While perusing the audiobook selection on the local library’s website, I ran across a book called “School of Essential Ingredients.” It looked like an awesome book, pairing what I love to read about — food and life lessons. I went to check it out and saw that it was unavailable because someone else already had it. Wah. But, since I was so intrigued about said book, I decided to see if the author had any other books available that looked to be similar. That’s when I ran across “Joy for Beginners.” At first I found the title off-putting – it sounded like a schmaltzy self-help book to me. But I read the description and was curious. I thought it had potential. The characters in the book were more of the middle-aged variety (of which I am not yet) and though I have absolutely nothing against that age group, I find sometimes reading books with characters of a different age than I am or have been can be complicated due to the fact that I find it much harder to put myself in their shoes. I’ve never been married, so I don’t understand the give and take of marriage. I have no children, and although I have been an elementary school teacher, I can’t possibly understand the sacrifices required to be a good parent. In addition to these things (since not all middle-aged women have been married or have children, it’s not like these are universal experiences), I lack the general life experience that comes with the passing of each year added to our lives. HOWEVER, I think I gleaned just plenty from the book, attempting to place myself in their shoes for experiences I had never had, and drawing on similar emotions from other experiences I had lived through.
Now, I know some book bloggers try to avoid spoilers and such, while others are happy to write the entire synopsis sparing very few details. I will try to be somewhere in the middle of this, not giving too much away, but sharing enough that I feel I can adequately draw my conclusions and make my points.
To begin, the story is one of the friendship between women. These stories are always so significant to me, because I have some terrific women in my life who have truly been the portrait of friendship for me. They have been there for those “middle of the night” crises, a sounding board, a push to get me going, a yield sign to slow me down, a warm heart, a calming cup of tea, and so, so much more. The friends in this story met in a rather haphazard way, as many friendship circles do – through mutual friends, common experiences, and that mysterious thing called “chance.” This circle of friends was mostly formed to help one of the women (Sara) who had recently given birth to twins, in addition to her busy and inquisitive little son. The women decide to start a “baby-holding” circle, in which one woman per day goes to the home of the mother to help her take care of one of the babies while she takes care of the other. The women build their friendship through this “baby-holding” circle, becoming involved in one another’s lives and sharing their commonalities. Then one of them discovers she has breast cancer, and the focus of the circle changes from holding babies to taking care of their friend in her time of need. They are there through all the chemo treatments and dismal days, and when the woman (Kate) goes into remission, they have a “victory party.” At the party, Kate tells her friends that her daughter, who is going away to college, has asked her to go whitewater rafting with her in the Grand Canyon. Kate is set against whitewater rafting, seeing it as terribly dangerous and frightening. Then one friend suggests that if she goes on the rafting trip with her daughter, which scares her, they will all do something which scares them. Kate agrees, as long as she gets to pick what each of her friends has to do as their “challenge.”
Caroline’s challenge is to get rid of her ex-husband’s books. Caroline is a used book buyer at a local bookstore and has a very special affinity for books. In fact, Caroline downright LOVES books. To her, books hold the memories of the people who read them, the places they read them, the life events happening while they were being read – it’s as if each book is a journal of the lives of the people who have read it. The thought of getting rid of her ex-husband’s books breaks her heart, for she feels she will not only be making his exit from her life final by removing the last of his things, but by removing the memories that go with them.
I could connect with Caroline’s struggle to get rid of her ex-husband’s books in that I simply cannot part with my own books for similar reasons. They do seem to have their own soul about them in some ways – reminding us of who we were when we first read the story, what it taught us, who we discussed it with, how it changed us, etc. There is a reason my apartment has books in every room (and I do mean every room), and that many of them are books I have held onto for ages but cannot bear to part with. There are many variations of a quote – all of which are something like “Show me ____, and I will tell you who you are.” To me, it’s “Show me the books you love, and I will tell you who you are.”
Daria is the sister of Marion, whom we will meet later. Daria is an artist – a sculptor, whose challenge is to bake a loaf of bread. This may seem like a ridiculously easy task, but for Daria, there is a lot of emotion tied to this challenge. As a child, Daria felt unable to meet the expectations of her mother, who loved to bake bread. As Daria grew, she began to rebel as a response to her inability to be the perfect child her mother wanted her to be. Due to the ties between her mother and baking bread, Daria has never tried this (relatively) simple task. The journey that she takes in order to bake a loaf of bread and complete her challenge is nothing short of extraordinary. She works through many personal struggles, learns to love in a deeper way, and becomes so much more alive and happy – all because of a loaf of bread.
Although I could not connect to the struggle to bake/cook (I love to cook, and am okay at baking), I could connect to her tentativeness about trying something that you have emotional hang-ups about. I think we all can, actually. What was most exciting about her story was not the fact that she accepted and completed her challenge, but that she did so in such a glorious and memorable fashion.
Sara had dreamt of traveling when she was young, and had always wanted to go abroad and explore. Upon graduating from college, though, she married and shortly thereafter, had children. She took on the responsibilities of a wife and mother, tending to the needs of her family, often neglecting those of her own. The challenge she is given is to travel abroad- alone. With just a short amount of time to prepare herself for this endeavor, Sara is off to Venice, Italy. As someone who loves photography, she is a keen observer of her surroundings. It is these very observations that not only make her trip to Italy memorable, but also life-changing, as she connects what she learns in Italy to how she can live and enjoy her life back home.
This is a challenge I personally think I would do miserably with. I do not think I would like to travel alone. It’s not for safety concerns, or out of fear of getting lost or whatnot – it’s because I love to share. I love to point at something I find fascinating, and have someone else there to look at it and marvel with me. I like to discuss my experience with someone who was right alongside me during it, reflecting on how each of us perceived things in a similar or different manner. I get so much out of sharing with others. I think traveling alone would require a lot of me, because I would be constantly wishing I could turn to my side and make a comment to my companion, or wind down at the end of the evening discussing the events of the day with them. And yet, while “traveling” with Sara as she journeyed alone, I can see the merit in the time alone for personal reflection, and can appreciate the value this can have. I just don’t know that it’d be for me.
Hadley is a young widow who lives next door to Sara. Hadley’s husband died in a car accident just a few days shy of their one-year wedding anniversary. She is unsure of how to carry on with her life, since it is no longer the life she had been planning and wanting. She moves into a small house with a garden and nestles into not only it, but herself. As she becomes more and more hermit-like, Sara and her family move in next door, with their young, active son and newborn twins. Hadley is awakened by the life that has moved in next door, but continues to keep to herself. The challenge Hadley is given is to tend her overgrown, unruly garden. The garden has become symbolic for the way that Hadley has decided to hide away, to become safely lost, and to keep to herself. By cutting away the overgrowth and tending to the plant life that is struggling to emerge despite being choked out by weeds, Hadley learns to open herself up to others. She discovers that each flower, herb, fruit, and vegetable has been planted with a unique purpose in mind, and learns to “read” the gardens people plant, revealing details about the gardener and his/her life.
This chapter inspired me because I love gardening and flowers. As soon as I finished reading this one, I ran to my balcony and began digging in the dirt. Since it is autumn, there is not a lot of life to nurture. But I did dig my hands into my compost pile, remove some of the best compost I could find, and blended it in with the good, organic soil, telling myself that next spring my garden will blossom and grow and make me so, so very happy. I agree with Hadley – you can look at a person’s garden (or lack thereof) and learn oh-so-much about them as an individual. Perhaps this is why I find it so soothing to tend to my garden – in some small way, I feel like I am tending to my own soul’s needs.
Marion is Daria’s sister, and while Daria is more rebellious, Marion has been pretty simplistic with the way she lives her life. She tried to please her parents, and cared about making them happy. Though Marion has wanted a tattoo since her youth, she has never gotten one because she knows her parents would not approve. The challenge that Marion is given, of course, is to get a tattoo. She first treats it as an opportunity for research, since she is a journalist and can get away with learning more about it under this safe guise. But as she walks around a tattoo convention, learning about the reasons people get the tattoos they do, Marion is not only intrigued but inspired. The tattoo that Marion wants and gets is never revealed to the reader, which sort of bummed me out, because I really wanted to know what it was that she felt so compelled by that she wanted to tattoo it on her person.
The tattoo above is mine. I took that picture just the other day when preparing to write this post. It is on my right wrist. I, like Marion, have always been fascinated by tattoos. Perhaps that is why I have three, and plan to get more. I think that they can be so beautiful and symbolic of the journey a person has taken. They are a truly unique art form – one that is both journal and beauty – and one that is lifelong and unchanging. Each of my tattoos means something special to me. Actually, in thinking about it, my tattoos can be tied to the theological virtues. My angel tattoo: faith. My phoenix tattoo: hope. And the tattoo above, well, obviously: love. My tattoos are reminders, are memories, are inspiration.
Ava’s character is different than the rest, because she was not a part of the baby-holding circle, nor was she physically present for Kate while she was undergoing her cancer treatments. Ava is a childhood friend of Kate’s who chose to stay away (they do not live in the same town anymore so this is not difficult) during Kate’s treatment because it was too difficult for her to deal with the potential reality of the situation. Having lost her mother to cancer as a young girl, Ava knows all too well how this process can work, and is afraid to allow herself to get too involved. She does come to Kate’s victory party, though, and since she is in attendance, she too is given a task. Her challenge is to attend the three-day breast cancer walk. Ava has no idea what she’s in for. As she begins the walk she mostly keeps to herself – an observer rather than a participant. But as the days go on and she meets family members and friends of those affected by breast cancer, as well as survivors, of course, she breaks out of her shell and begins to feel and unite with these people. She realizes the connection they share and ends up feeling overcome with the sense of family and the emotionality of it all as she crosses the finish line.
I have never personally attended a breast cancer walk, but I have attended walks for other causes. And they can definitely be an eye-opening experience. Having been blessed enough at this point in my life to not have lost anyone to breast cancer, I consider myself an anomaly. And this is sad. I should be in the majority, not the minority. The prevalence of cancer in our society is a horrible reality, and I am encouraged by the many advancements that are being made by scientists and researchers in the field of cancer treatment. Awareness walks such as this breast cancer walk are a great way to show encouragement and support for those fighting for their lives, as well as those who are caregivers to those individuals. Hopefully, one day these walks will become victory marches, much like Kate’s victory party.
This brings us back to Kate, whose challenge proposed by her daughter, Robin, started it all. She is to go whitewater rafting. And not just on a day-trip, but on an actual journey lasting several days. Her friends have encouraged her by saying she beat cancer, what does she have to be afraid of at this point? She explains her fear is in that if she dies whitewater rafting, it will be for a silly, unnecessary reason. She did not have to go whitewater rafting. She did have to fight the cancer. This makes perfect sense. But, then again, what is the point of fighting for life if not to enjoy it by doing things that begin as challenging and perhaps scary, but end up being worth it in the end? With risk can come great reward. Kate’s journey finds her crying to the river about the pain she’s gone through in the course of her cancer treatment, navigating the boat for her team through some rough rapids, and eventually baring both her soul (and her body) while skinny dipping with the women in the group – a huge step for a woman who has had a double mastectomy. But, as she comes to find out – it is all worth it.
I have not been on a whitewater rafting expedition journey as such, but I have been whitewater rafting a few times. And I LOVE IT. I have been to a place in Wisconsin, as well as through the Royal Gorge in Colorado. Both locations were incredible. I love the thrill of figuring out how to navigate the boat, when to lean in to a rapid, when to paddle like hell to get out of danger’s path, and when to relax and revel in the fact that you just did an awesome job and are still alive and floating. 🙂 It’s definitely something worth trying. The times I’ve gone in Wisconsin have been with no guide – just me and some family members out on our own. The time in Colorado we had a trained guide. Both were good experiences; but I prefer having no guide. I like to be able to calculate, attempt, and achieve due to my own planning and action. I think that is what Kate felt toward the end of the journey – a sense of accomplishment, growth, and empowerment.
This book most certainly impacted me in many ways – one of which is wondering what my challenge would be if assigned by my friends. I can’t imagine what they would think I would benefit from doing that isn’t something that is obvious. Perhaps that will be something I will address with my closest friends and see what the answer I get from each of them ends up being…