Five books to help you age in a broken world

Five books to help you age in a broken world

Five books to help you age in a broken world

In the introduction to her book Essential labour: mothering as social changeAngela Garbes describes these times as “strange and difficult years of instability, loss and grief – both general and intimate.” That is it, I thought. Sometimes it feels like decades of tragedy and erasure have collided in the past 30 months. During the turn of the summer of 2020, for example, my son also had his third unexplained seizure and I was confronted with the disorienting truth that I couldn’t promise to keep him safe, even in my own home.

It can be hard to find space to live, grow and breathe in the US, let alone mother. (Here I borrow from Alexis Pauline Gumbs, who defines maternity expanded as ‘the practice of creating, nurturing, affirming and sustaining life’.) How do you cultivate and transmit something more than anger and despair?

For me, reading and writing can be restorative acts, even if they require me to face dark or uncertain realities. The right book can drag you away; others pull you in without your permission. When I wrote my memoirs, This boy we made, about my son’s medical and developmental issues, recreating scenes of hospital visits and emergencies drained me, and yet I knew that if I didn’t convey the intensity of those moments, my words wouldn’t resonate with the readers I sent them. wanted to achieve. And to find comfort after living in painful memories, I read a lot. Books offered me no way out; instead they inspired the hope that I can love deeply and create something beautiful in the world. The five titles below have helped me rethink how to mother in an inhospitable time and place.


The cover of We Live for the We
Bold Books

We live for us: the political power of black motherhoodby Dani McClain

In McClain’s reported guide to raising black children, her foresight stands out. “I wonder… whether the US institutions and our trust in them will continue to collapse,” she wrote in 2019, ahead of the overthrow of Roe v. wading, the January 6 uprising and a devastating pandemic. “I also wonder how bad it can get and how fast.” McClain’s work is notable for its vulnerability. She weaves together research, conversations with activists and her personal experience raising a black daughter. McClain doesn’t give us ready-made answers, but she offers a wealth of perspectives that broaden our definitions of motherhood and family before turning her focus back to what we can control. Community-based institutions can create freedom and joy, she reminds us. “On these pages I mentioned my desire to find a place where I could flee with my daughter, a place that will allow her to unleash her full potential as a black girl,” she writes. “I know that such a perfect place does not exist. It is not something to find, but to create.”


The cover of The Breaks
Coffeehouse Press

The breaks: an essayby Julietta Singh

Singh opens this intimate and breathtaking letter to her 6-year-old describing a common but harrowing event: her daughter has come home from school with a picture book featuring a whitewashed version of the Thanksgiving story. An initial sense of pride that her daughter “tanned all four kids like you” gives way to the need to explain how the holiday is related to a legacy of genocide. “My job as your mother is to tell you these stories in a different way,” she writes. Throughout the book, Singh fights to teach her daughter about her origins in a strange, blended family, and to consistently connect their lives to the global realities of climate change, racism and colonialism. What draws me to Singh is the way you can almost hear her voice breaking down the page, even as she gathers to continue: “No, I don’t want to leave this planet,” she tells her daughter. “What I want is another world. And if I say an other worldI mean this one, fallen over and reborn.” This is a mother who complicates simplified and harmful stories – a mother I could stand and dream next to.


The cover of The Trayvon Generation
Grand Central Publishing

The Trayvon Generationby Elizabeth Alexander

In her new book, Alexander continues on an essay published in The New Yorker in June 2020, about the generation whose lives for the past 25 years have been shaped by stories of black people being murdered by police officers or vigilantes. This group includes her two sons, and she writes with the touch of a mother and a poet. Every word cuts exactly like that when she describes how “the specter of violence hangs over black people as constant as the moon.” In addition to visual artwork and poems by others, this writing dares to ask the question whether art can really change us. It may seem like an outrageous question when, as Alexander puts it, black mothers know “we can’t fully protect our children.” If the country continues casually despite mass shootings, lynchings and high black maternal death rates, why should we look at art? Because “artists make radical solutions all day long, soup from a stone, beauty from the sky”, replies Alexander. She concludes her book with a strong statement that black people have a clear ability to articulate both the problems with and the possibilities of America, the kind of vision that has continually spawned life and wonder, even in the midst of darkness and danger.


The cover of Breathe
Beacon Press

Breath: A letter to my sonsby Imani Perry

The scholar and Atlantic Ocean Contributing writer Perry constructed a relentless, lyrical guide to motherhood in this post to her black sons. Like Singh, she is honest with her children about the animosity they will face, but her warnings may be more urgent: “There are fingers that itch to have a reason to cage or even slaughter you,” she writes, recalling a night when she feared that officers responding to a false alarm would accidentally shoot one of her children. “My God, what a hatred of beauty this world breeds.” But Perry insists it’s not about her boys: “Mothering you isn’t a problem. It’s a gift,” she writes tenderly. She also criticizes the idea that more knowledge, more videos, more images can save America. “Awareness is not a virtue in itself, not without a moral obligation,” she notes, explaining her decision to stop watching videos of police shootings. “I knew the imperative wasn’t there.” The greatness Perry wants for her sons is not tied to money or prestige, but to imagination and connection. And the way she encourages her kids to cherish little pleasures, like smooth sheets or a stuffed animal, makes living and parenting when bad news never ends more bearable.


The cover of Hope in the Dark
Haymarket Books

Hope in the Dark: Untold Stories, Wild Possibilitiesby Rebecca Solnit

I was initially nervous to read a book with heap in the title. How would the author speak of my experiences of despair and fear as a black mother? But Solnit is a writer who can tear down the walls of your brain with a single sharp observation, and she earned my attention early on, in the new foreword to the 2016 reissue “It’s important to say what hope isn’t,” she explains. “It is not the belief that everything was, is or will be okay.” What she writes about is instead “an account of complexities and uncertainties, with openings.” It is a hope that makes room for sadness and asks us to remember times when the world did indeed change for the better. Progress is often incremental and Solnit comes with detailed receipts. Crucially, she points out the benefits of not knowing what’s going to happen: as long as there’s ambiguity, we need to leave room for the chance that we can build a future that will amaze us again — in a good way.


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