I think it’s fair to say that things are not going well out there. Between incessant doomscrolling and paralyzing anxiety attacks, I’m desperately searching out reading material that calms and soothes, rather than inflames and terrorizes – so I scoured our rainbow library for books that I thought fit the bill. Read on for a few suggestions.
What I Know Now: Letters to My Younger Self ed. by Ellyn Spragins
This is a lovely book, filled with precisely what the title advertises: prominent, successful women write letters to their younger selves, offering guidance, wisdom, consolation, advice and solace. I’ve thought a lot about how we’ll look back on this intensely difficult time, and what I might like to tell my own younger self. I particularly loved this quote from photographer Joyce Tenneson: “Your best work will come in moments of grace.” Perhaps we all need to focus on showing more grace to both ourselves and others.
Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed
Cheryl Strayed is certainly best known for Wild, but she also wrote a gorgeous, heartbreaking advice column called Dear Sugar, which has been translated into plays and podcasts and all sorts of other media. In a dark time, the thing you need most might be to know that others have experienced pain and heartache and betrayal and trauma too, and have still survived even after all that, and that’s exactly what this book offers. Plus, there are some laugh-out-loud moments which will have you guffawing through your tears. This one hits all the right notes.
The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle
I won’t lie – unlike the other books in this list, this one is most definitely not an easy read. That said, it’s worth your time and your contemplation. I’ve read this on a number of occasions over the years, and always find something different. As the title suggests, the book is a treatise on living in the now, and since I spend the majority of my mental energy either dwelling in the past or agonizing over the future, this provides the nudge I need to stay present. Easier said than done, obviously.
The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin
I love Gretchen Rubin, and her calm, matter-of-fact approach to improving everyday life. This terrific book argues that seeking your own happiness is not, as many would assume, a selfish and self-centered pursuit. Instead, people who are happier are more likely to help other people, to contribute to charity, to volunteer, and to work at improving the world around them. It’s the old oxygen mask adage writ large – once you’re content, you have the space and energy to help others around you become content. As with all of Rubin’s work, The Happiness Project is exhaustively researched but woven throughout with enough personal anecdotes to keep it from feeling too textbook-y. Worth the read, if only to open your mind to the possibility of small joys everywhere.
Say what you will about Oprah, but she and her team know how to pick talent. This little book contains an absolute wealth of spectacular writing, presented in short, easy-to-read vignettes. A favorite quote, especially relevant now: “We live in a hard world, my friends. Sometimes it’s extra difficult to be a human being. Sometimes you have a bad day. Sometimes you have a bad day that lasts for several years. You struggle and fail. You lose jobs, money, friends, faith and love. You witness horrible events unfolding in the news, and you become fearful and withdrawn. There are times when everything seems cloaked in darkness. You long for the light but don’t know where to find it. But what if you are the light? What if you’re the very agent of illumination that a dark situation begs for? How we behave matters, because within human society everything is contagious – sadness and anger, yes, but also patience and generosity. Which means we all have more influence than we realize.” You will find something that resonates in this book, I promise.
Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert
“But surely something wonderful is sheltered inside you. I say this with all confidence, because I happen to believe we are all walking repositories of buried treasure. I believe this is one of the oldest and most generous tricks the universe plays on us human beings, both for its own amusement and for ours: The universe buries strange jewels deep within us all, and then stands back to see if we can find them. The hunt to uncover those jewels – that’s creative living.” Please, go read this book. Then make something – a poem, a song, a scarf, a painting, a pot of soup. Anything. Make anything. Just make something. Producing something creative, ephemeral or not, can be one of the only worthwhile responses to the maelstrom we’re currently caught in.
The Joy Diet by Martha Beck
The subtitle of this book, “10 Daily Practices for a Happier Life,” sums it up pretty accurately. As with The Happiness Project, this is a gentle roadmap towards cultivating joy in your everyday existence. Some assignments – like “Every day, make sure that you laugh at least thirty times” – might be a bit tough to achieve given our current circumstances, but there is a lot of worthwhile information here if you can keep your mind open. We’re all searching for leadership, for guidance, because none of us have the slightest clue about what’s going on right now, and sometimes a list of exercises from a smart teacher can help us stay on the path.
And then of course there’s this: your own writing. I’ve certainly scribbled in my journal more during this pandemic century than I have in the previous five years, and when the spiraling panic and anxiety and despair threaten to overwhelm, and the ever-present tears are prickling the back of my throat, I try to get everything out on paper. There is a huge amount of research that clearly demonstrates how journaling can help manage anxiety and depression, and since we’re currently living through the largest and most severe mental health crisis in history, I’m hopeful that others have picked up a pen and notebook, too. It’s cheap, convenient therapy, accessible to everyone no matter the situation. And you can always (safely) burn what you write, which – I’ll freely admit – is another favorite form of emotional processing.
Here are a few of N’s suggestions for comforting reading material.
A few other mental-health strategies I’m relying upon: lots of water. Lots of citrus, because it tastes like liquid sunshine. Music – Ye Olde Classical suits my soul rather nicely at the moment. Peppermint-scented tea, or soap, or whatever. Fresh bread with soft salted butter. Layer up and get moving outside. Take care of the animals. Ten jumping jacks. Dance. Sing. Dance and sing at the same time. Anything, no matter how odd, to keep the demons at bay.
What are you doing to stay calm and in the moment, dear friends? Are you reading? Sewing? Baking? Writing? Cooking? Knitting? Planning your spring garden? We’d love to hear your survival techniques during these challenging times.