(163) Books: The River of Words Inside Us

It is no secret that I am a lover of books.  There are many books I would credit with changing my life. But this post is not about those books.

The New Yorker recently had an article about bibliotherapy — the act of reading for healing.  (Can Reading Make You Happier) This idea isn’t new to me, and the article is quite insightful.  It brought a lot of the past immediately to mind. Today’s blog is about the few books that stand out in my mind as having a healing effect. I have never forgotten these books.

First, and perhaps most strongly is one that is mentioned in The New Yorker: Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse.  I read this book in March 1975, and had not idea at the time it was based on the life of Buddha. I just knew it was about a very different spiritual approach than I had encountered before, and it sunk deep inside of me.

Sadly, the following month my brother would die from leukemia.  I knew he was sick, but had no way of knowing when the day would come. What happened afterward, though, is something I credit directly to my reading of Siddhartha.

The day my brother died it had been rainy and cold for days. It wasn’t until the day of his funeral in early May that we had sun and warmth. When we arrived at the cemetery, and were standing around the casket, I had this immense feeling of joy. I felt the entirety and the purpose of the universe all at once.  It was such a strong and otherworldly feeling, I simply do not have words to describe. I had absolutely no sadness. Everything seemed to glow and shimmer and have meaning. It was pure love all around me.

I have traced that feeling back to this passage in Siddhartha, a book I return to time and again.

He once asked him, “Have you also learned that secret from the river; that there is no such thing as time?”

A bright smile spread over Vasudeva’s face.

“Yes, Siddhartha,” he said. “Is this what you mean? That the river is everywhere at the same time, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the current, in the ocean and in the mountains, everywhere, and that the present only exists for it, not the shadow of the past, nor the shadow of the future?”

“That is it,” said Siddhartha, “and when I learned that, I reviewed my life and it was also a river, and Siddhartha the boy, Siddhartha the mature man and Siddhartha the old man, were only separated by shadows, not through reality. Siddhartha’s previous lives were also not the past, and his death and his return to Brahma are not in the future. Nothing was, nothing will be, everything has reality and presence.”  (p.106-7)

Now, I’m not claiming that I understand this logically.  I just know that in that moment, at nineteen-years-old, in the middle of grief and sorrow, I “got it.”  For that moment on the sunny Holy Cross Cemetery hill, I got it.  And I only got it because Hesse chose to tell that story in the way he did.

The second book that came to mind is Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith by Kathleen Norris. I had previously read her very moving and spiritual book The Cloister Walk, so when Norris released a book where she took typical “religious” words and examined them in new ways, it was the book for me.  I was reading it at the time my dad passed away.  I do not recall any particular sections of that book that were healing in that circumstance. What I recall more clearly is that the entire book was a healing presence, one I could come back to time and again, read a section and rest in her words. Relief.

Finally, at the end of my second year of teaching I found myself sunk into a book that I realize now I used for healing purposes.  After my first year teaching, I had ended up in the hospital with chest pains. The enormous stress had taken its toll. So, after my second year in spring 2006, I decided I needed to take it quite easy.  I allowed myself a few days just to read — and the book I chose was Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt. I chose it because we were taking a three week road trip, and Savannah was on our itinerary. I recall sitting in my recliner, exhausted from the school year, but being wholly entranced by the description of the lush Savannah environment, and being pulled into the mystery and mythology of its inhabitants. Berendt’s book was so complete that when we did get to Savannah, I felt I already knew it through and through and that there was nothing more to learn.  We ended up basically driving through the town and going back out to the hotels by the highway to spend the night and then move on.  Even though the book “ruined” my physical visit to Savannah, it did provide an emotional and mental healing after the school year.  And that was a wonderful gift.

Now this year I have been actively reading once again at the end of this school year. I am glad The New Yorker has reminded us all what a wonderful healing presence books can be in our lives.

As are rivers.  That message was not lost to me. Here is one of my favorite river songs to go with the Siddhartha quote: “Watching the River Run” by Loggins and Messina

  Listening, learning and yearning/ Run, river, run

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