← [FYI, readers, I have a poem in this anthology, which relates to this post.]
A little over a year ago, I was invited to participate in a book discussion group that focuses on texts that offer varying perspectives concerning health, surviving cancer, different cultural views of aging, and dying; books on “dying well,” hospice and palliative care, and on hope and healing; books on chronic pain and on neurology and the medical establishment, on birth traditions, on the history of medicine. We have also read The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche, Still Here by Ram Dass, and discussed books that have topics such as placebo effects, psychology, alternative medicines, the pharmaceutical industry, hospitals, the training and practice of doctors, and the death & dying ‘industries,’ including works by authors with personal and moral perspectives on how to live (and how to die). The people involved have included a pediatric palliative care expert, a NICU nurse, a hospice team spiritual counselor, a minister, a former nurse and massage therapist who’s a tai chi instructor, and others–most of us “of a certain age,” by which euphemism I mean we have been living through the experience of having parents in extreme old age and of having long-time friends who now contend with chronic or potentially fatal illnesses. At least one of us has survived cancer.
For a perspective on how most Americans view a serious study of such topics, I offer my husband’s assessment. He calls this “the morbid book group.”
In fact whenever I mention that I participate in a book group (a popular American activity), people ask me if the group has a theme; I tell them, “The theme is medicine, and wellness, and how we die.” And there’s inevitably a pause, and usually my friend asks, “Isn’t that kind of depressing?”
No. It has not been depressing, in fact. I have gained more than I can say from these books and from our small group discussions: information, perspective, philosophy, insight, dare I say wisdom? Not to mention freedom to talk about those things we tend to evade in polite conversation, the space in which to say “This really sucks” or “This saddens me deeply” or to ask, “What can we do?” The book selections have led to great discussions–and have helped me to forge some new friendships as well as to confront and accept different points of view on controversial issues surrounding health care. And death, yes (hello morbid books!), and grief, and–most of all–compassion.
Difficult books? Challenging reading? Have I ever shied from it? I relish exploring this kind of non-fiction-fact-science-ethics-cultural criticism. Participating in this book group is one of the highlights of my current life experience; it’s up there with my long-running poetry critique group and my MFA years in terms of transformational engagement and exchange of ideas.
Below, a list of some of the books we have read and talked about. Just in case any of my readers wish to begin a morbid book group of their own.
Radical Remissions, Kelly A. Turner
Knocking on Heaven’s Door, Katy Butler
Buddha’s Brain, Rick Hanson
Death’s Door, Sandra Gilbert
Living with a Wild God, Barbara Ehrenreich
Still Here, Ram Dass
Being Mortal, Atul Gawande
The Anatomy of Hope, Jerome Groopman
The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Sogyal Rinpoche
Birth, Tina Cassidy
The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison
Counterclockwise, Ellen Langer
The Pain Chronicles, Melanie Thernstrom
Choosing Civility, P.M. Forni
Healing Spaces, Esther M. Sternberg
Die Wise, Stephen Jenkinson
…& more ahead, as we plumb consciousness, placebos, the medical hierarchy, and compassionate ways of living in the world. By the way, readers–suggestions for further readings are welcome!