Thursday, January 12, 2017

'On Living' by Kerry Egan: A Storyholder's Loving Look at Life Lessons

I'll admit it.  For the first time in my adult life I experienced a reading slump.

Has this ever happened to you?

Slumps occur occasionally in my life, but always with other things.  I've experienced times when I didn't feel like writing (this happens often with my journals and I can always tell when I look back through them the time of year when I hit my writing slump.  The entries are sloppy or just a few lines of daily drudgery before they start to sing again with my writerly self), or I didn't have the energy to cook creative meals for dinners, or even when I lived in London, I went through a span of two weeks when I didn't feel like experiencing anything new and longed for the familiar.

But reading has always been a friend to me, and I've always lived with a stack of books at my bedside (one to four of them that I would be actively reading and one to four of them that are on deck to be read next), a pile of books on reserve at the library, a list of recommendations from friends that I keep in my journal, and a few books on the office bookshelf that I bought and want to read but will read when I get the opportunity. I have a book with me at all times just in case I'm stuck in traffic (which never happens in my life here because almost all of my driving is within a 5 minute radius from my house), or I'm at one of my daughters' activities waiting, or I have an appointment.

In my life, all down time is reading time.

For the past three months, though, not one book that I started really called to me.  I read a few that interested me, one that really creeped me out, and plenty of yoga books to inform my teaching and my own personal practice, but nothing that I really felt like curling up by the fireplace with for hours. Nothing that drove me to bed an hour early just so I could read more before falling asleep.  Nothing that took my attention away from holiday festivities or pulled me away from holiday movies on Hallmark.

Fall is usually the time of year that I hunker down with my stack-o-books, but this year, it didn't happen.  Thankfully, though, two things occurred:  1) My husband and daughters recognized that my reading life was suffering and gave me two books for Christmas.  2) My best friend let me borrow two books that she loved while we were visiting PA after Christmas.  I am happy to report that I am no longer in a reading slump and I've spent a few afternoons and evenings curled up by my fireplace during the brutal cold of Chicagoland January with my books and my pug puppy.

Balance has been restored to my life.

If you have ever gone through a reading slump, or if you are looking for a good book to read, pick up
'On Living' by Kerry Egan.  Don't let the premise scare you away, because I truly believe this is one of those books that every human being should read.  Kerry Eagan works as a hospice chaplain which means that she spends her time with people who are dying.  Sounds sad, doesn't it? It's actually quite beautiful when she recounts the stories her patients tell her.  When people are dying they strive to make meaning of the lives they lived.

In 'On Living' she recounts her work of sitting and holding space with people at the end of their lives.  She considers herself a "story holder"and how she "listen[s] to the stories that people believe have shaped their lives . . to the stories people choose to tell, and the meaning they make of those stories." Through her time as hospice chaplain she realized that every single person she has ever met has a crazy story to tell and that "every one of us will go through things that destroy our inner compass and pull the meaning out from under us."

People in Kerry's (forgive me for using her first name, but after reading this book, you will be on a first name basis with her as well) life (friends at book club, professors, and her fellow moms) have questioned what she does for a living.  Often they shy away from her sharing stories of the patients she sees, but her discovery is that the situations she witnesses, the stories people tell at the end of their life are breathtaking and sometimes even funny (one of her patients asked her to take her outside so she could feel "the wind on her pussy").  Her patients speak of regret, of hope, of angels, of demons, of shame, of forgiveness, of suffering, and mostly about their families.  All of the stories are wrapped in a warm embrace of love because Kerry approaches her job with loving intent.

I was particularly touched by the story of Ellen who in her dying focused her energy on being "loveful" and disclosed to Kerry that she needed more love in her life because she was old and dying, but she  didn't receive as much as babies and children. Because Ellen suffered from short term memory loss, she didn't remember sharing anything with Kerry or even who Kerry was after a short nap.  As Ellen questioned Kerry about her intentions in her home, Kerry put both of her hands on Ellen's cheeks and said, "'I just came to tell you that I love you so much.  And God loves you so much. You're surrounded by all the love you need.'"

It was exactly what Ellen needed to hear.

Kerry asks big questions about life in this book: How do we know what is real or what to believe? What does it mean to live in the gray instead of the black and white? Who do you believe yourself to be? How do we make meaning out of the lives we have lived? Can life be both beautiful and crushing at the same moment?

I was completely captivated from the beginning to the end of this book and I feel like I learned more about living because I read it. I'm mostly grateful that not only am I out of my reading slump, but I am also starting the year off with an amazing book to recommend to others that I believe will change the way they view life and death.  Not a bad start to 2017.