• Bridge Ladies

    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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And Every One Of Them Words Rang True

Twenty-six years ago on a freezing day in late January, I checked myself into a hospital. All I had with me to read was a Robert Frost poem folded into my pocket, given to me by Richard Howard, my beloved poetry teacher. I was long out of the practice of memorizing poems, but I memorized this one as I waited the long and terrifying hours until I was admitted. And I read it over and over again. In the hospital library I would find three other books that would keep me company during my long stay: Don Quixote, Middlemarch, and August. But it was that poem that kept me alive.


He thought he kept the universe alone;
For all the voice in answer he could wake
Was but the mocking echo of his own
From some tree–hidden cliff across the lake.
Some morning from the boulder–broken beach
He would cry out on life, that what it wants
Is not its own love back in copy speech,
But counter–love, original response.
And nothing ever came of what he cried
Unless it was the embodiment that crashed
In the cliff’s talus on the other side,
And then in the far distant water splashed,
But after a time allowed for it to swim,
Instead of proving human when it neared
And someone else additional to him,
As a great buck it powerfully appeared,
Pushing the crumpled water up ahead,
And landed pouring like a waterfall,
And stumbled through the rocks with horny tread,
And forced the underbrush—and that was all.

Has a book or poem ever saved your life?

72 Responses

  1. Yes. Anne Rice’s Vampire Lestat. I think it put words to the alone-ness and the need to tell people what was really going on with me and knowing that so few would “get it”. The great part about it is that it saved me during different parts of my life.

  2. I’m glad you had that poem with you to help you wait – and glad you found a few of the other books I also love. I’m glad you survived your ordeal and are here to help us. Your blog is one I look forward to receiving each day.

    For me, it was: The Count of Monte Cristo – A neighbor lady befriended me and loaned me classics from her personal library. I was depressed, abused, and needed a way of escape. I wanted to be Valentine or Haydee and be rescued by the Count. My father was sexually abusing me with my mom’s full knowledge. I had squirreled away a can of Draino as a poison, but fortunately never took it. Instead I retreated into a fantasy world of wonderful book characters like the Count, and bided my time. Without books I am not sure I could have survived my childhood.

  3. Song of Solomon changed my career, which for me, was just about the same thing as saving my life. Teacher v. lawyer…it’s self-explanatory.

    Oh, and Betsy – there’s been some hubbub on the Twitter- and blogo-sphere about a recent travesty, Robert Frost selling Jeeps with “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.” In his own voice. It’s sad, but true. I wrote about it, and managed to get the Friends of Frost worked up into a big ol’ tizzy, which was almost worth the travesty of the Jeep ad in the first place. The clip is at my blog, link below.

    Gird your Frost-lovin’ loins….

  4. Yes. A badly written poem, and other badly written poems I wrote at That Time.
    The story of that is on my blog, it’s called The Story of Bulletproof Me, but I’m not linking to it, because it’s 2,000 words that I’m not suggesting anyone read.
    But it exists, and so do I.

  5. “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower” got me through a terrible summer.

    John Betjemen’s “Before the Anesthetic” (Intolerably sad, profound / St. Giles’s bells are ringing round) was part of a bad winter. Especially the line: “Will you give my wife this letter / In case of course I don’t get better.” Still breaks my heart whenever I think of it.

    I’m a fiction person but it’s poetry that has the life-saving stuff. Which is maybe why it’s beyond me to write it.

  6. I’m not sure, but I think perhaps the poems of Wilfred Owen might have kept me from offing myself in the last year of my BA. I even wrote a screenplay inspired by “Strange Meeting”. If he could write that in the trenches of WWI, then I can finish my developmental psych paper, you know?

  7. From “Charlotte’s Web” to “A Wrinkle In TIme” to “The Women’s Room” to “The World According to Garp” to “Rubyfruit Jungle” (I came out a little late) to “The Liars Club” to “The Hours” to The Forest for the Trees”….and a million more inbetween.

  8. In my early 20s, I was saved by Jackie Collins. It’s not cool to say so, but reading Chances and Lucky on a mattress on a friend’s apartment floor, far from all I knew, kept me from giving up and going home.

    • You know what’s cool? That a series of books showed you that there was a whole world out there you knew nothing about. Sometimes that’s the difference between being here and not ever having made it. Anyone who thinks that your response is too low-brow is a pompous ass.
      I’ve had books change my worldview, but change my life? Flowers in the Attic. I was a kid and it was an escape. Period.

    • Fuck “not cool.” Sidney Sheldon and Judith Krantz books (I’m obviously older than you) were an easy escape that I desperately needed from a grim reality. Earlier it was Harriet the Spy, The Chronicles of Narnia, From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, everything by Judy Blume. Never, NEVER apologize for a book that helped you transcend. Isn’t that one of the reasons we all write? xoxo

    • I read the Flowers in the Attic books as a preteen. In secret. Loved them! And I read every single Sidney Sheldon book — I thought he was a genius.

  9. Jose Saramago’s Blindness. When everything was going for shit for me, and in his book, and then he describes three women, two blind and one seeing, who wash themselves and each other on a rooftop in the rain, and it is so beautiful, and it made me feel clean and hopeful and connected.
    And The Hours by Michael Cunningham. Kills me (in the best way) every time I read it again.

  10. I could say that books and poetry save my life every damn day, but specifics are difficult to remember. I’ve hidden in books, one way or another, all my life.

    But if I had to choose three that kept me sane and going and asking for help . . . Leonard Cohen, Rumi, and Marya Hornbacher, each at a different time in my life, and each for different reasons.

    Ring the bells that still can ring
    Forget your perfect offering
    There is a crack in everything
    That’s how the light gets in.

  11. I’m with RE–a fiction person to the core but it’s poetry that gives me the deepest most immediate flashes of hope. Jane Hirshfield often, especially these lines from Three Foxes by the Edge of the Field at Twilight:

    There is more and more I tell no one,
    strangers nor love.
    This slips into the heart
    without hurry, as if it had never been.
    And yet, among the trees, something has changed.
    Something looks back from the trees,
    and knows me for who I am.

    And Dylan of course. And the Jimmy Buffet song comes to mind, how all that saved him was a white line and a Jackson Browne song.

  12. I was nineteen, living half-way around the world in Jo’burg, South Africa, away from everything I considered my ‘familiar’. Lonely, miserable, distrusting a government that treated anyone other than white as if they were useless slime, I hated apartheid, and had to explain why my country, the US, treated its own non-whites like shit.

    All I wanted to do was go home.

    Then I started to read GONE WITH THE WIND and ATLAS SHRUGGED at the same time; two books so different, two writers, poles apart in thinking.

    If I could not have escaped into the special worlds they created I would have gone out of my idealistic adolescent mind. Each book fed an emptiness that until this moment I did not realize existed. That is when I started to write, that is when Margaret Mitchell and Ayn Rand, not only saved my sanity, but gave me the dream.

  13. Yes, a book has saved my life. I don’t know which one it is. It is a book I haven’t written. As long as it remains unwritten, I may be safe. If I were to write it–that last unwritten book–

    I think it must remain unwritten. I must die before my work is done, so I’ll always have a reason to live. For if I write the unwritten final book–then what?

  14. During a dangerously unstable period in my life, I read Agatha Christie’s Unfinished Portrait. (Not one of her mysteries, by the way.) And read it again, and again. I identified so deeply with Celia that it seemed as if the story had been written about me. I took that book with me everywhere and read it until the spine fell to pieces. Then I bought a replacement copy, which is next to the bed tonight. I think I’ll read it again.

  15. I so appreciate you sharing this. And would love to know what you read of August’s.

    A few weeks after entering foster-care–new town, new school–new everything–like a zombie I started leaving the building after 3rd hour. Don’t even remember deciding to do it. Just walked out and walked to the new house to be alone. Everyone else gone to work. Did that for a week then turned myself in and landed in detention–in the library–in the poetry section. Spent my two hours a day for two weeks of repentance reading poetry. And found a reason to stay. Copied one down by e.e. cummings to keep with me.

    may I be gay

    like every lark
    who lifts his life

    from all the dark

    who wings his why

    beyond because
    and sings an if

    of day to yes

    • Love the ee Cummings. I might owe August a mental apology–I didn’t even think of him but of the Rossner book which was an eye-opener to me.

  16. “Tangled Up and Blue” stayed with me through my college years, now that you mention it.

    • Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, Melanie, etc. also saved me. Their lyrical poetry moved my heart – “Sounds of Silence”, “I am a Rock”, “Beautiful People” incredible.

  17. “. . .you know that she’s half crazy,
    but that’s why you want to be there. . .”

    And, actually, my own words untangle the knots in my head that strangle me.

  18. I think I can safely say, in this case, we’re all so very thankful for Robert Frost.

    For me, The Outsiders, A Prayer for Owen Meany, and Let the Great World Spin might all have come to me at the right time in my life. I’m not sure if I can pinpoint any writing that actually saved me though, but this latest ms of mine might be the death of me yet.

  19. Do you mean August, the Judith Rossner novel? Wow. She was a close friend of my mother’s, and I grew up hearing about how early in her career she’d wake up before dawn to write before she had to go to her paying job. I wish both Judy and my mom were still alive to hear about this. Thank you.

    • That’s a great story. I’m sorry they’re not both still alive. I remember thinking when I read Mr. Goodbar how a book could be a page-turner and still full of depth and great writing. Then when I read August, a few years into therapy, I wanted to look Judith Rossner up and find out everything she knew about writing and people and those “other” people, the shrinks, who as it turns out, aren’t any different than anyone else. She’s definitely had a huge effect on my own writing.

      • Oh wow, August, yes, that book really helped me. Although I did always feel after reading it that my therapy experiences were a little inadequate, since I didn’t vomit in my shrink’s office.

  20. In difficult times I return to, what I call, comfort books. They’re like home-baked macaroni and cheese with the really crunchy crust, to my soul. Jane Eyre, Anne of Green Gables, Little Women and Diane Gabaldon’s Outlander. Recently I just needed a ‘time out’ and re-read The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield.

  21. Such a beautiful poem! Thank you.

    At different very low points books have always been my solace. Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter by Simone de Beavoir, The Vivisector by Patrick White before I left the fold. Hadrian’s Wall by Marguerite Duras when I was more recently about to plummet, and Emily
    Dickinson, John Donne, so many poets to run to.

  22. Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome, Jills Pony ~ Pat Blyth and all her Jill Books. Lots of boarding school books, and books by Enid Blyton. Memoirs of a Geisha, don’t know why, just loved it and it made me feel better. Lucia Lucia, Adriana Trigiani, loved the voice and it made me happy. Pride and Prejudice and Jane Ayre, sad but beautiful.

  23. Yesterday my 7 year old and I were listening to Harriet the Spy in the car. She was home from school, in severe pain from having done 10,000 spirals on the ice and so we were driving to the pool because I thought the water would soothe her. I don’t usually listen to what the kids have on but suddenly I tuned in. It was the point in which Harriet explains how much she hates all her friends and that to show them she’s going to be a great spy when she grows up and move to other countries and tell the secrets of the first country to the second country and the secrets of the third country to the first. My daughter wasn’t necessarily angry, just incredibly hurt but it didn’t matter. I knew Harriet was saving my daughter.

    • Ah…why 10,000 spirals by a 7 year old?
      Sounds like hazing, cruel coach or dumb kid, which is it? You don’t have to answer because actually it’s none of me business.

    • Harriet the Spy was the book that made a writer out of me. Mrs. Wilder, the teacher who read it to her sixth-grade class (of which I was a student), and Louise Fitzhugh (author of H the S), are two people who probably did more to save my life than I had hitherto realized.

  24. What a beautiful beautiful poem–it’s saving me right now.
    Keats and Shelley saved me–it was good to know people were so passionate and wanted to die for love.

  25. I don’t know that M.F.K. Fisher’s The Art Of Eating saved my life, but I believe that it protected me during a long sleepless night at a hospital. I had had a routine operation that went well, and I’d been in the hospital before, so I couldn’t understand why I felt too frightened to sleep. I was too tired to read, but I held the book to my chest all night, not letting the nurses take it when they came to check on me.

    It’s impossible to know for sure, but I believe that evil was in those halls that night, and I believe that my book kept me safe.

  26. Long ago and far away, it was The Village Voice, EVO, and the Free Press that showed up to deliver laughs and absurdities into the madness. The best, though, was a Dear John letter that arrived during Tet,its painful irrelevanance a welcome relief and no small irony.

    Since then, many books have saved and sustained me. A phrase, a thought, a choice of words that strike deep can change things.

    • I used to study the back page of The Village Voice, hoping some tall, dark stranger had bought a line just for me. I really believed it would happen one day.

  27. I remember at the time I went bonkers I was doing an independent study on Virginia Woolf. I remember thinking, as I plowed through the Waves, To the Lighthouse, A Room of One’s Own, Mrs. Dalloway, particularly Mrs. Dalloway, that maybe this wasn’t the best idea since it was January and my lonliness was leading to real despair. Anway, I got out, finished the course and don’t remember reading a thing. I transfered to a big ivy league institution and became a history major. Maybe Mrs. Dalloway saved me. I’m still trying to figure that out….Thanks Betsy for showing how to piece together some of the puzzle.

  28. Poem/music
    REM..everybody hurts everybody cries. Voted number one song that makes men cry. If that song doesn’t save from jumping, nothing will.

  29. When I was 29, I had unexpected surgery, and wouldn’t know if it was bad until I came out of it. I held onto my glasses and my book until the very last minute, and when I came swimming and mumbling up from the general anesthesia I cried out for my glasses and my book over and over and over and didn’t feel better until I had them.

    But I don’t remember the book.

    The outcome was not bad, by the way.

  30. They still do- over and over. From when I stared and the letters and they first made sense to now…mostly women, american and english and irish women. The only time I felt that many people feel and think the way I do, Margaret Drabble, A. S Byatt, Adrienne RIch: the poem Dialogue: I do not know who I was when I did those things/Or who I said I was/Or whether I knew even then/That there was doubt about those things.
    Thank God for reading.!

  31. And one more plug for Mrs Dalloway……I think @ the book and the sense of being part of the city every day when I step out of my office!

  32. The replies on this post are so encouraging – inspiring one to write. Who knows, maybe our books will also be lifelines to a needy soul. I read the replies here with pen in hand looking for new books to read and recognizing a lot of old favorites. Betsy, thanks for this post and what it generated.

  33. This is beautiful.
    “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” helped me through a difficult period when I was in my early 20’s and trying to figure out if living was worth the effort. Alone in the forest, 10 miles from the nearest road, smoking a roach left behind at a leanto by some 4th of July campers, alternately reading by the lakeshore and watching the sun set, a black bear came out of the woods behind me, stood on his hind legs and, uninterested in me, ripped apart my food bag that was hanging too low in a tree. I did not have a restful night’s sleep, keeping the campfire burning, but 30 something years later I;m still in these woods.

  34. I was an angry young teenager. My father had left us, my mother never talked about it and I hated her for it. I mean really hated her. In my self-centered world, it never occurred to me that she was the victim here. Then I read Diary of Anne Frank. I remember finishing it in the middle of the night and laying awake for the rest of the night thinking about Anne and comparing her life to my safe-and-sound bed and my living, breathing mother in the next room and my pretty darned comfortable life. The hate started to burn out that night. It still flared occasionally, but that book changed me for the better.

  35. At one point, in my early 20’s, May Sarton’s journals tossed a spare life ring my way. There is still a clear, spartan corner of my brain reserved for the memory of those journals…

    Another one, later on, was Fugitive Pieces, by Anne Michaels. Honestly, the plot is a vague image that floats through, but the feel of some of her lines an phrases is vivid, like synesthesia; the words had heft, and texture, felt heavy on my tongue. They made me remember how I felt when I was first learning the language, and was so excited with the possibilities of combining letters to make words. When I think of it now, I still feel the ache in my chest that whispered “I want to do that…”

  36. “You know Master, we are each as God made us, and oft times worse.”

    – Sancho Panza

  37. Maybe My Father’s Dragon and other children’s books like the Chroncles of Narnia (oh, and all those wonderful horse books, esp one about a sort of horsey English boarding school–heaven).

  38. I don’t think any single book has saved my life. I’ve lived through books since I was three, had almost no life apart from them.
    It’s like asking if a particular breath has ever saved me. Maybe not, but they all have kept me going.

    Reality was not to my liking, and the feeling was mutual. Teachers and mother said I lived in a world of my own. I did not. I lived in the world of Jacqueline Susann, Anaïs Nin’s erotica, fairy tales, catholic hagiographies, Heidi, Edgar Allan Poe, The Teachings of Don Juan, the telephone book, and the dictionary, among too many others to count.

    If books were taken away from me, I don’t know what would happen. I’d go on living, but who would I be?

    On my deathbed, I want someone to read me Bhagavad-gita, if possible. If I’m going to be saved, I want it to be for keeps.

  39. Glad you’re still here to tell the tale, Betsy. I love Robert Frost and memorized him when I was a kid. My decaying copy of Don Quixote has my father’s lucky lottery numbers carefully noted inside the back cover. That’s got to mean something. Unfortunately, I’ve taken a vow to not play the lottery. And since your blog somehow ate my initial response when I hit Post Comment, I decided it meant I should post on my blog instead, so I did. Because I never claimed to be an original thinker. Ta.

  40. Everyone Sang, by Siegfried Sassoon (WW1 Poet)

    Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
    And I was filled with such delight

    As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
    Winging wildly across the white
    Orchards and dark-green fields; on–on–and out of sight.

    Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;
    And beauty came like the setting sun:
    My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
    Drifted away … O, but Everyone
    Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done

  41. “Another woman crying” by Wallace Stevens broke me wide open to my misery in my first marriage. I wept and wept, wailing, and thus began to leave. Yes, it saved my life.

  42. “come, read to me some poem
    Some simple heartfelt lay,
    That shall soothe this restless feeling,
    And banish the thoughts of day.” -Longfellow from The Day I’d Done. I read so much poetry, every night, for about 2 months during an extremely difficult time in my life. It was the only thing that got me through; that and prayer.

  43. I arise from dreams of thee
    In the first sweet sleep of night,
    When the winds are breathing low,
    And the stars are shining bright. Indian Serenade by Shelley

    Really, a bad poem, but I was in so much pain and it kept me alive, so I shouldn’t judge.

  44. Philip Roth’s Letting Go when I was 19. Went through me like rain. And James Baldwin’s Another Country when I was around the same age.

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