life is a verb: 37 Days to Wake Up, Be Mindful, and Live Intentionally by Patti Digh. 2008. Guilford, CT: The Globe Pequot Press.
I have only one complaint about this book: it’s extraordinarily heavy. I like to carry it with me–to read and to share. You will want to do this, too. It’s provocative, entertaining, philosophical, thoughtful, often comical, and always engaging. The author, Patti Digh, warns readers to enter her book pencil in hand because we’ll want to fill it with marginalia–one way of having a conversation with the writer. And so I have. She wants to meet up with us carrying dog-eared copies, pages wrinkled from use, Post-its sprouting everywhere. She won’t be disappointed if she bumps into me. The book was inspired by the 37 days the author spent with her father-in-law Boyce between his diagnosis with lung cancer and his death. That time, she tells us, prompted her to ask, what if I had only 37 days? How would I discover what mattered most? And so began an award-winning blog that evolved into a book. It’s filled with down to earth suggestions, wonderful stories of life experiences, and lessons learned–but it’s much more than that. Digh continually uses writing as a way of helping us explore who we are, what we feel, how we engage with the world, and what matters. Each chapter ends with several quick “Action” activities designed to help us recall and personalize what we’ve read. Then there’s a “Movement” activity–one asking us to truly think or feel or behave differently. All this from Ernest Hemingway, who once said, “Never confuse action with movement.” Real change takes time–and reflection. Digh even suggests writing in longhand. (Remember when people did that?) The “speeding bullets” of our electronic communication don’t always allow time for thought, she suggests. Digh is a gifted storyteller, which means first, she knows what stories are worth telling, and second, she writes with a natural and irresistible voice; she’s a writer unafraid to show her feelings or reveal herself. If you use this book in the classroom, you can share the tiniest snippets or whole chapters. You will find a thousand small (and larger) writing ideas woven throughout the book, and best of all, you’ll feel you are asking your students to write about something that matters: their own thoughts and feelings about life. You’ll want to join in. The design of this book is extraordinary. As soon as I opened it, I wanted to create a book just like it. The sections are subtly color coded to make it simple to navigate; the illustrations are artsy and diverse–look for photos, cartoons, sketches, paintings, posters, and more–all in glorious color; poems and quotations galore decorate the pages, and you’ll find wisdom from persons as diverse as Johnny Depp and Buddha; and the pages are deliciously thick, so that marginalia is easy to add without causing damage.
Ages: Mainly HS and adult for independent reading; all ages for selected passages to share aloud.
In the Classroom
- After previewing the book yourself, select passages to share aloud–or ask students to read aloud, if you prefer. Digh’s writing invites expressive reading, a way of emphasizing voice.
- In choosing passages to share, pay attention to the author’s creative chapter titles: e.g., “Carry a Small Grape,” “Wear Pink Glasses,” “Burn Those Jeans,” “Purge Your Portfolio,” “Let Go of the Monkey Bars” and so on. How do titles pique a reader’s imagination–and for that matter, how much do titles matter? How much thought do your writers give to titles, and how do they come up with them?
- In class, try some of the quick-write “Action” activities. Don’t worry about collecting or assessing what you write. Just write freely and enjoy it. Share your writing in writing circles or start a class collection of favorites.
- Share the “Movement” suggestions, too–even though these are usually things readers must do on their own time and over the course of a much longer period.
- Write about any of the themes suggested in the book. For example, on page 14, Digh notes, “We cherish our objects and are hampered by them as well, unable to move freely around in the world and engage for fear of leaving or losing our coffee cup and 8 1/2 x 11 faux leather legal-pad holder with our initials stamped in the lower eight corner in faux gold. No, we say, we’ll just sit right here with our faux things. Objects distance us from ourselves, from others, from life.” Do your writers agree? Do you? Does this strike a chord? Write about it (or any other passage that captures your interest) for three minutes and share your ideas.
- Talk about the book’s original and artful design. Does the very look of the book enhance the writer’s themes and style? How so?
- Discuss the book’s organizational structure. Is this a book you can skip around in, jump in and out of instead of blazing a trail straight through? Is this a good thing? When does this kind of organizational design work especially well?
- Go on Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com or any vendor’s booksite and write a review of this book.
- If you use this book in your classroom, please come back and tell us of your experiences with it. We’d love to hear from you–or your students!