There are two metaphors (or maybe they're really comparisons?) that I am going to try to lay out here:
1) You know how when something truly bad happens to you, something that shakes you to your foundations, really devastating news, and—if you're lucky—one of the weird positive effects is that you suddenly remember that you don't really know anyone's full story really. That the person who is blocking your way on the subway is maybe also coping with a cancer diagnosis, or the death of a sibling, or a long-term struggle with an ill child. And for a while, you have this ridiculous and painful but also deeply helpful compassion. You are reminded of everyone's vulnerable humanity, even while being confronted with your own, and it is profound.
2) You visit a country, and somehow being in this entirely other world, one in which you don't necessarily know how to function well (this is particularly true if this country has a different alphabet than yours, in addition to a different language) and you remember all these things about yourself and about the world: what you like and what you don't, different ways to spend your days, what makes you happy. You see everyone and everything with freshness. You remember that it's possible to take a walk after dinner instead of just slogging down on the couch with your computer; you have breakfast out at a cafe and see people go by and can really pay attention to them.
These two things? These are the best I can come up with for how I felt reading Far From the Tree.
Also? I cried. A lot.
If you've been any sort of regular reader here you know that I am not really such a nonfiction sort of person. And this was a long book, my friends. I sprained my thumb hauling it on the subway. I carried it—all multiple pounds of it—on a plane trip. It's a lot to take on. But…but! Those things up top? That moment where you remember about your own and other people's essential humanity? All the time. Every page.
Do I agree with his essential argument, which is about identity? Well…probably not, in truth. Except sometimes. But it didn't matter, because he made me look. And he made me see. And oh my, oh my, that's what a book is for, yes? He broke apart the frozen sea within me. Over and over and over, to the point where Chestnut said, "Oh Mommy, are you reading that book that makes you cry again?"
You should all read this book. Because as painful as compassion is, it is also…I don't know, it's all there is, really.
*This is one translation of a line from Dante's Inferno (classy!), which is also part of a William Matthews poem, Poem Ending With a Line by Dante, which is pretty awesome.