5 books that changed my life this year (no, like, ACTUALLY changed my life)

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This book changed my life, but I was embarrassed about it so I put tape over the cover.

I read a lot this year. Chalk it up to being single for a full calendar year for the first time in my adult life, or the fact that I recognized that my attention span is damaged from all the skittery web reading I’ve focused on for the last 20 years, or who knows what, but I spent a lot of time with my nose in books, usually with a pen in my hand, madly highlighting. (And sometimes sharing my favorite quotes on @offbeatbride’s Insta Stories, because you know that’s what Offbeat Bride readers want, is quotes from some 40something lady’s bedside stack.)

There were a few books this year that changed my life — not in that hyperbolic “omg this cup of chai is like totally changing my life right now!” way, but as in these books completely shifted how I look at my existence, structure my days, manage my relationships, and handle my sanity. Like, these books actually changed my life this year. My focus has been mostly on spiritual growth, aging, and relationships, so if those are themes you’re working with, maybe these books will resonate with you…

Power of Now & A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle

I was so embarrassed about reading these books that I actually covered one with duct tape and a fabric patch because I didn’t want anyone to see me reading it. I mean, they literally have Oprah’s Book Club stickers on the front. Reading Eckhart Tolle is basically the biggest new age cliche ever, and I initially found it really embarrassing that his books were feeling so useful to me, but you know what? I got over it. These books are hugely popular for a reason: they’re profoundly comforting, and make spirituality accessible to a lot of us who just haven’t found an entry point via mainstream traditions or religions.

I carried the Power of Now around with me everywhere — I read it in cafes and on public transportation, I read passages aloud to a dozing lover in a hotel room in San Francisco, my mom read passages aloud to me while I was in the hospital with a tube down my throat, I read it while camping alone on the Olympic Peninsula, I read it while sitting at a heavy metal bar in Brooklyn waiting for a business colleague and a dude with facial tattoos was like, “I hate to interrupt but is that the Power of Now? That book is fucking epic.”

These books are basically like: whatever is happening, just accept it and connect to the moment. Things sucking? All you have is right now. Bored? Right now is waiting! Depressed? Stop denying it and just acknowledge it. You might have a terminal illness? Better enjoy the present moment because it might be all you have left! World on the brink of disaster caused by a mix of global warming, contentious politics, and the human condition? Could be dead tomorrow, so better be awake and present now!

I guess what I’m saying is this: Oprah was right. These books are amazing.

Hidden Blessings: Midlife as a Spiritual Awakening by Jett Psaris

I’ve written extensively about this book, so I probably don’t need to repeat myself. Like Power of Now, I found this book extremely comforting in that it reassured me that if you feel confused, defeated, and disoriented… YOU’RE DOING IT RIGHT. Basically, growth is uncomfortable. You spent the first part of your life fulfilling whatever social contracts you’ve bought into (take your pick: education, career, relationship, home, family, business, art, whatever), and it feels fulfilling because you strive and you work and you strive and you work… and then suddenly it just stops working. For me, it was the sudden slap in the face of my 2015 (health crisis! turning 40! abrupt divorce!), but for other folks it’s just a slowly sagging limp blimp of dissatisfaction.

…And it’s normal.

…And in fact the discomfort is an important part of the process, as is the sense of failure, as is the liminal feeling. For those of us who avoid discomfort (and isn’t that most of us?) this is a really stark shift in how you think about your own process. Stop investing time in avoiding the discomfort. I’m not saying anyone’s going to ENJOY discomfort, but at least you can ease into it knowing that it’s an important part of your process of maturation.

As I mentioned when I wrote about this book and the related workshop I attended, I get that most of Offbeat Home & Life’s readers are in the 25-34 range, so this book won’t be relevant to lots of you… but Jett’s other book, Undefended Love, might be? I haven’t read it yet so I’m not totally sure.

Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help YouFind – and Keep – Love, by Levine & Heller

This book was recommended to me by an Offbeat Home & Life reader, and THANK YOU DEAR READER!! Attached completely changed the way I understand the “crazy” ways people act in intimate relationships, giving me a massive compassion upgrade toward my behaviors, as well as the seemingly inexplicable behavior of others. I was already familiar with attachment theory, and Stan Tatkin’s books had even given me some insight into how attachment issues play out in adult relationships, but Attached blew the roof off for me. I gained huge insights into what triggers my hyper-vigilant attachment system, and why I do the things I do (which don’t even make sense to me!) when I’m in that state.

It also helped me finally understand why some people are so squirrely and distant with intimacy. In fact, more than just understand it (which already feels huge!), now I have deep compassion for the discomfort some folks have around emotional connection and closeness, or why some people freak out so hard at any hint of someone seeming too “needy” or “clingy.”

It’s always solid advice to avoid taking things personally, and this book helped me see that some kinds of behaviors are just your attachment system freaking out. It’s not you, it’s your attachment system! Being able to get a bit of space between your core self vs your behavior is a great tool. It does NOT excuse the behavior, but it gives you a framework to understand it, have compassion for where it came from, and be awake enough to what’s happening that you have the opportunity to make a choice to do something differently.

Supposedly you can rewire your attachment system… it just takes like four years of really focused therapeutic attention. I’m working on it!

What Love Is: And What It Could Be by Carrie Jenkins

This is another one I’ve written about extensively. Sure, it’s theoretically a book about love and polyamory… but for me it acted as an introduction to philosophy, demonstrating how you could approach critical thinking about the relationship structures in your life. Polyamory isn’t a new topic for me (my relationship with my ex-husband was open for 16 of its 18 years) so it’s not like this book changed how I think about ethical nonmonogamy… it more changed how I see culture’s influences on how I think about love.

If you can recognize love doesn’t have to be heterosexual to be of value (which most of us in these parts are like, “Yeah sure of course”), then why is it harder to recognize that love doesn’t have to be romantic, or exclusive, or sexual to be of value? This book introduced me to the concept of amatonormativity (the cultural assumption that “partnered = better”), and how the historical structures of what’s considered “love” have changed.

This book dovetails VERY nicely with this astounding interview with Alain de Botton. Basically: if marriage was a business arrangement for thousands of years, and then a romantic arrangement for a couple hundred years… We may now be moving toward marriage as a philosophical/psychological arrangement.  We’ll see.

Ok, so there are the books that changed MY life this year — now of course I’m dying to hear about the books that changed YOUR life.

Comments on 5 books that changed my life this year (no, like, ACTUALLY changed my life)

  1. Thanks for these suggestions Ariel. I’m looking forward to reading Attached on your recommendation. I loved Carrie Jenkins’ book too. Now I use the word ‘amatonormativity’ in conversation and explain it to friends who haven’t heard it- we’re all like, wow, that makes perfect sense and is so useful today!

    After doing a lot of reading on philosophies/histories of love in my 20s (Diane Ackerman, bell hooks, Erich Fromm, etc), Jenkins’ book and some by Gottman (The Relationship Cure) and Sue Johnson (Hold Me Tight) have shown me how to put ideas of accepting/validating different ways of being/loving into practice. Hard work!

    Looking fwd to reading Esther Perel’s The State of Affairs and continued reading of More Than Two by Franklin Veux and Eve Rickert, which I’m sure you’ve read but which places value on relationships of all kinds, not just marriage or hierarchical, which is so refreshing.

    • I haven’t read The State of Affairs, but I follow Esther Perel on FB and have been LOVING her perspectives on how infidelity marks the death of the relationship… and the question becomes whether you choose to build a new relationship with that same partner, or whether you build a new relationship with a new partner. She’s also done some great interviews about modern dating (which is the phase I’m at these days) and how bloating our expectations of primary partnership is. Her take on modern wedding vows are especially interesting.

      And I have NOT read More Than Two! Adding it to my stack.

      • Esther Perel’s podcast is also fab. it is recordings of sessions she has done with anonymized couples. I’ve found it useful for myself despite not being in any of the situations they are there to address. I am very impressed at how she is pretty blunt with her clients while still usually kinder to them than they are on each other or themselves.

  2. Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski. It’s an amazing look at the sexual response system, and has been incredibly useful as my wife and I deal with past trauma, current obstacles, and (hopefully) future loves!

    • YES! I read that one last year, and really enjoyed it — so useful to understand the arousal mechanisms in place, especially when trauma gets tangled up in the whole system.

      And did you read the romance novels she wrote under a pen name?! It’s called The Belhaven Series and as far as I know it’s the only romance novels that get deep into adult attachment theory stuff. Loved ’em!

  3. The Miracle Morning by Hal Elrod changed my life this year. I now have a set excercise routine, I sleep better, I read even more and am learning so much a by my morning reading routine, I’ve made sound and confident career decisions and it is all because of this book!

    I’m looking forward to adding the ones in this article to my reading list!

    • I hadn’t heard of that book, but it sounds amazing! I’ve definitely invested a lot of time this year in establishing daily rituals that help me stay sane (I mean, with the current political climate, it feels like staying sane is a fulltime job, some days), and this book sounds like a great way to structure those ideas. Thanks for the rec!

  4. I just want to say as a 41 year old reader that I deeply appreciate this post, and everything else you share on the topic of midlife growth. I think there must be a lot of us out there – who discovered offbeat bride when we were younger (in my case around 34) and have continued to follow your sites for years. I love and appreciate aging alongside you and all of the insights you share from your own journey through it. Blessings!

    • Thank you for saying this, Freya! (…And CG, and Tristan, and Hucklecat up-thread.)

      I’m hoping to do a bit more writing like this in 2018… “gracefully navigating middle age when you’re used to be young & weird & special snowflakey” is definitely my favorite subject these days.

      The personal challenge for me in writing about these issues is that part of my midlife transition has been an epic, profound humbling… I am so aware of just how little I actually know about ANYTHING, and so standing up and being like “Hey everyone, listen to me! I don’t know shit, but I’m going to pretend I’m an authority!” feels a little scary. What qualifies me to talk about this stuff? I have no fucking clue what I’m doing!

      (…but I understand that there’s a value in sharing the process, so I’ll try to get over my shit and write more.)

      • I’ve never had the sense that you ever claim to be an expert (except maybe about shoes?) . That’s what often makes your writing so powerful, that you are like “this is my story. Maybe it speaks to you. Maybe you can speak to me.” And then “we”, as in the readers and you, have a conversation.

  5. It’s not a new book for me, but Simplicity Parenting is my go-to whenever I start to get overwhelmed by raising a kid in today’s society. It helps me pull back and check into what my daughter needs, and what aligns with my core values. I probably re-read it once a year or so, usually as we hit a transitional stage.

  6. Thank you for this! As a 45 year old reader, I’m also appreciative. I didn’t necessarily experience any crises about my age (so far I feel pretty profoundly grateful for each year i get, but that may change…)

    I think that one thing that has been difficult for me with some of the books out there is that mindfulness, self awareness, even love and intimacy become so separated from the larger world in which we live. I was appreciative of bell hooks book all about love, because it helped me imagine love as an ethical relationship to the world (yet valuing self care and a range of intimate relationships, which are nevertheless embedded in a political context)

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