Hey friends! If you asked my kids to name things I love without a doubt they’d say “us, ice cream, and books.” They may toss in plants. They may say Dan. They may mention Ted Lasso. But they will definitely say “us, ice cream, and books.” And they would be very much right (although I would always include Dan). Which is why all of a sudden two years ago when I picked up a book and tried to read and literally retained nothing, felt nothing, and experienced nothing I was so crushed.
After Molly was diagnosed my brain was obviously on overload. Cancer consumed so much of my time, energy, and headspace there wasn’t much left for other things. I picked up book after book just hoping something would stick. I knew I could use some healthy distraction and usually books would be that for me. But I would read a chapter and then stop and realize I couldn’t tell you a single thing about it. I was seeing the words but I wasn’t putting them together in a meaningful way. I absolutely wasn’t piecing together any sort of story or theme or message. It was unbelievably frustrating.
Pre-diagnosis I would alternate between non-fiction (typically about education, race/racism in America, mental health, autobiographies, poetry, etc.), fiction (classics I haven’t read, some mystery, some drama), and what I call “brain candy” (rom coms usually- the totally mindless, not necessarily good for you but always delicious treat). (I realize romcoms fit in the fiction category, but pre-diagnosis I was trying to expand my bookshelf and make sure I was reading a wide variety of styles, authors, etc.) (Is this too many parenthetical thoughts?…) Reading was an escape. I could connect with other people through their words, I could experience different realities, I could learn and dream and expand. Reading was refreshing and relaxing and rejuvenating. Until it wasn’t.
I will never forget the first time I realized this had shifted for me. I came home after a long day at the hospital, tucked Jack into bed, and then sat on the couch and reached for a book I had been dying to read. I wanted that little dose of “normal.” I was looking forward to trading in my reality for a different one for a bit. I opened it up and stared blankly at the first page for a while. Then I began reading. I finished the first page and then realized I retained nothing. So I restarted. I read that damn paragraph no less than five times and still…nothing. I remember tears started streaming down my face and dripping on the pages as I just sat and stared. I remember thinking “cancer cannot take books from me too.” I just stared at the words, willing them to make sense. I remember a deep ache just wondering what other parts of me I would lose. I remember a panic wondering if I didn’t have books then how would I escape. Closing the book and setting it aside felt like defeat.
I was so afraid to pick up a book again because I didn’t want to confirm my worst fears. And sure enough, I tried many times and each time fell flat. I just couldn’t get my brain to hold any of the new information. The words felt like another language that I’ve never learned because they meant nothing. Words just didn’t register. And that continued for a year and a half.
One day last Fall I picked up a nonfiction book and after a couple of pages had the thought, “this is too heavy. I can’t think about this right now. I don’t have the capacity.” And I remember being so excited by that thought! It was so bizarre. But I at least retained enough to have a reaction to it. And even if it wasn’t the reaction I wanted it was still very much a reaction. It gave me just enough hope that maybe my relationship with books and reading wasn’t gone forever. So I started pulling random books off my shelf just to see what would stick. Not much. But at least words were working!
Then I pulled out a good old-fashioned romcom, and I devoured it. I read it cover to cover in two days which is record time when you still have little kids underfoot making reading during the day near impossible. Then I read another and another and another. I’ve read nothing but rom coms since, but I’m reading!
I have been so excited by this renewed ability to actually read books again, and yet when I’ve been asked lately “what are you reading?” or “read anything good lately?” I almost get embarrassed. (What is that about?!) I don’t want to tell people I’ve read nothing but romantic comedies for months. I feel the need to justify it. I see other people post really deep or intellectual or moving books they’ve read and instead of acknowledging they’re in a different place than I am and adding those titles to a list for “someday” I find myself really jealous and pissed and losing sight of the progress I’ve made.
It is so hard when life doesn’t look like we expected or like we wanted. It is really weird and complicated when the ways we use to care for ourselves stop working. It is confusing when we feel disconnected from our self and unsure of our next steps. Sometimes the bravest thing we can do is admit something doesn’t work, stay curious, get creative, and find something that sticks. (Even if that means reading nothing but romcoms.) I really look forward to the day I get swept up in a nonfiction book that leads to hours of googling and building out my reading list further. I love that feeling so much. The learning. I miss it. But I also know if I’m not patient with myself and I don’t let myself be here now then I’ll only set myself back and I’ll miss out on a lot of really beautiful stories in the process. Sometimes we aren’t where we want to be because we need to spend more time exactly where we are.
So if you need me this week you’ll find me and my kindle under a cozy blanket on the couch burning through one rom com after the next. It is exactly where I need to be. For now.
Be brave. Be you. Be human.
With so much love and gratitude,
*Originally published March 2022 and republished August 2023