I arrived early for a lunch date at a local mall, so I do what I usually do when I have a moment of downtime. I read. I always have a book with me to read in places where I might have to wait. I have read in lines at post offices, waiting for service at a restaurant, while getting an oil change, or having a recall fixed on my car. On this day I read on a bench in a mall.
A woman came up to me and asked me what I was reading. I showed her the title, thinking she’d drift off. I was reading after all. But instead of leaving she settled on the bench beside me and said, “I used to read. I read all the time. I read a lot, but I just can’t anymore. All the political stuff that’s going on. All the trouble in the world. I just can’t read anymore. I’ve tried and tried but the world just keeps getting worse and worse off.”
She sounded angry. She nearly spat her words out, as though to blame someone else for her inability to focus on a book. It was something she used to do, but no longer could.
“You should read,” I said. “It will help the world.”
“I can’t,” she said. “How can you?”
“I have to read,” I told her. “I have to read no matter what’s going on.”
“But, how can you focus?” she asked.
I was tempted to tell her that I wasn’t focusing right now. That I had been, but then I was interrupted by a stranger, a stranger in need it seemed like.
“I sit down, and I open the book, and I read. That’s how I focus.”
“But the world,” she said. “All this terrible stuff going on. I’m so upset.”
“There’s plenty of time to be upset, and for now, if you have a roof over your head and food in your belly, you can make time to read. You need it,” I added, hoping I didn’t sound too insulting, hoping it wasn’t like screaming RELAX at someone who clearly couldn’t relax.
She stood up. “Enjoy your book,” she said stiffly, and left.
I’ve thought about that woman a lot. I felt a little judged, as though by insisting on reading instead of joining her in a stress-fest, I’d abandoned all that is good in the world. In fact, I felt I was embracing good in the world by insisting on reading.
And that’s what you have to do. You have to insist on things. You have to insist on cooking at home and not hitting the drive-thru for fast food in the evenings. You have to insist on weekends and time with your family. You have to insist on brushing your teeth and bathing. And if you want to read, you have to insist on it. You have to make the effort. You have to procure books and turn off the television and give it some time.
What would our world be like if we insisted on good habits instead of falling into the trap of bad ones? I know it’s not easy. The energy of the commercial world, the world that is so in your face all the time, is against you. The woman in the mall was right about that. She felt it. She felt crazed with it all, as most people do. She blamed the current political scene, but how much of this was already in place? How many hours are most people working just to pay their bills? How stressed are people as they drop their kids off here and there and try to make it to the office on time? How stressed are they when they get that memo from the idiot at work who dropped the ball on some project and now they have to work late to cover him, and themselves?
The commercial world, the world of buy/sell, the world of fast lanes and fast foods is totally against you doing anything worthwhile. It’s good for business to have you stressed out to the max. If you’re stressed out to the max, you’re unlikely to do something subversive like make art, or read.
I don’t know what the answers are to the world’s problems. I don’t know how to tell you to pay your bills and keep your head above water. I don’t know how to tell you to stay sane. But I do know this: Taking time and slowing down helps. Read a book. And when you’re done read another one. Reading novels actually reduces stress. It also increases empathy and helps you focus. If you’re feeling fractured and splintered and stressed, read. Please. And I don’t mean Facebook posts and Tweets and news stories. I mean novels and memoirs. Read stories. As Muriel Rukeyser once said, “The world is made up of stories, not atoms.”
Unplug and read a book. I don’t tell you this because I am an author and want you to buy my book. I tell you this because, like the woman in the mall, I see that the world is in a big fat mess, and as a human being, I think one of the strongest most important things I can do is slow down. Not give in to the super stress. Not let it take away from me the things I hold dear, and reading is one of those things. I read fiction and memoir. And I listen to people as much as I can, even if they interrupt my reading.