The Nitty Gritty: A Remotely Intellectual Review of The Darker the Night, The Brighter the Stars (A Neuropsychologist’s Odyssey Through Consciousness)

The Darker the Night, The Brighter the Stars is a mash-up of sorts. He loosely chronicles his wife’s end of life journey & his own grief, which he views thought the lens of neuropsychology, philosophy, myth, and atheism.

 

I took an Intro to Philosophy Course in college. I remember the distinct feeling of my brain aching, because it had no solid idea on which to take hold. Everything—ideas, the world, my very self—felt illusory. It was unsettling.

What does that have to do with The Darker the Night, The Brighter the Stars: A Neuropsychologist’s Odyssey Through Consciousness by Paul Broks? Everything. This book is a mash-up of sorts. He loosely chronicles his wife’s end of life journey & his own grief, which he views thought the lens of neuropsychology, philosophy, myth, and atheism.

“But those are multiple lenses!” you’re probably protesting. Why, yes. Yes they are. And that’s precisely why I could make it through the book without being launched into an existential crisis (although it took me 10x longer than usual).

Broks works hard to make complicated concepts accessible. He tells stories, draws parallels, and guides the reader through an examination of human consciousness—in part using quantum physics of all things. Here’s my favorite bit: 

“There’s a tantalizing pleasure to be had the unfathomability of quantum physics. But what if we ourselves are unfathomable?…[what if] human beings are, to the human mind, fundamentally, intrinsically, incomprehensible. We might get glimpses of what we fundamentally are . . but only glimpses.”

How beautifully…cosmic. The whole book felt like a grand wandering through time & space and the opportunity to get a rare glimpse at the mystery of what makes us who we are. 

Books! Books! Books!

So many books! Why? Because literacy is everything. Think I’m exaggerating? Nope. Wait ’til you see the statistics. Oh, and also, because bookstores require A LOT of books.

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Jane seems to have inherited my book nerdiness.

I’ve had this crazy love affair with books since I was a kid. I like being around them, holding them, scouring the back cover for my next adventure. I get sucked in by real outstanding cover art. And, yeah, I’ll totally pass on a book with a lackluster cover. Because I want the whole experience. I want to catch a glimpse of the book laying on the table and not be able to resist picking it up—just for a minute—just to read a page or two.

I’ve been lucky with reading. It came easily to me, and right away I was able to find books I adored, ones where I saw myself in the characters. They made me dream bigger than my suburban reality. They made me want to know more, be more, do more. I had constant accrsss to books. I had books that were given to me, books I bought at the Scholastic Book Fair with quarters scraped together from my allowance, and a precariously leaning pile of books I’d dragged home from the library.

Not all kids are as lucky. 

Representation is still a big hurdle in literature, although publishers—especially publishers of children’s books—are making a concerted effort to include more diverse protagonists (children of color, protagonists from various ethnicities, differently abled children, LGBTQ protagonists).  But for those books to make a difference, children have to be able to access them. The need to appear in abundance on booksellers shelves, in Little Free Libraries across the land, in traditional and school libraries, and in used bookstores.

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And books, all kinds of books, need to make there way into the homes of kids. And not based along class lines. ALL kids. All kids need to have a go-to library of books they love that they can read over and over again. Why? Check out the findings of a study done by the Australian National University: “Growing up with few books in the home resulted in below average literacy levels. Being surrounded by 80 books boosted the levels to average, and literacy continued to improve until libraries reached about 350 books, at which point the literacy rates leveled off.” 

80 books. Kids need 80 books in their homes, in order to achieve average literacy levels. And what happens to kids who don’t reach average literacy levels? 2/3 of students who cannot read proficiently by the end of 4th grade will end up in jail or on welfare. So, yeah, I was lucky. But it shouldn’t come down to luck.

As I was checking out of Value Village today with an entire cart of books, the rad young man boxing the books up for me said, “Man. You REALLY like books.” I laughed. As he loaded them into the box, he kept pausing at the kids’ titles: “Hey! I read the Boxcar Children when I was in school. I loved those books.” After he’d done this multiple times, he said, “Does your kid like to read?” I affirmed that she is pretty hyped about books right now. “Good” he nodded. “Tell her to keep it up. Reading is important.” Indeed.

“I’m thinking of opening a bookstore,” I blurted in his general direction. He gave the box of books a bit of side-eye. “Okay, okay. I’m guess I’m a little more committed to the idea than just ‘thinking about it.’”

“It’s a good idea,” he said. “Get people things to read.”

Yep. That’s it right there: I want to get people things to read. Books they are passionate about. If people believe they don’t like to read, maybe it’s just that no one has ever put a book in their hands that opened up some part of the world for them. A book that exploded their imagination. A book that spoke to them. And that’s crucial because reading makes us see outside our own small worlds. Makes us more empathetic. Reading just flat out makes us better. 

Everyone should have access to books. In their home. Books they can afford. Books of their very own. 

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That’s my dream: to open up a used book store that has something that will spark (or reignite) a love of reading in every single customer that walks through the door. I believe it’s possible. 

Besides. what else am I going to do with all these books?!

Be part of the building of the dream: What is the very first book you’d look for if you walked into a used bookstore?

Want to know more about literacy? Check out these resources:

We Need Diverse Books

Empowered Readers

Reading is Fundamental

Book Nerd (to the 43rd power)

The pieces of me–my love for writing and running, my need to sing off key at every song on the radio, my penchant for remembering lines to movies and bits of songs I haven’t heard in years–make me who I am. I honor myself by making time to do things I love, so that my daughter sees the woman who shapes her world as a whole person.

I grew up in a household where motherhood meant absolute sacrifice. My mom gave her all, every day, to care for me and my sister. As much as I scrounge around in the bits and fragments of childhood memories, I don’t remember my mom ever doing something just for herself. Not once.

I wish my mom had known that the whole maternal sacrifice thing… well, it’s kind of bullshit.*

I give my daughter access to all that I am. But the pieces of me–my love for writing and running, my need to sing off key at every song on the radio, my penchant for remembering lines to movies and bits of songs I haven’t heard in years–make me who I am. I honor myself by making time to do things I love, so that my daughter sees the woman who shapes her world as a whole person. Because I am. A full, glorious, flawed, incredibly enthusiastic person.

The one place where that ability to create space for the things I love hasn’t translated is reading. That’s right. Reading. I love to read. More than I love to do almost anything. Consequently, I feel guilty when I do it. There’s this subconscious voice that kicks in that tells me to stop screwing around, to do something productive. There’s something deep down in my soul that believes I don’t deserve that kind of unadulterated pleasure.

So this year, my 43rd year, I am laying down that reading guilt. I’m going to set it free because it does not serve me. And I am going to fully embrace my love of reading. So much so that I am going to read 43 books this year.

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That’s right. Go big or go home, baby.

I’m already reading 3 different books. At one time. So my very first step is, well, you know, to finish one of those. And, yes, they count even if I started reading them before I turned 43… because I am the decider.

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Here’s where you get to play along. Got a book recommendation? Drop it in the comments. I love to explore new authors, new genres… and I’m willing to try almost anything you think is good.

Here’s to uncovering all my book nerd glory in year 43.

 

 

*And by that, I mean it’s unnecessary to being a good mother. My mom’s sacrifice for us was real. It’s one she feels even now. And while I love and appreciate her, I needed to find another way for myself.

Photo by Nicole Honeywill on Unsplash

How Reading Fuels the Resistance

The Temple of My Familiar is my favorite Alice Walker novel. I’ve read it several times. I’ll read it several more, as you do with the pieces that really speak to your soul. I find a bit more of myself every time I pick up that novel. The discovery is never painless, by the way. Just like it isn’t painless for her characters. But the work is worth the truth & liberation it offers.

Last night, Alice Walker and I hung out. Okay, so there were some other folks there, too–approximately 300 of them. But, unsurprisingly, Alice Walker made me feel as though she was speaking directly to me. So, like I said, Alice Walker and I hung out last night. She talked. I listened.

“The work you do in the world is your legacy.”
–Alice Walker, Agnes Scott College, April 22, 2018

I occupy a place of privilege, as a white person on the United States. That privilege is one that I didn’t understand until relatively recently. But now, navigating that privilege–and ultimately dismantling it–seems inherently tied to the work I do & the legacy I will leave.

Raised up (well, in college at least) on works by primarily white feminists, I quickly identified my own oppression at the hand of the sexism and misogyny that runs rampant in the United States. But I didn’t grasp the ways in which women of color deal with layers of oppression–sexism, yes… but also racism, sometimes classism. I didn’t understand the ways that white feminism often leaves women of color behind, failing to address their issues–sometimes failing to even include them in the conversation at all.

Enter Alice Walker.

The Temple of My Familiar is my favorite Alice Walker novel. I’ve read it several times. I’ll read it several more, as you do with the pieces that really speak to your soul. I find a bit more of myself every time I pick up that novel. The discovery is never painless, by the way. Just like it isn’t painless for her characters. But the work is worth the truth & liberation it offers.

The very first truth I took from The Temple of My Familiar was that, as a woman, I had to consider all women in the struggle for equality. In fact, that novel pushed me to see that I needed to fight for the liberation of all people (men included).

As one does with truths they aren’t quite ready to reckon with, I filed that knowledge away to be applied later.

Fast forward 20 years…

I do believe that the work that you do in the world is your legacy. 

And I am ready to work.

I didn’t just get ready on my own. I had a push. On a bright, sunny Saturday afternoon in 2016, I sat and listened as Andrew Joseph’s father shared the story of his son’s death at the hands of negligent law enforcement. A black child dead. And no one held accountable.

That afternoon, something shifted for me. Before that, my responsibility–as I understood it–was simply to raise my child to know right from wrong, to be a good and decent person. But, coming face to face with another parent’s pain introduced me to a greater responsibility: to raise my child with an awareness of the joy and pain in the world and to give her tools and a voice to fight injustice and to demand equality–for everyone.

Living in Southeast Atlanta puts me in close proximity to both the beauty and struggle of being black in America. I’ve discovered–through experience–that living in community with people who are not all just like you cultivates empathy and understanding. Creating community takes more than just saying hey as you pass each other on the street. It’s working side by side on community issues. It’s navigating hard conversations. And (if you’re white like I am) it’s knowing when to listen (instead of speak).

I have come to understand how much our liberation is bound up in each other. And that I must fight for an end to systemic racism (and homophobia, and transphobia, and anti-semitism, and islamophobia, and xenophobia, and toxic masculinity), just as I must continue to speak out against the sexism that plagues American culture.

Recently, at a friend’s house for dinner, we heard our kids chanting something from the next room. “Where do they learn to do that?” I wondered. My friend laughed: “It’s all those marches you take your kid to!” Huh. Maybe it is. But, really, it’s Alice Walker’s fault.

Alice Walker’s work, her words, her activism have changed the way I think and move through the world. She challenges me to see the world beyond my own little sphere–to fight for the humanity and dignity of all people. All while celebrating who I am.

Pretty heady stuff. But it’s also the making of a legacy.

Coraline (the Scientist)

Coraline pressed her hand gently against the rough, wooden door. It looked weathered, like it had absorbed all the brightness of Spring and the darkness of Winter. The wood settled into a deep gray, still splintered in places. Coraline wondered briefly if some sandpaper might restore it to a brighter hue.

The door creaked slowly open to reveal a single room. The wood inside reminded Coraline of wildflower honey. The air felt soft and cool. Damp, maybe. But, if she left the door open, the luminous buzzing of Spring would make its way in eventually. No clouds of dust arose as Coraline slowly walked the length of the room. The dirt remained packed tight, determined to serve its designated purpose. A rug would do nicely in the middle of the room, Coraline thought. She’d need a place to sit and read or to spread out and play solitaire. A rug was just the thing.

On one wall, a low set of shelves provided a space for storage and a countertop of sorts. The perfect space for her books and her makeshift science lab. She would still take dinner with her parents, she supposed. Coraline would be perfectly happy with a steady diet of peanut butter and honey sandwiches, with an apple on the side. Her mother, however, insisted on a wide variety of foods—Pad Thai, grilled eggplant, Tuscan Pizza, tofu and bean burritos. And a salad. Her mother insisted on a salad at every meal.

Coraline felt a tiny tug at her heart when she thought of her mother. Her mother smelled of sandalwood and citrus. She always looked freshly scrubbed, freckles beaming radiantly on her face. Coraline shook her head almost imperceptibly. She loved her mother. Adored her, really. But they had irreconcilable differences that prohibited them from sharing living quarters. And that was that.

Coraline continued to survey the room. She would need a cot to sleep on, and perhaps a bean bag chair to read in. She also vowed to get a few new toys for Cricket. The cat seemed concerned about Coraline taking leave of her parents’ house. She constantly paced back and forth in Coraline’s (current) room, meowing incessantly. Coraline, for her part, packed boxes of her belongings rather nonchalantly. She felt an inkling of surprise that her parents did not seem frantic over her planned departure but rather a bit bemused. Her father offered his camping sleeping bag to keep her warm, as evenings in Spring were known for their briskness. Coraline graciously accepted. And that seemed to mostly settle things between them.

Coraline surveyed the little room once more. It didn’t seem like much right now. But once Haniford, her beloved pink stuffed bunny, took up residence, Corline was sure this would feel much more like home. And no one would ever again be vexed about science experiments gone awry. No, everyone in this residence would be a friend of science—even when science exploded and flung mossy-green residue all about the room.

Photo Credit: Veronika Homchis on Unsplash

Reading Wonder

I’ve long been a fan of Mondays. New beginnings and all. But THIS Monday felt extra-special shiny and new because I got to read this morning. With kids. And we read a super-funny book to boot.

Let me back up a bit:

I recently volunteered to read with two sixth grade students at our neighborhood middle school. I meet them on Monday mornings. They are, in fact, my first appointment of the day. Together, the 3 of us are reading Wonder. And it is hysterical.

I don’t know how this book escaped my attention, given my love for & devotion to middle grades novels. (Well, I kinda know… it seemed like everyone was reading it… so then I wasn’t sure I wanted to… you know how the tired trope goes…womp.womp.) Anyway, the young kings & I made it through the first few chapters today. At one point, during my turn to read, I was laughing so hard that I had to take a minute to collect myself. Which made king #1 crack up. king #2 smiled (which, trust me, was a VERY big win). But, seriously: Mr. Tushman?!? Miss Butt!?! That kind of stuff can get actual laughter out of sixth grade boys. Witnessed it myself today. Surely did.

I know I get all book nerd about reading. But reading changes LIVES. And, when you’re a middle school kid who doesn’t really know where you fit (and, let’s face it–no middle school kid really knows where they fit, regardless of their bravado), books mean that you never have to be alone. You can be in some far flung corner of the world, instead of waiting out the bell in seventh period. Or, even if you don’t have any actual friends at school,  you can find a friend in a character that feels the same way you do–even if your life experiences aren’t even remotely the same.

I’m so enthused about books that I can’t even pretend to hide my book nerdiness, not even for a minute. As soon as king #1 volunteered that he hated Language Arts because his teacher made him write so much he thought his hand was gonna fall off, I immediately sympathized. Because, yeah, my hand totally fell off in sixth grade from the very same affliction. And I told him so.

“You know what I do now?” I asked him.

“No. What?” he replied. He actually looked a tiny bit interested.

“I write. Know why?”

He grinned. I think he knew where this was going. “Why?”

“Because of that Language Arts teacher who put goofy questions up on the board every day and made me write in my journal ’til my hand fell off.”

Look, if you’re going to hang out every week with two young kings, you might as well be up front about who you are. That’s what I think, at least. And I am a wildly unapologetic book nerd. And I think Wonder may be just the book to make them book nerds, too. (Okay. Okay. That may be a reach. But I bet it’ll make them not hate reading anymore. Which is alright by me.)