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The Still Point of the Turning World Hardcover – March 7, 2013
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Author One-on-One: Cheryl Strayed Interviews Emily Rapp
Cheryl Strayed's most recent books include the best-selling memoir Wild, which was Oprah Winfrey’s first selection for Oprah's Book Club 2.0; the advice essay collection Tiny Beautiful Things; and her debut novel Torch. Raised in Minnesota, Strayed now lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband, the filmmaker Brian Lindstrom, and their two children.
Cheryl Strayed: Why did you want to write this book?
Emily Rapp: I wrote this book out of necessity; I would say I didn't want to write it, but that I had to write it. I was compelled, in a way I've never been before, to try and make sense of the chaos of my life in the wake of my son's terminal diagnosis. I wanted to write it as a way of kicking back against grief, that great leveler, and I felt an urgency to wrangle with the deepest issues of human life--What is luck? Where do we go when we die?--because I was being faced with them in a real-time, intensely dramatic way.
Cheryl Strayed: What was it like to write this book, at the same time Ronan was slipping away from you?
Emily Rapp: It was terrible, and it was beautiful. On the one hand, I was tracking his decline; on the other hand, I felt swollen and bright with love. It might sound silly, but a broken heart is an open one, and I was definitely broken. But I was working, and this gave me purpose, and the more I learned from Ronan’s presence--his innocence and beauty--the more I wanted to write about what this parenting journey had taught me not just about being a mother, but about being a human being.
Cheryl Strayed: Who were the writers who served as touchstones during this process?
Emily Rapp: Mary Shelley, Louise Gluck, Sylvia Plath, Simone Weil, Carson McCullers, old Akkadian myths like the Epic of Gilgamesh, and especially the work of C. S. Lewis.
Cheryl Strayed: What did you learn that surprised you, about the process of grieving for Ronan?
Emily Rapp: That grief can be electrifying, shot through with moments of deep presence and a feeling of being in the moment, which alternatively creates a feeling of elation, of true happiness. I was surprised that I could laugh, and love, and be, and also grieve through all of that. It taught me the fundamental truth of death-in-life that we all try to avoid but eventually cannot.
Cheryl Strayed: What do you most want readers to take away from the experience of reading this book?
Emily Rapp: I want readers to rethink their notions of tragedy and normalcy. I want them to find beauty in our human fragility, in the precariousness of all our lives, and I want this to act as a catalyst for them to live and love more boldly in their own lives. To make their lives big and rich and full and meaningful, however that might look for them.
Photo Emily Rapp ©Anne Staveley
Photo Cheryl Strayed ©Joni Kabana
An Amazon Best Book of the Month, March 2013: When her first child Ronan is diagnosed with Tay-Sachs disease, a rare terminal and degenerative illness, Emily Rapp is forced to meditate on one of life's cruelest questions: what does it mean for a parent to outlive her child? Rapp can't help but dwell on all the things that her son will never do--the full life that wasn't robbed from Ronan so much as it was never given. Still Point of the Turning World is brave and magnificently written. Though there are moments of levity, in some ways, it can be hard to recommend Still Point because Rapp's story is so overwhelmingly sad. ("Here," you might say, "why don't you read this and bawl your eyes out?") But this is a book that's honest and thoughtful, and we find that, like Rapp herself, enduring such heartbreak imbues us with a new sense of wisdom and courage. --Kevin Nguyen
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This book is well written and a fast read. It does include a few beautiful moments between the author and her son. I particularly loved the details of the author hiking with her son, feeding him avocado and ice cream, and sitting on the couch listening to opera with him. But, I wish there were more of these moments. I also wanted to know more about how Ronan's diagnosis affected the author's relationship with her husband. The Vogue synopsis states that she wanted to have another child, but her husband did not. The book itself never mentions this. Finally, the author talks about how they only want the most minimal of interventions for her son and that they planned on declining a feeding tube (kiddos with Tay-Sachs eventually lose their ability to eat orally).
As a mother of a child with a life limiting disease on home hospice care, I was hoping for more details about the author's days with her son. I wanted to see the ups and downs, rather than being told generally that in the midst of great sadness there were moments of supreme joy. I wanted to know the stress on their marriage and how they stayed strong. And, I wanted to know what happened when they declined the feeding tube. My son is on a feeding tube and there are a lot of problems with it. I understand why someone would not want a feeding tube. But, I also don't think I could handle watching him slip away faster. I understand the agony of the choices you have to make when you have to weigh quantity of life versus quality of life. I wanted to see what happened when the day finally came to make a decision about the feeding tube or another intervention and if the author would be able to keep her resolve to use only minimal interventions. I wanted to know how she felt and struggled with the decision(s), because there isn't a right answer and, in my experience, no matter what choice you make, you always second guess it.
I walked away from this book feeling pushed away, put down and disappointed. And even though she wouldn't want to hear it, I still can't say how sorry I am for her pain and that I wish things had been different for Ronan and Emily. My heart truly goes out to her.
Bravo for transmuting pain into gold, and reminding this reader why how and why the act of writing literally and figuratively saves my life.
Barbaa LaSalle (author of "Finding Ben")
Emily Rapp has done just that. She has shared with her reader the painful loss of her beloved baby, Ronan. Emily knows that grief is not a path that one walks through and comes out at the other end. Profound grief is something that one carries with them for the rest of their life. So the process isn't so much "getting through it", but learning how to coexist with it. She shares with us all of the tools that have helped her with this task, that everyone of us will eventually experience. She uses literature, philosophy, world religions, nature, and even pop culture to attempt to come to terms with what is happening to her, her husband, Rick, and her magnificent golden eyed, baby "Zoat". She is a little hysterical, as she begins her story...providing the reader with a brief tutorial on Tay Sachs Disease. I was amazed to learn that it is not just a disease that strikes Jewish parents, Emily gives a stunning account of the origins of the always fatal illness. She is, naturally, stunned with sorrow and incredulous with disbelief as she begins to "scribble", as she calls it. She is a writer. In times of untenable stress...painters will paint...runners will run...shoppers will shop...cleaners will clean...and writers will write. Emily's writing becomes a therapy for her, my guess is, that this "book" never started out to be something that Emily planned to publish. But, fortunately for all of us...her scribbling, her literary references, her religious musings (she is a former Harvard Divinity student) and her reflections on life in general develop into a tutorial on grief. She keeps us apprized of Ronan's progress (decline) but always with a loving and thoughtful touch. There is no play by play of her little boy's suffering here. She has too much respect for Ronan. She tells us that she does not receive arbitrary sympathy well, and she certainly is not interested in appealing to anyone elses need for schadenfreud.
I learned so much from Emily. I will not tell you that I immediately understood every literary reference that she made. I have not read her favorite, "Frankenstein" by Mary Shelley. I will now. But I was familiar with much of the material that she shared. Her thoughts on Buddhism, her love of Carson McCullers and Sylvia Plath, and the comfort she took from the beauty in nature. I was brought to my knees when she quoted the words to my favorite song, "Do You Realize", by The Flaming Lips. "Do you realize that everyone you know someday will die...". This is the point. Emily begs us to pay attention. To be present everyday with those that you love. Have a still and quiet heart, breathe, and love well. It will help you so much, if, when, the time comes that you must grieve for them.
I was practcally speaking out loud to Emily as I was reading and she was explaining how parenting a terminally ill child is something that is a very unique and intense learning experience. This baby was not going to get any older, in fact, he would digress developmentally. So there is no priming him for the future, no preschool applications, no competing with other silly mothers...just one on one...unconditional love. I was thinking of Cormac McCarthy, and his book "The Road". He was attempting to parent an older child...his questions-- Do you teach him not to lie? Do you continue to teach him to be a good and kind person? The father knew that there would be no future in "The Road". And, suddenly, as if we were having an interactive conversation...Emily quoted Cormac McCarthy. This was absolutely one of the most compelling books I have ever read. She is brilliant, and she is sad, but she knows that one does not disolve into a puddle on the floor and stop living upon losing a loved one. You do not define yourself as being just the person who has suffered the loss of someone who you loved to the moon and back. You honor that person by continuing to live your life, the life that they no longer have to enjoy. You must continue to search for the answers that the universe provides. They are out there...
Emily has now lost her son. I cannot claim to know her pain. But I feel inspired to recommend this book to potential readers as a lovely and nuanced way to deal with grief...and whether it is grief over the loss of a child, a parent, a spouse, or a friend, Emily has a message for you in "The Still Point of the Turning World". It may be the most important one you will ever hear. If you are not in need of this message right now...good. But you will be. We all will. Buy it and have it on your shelf, ready for that day...and buy one for someone that you love very much, while you're at it.