By Leslie Lindsay
Life is turned upside-down in this self-proclaimed perfectionist mother’s memoir about her son’s brain tumor.
~WEDNESDAYS WITH WRITERS|ALWAYS WITH A BOOK~
What happens when life is turned upside-down due to a challenging, mysterious illness of one’s child? That’s what happens in Janine Urbaniak Reed’s astonishing memoir, THE OPPOSITE OF CERTAINTY (May 12: Thomas Nelson).
Janine just wanted everything to be perfect. She thought if she did everything ‘right,’ they would be fine, everyone would be happy and no one would experience the pain she felt growing up. Married with three children, a husband who travels for work, she took time out to raise her children…and then, her son, Mason, experienced strange tremors and other symptoms. What was wrong and why were some doctors discounting it?
Infusing faith with medicine, Janine takes readers—and herself—on a somewhat reluctant journey. THE OPPOSITE OF CERTAINTY is most definitely a memoir for our times, as the world faces so many uncertainties, as we all must fortify ourselves against the potential of chaos and fissures at our feet. Here, there’s hope, faith, challenges, and transformation in this fierce and moving medical-mother memoir.
Please join me in welcoming the lovely and talented Janine Urbaniak Reid to the author interview series:
Janine, welcome! It’s lovely to chat with you about THE OPPOSITE OF CERTAINTY. As a mother, I applaud all you went through with Mason (and Sarah and Austin, too). As a former R.N., I felt the pain and worry for Mason, too. Can you tell us what sort of haunted you into writing this book? Why now?
Janine Urbaniak Reid:
Thanks Leslie. Nice to meet you! Writing this book was an attempt to figure out what had just happened to me and the people I love the most. The limits of my power as a person here on earth haunted me. All I wanted was to keep the people I love safe. I didn’t think this was too much to ask in a world with air bags and smoke detectors. While writing I was still trying to wrest some manageability out of the unmanageable. If I could just understand what went wrong, maybe I could make it stop. I didn’t know where I’d end the story until I wrote the last pages of the book. I was aware of wanting to propel us toward an acceptable ending, in the book and in real life. Turns out the story is about learning to dance with what can’t be known, and the beauty that can only be found in imperfect terrain.
The tumor revealed the unstable ground beneath my family, but life is uncertain for everyone. It’s just that sometimes we can pretend to be in charge of more than is actually possible. There’s this idea that if we wrangle circumstances into an acceptable form we can find safety and maybe relax. We’ll be okay when _____, or if ______. But what if we can we be okay anyway, no matter what?
No one could have anticipated the level of uncertainty that this book has been born into, and I hope it can be helpful in the extreme and extended state of upheaval we call home right now. My experience demonstrates that love and goodness shows up for us, through us, and sometimes despite us.
“What could be more important, in this moment, than a story about embracing power, love, and beauty when one’s perfectly laid plans crumble? I read Janine Reid’s The Opposite of Certainty cover-to-cover in one sitting. I set it down feeling more hopeful, peaceful, steady. I loved this book.”
–Glennon Doyle, author of #1 New York Times Bestseller Untamed and Founder of Together Rising
As a writer myself, I am always asking ‘what am I seeking in my writing?’ What guided you as wrote THE OPPOSITE OF CERTAINTY? What did you hope to uncover, glean, or impart to others?
Janine Urbaniak Reid:
I’m fascinated by the question: What’s left when everything that we think defines us is stripped away? I hoped to find a truth that digs deeper than my resume, my address or my kids college admission results. Not that goals aren’t worth attaining. The work we do enables us to make a positive impact on any given day. But jobs change, career paths divert, and the maps we lovingly sketch for our kids’ lives morph into something unrecognizable. Ultimately outside achievements can’t fill an inside void. My message is that those ideas and circumstances that we think define us don’t. Anything that can be taken away is a distraction, not a true identity. We are un-diminishable, defined by the love we can muster beyond our judgement and self-imposed limitations. It’s connection and caring that matter. Underneath all of those coats of identity that separate and divide us, it’s what’s real. True security comes from the inside out.
Can you give us a timeline about the writing and publication of THE OPPOSITE OF CERTAINTY? What were some of your stumbling blocks, what propelled you forward? Was it faith, something else? And gosh—what’s it like to have this come out during a pandemic? And by the way, the title is completely fitting for the times.
Janine Urbaniak Reid:
I worked on the book for about five years. Before that I collected stories, and jotted down quotes, those did they really say that? moments in the book. I chided myself for not writing while Mason was in the hospital, but it was too much. Memoir needs a rear view mirror to contextualize the story, a safe distance to feel and hopefully understand. I wrote a lot of emails during the long hospital days, and these were filled with helpful details. The story evolved through each draft – from annoying people and the stupid things they said to a grudging compassion for all those imperfect humans, like me, who really tried to do their best. Sometimes I had to go slowly because the writing was so difficult. This was an opportunity to feel the emotions I’d had to push away while living the story. Writing was healing. There was also unexpected joy in the fine tooth combing of the experience. I started to notice the improbable good, how we’d been cared for in surprising ways.
The title comes from a Paul Tillich quote,
“Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it’s one element of faith.”
And Anne Lamott’s take on that,
“The opposite of faith isn’t doubt, it’s certainty.”
As people on this precarious planet, we’re being asked to have tremendous faith, whether we’re religious or not. Mine is a story about letting go of what I thought I knew for sure, the way I thought things had to be in order for me to be okay. It’s about taking the next step when I’m not sure where my foot is going to land. I girded myself against the unknown my entire life. Living this story showed me that I can find sustaining strength and love despite the circumstances. For some of us, faith means doing the next right thing especially when we’re afraid and unsure of our abilities.
Which brings us to publishing in the midst of a pandemic. I thought the book would be timely, but this?!! I had a reading scheduled at Book Passage, the local independent where I’ve seen many of my favorite writers over the years. That didn’t happen. But Anne Lamott and I did a Facebook Live event that garnered 48K views. I sat in an empty Book Passage (appropriately masked) and signed a hundred or so books, which was strange and fun. I have had a lot of opportunities to talk to people about strategies for surviving uncertain times. That’s meaningful. I do believe my experience can be especially helpful right now, and that’s a lot.
I think sometimes things are a put in our path for a reason. I came across THE OPPOSITE OF CERTAINTY because of Caroline Leavitt, who learned about it from Annie Lamott, and you are friends with Annie. There’s a lovely circuitous connection here. Do you ever think that books find you at the ‘right time?’ Can you expand on that a bit?
Janine Urbaniak Reid:
I love these connections, open-hearted people, new friends and writers showing up for each other. It’s so helpful to remember when the news continues to be terrifying, there is good, and it does surprise and connect us. I agree books find us at the right time. Growing up, books kept me sane. I couldn’t name what was wrong in my family back then, but it gave me hope that Laura Ingalls Wilder survived the prairie despite the locusts. Judy Blume characters gave a voice to my adolescence. Then came Erica Jong, and eventually Anne Lamott. Writers who speak the truth with a capital T, brave enough to say aloud what I couldn’t yet find words to express. People also show up exactly when we need them. Annie and I became friends when she offered to pray with me by phone after Mason was diagnosed. (I knew her brother Stevo.) I remember Annie saying, “I’ll pray with you everyday.” She remembers being surprised when I called the next day, because apparently no one had ever taken her up on her offer before. She is one of the people who taught me how to be a friend during difficult times – willing to sit with me even when I wasn’t grateful or cheerful. I wrote this book with a lot of encouragement from Annie and my family. Some writing days I felt very fragile. I told myself to say what’s true because no one was probably ever going to see the manuscript anyway. It was just me alone at my desk. Eventually the book sold and the galley copies arrived. Then I had an oh my god moment, so much for hiding out. That’s when Annie introduced me to Caroline Leavitt, who was one of the first people outside of my circle of friends to read the book. The connection with Caroline was immediate and genuine. I cried when I read the blurb she wrote for me. I’ve been binging on Caroline’s books lately, recently I finished Cruel Beautiful World. I’m looking forward to the publication of With or Without You in August. We know truth when we read it. Whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, truth has depth and weight, and nourishes us with fresh insight into what it’s like to negotiate love and loss, the terror and incredible beauty of life here and now.
Janine, this has been so fascinating and insightful. Before we go, can you give us a little update on Mason?
Janine Urbaniak Reid:
Mason just celebrated his 23rd birthday. It’s been a difficult time. I really wanted to write an epilogue that would tie a hard-earned silk ribbon around the experience. Yet we’re back to living with as much peace, joy and safety as we can eke out of any given day. Mason’s tumor is acting up. Still he creates amazing art. He is thoroughly loved by his community. Right now he’s laughing downstairs.
Thank you, thank you for sharing! Is there anything I forgot to ask about, but should have?
Janine Urbaniak Reid:
Q: Any suggestions for people who are struggling during this time of prolonged uncertainty and global instability?
A: During a difficult time that just kept stretching longer and harder, I realized that I was waiting for circumstances to get better before I got better. I was waiting for the life I recognized to come back around, but there it was – the life I had. I began to do simple things to take care of myself because depleted I can’t help myself or anyone else. So I rested, took a walk, poured a glass of water, set a timer on my phone for five minutes of meditation. The goals were simple and doable. It helps to stay in the moment. I ask myself, am I okay right now? Not next week, not two years from now, just now. If the the answer is yes, that’s really good. If the answer is no, I try to inhale deeply and exhale slowly. I reach out to friend, send out a prayer or good intention. Sometimes I just need someone to hear me say how hard it is. The most transformative moments of my life start with me speaking one word – help. Slicing time into manageable pieces helps. Some days are too long and hard so we root for midnight.
Leslie – Thank you for these thoughtful questions.
Artistic image of book cover designed and photographed by Leslie Lindsay. Follow on Instagram for more like this @leslielindsay1 #alwayswithabook
For more information, to connect with Janine Urbaniak Reid via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE OPPOSITE OF CERTAINTY, please visit:
I was reminded by the medical memoir, HAPPINESS by Heather Harpham (also a Reese Witherspoon “Hello Sunshine” pick) as I read THE OPPOSITE OF CERTAINTY, as well as a Miriam Feldman’s memoir of raising a son with schizophrenia (HE CAME WITH IT forthcoming from Turner Publications July 21) touch of Caroline Leavitt’s forthcoming novel, WITH OR WITHOUT YOU (August 2020) features a character in a coma, which dovetails nicely with THE OPPOSITE OF CERTAINTY. You might also find some cross-over with Jodi Piccoult’s medical narratives and the work of Glennon Doyle.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Janine Urbaniak Reid is a mother, an author, and an advocate who hopes to bring humanity to the healthcare discussion, to help others find hidden strength and hope in an unpredictable world, and to inspire us all to come through seemingly impossible times transformed by sharing the story of her own reluctant journey through the completely unimaginable. In The Opposite of Certainty: Fear, Faith, and Life in Between, Reid shares the very personal story of life as the mother of a son with a slow-growing brain tumor – the chaos, devastation, search of strength bigger than her circumstances – and the journey to discover hidden reserves of resilience, humor and faith that looked nothing like she thought it would. Reid shares this moving, deeply hopeful story at a time the world needs it more than ever, to show us how we can come through impossible intact and even more our true selves than we have ever allowed before. Janine’s work has been published in the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and San Francisco Chronicle and is widely syndicated. The Opposite of Certainty is available now.
ABOUT YOUR HOST:
Leslie Lindsay is the award-winning author of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA (Woodbine House, 2012) and former Mayo Clinic child/adolescent psychiatric R.N. She is at work on a memoir. Her writing has been published in Pithead Chapel, Common Ground Review, Cleaver Magazine (craft and CNF), The Awakenings Review, The Nervous Breakdown, Ruminate’s The Waking, Brave Voices Literary Magazine, Manifest-Station, and others. Her cover art will be featured on Up the Staircase Quarterly in May 2020, other photography in Another Chicago Magazine (ACM) and Brushfire Literature & Arts Journal; poetry in the Coffin Bell Journal, and CNF in Semicolon Literary Magazine; the 2nd edition of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA will be available late this summer. Leslie has been awarded one of the top 1% reviewers on GoodReads and recognized by Jane Friedman as one of the most influential book reviewers. Since 2013, Leslie has interviewed over 700 bestselling and debut authors on her author interview series. Follow her bookstagram posts @leslielindsay1.
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[Cover and author image courtesy of Triple 7 PR and used with permission. Artistic image of book cover designed and photographed by Leslie Lindsay. Follow on Instagram for more like this @leslielindsay1 #alwayswithabook].