Most of last year I was in a contemplative mood. I was traveling back and forth from Los Angeles to Chicago trying to help my mother manage my father’s illness. I needed some books to hold me while experiencing some of the most grueling emotional days of my life.
The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen: This is the book that comes up when you search for something to read while you are grieving. The book is a travelogue of the writer’s trip hiking in the Himalayas in 1973 with two hopes: to make it to the Crystal Monastery and to see a snow leopard. Along the way he wrestles with his thoughts, his very consciousness and has the time to ponder his wife’s death. The crisp details and intensity of the scenic locations mixes with the adventure of the trek. It is breathtaking writing showing the cycles of life through nature and the sacred.
A friend recommended H is for Hawk to me, by Helen McDonald. It is actually a great dovetail with the Snow Leopard since it also covers the area of tame and wild. McDonald decides to train a goshawk while grieving her father. She follows the history of falconry and but also the life of T. H. White, the author of the Arthurian legends who was also a falconer. The parallel is made as both McDonald and White use falconry and their relation to their birds as a way of understanding their own human nature.
How to Live, or The Life of Montaigne by Sarah Bakewell takes the 16th Century French nobleman and his volumes of essays and translates their wisdom for a modern audience. Only taught Latin growing up (a dead language even at the time), Montaigne had an interesting education in the classic philosophers. His essays are considered to be the first “personal essay” of the form, where the focus is the author’s thoughts and feelings. He lived through the death of his best friend, his father, and all o f his children except one. The plague was still actively decimating medieval cities and wars between the Protestants and Catholics were being waged.
Still, it is instructive to our world in 2017, this quote in the book rings true, “Only a person who has lived through a time that threatens his life and that valuable substance, his individual freedom, with war, power, and tyrannical ideologies- only he knows how much courage, how much honesty and determination are needed to maintain the inner self in such a time of herd insanity.” (p.220)
Bakewell writes Montaigne was, “ A member of a generation robbed of the hopeful idealism enjoyed by his father’s contemporaries, he adjusted to public miseries by focusing his attention on private life.” (p.3)
During hard times, curling into a book can be one of the easiest pleasures. If you have any books that have given you wisdom, centering and a sense of perspective in times of crisis add them below. I’d love to hear from you…