I used to be scared of skeletons. They were good branding for pirates, and it was reasonable that doctors might keep them in their offices for reference purposes, but otherwise, they gave me the creeps. Day of the Dead calaveras? No thank you. Biker chic tatoos? Not my vibe. Skeletons took me to dark places where I didn’t want to go.
Death. Darkness. Who wants to go there when they don’t have to? Let’s stay focused on the present, I would say. Live in the light.
When Kate Bowler’s book Everything Happens for a Reason (and Other Lies I’ve Loved) came out in 2018, there was enough buzz about it that I carried it in the bookstore. But I didn’t want to read it. She had Stage IV cancer. She had a baby. You can’t make lemonade out of that, even with all the pretty words in the dictionary. An unacknowledged part of me also feared that if I read about something so heartbreaking, it might somehow manifest in my own life.
Then she wrote another book: No Cure for Being Human (and Other Truths I Need to Know). I wouldn’t have read this one either, but I was asked to review it. And, as it does every time, diverging from my comfort-zone as a reader has made all the difference.
The premise of No Cure for Being Human is that Kate Bowler, a history professor at Duke Divinity school and now famous author, has to figure out what to do with the time she has left. And it turns out she may have more time than she expected when she got her original diagnosis. She weaves stories about her days—the body her treatment has left her living in, her hopes and fears for her son, her challenges in continuing her professional life, and many more exquisitely drawn intimate moments—with the story of her father’s pursuit of his doctorate, a long journey that seems digressive but eventually adds another rich layer to the story.
The effect is that of a mosaic made of beautiful fragments, each interesting and detailed. But in the end, rather than leaving us with one more anecdote in this moving journey, she pulls the whole thing together with a meaningful anecdote about a cathedral that makes Kate Bowler’s journey make sense, no matter how imperfect and unfinished it may feel.
Reading No Cure is like stepping back from an impressionist painting and seeing something more real and more comprehensive than an actual photo would have been. The little scenes that she paints each offer their own small truths—a chiaroscuro of dark and light moments—but viewed as a whole, they are deeply satisfying.
As I read, chastising myself for having avoided her previous memoir and promising to read it next, it occurred to me that her story was a memento mori, reminding us you must die, and therefore encouraging us to note the preciousness of our days. But once I finished, I realized that this bittersweet, resonant book is more than just another literary skeleton shaking a warning finger at us. It is a memento vivere, reminding us to remember to live.
By fully preparing to meet her Maker, soon, Kate Bowler came to terms with death. Rather than being scared, she has been able to embrace the fullness of life as it is actually lived, not as we wish it might be. Despite my initial fears, No Cure for Being Human isn’t scary, or maudlin, or self-congratulatory. It’s honest and alive, and it provides a very real hope and peace about how to pursue a real life without denying the reality of death. Or skeletons. So let’s go there, and stay focused on being as whole and fully present as our circumstances allow. Death, darkness, light, shadows, love.
If you haven’t already, read No Cure for Being Human. And remember to live.
To purchase No Cure for Being Human (and Other Truths I Need to Hear) from the Cathedral Bookstore, click here.
To register to hear Kate Bowler (and see her fabulous smile) in conversation with The Rev. Anna V. Ostenso Moore of St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Minneapolis, MN in the EBA Authors Series on Zoom on November 11 at 6 p.m. Central Time, click here.
It is not the end of the physical body that should worry us. Rather, our concern must be to live while we’re alive – to release our inner selves from the spiritual death that comes with living behind a facade designed to conform to external definitions of who and what we are.