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Reading has always been my refuge. On bright days and dark, reading has remained as essential an activity as breathing. Reading shapes my writing life. The books you read—glorious, awful, middling—all make you the writer you are. The writers who held me spellbound in my childhood inspired me to try my hand at crafting my own stories long before I stepped into the tricky terrain of adulthood. To me, reading was and always will be pure joy. The written word gives me the power to enter other worlds, to live other lives. If a day goes by without letting me pick up a book from my to-read pile I write it off as a day lost. However rushed or chaotic the workday turns out to be, a book lets me catch my breath and centre my harried self in the quiet of the night. In this promise, I placed my trust.
And then the pandemic struck. The world literally ground to a halt. We woke up to a new reality, a new abnormal: lockdowns, restricted timings for stepping out of our homes, surreal grocery store expeditions, dystopian food shortages…all our familiar rhythms ruptured. The shape of our days morphed in ways beyond our control as news of the virus’s stampede threw us off kilter. Rumours swirled in the air. Fear hovered, ominous, insistent, a fog that refused to fade.
Instinctively, I turned to books, hoping literature would help me make sense of it all. The written word would surely be my anchor. The promise of art beckoned. With misplaced confidence, I picked up a book and burrowed into the couch. In a minute, the realisation that reading—as instinctual as breathing or blinking to me—had turned into an impossible feat hit me like a gut punch. I stared at the page in front of me. Words blurred into each other. Sentences refused to make sense. Plot twists whizzed past me. Clever phrasing and vivid imagery, conflict, character, context—all lost on my pandemic-addled mind.
Psychologists say that humans find it hardest to read when the fight-or-flight response is triggered. Being alive in a time of universal anxiety scrambles your brain. Chaos depletes your focus. This made sense to me on a theoretical level. The trouble was that reading has been my antidote to upheaval ever since I can remember. To be deprived of it when I needed it the most was a cruel irony. I felt bereft.
Reading and writing are yin and yang, river and rain. Without one, the other loses its vitality. A writer who doesn’t read is an oddity like a musician who doesn’t listen to music or a painter who doesn’t see colour. A blocked reader is a blocked writer. Can’t argue with that.
I stumbled through the haze, impaired by my inability to do any real reading or writing. Week days segued into housebound weekends. The frenzy of panic the pandemic had triggered simmered down to a stream of daily dread. One Sunday evening, as I was aimlessly doom-scrolling through Twitter, a quote from a Mary Oliver poem a friend posted caught my eye:
“When it’s all over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.”
Oliver’s lines got stuck in my head. Like the tune of a song you can’t shake off, they followed me everywhere: to the shower, the kitchen, the sun-dappled balcony, the freshly sanitised neighbourhood grocery store.
Gently insistent, they nudged me towards her poems, a stunning repertoire seeped in the rhythms of the natural world. Egrets and hummingbirds and ‘lean owls’ flapped their wings, still ponds and blue green seas and mossy glades shimmered. I was made witness to serendipitous moments of connection with nature. Invited to feast on wonder, amazement, danger, epiphany, excitement…
Oliver’s poetry was soul food and brain food. I devoured it like a starving woman. The wall, the stony resistance that had sprung up between me and the written word crumbled. The page offered no resistance. Once again, I was free to string words together, to marvel at a turn of phrase, to glean meaning from meter and metaphor. With a grateful heart and an armful of books, I headed to my favourite nook after weeks spent mourning my lost reading habit.
Mary Oliver and her profound insights on the connection between humans and the natural world rescued me from despair. Her poetry showed me my place in the natural order. I was a piece in a puzzle, a sentient being connected to millions of others. Oliver’s lines gifted me much needed perspective in a moment of extreme disorientation. They let me read again, breathe again. The cadence of verse quietened the cacophony inside my head. And from that quiet place, I went back to my first love—fiction.