Power of Now by Ekhart Tolle. I bought the audiobook and when I was alone I’d listen to it and then listen to it again because I really needed it. I needed help. Since the book is basically about ‘being present’ not focusing on the future or past, it taught me how to survive those last few months where I was at the school and waiting for Mr. Angry and I to finally go our separate ways.

Then, when I was hit with another doozy, another book came to the rescue. Mr. Angry and I were fighting right up to the last minute of our separation at PDX airport. Unfortunately, we were on the same flight even though he was going to Maui and I, Oahu. But even worse, he asked check-in if we could be seated together. I looked at him as if he was truly mad, although I was too ashamed to tell the woman, “No! Hell, no, please no.”

We continued to fight until we were seated on the plane. Only then did he shut his yap, and I pulled out my new book Wideacre, a historical novel by Philippa Gregory. If you are unaware, flying from Portland, Oregon to Hawaii is a long flight, about 6 hours.  And it’s extremely difficult to ‘relax and enjoy the flight’ even when you’re not sitting next to your worst relationship. Yet, this 600+ tome of really weird-craziness had my attention all the way through. It was delicious and shocking and helped me to pretty much ignore Mr. Asshole the entire way, which, of course, just pissed him off even more.

The next book to help me was Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers.  After I had written most of the missing teacher, I was stuck because I hadn’t figured out why things happened the way that they did. Folks who know the story have thanked me for not “pulling out the race card”, but they needn’t have done so because I wasn’t fired due to racism. It was much more subtle. So, I tried to track down clues (for years, actually) as to why things didn’t gel between me and the faculty.

But one fine day, as they say, I was driving with a friend from Alabama to Tennessee and listening to Gladwell’s Outliers: the story of success when I finally found my answer. The problems at the school weren’t due to race, but to the differences in economics and how poor versus rich children are raised. I come from a working class/uneducated family, but I was working at a school of primarily privileged children and well-to-do parents.

I realize on the surface this doesn’t sound like this would be a problem, but it surprisingly caused a lot of misunderstandings. I equate it to stepping into another culture. You don’t realize what the problem is because culture is often invisible, how we behave, think and treat others and what our expectations are often rooted in our worldview and upbringing.

But when Gladwell started talking about the economic differences between Christopher Langan and J. Robert Oppenheimer, I sat up in the passenger seat of the car. I knew he was about to say something important, something that had eluded me for so long. The examples of how Langan dealt with setbacks reminded me of how my mom handled problems by giving up and not questioning authority. How the rich, on the other hand, challenged all people, asked questions and encouraged their children to do so which was not how I was raised. And why I was often confused by how much my commitment and authority as a teacher was ignored and brushed aside for what the children said and felt instead.

I told my friend that I had found my answers. I stopped the CD and started babbling excitedly about how I was raised, how the children of the school were raised and what a mess the whole situation created. It was my epiphany and I was so elated over cracking the case of my worst job, my worst teaching experience and my biggest perceived failure.

 

What about you? Has a good book changed you?

 

 

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22 thoughts on “How the right books found me at the right times

  1. Laughing about the road trip excitement. Andy never did road trips after growing up in Hawaii — not until Vegas. He’s still not a fan, not even after a 10-hour drive from Utah to LA with my sister and me. Possibly because we sang too many songs and played too many bizarre (to him) games like “categories.” I love so many books, but the most helpful one was Haidt’s “Happiness Hypothesis.” It explains what makes people happy, after years of studies, some with MRI machines.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love road trips. I miss the American landscape just as much as libraries. Hahahah. Maybe I was one of those kids that was put in the car to calm her down. I find long distance drives, soothing and healing and meditative.

      But I can see why Andy might not be used to it. But I can’t relate! One of the best parts of our last vacation was simply being in the car and driving down the road.

      I’ll keep the Happiness book in mind. I enjoy reading those types of books, too. 🙂

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  2. Lol. That sounded like one heck of a road trip with the girls those days ago. It would be lovely weather and roads that stretched ahead, on and on. Nothing like a good drive to reflect on life and actually watching the world pass you.

    I’m not the kind who likes to read or do much when I’m in the car or traveling somewhere for a bit of a trip. That’s because apart from listening to music, anything else I do worsens my motions sickness. Can’t listen to a lot of talkback radio or podcasts or audio books as my mind feels the need to process, and when that happens in a moving vehicle, my mind starts spinning.

    A good book has always inspired me. The Little Prince is my all time favourite book. .Not only does it remind me to be a kid and keep being curious, it’s a book reminds me how caught up in the rat race we can be in this world – and also caught up in what we’re doing too much, even the things we love to do.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s too bad that you can’t listen to podcasts or audiobooks when you are driving. I really think those two things go hand-in-hand, such a happy marriage! But I suppose, the other side of it is you can concentrate on the listening in your own comfortable environment.

      I liked The Little Prince. But it didn’t speak to me like it does others. Perhaps if I had read it at a different time in my life. I remember trying to read the Lord of the Rings trilogy many times before it finally stuck one summer. Books are like that. I think I must be a very moody reader 😛

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The Lord of the Rings series has never stuck with me. I really want to like it but after reading a chapter my mind wanders. I’ve also tried reading Ulysses by James Joyce and got a bit further, but never every made it halfway through that book 😛

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      2. I know, some of the classics can be hard to get into. There are many that I’ve started and stopped. It comes down to mood…one day, one day.

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    2. Here’s a little Little Prince-y real story, as told by a former colleague. Her nephew drew something from art class, I think. She saw the finished product: a whole paper covered in either black or blue (I’m not sure). She asked what it was and he said it’s fish.

      “But where’s the fish?” she asked.
      “Underwater, of course! You can’t see it!” he answered.

      He he, I chuckled at that one. Reminded me of the Little Prince’s boa constrictor that ate an elephant.

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  3. I love your reflection on your relation with books, events in your life and how they correlated! It’s so interesting how the universe brings things to us sometimes when we need it; unexpectedly. The one book that I feel this way about is the Laws of Spirit by Dan Millman. I really wanted a book I could find myself in, that idealized my philosophy on life, and what I stand for both spiritually and as a positive guide for me in life. It was the first book I saw at Barnes and Noble in the first section I looked in, picked it up, started reading it and realized it was just what I was searching for. It gave me a way to affirm my beliefs about what life should be about and enlightened me in so many ways. I just looked at it yesterday and was reminded how much I love it! Thanks for sharing! ~Anne

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Your thoughts reminded me of the times when I was in America, looking through bookstores or libraries and waiting for the right book to jump out at me. It’s kind of magical!

      You know, Dan Millman was one of my friend’s favorite authors. I should check him out. He is, after all, in the genre that I adored for so long. I feel pulled these days to higher ways of thinking/being. Thanks, Anne.

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  4. What a wonderful and honest post Lani! I read your journey towards books with great interest and my heart fluttered at your mention of a big poetry book and how your friend had noticed your love for poetry, that too at such a young age! I also love the way you have described Marianne book… ‘talking about her journey towards finding meaning, forgiveness and spirituality.’
    Books do bring epiphanies and clarify a lot of doubts that cloud our mind. Loved the flow of this post Lani. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks 🙂

      It was a post that made me feel vulnerable, but I believe in writing about our own journey, we can make connections with others. At least that is what I hoped would happen.

      Poetry, Shakespeare and Edgar Allen Poe made me realize that reading out loud can be pleasurable. I’m grateful for my public high school education because I did fall in love with the literature and words that I was being exposed to.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Wonderful. I love that it was a friend who pointed out the obvious to you – your love of poetry.
    One thing about Malcolm G: that book in particular earned a lot of flack for the lack of statistical authentication. It was like he made up a lot of the claims. Oh well, he sure made a lotta money!

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    1. I did hear something along those lines, but the part of the book that I’m referring to had to do with an outside study that was quoted.

      Specifically, the part of the book that changed me had to do with a study that was done regarding how the poor versus the privilage raise their children. The examples given really resonated with me and reminded me of how I was raised and the problems I faced with working with rich families.

      It made me think and it provided an ‘ah-ha!’ moment for me. Despite the criticisms I don’t think Gladwell had any ill intent. He might have gotten carried away with his style (which he is also praised for) which led to some problems. But I believe you can still derive something important, interesting, etc. from something others criticize.

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  6. Oh gosh, I’m in love with this post. I love hearing how books affected you, and I’m going to go out and grab Marianne’s book NOW.

    And hey! When I was a kid I freakin’ loved D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths too! My brother and I used it in our homeschooling and it was the first book that got me hooked on mythology, maybe even on fantasy in general.

    Books…how are they so powerful? Why are stories so incredibly moving and empowering? People who don’t read much – well, I don’t get how they don’t, but I think they miss out on a lot of growing up. I feel like I grew up through books. Being an introverted kid, books were my literal friends. They gave me advice, were there when I needed answers, entertained me, and helped me feel like I belonged somewhere. It’s pretty meaningful that my favorite books were (and are) books about people who feel outside the loop, who don’t fit in but find their own strength. Books have helped me to do that.

    Have you ever read the Hero and the Crown? I first read it in high school, and have reread it probably a dozen times over the years. It was one of the first books to shake me out of my “I care what everyone thinks of me” morass and start learning to love myself. Robin Mckinley will always hold a special place in my heart for her ability to do that.

    But man, oh man, now I want to do this…I want to go reread all my old favorites and see what kind of journey it leads me on!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks. I’m glad you liked it. I knew there would be someone out there that would also feel that soul connection to books! 🙂

      You bring up a good point though – books as friends, companions, healers and helpers. There is something really spectacular about books abilities to build that bridge, hold up that mirror and clean out the room.

      I just looked up the Hero and the Crown. I’ll have to download it! I’m in the mist of a crazy true story about the search for the Lost City of the Monkey God. It’s feeding my archaeological/historical/political slash all things scientific brain right now!

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  7. I have “Island of the Blue Dolphins”!!! Liked it, too. I like Greek Mythology as well, but I suppose I mentioned that already before.

    I have had lots of lows in my life, too, and one thing that I’ve realized is most times, you can’t change people, only yourself. Bad things happen to us because other people tend to act badly towards us. That’s out of certain personal baggage they also have. They can’t face their demons so they release those demons onto others, except they never become free until they’ve learned their lessons.

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