The Books That Light Our Way
This is a guest post by Tova Mirvis, who is the author of three novels, Visible City, The Outside World and The Ladies Auxiliary, which was a national bestseller. Her essays have appeared in various anthologies and newspapers including The Boston Globe Magazine, Commentary, Good Housekeeping, and Poets and Writers, and her fiction has been broadcast on National Public Radio. She has been a Scholar in Residence at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute at Brandeis University, and Visiting Scholar at The Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center. She lives in Newton, MA with her three children. Follow her on Twitter @tovamirvis.
My ex-husband and I had divided the furniture, the money, the books. We sold our house, packed seventeen years worth of a shared life into boxes labeled with either my name or his. When I unpacked into my new bedroom, many of the objects were the same – the purple comforter, all my clothing, my desk — but so much of my life felt unfamiliar. Though the house I was newly renting was just a few miles from the one we’d lived in together, it felt as though it existed in an alternate impassable continent.
I unpacked as quickly as I could, wanting at least the outer semblance of normalcy. One of the first things I did was to place my books in their old spots on my shelves, arranging them, as I always had in every place I’d lived, by author, by sensibility, by how much I had loved the book.
Now a new category was emerging: books I needed to keep physically close at hand. They were books I had read previously, either weeks before or years, but in these uncertain days, they became newly essential. Around most people, I wanted to pull as deeply inside myself as I could, cover my outer self with a hard protective shell. Only with these books did I feel a sense of opening, did I feel that someone could understand how it felt to stand at this juncture.
On the nightstand by my bed, I placed a small pile of books, ones which I felt could lead me through these next weeks and months. They were books I saw as friends, as guides to what lay ahead.
One of these books was Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation by Rachel Cusk, a book which came out as I was hurtling toward my divorce. This was a book by an author I already loved, having devoured her novels and then her memoir about motherhood, which I read while I nursed a baby and had relished the raw honesty of her writing.
Then and now once again I felt as though Cusk was writing directly to me.
The opening lines: “Recently my husband and I separated, and over the course of a few weeks the life we’d made broke apart, like a jigsaw dismantled into a heap of broken-edged pieces.” Here was my life, in her sharp-edged stark sentences that spared little. Here, the pain of separation and also the necessity of it, for some of us.
And this, as she is sitting in church looking out at other families, mother father children. “We’re not part of that story anymore, my children and I. We belong more to the world, in all its risky disorder, its fragmentation, its freedom.” In Cusk’s descriptions of how lonely it feels to uproot your life, I felt a little less alone.
Next to Aftermath, I placed Devotion by Dani Shapiro, a memoir I’d read a few years before, though now I read it with new eyes, “I had reached the middle of my life and I knew less than I ever had before,” Shapiro writes. “From the outside, things looked pretty good. But deep inside myself, I had begun to quietly fall apart. Nights, I quivered in the darkness like a wounded animal.”
That anxiety, I knew all too well, especially at night, when the fears raged most freely. And yet, amid these articulations of fear and discontent and what it means to be searching and unsettled, the book contained a voice whispering gently, soothingly, from across the distance. In my darkest time, Devotion offered me the quiet gift of hope.
“Life was unpredictable, yes,” she writes later in the book. “A speeding car, a slip on the ice, a ringing phone, and suddenly everything changes forever. To deny that is to deny life – but to be consumed by it is also to deny life. The third way – inaccessible to me as I slunk down the halls – had to do with holding this paradox lightly in one’s hands. To think: it is true, the speeding car, the slip on the ice, the ringing phone. It is true and yet here I am listening to my boy sing as we walk down the corridor. Here I am giving him a hug. Here we are – together in this, our only moment.”
Next to these two books, I placed a volume of poems, New and Selected Poems, by Mary Oliver, a poet whom I’d read little of before this time in my life. I’d discovered her when someone sent me one of her poems and after that she became a nightly salve. Inside this volume there was one poem in particular I turned to, until I almost knew it by heart. These words were my mantra to myself, a late night lullaby.
From The Journey:
One day you finally knew
what you had to do , and began
though the voices around you
their bad advice
But little by little
as you left their voices behind
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own.
On so many nights, I fell asleep to these words, with the feeling that they banded together with the other books stacked there, keeping watch over me, lighting the way.
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