The Still Point of the Turning World

I was hesitant to review Emily Rapp’s beautiful memoir, The Still Point of the Turning World, because I worried that writing about how I related to her story would trivialize what she experienced.

But the book haunted me.  I couldn’t turn around, interact with my children, or look out the window without thinking of Emily and Ronan.  And I decided that I wanted to at least try to express how powerful a book Rapp has written, with a deep bow and clear statement of tremendous humility about an experience that I can’t even come close to knowing.

The Still Point of the Turning World is about mothering a terminally-ill toddler. I know several people who say they can’t bear to read it, because of the subject matter.

But the thing is, The Still Point of the Turning World is really about how to live a life.

In prose that is clear and sometimes unflinchingly stark, Rapp tells the story of her son’s tragic diagnosis and of the months that follow.  Every chapter has an epigraph, and that is only one way in which this book is strewn with references to literature.  Over and over again Rapp cites phrases from poetry, prose, and nonfiction, religious and secular, modern and ancient.  With these quotations she demonstrates both the depth of her own knowledge and the ways in which the written word can support us in times of anguish.

Rapp quoted many lines I know and love.  As I read, I had Yeats’ The Second Coming so powerfully in my mind that I tweeted that I couldn’t get the falcon and the falconer out of my head.  I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that two hours later, still reading The Still Point of the Turning World, I got to a passage where Rapp refers to that very poem, to the center not being able to hold, to things falling apart.  She weaves references to literature through her story, making manifest her belief in “the power of stories to make life cohere, to create a necessary order around us, [which] can, in turn, help us fully live.”

Perhaps the single biggest criticism I receive of my writing is that it’s sad.  This is where I worry that I’m skirting the line of disrespect; I intend no comparison whatsoever between my life and Emily Rapp’s.  But it is true that my writing – and my living, by the way – is suffused with a sense of loss, with a very real sorrow about time’s passage.  I can’t get past that feeling, much as I wish I could.  As I read The Still Point of the Turning World I finally understood why.  When I read this sentence, I gasped, underlined, and proceeded to read it again a hundred times: “rendering loss is a way of honoring life.”

Yes.  That is a truth that beats in my veins as surely as my own blood.  It is the story I can’t stop telling.

Rapp asserts the irrevocable omnipresence of loss and grief, and perhaps more importantly, the writer’s role in our human experience of it:

This is precisely why grief, like love and any other foundational, deceptively simple human emotion or state of being, is the terrain of artists.  And it is a writer’s even more specific job to give voice to loss in whatever ways she can, to give shape to this unspeakable, impermeable reality beneath all other realities.

In Ronan, Rapp meets her greatest teacher.  He doesn’t experience his own life as tragic or as doomed.  It is simply what it is.  As Rapp describes their day to day routines, their walks on the arroyo path and his sitting in his bouncer chair, we see the calm intimacy that fills even these deep, jagged lacunas of grief.  Whole scenes in the book bear witness to the fact that “there existed within this helpless, frantic sadness exquisite moments of pristine happiness and an almost-perfect peace.”  Ronan embodies “that rare, raw enchanting experience that many of us render impossible because we analyze and criticize and categorize what we see and think and feel: wonder,” and his pure, without-agenda engagement in this world is a revelation and an example.

Even though life with Ronan is full of hurt, anger, and pain, it is also beautiful.  When Rapp says that in mothering Ronan she learned about “the joys and costs of refusing to look away” I found myself emboldened, inspired, enormously moved.  The Still Point of the Turning World closes with Rapp concluding that Buddhism, which “instructs its followers to be at ease, always, with not knowing, with uncertainty,” may be the belief system that resonates with her the most.  Life is uncertain, we inadvertently brush up against the gossamer border between this world and another every day, and all we have is this bounty and barrenness spread before us.  Of course I can’t imagine with how many more orders of magnitude having a terminally ill child brings this truth home, but I do know it is true for all of us.

There is heartbreak and deep, unthinkable, apocalyptic sorrow at the heart of The Still Point of the Turning World.  But believe me when I tell you this is one of the most life-affirming books I have ever read.  It tells me what I’ve always known, but in words more passionate, eloquent, and convincing than I’ve ever had.  It tells me the three words that are the only tattoo I would ever get: be here now.

 


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13 Comments

  1. Posted March 18, 2013 at 4:47 am | Permalink

    Gorgeous. I do hope the author comes here to read these words because I so believe you took from this book exactly what she hopes readers do. When I first wrote you about The Still Point, I was one who wasn’t sure I was going to be able to finish it. I had only read through Ronan’s diagnosis and Rapp’s description of her pain was so real, I really did have to stop reading for a bit. But I went on and you are so right. This is a book about life and living, not death. What a gift it has been to me.

    admin Reply:

    Thank you for saying that – I’m really glad you liked the review, and, even more, that the book spoke to you as well.

  2. Posted March 18, 2013 at 6:27 am | Permalink

    I am lucky that Emily was speaking at my local bookstore yesterday, in a small, intimate gathering. I very much had the same reaction to the book as you did. It is a sad story, yes, but the book itself is deeply life-affirming and, as you said, about learning how to live a life, a life in which death and loss are an inherent part of the bargain. A woman in the audience asked her, “I’ve known many people who said they are incapable of reading this book because of its subject matter — a little boy dying What do you think?” “Well,” she said (and I am paraphrasing here), “it’s certainly not a book for everyone, but I think it’s a book about loss, and everyone’s lost something.” I couldn’t agree more.

    Thanks for your beautiful review. Did you happen to catch the one in the NYT recently? http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/17/books/review/emily-rapps-still-point-of-the-turning-world.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

    admin Reply:

    I haven’t read the New York Times review – can’t wait to. Thanks! And I agree entirely: everyone has lost something. I sure have.

  3. Esme
    Posted March 18, 2013 at 8:42 am | Permalink

    I’d been thinking about getting this book. Now I know that I will. Thank you for such a gorgeous review.

    admin Reply:

    It’s wonderful. I hope you love it!

  4. Posted March 18, 2013 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    I’ve loved Emily’s writing and have read about the book in several places. I read the NYTimes review yesterday. Since having my son (he’s now almost two), I’ve been unable to read about childhood sickness or any memoirs involving the death or sickness of children. It’s too hard and makes me think about the unthinkable. But your review made me think that it would be worth it in the end to read her beautiful words about her son.

    admin Reply:

    I definitely found the book life-affirming, but there’s no doubt that Ronan’s illness and impending death shadow it. I highly recommend, but I also know several people who are shying away because of the subject matter, which feels close to home. xox

  5. Posted March 18, 2013 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    I pre-ordered this book from Amazon months ago, but then chickened out soon after I learned that Ronan had died. Elizabeth and I had the chance to study with Emily last summer and getting to know her just a bit at that workshop makes me feel both compelled to read it and to bear witness to her story and dreadfully afraid of confronting my own fears about loss and impermanence in its pages. I think you know how highly I value your book recommendations, but I’m not sure when I will be ready for this one.

    admin Reply:

    I imagine studying with Emily was tremendously powerful. I’m jealous! xox

  6. Posted March 18, 2013 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    Lindsey, I’m so glad you reviewed this extraordinary book. I feel exactly as you do — somehow, living inside Emily Rapp’s grief was a powerful invitation to me to inhabit my own life with both more joy and more awareness of just how fleeting all human life truly is. You capture the depth and beauty of Still Point of the Turning World precisely and eloquently, which of course does not surprise me at all.

    admin Reply:

    Oh, thank you. I love that we were reading this glowing ember of a book at the very same time, and unsurprised that we were both so deeply moved by it. xoxo

  7. Posted March 18, 2013 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    Read about this book on Katrina’s site, and your review is just beautiful. I will be reading this one for sure. Thank you.

    admin Reply:

    Thank you!

  8. Posted March 18, 2013 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

    What a beautiful review. I’m ordering it now on Amazon. Thank you for taking the leap and writing about this ‘difficult’ book. I also imagine it is very life-affirming.

    admin Reply:

    I look forward to hearing what you think!

  9. Posted March 18, 2013 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    I just listened to an interview on NPR with the author and am greatly anticipating reading this book. Thank you for the review.

    admin Reply:

    I look forward to hearing what you think!

  10. sue putnam
    Posted March 18, 2013 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

    http://www.npr.org/2013/03/18/174419920/still-point-a-meditation-on-mothering-a-dying-child

    This has in essence, echos of NIGHT by Elie Weisel….. at least for me, who also suffered the loss of a child…
    different yes, but ultimately and in the end, no loss is different.
    It boils down to something deep down that only those who have lost someone dear to them can understand.
    Thank you Lindsey <3

    admin Reply:

    Oh, thank you, Sue. Of course I don’t mean to imply that I have shared that experience, at all, because it seems for me something that is so outside of the realm of most of our human lives that to pretend we understand is insulting and ridiculous. That said, there are, I believe, common themes of loss and longing that criss-cross most of our lives, so maybe it is those that feel familiar. xox

  11. Posted March 18, 2013 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

    Lindsey, your review itself is breathtaking and I’m eager to read the book — I, too, heard her NPR interview today and found myself so drawn to her every word. Thanks for writing about this book — I think Emily wants the world to talk about her story, so I’m glad you didn’t shy away from writing about it. xox

    admin Reply:

    Oh, thank you. That is kind of you. I’d love to hear what you think if you do read it!

  12. Posted March 19, 2013 at 6:48 am | Permalink

    When I was a very young teacher I had such a hard time reconciling my grief about my own childhood injuries with those I was seeing in my students. I felt I had no right to feel pain, to claim damage, when so many others had suffered (were still suffering!) so much more than I had.

    A very wise drug and alcohol counselor gave me words that I’ve carried for more than 20 years: Everyone’s grief is their grief. We feel what we feel. That someone else might have it worse doesn’t lessen your pain.

    It took about 15 more years before I truly understood what she meant, before I was able to embrace that grief and feel it, rather than numb it away. Yes, refusing to look away is, I think, one of the key elements of a life worth living. Looking away is not something we can turn on and off. When we refuse to look at the tragic and painful, we also miss the beautiful and wondrous. It’s a package deal, always.

    admin Reply:

    What a healing, helpful way to think about it. And the package deal: yes. Yes, always. xox

  13. Posted March 19, 2013 at 7:33 am | Permalink

    your review is beautiful. the first few pages of this book are haunting me already. my soul is captivated. my intention and deep desire is always to be fully present with love for my children, for life, but i often become distracted by fear, worry, anxiety, doubt, etc. reading your words and emily’s help place my attention where i most want it: on love right here, right now. thank you.

    admin Reply:

    That’s precisely what Emily’s writing did for me. xox

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