Books | Becoming

So, this blogpost is long overdue. I actually finished reading this book in mid January, but with uni work ramping up as we are nearing the end of our taught modules and the beginning of research there hasn’t been much time to write.

What a great read, I must admit the start was a little slow and a little wavering, but once it got going it was so good. I mean don’t get me wrong, even the wobbly bits are better than most biographies. What Michelle Obama manages to pull off in this book is nothing short of amazing; she delivers her story while schooling us all on gender, socio-economics, respect and race. With great difficulty I have picked out a few quotes that speak to a small selection of the themes that Michelle Obama speaks to… If you have the chance to grab a copy I highly recommend it.

“Sasha, we planned to call her. I’d chosen the name because I thought it has a sassy ring. A girl named Sasha would brook no fools.”

p. 199, chapter 14

I mean she’s got a point… Okay, maybe the first quote is a little self indulgent – but I remember being struck by a funny feeling of connection to the Obamas when I heard that one of their daughters shared my name… Even down to the spelling!!
In order to understand the gravity of this you need a little back story. For as long as I can remember I have, more often than not, had to spell out my name to people or remember to tell them that my name is without a ‘c’ (Sascha). So seeing someone linked to a powerful figure like Barack Obama with the same spelling as me was special. Add to that that I have never met anyone with the same spelling as me before… (Okay, not that I have met Sasha Obama… You get what I mean).
But enough my name…

The second quote is from chapter 16 of the book. I found this chapter to be a particularly powerful read, as in it Michelle manages to lay bare the human experience in the political race surrounding Barack Obama’s presidential campaign bid when they were working in Iowa. Making it clear that it is a nuanced road with bumps, holes and beautiful vistas. If you read nothing else read that chapter, its eloquently explanation of the true value and purpose of politics is refreshing – in case you are wondering, it is humans fighting on behalf of other humans for a better world.

“I didn’t sugarcoat my feelings about politics. The political world was no place for good people, I said, explaining how I’d been conflicted about whether Barack should run at all, worried about what the spotlight might do to our family. But I was standing before them because I believed in my husband and what he could do. I knew how much he read and how deeply he thought about things. I said that he was exactly the kind of smart, decent president I would choose for this country, even if selfishly I’d have rather kept him closer to home all these years”

p. 236-7, chapter 16.

The book is however not all about politics, although a large chunk is for obvious reasons (Barack’s many years of political service), it also delivers a look at the evolution of the Obamas relationship. The quotes below might read a little sappy to some, but I really like them. I like how honest they are, an interesting approach considering the task of having to navigate uniting writing a biography with the tricky situation of her husband being a former president of the United States with all that that entails. Nevertheless she tells it like it is, in a nuanced and thoughtful way that shows the love and mutual respect. Look out for the passages about the state of his home office, they are a great example of this.

“We sat close together with our knees pulled up, pleasantly tired after a day spent outdoors, eating our ice cream quickly and wordlessly, trying to stay ahead of the melt. Maybe Barack read it on my face or sensed it in my posture — the fact that everything for me had now begun to loosen and unfold. He was looking at me curiously, with the trace of a smile. “Can I kiss you?” he asked. And with that, I leaned in and everything felt clear.”

p. 107, chapter 8

“I held on to my husband each time, my eyes finding the calm in his. We were still the same seesawing, yin-and-yang duo we’d been for twenty years now and still connected by a visceral and grounding love. This was one thing I was always content to show.”

p. 302, chapter 19.

Where there is love there is loss. In the book Michelle Obama explores her relationship with her father on several occasions, a hard working great man. In chapter 11 she unpacks the loss of him, in particular the void left when he is gone. In November last year I lost my grandfather to cancer, and although I am happy he finally got peace from a disease that was taking away all that he held dear. I have, and continue to have, a hard time coming to grips with it. I think that is why reading the passage below was so powerful for me, kind of cathartic… At the end of the day loss sucks, and the quote reminded me that acknowledging that is okay – grief is not something to get through, it is something to live with and that is okay.

“It hurts to live after someone has died. It just does. It can hurt to walk down a hallway or open the fridge. It hurts to put on a pair of socks, to brush your teeth. Food tastes like nothing. Colors go flat. Music hurts, and so do memories. You look at something you’d otherwise find beautiful – a purple sky at sunset or a playground full of kids – and it only somehow deepens the loss. Grief is so lonely this way.”

p. 144, chapter 11.

What makes the book so great is its realness and balance. Michelle Obama is a real, a feeling individual just like the rest of us. Like the rest of us she needs balance too. I include the below passage as it perfectly show the realness of the Obama/Robinson family. It also highlights a great balancing force for Michelle, a force that helped her carry the load… also I assume I am not the only one who can appreciate the calmness of her mum amidst all the hoopla, right?

“She declined to Secret Service protection and avoided the media in order to keep her profile low and her footprint light. She’d charm the White House housekeeping staff by insisting on doing her own laundry, and for years to come, she’d slip in and out of the residence as she pleased, walking out the gates and over to the nearest CVS or Filene’s Basement when she needed something, making new friends and meeting them out regularly for lunch. Anytime a stranger commented that she looked exactly like Michelle Obama’s mother, she’d just give a polite shrug and say, “Yeah, I get that a lot,” before carrying on with her business. As she always had, my mother did things her own way.”

p. 296, chapter 19.

I was recently talking to a friend about the book and they asked what made it so great… It wasn’t an easy question, because there is so much to like about it, but I came to the realisation that I was circling back to the idea of it feeling kind of like a hug. This will have a special meaning if you have read the book… but either way reading the book felt kind of like Michelle had wrapped me up in a giant warm hug that somehow acknowledged all your emotions and spread joy.

A book by Michelle Obama is not complete without a good dose of inspiration. I have included two quotes that I think are particularly powerful, but really there are too many to choose from. When I first picked up the book to read I consulted the index to get a sense of the book. Reading through it I was quite sceptical of the structure Michelle had chosen – it all seemed to centre around Barack. Before, beginning and together… Why had this powerful, strong woman chosen to make her book all about her man? I think the feminist in me was a little overactive at the time… The judgement was however unfounded. Reading the book it quickly became clear that the book was not about changing and adapting to her husband, but rather the progress of them growing individually and together. A never ending cycle of growth and change. As for the second quote, in hindsight I wonder if it might have spoken to me at the time of reading the book due to the political situation with all its upheaval… Nevertheless, I think it offers some really great pointers about how to live a good and respectful life. See, talk and listen to others. To some extent I think that is kind of what I want to try with this blog. I want to create a space to find my voice, and hopefully in the future meet and listen to others too.

“For me, becoming isn’t about arriving somewhere or achieving a certain aim. I see it instead as forward motion, a means of evolving, a way to reach continuously towards a better self. The journey doesn’t end. I became a mother, but I still have a lot to learn from and give to me children. I became a wife, but I continue to adapt to and be humbled by what it means to truly love and make a life with another person. I have become, by certain measures, a person of power, and yet there are moments still when I feel insecure or unheard. It’s all a process, steps along a path. Becoming require equal parts patience and rigor. Becoming is never giving up on the idea that there’s more growing to be done.”

p. 419, epilogue.

“For every door that’s been opened to me, I’ve tried to open my door to others. And here is what I have to say, finally: Let’s invite one another in. Maybe then we can begin to fear less, to make fewer assumptions, to let go of the biases and stereotypes that unnecessarily divide us. Maybe we can better embrace the ways we are the same. It’s not about being perfect. It’s not about where you get yourself in the end. There’s power in allowing yourself to be known and heard, in owning your unique story, in using your authentic voice. And there’s grace in being willing to know and hear others. This, for me, is how we become.”

p. 421, epilogue.

Finally I have saved this quote from a speech Barack gave in a community meeting long before becoming a senator for last. Michelle recounts it in one of the last chapters of the book, and I thought I would share it here as it seems to perfectly sum up the power of Becoming – Michelle Obama showing the world that it takes work and determination to change things, and more importantly that it is possible.

“[Y]ou may live in the world as it is, but you can still work to create the world as it should be.”

p. 395, chapter 24.

P.S. In the acknowledgements Michelle writes as follows

“Thank you for always giving me a reason to be hopeful.”

p. 426, acknowledgments

… right back at you Michelle Obama, right back at you ❤️

Cover of Michelle Obama's book Becoming.
Cover of Michelle Obama’s book Becoming ©Penguin Random House

Obama, Michelle. Becoming. New York: Penguin Random House, 2018.

Feature photograph by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

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