“I don’t think you can be an optimist until you’ve survived a terrible experience,” writes Kait Heacock , author of the short story collection Siblings and Other Disappointments (great title!), in a piece for The Millions titled “Tom Robbins Was My Spiritual Advisor.” It’s a powerful statement, not least because it seems counterintuitive. But here’s the thing: She’s bang on the money. Like, bull’s-eye on the life o’ metre scale.
In fact, she goes on to add,
“You can’t believe in good in the future unless you’ve seen darkness in your past. Otherwise, you’re nervous and fretful as you look over your shoulder for the bad thing coming. Growing up, I was a casual pessimist, more of a complainer than anything. I expected the worst, occasionally experienced a slight variation of it: a cheating boyfriend, my grandparents’ deaths. I don’t think I was an optimist until I came to New York. Until I learned that I could make it out the other side of tragedy. Maybe the grittiest thing I could do was admit my unhappiness and take steps to change it.”
If you read Ms. Heacock’s piece, you’ll notice she has a bit of a fascination/fetish for “grit.” No, not the grits you eat, the grit you earn by surviving ****storms, curious incidents in the middle of the night, and other assorted events that give you the ability to don invisible body armour and say Go fu*$ yourself! to the world when you know you’re right and the rest of the world is wrong. Or perhaps you’re simply tired of being unhappy, tired of being tired, and wanting to make a change, no matter how slight it may be.
For this wide-eyed young lady from the Pacific Northwest, the plan was to move to New York City, become a writer, and bathe in the many monies and sunshiny successes which would soon roll her way like waves lapping so naturally at a beach.
Well, as it turns out, she nailed the first part (the move was successful) and then got thrown a monkey wrench two months later when her brother overdosed and died.
Sometime after his death, long before I landed a dream publishing job and was vacillating between staying and leaving [New York], I became obsessed with the idea of “grit.” It was a buzzword in education, and the researcher who popularized the term, Angela Duckworth, began appearing on NPR’s homepage. NPR defined grit as the “ability to persevere when times get tough, or to delay gratification in pursuit of a goal.” The times were tough; the goal was to be a writer. Grit, I convinced myself, was all I needed to survive New York, survive my brother’s death, and survive my life.
Kait Heacock had – and appears to still have – grit. What she no longer has is an address in the City. She’s moved back to the PNW, and as she claims, Tom Robbins deserves part of the credit for that. And that’s because he and his novel Another Roadside Attraction, described by his publisher as a “stunningly original seriocomic thriller [that] is fully capable of simultaneously eating a literary hot dog and eroding the borders of the mind,” served as her spiritual advisor at a particularly muddied juncture in her life.
As with most readers, there have been a lot of books that served the purpose of spiritual advisor/salvation over the course of my own life. Off the top of my head, some of these include The Alexandria Quartet, Barney’s Version, Bel Canto, A Confederacy of Dunces, The End of the Affair, The English Patient, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Ghostwritten, The Histories, The Line of Beauty, Long Walk to Freedom, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Man’s Search for Meaning, the Pensées, The Prophet, A Suitable Boy, War and Peace, and The Wind-up Bird Chronicle
This begs the question: Which book(s) did you read in your time of need (for a spiritual advisor/salvation)?