Sunday, October 9, 2011

Learning to Breathe: One Woman's Journey of Spirit and Survival By Alison Wright

Women adventurers fascinate me. Well, to be accurate, adventurers of any gender fascinate me, but women who leap beyond the boundaries of the mundane are of particular interest. Alison Wright is a photojournalist who has spent most of her life traveling all over the world, primarily in Southeast Asia, photographing for magazines. She is also known for her photographic book Faces of Hope: Children of a Changing World. Learning to Breathe, Wright’s most recent book, is about a horrific bus wreck in the tullies of Laos that Wright barely survives, and her multi-year, very difficult recovery. Although the book cover subtitle includes “journey of spirit and survival,” it is a lot less about spirit than survival. Sure the Dali Lama is in there, as is the plight of the Tibetan Buddhists and Richard Gere’s predictable recommendation, but then my sense of the paucity of “spiritual” substance may just be a reflection of my existentialist’s predisposition.

What dominates the book are Wright’s gaud-awful injuries in the bus wreck, and her struggles with medical recovery. The irony is that she barely survives for weeks in remote, medically primitive villages, but doesn't fare much better when she finally makes it back to our "advanced" American medical system. CLICK ON READ MORE BELOW.

One sweet backstory is Wright’s brother’s dedication to being there for her. Upon learning about his sister’s injuries, he flies to her side and stays with her for weeks despite the fact that his wife has just given birth to their second child. He then maxes out all their credit cards and borrows $25,000 to fly his sister back to America. I’m pretty certain anyone would do the same for a sibling, but I couldn’t help but wonder how this set with his wife, who (more irony here) is pretty much not mentioned in the book.

What stuck with me about Learning to Breathe is the uncertainty of life. Sure Wright stuck it out there, traveling alone in far-fetched countries where danger seemingly lurks on every corner, but then haven’t we all been ambushed by some “defining moment,” that set the course of our life? I certainly know what mine is, and I’ll bet you know what yours is too. (Wright pictured to the left)

If you’re interested in adventure stories written by women, I’d like to recommend a couple that stand out in my memory: Four Corners: One Woman's Solo Journey Into the Heart of Papua New Guinea by Kira Salak, and Tales of a Female Nomad: Living at Large in the World by Rita Golden Gelman.

I read Learning to Breath in a day, partly because it was easy to read, interesting and because I’m a slut for stories about adventure and stories about medical gore, both of which were aplenty in this book. And I admittedly gleaned a couple of nuggets of spiritual succor. I was reminded of one of my favorite quotes, “Life is not measured by the number of breaths you take but by the moments that take your breath away.” Another was when Wright, walking along a beach for the first time since her injuries, silently wished good will to every stranger she passed. That seems the ultimate gratitude for life, and appeals to me.  I’ll end this review by saying, if you liked Eat Pray Love (the book, not the horrible movie), you’ll probably like Learning to Breathe.  Peace and good health to you and your loved ones.

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