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Blueprints for the soul: how reading made me who I am

By Janu Yasotharan • February 12, 2020My Reading Life

Something I distinctly remember learning from one of the Chicken Soup books I borrowed from the library was a quote from Maya Angelou:

“You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”

I can specifically pinpoint when I started reading as voraciously as I do now. I was living in a studio apartment in a pretty low income neighbourhood with my family…my mom, dad, sister, uncle and aunt, their three kids, and someone else I don't know. We all slept on the floor and shared the space with whatever rodents or pests the building was infested with at that time. There wasn't a lot to do except playing by the lake when the weather permitted, and going to the library for whatever free program was available for kids.

There was one particular summer where the local library started a reading contest. The kid who read the most books and submitted book reports on them would get a backpack filled with school supplies and a matching lunch bag. I distinctly remember telling my mom that I'd get my hands on it if it was the last thing I did, and I did it. I went into the third grade with something I felt I earned…something new. And my mom learned English by getting me to read to her. It was a pretty fantastic feat for both of us. We did it, and we did it together.

The next memory I have of myself burrowed in books for prolonged periods of time was when my mom and I were at a women's shelter. There weren't many kids there, and I was beyond bored. I would sift through the bookshelves in various rooms of the shelter while my mom met with our social worker, and I would read anything.

When I say anything, I mean anything: brochures, newsletters, random forms, magazines, grocery lists, and then I found an extremely tattered Laura Secord book set. I didn't fully understand Laura's life but I thought the way she lived was pretty cool - they just made it work; everything seemed figureoutable to her. I'm pretty sure our social worker, Sue, took notice of how keen I was to get lost in other worlds because more books randomly started appearing.

"The pleasure of imagination got me through some of my worst days. And yet, somehow, without even realizing it, what really had me were the books on healing, on growing, on finding the silver linings in life, and on getting out to the other side a better person."

By the time we moved out of the shelter and into our (almost) forever home, I was a certified bookworm. I read every book in my elementary school library (seriously, I did), and kept reading. By the time my mom got back with my abusive dad, I discovered the local library as an escape in more ways than one. I gravitated towards folklore, and works highlighting other cultures and places in the world. I wanted to know the world beyond our complex of community housing and beyond the walls that were so thin that I heard every exchange my parents had. I was even more hooked on stories where children saved the day, more than likely because I wanted to fix my world. The pleasure of imagination got me through some of my worst days. And yet, somehow, without even realizing it, what really had me were the books on healing, on growing, on finding the silver linings in life, and on getting out to the other side a better person.

I know my mom did her best, and in a weird, messed up way, my dad did too. But see, I think the only reason I’m able to even say that is because of the amount of Chicken Soup For The Soul books that I read. No joke.

I learned about birth, about death, the living that happens between those two moments and what many think comes after life and death as we know it. I learned how to be a better student, teacher, mother, father, sister, brother, grandparent, grandchild, friend, pet owner, devotee of some spiritual being, lover, wife, husband, life partner and every other role under the sun that humans play at some point or the other. Hell, I even learned about how to be a better runner (did you know that Chicken Soup for Runners and Walkers exists?).

"I learned to happen to life as much as life happened to me in every book that I’ve ever held in my hands. And I still learn these things today."

Although everything I am now is because I got through everything that has happened to me, I’m also everything that I am now because of everything I’ve read. The pages of those books walked me through my precarious living environment with my parents’ volatile relationship, they held my hand through bouts of depression and anxiety, and they held my heart when I experienced the first death of someone I cared for, and my first heartbreak. I learned to navigate relationships of all kinds and always assumed that I had many a guardian angels getting me through and keeping me safe. I looked for signs all the time as gentle divine reminders that everything was going to be okay and I learned to have faith and persevere.

As an adult I prioritize leaving people and places better than when I first encountered them. I genuinely believe that we were put on this earth to do good and be good. I’ve remained as soft as I possibly could because I found various blueprints to life and its happenings in the stories of others. I learned to happen to life as much as life happened to me in every book that I’ve ever held in my hands. And I still learn these things today.

"Sharing my stories could provide someone else with a blueprint they may not even know they need. And this is why I now write as much as I read."

Something I distinctly remember learning from one of the Chicken Soup books I borrowed from the library was a quote from Maya Angelou:

“You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”

Sometimes, it’s in the eye of the storm that you really get to know who you are. Your spirit reaches deep into the spaces between your bones to pull out your lights and your shadows and you can choose to meet them if you are able to. And then I more recently learned from Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air that “human knowledge is never contained in one person. It grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world, and still it is never complete.” This taught me that sharing my stories could provide someone else with a blueprint they may not even know they need. And this is why I now write as much as I read.

Reading list of books that have inspired me recently:

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Janu Yasotharan is a Tamil, Toronto-based creative producer, artist, and writer. She is a lover of life, art in all its forms, beauty and wellness, and food. She is currently a beauty marketer by day, and freelance writer by night with bylines in Bustle, FLARE Magazine, Ephemera Magazine and more. You can connect with her here and here, and read more of her work here.

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