📖 This is Water.

As humans, our views tend to be enduring. Rarely do our opinions shift. But every now and then I’ll stumble upon a piece that resonates with me so much that it makes me take a step back and really consider my outlook on everyday life.

It sounds dramatic. But then I read and watched David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College.  It was an assignment for school. At first, I grumbled words of dread at the idea of sitting through a long video. But as I listened, his words struck me. His commencement speech is not a typical one; he pokes fun at the conventional layout and clichés often brought up to a graduating class. He addresses the realities of life after college, when you are an adult and naturally fall into an everyday routine.

I highly recommend that you watch or listen to the entire speech. But what I wanted to focus on is the message behind one specific section:

If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable.

But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

Not that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it.

What Wallace is saying here is that it’s easy to operate on a default setting. It’s easy to live with the belief that the world is supposed to cater to your needs and to your feelings, and anything hindering your progression through the day is an inconvenience. If you think about it, there is no experience in your life where you aren’t the absolute center of it. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you, but your own are immediate and real. This is our default setting, “hard-wired into our boards at birth.” But it’s rarely spoken about because it’s considered so abhorrent in a social context.

He uses the example of having to go to the supermarket after work. You’re tired after a long day, but forgot to get groceries earlier in the week. So now you’re standing in the check-out lane. And now there’s a lady screaming at her kid in front of you. Maybe you begin to feel impatient. In that situation, it’s easy to automatically become annoyed or frustrated. Because they are taking up your time by making you stand in this line longer than you feel is necessary, so now you can’t beat the evening traffic to go back to your home.

It requires little effort to take on this default setting that you are the center of the world when you are experiencing the mundane, frustrating, and boring parts of your adult life. But what Wallace emphasizes is you have no idea what people around you are experiencing in their lives. When you are aware enough, you can choose to look at these situations in a different light. Because maybe you are the one in their way. Maybe that lady is going through the worst imaginable experience in her life right now, and she’s yelling at her kid right now because it’s all bubbling up and coming out in that moment right in front of you.

Society promotes this mindset. Society pushes the idea of personal freedom, letting us, as Wallace puts it, “be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of creation.” But real, true freedom means having enough consciousness and awareness to choose how you construct meaning in your experiences.

So what kind of knowledge does it take to adjust your mindset in day-to-day life away from the default? He admits that this is a difficult thing to do. There are days when you won’t want to put in the effort and there are days when you just can’t. Wallace speaks to his own experience, saying that an academic education actually enables his tendency to over-intellectualize, and get lost in the “abstract argument in [his] head.” He misses what’s going on right in front of him.

But what I got out of his speech is that it’s important to just be aware when you are experiencing those kinds of days. Having the ability to remind yourself of the true realities that exist around you and the potential differences in perceptions between yourself and others is essential to living a meaningful life. I never considered that idea fully until hearing Wallace’s speech.

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The phrase “This is water” from the title of the speech is part of an anecdote that Wallace begins with by telling a story about two fish.

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?’

The meaning behind this story drives Wallace’s point home. What it means to live with knowledge is to live with your eyes open and knowing what’s right in front of you. It means to live with discipline, awareness, and attention. It’s choosing what’s real and what’s essential. It’s reminding yourself “This is water.” It’s getting to choose what is meaningful to you, and understanding what it means to think. And it’s putting those ideas at the forefront of your daily consciousness.

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📖 The Book That Brought Me Back to Reading | The Lightkeepers

This is the book that got me back into reading. I read it for a final project during my senior year of high school and finished it in two weeks. After falling out of the habit of reading, I considered it a feat as it marked one of the only times during school I had read a book solely based on my own motivation.

I know I mentioned in a previous post that I wanted to read new books and there is a pile of books sitting next to me on my desk as a (tall) reminder. I probably should be indulging in new and unfamiliar books, but I couldn’t help but want to write about this part-mystery, part-psychological thriller.

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Set on a dangerous archipelago in the Farallon Islands, The Lightkeepers by Abby Geni follows Miranda, a nature photographer that decides to spend a year capturing the landscape. The wildlife alone immediately puts her to the test when she’s swarmed by mice upon landing, proving that Southeast Farallon is indeed the most “rodent-dense place in the world.” If that weren’t enough, the water is treacherous and characterized by an alarming number of shark attacks, the bedrock is coming apart, and the water is so dangerous that ships can’t dock and instead have to lift Miranda in a net with a crane to get her ashore. But she’s not alone. She’s living in a cabin with a group of scientists who have been studying the island.

Shortly after her arrival, Miranda is assaulted. One of her colleagues is found dead a couple days later. The novel follows Miranda as she witnesses the natural wonders of this place, deepens her connections with the scientists, and deals with what has happened to her.

When more violence occurs, each member of the island falls under suspicion. The book maintains a level of tension that gradually increases with each twist and turn, and is narrated through the numerous letters that Miranda writes to her late mother.

“I wish you were here. I wish you were anywhere.”

(the beginning of one of miranda’s letters to her mother)

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(Wikimedia Commons)

The Farallon Islands are a real place (if you can believe it). 27 miles from San Francisco, the islands were dubbed “Islands of the Dead” by the Coast Miwok, an indigenous people that inhabited northern California. They islands have been protected as a National Wildlife Sanctuary since 1999, and the only people allowed are scientists who study the local wildlife. There is a long history of shipwrecks, ghosts, shark-infested waters, and egg wars. Yes, egg wars. The 1863 conflict named the “Egg War” was between two rival egging companies who claimed the right to collect eggs on the islands. These islands were fictionalized for the first time by Abby Geni in her book called (you guessed it) The Lightkeepers.

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(Stacey Rozich, NY Times)

Miranda never settles in one place too long and is a frequent traveler. In the year she spends with the scientists, she gets to know them well. Mick studies the whales and seals on the island, and becomes a close friend of Miranda. Then there’s Forest and Galen: the shark specialists. Forest is quiet and reserved. Galen, an older man, is in charge of the operations on the island. Next is Andrew, who studies the birds on the island with Lucy, his lover. Quiet and menacing, he doesn’t seem to care much about the islands. Lucy constantly picks on Miranda. And finally there’s Charlene, the intern. Characterized by her red hair and bubbly personality, she spends a lot of time with Lucy. Throughout the book, the relationships between each of the scientists and Miranda are explored.

What I enjoyed about the book is that the animals are just as complex as the humans. She struggles with her role on the island with the animals. Is she an observer? A protector? An aggressor? From the gulls on the island described as killers to Miranda’s subsequent injury from petting a shark, the wildlife on the islands seem like something to fear. And Miranda does initially. But following her assault and the death of one of the scientists, she suddenly finds the beauty in her surroundings, almost as if she’s surrendered to it.

“The bats began to rise. It happened all at once, as though they had received a command. I could see them spiraling upward in a column of smoky gray. I watched the flock pour out through a broken window. Their numbers were enough to blacken the stars. They erased the moon.”

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When I first picked this book up up, I wasn’t sure I was going to like it because it was different from the genres I typically read. But this book was so captivating and interesting. The way that Abby Geni writes just pulls you into the story. I ended up marking pages that I wanted to go back and reread. I highly reccomend this book to anyone who’s looking for something different, and a story that is mysterious and emotional and complex. And with that, I will leave you with one of my favorite quotes from the book:

“Perhaps there were only two kinds of people in the world – the takers and the watchers – the plunderers and the protectors – the eggers and the lightkeepers.”

📖 What Makes Life Worth it? | When Breath Becomes Air

Growing up, I was one of those kids that’d go to the library and check out a full stack of books, read them all in a week, and go back for more. In the midst of all those books were always the few that hit me hard. The ones with characters and stories that resonated so deeply with me that I empathized for them with my whole heart. Those books fostered my love for reading.

But now, reading is difficult. It is hard to sit down and indulge in books because I get distracted. With the ever-growing presence of technology, my attention span is much shorter than it was as a kid. Along with many others, I am guilty of holding onto books for far too long, claiming that “I’ll get to it when I have the time” even though I could definitely make the time.

That is why I wanted to create this series of posts on my blog specifically tailored to reading books. Eventually I want to expand to articles, essays, and other forms of writing, but for now my goal is to constantly be reading new books and writing about them on my blog. I want to open up and rediscover my love for reading, and encourage myself to constantly be taking in new works.

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The first book I want to talk about is When Breath Becomes Air. It is written by the late Paul Kalanithi, a brilliant neurosurgeon, after being diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer and realizing that his time left to live is limited.

When I was loaned loaned me this book, it took me a long time to pick it up. But I’m glad I did. I won’t spoil the specific details of the book for you because you should read it for yourself. What is interesting about Kalanithi’s story is that he often struggles with questions regarding life and death, but in the context of what he describes as the intersection of biology, morality, literature, and philosophy.

Throughout the book, there is a constant theme of understanding death, grappling with it, and what it means to be in the face of it. Death had supposedly become familiar to him through his work treating patients as a neurosurgeon, but when he was forced to face it personally, it was unrecognizable. When he received his diagnosis, he was ready to die. He knew what was coming. But when his treatments started to work and he faced the prospect of living longer than he originally thought, his focus shifted to what sort of purpose his life would hold with an unknown amount of time left to live. Through his book you get to see how Kalanithi navigates what it means to live out his last years to the fullest that he possibly can, battling questions of having children or moving across the country away from his family’s support system for a dream job. He continually asks himself what the consequences of his decisions will mean for the people he leaves behind if in one, five, or ten years he won’t be alive.

Despite the sadness of the circumstances behind the book, what’s inspiring about it is that he never cowered in the face of death. Instead, he led a life full of integrity, love, and intelligence. It is clear that he was someone who thought so much outside of himself and had so much to give to others while still maintaining a level of self-awareness that made him the brilliant surgeon, scientist, husband, father, and person that he was. At one point during the book while contemplating whether to have a child, his wife asks him “Don’t you think that saying goodbye to a child would make your death more painful?” And he said, “Wouldn’t it be great if it did?”

I pride myself on being able to achieve a sense of awareness that tends to my ability to think of the bigger picture in terms of where my life is going, rather than getting too caught up in problems that won’t matter down the line. Even so, naturally I often find myself getting lost in my daily routines and stresses. I know that it is important to live in now, appreciate each moment, and not get too caught up in the future or the past, but what this book has shown me is that so much of what characterizes a fulfilling life is knowing that what you are doing in the now is going to contribute to an overall meaningful existence.

While Kalanithi was never able to finish the transcript for the book on his own, it paints a vivid picture of his life and the types of inner conflicts that he dealt with from a coming-of-age young adult to a powerful neurosurgeon to a helpless patient during his last years. He battles questions of spirituality, science, character, morality, and philosophy, and the relationship between doctor and patient. I highly recommend that you read this book. I could go on about how great it is, but it does not compare to reading Kalanithi’s words yourself.

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