Connect with Yourself After 2020

I sat at my desk, the warmth from the tears involuntarily rolling down my face almost comforting as I got more honest with myself than I had been in a long time, and answered her question directly.

The moment hurt, but the pain passed almost as soon as the words had left my mouth—replaced by a sense of calm and acceptance.  I watched as the woman on the other side of the screen, a counselor in Atlanta who has been working small miracles in our family for a few months now, nodded her head in understanding.

“Well, you have certainly connected with yourself and the emotion of the experience now.” And with that assessment, she gave me the go-ahead on what I had presented to her as a potential next right step for my healing.

We are constantly “connected” to the world and others through digital devices that fill so much temporal, mental, and emotional space in our lives, but I wonder if anyone else has struggled to connect with themselves on a regular basis after this last year.

When I first started seeing my counselor, toward the end of 2020, I was a desperate mess. Who wasn’t? I knew I needed to try counseling because even though I hated admitting it, my emotional pain had passed the boundary of where my coping skills could help me. Also, in an attempt to compensate for the limits of my healthy coping skills, I was leaning into unhealthy coping skills.

Not wanting to waste time, and more self-aware in my thirties than I have been at any other point in my life, I told my counselor first thing: I struggle with connection, I think emotions are dumb, and I would much rather think through things than feel them.

Fast forward several months and I’m finally feeling unstuck. Counseling has helped tremendously, but one of the heavily utilized (healthy) coping skills that I have used is reading. Reading has given me a cognitive means to access a linguistic ends I wouldn’t otherwise experience; giving me words that describe my emotional state, enabling me to have more meaningful conversations with my counselor.

I will always be grateful to my parents who were true over-achievers when it came to giving my sister and I the gift of reading when we grew up.

I have memories of my dad reading Home for a Bunny and The Pokey Little Puppy to me multiple times every night as a little girl. I still smile when I think about the excitement I felt when the mailman delivered Baby-Sitters Club books to our door each month, thanks to my mom’s commitment to keeping our house stocked with reading material. Amidst our imperfect family life situation, which played out set against the backdrop of interracial adoption through a color-blind lens and undiagnosed detachment disorder, reading became our strongest coping and connections skill.

We are all experiencing extra stress, and dare I say emotional trauma, from existing in 2020.

I think this article from Jennie Allen and Dr. Anita Phillips sums up the emotional impact of 2020 far better than I could, if you need convincing. I want to offer you a new way to think about books, and encourage you to try reading as a coping skill going forward.

Let me start with what I know to be true about books, in the form of this beautiful metaphor from Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop.

Dr. Bishop talks about diverse books in terms of racial and cultural representation, which is important, and I want to extend her idea into connection. I believe that in order to fully use books as a means of effective connection, we need to be reading books that are mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors.

Disclaimer: This post is about to get heavy with book titles from my personal reading lists, simply to illustrate the metaphors. If you’re not into what I’m reading about, that’s cool, but stick with me, because at the end of the post I am sharing a reading hack that will serve you well no matterwhat your reading interests happen to be!

Thinking of books as mirrors allows us to find ourselves on the pages as we read.

Ten years ago, I was taken by surprise the first time a book functioned as a mirror in my grown-up reading life. I had sat down in my parents’ big, red, comfy chair, prepared to devour a non-fiction book that had been highly recommended. I got two paragraphs into Compelled to Control by Keith Miller when I stopped, took a deep breath in, cursed out loud as I exhaled, and got up to find a highlighter.  

This mirror began my life-changing journey into recovery for control addiction.

Using a book as a mirror is helpful when processing through emotional trauma.

While I read several books related to the specific emotional pain I was experiencing last year, and from them found great words that allowed me to see myself from a different perspective, there was one book that made a huge impact on my progress.

Allison Fallon’s The Power of Writing it Down spoke to my identity as a writer and gave me the inspiration and motivation to utilize my writing as a tool for self-discovery and healing.

Currently, I am using books to reflect on my personal identity as an educator.

I know that I will be returning to the classroom in just a couple of short years and I want to show up for my students in a way that isn’t dated, out of touch, or practicing dulled skills. A lot will have changed in my ten-year-stay-at-home-mom sabbatical, and I take my career seriously. I am finding myself as an educator on the pages of Unpack Your Impact by Naomi O’Brien and Lanesha Tabb, and Cultivating Genius by Gholdy Muhammad.

I was in the 8th grade when I first experienced books as windows.

And, technically, I can’t remember any titles of the books I read—but I do remember having a phenomenal social studies teacher who threw out whatever dated textbooks our rural, poor school district had stored away and adopted a before-her-time woke approach to teaching US History.

What stuck with me most was everything I learned about the Civil Rights Movement from the PBS documentary, Eyes on The Prize. I was shocked, horrified, disgusted, heartbroken, and self-ordained into the mission of social justice and equality that year.

One teacher, who taught a language arts and social studies block in a rural Idaho middle school, rolled up the window coverings and let me see that a world existed outside of my privileged existence.

Last year I realized that, at some point, I had stopped making an intentional effort to discover more windows in my reading life.

I read Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone and Children of Virtue, stories in the fantasy genre that broke through the fiction rut I have been in for years. I listened to snippets of my husband reading my girls More Than a Princess by E.D. Baker and remembered that a grown up’s reading choices are going to directly impact their kids’ reading life.

Right now my to-be-read-list is full of books that will act as windows.

I have Stamped From The Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi on my shelf, waiting to break into my non-fiction rotation. I have Her Stories and Fiesta Feminina to fill in shorter reading times with African American and Mexican folktales. And, I’m slowly compiling a list of window books that will allow me to see the kind of leader I want to be when I grow up.

Books as mirrors and windows can be challenging for me—I don’t always want to face myself and what I don’t know because there is something at least partially true about the saying “Ignorance is bliss.”

However, it’s after I get past my own discomfort with mirrors and windows; after I have connected authentically with my own story and the stories of others, that I get to my favorite part: the invitation to contribute and be involved in growing the world into a more unified, connected place. That is the invitation of the sliding glass door.

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

–Maya angelou

Maya Angelou’s quote embodies the metaphor of books as sliding glass doors.

After slowly reading Compelled to Control ten years ago, I set down the mirror, skipped the window, and went straight for the sliding glass door.

I wasn’t excited to read Hunger for Healing by Keith Miller, but I knew it was my next right step. I read that book one chapter at a time, multiple times through, while I worked through a twelve-step recovery program in the early hours each Saturday morning. That book invited me to step up and do something about what I saw in my own life, and to own the responsibility for taking actions that aligned with what I wanted for the future, which was connection.

Sliding glass doors are less scary with friends.

Last winter, I was invited to join a reading group comprised of people who felt called to the work of racial reconciliation. We discussed Jemar Tisby’s latest book, How To Fight Racism. We shared, we listened, we wrestled with our own histories, and added to our understandings.

We ended by committing to doing our part by choosing one specific thing to focus on in our personal fights against racism, selecting a new title (hello, sliding glass door!) and adding a couple of new members for the group.

If there were ever a time for doing our part in making the world a more connected place, it would be right now, as we end the first quarter of 2021.

The newest sliding glass door for our group is The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander this spring. I’m especially excited to read this book because the current education book I am reading continues to reference it and I do love making connections across texts. I am hoping that both books will equip me to be a more effective educational leader, as well as a stronger ally for racial justice.

Reading books that are mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors is a strategy to connect with yourself and others, for the betterment of the world around you.

I’ve included a lot of titles on my reading lists to illustrate the metaphor and strategy, but it’s likely that you and I have different interests, so I want to show you a favorite reading life hack to help you grow your reading lists to include more mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors.

If you haven’t already made friends with your local library’s website, I suggest you do so!

Library websites should have a place designated for research. In the short slideshow below, I use our local library’s website to show you how I find and use NovelList to search for books by keyword. My favorite part of the  Novelist databases (there is one database Children’s literature and one for adult literature) is that once you find a book, they offer “Read Alike” suggestions in the side bar.

As we begin encountering one-year anniversaries of various emotional traumas from the last year, I want to encourage you to connect with yourself and the emotions of your experiences.

Maybe you need the help of a counselor, and if that’s the case I would encourage you to make it a priority to set an appointment. But, maybe you just need to carve out some time to spend with yourself, unplugged from the digital world and tuned into what your mind, heart, and body have been trying to tell you over the noise of last year’s distractions.

Either way, books can serve as insightful companions as you move forward, and with that I will leave you with this.

“Salvation is certainly among the reasons I read. Reading and writing have always pulled me out of the darkest experiences in my life. Stories have given me a place in which to lose myself. They have allowed me to remember. They have allowed me to forget. They have allowed me to imagine different endings and better possible worlds.”

Roxane gay

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