therestlessnest

where life's not empty, it's restless.

Archive for the category “reading”

From Sun to Sun

51NYhLAG7FL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_ “I am not an angel,” Nina McKissock told me firmly. “I’m just doing my job.” McKissock is a hospice nurse. She is also the author of a new memoir called From Sun to Sun: A Hospice Nurse Reflects on the Art of Dying, in which she tells the stories of composite patients based on many of the real people she has cared for at the end of their lives. (McKissock and I will be reading and talking together at Elliott Bay Bookstore in Seattle on Sunday, November 1 at 3pm.)

From Sun to Sun is one of those books I was hesitant to read, thinking surely it will be too hard and too sad to bear. But once I started reading, I couldn’t stop. Each one of McKissock’s 24 patients became my friend for an hour or two; a friend whose story had much to teach me. “There can be great healing within the dying process,” McKissock writes in the frontispiece to the book, and though this may seem counterintuitive, she goes on to show us many examples of how it can be true. One of the most moving stories was of Eric, a 51-year-old with ALS: Lou Gehrig’s disease. Eric had watched his father die of the same illness, so he knew what lay ahead. His type-A, executive wife was heartbroken and enraged. Of course. But her anger at ALS made it nearly impossible for her to slow down and muster the patience caring for her dying husband required. When McKissock persuaded her and Eric to accept the help of Rachel, a gifted full-time caregiver, both of them began to heal. Emotionally.

One night, Rachel and McKissock carried Eric outside to see the full moon. “There are moments in my life where I feel so humble that I simply want to kneel in reverence; this was one such moment,” McKissock writes. “It was sacred to witness this beautiful, broken man wrapped in blankets—who knew full well he was seeing his last full moon.”

MicKissock speaks truth when she says hospice nurses and caregivers are not angels. They are the opposite of ethereal. Much of their work is hard, physical labor: moving patients, dressing patients, changing sheets, preparing, serving and cleaning up after painstakingly offered meals. Much of it is a highly professional mix of cognition and intuition, calibrated by years of experience, as they assess a patient’s ever-changing needs for care and medication, even as they carefully juggle his or his family’s needs to be kept informed and prepared for what lies ahead. They know that as they do their job, the dying person is doing the hardest spiritual work any of us will ever do: saying good-bye. And then preparing to take that final step, the one we will all have to take alone. A good hospice nurse can be a very real guide and helper as her patient embarks on that journey.

My brother died of a brain tumor at 52. Because his brain was affected by the tumor, it was very hard for him to express his thoughts and feelings in his final days. But I’ll never forget two words he said to me, as we sat together in his hospice room: “I’m scared.” I felt helpless in that moment. I don’t remember what I said in response. But I was so grateful for the hospice nurses, who had created an atmosphere of comfort and serenity for him and for us.

At the end of the chapter about Eric, McKissock quotes the 13th century poet, Rumi: “This being human is a Guest House; treat each guest honorably.” With the help of hospice nurses, caregivers and social workers, I believe we are, at last, re-learning how to do that.

Bonus event! At 5pm on Sunday, Nov 1, I will be at Northwest Film Forum to talk about the Kickstarter campaign for our film, Zona Intangible, as part of their free Join the Crowd presentation about crowd funding. Please support our Kickstarter if you can and share the link with others!

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Beyond the Trail

IMG_1864  “End of Maintained Trail,” read the sign. “Travel Safely. Leave No Trace.” We had hiked the 3.1 miles up to Glacier Basin in Mt. Rainier National Park on a mid-June day that looked like late July: wildflowers everywhere, sky bluer than blue, glaciers looking decidedly underfed. I could use that “end of maintained trail” metaphor to riff about global warming, couldn’t I? But my mind is traveling in a different direction. More of a life direction. More of a… what it might feel like to get a scary diagnosis direction.

For 5.3 million Americans living today, that diagnosis is Alzheimer’s disease, and it may as well come with a trail’s-end message attached: This is the end of the maintained trail, pal. Sorry. Travel safely. Oh, and leave no trace of your fears and feelings because frankly, the rest of us can’t handle hearing about it. For their family members, the diagnosis message is the same: your life, too, will now proceed on unmarked terrain. There will be rocks, some slippery, others sharp. There will be immoveable boulders. Crevasses of anguish. The endless putting of one foot in front of another, as you wonder what lies around the next switchback or over that looming ridge.

The Alzheimer’s Association recently switched its awareness month from November—cold, barren, Printdark—to June: mild, lush and flooded with light. At first, I didn’t get it. November had always seemed like the perfect Alzheimer’s Awareness month to me. But I think the point is to get us all thinking about just how long the days are for people with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers. What a marathon this diagnosis is. What a steeplechase—a better word, with its implied challenges and roadblocks and muddy sinkholes.

June in the Northwest is often a steeplechase sort of month in which it’s never quite safe to plan a picnic or plant something that might not respond well to a sudden chill or storm. It’s a month in which you never quite know expect. The only thing you do know is that the days will be long, and one of them will be the longest day of all. And mostly, we view that as a good thing: those long, creamsicle Solstice twilights and sunrises; those nights that even at midnight, never seem fully dark.

logo       On this year’s Solstice, Sunday, June 21st, I’ll be participating in an Alzheimer’s Association event: a “Longest Day” write-and-readathon at Seattle’s University Bookstore. It’s our first year, so we’re not quite sure what we’re doing and we’re definitely not going to try to keep it up for all 16 hours between dawn and dusk. But for four hours in the afternoon, our goal will be to read and write in honor of someone we love who is a caregiver or is living with or lived with Alzheimer’s disease. For me, that will be my mom. I don’t know yet if I’ll write about her or Alzheimer’s—I’ve done quite a bit of both. Maybe instead I’ll write about some of the things she loved to do. Or her favorite books and authors. Or how she might have liked to fill a Solstice day if she were alive and well. ArleneYoung

Mom’s life was never much of a maintained trail. She scrambled and improvised all the time, which made her a great role model for her six children, especially as we tried to figure out how best to help her when Alzheimer’s began to rumble like an avalanche after a June rain. But she was an English teacher. She loved reading and writing. I like to think she really would be honored by a write-and-readathon, on the year’s very longest day.

1904066_484139051691653_1188410800_nThe Details: June 21, 1 to 4pm, University Book Store, Seattle, the Alzheimer’s Association’s Longest Day” write-and-readathon: Join us! or come for the Open Mic reading at 3pm.

Just in: a new review of Her Beautiful Brain from Full Life Care blog editor Kavan Peterson. I am so honored to be speaking at Full Life’s fundraising breakfast in October. You can buy Her Beautiful Brain from Amazon or any independent bookstore. Find a bookstore here. Order the Kindle version hereHBBfinalcover

 

Dateline Máncora

IMG_1585There are only so many ways to describe a beautiful beach. The true beauty of it, for writers and readers, is the way it allows your mind to travel lightly, far and wide, or to venture deeply and with great absorption, as you wish or as you dare, always returning to the anchor of the beauty before you. The surprise of it, on this trip, is that our beach is in Peru.

Peru is the Inca Trail, the glorious Andes, sprawling, sleepless Lima. It is also one of the most ecologically diverse countries in the world. From where I’m sitting now in Máncora, on the north coast, the Amazon basin is not far away. Nor are the snowy high sierras. But this coastal landscape is a rugged desert edged by a strip of long, curving bays and beaches.

We came to Máncora because it is a town my great-uncle and his family lived in for a year in the 1950s. It was a dramatic change from their elegant Lima home. My cousin Andy remembers Máncora as an 11-year-old’s backwater paradise, where he played in the dusty hills and on the sublime beach. We are in Peru to wrap up filming on our documentary, Zona Intangible, which was inspired by my great-uncle, who lived here for two decades and was a pioneer of Peru’s fishmeal industry. The film won’t be all about fishmeal or all about my uncle; it will, mostly, tell the story of a handmade city outside Lima where a clinic on a dusty back street bears his name and where the notion of what home is has taken on a new meaning. Is home a one-room shack on a hill of sand? A house in a fishing village where your father has decided you’ll live for this one year? Is it where your family lives, or is it where they came from?

Máncora is an easy-going town; a surfer’s paradise; the kind of place people roll into and stay longer than they thought they would. Our hotel—EcoLodge Máncora—is owned and run by French ex-pats. Much tinier than its name implies, it feels more like an old-fashioned guesthouse, the kind of place Graham Greene might have stayed, cross-bred with a tree-house that just kept getting bigger. The rambling “hostel” where we watched the Superbowl (Seattle friends: I will say nothing more on that front, I promise) featured a swimming pool, a ping-pong table, a cavernous bar with a big screen and many guests who appeared barely old enough to travel on their own. Maybe some of them will stay and make this their home for a while.

Rustin and I started our marriage living out of backpacks and traveling around the world for ten months. So sometimes, traveling feels a bit like an emotional home for us. A place where we’re comfortable together. Trips like this one—where we’re working for ourselves (Zona Intangible) and for others (the University of Washington’s Dept. of Global Health, which is doing amazing work in Peru) and also vacationing (the beach) feel natural to us. But, unlike during that first year of our marriage, we now do have a home, and it’s in Seattle. And as we near the end of this trip, we’re looking forward to getting back to it. Cold weather and all.

My Introduction to Memoir Writing class at Seattle Central College is now full! Next session will be in Fall 2015.

Buy Her Beautiful Brain from the small or large bookstore of your choice. Find a bookstore here. Order the Kindle version here.

I had a great conversation with Women in Film Seattle President Virginia Bogert that she turned into a member profile of yours truly. Thanks, Virginia!

 

 

 

 

Being Fragile

IMG_1380Human beings are fragile, though we prefer not to dwell on this. We prefer to celebrate our resilience, our strength, our endurance. But in the end, we are fragile, because we are mortal. Some living things—for example, the bristlecone pines of Nevada’s Great Basin—can live for a thousand years. Not us. Not a single one of us. Not ever. Unknown

Mortality is what Atul Gawande wrestles with in his book, Being Mortal. Gawande is a surgeon, and he is trained to fix broken humans so they can go back to being strong and resilient and busy. But when his own father was given a diagnosis that both father and son knew was incurable, Gawande realized how ill-prepared he and his parents—both also doctors—were to accept what medicine can’t do to fix things. And he realized he and his family weren’t alone in this. He began to look around his world, the world of surgery, oncology, all kinds of high-tech solutions to human fragility. He started asking hard questions about how and why doctors so often aggressively treat terminally ill patients—frequently causing great distress and discomfort—and why they so rarely ask questions about what their patients might actually want from life in their final years, days or months. He sought out people who were trying to do things differently, and learned from them how to ask the right questions. A piano teacher with, at most, weeks to live, told him what she most wanted was to leave the hospital, go home, and be given just enough pain relief to enable her to teach as long as she could. She got it, and in her last days, her students played a final recital for her in her house.

Gawande also takes a long look at what life is like in America for people who may still have years to live, but who have reached that most fragile phase of all: old age. He questions whether safety—the stated priority of most adult children, when they look for a place for their parents to live—should really be our number-one concern in housing the elderly. What about joy? Meaning? The dignity of privacy; the pleasures of community? Gawande tells the story of how one assisted-living residence was transformed when dogs, cats and 100 parakeets were brought in. He also looks at programs to help seniors stay in their homes by zeroing in on small things: finding someone nearby they can call to change a lightbulb, or take them grocery shopping.

It may sound like a tough read, and at times it is. I wish he had wrestled more with the emotional and ethical challenges posed by Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. But Being Mortal is ultimately an uplifting book because Gawande seeks and finds examples of how we can do better at facing mortality: our own, and that of the people we love. His focus is on the medical end of the conversation, because, he contends, we have come to view old age and death as medical challenges. He wishes this was not the case, but given that it is, he wants us to think about ways to steer the conversation from what the intensive care unit or nursing home has to offer to what human beings nearing the end of life really need and want.

Gawande writes that he “never expected that among the most meaningful experiences I’d have as a doctor—and, really, as a human being—would come from helping others deal with what medicine cannot do as well as what it can.”

After reading Being Mortal, I felt less fragile. Less fearful. There’s something about facing fear head-on that does that, especially when you’ve got a good guidebook. 

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Buy Her Beautiful Brain from the small or large bookstore of your choice. Find a bookstore here. Order the Kindle version here.

Registration is open for Introduction to Memoir Writing at Seattle Central College. Starts February 11, 2015. Six Wednesday nights. Non-credit = all inspiration, no stress!

 Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:45 a.m. on KBCS, streaming online at kbcs.fm and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area. Podcasts available too.

Whole Hearted

IMG_1447“The Great Heart Split,” writer Gail Godwin calls it: that moment, about 400 years ago, when our knowledge of how the physical heart works leaped forward, sending ancient beliefs about the heart as spiritual headquarters backward, to be filed under folklore and mythology. News flash: the powerful, tangible pumping of the heart is what keeps our bodies alive. The heart’s emotional value, its mystical properties? Not actually located in the center of our chests. Ever since, rational knowledge has trumped what used to be called, simply, heart.

And then December comes along, and people start doing things that make no sense. We string colored lights from rooftops and balconies. We feverishly bake cookies, as if eating sweets mattered more than eating anything else. And, strangest of all, we cut trees and prop them up in basins of water in our living rooms. Even scientists and doctors do these things. And the scientists and doctors who study the brain—that mysterious organ where the intangible version of the heart has been hiding all along—they know that the protean behavior in which we indulge during this strange season called the Holidays can be both wonderful and awful for our brains, often at the very same time.

From Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day, our hearts and heads are bombarded with memories. Many are good. Some are not. If you’ve lost someone who used to be a big part of your holiday season, you’ll be feeling that pain. If you have a family member or two who ever excelled in causing holiday misery, you’ll be zapped by those memories too. And if your brain is not at its best—if you are suffering from mental illness or if you have Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia, then this season can be like a walk through the carnival not-so-fun house.

Several years ago, ABC Nightline aired a report called, “Experience 12 Minutes of Alzheimer’s Disease,” which has become a popular Youtube video. In it, a reporter and a caregiver put on goggles, gloves with some fingers taped, small objects in their shoes to throw off their balance, and, worst of all, headphones that emit static and gibberish, which is what many people with Alzheimer’s describe hearing in their heads all the time. They then tried, and failed, to perform a few simple tasks. It’s devastating to watch. And to think about how it would feel to be so impaired, this time of year, with all the extra stimuli of the holidays.

Chances are, you are going to cross paths in December with a relative or friend who suffers from dementia, which makes this a great time of year to try to gain a little insight into their world. But you won’t have to put on goggles and headphones to do it. Hollywood is here to help. Julianne Moore has been getting stellar reviews for her portrayal of a college professor with young-onset Alzheimer’s in the movie Still Alice, which opens in Seattle in January. While you’re waiting to see it, read the book it’s based on. Lisa Genova’s novel, Still Alice, was the first thing I ever read that captured the anguish and frustration of Alzheimer’s I remember seeing in my mother’s eyes.

Another good read is Stars Go Blue by Laura Pritchett. It’s the story of Ben, a Colorado rancher who copes by keeping notes in his pockets bearing important facts like his wife and children’s names. What drives the plot of Stars Go Blue is not just Ben’s Alzheimer’s, but his broken heart. He has an idea of how to mend it, if he can only get it done before Alzheimer’s gains the upper hand. The static in his head, the words and logic that elude him as he tries to accomplish this task—which I won’t reveal because I loved this poignant, poetic book too much to spoil it—make for a page-turning read. It’s almost as if, as his rational faculties leave him, he’s trying to go back, to function on the old-fashioned fuel of Heart with a capital H. It’s a perfect story for the holidays, when we’re all doing some version of that. Putting Reason in the back seat. Letting Heart rule.

Registration is open for Introduction to Memoir Writing at Seattle Central College. Starts February 11, 2015. Six Wednesday nights. Non-credit = all inspiration, no stress! 

Buy Her Beautiful Brain from the small or large bookstore of your choice. Find a bookstore here. Order the Kindle version here.HBBfinalcover

 

 

 

Bookstore Love

logoRestless Brain Syndrome strikes again. Early this morning, my mind was like a pinball machine that had me reaching for a Post-it and scribbling inscrutable phrases in half-asleep handwriting: follow up on A, send an email about B, and for God’s sake, don’t forget about Z.

But the thought that made me sit straight up was this: Ann! Why haven’t you Her_Beautiful_Braintold everyone you know to save The Date? That date would be September 7, 2014 at 3pm: the book launch for my memoir, Her Beautiful Brain, at the Elliott Bay Book Company.

To you, Seattle may be the fastest-growing city in the United States, an epicenter of technology, global health, outdoor sports and online shopping. To me, Seattle is the big small town I grew up in. The town that taught me to love books. And bookstores.

As a very young child, the library was my first temple of book love. Then, just about the time I was allowed to go without a grownup to the University Village Shopping Center, a bookstore about as big as my bedroom opened across the breezeway from Lamont’s Department Store. It was called Kay’s Bookmark. Rarely could I afford to buy an actual book, but Kay didn’t seem to mind. Maybe she understood that kid-browsers like me—the ones who were more comfortable in her store than they were in Lamont’s—might be her future customers.

A handful of years later, about the time I was in the teen-angst-reducing habit of taking long bike or bus rides to more interesting parts of the city, another bookstore opened called the Elliott Bay Book Company. It was in the picturesque, new-old Pioneer Square district. Like Kay’s, Elliott Bay welcomed browsers of all ages. Unlike Kay’s, you could get a little bit lost in it, in the very best way.

I went off to college. I was away from Seattle for eight years. I visited many legendary bookstores: the Coop, the Strand, Foyles, Shakespeare & Company. But when I had my homesick wallows, it was Elliott Bay for which my Northwestern heart pined. How I missed the creaking wooden floors, the log cabin stairs, the café in the basement. Novels in one room; hiking books in another.

Kay’s was finally laid to rest by Barnes & Noble, which of course is now also gone from the U Village. But Elliott Bay hung on through some very tough years. Seattle’s book-lovers were shocked when it moved to Capitol Hill in 2010, but wasn’t that better, we all told ourselves, than if it had closed altogether? And didn’t we all start going more often than we had in the dark days of the recession, when Pioneer Square was kind of lonely and scary?

Now, we live in a city where the online juggernaut, Amazon, is headquartered a stone’s throw downhill from our standard-bearer of surviving bookstores. Where Pioneer Square is slowly coming back, despite the endless Viaduct teardown. Where our “fastest-growing” status is fueled by the unbeatable combo of good jobs AND a city people really want to live in. And what makes rainy Seattle so livable? Places like the Elliott Bay Book Company.

I’ve always referred to it as the Elliott Bay bookstore, but Company is its real name, so I’m trying it on here. Now that I’ll be both a longtime loyal customer AND an Elliott Bay Book Company author. Really? Me? Did I ever dream—Yes. Yes, I did. And that’s what makes this so exciting that I am compelled to announce it three months in advance.

You can already pre-order a copy of Her Beautiful Brain from Elliott Bay. Right on their website. Tell them you’ll pick it up on September 7th. That’s the weekend after Labor Day weekend. I’d love to see you there. 3pm.

You can also like my new author page on Facebook.

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:45 a.m. on KBCS, streaming online at kbcs.fm and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area. Podcasts available.

 

 

My Writing Process Blog Tour

DSC00865I’ve been tagged in the My Writing Process Blog Tour by Kim Brown, editor of the wonderful Minerva Rising literary journal. Check out what Kim’s been up to at http://www.the-confident-writer.net.

This blog is a relay that involves answering four specific questions and then naming the authors who will follow. So here we go:

What am I working on??

I am working on the first draft of my second memoir. (My first, Her Beautiful Brain, will be published this September by She Writes Press.) The working title for this book is The Observant Doubter. It’s about my own checkered history of faith and doubt.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Memoir is a slippery, shape-shifting sort of a genre, so this is a difficult question to answer. For me, memoir is not autobiography but more like extended essay writing, a way to explore what have become (like it or not) the enduring themes of my life. And I do mean “explore.” What I love about writing memoir are the new insights that come as you write about events in your life that you might have thought you already understood in every possible way. The memoir writers I admire include Anne Lamott, Elizabeth McCracken and Michael Klein. What I love about their work is that it asks questions. It meanders. It doesn’t follow a straight chronological line.

Why do I write what I do?

My first book was driven by a need to honor my mother’s life and to articulate the uniquely cruel fate that is Alzheimer’s disease, an illness that is still widely misunderstood and feared even though it is poised to become the public health nightmare of the aging Boomers. My second book is driven by a desire to give voice to those of us who are neither devout, rock-solid believers or atheists. I believe there are a lot of us. I believe we are no less serious about our search for meaning than those at the outer ends of the religious spectrum. I also believe there are many of us who, like me, have had periods of more fervent faith and still feel a lot of confusion about it.

Both Her Beautiful Brain and The Observant Doubter weave personal and universal themes, which I love to do as a writer. I get a lot of practice every week writing The Restless Nest radio commentary and blog.

How does your writing process work?

I get up early not to write, but to read for an hour and to scribble a few pages in my journal. This sets me up for the day, which could mean sitting right down to write but more often means doing my day job (making short films for nonprofits) and slipping in an hour or two of writing when I can. I am lucky that I can do this. I work from home. I save tons of time by not having to commute. Every day is different, and I like the variety. If I have a long shooting day or a pressing deadline, that won’t be a writing day. I try to set aside longer chunks of time on the weekend. But I’m a restless person, so a long chunk for me would be three or four hours.

Sometimes, the words flow, but more often, writing feels like hard work, like I’m building sentences, one word at a time, with primitive, handmade tools. I have to pep-talk myself constantly, with inane phrases like, “a page a day can become a book in a year!” or: “finish this paragraph and you can go make coffee. And have one of those Trader Joe’s dark chocolate peanut butter cups.”

Here’s who’s up next on the My Writing Process Blog Tour:

Allison Green is the author of a novel, Half-Moon Scar (St. Martin’s). Her essays, stories, and poems have appeared in publications such as ZYZZYVA, Calyx, Bellingham Review, Willow Springs, Raven Chronicles, and Yes! Magazine. She lives and teaches writing in Seattle.

Allison blogs at http://allisongreen.org

Isla McKetta is the author of Polska, 1994 due out from Editions Checkpointed May 22, 2014 and co-author of Clear Out the Static in Your Attic: A Writer’s Guide for Transforming Artifacts into Art. She writes book reviews for writers at A Geography of Reading and serves on the board of Hugo House.

Isla blogs at http://islamcketta.com

In May, I’ll be posting an interview with Isla about her new novel on The Restless Nest.

Seattle readers: On Thursday, May 1 at 7pm at Ravenna/3rd Place Books, I will be reading with fellow authors from the new anthology,  Into the Storm: Journeys with Alzheimer’s. 

 

Radio/podcast lovers: This week on KBCS I rebroadcast a piece called Trilliums from April 2012.

Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.

Libraries Change Lives

UnknownSnapshot: me, sitting cross-legged on a hardwood floor. Surrounded by shelves of books. One open in my hand. I’m so absorbed in it I forget who I am, where I am, what time it is. When the bell rings, I close the book and jump up, limp-hopping because my leg’s dead-wood asleep. I’ve got to get to the checkout desk, fast, so I can take this precious book with me as I racewalk to my next class.

It’s 1969. I am 12 years old. The corner of the Nathan Eckstein Junior High School library where I hang out is the corner where the biographies and autobiographies are shelved. And the memoirs, although I don’t remember knowing or using that word then.

The biography section runs on low shelves along the short, east wall to the corner of the long, curved north wall, with its sweeping bank of glass-block windows that work hard all day to capture, refract, diffuse whatever north Seattle light they can find. If you planned to spend some time there, as I usually did, sitting cross-legged on the floor with your skirt fanned from knee to knee was more modest and more comfortable than squatting. Sitting on the floor also dropped me right out of sight behind the interior forest of taller bookcases. For as long as I sat there, I was alone. I was free. No older girls, no cool girls. No cute boys, no scary boys. Just me and real stories of real people, most of whom lived long before junior high school existed. Before glasses, braces and a bad case of adolescent shyness could turn this place called Eckstein into a fortress full of hidden dangers that had to be navigated every single day.

My library corner was my refuge.

Many of the biographies I found and read in that corner have faded from memory. There were the nurses—Clara Barton and Florence Nightingale—and the writers: Louisa May Alcott, Charlotte Bronte. There was Juliette Gordon Low, founder the Girl Scouts. Marie Curie. Helen Keller. Anne Frank. It wasn’t that I wasn’t curious about men. It’s just that during those junior high years, I needed stories of strong women the way lungs need oxygen.

One day, I pulled a memoir off the shelf called All But My Life by Gerda Weissmann Klein. Her story begins on September 3, 1939, a date she remembers with far more clarity than I can recall my Eckstein library corner. It was the day the Nazis invaded her Polish town. She remembers her brother, stepping outside to let the cat in. When he closed the door, he had a bullet hole in his trousers.

When I got home after school, I sat down on the floor of my bedroom and kept reading Gerda’s story: page after page of forced marches, cattle cars, work camps, death camps, and, against all odds, survival. This was not Anne Frank’s diary of hiding from the horror. This was the horror. Gerda Weissmann Klein taught me real history, stripped of all euphemism. She taught me the power of one person’s story. And she put the traumas of my little life—the glasses, the braces, the mean girls, my parents’ divorce—in perspective. Real history, stripped of euphemism, will do that.

This week is the American Library Association’s annual national library week, and this year’s theme is “Lives change @ your library.” My life changed every time I sat down in that secret, sunny corner. What about yours?

 

 

 

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