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In tough times, books and stories can provide connection

I don’t know about you, but so far 2022 has not been the fresh start I was hoping for. My year started with a bout of COVID-19 and a canceled mini-vacation. I lost my mum after a long illness (I can barely even write those words.) My car was stolen, but then recovered. My friends and family are dealing with loss and health issues. There is war in Ukraine, heartbreak all around and still we have climate change, inequity, poverty and a seemingly never-ending pandemic.

Brenda Marshall

How are we supposed to cope with all this? That sounds like a facetious question, but I’m serious. How can we allow these big feelings of grief, hopelessness and anxiety, but not surrender to them? How do we find meaning? A sense of purpose? Community? Hope?

I imagine there are as many answers to that question as there are people. Obviously, pain, loneliness, loss and struggle are integral parts of the human condition along with joy, love, beauty and communion. Since childhood, books and stories have helped me grapple with life’s biggest challenges. Reading the words of people who have walked these hard roads before me gives me a compass when my map is whisked away.

Sometimes, the books are overtly spiritual, philosophical or from the self-help shelves. At other times, novels or even poetry connects me with my truths. Sometimes, the books are heavy and intense, but often they are shallow or fun, providing a welcome distraction from my everyday life. In the same way a friend can sometimes share words of comfort or illumination, the right book at the right moment can be exactly what I need.

Pema Chodron’s book “Welcoming the Unwelcome: Wholehearted Living in a Brokenhearted World” taught me to keep my eyes open for the grace, humor, kindness and love that is ribboned throughout my loss. Her observation that growth and transformation happen during times of pain resonates with me. Mary Oliver’s poetry and the Psalms of the Old Testament remind me to be quiet and connect with my spirit through stillness, nature and rest.

I have also stumbled into a couple of great audio books as a distraction recently. I really enjoyed “Mary Jane” by Jessica Anya Blau and “The Big Finish” by Brooke Fossey. Using the Libby app on my phone has given me easy access to these books wherever I am in the world, both literally and figuratively.

I am lucky that I work in an environment where patrons talk about the books or movies that are currently entertaining, enlightening or informing them. These chats sometimes lead to fascinating conversations and can connect us with others who are facing similar struggles.

In this world of division and suffering, our response to books and stories can be a great connector. We really can walk a mile in someone else’s shoes and evaluate our own stories through a different lens. “Connecting People to Possibilities” is our library’s mission, but just as important is connecting us to ourselves and to one another.

Brenda Marshall is director of Pine River Library.