What To Read When You’ve Accumulated Too Much

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As I prepare to move from my space in Western Massachusetts, I’m revisiting books I’ve carried with me from apartment to apartment, from home to home. It has always been books and music I’ve accumulated most. While living in New York City in the late 90s, I roamed through record stores listening to CDs on headphones pinned to the walls. Often, I bought an entire album for just one song. I would listen to it over and over and over again—walking over the Brooklyn bridge, painting and writing in my cramped apartments—until something in me was satiated. It was the same way with books. Just as music moved my body, the right arrangement of words moved something in me, out of me, through me. Like snapshots from dreams, I remember where I sat when my attention was fixed on the page; the feelings the sentences stirred. They are moments frozen in time.

I moved from tiny apartment to tinier apartment during my years in the city, and every time, I went through the ritual sorting of stuff: clothes, photographs, albums, and books. When I was broke (which was often), I carried small stacks to used bookstores in hope of selling them for a few bucks. But there were those I held on to and would never let go. I lugged them around as clothing was donated, furniture was left out on the street, and partners came and went. The books’ folded and marked pages opened me when I was closed, and heard me when I felt no one else was listening.

This is a time of shedding for me and for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere. We are on the cusp of spring when we remove layers of clothes, rearrange cluttered spaces, thaw out, and step outside. In honor of paring down and spring cleaning, this list contains books, poems and words I’ve taken with me when other baggage was shed. And since we are all battling with time (and some of us, with short attention spans) I thought I would point you to the pages that have stirred me most.

 

The Sacred Path Of The Warrior, by Chogyam Trungpa
I read Chogyam Trungpa’s book Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior in my mid-twenties and it was the first spiritual philosophy that completely resonated. His teachings—synchronizing mind and body in everything we do, overcoming habitual behaviors, relaxing within discipline, and finding the sacred dimension of everyday life—validated my underlying belief systems and provided guidance for my lifeways. Trungpa, Tibetan Buddhist and meditation master writes, “ Human beings destroy their ecology at the same time that they destroy each other. From that perspective, healing our society goes hand in hand with healing our personal, elemental connection with the phenomenal world.”

 

The Fact of A Doorframe: Poems 1950-2001, Adrienne Rich
I remember sitting outside at a cafe in Williamsburg in 2004 when I read “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning,” a poem in Adrienne Rich’s The Fact of A Doorframe. Her words quieted the chaos in the city streets and cut through the noise in my head: “My swirling wants. Your frozen lips. The grammar turned and attacked me.” At the time, I had begun a formal Zen meditation practice and when I committed myself to sitting on the cushion in sangha for thirty-minute stretches, I understood how my swirling monkey mind often pulled me away from my center and caused me to waste my energy in wrong directions. It was then, reading those lines, that I decided to write all the words out of my head. All of them. Tiny and unedited. I read her poetry each day during that period as a form of meditation. Today, I pulled her book from the shelf again, ready to revisit the practice.

All About Love: New Visions by bell hooks
Like bell hooks, I believe love is a verb —not just something I feel, but something I do. In her perennial book, All About Love: New Visions, hooks explores definitions of love that underlie activism and genuine communication, and asks us to break down patriarchal thinking, gender stereotypes, and cultural shortcomings so we can be open to giving and receiving authentically. She writes about the necessity of practicing self-love and the power of solitude to sustain healthy relationships. This is one of my favorite quotes: “Knowing how to be solitary is central to the art of loving. When we can be alone, we can be with others without using them as a means of escape.” I understood solitude was necessary to grow comfortable with myself before I could be completely comfortable with anyone else. There are layers of conditioning, trauma, or belief systems that must be peeled back in order to truly be close to someone else and let them in. Despite the many problems we face, hooks believes (as I do) that genuine love can be revived and teaches us ways to love in a face of injustice.

 

 

Tao of Jeet Kune Do by Bruce Lee
While training as a professional boxer in Brooklyn, I carried Bruce Lee’s book Tao of Jeet Kune Do everywhere with me. His words became mantras and instructions that helped me navigate the city streets and move through each day of training. (An imagined urban warrior._ The creation of this martial arts classic began in 1970 after Lee suffered a back injury during a practice session and was unable to move freely for six months. Released after his death in 1973, Tao of Jeet Kune Do is compilation of Lee’s notes, illustrations, and essays that explore the practice and philosophy of Jeet Kune Do, the martial arts system he created. The book contains detailed fighting instruction along with simple reminders like, “Punches and kicks are tools to kill the ego,” and, “If you follow the classical pattern, you are understanding the routine, the tradition, the shadow—you are not understanding yourself.“ The book helped me approach boxing as practice of self-development and while I no longer fight, the teachings remain with me to this day.

 

Twenty Love Poems and A Song of Despair by Pablo Neruda
This slim book is like a lick of melting chocolate to be shared with your lover. As I write, I am in Puerto Rico with my partner and it is one of the few books I’ve carried with me. It is a slip of a book with deep, rich words. At one point I was convinced I would learn Spanish by studying these poems. I’m still working on it. “I Have Gone Marking” is one I have read over and over again: “I have gone marking the atlas of your body with crosses of fire. My mouth went across: a spider, trying to hide. In you, behind you, timid, driven by thirst.” The writing explores the limits of communication, the longing to bond with our lovers, and the loneliness of being contained in our skin and experiences. “Between the lips and the voice something goes dying. Something with the wings of a bird, something of anguish and oblivion. The way nets cannot hold water.” Take this with you when you want something to suck on, share and savor. Sticky words that linger along your spine.

 

Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver by Mary Oliver
The poetry of Mary Oliver brings us into communion with the sacredness of all things. “Wild Geese” is a poem I continue to turn to and recite in my mind as she reminds me to “let the soft of your animal body love what it loves.” Words that celebrate our animal bodies that work so hard to take care of us even when we try to transcend them or push them away. Published in 2017, the poems in this collection span fifty years and were chosen by Oliver herself. She writes of goldenrod, the sunrise, the pond near her home, her beloved animal companion. Her words awaken wonder and help us remember the profound, impermanent nature of the material world. Devotions is a book of prayer that reminds us to pause, cherish the heartbreaking beauty of nature and the love we already have.

 

Abandon Me by Melissa Febos
This is a new addition to my cherished books. When I was struggling to start Awakening Artemis and deciding which parts of my memoir to include, a friend recommended Abandon Me by Melissa Febos. Febos’ authentic, poetic prose inspired me to dig deep and be more honest and raw in my writing. Reading her book made me more brave. In it, she writes, “We all craft a story we can live with. The one that makes ourselves easier to live with. This is not the one worth writing. To write your story, you must face a truer version of it. You must look at the parts that hurt, that do not flatter or comfort you.” A collection of essays that explore love, belonging, and Febos’ childhood fear of abandonment, Abandon Me also delves into addiction, abuse, and the unflinching self-confrontation needed in order to heal. After reading Abandon Me, I examined myself more closely, with more scrutiny and became a better writer.

 

 

Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs of Eastern and Central North America by Steven Foster and James A. Duke
This book began lifting a veil that stood between me and the natural world. I carried it everywhere as I became more aware of my environment and learned about the healing power of wild plants. The pages have been rained on, bent into a u-shape from living in my back pocket, and are loaded with dried mud and plants. While the small pictures are not the best for identification, the exploration helped look at nature more closely, inspiring the sense of wonder I had when I was a child. I have since graduated to other foraging and field guides, but this one stays with me. Noticing wild food and medicine wherever I go continues to be a practice of mindful awareness that deepens my intimacy with nature and inspires my life. Wherever you are, I encourage you to get a field guide this spring to help you learn more about your wild neighbors.

 

Vanessa’s own book, Awakening Artemis, is a deep-dive into the natural world and working through trauma. — Ed.

Using storytelling from her own life, Vanessa connects the plants’ power and characteristics to issues we all grapple to heal from and even to understand–from the alienating consequences of cultural appropriation to the intersection between a forest’s mycelial network and the neural pathways of our brains.


Vanessa Chakour is a visual artist, herbalist, holistic arts educator, former pro-boxer, environmental activist, writer, and the author of Awakening Artemis. More from this author →