I met Kate Bowler at an intensive writing workshop in July 2016 at the Collegeville Workshop in Minnesota. She came the day after everyone got to the workshop; I was walking along the sidewalk and she was seated at a table and I stopped to introduce myself. I’m not even sure how it happened: within seven minutes, we had covered cancer; the time her sister astoundingly helped capture an international pedophile; the inappropriate and hilarious comment made by the brother of one of my best friends at their mother’s funeral; my friendship with Burmese refugees; our deepest feelings about academia; the fascinating world of Christian celebrities; and our comfort level with Christians who cuss (it’s high).
By that evening I was holding Kate in an extended hug, both of us crying so hard that we had to get a roll of scratchy industrial toilet paper to deal with the tears puddling under my glasses and our copious amounts of snot. It was not the pretty crying you do in front of a new friend; it was the sob-belching you do only in front of your lifelong friend who saw you in braces with skinned knees and never cares what you look like.
I haven’t made a friend that way since I was 13 at camp. Except it was not like the first days of an adolescent friendship; we had the advantage of knowing ourselves well, so that our friendship carried the heft of adults who can manage emotion, humor, and grief. And anyway, we didn’t have time for the niceties of new friendship. At the time, Kate had been given ten months to live. In July, she was nearing the end of month ten.
We were at Collegeville to write books and we did. Well, Kate wrote an entire book, and I started mine. On the first few days, we gave each other space to write and checked in at night, but soon we were meeting in the afternoons and then spending the entire day together. I don’t usually like to write near people for that long for fear we’ll distract each other, but we didn’t. We became each other’s battery packs. I think, for Kate, that having another person in that space made it bearable to journey into the pain she had set out to survey.
She had written a profound New York Times article a few months earlier and after it, the hurting people of the world—thousands of them—emailed Kate directly and told her: what her piece had meant to them; how sad it is to die; how little they understood of the world; how much they had missed in their long lives; how often they had faced the truth of their existence and found it wanting.
One afternoon, I sat by her at a table in the sun while she went through those emails, organized by her friend Kori into folders. Camille was there, at the next table over, headphones on. Rosa knitted implacably in the chair next to mine.
(Rosa: when I have a hard time facing the difficult things in my own research and book, I sometimes imagine you knitting beside me. The world will be put back together again by faithful women who knit unflappably.)
We stood vigil with Kate as she waded into the infected underbelly of thousands of people’s pain. It was gross and raw and horrific. She wove those letters into Chapter 7, “Certainty.” We bore witness, those who sat beside her.
Kate’s ability to face the topography of pain and to map it for others, like a clear-eyed cartographer, is one of her great gifts to the world.
Writing to me is like Gepetto in the old story of Pinocchio (older even than Disney’s version): an artisan sculpts and whittles and paints and then, miraculously, after a long time, the creation takes on a life of its own.
That was true for me that week. I played. I wrote rough words, fiddling with paragraphs before discarding them, allowing myself the luxury of rabbit holes that might lead me to new places, finding new avenues to approach my story.
That’s not what it was like for Kate.
Kate’s book stepped forth into the world like Athena marching from the mind of Zeus.
There was no time for her to dally, no meandering. She held a muscular, bracing stance as she allowed her book to come forth. It was ready. She wrote it, the entire thing from start to finish, in those eight days.
The birth of Kate’s book was searing. It’s impossible to describe if you weren’t sitting there seeing it happen in real time. The electricity spilled off into me. My body and mind were charged. I wrote with an energy I cannot hope to repeat ever again–I wrote and wrote and wrote, but I still couldn’t keep up with Kate’s pace.
Some days, I gave her energy when she needed it. And the blistering, incandescent light that must, at times, have overwhelmed Kate, cast long shadows in me. It’s not as if she were a guru, or that cancer made her a prophet of some sort–it’s that she stood at the edge of the known world and described the brilliance and the truth of what she found.
And because I’d elected to sit beside her, that light pierced me.
I searched into parts of myself I’ve long held closed, hidden even from myself. I realized how often I had lied to myself. How hard it was for me to forgive. How easily influenced I was by other people’s ideas for my life. And I saw, with compassion and grace, the good parts of myself too, the parts I sometimes underplayed, the depths of my love for other people, the small things I’d been apart of that are the most valuable to me, the way those things always had and always would be the best sides of me.
Beside Kate, I believed again, in a way I had not since I was young, in a way that maybe I never had before.
By the time our workshop was done, I was so intertwined with Kate’s story, my own book so impacted by her ideas, that I could not begin to remember what book I had been writing before I met her. I continued my slow, Gepetto-like act of writing and found that my creation crackled with her energy. It would be a full year before my own book deal, and I will forever be grateful for the start I had beside Kate.
Kate’s agent sent her manuscript off and they navigated the multiple bids in an auction that ended with her brilliant editor at Random House. The whole process was unimaginably fast, the way no one’s book deal ever is, and when she called—just weeks after our time together—the news was so good. But the good news wasn’t just about Kate’s book deal. The treatments she had started combined with her “magic cancer”…well, I won’t give anything else in her book away.
I remember my response that day: “God is good. All the time.”
“Amen,” Kate said.
And then I had to pause and gulp before I could form words again. There we were, two cynical academics, crying into the phone about the goodness of the Lord.
Today that book releases into the world. I texted Kate after I finished it last week that I feel like her book doula and I couldn’t be prouder if it were my own.
It’s one of my favorite books written by one of my favorite people. It’s hilarious and poignant and whip-smart and insightful and true. It’s not depressing, it’s certainly not schmaltzy, and it’s like nothing you’ve read before.
It’s not just for people with cancer or those who have loved people with cancer, though it will resonate deeply with people who’ve stood on the other side of the invisible curtain with Kate.
It’s for anyone who has come to the end of themselves or who will, at some point, have to come to terms with who they are, and what the world means.
Which means it’s really a book for us all.
Here’s the link to Kate’s book, Everything Happens for a Reason, and Other Lies I’ve Loved.