High up on my list of favorite things to do is lie in bed or—when the weather cooperates—on our outdoor couch and read. Even just thinking about it has put a dreamy half-smile on my face. Nights I don’t read before bed just feel wrong.
The problem has been that since I finished Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir, nothing has grabbed me. Or so I thought.
I’ve been making do with stretching the Sunday paper out through the whole week, which is interesting, and does occasionally pull at the heart strings (particularly this week’s Modern Love essay, which has a similar theme of appreciating what you’ve got instead of longing for something you don’t have—tears!). But it hasn’t filled that need for being completely engrossed in a long-form, well-told story—what my friend and fellow writer Judi Ketteler so brilliantly calls “narrative mesmerism.”
What I had been completely overlooking is that each night, I’d been reading a fabulous book with the kids before they went to bed. Because it was a kids’ book, it somehow didn’t count.
The book is Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, by Grace Lin. I bought it on a whim at the RISD Alumni Sale, an outdoor event that takes place every Columbus Day weekend here in Providence. Something about the midnight blue cover, with its picture of a young girl riding on the back of a flying dragon, reeled me in. The poetic title gave it the weight of a fable, and the silver award sticker on the front suggested that the writing would be as compelling as the cover. I did get Grace to sign the book for my kids, but now I wish I could have gushed to her in person about how wonderful her work is!
In the book, a girl named Minli lives in a small, poor village with her parents. They work in the rice fields all day and still, when they come home for dinner, there isn’t quite enough rice to fill their bellies. Minli’s mother bemoans their bad fortune. Minli’s father tries to lighten the mood by telling stories, folk tales about the Old Man of the Moon that have been handed down for generations.
The stories inspire Minli to leave her parents and her house to go ask the Old Man of the Moon how to change her family’s fortune. Her parents are bereft. Minli is determined. There are adventures and dangers and magical villages where the moon seems to rain seeds every night that produce a forest of beautiful flowering trees.
While Minli is gone, her mother goes through a range of emotions, but finally comes to see that she would give anything to have Minli back; that when the family was together, they had everything they needed. And that, with her constant talk about their bad fortune, she herself had motivated Minli to leave; not the father’s stories.
And while Minli is on her adventure, she sees that monetary fortune doesn’t make people happier. She meets poor people who are happy despite their lack of it. Ultimately, Minli realizes she doesn’t want to ask the Old Man in the Moon how to change her fortune; she only wants to go back home.
And then (vague spoiler alert) when these two characters find contentment with their current lot, fortune—in all its forms—finds them and the people they love.
This book and its message of being content with what is really snuck up on me and hit me on the back of the head. I’d been doing this in a small way by thinking “Boo hoo I’m not reading any good books” when actually I was reading a great book—but because it was for kids and with kids I was discounting it. In bigger ways, I’ve been doing it by thinking that when my new book comes out next month (obligatory plug here—you will definitely be hearing more about it in the weeks to come!: A Year of Daily Calm) or my website is revamped I’ll really be cooking with gas.
I bet you are doing it too, because we ALL do this: We think we need something to change before we will be content. We reject what we already have and start striving, which only perpetuates our discontent. If I could have one word tattooed on my forehead right now, it would be acceptance.
(Well, technically, I could have a word tattooed on my forehead, but I’m not really going to go that far. Perhaps I’ll write it on a leather bracelet like my brilliant friend and colleague DeAnne Pearson suggests.)
Last night, even though we’d finished the book, the kids and I snuggled in bed and read the author’s note at the end. Grace writes how, growing up as the only Asian kid in her school and neighborhood as a kid, she only wanted to be American. Her family tried giving her a book of Chinese folk tales to catch her curiosity, but she remembers thinking they were weird and boring. Only when she went to visit China as an adult did Grace remember the stories and become enchanted with them. She admits that she made them her own, but she had to accept her heritage in order to be able to let them in enough to create something new. I’m so glad she did.
What books have you read that surprised you, or that got you thinking differently? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.
P.S. I’ve already ordered Grace’s other book, The Starry River of the Sky.