This post is the start of my blog series called LIFE RAFT where I share the books, podcasts, music, movies, art, and other creations and activities that help keep me afloat when I’m having a hard time in life.
I’ve been wanting to write about my life raft for more than a year now but I haven’t made the time for it. Now, with the COVID-19 pandemic happening, it feels like the right time to be doing this.
Today, I’m sharing the books and one magazine excerpt that are part of my life raft.
HARRIET THE SPY by Louise Fitzhugh
I remember my teacher reading Harriet the Spy to us when I was in fourth or fifth grade. Harriet is a girl who has a neighborhood spy route where she observes her friends, neighbors, and classmates, and writes about them in her notebook. But then one day her notebook falls into the wrong hands and suddenly, all her friends and classmates have read the truthful things she’s written about them, some of which are awful, and they shun her. Feeling completely alone, Harriet has to figure out what to do. I enjoyed hearing this book read aloud when I was a kid and even thought about becoming a “spy” myself after hearing it, but I already kept a diary and was too preoccupied with drawing, making up stories with my stuffed animals, and hanging out with my friends to begin a spy route. But I always remembered that book, and when I became an adult, I read it and was floored by it. All the things that I didn’t (couldn’t, really) understand as a child, became crystal clear for me as an adult. The way that Louise Fitzhugh weaves together the intricacies of human nature, love, friendship, class, truth, and lies is masterful. Also, I love the original illustrations done by the author. After reading it several times, the armature of the book took me by surprise. If you read the book, email me and let me know what you think it is and I’ll reveal what I think it is as well. Harriet the Spy was written for children but the message in it is just as relevant for adults of any age. It’s a book I turn to when I feel alone and like no one understands me.
FIGGS & PHANTOMS by Ellen Raskin
Another middle-grade novel? Yep. Another one. I didn’t read Figgs & Phantoms by Ellen Raskin when I was a kid. I didn’t even know about The Westing Game, the Newberry Award winner and way more popular novel by the same author. Nope, somehow both these books escaped my sphere even though I was a voracious reader in grade school. It wasn’t until my late 30s that I found Figgs & Phantoms, a story about Mona, an ordinary girl that can’t stand all the attention that her extremely eccentric family brings to her. But when her beloved Uncle Florence hints that he will soon be headed to Capri, the Figg family heaven, Mona must traverse a path that she’s never been on before, one that shows her the truth about life…and death. This novel is as wacky as the characters in it and it definitely isn’t for everyone. I’ve read it many times and I discover something new every time I read it. I don’t know how to categorize it because even though it’s written for children, it’s something I think adults would enjoy even more. I read this book when I need to feel uplifted and also grateful for the unique strangeness of life…and people.
CARTWHEELING IN THUNDERSTORMS by Katherine Rundell
What? Yet another middle-grade novel? Geez, Peg, do you like children’s literature or what?! Yep, I do. I’m not ashamed of it, in fact I’m proud of it. This is my life raft and I’m not trying to impress anyone with my selections; I’m just telling the truth. Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms (published as The Girl Savage in the UK) is a novel that I picked up just a few years ago from my local bookstore, Secret Garden Books, because I liked the cover and because the back cover copy intrigued me: Living half-wild on an African farm with her horse, her monkey, and her best friend, Will feels that every day is beautiful. But when her home is sold and Will is sent away to boarding school in England, the world becomes impossibly difficult. When my days start to feel “impossibly difficult,” I read this book. Not only does it whisk me away to a beautiful, magical place, it also reminds me that hard things often happen when I least expect it, but I have the strength to survive.
OUTRAGEOUS OPENNESS: Letting the Divine Take the Lead by Tosha Silver
I’m not going to write much about Outrageous Openness here because I wrote a whole blog post about it which you can read here. This is one of my favorite nonfiction books of all time. Whenever I need a reminder that the universe is at work, that I’m going to be okay, I open to a random chapter of Outrageous Openness and read the story before me. Helps me every time.
I saved this magazine from ten years ago and every now and then, I read this one passage from an interview with Yann Martel, author of the bestselling novel, Life of Pi, and it comforts me. Now it looks like Pi was this big monumental work, but when I was writing it, I was a poor writer living in Montreal. Two years before I finished Life of Pi, my income was $6,000 for that year, so I was way beneath the poverty line. Now, I had roommates; I didn’t smoke; I don’t drink; I didn’t have a car; I didn’t need much money; I had my parents who lived just down the road, and so I did my laundry with them and I’d eat their food sometimes. I got by absolutely fine. I was totally happy.
I hope that reading about the books and the one magazine excerpt that have helped me over the years will inspire you to think about what favorite books, essays, or articles might be a part of your life raft. When things get rough, remember, there are stories available to help you weather those waves and keep going. Read on, my friends, read on.
Peg Cheng is the author of Rebel Millionaire, a guide for how to retire as a millionaire even if you make a modest income, co-owner of Plaid Frog Press, and a career coach combining intellect with intuition. Born in Southern California to Taiwanese parents, Peg lives in Seattle.