Sunday, December 13th, 2009...9:00 pm

Just Finished Reading: Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder

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“Really, I trained my mind to be flexible,” Deo said.  “Some of the stuff I learned was, be willing to know that even when you think you know for sure, always leave room for uncertainty.  And someone who always agrees with you is not necessarily your friend.  You can always learn something good in a hard time, if you survive it.  And there is really no mathematical formula you can follow to achieve what you want.  Just trial and error.”

This book reminded me a lot of Zeitoun: unchallenging prose that leads the disarmed reader into nightmares that need very few clauses to impart meaning. One time, I was reading on my couch and decided I needed a drink of water. On the way back to the couch, within a span of maybe five seconds, I took a sip of clean, cold water, flipped a light switch to make the room brighter and turned the knob on the thermostat to make the room a couple degrees warmer. We’ve all had these moments before–when something inane like that jars you into 3 seconds of realization before we go on with our lives. This time I was completely disoriented. I had such a disconnection from Deo’s story that had lodged in my head of fleeing the Rwandan genocide, and the comfort in which I was reading it.

The way I feel about books has a lot to do with what’s happening in my life when I read them. At mass a couple weeks ago, the priest said that often when we have broken hearts, our acute sense of pain–the rawness of having exposed emotional nerves–leaves us open to feeling the pain of others in ways we wouldn’t if we were feeling whole. My own exposed nerves had me feeling Deo’s story in ways I probably wouldn’t have if I’d read this book in, say, 2006. In some weird way, it makes me grateful for the hurt, it reminds me what human feels like, which is so hard to touch when we have cold water and warm beds available whenever we want them. It’s strange to think that that pain can at the same time make you feel so alone and yet more connected to other people than ever before.

There’s nothing I could possibly experience in my lifetime that will ever even begin to put me in a position to understand what Deo, and millions of others like him, is feeling and I can sense that same awkwardness in Tracy Kidder’s telling. (There were times when I wished he’d quit trying to tell us what he thought Deo must be thinking and just get on with it). But I only know that because I have something in my own experience to judge his story against.  It’s true what he says, “you can always learn something good in a hard time, if you survive it.”

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