New Release Review: Marrow

Elizabeth Lesser, Marrow (2016)

marrowWhat are the ties that bind us as human beings? Can our thoughts and feelings influence our bodily well-being, even that of another person? How does releasing personal hurt, anger, and misunderstanding bring healing to our relationships and the world? When confronted with loss, betrayal, and death, can we learn to actually “love our fate”?

These are some of the questions that Elizabeth Lesser engages in with this memoir of the time she spent with her beloved younger sister during the last stages of Maggie’s long fight against lymphoma. To her own surprise, Elizabeth was found to be the rare “perfect match” for a bone-marrow transplant for Maggie, which meant that all of Maggie’s blood would be replaced with that produced by stem cells harvested from Elizabeth. It became more than just a medical miracle for both of them, as they sought to support the procedure with therapeutic conversations that strengthened their new identity as “Maggie-Liz.” By speaking their own hurt and forgiving one another, hearing and honoring the truth of each other’s experience, they come closer to the marrow of their true selves.

In recalling their journey, Elizabeth intersperses memories of her sister and other family members with the spiritual wisdom she’s gleaned from a lifetime of searching (she is the founder and director of the Omega Institute, a renowned center for spiritual development). She does not set herself up as an infallible expert or guru, and her way of writing about the soul and the human quest is humble, open, and honest. The truths of the spirit, which are in essence simple yet in practice so hard for us imperfect human beings to work out, are expressed in connection with her own experiences. Though in some ways these are extraordinary — not everyone can call up Deepak Chopra for advice — Elizabeth keeps the emphasis on the universal, everyday, basically human details that we can all relate to. For me, this was the most compelling aspect of her work.

tlc-logo-resizedThere are still failures and loose ends to take up — in caring for one sister so intensely, Elizabeth tended to come across as controlling to her other siblings, and that caused some further hurt. But what she learned from her time with Maggie only strengthened her faith in the power of the soul to work through such challenges, when we connect with our deeper selves. In the end, this is a story of hope, and of a love that truly became stronger than death.

Thanks to HarperCollins and TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to review this book.


New Release Review: Carry On

Carry On Fenn

Lisa Fenn, Carry On (2016)

CarryOnAt the rare times when I watch sporting events (mostly during the Olympics), I’m less drawn in by the goals and records scored than by the human interest stories that sportscasters concoct to tug at our heartstrings and make us feel the emotions we have in common with these amazing athletes. Even when they’re engaged in the most mystifying and uncongenial of activities to me — dashing about, throwing things and clouting one another — their passion, dedication, and overcoming of obstacles can be inspiring, as can the many different paths they take toward achieving their dreams.

So it is with Lisa Fenn’s memoir, Carry On, which takes the story of two teenage boys who meet on the wrestling mat (perhaps the sport, along with boxing, that I would normally find the most repugnant) and makes of it a most moving portrait of human resilience and the bonds of love. The two boys, Dartanyon and Leroy, are black, poor, and disabled, one legally blind, the other a double amputee; one would not expect them to try out for the school wrestling team, let alone win a single match. But they forge a friendship that boosts them beyond the limits life has made for them, and carry one another in ways neither could have dreamed of alone.

Fenn herself, who starts out recording the piece for ESPN, becomes more personally involved than is generally the wont of reporters. She realizes she cannot profit off of these boys without helping them in return, and also simply falls in love with them. She learns that part of what is holding them back is the untold stories locked within them by trauma and misunderstanding, and that as a storyteller it is her privilege and obligation to allow those stories to unfold, to give them wings. She shares the slow process of gaining the boys’ trust and understanding their real needs, which involved some triumphs but also many times of feeling as though they had been slammed to the mat by life, when simply “carrying on” was the most they could manage. And she also describes some of her own journey toward love and reconciliation, including her and her husband’s hard-won decision to adopt an infant while also opening their hearts to Dartanyon and Leroy.

tlc logoFenn finds in this journey a sign of God’s calling her to participate in the divine mission of love, but mainly she lets her faith stay quietly in the background of the story she has to tell, and readers of any religious persuasion can relate to the basic human emotions and experiences related here. Viewers of the ESPN piece certainly responded in droves, finding hope and inspiration and offering support of many kinds in return. But unlike many flash-in-the-pan stories of ephemeral fame and lost potential, this one resulted in real and lasting transformation of three individuals, and many more beyond that whose lives they touched. Read it, and your life will be touched and changed by them too.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to review Carry On. For more information and tour stops, visit the TLC site.



New Release Review: How To Be Alive

Colin Beavan, How To Be Alive (2016)

How to Be Alive coverWhen I was in high school I took an English class called “Utopia.” After exploring the utopian and dystopian visions of writers from Thomas More to Aldous Huxley to Charlotte Perkins Gilman, our assignment was to create a plan of our own for the “perfect society.” Having heard all our grandiose ideas, our teacher asked if we’d like to hear about her own notion of utopia.

She said that rather than moving to a distant island or making sweeping societal changes, she’d start with her own Seattle neighborhood, by strengthening the ties of community, sharing more and consuming less. Not every house on a street needs its own lawnmower, for example. While not advocating that we throw away the benefits of individualism — not everyone needs to move into the same house — she argued that we can’t create a better world without working together. And who better to work with than the people we already know?

Her idea has stuck with me for all these many years since, as an example of how to create change in the only way we truly can: starting from where we are. And when I read Colin Beavan’s new book How To Be Alive, I recognized exactly the same impulse. Beavan believes that ideas like my English teacher’s are not just nice ideas, but the way to realize our true selves while making the world a better place.

Colin Beavan APHaving taken some rather dramatic action himself — he’s the author of the bestselling book No Impact Man, which chronicles his year of trying to live as lightly on the planet as possible, and founder of the No Impact Project — Beavan has some impressive practical experience in which to ground his ideas. But it’s not necessary to go so far in order to follow in his footsteps. Indeed, the point of this book is to help people take that first step toward change, no matter how small.

Beavan incorporates research, real-life examples, and step-by-step exercises in chapters that touch on all the basic needs of our lives, which include meaning, purpose, and community as well as food, shelter, and transportation. He asks us to rethink the conventional wisdom that’s gotten us into our current mess — that selfishness and competition are the driving forces of human nature — and consider that cooperation and sharing are not only truer ways to realize our highest potential, but also make us happier.

You don’t have to be “alternative.” All that makes you a lifequester is that you actively choose what is authentic to you.

Are you alive to who you really are? Are you awake to the world around you and its needs? Do you do things because they are what everyone else does? Or do you do things because you are awake and conscious and want to do the best by yourself and everyone else?

Most of the information Beavan presents is not new. Some of it is thousands of years old, as all religious and meditative traditions exhort us to remember that we are part of one another and that our truest selves are found through that awareness. It’s his way of combining ancient philosophies, humanist psychology, scientific discoveries, and true stories of people changing their lives and the world that made for a fresh and compelling presentation. Although I wasn’t always enamored of his word choices or casual writing style (I couldn’t call myself a “lifequester” with a straight face), his points were clearly made, well organized, and thought-provoking.

Not all of his suggestions are applicable to my particular situation — it would be pretty difficult for me to go car-free, for example, as I live in a rural area with no public transportation — but this book is not a blueprint to be mindlessly followed. It’s meant as inspiration for each of us to get more creative with our individual lives, to realize how precious and incredible are the opportunities we have just through being here on this planet, and to stop being paralyzed by loneliness and fear. What will happen if a significant number of people take up this challenge? I don’t know, but I do hope we’re going to find out.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to join in their tour for How To Be Alive. Click on the link for more tour stops and information.


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