I finished reading a couple books yesterday. Just in time to mark them on my 2016 Reading List. Just in time to make this NOT MY WORST READING YEAR since I started keeping track. BUT WAIT! I just looked it up and nine years of tracking titles says: Nothing weird about this year! Weird was 2013 – 2014.
2016 – 35
2015 – 34
2014 – 86
2013 – 120
2012 – 41
2011 – 32
2010 – 39
2009 – 49
2008 – 25
So then, as I added the final two books to my list today, why did I feel like I’d just (barely) saved my reading year? My 2016 list has some good books on it. Books I am glad I read. Books I would recommend. I think the fact that my reading year FELT bad is simply a reflection of my lived experience with reading this year.
It was hard. I started a lot of good books that never made the list.
One lasting consequence of my brain injury is that the filters in my brain that are designed to help me sort and process input are now much more susceptible to overwhelm which effectively floods my brain and shuts it down. Through the years, I’ve learned strategies to avoid and manage these floods, but still, the effort is ever present reality. And when life throws curveballs, the work increases.
2016 threw curveballs.
In the first days of January, David wrapped up a chess game in a job change and by the end of the month we had moved back to Anchorage. We slept on the floor and ate off paper plates until our stuff arrived by delayed ship in mid February. In March and early April I navigated scary waiting rooms made specifically for breast lumps and biopsies. In April I flew to Oregon for my last WaterAfrica event – my 8th annual Walk4Water. In June I officially resigned from my design communication role with WaterAfrica, an organization that gave me the gift of opportunity and purpose in my early accident recovery and where I’d spent 10 years of volunteer and paid time. Not long after that I finished moving most of my design communication clients to other service providers and I effectively quit that work. In September, my boys both started in new school systems, and so I did too. In October I made the final decision to let my teaching license expire. In November I had my 3rd surgery in 4 years – this time an ankle tendon repair. The recovery has been challenging and continues into the new year.
The stuff of my 2016 left less of me available for the work and the reward of reading. And I felt the loss.
2016 challenged me to wonder again and again, who am I and what am I about? These are obviously not new questions for me, but this year they presented new angles and, in some cases, challenged me to make decisions and take definitive actions with consequences yet unknown.
So as I logged final books to my list this year, perhaps my sense that this act somehow saved my reading year is actually a reflection on the validating, hopeful words I read in the final pages of Kerry Egan’s book, On Living, where she writes:
I’ve heard people say – usually in an attempt to comfort or motivate others, or sometimes to stifle their grieving – that loss, tragedy, trauma don’t define you.
That, of course, is utter bullshit.
Anyone who has been through a great loss or a terrible trauma knows that the experience defines you. If there’s one truth that runs through my patients’ stories, it’s that. At the very end of their lives, they defined themselves by the stories they chose to tell, of the hard things they had been through.
But in watching how their stories developed – how they reflected on and reassessed and made new connections between those losses and other events of their lives – it had become clear to me that if those hard things define us, it was equally true that each of us gets to decide exactly how they define us. We get to decide what the definition is. We get to decide what it means.
Tomorrow I’ll start a new reading list. And continue my work on living.