At book club the other night, we discussed many things—who got their period first (and last), which eight spices Amy chooses for her highly downsized kitchen, how to smock curtains like a rockstar, how one of us is falling back in love with her husband and gigging about it like a schoolgirl, what to binge on Netflix these days, whether I should get a dog, whether Emily should get a dog, and what to do with dead pets. For starters. Oh, and the book, My Name is Lucy Barton.
But God bless Erin. She kicked off the best discussion of all. As our self-appointed scribe, Erin is the only one who ever seems to know whose turn it is to choose a book—if Erin’s not there, we’re lost—so it’s no surprise she was the only one to notice it was our club’s ten-year anniversary. To celebrate, she brought each of us a bookmark, a square of chocolate, a can of sparking water (ten years is the aluminum anniversary, obviously), and a list of every book we’ve read together.
It reads as a chronicle of our life together. During book one, The Secret Life of Bees, Crissy and Erin were glowingly pregnant and Kara was almost-in-labor pregnant. By the time we reached book five, Peace Like a River, we had three new babies, 16 older siblings, and three nursing moms between us.
And that was just the beginning. We’re now at book 55, and the list is a timeline of all we’ve gained, lost, and struggled through in the past decade. It’s the witness to at least four more pregnancies, eight new houses, a gallery of tattoos, a herd of new pets (mostly Gloria’s), several new jobs (also mostly Gloria’s), and, I’m guessing here, but approximately 3,000 thrift-store scores.
It’s also seen the heartbreaking loss of two of those pregnancies, two fathers, one nephew, and several treasured relationships. Throughout that list, some of us have lost our religion, our family life, and, at times, our hope.
And this is why I keep going back.
Every book club has a personality. When I lived in Boise, Idaho, my book club was much bigger and more booky. I’ve enjoyed both clubs, but they’re definitely different. For us, a few things are mandatory at every meeting, and the book is not one of them. I mean, yes, it’s the reason we gather, and it will definitely be discussed with vigor, but the first rule of our book club is NO SHAME. Rarely has every person in attendance finished the book, and that’s okay. We’re not judgy. Non-readers give up any rights to spoiler protection, but all are welcome.
We call ourselves “the ladies,” because it sounds ironically old and matronly—but then we proceed to act actually old and matronly. We oooh and aaaah over how much the children have grown; we ask questions about their current age, grade, and activity of choice; we embarrass them with auntie-level delight. We’ve even been known to have a child twirl in place so we can inspect their adorableness from every angle.
Some of our kids enjoy this parade. Crissy’s kids have skittered around the edges of the living room barely able to wait until they were finally invited to report. Other children have to be coaxed. They stand with one foot out the door, wearing a half-mortified, half-proud smile. Once the kids become teens, many of them refuse to show themselves at all, other than perhaps a quick hi-don’t-talk-to-me wave as they sneak a few treats off the table and run for their rooms.
But, more and more, the oldest kids aren’t around at all. One of them lives in Chicago. One in LA. One in London. One is engaged. One is married. Four are in college. I don’t know how this is possible. Most of us are still in our 40s. How do we have so many children leaving the nests? Five minutes ago all of our homes were brimming with young ones. Now two have emptied out completely.
And such is the gift of book club. This is what I’ve noticed. When you keep showing up, with the same people—season after season, mood after mood, chapter after chapter—when your story is seen, heard, and witnessed by a consistent group of humans—it’s soothing. Healing. Profound. And, the alternative—walking through all of these mind-boggling, heart-opening milestones alone—it’s just too empty.
Not only are we sharing life with each other, we’re sharing it with the characters we encounter. Book after book, we’re invited into the tragedy, comedy, hope, and perspective of another. Our reading has taken us around the globe and back again. We’ve spanned history, cultures, demographics, disabilities, and more. When you dive into another world and emerge to talk about it together, you can’t help but be expanded.
I remember one book club meeting early on. It was book 11, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, and we’d gathered at my home on an exceptionally warm late-September night, still balmy enough for us to enjoy the screen porch one last time.
That night as we talked, one of us sat struggling with relentless pregnancy nausea. She laughed, she listened, she said thoughtful and meaningful things. But she felt like crap. Another sat there with aching pain after a recent surgery. She too laughed, and listened, and said meaningful and witty things. But she was hurting. I myself sat there laughing, and listening, and serving drinks, and trying to say something thoughtful now and then. But I had just survived one of the most painful and traumatic break-ups of my life and, honestly, even breathing was hard at times.
That night, at least three of us were in some sort of distracting discomfort. Maybe more, if everyone had laid it all out on the table. But there we were, together.
I remember wishing I could skip the chapter I was in. I flipped through the pages of the book in my hand and wished I could do the same with my life, jumping forward to after the pain would subside.
It wasn’t possible, of course. And, also, I understood the danger of doing that. When you zone out, numb out, or otherwise check out from a chapter or two, your story gets stuck. You never really move forward from that point in the plot. When you try to jump ahead, you’re left scrambling to fill in the blanks, unsure what’s happened and what you missed. Connections are lost. Things don’t make sense.
Even those of us in discomfort. We sat together—holding both our personal misery and the shared pleasure of being together. We talked, we listened, we laughed. We laughed hard. (As in, I probably should have apologized to my neighbors for all the commotion into the late hours of the night.) I hadn’t laughed that hard in a while. It was good.
In this way, book club has sometimes been my church.
The next morning, I wrote this: I keep thinking about something Christopher (the autistic main character in the book) said: “…I wanted to go to sleep so that I wouldn’t have to think because the only thing I could think was how much it hurt because there was no room for anything else in my head, but I couldn’t go to sleep and I just had to sit there and there was nothing to do except to wait and to hurt.”
Yes. Sometimes that’s all that can be done. But sometimes, if you’re lucky, you can add in a little laughing too, or at least someone to sit next to you.
And maybe at book club.
Here’s my sweet book club on our ten-year anniversary!
BY Julie Rybarczyk - September 24, 2018
Thank you for being here. For being open to enjoying life’s simple pleasures and looking inward to understand yourself, your neighbors, and your fellow humans! I’m looking forward to chatting with you.