I’m in the midst of participating in a writing group called The Painted Steps that will last six months; concluding the end of January. I love participating in this group with several people committed to writing and supporting each other in our widely varied efforts. We hail from across 12 time zones, from the West Coast of the U.S. to the United Arab Emirates.
My new friend Jolandi (who lives in the UAE) recommended Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See a few weeks ago. Jolandi’s taste – and her timing, as it turns out – is impeccable.
Next week I’ll be at Eastern Mennonite University in Virginia, taking the advanced STAR II training (Strategies for Trauma Awareness & Resilience) through the Center for Justice & Peacebuilding. All The Light We Cannot See is a perfect precursor.
Just prior to World War II, a young, French girl goes blind by age six. Her father builds a perfect miniature of their neighborhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate their neighborhood. When the Nazis occupy Paris, she and her father flee to the home of her agoraphobic great-uncle, who lives by the sea.
In a German mining town, an orphan boy grows up with his younger sister. His fascination with radios results in him becoming an expert in building and fixing electronic devices. His skill lands him a preferred post with the Hitler Youth and an assignment to track the French resistance. His story and that of the blind French girl converge in that town by the sea.
This is a story of trauma; of how we inflict trauma upon each other and how trauma impacts us. It is both heartbreaking and hopeful; terrible and wonderful.
“We all come into existence as a single cell, smaller than a speck of dust. Much smaller. Divide. Multiply. Add and subtract. Matter changes hands, atoms flow in and out, molecules pivot, proteins stitch together, mitochondria send out their oxidative dictates; we begin as a microscopic electrical swarm. The lungs the brain the heart. Forty weeks later, six trillion cells get crushed in the vice of our mother’s birth canal and we howl. Then the world starts in on us.”
“Then the world starts in on us.” Indeed it does; or rather, indeed we do. Trauma is always inflicted person-to-person. Trauma is personal. It is sometimes debilitating; sometimes fatal. The wounds are difficult to heal. So racism doesn’t go away. Sexism endures. Religious intolerance separates us. “The world starts in on us.” The world is us. We are traumatized and we traumatize others in mistaken, instinctual acts we believe will offer solace. They don’t. Our acts perpetuate the trauma; pass them along to the next generation.
There are rare times when I read powerful books that fill me with angst. I don’t want them to end and yet I read as quickly as I can; hurtling toward the end. When I finish I feel a bit shell-shocked and not sure what to do next. I read every day. Except sometimes when I finish a particularly compelling book I take a break. All The Light is just such a book. I finished it a few days ago and have chosen to let it settle inside me; to ponder its trauma and healing; the loss and the hope.
Along with Jolandi, I highly recommend All The Light We Cannot See. I also highly recommend The Painted Steps for anyone who seriously wants to write; to take the steps to make your writing your priority.