Books to see us through

The written word can provide shelter for whatever is coming.


Friday the 13th, March 2020: The world of public education in Los Angeles paused, and we went underground. 

I told my students, “Some people stock up for the apocalypse with mountains of toilet paper and buckets of hand sanitizer.” They nodded, cast rueful, nervous smiles.

I asked, “You know what I stock up for the apocalypse with?”

With a knowing look, some of them ventured: “Books?”

“Books!” I trumpeted back. Books: our medicine, our escape, our refuge, our daily dose of empathy, one way of reimagining the world together. I pitched options for the two weeks: Kindred and Chronicle, Bluest Eye and Underdogs — stories of small and vast apocalypses. Class ended and I set them free, hoping the books they carried out could offer some shelter from whatever was coming.

I can still feel those early days of clutched fear, anxiety coiling through cage of chest, that prison of alarm. I cursed my way through the older son's second-grade portals, breathed through the younger son’s yowling preschool tantrums. After 18 years in the classroom, my teaching life became staring hours into a screen, offering digital feedback on submissions I doubted students would even check, death by a thousand clicks. I learned that Zoom meant hurrying to go nowhere while staring into the mute abyss of your own sad reflection.

I skipped the stack of unread books on my bedside table and sought refuge in a reread of Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being. The book is a woven narrative of two women: the words of Nao (now), a teenager in Japan whose diary washes ashore on an island in British Columbia and an author named Ruth who finds it. The diary, how it got there, and what happened to the vivacious young writer becomes the driving mystery as their stories unfold across time and distance. Ozeki weaves in the Fukushima catastrophe, swirling ocean currents, quantum physics, Zen Buddhism, cyber-bullying, crippling depression, snapshots of Japanese, American and Canadian culture, a mysterious crow, and a writer, Ruth, who is suffering from writer’s block.

I returned to the book because I loved Nao’s incomparable voice and Ruth’s quest to learn what happened to her. But it was one section in particular that I needed to find that March. Nao’s wise great-grandmother, Old Jiko, a Buddhist nun, tells her the younger generations are struggling because they were born post-World War II, and the ease of their lives has made them heiwaboke, which means “stupefied by peace” or “peace-addled.” Jiko says we are a generation “spaced out and careless because we don't understand war.”

I first read and reread that section in 2014, wondering what would be the thing that broke us all out of our heiwaboke state. In early 2020, I felt it when we were launched from our status quo by a microscopic crowned tyrant and our own hubris. Our already fractured systems cracked wide. Suffering was ubiquitous, though still unequally distributed.

Hazel Kight Witham, essay author.
Courtesy photo

I read Ozeki’s novel every night before bed, and every morning, I poured my own words out onto an empty page, seeking, like Nao, solace from the grief and anxiety of living through this time. I considered our shared and solitary losses, and the opportunity that came with them. How could we emerge stronger by reexamining our true purpose together?

After A Tale for the Time Being and a couple months adapting to the constantly at-home life, I turned to The Book of Delights, by Ross Gay. Published in 2019, it became my greatest pandemic lifeline.

Ross Gay, professor, poet and essayist, set a challenge for himself as his birthday approached: to write about delight, daily, by hand, for a full year. He soon discovered that the work of noticing delight and accounting for it caused delight to bloom like wildflowers across each day. Delight arrived in small and vast moments of connection — from friends to airline attendants to strangers to family to ghosts. They showed up in his garden and in songs and on the basketball court. There are moments of laugh-out-loud humor, juxtaposed with meditations on grief and racism and what it is to navigate our society as a Black man. The grounding idea — that delight is everywhere, and we can be transformed by it, was exactly what I needed to learn in the summer of 2020.

Delight is everywhere, and we can be transformed by it...

Early on, Ross Gay meditates on an idea from his student Bethany, who is thinking about her future classroom as a place where “we joined our wildernesses together.” Throughout this essay, Gay drops us into our private wildernesses through a string of simple yet devastating circumstances: “Brother addicted. Mother murdered, Dad died in surgery,” all specific and eviscerating to live through or imagine. He gives a nod to the ultimate shared sorrow: “that we, and what we love, will soon be annihilated.” He reminds us of that universal, inescapable truth, and in doing so, helps us soften toward each other, all of us, navigating the unthinkable.

Gay writes like the epiphany is dawning there on the page: “And what if the wilderness … is our sorrow?” He closes that chapter with “Is sorrow the true wild? ... What if we joined our sorrows, I’m saying. I’m saying, what if that is joy?”

As the pandemic bloomed across all our lives, I clung to the metaphor of a wilderness — a place of confusion and devastation and uncertainty, but one where we might also meet, and join our sorrows to find a new kind of joy we had not previously known.

Labels on desks designate where students can sit with respect to social distancing at Burbank Middle School in Los Angeles as the school district prepared for students to return to classrooms amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

In August 2020, we began a remote virtual school year, all hollow and hush. I asked students to get a composition notebook and shared how Ross Gay used a practice of daily writing by hand to create The Book of Delights. I offered prompts, like the wilderness passage, and we wrote by hand, sharing in that awkward, muted realm. It was hard, full of daily sorrows, small and vast, but also delights both of which I now understood were a vital way of mapping joy collectively.

Because of what I learned from A Tale for the Time Being and The Book of Delights, I spent that entire strange school year shifting from the peace-addled past, honoring our sorrows, awash in gratitude and delight. Those books continued to buoy me when we returned to in-person school in August 2021. I led my masked writers into our first piece of writing together, again using the wilderness excerpt from Ross Gay. Together we mapped our way through sorrow toward communal healing at the page.

After class that first day, one student stayed behind, clutching the wilderness excerpt, pointing to a line in Ross Gay’s string of personal sorrows: “Brother addicted.” She said, “I lost my brother a few months ago to an overdose.”

There, at the threshold of my classroom, both of us dazed after so much distance, she offered her sorrow. I stood with her, felt our ghosts leaning in close, listening for their names. The wilderness was thick, but sun-dappled, and we set out together, through sorrow, in search of delight.

Hazel Kight Witham is a mother, writer, teacher, artist and slam poetry coach who leads workshops on building a sustainable teaching practice. Hazel’s work explores issues of wellness, mental health, social justice and peace-making, and can be found in The Sun, Bellevue Literary Review, Made in L.A. Vol.4, Mutha Magazine, Integrated Schools, United Teacher, Cultural Weekly, and Rising Phoenix ReviewWe welcome reader letters. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.

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