Over the long New Year’s weekend we holed up in a huge old house with friends. Inspired by Mary Beth’s recent comment that spending just 15 minutes a day reading a great book helped her feel more sane, I brought a copy of Lit with me, which was named one of the 10 best books of 2009 by the New York Times and was written by Mary Karr, author of two other highly-acclaimed memoirs, The Liar’s Club and Cherry. All I knew about the book was that it centered on Karr’s transition to motherhood, which I’ve recently made myself. I imagined myself reading for a few minutes each night before I fell asleep.
What really happened was this book grabbed me by the shoulders and had me ducking off into a corner every chance I got. (Luckily, the fact that I’m pregnant requires me to pee almost hourly, so I had plenty of chances to read for a few minutes several times throughout the day without being antisocial.) I ended up finishing it on our last day there, after asking my sweet hubs to do the early-morning toddler duty so I could lie in bed and devour the last 80 pages. I was crying when I shut the back cover, and I’ve been faithful about saying an internal “thanks” for everything that goes right since that moment—something Karr starts doing when she finally gets it through her skull that her habitual cynicism and negative-focused thoughts aren’t getting her anywhere remotely desirable. You’ve got to love any book that grabs and holds your attention. But when it also moves you emotionally and changes your actions for the better, you’ve got to spread the word about it.
Lit chronicles Karr’s journey from being the wounded child of reckless alcoholic parents to a raging alcoholic herself—an event that transpires after her son is born (proving the theory that yes, we all do eventually turn in to our mothers). Except Karr’s story is more fraught than most: She nearly kills herself in a car accident and even winds up in a mental institution before she pulls out of her excruciating downward spiral. What sets her on the path to becoming a bestselling memoirist is a spiritual awakening that eventually results in Karr converting to Catholicism—an event she never sees coming and fights every step of the way. “If you’d told me even a year before I start taking my son to church regular that I’d wind up whispering my sins in the confessional or on my knees saying the rosary, I would’ve laughed myself cockeyed. More likely pastime? Pole dancer. International spy. Drug mule. Assassin,” she writes. There are lots of memoirs out there about abusive childhoods, but not that many about spiritual awakenings—particularly those that are equal parts brutal and hilarious.
What I love about this book is how honest Karr is about her faults and her thought processes, and how even though this is the detailed account of her own life, I could recognize myself in her struggles. When she talks about how her flare for martyrdom ignited into a brush fire after her son was born—never asking her husband to do a middle-of-the-night feeding, for example—I could only think, “Been there, sister,” even as I wanted to bonk her on the head to get her to wake up.
When she first gets the advice to express gratitude for things that are going right in her life, she admits that she finds the whole idea extremely silly, and that the solitary thing she can think of to be thankful is that she still has all her limbs. We’ve all heard the advice to keep a gratitude journal a million times, but with Karr’s example, you can see that the practice of saying thanks is less about a virtuous “to-do” and more about shifting your allegiance from your head to your heart.
But the real power of Lit is its unflinching account of the mental machinations the thinking mind will cook up to avoid any type of spirituality—whether that means adopting a formal religion or simply accepting that there is a power higher than our own ego, even if we’re not exactly sure what it is or what it means. Even though the particularly type of spirituality Karr embraces is Catholicism, Lit has a lot of the same messages of The Secret—namely, how gratitude can change your life and the power of prayer and visualization—and reinforces the teaching of yoga and meditation that by learning to observe your thoughts you take away their power to hold you back and you open yourself up to a much broader array of possibilities than your thinking mind could ever even imagine.
I can’t recommend enough this witty and heart-breaking book to keep your spirits up and your heart open during the dreary winter.
What books have inspired you recently?
Share what’s on your reading list that helps you ward off the winter doldrums by leaving a comment. If I publish your suggestion in the next Vegimental, I’ll send you a copy of
Pleasure Healing: Mindful Practices & Sacred Spa Rituals for Self-Nurturing by Mary Beth Janssen, which is jam-packed with juicy ways to take good care of yourself this winter (and all year long).
Take care and keep breathing,