On the Subject of Healing: Books geared to the hard work of individual and collective healing
It is too early to use the word post-pandemic. As I write this in late August, we have high vaccination rates in Atlantic Canada and have so far been spared the ravages of the Delta variant. But if the last year-and-a-half have taught us anything, it’s that the world is unpredictable.
The pandemic may not be over, but it has gone on long enough that we are starting to see books about it, or that refer to it and its effects. And we are far enough into it that we can begin to talk about healing from the individual and collective trauma of the last 18 months.
So, it is probably no coincidence that this fall sees the release of a cluster of books that, directly or indirectly, touch on the subject of healing.
Perhaps the most highly anticipated of these is the wrenching memoir A Womb in the Shape of a Heart, the very strong debut from Joanne Gallant, who is also a pediatric nurse at Halifax’s IWK children’s hospital.
Gallant has been pregnant six times. She has one child. In A Womb in the Shape of a Heart, she shares her experiences as a woman with a misshapen uterus who has no trouble getting pregnant, but who has lost five babies to miscarriage. She recalls the moments after a doctor tells her she has lost her first baby: “‘The good news is, you can get pregnant,’” he says, much too brightly. ‘Miscarriages happen all the time…’ And with that, the first dismissal of my grief for a baby who would never be born, he leaves.”
Her son Teddy is born via emergency C-section at seven months, and eventually thrives. But Gallant is wracked by post-partum anxiety: “My fear of death, his death, creeps in from all corners of whatever room we are in.”
You could describe A Womb in the Shape of a Heart as a record of Gallant’s healing journey, but that doesn’t do the book justice. She explores social assumptions about motherhood, plumbs the depths of grief, and takes us with her to her therapy appointments, through which she comes to understand “how women, and mothers, are held to impossibly high standards, most often by ourselves.”
Pregnancies with tragic endings and women learning to heal from past trauma also feature prominently in Susan White’s latest novel, The Wright Retreat. Sylvia Wright is a novelist with six books under her belt. Raised on Grand Manan by her grandparents, Wright is looking to get away from a stifling life in Toronto, where she lives with her husband, Kent, “the take-charge guy.”
On a whim, Sylvia buys a rambling New Brunswick property on the Northumberland Shore as an escape. Seeing opportunity, Kent fixes the place up and advertises it as a writing retreat, featuring mentorship from his wife, the Giller long-listed writer.
Trouble is, Sylvia is not on board with the whole scheme. The experience will bring issues she has long repressed to the fore.
If you’ve ever been on a writing retreat, The Wright Retreat will ring true. There are the people who just can’t get started, the ones who have spent their lives thinking they should write their story and are finally getting around to it, and the ones who already have published but are in a rut.
More importantly, they are all in some way damaged by their past—abusive partners, mistreatment at residential school and at the hands of nuns running a home for pregnant teens, debilitating anxiety, and relationships that have changed or ended. And as the characters come to grips with their traumas, the awful history of the retreat location itself is revealed.
“Life comes with layers and layers of pain. And healing is hard work,” says one of the characters inThe Wright Retreat. “You have to wait, be patient, and be willing to let the deep wound heal right to the core. Some folks aren’t able to do the work.”
Doing the work is the focus of a pair of books aimed at helping you get going while embracing the paradox that doing the work also means letting go. The title of Meditations for Makers by Deanne Fitzpatrick pretty much speaks for itself.
Featuring simple, fun, and whimsical drawings, the book is designed to help overcome creative blocks. Fitzpatrick is a therapist turned rug hooker and author, and she has a long-time interest in helping people’s creative sides flourish.
The meditations offer permission to just be, to create, to allow ourselves to notice and enjoy our everyday lives, and to take pleasure in what we make: “Savour the finish, the end of whatever you are making. Don’t plow through it late at night to get it done. Done is not the answer. Making is the answer.”
(I don’t know if my editors would agree with that.)
Recently, I cancelled our Netflix subscription. We were watching maybe one or two shows a month, there are plenty of other legal and free choices out there, and, honestly, I’m just really much more into reading books these days. I felt a momentary pang thinking of unwatched movies on my list, but mostly what I felt was relief. No more feeling pressured to watch the latest thing everyone’s talking about. No more keeping up.
Christina Crook would have been proud. In her breezy self-help book Good Burdens, Crook takes the message of her previous book, The Joy of Missing Out, one step farther. She urges readers to identify what brings them joy, and to build their lives around that. Like healing, joyful living is not necessarily easy.
And, of course, it’s not without pain either. “Joy isn’t necessarily happiness, or comfort, or delight. In fact, some of those things can be obstacles to joy,” she writes. Like skipping Netflix to read books, “Joy is missing out on some things to have others.”
Crook includes exercises (she calls them “quests”) to help readers think about where they are in their lives, where they would like to be, and how to commit to getting there.
Unlike some books in this genre, it is not navel-gazing. Finding an organization to volunteer with is one of Crook’s steps.
This is more than another book telling you to put down your phone. Crook says many people have come through the pandemic reassessing their lives and wanting more.
The pandemic, she writes, “forced us to confront the limits of comfort, convenience, and control and… grew our capacity for creativity, community, and care.”Making space for creativity and connections may not always be easy, but, she argues, these are “good burdens” and the key to living joyfully.
Also of note
Losing Me While Losing You (Fernwood Publishing) is a raw and honest look at the experiences of 35 caregivers of people with dementia. Filled with sorrow, joy and insight, the book provides a snapshot of the situations and challenges faced by those caring for loved ones.
Authors Jeanette A Auger, Diane Tedford-Litle and Brenda Wallace-Allen also offer suggestions on closing the gap between what caregivers and people with dementia need, and what they are getting now—everything from culturally sensitive care to dementia-friendly communities.
To a Nurse Friend Weeping (HARP) is a book by surgeon and poet Francis Christian. The poems, many informed by Christian’s faith, are lyrical and compassionate. In his preface, he writes that he hopes readers “will discern … both the all too present story of suffering and hope for a better tomorrow.”