Monthly Archives: May 2016

When Breath Becomes Air: A Book Report



Ten pages into When Breath Becomes Air, I started texting friends, Have you read this? You have to read this! It is beautiful and thought-provoking and haunting, but one of the most powerful takeaways for me was simply how important it is to tell our stories.

Over the last year I’ve begun reading more creative non-fiction, and I’ve developed a love for the art form. Maybe partly because it feels validating to someone who writes mainly, uh, about herself.

Yes I’ve written about other things, for work I’ve had to write about many things I am not necessarily interested in, but I’ve found that my best, most motivated writing is usually about me or my life. At one point I got into my head the worry that this is narcissistic, and it’s been hard to shake.

I’ve started asking, why do I have this urge to turn my life into an essay? Or a short story or a blog post? Do you think your life is that interesting? A mean little voice asks. I don’t know that I think people need to read it so much as I need to write it. It is how I make sense of the mess, how I flame my creative spark.

As I read When Breath Becomes Air, what struck me most was the author, Paul Kalanithi’s voice. It had this rapid, breathless pace. It felt so focused, and I wondered how he’d had the restraint to only tell the most pertinent details and leave the rest behind. Because he leaves a fair amount of details out. (I think, let’s be honest I read it too quickly and too tired because I couldn’t put it down) His wife and family, while at the heart of the story, are given fairly little air time. I gobbled it up, as many have, and when I got to the “ending,” I came to understand his voice.

I say “ending” because before he can really finish writing the book, his body is consumed by cancer.

And the reason for his writing in the voice he did was because he was actually racing death.


In the Epilogue, his wife says how when she reads the book, she sees a part of Paul, but not all of him. She says we don’t quite get his sense of humor, or his tender disposition. Perhaps that was a choice he made — perhaps he didn’t have time to develop it.

We all inhabit different selves in space and time, she says. And that is just what makes his story so powerful. That only he, at that time, could have written this book, this raw, wondering psalm that asks more questions than it answers. It is the story he had to tell. And I am so glad he chose to tell it.

As the book is coming to a close, Paul writes:

In the end, it cannot be doubted that each of us can see only a part of the picture. The doctor sees one, the patient another, the engineer a third, the economist a fourth, the pearl diver a fifth, the alcoholic a sixth, the cable guy a seventh, the sheep farmer an eighth, the Indian beggar a ninth, the pastor a tenth. Human knowledge is never contained in one person. It grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world, and still it is never complete. And Truth comes somewhere above all of them, where, as at the end of that day’s Sunday’s reading,

‘the sower and reaper can rejoice together. For here the saying is verified that “One sows and another reaps.” I sent you to reap what you have not worked for; others have done the work, and you are sharing the fruits of their work.’

We need each other’s stories to understand life, to approach truth. None of us can sow or reap everything — we have to take turns. I reaped so much from Paul’s story, but I hope to never sow it. In turn I can write what I have sown, and maybe someone else, or maybe just me, can reap a nugget of insight from it or maybe just a laugh.

This book has validated for me the special relationship between writer and reader, and the importance of telling our stories. I feel newly inspired to get over my laziness or procrastination and put words on a page. Case in point I am writing a non-sponsored book review on a blog I don’t even check the analytics on, but I needed to write it! And maybe someone needed an extra push to read this amazing book.

Like I said, not a sponsored post. But I’ll just help you out and tell you to click here.


Things My Mother Taught Me

It’s the title of a church activity coming up next week.

The little yellow flyer is trapped under magnets on my fridge. Please come with stories to share of things your Mother taught you!

At first I thought, ooh! Maybe I’ll write a listicle where I spell out all the great things Mother taught me and post it on my blog! I started trying to list them but found it impossible.

Because when I thought about the tangible things she tried to teach me, I felt like a failure. She taught me to sew, but it always seemed cheaper and easier to buy my clothes. She tried to teach me to cook, but so far I’ve ruined a lot of her recipes. I knew my mother taught me a lot, so why couldn’t I make a blog post out of her life lessons??

Recently, I read The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls (yes I know I am behind the times). If you haven’t read it, a) you must and b) as background, it is a memoir written by a girl who was raised by two perhaps well-meaning but incredibly negligent parents. After I finished, the friend who lent it to me asked which parent I thought was more hurtful to the kids and without any specific reason, my gut answered, “the mother.”

There is one gut-wrenching scene in which the four children are literally starving, it’s the dead of winter, they are living in a shack on a hill with no indoor plumbing or power. They have to scavenge for food while their dad continues to drink and mom stops going to work.

One evening when Dad was away and we had nothing to eat and we were all sitting around the living room trying not to think of food, Mom kept disappearing under the blanket on the sofa bed. At one point Brian looked over.

“Are you chewing something?” he asked.

“My teeth hurt,” Mom said, but she was getting all shifty-eyed, glancing around the room and avoiding our stares. “It’s my bad gums. I’m working my jaw to increase the circulation.”

Brian yanked the covers back. Lying on the mattress next to Mom was one of those huge family-sized Hershey chocolate bars, the shiny silver wrapper pulled back and torn away. She’d already eaten half of it.

I think I experienced the seven stages of grief after reading that scene. Because I do not know how one survives being raised by that mother. I do not know how that Mother is real. I am angry at her. I am sad for her? I can’t seem to understand her. Mostly, I feel guilty that I got to be raised by my mother when Jeannette Walls had to raise hers.

The scene got me thinking – what is the duty of a mother? Can it be defined?

Is it reading or cooking or knowing how to do french braids?

Is it working? Is it staying home?

And the one that always lurks under the others — will I ever feel up to the task?

In this day and age it feels as impossible as it is unwise to try to define the role — and yet there is something that seems requisite for those who occupy it — something that is the reason we are so harrowed by the thought of a mother who devours a Hershey’s bar while her children are starving.

I thought again about my Mother. How she laughs, how she always runs into friends at the grocery store, how she gardens. How everything in her presence seems to flourish. She wasn’t perfect, no one is, but I always knew she loved me — wholly and selflessly.

I thought about friends’ mothers, or aunts, or women at church, who have become second mothers to me, and it fills me with hope to realize that selfless love is not limited to a biological mother. The selfless love of dear friends has gotten me through some dark times. Jeannette Walls’ siblings love saved each other from their parents. But the truth is, they shouldn’t have had to. They should have been loved by their mother.

I cannot list the things my mother taught me — they are too thoroughly blended into my DNA. I can’t remember all the facts she told me because I don’t think in the end they were the point. I don’t think it was what she taught me so much as how. 

I can’t list out the things my mother taught me. But I do know that she loved me, and that seems like more.


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Baby me with Mother, back when Sunday hats were still cool