Disclaimer: If I was a coward or a sensible human, I’d post this as some sort of fictional work. I am neither. But if you know me and would rather pretend this post isn’t real, for the sake of our friendship, that’s cool.
I’ve been trying for days to figure out how to write this post without sounding like a bitter, unfeeling hag. Then, I realized, more than that, I have to find a way to say what I mean to say without sounding like a pitiable, whiny, woe-is-me turd. Finally, I came to the conclusion that I just need to say what I’m going to say, post this “review” and let it sound however it will sound; because ultimately, though I am a writer and can be precise or flowery with my words, I cannot control how you hear/ read them. I am not that powerful. Maybe that just means I’m a terrible writer, but we’ll let those insecurities ride for another day…
I finally read The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. It was my dead friend’s birthday and I thought he deserved a proper wallow, what better way to have a healthy wallow than to read a classic novel written by a woman who put her head in an oven?
So I took a bath, all appropriately scalding hot, and settled down into this:
There must be quite a few things a hot bath won’t cure, but I don’t know many of them. Whenever I’m sad I’m going to die, or so nervous I can’t sleep, or in love with somebody I won’t be seeing for a week, I slump down just so far and then I say: “I’ll go take a hot bath.”
This, of course, made me giggle at the wisdom of my selection.
Mostly, though, I felt a familiarity about the book, the characters, and all the feelings, that just outright angered me. She talks about things that make her sad and tired, and then how thinking about being sad and tired makes her more sad and tired. I found one of my own personal college friends in Doreen, the party girl from the deep south. I found myself in the narrator’s alter ego, inspired by an outing with Doreen, the party girl.
As I read, I got deeper and deeper into the narrator’s not-so-dark and twisty brain and followed her around as she thought about killing herself and received shock therapy while being hospitalized with the other crazies. I thought of Girl, Interrupted and Susannah Keyson and realized why, exactly, this book was familiar, and enjoyable, but ultimately a deep itch under my skin.
Everyone feels that way – the way Sylvia Plath’s autobiographical character feels. Everyone struggles to live, and if they don’t then I’m shocked. Reading The Bell Jar I just wanted to scream at a very dead Sylvia Plath, and every other depressed person I’ve known, and even the depressed person I’ve been and sometimes still am:
WHAT MAKES YOU SO SPECIAL? What makes you so special that you get to bask in your insanity? Nothing. That’s what. You’re just taking advantage of living in a world that works harder than you to exist.
That’s probably unfair, and shows an utter lack of compassion, but it’s how I feel.
Because it is hard work. Getting out of bed every morning is a mental exercise. Keeping yourself from crawling back in – or worse being a drunk slob for the hours you’re awake – is a physical exercise. Every day you have to create and maintain specific habits to keep yourself from sliding into the glorious abyss of a terrible wallow… a wallow of anxieties, simultaneously deep and restless sleep, an attitude called The Mean Reds (thanks, Holly Golightly), and a conflicting desire to both eat yourself into obesity or starve yourself to death – it could go either way.
Every day is a challenge to make the counting in your head stop. And with all this counting, it’s a struggle to actually sit down and count the things you’re supposed to. My drawer was ten cents off at work the other day, which naturally (and I would have said the same thing to anyone else), they teased me about not being able to count – because it wasn’t actually off, I had just documented it as off. Want to know what that sounds like? If your brain is anything like mine, which for the sake of this entire post I’m going to assume that for many people it is, my brain processed the comments a bit like this…
A Rising Panic Attack
Recognition that this was a joke
Panic Attack Subsides, only to start up again wondering if they think you’re stupid, or, worse…
Did they catch on to the fact that you were counting dimes over top of the counting already happening in your head – the one that finds itself ticking in time with any and every clock on the wall, the one that falls in tune to your steps as you walk across tile floors, still looking at your feet when you walk even though you are now in your thirties. The rhythm that helps you get your work done fast when you’re methodically shelving and alphabetizing, but might trip you on the street if you encounter a crack in the sidewalk – because you’re never sure if that day is a no crack day or a step ON the crack day… not until you do one or the other and the part of you begins to panic. Did they notice this?
While all this is happening in your head, you realize your rhythm is gone. Your heart was racing, but now it suddenly stopped altogether and you find yourself both mentally and physically trying to catch your breath, but you play it cool when you remind yourself that even though you *feel* like your head has bubble wrap duct taped around it and that you’ve been thrown into a swimming pool – that’s not what you look like. No one sees your bubble wrap face. They also don’t realize, hopefully, that you can’t hear them right now.
Your left pinky finger starts to tingle and you crack the knuckle to make it stop, to regain feeling. Only this time it hurts and you look down and see it is more bent than usual. Long ago it was broken, right now it simultaneously feels numb and broken. You wonder if you re-broke it sometime this week and didn’t notice.
The Heart Flutters.
Post-it notes are raining on your head, but they are in teals and oranges and easily arranged and filed into your handy-dandy mental filing cabinets – alphabetized and roughly dated. (Yes, I have those. If I’m too terribly distracted, the notes turn yellow and green, they’re only their orange and teal shades when I’m looking directly at them. The filing cabinets are the old metal kind, the ones you find on the side of the road or in ancient school building, rickety and decidedly thrown away by someone more sane than me.)
During all of this, life goals and contingency plans are running in the background. What if my husband dies? I could come back to work full time here. We’ve accomplished x,y,z so it’s probable. But I can’t count dimes, that might be a problem. If he died by car crash, I go _____. If he dies by _____, I go ______. If I die, he does not die…. If this than that. It takes me 30 seconds to map out a life plan from a newly presented scenario. It takes another 30 seconds for me to make a list of resources I think I need to implement this life plan effectively. Life Plan 3,069 logged away in filing cabinet 192, June 2015.
Your ears pop – as though you’ve ACTUALLY been under water, which briefly makes you wonder. Wonder about what? The Matrix, of course, are you in The Matrix? Or God’s brain? My husband thinks we are all synapses in a giant God-head’s brain. I ponder the biology of that while I – or you – think about The Matrix and how Neo didn’t realize he was stuck, naked, in a bubble of goo while his brain was plugged in to what he thought was real.
Suddenly, you’re cold all over and briefly wonder if you might be in goo too. Then you realize that for some inexplicable reason (the smell of old books? the comfort of the books? the smell of the person who just passed you by?) you’re not in goo, you’re just horny and why haven’t you ever had sex in a library or a bookstore? Oh, because the NSA is watching, yes, that’s why.
Less than a minute has passed since you were teased about the dimes and your inability to count. People have been talking around you, and you’ve even piped in – whether sensibly or not, you can’t be sure – and finally a customer asks you a question. This part is easier. The question is a book title, or an author. (I honestly don’t remember now.) But when someone asks something like this, it’s easier to get around all the warehouse like noise in the mind. The color coded post-it notes of fragmented thoughts are discarded, the flow-charts of contingency plans for life are swept momentarily aside and you consult your filing cabinets and bookshelves for the answer to their question. Maybe they asked you about dystopian fiction and you’re walking them through a list of your favorites. Maybe they just want a book that reminds them of red fields of grass, which they have to read for sophomore English – naturally you pluck up Catcher in the Rye by Salinger and they marvel at how you knew, or (depending on the customer) take it for granted that of course you knew exactly what they were talking about because they described the book so well.
The point is, this is constant and every day. Everyone has a thousand things happening in their heads that no one knows about. And frankly, not everyone needs to know about. When I’m having a hard time quieting the characters for my fiction, who like to gather around my filing cabinets and gab at me, or making the what if flow charts stop, when I can’t seem to stay out of the damn bubble wrap pool party – I chatter. I get clammy and chatter to whoever will listen. Because if my mouth is running, then I don’t have to listen to the chatter in my brain as much… I can ever so briefly shut them the hell up. The point is, I’m not sticking my head in any ovens. I make do.
It’s not fun. It’s not easy. It’s down right exhausting. It’s noisy, and it’s lonely. It is an effort to remember to feed myself and to feed others, and when I eat – not to eat too much. I am held together by the fact that I must sweep and mop this floor every day, that the things happening in my husband’s head are far worse than mine so someone has to keep it together. That some people out there have worse problems – like being raped and or being torn from limb to limb as they refuse to renounce Christ.
Yet, this twat, who was an amazing writer and artist, who had two kids that needed her… stuck her head in a freaking oven. Would that be easier? Yes. Was she crazy? Yes. But no more or less than anyone else, in my self-admittedly judgmental opinion.
Despite all that, I checked out her Bed-Book and read it to my daughter – it’s a lovely children’s picture book, and am currently reading both her diaries and her letters to her mother. Because I like her, I do. I feel like I know her and have been her. I feel like if I am not careful, I could be her again – but at least I’ll have the sense to keep my head out of ovens. (Although, when I was a kid, I used to bend over in the laundry room, holding a button down, to dry my hair in the clothes dryer – very effective…)
I’m 31. I spent my birthday day sitting in a cold house wishing for sunshine. And reading Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club. Actually, I kept putting down the book to write – in my journal, not my computer, as I didn’t have one. Actually, I had 3 computers and none of them would turn on. So I bought myself a new one finally – my publisher will be so proud – as I finally have a computer that even he will admit is worthy of being called technology. I am now an Apple Girl.
Hopefully, this new computer – and this extra year of wisdom and “old age” – will push me into being a more productive writer (both blogging and being a novelist has suffered at the hands of my poor entrance into the realm of gadgets).
At the Apple Store today the guy asked me if I wanted to sign into my i cloud or some such nonsense. He spoke some gobblygook that meant nothing to me about joining my computer files to my phone. I told him no thank you and finally had to wave my flip phone at him before he understood. I thought having my techie brother-in-law all but literally hold my hand through the entire computer purchasing experience was enough for them to know that I don’t normally do this. Apparently, it was not enough, they had to see the flip phone for themselves.
The most interesting thing about this gadgetry world was how I spent my pre-birthday evening. On the 21st, when my brother was turning 31 alone (Alone, as in without me, not necessarily actually alone. He is my favorite birthday partner.) somewhere in Austin, I was hanging out with a younger crowd. It was interesting to watch them play video games, the same games I watched people play when I was in my 20’s, but searching for cheat codes from cell phones instead of spirals and laptops. I wanted to read a book amidst the noise, but hadn’t brought one. At home there’s the noise of the four year old, but I find it distracting instead of soothing.
Noise from a four year old makes you feel oddly old. Noise from boys ten years your junior make you forget that you’ve just blown through ten years of your life and are not quite sure what happened to them. They’re gone, like sand.
Reading a memoir during your birthday week is an interesting task. It reminds you of all the things you’ve forgotten. Especially Mary Karr. She remembers with such clarity, and the things she does not she can at least describe the fog of the memory with such clarity that you’re amazed that she can remember that there was a memory lost there.
The Liar’s Club was described by newspapers as being “un-put down able.” I’m not finished reading the book because I find the opposite to be true. Although I love and adore every aspect of her writing, I find it easy to put down. Too easy. It’s so Texas. It’s so familiar. I’m still stuck in the 60’s and not much has changed between 1960’s mentalities in Texas and the ones I grew up with. It was the last book I should have tried reading during this week, but I couldn’t get the energy to finish the other books I had started.
I’m currently in the middle of reading The World is Flat. I was extremely excited about starting this book. It’s been on my shelf and recommendation list for years. I like economic philosophy a lot. I love history. I love fishing for “textbooks” for my daughter to use as she’s older and I build curriculums about of source books. She will not be forced to read this book. It’s so dull. I don’t know that I’m going to get all the way through it. It came so highly recommended! But there is a reason there are ten of them on the shelf of any given bookstore you visit and the copy I bought cost me 50 cents.
All this technology and aging, memoirs, and history that isn’t really history… it reminded me that I bought a kindle awhile back. I haven’t used it since I reviewed The Year of the Hydra. I find my kindle handle, but I still haven’t really fallen in love with it. In fact, I simply forget about it most of the time.
I’m not old. But I’m still trying to figure out if there are any “new tricks” in me. Therefore, I have committed myself to attempting to learn something new (other than the new POS system at the bookstore, which will simply be depressing if I admit how much it irritates me) this week: I’m going to attend a Magic game and see about that. I played Warlords in college for a bit, so maybe it won’t be so bad.
This is fast becoming a yearly ritual.
Using only books you have read this year (2014), answer these questions. Try not to repeat a book title.
Describe yourself: A Reliable Wife
How do you feel: Not Even Wrong
Describe where you currently live: Follies Past
If you could go anywhere, where would you go: The Lacuna
Your favorite form of transportation: Resolute
Your best friend is: The Book of Secrets
You and your friends are: Committed
What is the best advice you have to give: Life is Hard But God is Good
What’s the weather like: Shades of Earl Grey
You fear: The Beginner’s Goodbye
Thought for the day: Get Me Out of Here
How I would like to die: in A Circle of Quiet
My soul’s present condition: Alone
Title: A Thousand Days in Venice
Author: Marlena de Blasi
Genre: Travel/ Memoir
Length: 272 pages
“1000 Days in Venice,” I wrote in my journal, “I want Venice without Fernando. Venice sounds lovely. Fernando, annoying.”
I suppose I feel this way because I am happily married to a man who is nothing like Fernando. But my love, or lack thereof, for the man who swept de Blasi off her feet has nothing to do with my enjoyment of the book. The book is lovely. And what follows are my journal entries from my reading, quotes that moved me and so on:
To fall in love with a face is ridiculous – at least a face with no personality. It would be as though I were to declare myself in love with Jamie Campbell Bower off his side profile. I cannot stand that mentality. A face can only be so lovely.
“full of tears and crumbs”
“I cry for how life intoxicates.” – pg. 29
In love for the first time? But she had babies…
She laments that so many people are trying to save her from a man they don’t know. Then admits repeatedly that she doesn’t know him either. I want to save her too, no matter how terribly romantic I find it that she’s sold her house, auctioned belongings off in the airport and arrived to see her fiance whom she has never seen in summer before.
Then again, arranged marriages work – why not a marriage between people who have met a few times and spent a week together?
“Living as a couple never means that each gets half. You must take turns at giving more than getting. It’s not the same as bow to the other whether to dine out rather than in, or which one gets massaged that evening with oil of calendula; there are seasons in the life of a couple that function, I think, a little like a night watch. One stands guard, often for a long time, providing the serenity in which the other can work at something. Usually that something is sinewy and full of spines. One goes inside the dark place while the other stays outside, holding up the moon.” – pg. 147
Such a beautiful sentiment. So much truth to it. Despite the fact that she married a stranger – even calls him that, stranger – she knows marriage.
Transfer? Why? I don’t want to live another version of this life. I want to do something totally different, but together. Perhaps my dislike for Fernando is that he reminds me of myself. In this moment, I love him, he lives what I want.
I give lots of memoirs away once I’m done reading them. But this one is a keeper – there are recipes. Besides the recipes, it is beautiful. I will probably read it again one day.
This is my third mother’s day – fourth if you’re one of those people that count mother’s day when you’re pregnant because you’re a mother from the first heartbeat. I believe in life from the moment of conception, but I wasn’t really thinking of myself as a mother yet. I didn’t really feel like a mother until I was nursing and changing diapers and praying I didn’t screw it up.
Although this blog began as a book review blog, it is still a blog and by definition it is an online diary. Which means it contains not just one of my passions, but all of them. Books, Kung Fu, Cycling, and now, of course, for the last three years – mothering.
Being a mother, for me, has meant that I have found every possible way to make half my previous yearly income from home. I’m not quite making half as my book sales are chronically lean because it’s in the wrong category on Amazon. I’m a little conceited about the beauty of its cover and enticing back jacket blurb and think it would sell like hotcakes if only the right people could find it by browsing.
Of course, being a mother has actually made it possible for me to finish writing a book in the first place.
Being a mother, for me, has meant that my book reviews take me twice as long to write because I used to be able to completely bury myself in a book until I felt like coming up for air. Now, I don’t get to choose when I come up for air – that is usually chosen for me by a precocious three year old who will say things like, “Mommy, I need more juice.” “Mommy, look, it’s echoes, like in the bathroom.” (After drawing a series of parenthesis like lines getting larger across the width of her chalkboard.) “Mommy, I need a peanut butter sandwich.” “Mommy, you be the orange dalek and I’ll be the white one – ‘Exterminate! Exterminate!” (While dancing rubber Daleks across my kitchen table.) “Mommy, I want to learn something. Can we do a lesson?” “Mommy, can you teach me my letters now?” I love my tiny, vocal, human who will assert her needs and remind me to read to her at every turn and not neglect her schooling.
Being a mother, for me, means endless beautiful walks in the woods. Miles and miles of trails, flower picking, foraging, bird-watching, and outdoor story time. It means multiple trips to the park, the lake, the grocery store, bookstores, and libraries. It means art projects, painting, dancing, extra house cleaning just for the fun of letting her sweep and mop knowing I’ll have to do it again. It means demonstrating all of your passions, all your talents, all your dreams, and all your healthy habits to a small person who is watching your every move and gathering every ounce of information she can from it all.
Being a mother has meant seeing this little girl go from this:
In what can simultaneously be equated to a blink of an eye and the longest three years of my life.
I didn’t think I’d be a mother. But I’m enjoying it immensely.
I had great plans for the year 2013. I do every January. I make lists, I plan reading schedules. I try to join way too many book clubs. I set unreachable goals. More specifically, this year I wanted to read through Susan Wise Bauer’s Autobiographies and Memoirs list. It’s about 25 books long, I think, starting with St. Augustine’s Confessions. It is December. I am still reading Confessions.
I’ve read Confessions before in college. It’s not a difficult read, just an important one. It’s the book I save for early mornings as I watch the sunrise with my coffee. Sometimes I read it aloud to my daughter over breakfast, a lot of times I hunker down in the early light and keep it to myself.
I’ve been keeping a lot to myself over the past few years, which goes against the very core of my being… or the very core of who I am told I am. Throughout my life I have been compared to a babbling brook. Information, life experience, anything goes in… and out it babbles in the blink of an eye. I come off extremely extroverted to people who know me least. I find this ironic because I have so much that I don’t share. I am so back and forth with what feels the most natural (hold it in or spill the beans?) that I have a hard time deciding what teachings are right (hush up and keep it to yourself or Confess?).
After reading The Sparrow and re-reading Augustine’s Confessions in the same year – in the same month, really. You’d think I’d have something deep and eloquent to say about Confession. Or, perhaps, you’d think I’d spill out a confession of some kind in this blog post…
All I’ve got for you in the form of a confession is that the first time I read Confessions was during an all-nighter 12 hours before a test for my literature class at a Baptist college. Note the sarcasm when I tell you the experience was so enriching.
Instead of a true confession, I am reminded of a previous post in which I determined I was not very thoughtful. Instead, I sit here lamenting the fact that I have hardly accomplished anything I set out to do in January at all.
I console myself by saying, hey at least I got published this year! (Which seems very anticlimactic when your book is not a Steinbeck level masterpiece.) It might not be the stunning work of art I dreamed about writing since childhood, but people seem to like it and… there’s always next year!
Again, I say that every year. And thus starts the cycle all over again: A January list of books to read and goals to accomplish. Stepping stones that I believe will turn me into a scholar with at least half a brain. I have a feeling I will lie on my death bed at 105 and say to the heavens, “No, not yet! I’ve learned nothing! And I haven’t figured out how to be thoughtful!” We’ll see. Visit me when I’m 105 and I’ll let you know. Even though I’m a woman, I suspect I might have a beard like this guy by then…
Someone once told me I was the “most fascinating dichotomy” he’d ever met. I remember feeling bashful by this statement, not quite understanding what that meant, but nevertheless naked. It’s been an echo in my head for nearly a decade, and I can’t even remember his name. But I have a tendency to mull over echoes and since then I think I’ve pieced together a bit of what he must have noticed.
It’s something that I will always relate back to my heart – both physically and spiritually.
Physically, I have an arrhythmia. It is something that shouldn’t affect me as much as it does except that I identify with it so completely. It doesn’t hurt anymore, but I remember the pain and panic it inflicted in my childhood. It almost always startles me, but I know how to correct it. It is the ever present reality that my heart does not beat in rhythm with anyone else’s and most likely never will. It is the feeling of constantly having to search for a rhythm so much harder than everyone else, whether that be when singing, when running, or when cycling. I do not have an internal clock. I do not keep time or pace. I have to find a pace in others and struggle to match it. This is not a complaint, this is reality. This is what it feels like to be inside my ribcage. The only person who might understand this best (although she obviously won’t remember), is my daughter. For 40 weeks she lived inside that ribcage. Her heartbeat was steady and sure, completely healthy, and mine was obviously off. It was literally breath taking – as in I had to stop to catch my breath – because my heart was off kilter and it was instinctively trrying to match her steady, beautiful rhythm.
Spiritually – To my psyche, this minor detail of my life seems to bleed into everything. I was the girl in the top choirs who could not keep time. I remember my dance partner with his hands on my hip (forceful, not sexually) helping me sway… left… right… left… right… and when I got out of sync the gentle double tap and jerk and the whisper in my ear, “Left!” I am never in tune with the people around me.
I am good at calming myself down and remaining calm when necessary, but am completely startled and thrown off by surprises. I can pass dead bodies in the street after a car accident, see a decapitation, work in a bar, and deal with psychos in downtown ghettos more easily than I can choose something to eat off a menu of a restaurant I was not expecting to visit. I can seamlessly function in chaos, but a surprise from a friend, even if pleasant, can throw my whole day. I am adventurous but rarely impromptu. I am impulsive and simultaneously reserved. I am a sanguine melancholy.
I am often the one at the funeral unable to shed tears, put in charge of something practical. Yet, I’m also the one years later still nostalgic over the deceased when everyone else seems to have ‘gotten over it.’ I am excitable, and therefore perceived as sensitive; but was rarely in relationships prior to my marriage because those romantically interested in me thought I had no heart. I run hot and cold. I either like you instantly, or dismiss you altogether.
I find myself curling up with books most often, I think, because like singing and running and cycling and Kung Fu – there is a rhythm. There is a rhythm of words, a pattern. There is a goal – to understand the author, to live the story, to learn something new, to get to your destination (the far off place in the pages of the book if it is a good one, or simply to the last page if it is a bad one). Again, as I read, I hear the echo of that long lost person… I understand characters so well, and have little understanding of people.
My father in law saw my books once and said, “So you read to escape.” I was mildly offended. No, I thought, I read to accomplish. I read to learn. I read because reading is important. But last night, I realized, in a lot of ways he is right. I read because I have control over the circumstances in which I dive into information. I read to settle my nerves. I read to avoid decisions. I read because in theory it should be easier to be let down by a character than by a person. I read because sharing the friends I meet in books is up to me, I am somewhat in control of the chaos. I read because I can take a few days to figure out what a character means before I am faced with that character again – it’s easy, leave him/her on the nightstand until I’m ready again. You can’t do that with real people. There’s no time. You have to have feelings or not have them immediately, and to master in what degree. You have to decide what everything means immediately. And you have to react accordingly.
Scarlet O’Hara doesn’t care if I think she’s a bitch. It doesn’t matter that I am in love with Captain Wentworth and Howard Roarke, and neither one is saddened, happy, or jealous. Holden Caulfield is unaffected by my disdain for him and what I say about him or to him will not cause him to stumble – or grow. And I can get to know all of them as quickly or slowly as I like. Jay Gatsby is not going anywhere, I can soak up every nuance from now until eternity and not miss a beat.
Not missing a beat is important to someone who misses them all the time.