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.

bpjm-square-1536

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.

tumblr_mrjdde7xcb1qa8sljo2_r1_500

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

Peaches, Poetry, and Love

unnamed-1

So, I love poetry. I love it because it can be extremely revealing but very concealing. Unless someone can untangle it properly, it becomes its own web of meaning for them. That is what is so beautifully peculiar about it. I was so tempted to write this post as a poem because it’s much easier to hide oneself in a flourish of rhymes, carefully plotted words, and conspicuously blotted truths. It’s just so much easier to wrap up what we feel, rather than outline it like the perfect course syllabus. This will happen then; you will have all read these texts; we will discuss. I feel like I’m fighting myself right now. I just want to break into rhyming couplets.

I heard once that truthfulness in corporations is always very shocking for consumers. We expect to be lied to. If a corporation reveals to us our capitalistic habits, we are unsettled. Yet, if we are spun genial stories of consuming paradise, we feel comfortable retreating into the elysium fields of shopping malls, box-stores, and large chains. (NB: Support your local businesses. It does a lot more for your communities.) We are uncomfortable with confessions or revelations that disrupt out desperate search for happiness, wholeheartedness, and fulfillment. The true teacher will tell you that you need these disruptions because you cannot live a full life without being aware that you, too, contribute to inequity. That is why people ask you to recognize your privilege, even if you don’t feel very privileged. Inequity is why we become bitter. That’s why you hear people say cruel things about people they don’t know. Everyone is bitter about something. Yet, for our own souls, we should fight against resting in bitterness. I’m trying to do that, anyway. It shouldn’t be a default position.

HBO / Buzzfeed **read sardonically

I think this is why I love Kristeva’s theory of abjection. The disruption of boundaries and barriers through the thing that disgusts or triggers us. Dirt, filth, crap.

I’m now using prose to weave a web that must be untangled to get to the point. I was walking down the street, listening to Paloma Faith. I was reminded of a love lost. It wasn’t even a love gained or fulfilled. It is a confusing relationship that always thrusts me into the more existential of my crises. It was a moment for transparency, but thankfully we had fans and flowing sheets to hide ourselves.

I consider myself a fairly straightforward person. But, I hate crying in front of people. I have cried in front of people, but I have also definitely been shamed for it. There were two people who helped me when I was once really broken: my best friend who dried the tears from my eyes and a classmate of mine who told me that I should close my eyes and imagine my breath was expanding and contracting a giant red balloon. That imagery still works. It still makes me smile. That is why I send so many balloon emojis. Not because I’m sad, but because they invoke a sense of calm, childlike freedom, and happiness. I once had a friend say that I would judge them if they cried throughout the film. Nope. I think the most cathartic moment I ever had was when I watched HP 7.2 in Bath, UK. I went by myself to a late showing. I was almost attacked on my way home. I’m getting ahead of myself. So, I sat in the cinema by myself because I was travelling alone. Of course, there were others watching, but I did not know them. I had already started sobbing by the time the Harry Potter logo appeared. I had tissues erupting from my purse like Vesuvius. I was openly revealing my emotional response, and suddenly others around me openly wiped tears and blowed their noses too. Why are we so afraid to reveal our emotional responses? They don’t reveal our truths or our stories? Although, I was vulnerable, I am proud that I made it a safe space to respond.

I wasn’t crying because it was Harry Potter, necessarily. I was crying because I was tired. I was alone. My grandfather had just been tirelessly cruel to me. Tyranny will do it every time. I missed my mom so much. I was privileged to be travelling, but it was also scary to be alone and so in charge of my own security. Guys, if you want to ease your stress when you’re travelling, stay in B&Bs rather than hostels. If you’re in a rather large group, hostels work, but if you’re by yourself or even with a partner, stay in a B&B. Do yourself that favour. Yet, no one in that cinema KNEW those reasons. In fact, I wasn’t even sure of the reasons. It was just a moment of release. It was a dark room where emotions were high, and yah, it was Harry fricking Potter.

We are beings with such varied emotions and emotional responses, but we are so uncomfortable with our emotions. I find that with little children. Parents will yell at them ‘STOP CRYING.’ But that’s bollocks. Don’t do that. There are times when we ALL throw a bit of a tantrum, and I know it’s stressful, but don’t stifle emotions. I also think children learn to be afraid to say what’s going on inside. I think there is a twofold explanation: 1) one assumes our parents are omnipotent and must understand our distress 2) one is afraid to speak up to claim one’s inner truth. With our families, our emotions and emotional responses are always rougher and less gentle than with people we don’t know. For instance, if someone tells me the same story 10x, I’m okay with it. If my mom tells me more than once, I listen. But if my sister does it, I could fly off the handle. But, at the same time, I think it’s because I absorb what my sister says because I love her, I listen to my mom because I respect her, and I sometimes forget other’s stories. (I also have a terrible memory, sorry guys). (Also, I hate it when people tell me ‘you said that already.’ shush).

I’ve been having a bit of writer’s block lately. I’ve wanted to just splat my soul onto these metaphorical pages. Unfortunately, I always feel I’ve revealed too much. Of course, the weather has been sort of grey, and I’ve been losing time to the job boards. I have this weird feeling that if we want to discover time travel and worm holes, we must look no further than job boards. Time really flies, when you can’t find a job. haha. I made a funny. 😛

***

Channel 4 / tumblr **so we’ve got time 😛

Go make yourself a cup of tea and come back. I’m drinking coffee; hazelnut flavoured. I don’t usually like flavoured coffee, but this stuff is amazing–hot, cold, nom. 

So, I know this post is long, but I’ll share an abridged story here:

I was in love with someone before. It wasn’t really a mutual affair. But it was a deep love. It wasn’t always romantic. It was just this deep-seated love that couldn’t be broken. Sometimes, it was a crutch because it felt easier to be in love with one soul than to admit it’s hard to open yourself to others. In any case, I’m fairly certain I would have trekked the earth for this person. I should explain, I was brought up on the religion of love. For me, God was a force that helped my (polish) mom’s dad (not the one mentioned above) and grandmother live through WWII. It was a force that meant that, even though he died days after my birth, I am always certain of his love. Love is doing the dishes so it’s nice for your mom when she comes home from work. Love is letting my (senior) dog walk as far as she wants in one direction and then carrying her home because she’s stubborn. So, I loved this person. A lot. Nothing ever came of it. I never did anything. Neither did they.

There were no truths shared. Poems tangle the feelings to conceal the shame of a love unfilled. My shame is not towards other people, but towards that person. I wanted them to know me, but I didn’t want to share. It seems like that proves we were ill-suited for love. If that deeper trust couldn’t be realized, then love couldn’t truly exist there. Oh, hindsight. You’re vision is spectacular, even if mine is not.

At the same time, I don’t think I lost anything by not opening myself to others. I know that seems a fairly final ruling, but I was really busy. I had other things going on in my life. I always worked and volunteered throughout school. I think that’s what we need to teach young people. If love doesn’t work out when you want it to, make sure those aren’t your only memories. Make sure you build yourself into a whole person, with or without a partner, because you need to be able to sit and look back on those years and feel happy with how you spent your time.

I’ll leave it here, but I’ll be posting a follow up to this (tomorrow-ish). Thank you for sharing this time with me; you’re all such peaches.

Warmest Wishes,
Word Play Xx

Clasp at the moon and drink in the stars

Source: Buzzfeed

Recall the words you’ve read, well and true,
For, one day, they’ll be asked of you,
Chime them back with zeal and truth,
Memory is a frivolous quality of youth,

She enchanted lines and sang with grace,
In her, words sweetly dance and deeply embrace,
To memorize the words of those before,
Was something she had little, anymore,

She hid in fear of being found out,
Imagining they’d wonder just what she was about,
But, to her, phrases were not so easily memorised, 
For, they oft took on many a subtle disguise,

And phrases are not just words stacked together,
There are letters that are joined and tethered,
Sounds and magic combine to depict,
Those rascally words that you’ve picked.

Beneath those letters matter is revealed,
Elemental truths, spiraled and congealed,
Sup at the table of earthly delights,
There you’ll find words oft lost in the night,

Like stars appear bland in the sky full of clouds,
Words seem silent until they are shouted out loud,
Swirling in murky desires and forgotten wars,
Droned and confused by many a chauvinistic bore,

Beguiled by journey and distant arrivals,
Penning words to challenge and surreptitiously rival, 
Climbing over letters only to stumble in brambles,
Choosing slow contrition over which we amble,

Blow away the fog before your eyes,
Reach and look towards the night skies,
Clasp at the moon and drink in the stars,
For these particular words are ours.

Aural Laurel

Listen to me <<here>> (read aloud xx )

Listen to me in the dark; watch our souls eclipse,
Listen to me in the small of your back, near the hips,
Watch me as I dance with the stars, graceful and long,
Watch me as I sing to the heavens, a working song.

Footsteps that echo as the stars suddenly realign,
Good memories forgotten, bad ones forever enshrined,
The drive towards death preserves our written word,
Marring those cherished days in ink as we record,

Defined to a point that absconds meaning from truth,
Wringing out words and life for all they are worth,
Inventing new words to fill the gaps with new noise,
Cleverly wincing as I give up my narrative choice,

Often I’ve loved; but little I’ve gained,
Mimetically repeating the chorus and singing refrained,
They stand alongside this stage of decided upheaval,
Telling you it has been a play of woe and much evil,

Cathartic removal, a single tear falls from your eye,
Mocking the emotion you so tenderly do yourself deny,
Each tear is caught and saved for the end,
’Til the last heart we mend,
Saved by the playwright who charmingly penned

Such tragic delights which are sung with avid disgust,
Yet, so willingly we believe and wholeheartedly trust
In the ending that will deliver a smile or moral,
So we can dress our poet with a lettered laurel.

Dreaming

Star of darkness, stars of light,

Crinkled stardust shimmers delight,

Platters crackled with electric flair,

Diamonds wander thoroughfare,

Softly, cherubs lick ice-cream mountains,

Trickling streams lead to cascading fountains,

Onwards! yonder! stargazer, reach towards the sky,

Whereupon, delicious soothsaying nectar lie,

Surreptitious sips lead to incongruous gulps,

Turning fine words of old into wasted paper-pulp,

The author dissolves into lead-weighted despair,

Passions and thoughts eternally forbidden to share,

Hope glistens untoward on the destruction past,

Reviving the pages into the eternal fiery gas,

Diamonds struggle to twinkle true,

While blackened, tarred words shine through.

~fin