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The Light We Carry: Overcoming in uncertain times by Michelle Obama

The Light We Carry is former First Lady Michelle Obama’s second book. Her earlier book, Becoming, is a memoir and The Light We Carry is also a deeply personal account of her life story. She describes the challenges she and her family faced during her childhood, and the obstacles she encountered as an adult, including during her family’s years at the White House. The code her father lived by – “You fall, you get up, you carry on” – has also stood Obama in good stead. She’s open about what brings her joy and brightens her day, as well as her fears and vulnerabilities, the times she has felt angry, despondent, and unsettled – and how she’s learned to handle her reactions and emotions.

Obama says in the introduction that she’s about to offer “a glimpse inside [her] personal toolbox” to the habits, practices and other techniques that help to keep her balanced and confident. She writes in a conversational style and takes us into her world. It’s almost like sitting down with a good friend who’s happy to share some secrets, talk about what has and hasn’t worked well for her, and produce a few surprises too. As someone who has often felt ‘othered’, Obama encourages us to recognise and embrace both what we have in common with other people and what makes us unique.

The book is divided into three parts, each with three or four chapters. Because of the initial promise of a toolbox, I’d anticipated that the strategies and approaches that Obama recommends would be placed front and centre, or perhaps summarized within each chapter. Instead, they’re woven through the various chapters as her story unfolds. This means that it’s not easy to return quickly to particular insights, other than Chapter 7 (“Meet My Mom”) where Obama presents her mother’s “tried-and-true maxims” in a numbered list with sub-headings. I don’t typically highlight or place sticky notes on sections in a book I’m reading, yet for this book I can see the advantages of doing so if there are certain passages that resonate with you or that you’d like to re-read over time.

Black and white largely informal photos from various eras of Obama’s life are scattered throughout the book. The images complement the stories well. They include photos of a self-conscious Obama as the tallest girl in her elementary school photo, the supposedly “mad as hell Michelle” depicted in the New York Post, casual photos of her and “best friend” Barack pulling faces, and family snapshots of her daughters and mother.

Although the overall tone of the book is optimistic, some of the topics raised may be confronting for some readers. For example, there are brief mentions of family violence, police brutality, political unrest, racism, school shootings, and home as a “painful spot to which you never want to return”. Towards the end of the book there’s a short list of USA- and UK-based mental health helplines and websites. Similar resources exist in New Zealand.

A week or two after finishing The Light We Carry, the key messages I’ve taken from it are these: the necessity of being adaptable and taking time to consider where to head next, that being/looking/feeling ‘different’ can be something to celebrate rather than to hide, how important it is to nurture our existing friendships as well as to bravely initiate new connections, and the possibly underrated mental health benefits of knitting (!). It’s reassuring to know that although Obama is privileged to have paid support surrounding her – a stylist, for example, and a team of other “brilliant women” she can rely on – she still has wobbly days, doubts, and insecurities, as many of us do.

I’ll draw on Obama’s own suggestions about who this book would appeal to: people going through a period of personal change such as entering a new phase of life, those who continue to face personal or professional challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic, and people wanting to learn how to face “life’s inevitable zombies and monsters so that you can contend with them more rationally”. In particular, women seeking that elusive work-life-parenting balance, and people who sometimes feel like outsiders, will appreciate Obama’s down-to-earth wisdom and encouragement.

Reviewer: Anne Kerslake Hendricks

Penguin Random


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