I love looking back over a month of reading, for within the stacks of pages, themes and patterns often emerge, completely unforced. And so as I revisit the past month, it’s been one of learning, self-reflection and escape – the essence of summer captured on my bedside table.
I kicked off the summer with a book that I’ve had waiting for me on my nightstand for ages – Gloria Steinem’s My Life on the Road. I had started it a few times and then realized I needed to put it aside until I could settle in and savor the writing.
My Life on the Road is as fierce and inspiring as its author and its message, both poignant and right on time. Steinem makes the case that it is through travel that we reconnect with our own humanity and our oneness with others. It’s a needed message as we find ourselves in a world more divisive by the day, and My Life on the Road is the clarion call to wake us up and guide us out. I found myself reading with notebook and pen in hand, practically transcribing the book as there were just so many profound bits of well-earned wisdom. One that I return to often is this: “One of the simplest paths to deep change is for the less powerful to speak as much as they listen, and for the more powerful to listen as much as they speak.”
With a few books often going at once, I added Paula Hawkins’ Into the Water to the mix. I find summer is when I choose the mysteries and the thrillers – those books that beg to be read late into night and are impossible to put down. Guilty pleasures that I feel no guilt over at all – it’s escape, it’s bliss and in the summer months when work is often busier than ever, it’s vacation. Hawkins’ Girl on The Train was the talk of the summer two years ago, and this one is even better. Gripping from page one, Into the Water is complex, creepy, atmospheric, odd and terrifying – the grown-up version of a campfire ghost story. Another psychological drama that I had fun with was B.A. Paris’s The Breakdown – a great beach read with an intimate perspective similar to her debut novel The Couple Next Door.
On vacation with my family earlier this month, I brought along Michael Finkel’s The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit. I can’t seem to shake this book, as it spoke to a part of myself that was so recognizable that reading it felt like a literal lightning bolt. In this book, Finkel shares the story of Christopher Knight, a man who, at 20 years old, walked into the northern Maine woods and didn’t come out for almost three decades – he lived in isolation for 27 years, until he was finally caught stealing from a nearby camp. What compelled him to walk into the woods in the first place? How did he survive and survive so well? Finkel presents a well-rounded account, and the particulars of Knight’s story and survival are profound.
Yet, what touched me most about Knight’s story was that instinct to walk into the woods and stay, to leave civilization and live alone – completely pared down, without excess. It’s an instinct I often romanticize and one in which I picture my husband, daughters and I moving to a remote place and simply being – trimmed down to the essentials and finding that is where happiness lives. We did a version of that six years ago when we moved from downtown Chicago to a tiny town on the coast of Massachusetts, a place so quiet in the winter that my sister has compared it to the setting of The Shining. And yet for me, even our move to the end of the road sometimes doesn’t feel like enough. A few times each summer, we visit the island of Cuttyhunk, MA, which is about 15 minutes from our house by boat. Each time, I think to myself, I could live here, with its population of 52 people – heaven. Knight’s story invited me to look at that yearning, to get close to it – that feeling that I am trying to capture geographically yet that continues to feel out of reach. Why does the romance of the hermetic life draw me in so deeply? Reading Stranger in the Woods forced me to dig into this dream and sit with it. As I did, I realized that for me, it speaks to a soul truth – a need for quiet, space and reflection – to dial back the noise and hear the small voice, the intuition, the guidance. It’s not a need to actually go into the woods (though for Knight it was), but it is a need to find that interior space, regardless of exterior circumstances.
Towards the end of the story, Finkel goes to visit Knight who now lives at home with his family in Maine. And the passage that stays with me is this: “He stands stiffly, hands in his jean pockets. Something’s got to give, he says. Or something is going to break. And this is the line that breaks him. His voice catches and his stoicism crumbles, and the humanity beneath pushes out, and I glance at his face and see tears sliding down his cheeks.” And that’s it. That’s the feeling that can sneak up when we forget to take moments for ourselves and we lose track of our center. Stranger in the Woods reminded me that it’s not a literal move to isolation that will bring peace, but can be found within those isolated moments that we take and fiercely protect, the moments in the day preserved for our own-self care and for our sanity.
This leads me my favorite self-care moment and to J. Krishnamurti’s Freedom from the Known, aka my current bathtub book. I have probably taken a bath every night of my life (subtracting the college years). As a mom, it’s the one time of day that I can count on to be alone, and so I treasure it. I close the door, light a candle, and it’s just me and my book. Because this 10-minute span feels so sacred, it’s also the time that I choose to read something uplifting, life-affirming and often a little spiritual. A good friend recommended Krishnamurti, and so I’m chipping away, 10 minutes at a time.
Returning to Ms. Steinem, I wholeheartedly believe that a “life on the road” mentality can be applied equally to reading. The magic happens “in an on-the-road state of mind, not seeking out the familiar but staying open to whatever comes along. It can begin the moment you leave your door"...or turn to the first page.