When Breath Becomes Air ⎟ Book Exchange Series

Dear Reader,

I recently took part in a Book Exchange. A friend of mine posted a status asking if anyone wanted to take part in a gift exchange. I had often seen posts like this before. In the past, I’ve never answered the call because I felt uncomfortable giving my address out to total strangers. This time, I decided, I was just going to jump in. My friend sent me a long message immediately after I replied that asked you to send your favourite book to Person A; you would make a similar post on your wall and those who responded would send a book to Person B (the person who’s post I had seen and to which I had responded). One swapped addresses as the chain of connections grew.

At first, I was a little overwhelmed. I was about to say, oh, maybe this isn’t for me. But, I embraced it. I embraced that I would be asking my friends to send my friend a book and that their friends would be sending me a book.  I was to send a book to the person who caught her in this web of gift-giving, and those who responded to me would send my friend a book.  I kind of liked that this whole experiment was at least once-removed. It felt like a connection wherein you shared part of yourself to someone you did not necessarily know. I didn’t even think about the books I would get, I just thought about the book I wanted to give and the person who would receive my book.

Since money is tight and our government insists that young people just need to get used to precarious employment, I told the friends who responded to my post that it was perfectly okay to send a used book or to buy from cheaper online shops, an advantage being that one can ship directly to their person. I know that we should be supporting independent shops, but there just aren’t any around me. I suppose the ideal situation would be to send a book with a care package and a small gift, but that wasn’t in my budget and I didn’t want to ask anyone to spend beyond what they were able. The only downside of this method is that the person who receives the book doesn’t know who sent the book. I’ve decided to make a post for every book I receive and extend my most heartfelt thanks and bow in humility to those who sent the precious gift of a book to me.

 

***

Yesterday, I received a book from the book exchange. At first, I was trying to remember what books I had purchased. I was awaiting some Roald Dahl books and Black and British, and when I opened the bubbly envelope, out popped When Breath Becomes Air. Afterwards, I realized this wasn’t a book I’d purchased because of the name on the label, it had my nicknameI was a bit shocked. I knew that everyone was super hyped about this book; I was not. Two humans in my life had told me about Paul Kalanithi, one before Kalanithi’s death and one who had fallen in love with this book.

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I really wasn’t convinced. He was sold to me as someone who had crossed the invisible but very tangible boundary between the arts and sciences. It seemed ludicrous to me. In my experience, science has heralded itself as the worthy occupation, and arts are usually sidelined as a luxury. It felt that science was a career, but literature, art, history, economics (not commerce), philosophy, etc., those things are considered to be hobbies. I’m wary of this crack in the earth, this line in the land, this unfathomable fissure. I never used to feel that divide so strongly when I was younger, I had studied physics and maths in secondary school, and I loved reading and history. I, myself, debated between studying engineering and history. My dad’s friends, engineers that had lived through Nortel Networks, told me to do history. So, I did.

As I studied, the prejudices against the arts from the sciences ruffled my feathers. It was like constantly going against the grain, and even though I was moving through molasses, people believed that work was somehow meaningless in the greater scheme. I had many existential crises in the library: what was the meaning of anything? History and revisionists and philosophies, oh my!  So, I let those experiences inform my opinion on this book, and I decided against reading it. I was wrong to have those prejudices.

Certainly, Kalanithi understands his own prejudices, the arrogances and ego that come with medicine or any career, really, and he conscientiously works against them. He notices it, and he remarks that it doesn’t feel right. Next time, we do better. I think that is one of the most refreshing aspects of this book; he recognizes that we are not always going to have the answers or be the same person day after day. Each day we have to struggle with the good and bad things that inform our past actions, we must be held accountable, and we must strive to shift our experience beyond what we know to be true.

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Although Kalanithi doesn’t explicitly state: BE EMPATHETIC, his entire memoir is an ode to empathy and understanding. It does not bridge the gulfs created by class, race, and gender, but it does remind us that privileges may make us heedless to how others think and feel. We might become solipsistic, the sole ego that denies souls to others.

The book is chockfull of references and allusions to erudite and esoteric literary works, and, by applying texts that might seem elusive, dusty tomes directly to his professional and personal experiences, Kalanithi encourages us to think of them as relevant to our own lives. Things that seem elitist are within our grasp; he evidences this by the fact that his mother’s revolutionizing force in the previously somewhat bereft local education system gave opportunities to all students.

Indeed, I’m still figuring out how education and elitism go hand-in-hand, particularly when so many  young people are educated but lack the hoards of moveable property that accompany the elite. Moreover, I know reading classics of western literature is laden full of privilege and historical prejudices, and, surely, our sense of their beauty is tied to the colonialism that accompanied(s) them. And yet, words, literature, and thoughts are profound and full of meaning. Canonical western literature is not the be-all and end-all. There are so many voices to whom we should listen. We must actively make social and public spaces for those voices.

We must also not forget that Kalanithi had an extraordinary education, Stanford and Cambridge. I cannot ignore this in my review because it would deny the fact that many persons will not and do not have access to these kinds of experiences. I would also like to make note that the book does contain some privileging of able bodies and able minds. The book, at times, seems to preclude a world inclusive of neurodivergence, but that these are problems to be solved. I am not well-informed enough in this area to speak to it fully.

Kalanithi’s bridge between Literature and Neuro-science and -surgery echoes his investigation of the mind/body nexus, a philosophical problem as old as time. We accept that language gives us the tools of expression, meaning, feeling, intelligence. ‘Man’ has believed that what made him man was language. (Animals, meanwhile, have argued that it was the red-flower.) And then there is the brain that controls the lot. If we want to understand how we think and what we think, do we engage in philosophy or neuroscience? If parts of the brain that become damaged or put under the pressure of a tumour influence how we behave and act, then what does that mean about what it means to about selfhood? Kalanithi doesn’t give us a straight-forward answer; rather, he engages in a well-thought discourse that attempts to meaningfully untangle the seemingly unsolvable. Unsolvable things such as life, death, mortality, suffering, the liminal experience of the patient who may or may not return from the cusp of death, and the place of those who remain after death.

To me, and I think most people will agree, it is the abridged and purpose-driven autobiographical narrative that a parent would hope to leave their child, especially if the parent will die before the child can ask the parent questions about their life.

Finally, I’d like to finish by quoting one of my best friend’s favourite lines: ‘You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving’. A life in motion, a life that moves forward, learning from others, ourselves, and how to engage with people as people and not as problems or a ticking clock.

 

Heaps of Love,

Kat Xx

[Edit: see below]

P.S. In my desire to publish this before I had to take my dog out, I forgot to emphasize a few things. The main takeaway that I want people to have from this book is the importance of reading and the act of reading as a tool to build empathy. For all of its flaws, children that grew up reading the Harry Potter series have been shown to be more empathetic. Because so many young people have this shared experience, they are also able to connect through it. Likewise, we may not agree on which religion or why, we might agree that Hermione’s activities through SPEW are indicative of white feminism. We were given a language to discuss child abuse and the loneliness that teens and young adults feel alongside the loneliness and isolation of adults (re: Sirius). Literature is important. People who study literature are important. Their brains work in wonderful and often uncelebrated ways.

In addition to noting the importance of literature, I did make the point about the prevalence of western literature throughout the text. When I was studying, I was co-Chair of an off-shoot of a charity that builds local-language libraries, supports local-language publishing, and gives money for girls to go to school. When I was part of this charity, it was always important to me that the books that were placed in the libraries and the books that were published were not western exports. Those books are usually readily available, but it was important that money was given to regional and local authors. It is never about exporting the western canon elsewhere; it is about recognizing that we need to support local publishing. This is why writing, and empathy, and developing our individual and shared vocabularies through reading, writing, and supporting authors is important.

Look at the ways in which my own world was broadened by this book. Those are the things that are important.

 

Book rating: 3.5/5

My Freedom on Wings

<<Read here>> (click here to hear me read it)

I used to sing out loud, waiting for you to hear, 
I used to write sweet words, to draw you near,
I sang a song that only your soul should have heard,
Even so, I was lost in myself, gravely self-interred.

It took me time to push the daisies from this earthy burrow,
Rising stiffly, just under the surface, from six feet below, 
I stretch and groan, a song to salute the sun and skies,
Slowly opening long-closed and sight-forgotten eyes,

The world is new and full of rich abstract colour, 
Awoken from a deep slumber, where senses were duller,
Apprehension and anxiety that once burbled steadily,
Dissipates as my mind eases to the calm of the slow sea,

Infinity may not be compromised from the mortal abode,
Endlessness consumed as digesting time slowed, 
You delicious curls rivalled the Odysseus’s godlike brow, 
And you snarled and hissed, face resting in scowl,

The tears that flowed from your eyes were laced with hate,
For a many an age, I deluded myself to lust after fate,
When we danced, my hand met your hand, your hand on my waist,
Always expecting, always demanding my smile remained chaste, 

The years past us by, dust settling like snow on those curls,
Tears dropped from my eyes, more precious than pearls,
You pushed me and pulled me, I was a doll on a string, 
But I’ve finally grown them, my freedom on wings,

In, I breathe, Out, I breathe. Snow melts at my pyre, 
Spring suspires life from the putrid, festering mire,
Towards the depths, I feel my body contract and inflate,
This is the choice of a lifetime—a pearl or fiery gate.

I am free now, after all of this time; 
Saddled to lyric and many a rhyme;
I bellow the fires that alight from within,
And cradle the pearls as I begin again. 

Storm’d Heat

Scratching the graphite into the page.  Stomping your soul into the earth.  Dreaming your essence unto an universe of an unravelling infinite expansion of a helical dance.  Driving your soul downwards and your essence upwards and outwards.  Feeling energy surging from your fingers and into the day-dreams that soothe your wayward mind.

Lapping oceans clammer to hug the shore, “just one more inch,” she cries as she forcefully reaches to hug the earth she so desperately loves.  Mother Earth crumbles unto the ocean floor circumventing her waves.  Rains fall and mists away from broiled earth.  Falling and rising; cooling and heating.

Purposeful desire aches in his soul as he holds tight to fortune’s cruel wheel, over which he has little control, but he still holds onto it desperately.  Fortune spoke, one, two, three, four, five, six.  Fortune speaks, but her voice is graveled from having, for so long, been engaged to the earth as she rolls onwards:

The body and mind and essence all unravel into different territories.  Connected to the earth as she walks; sway, sway, sway, sway.  His eyes draw her being into his being.  Her love is hidden, far beneath six feet down, but much higher than heaven’s highest mount.  When her heart is stirred, she feels her heart race from all its hidden places, and her head becomes light as euphoria overtakes her.  Still carefully treading the road, wary of fortune’s lines, she closes her eyes as she breathes in hot, wet air.  Her lungs are filled with heavy air, but she is not made bloated by it; instead, her lungs release breath by breath through her nose, ears, mouth, and eyes.  Her lips give long-lasting kisses to dreams as thoughts pass by.  Her eyes gently hug each vision as they hop away like young puppies in a field of daisies.  Her own world is filled with feeling and heat and emotion and dreams, ever surrounding her being, ever clinging to her as burrs bite wild hair.  The world shuts off, but remains.  The world is her.

He cannot see what she sees, for it is the unseen.  He cannot hear what she hears, for it is the unheard.  But he breathes what she breathes as they breathe life into each other.  He feels what she feels as they meet in space and time.

Words into being.  Words blend thoughts and worlds as the graphite nestles into curves and lines of life and death.   the muse breathes.  the muse thinks.  the muse be-mused.  the muse is power.  the muse is statuette.  the muse blinks.

the muse sways as her body sings the melodic delirium she was lauded to whisper once more.

 she is unto a world of her own.  she feels the vibrations of the world below her and the sensation of the heavens and stars above.  she feels the clouds of emotion and wonder and imagination and curiosity.

he knows not what to do.

she knows not of it.

whilst she regards the stars, and her mind amongst the stars; ad infinitum.