Finding Comfort in Chaotic Times

A couple of weeks ago, Gillian Polack wrote about what makes a book great comfort reading, one you want to read over and over, especially when things are difficult.

Then Madeleine Robins wrote about “fluffy bunnies” – books, television, and movies that provide balm to your soul.  A story doesn’t have to be “nice” to be fluffy this way.

I’ve got some favorite comfort reads as well, and I’ll get to them in a minute. But first I want to talk about something else I just did to improve my comfort levels: I signed up for an 18-day virtual meditation retreat.

It started on Election Day. At 6 am. In fact, I have to get up for a 6 am one-hour session every day until November 20.

Even though I spent 22 years of my life going to Aikido at 7 am, I never became a morning person. I hate alarm clocks. I hate getting out of bed. By the time morning rolls around, I’m usually very comfortable and see no point in jumping up to meet the world.

That I signed up for this retreat shows you just how desperate I am to get back on center. The pandemic and the election have done a number on me.

It’s not that I don’t know how to meditate already. In fact, the retreat is led by Qigong Master Li Junfeng, with whom I studied when I lived in Austin. I could easily meditate on my own.

Except I haven’t been. Part of the purpose of signing up was to get into a habit. The other part was to get some inspiration from Master Li. He’s a joyful man and joy is good.

So I’m meditating, and that’s good.

But I’m also doing a lot of escaping these days, because there’s just so much reality that I can handle. And since I was a very young child, reading has been my favorite form of escape.

I’ve been reading all kinds of things, including some new novels and some serious nonfiction. But I often save new fiction until I’m sure I won’t get interrupted should I get deep into the book.

On those days when I can’t face what’s going on in the world and don’t want to make a major commitment to what I’m reading, I re-read.

Actually, even when I’m not stressed I re-read some books because I don’t want to stop spending time in that world. I re-read the five books of Gwyneth Jones’s Bold as Love series multiple times because I wanted to be there even though it was dystopic.

Those books didn’t comfort me this time around, though. I tried, but I think they cut a little close to the bone.

Early on in the pandemic, I dug out C.J. Cherryh’s Chanur series – space opera at its finest, from the point of view of those we’d call the aliens. It dates back to the 80s and I’ve read it numerous times. This round I even got my sweetheart hooked on it.

The Sleeping PartnerIn recent weeks, I’ve been toggling back and forth between two very different series of books: Madeleine Robins’s Sarah Tolerance books (Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner) and Martha Wells’s Murderbot books, four novellas followed by the recently released novel Network Effect.

I’m pretty sure I’ve read all three Sarah Tolerance books at least twice in the last couple of months. Likewise all four of the Murderbot novellas, plus when I got Network Effect (which just came out), I read it straight through and then immediately read it again.

Miss Tolerance, a fallen woman in an alternate history Regency England who wields a sword with great precision and works as an agent of inquiry, is a delight. One of the joys of these books are the bits that that make it clear to me that I would not want to live in that time and place.

Those held in jail could improve their conditions by paying their guards. The streets were filthy. The “necessary house” added to the other unpleasant odors.

And while Madeleine has waxed creative in her depiction of fallen women, particularly those working as prostitutes, the books are all too accurate in their descriptions of the few options available to women in those times. As the first book, Point of Honour, begins:

            It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Fallen Woman of good family must, soon or late, descend to whoredom.

Miss Tolerance has found a way to avoid this fate, and her unusual role gives her great scope to observe and comment on the rest of society. While the mystery plots are great fun and bear up well on re-reading, it is the keen observation of the world that makes coming back to them such a comforting pleasure.

The Murderbot books are about as different as you can get from Sarah Tolerance. Murderbot is a SecUnit, a Network Effecthuman/bot construct designed to provide security in universe where corporates control all too many planets and the people who live on them.

Murderbot would rather just watch media – it is fond of series about human settlements on various places – but it often has to hack systems and fight all out to protect its clients.

It also has a secret: it has removed the governor module that put it under the control of whoever contracted for its services. But as the series starts, it is still doing its job, in part because it has no idea what it really wants.

Except that it is very clear that it doesn’t want to be human or a pet robot.

The joy of re-reading these books comes from watching as Murderbot (a name known only to itself and a few others) starts to figure out what matters to it. These books are action-packed and on the first read I went fast because I was dying to know what happened next.

The subsequent reads allowed me to go slow and see Murderbot’s many emotional reactions to situations and how it starts to figure out its path. It was easier to see how that built over the books when I read more slowly since I already knew what was going to happen.

The best books for re-reading are probably those that provide such pleasures when you are no longer on tenterhooks about what’s going to happen.

As I sit here pondering what’s going to happen next in U.S. politics while trying to stop doomscrolling pandemic news, it occurs to me that I need to go through my bookcases and see if I can find anything else for a satisfying comfort read. Meditation’s important, but never underestimate the value of a escaping into a comfort read.

5 thoughts on “Finding Comfort in Chaotic Times

    1. Yes. That’s part of what makes it a joy to re-read. The voice stays the same throughout, but on re-read it is easy to see the changes that SecUnit makes while still staying in that voice.

  1. This is the perfect year for comfort reading. I wish we were reading purely for the fun of it, but we will get that back. In the interim, we have good books to help us get through.

  2. I rediscovered another form of comfort yesterday. We went out to Middle Harbor Shoreline Park, which is a park on San Francisco Bay set down smack in the middle of the Port of Oakland. It was windy and a little nippy. Lots of pelicans in flight and a view of the Golden Gate Bridge through the Bay Bridge. And then we watched cranes load storage units that had come off a large ship docked in the port onto trucks. Nature and work together.

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