This past spring was a difficult one for us. We’d lived in Nashville for about a year and a half. Initially, the move felt almost magical: the city allowed our family more space and time for one another, and I found its acceptance of creatives and its creativity both a comfort and an inspiration. My husband’s new job — the reason for our relocation — challenged and energized him, and all that good energy and excitement overflowed to make our happy home life the best it had ever been.
But in March, Andrew was suddenly faced with the challenge of rebuilding his office after several key employees left for a competitor. In April, my home town, Glade Spring, was hit by a ferocious tornado — a highly unusual occurrence in the mountains of Virginia — leaving my childhood home intact, but completely leveling my closest friend’s mother’s house, and forever changing the the landscape of a place that held my father’s childhood and all my memories of him; he died five years ago last May.
With Andrew so suddenly consumed by his work, which also began to require increased travel, the responsibility of caring for our two small children was placed firmly in my court. Andrew did the very best he could during that intensely stressful time — he is a wonderful father and a blessing of a husband — but I began to understand what it must be like to go through life as a single mother, and it was hard.
It wasn’t just my job to keep my children safe, clean, loved, and well-fed; it was my responsibility to keep things normal for them, and even fun. My days offered no outlet for the sadness I felt for Glade Spring or my concern for Andrew’s stress levels, and the strain of holding it all together began to take its toll. In my day-to-day, I grew increasingly anxious and felt powerlessly in flux.
Then, I started reading.
Three years ago, when I was a new mother, I would nurse my newborn Claire at midnight, two, and four in the morning while poring over issues of The New Yorker. Filling myself with so much wonderful, interesting reading material got me through one of the most jarring transitions of my life. Reading made me feel somehow normal and at ease in otherwise alien circumstances. For months, I couldn’t focus on a novel, but magazines — slick, incisive, and current — offered me a welcome view of the outside world; I have never felt so grateful for the authors not of books but of essays, investigative reports, and curious narrative journalism.
As Claire grew more active, I found less and less time for reading. I switched back from magazines to books, but my relationship with them was fickle. I’d go on a reading binge, consuming several books over a short period, followed by a lengthy dry spell, before desperately reaching for whatever book my mother recently recommended and starting the cycle all over again. Before my second child, Elizabeth, was born, I joined a book club, which forced regularity into my reading life, but still, I failed to see reading as a necessity until this past spring.
Serving as the main (and sometimes sole) caretaker of our children, while trying desperately to support Andrew, buoy his spirits, and protect our generally happy home with as much routine as possible, I found myself searching for a good book to read. I did this consciously, as a means of retreat. I wanted to slip into someone else’s world, to launch myself into a new perspective with the help of Little Bee and get an education from The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, to find the quirky, funny part of myself I thought I’d lost in the pages of The Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, and to be fully, magically transported by State of Wonder.
In retrospect, I realize I was grieving not only for my hometown, but also for the season of easy life in Nashville that had so quickly come and gone. Reading was an escape, but not an unhealthy one. It didn’t enable me to deny my grief or the strain our family was under. It didn’t distract me from my children or make me wish for another life.
In fact, the simple act of allowing myself the luxury of literature served to inspire my days with my children. I was a better thinker — more happy, more energized, and more full. Reading served as a wholly reparative act, something that offered renewal at a time when everything felt out of sorts.
Despite my vocation as a writer, I’ve always luxuriated so much in reading that the real “work” has been to not feel guilty about it. Sitting on the couch with a cup of tea and a good book doesn’t look active, whereas being on the computer does — even if Facebook and Pinterest are what’s on the screen. And reading has, since the arrival of my children, felt incredibly indulgent; even the best books do not magically cook dinner, fold laundry, or walk the dog.
But what I’ve learned over the past several months is that reading good books offers more than just a diversion from my busy life or an entertaining indulgence. Reading, like writing, is essential to the way I process everything that comes my way. It fills the black and white world with beauty, wonder, and intrigue in such a way that when I pick myself up from the couch I feel more colorful, interesting, and at home in my own skin.
A couple of weeks ago, David Arms, one of our favorite artists, hosted a gallery opening just outside of Nashville. His work is beautiful in its reassurance, and as Andrew and I wandered around the barn David has converted to a gallery, both of us felt the familiar joy of being filled with art. The opening marked the beginning of fall and, in some ways, the beginning of a new season for us — a season in which we capitalize on bringing life back into balance and one in which we more intentionally arm ourselves with beauty for all the gray days ahead the world is sure to throw at us.
I anticipate the world’s unnecessary noise and all its soul-crippling distortions, but it is hard to know how to combat them. Over the past several months, I have learned a lot, and I am more capable for it all, but one of the greatest takeaways has been the simple reminder to allow myself the space and time to absorb great art, take in good words, and listen to live music whenever I can, because living a life exclusive of art, music, and literature means that I cope less well with the unexpected, and that I am less innovative in the mundane moments of life. I need art to remind me of what is real.
Towles Kintz lives in Nashville with her husband, two children, and their dog. She is currently reading The Night Circus, aims to write every day during the month of November, and posts short essays as regularly as she can at www.towleskintz.wordpress.com.