Habits with Heart: Reflections on Between Two Kingdoms by Suleika Jaouad
By Rachel Schwartzmann
Ordinary Story is a monthly series by Rachel Schwartzmann that features musings and conversations on one of our favorite ordinary habits: reading. In the first installment, Rachel reflects on Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of Life Interrupted by Suleika Jaouad.
When the world shut down, like many others, I turned inward, and books became my refuge. Novels, memoirs, short stories—page after page recreated a rich tapestry of life before lockdown. While the pandemic has taught me to look at language with more reverence than I have in the past—simply to find meaning during a time where it's hard to find the right words to describe life today—my admiration doesn't stop when the story itself ends. A new habit has emerged for me over the past twelve months. When I finish a book, I turn it over and examine its body: the spine, the jacket cover, the shape. If the words on the page are the heart, then the book itself is the ribcage: beautiful and fragile in a singular way—an encasing around the precious stories that add vitality to our lives.
Suleika Jaouad's Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of Life Interrupted is one of the precious stories that I hugged tightly to my chest after closer inspection. The book provides a portal into Jaouad's experiences fighting a devastating cancer diagnosis, and ultimately, learning how to re-enter the world post-treatment. But read between the lines, and you'll find that Jaouad's writing pays tribute to what can happen when we honor the preciousness of the physical body—and the unrelenting spirit of the creative mind.
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As humans, our most primal propulsion is rooted in survival—but it's only when we learn how to oscillate between health and illness, darkness and light, stillness and speed, reality and reverie, that our lives truly begin. Jaouad knows all too well that navigating the messiness and magnificence of the in-between doesn't leave much room for banality. She spares her readers false promises and instead reflects on friendship, love, solitude, and creativity as habits worth building, however imperfectly, even when our world begins to crumble.
Before I knew about this book, I had the opportunity to speak with Jaouad for my podcast, Slow Stories (the episode also opened with a reading from Ordinary Habit co-founder Echo Hopkins). During the interview, Jaouad and I talked about creativity as a form of resilience. Even at her lowest points, Jaouad followed her creative inclinations, which led to breakthroughs like her Hundred-Day project. ("The project was meant to be a way of organizing our lives around one small act of imagination," Jaouad writes in Between Two Kingdoms.) And of course, there's also her revered column, "Life, Interrupted."
More recently, Jaouad launched The Isolation Journals, a quarantine-born project which "transforms isolation into creative solitude and connection" through journaling prompts and other community initiatives. Reflecting on Jaouad's incredible body of work now, her impact, for me, can be summed up in this soundbite from our Slow Stories interview: "I encourage people to release themselves from the pressures of expectation and the anxieties of accomplishment, and to focus on cultivating a practice—whatever that practice may be—that helps you feel grounded and inspired and connected."
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I thought a lot about these ideas (and my entire conversation with Jaouad) while reading her riveting memoir. Ordinary habits can emerge from unimaginable circumstances, but when nurtured, they can blossom into life-changing practices—and at the moments where readers need reprieve most, Jaouad illuminates this fact with resonant storytelling. "Watercolors and words were the drugs we preferred for our pain," she writes while reflecting on memories of her late best friend. "We were learning that sometimes the only way to endure suffering is to transform it into art."
In these recollections, Jaouad shows us the redemptive process of building a creative practice and how that, in turn, can rebuild a person. Grief can give way to growth. While it may not be easy for any of us to envision how (and where) to grow next as the ground continues to shift beneath our feet; for now, Between Two Kingdoms offers a glimmer of hope for the current moment and—if we let it—inspires new habits for life.