Days that count

UntitledI’ve been a real peach this summer. A cranky brat.  This, as most of my peevish moods, came out of a dumb assumption. For sure my hysterectomy was only going to put me down for a few weeks, right? That’s what I thought. Then everything would be normal summer awesomeness: bike rides, daily swims, short trips around the state.

Nope.

I have spent most of this summer building a wall of books around myself–I’ve read 14 books in six weeks–and reading so voraciously that something feels wrong about it. Reading has been a way to fill my time and avoid thinking too much about all the adventures I’m not having. Last year’s dizzy summer of travel is still fresh in my mind, while this summer I have done a whole lot of zero, and I’ve been angry. A pouty, unreasonable, frustrated anger. Let’s call this a tantrum.

Poor me. I know. This is nothing. It’s really nothing. But right now it’s my something.

Anyway, it’s getting better. I’ve had some days, in the past week or so, that count, and make me feel like I’m moving. Yeah, I’m thankful for all of my days and they’re a gift; the healing, boring days are just harder to appreciate. It’s a stagnant state of I’ll-be-happy-when, which is, frankly, shit. I don’t like waiting, and I don’t like it when I struggle to find joy in the moment.

In the past week I’ve had three really good days, three days that meant I could forget that waiting. First, a funeral for a friend’s mother. Not that funerals are any reason to celebrate, but it put things in perspective. It was sad, but it was so lovely. Such a positive remembrance of the way that one person affected so many people in her life and made each person who knew her feel special. That day was also filled with people I haven’t seen in a long time. It ended up being a reunion of sorts: the kind of day when you laugh and tell stories and don’t watch the clock.

Second: Tuesday I took a solo day trip to our family cabin. I dropped our kids off with their grandparents and drove another half hour to my happy place. I haven’t been there alone since I went to finish my thesis in 2013. I spent most of Tuesday staring at the water, reading, and dozing in my chair to the white noise of water on rocks. I feel whole there. If a place can be an antidepressant, this river is it.UntitledUntitled
Third: I had lunch today with some friends–all retired teachers from my school. It felt like being normal. It felt good to laugh. It felt like an actual reason to get out of the house, but not the kind of day that means being worked up. Today was ordinary, but joyful. And another reminder that the people in my life are so great. I also had a decision about work to make today, and the day ended with one of these glorious friends telling me that no matter what, everything is going to be okay.

It doesn’t get any better than that, if you’re wondering.

I’m beginning to feel like a person again, and less like a body whose sole purpose is to sit still and knit together. If I’m being honest, I’m still shaking my fist at the sky a little because I know I won’t feel 100% until the day I go back to work. This entire break will have been an exercise in patience. This was not a fun summer or even an interesting one. But tonight I’m thankful for a few days that really count.

Binge

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Do other people read because they’re lonely? They must. I wonder if there’s a point where this is not okay. If it can be too much, an excess, unhealthy. If books are a way to avoid the mess of human interaction. I’ve read 12 books in the 4 weeks since my surgery. 12 books is more than I read the entire year before I started my MFA. I attach myself to characters. Not mistaking them for real, but often allowing myself to like them more than people. In fact, I like them better because they’re not. They require only observation.

Reading as meditation: It’s tough to sit still. It’s tough to ignore the phone, the hope that someone is thinking of you. It’s tough not to check Facebook. (Facebook is good for making yourself feel busy, loved, important.) But it gets easier to read for long periods of time if you do it every day. My mornings alone on the couch in the dark with a book and a cup of coffee and a flannel quilt bring me peace. They make me feel comfort within my own frame. A churchly calm. An ease of breath that is too often a struggle to find.

Reading as chore: Tell me I have to read it and I will hate the text. Try to trick me into learning something—something prescribed, clever, something that’s about your box of crayons rather than me being able to feel the book in my own colors, the way I know sunshine, or sadness, or the taste of homemade jam—and I will hate you.

Reading as rebellion: I can read anything I want. I say what it means. My authority comes only from my having read, my perspective is only as relevant as my own voice. (Ridiculous, meaningless, intoxicating and terrifying power, our voices.)

Reading as Invisibility Cloak: Don’t bother me, I’m reading.

Reading as shared suffering: File under: College Prep English Anthology, 11th grade (Colonial American Stories That Teenagers Will Not Enjoy). See also: Textbooks, Teacher Preparation Programs.

Is there a way to abuse books? To use books as a crutch? I’ve gotten so good at inserting them into the pauses between activities in my life that I find it difficult right now to be alone with this much time. Difficult to not read. To stop the frenetic tumble of words. I find it challenging to sit still, to heal after my surgery. I am lonely, but I don’t want to reach out. So I read and read and read, and in this way, am I’m more than alone, choosing characters over even my own company? I’m gulping down other people’s words, filling myself with things I can’t possibly digest.

Reading as a way to document experience: The books I remember best are the ones I can place in space and time. I listened to A Tale for the Time Being on the train in France. I read The Grapes of Wrath by the pool in Rancho Mirage. I read Middlesex at my parents’ while the kids were swimming. I read Gone with the Wind in the window of a hotel café next door to a teachers’ conference I was enrolled in, but ditching. I read John Adams in the car, at the public pool. Dichotomy of content and place make the reading even better.

Reading as physical act of love: The comfortable space between you and your spouse as you sit near each other, lost in stories.

Reading as impossible dream: The more you read, the more there is that you haven’t read.

The mannerisms of my reading are ridiculous, even when I read for fun. I’ve stopped pretending I want to read like normal people; I indulge my weirdness. I fold down the corner of every 50th page before I start. One hour of reading, each, a way to know how much is left. I read with my pen in my right hand, and I chew on the cap or scrape it gently against my lips. I read with discipline that’s almost militaristic, each hour allotted by to the teal blocks of time on my calendar, but this structure allows to indulge myself. My process of understanding what a book means is very woo-woo, very feely. As I’m reading I’m often more aware of the thing of the book than the detail. Embarrassingly so. I will forget dates. I will forget names—I often have to underline these for myself several times until they stick, check them three times before I submit a review—but the thing of the story comes to me like the steady time signature underneath the music. (Alternately, this is sometimes the cacophony of a discordant narrative.) The thing is like a waking dream, an exchange between me the person who wrote it. And maybe that’s just crap I tell myself, and maybe the thing has nothing to do with the thing they wrote. But I don’t question it. I just let it be, let it be something I feel. And then I type the quotes and then I really know. And I write it, or I try to get as close as possible. That thing.

Reading as a way to spy: How many times have I tried to see into the people I admire by trying to absorb their words? Both those they put down and those they pick up: equally enlightening.

Reading as marathon: A little a day actually makes significant progress. I am always shocked and pleased to find myself at the end.

Reading as sleep aid: When I read at night, I get sleepy in the background. I can’t help it. I’m too much in the story and my body quits. Every time. I should read more at night since I’m a terrible sleeper. I should let it happen. But I resist it, almost because I know it works so well.

Reading as currency, status, course of study: Resume.

The more I read, the less I feel purpose in my teaching job. Or more accurately, the less I believe in how it’s been defined in practice. The more I read, the less I think you can make someone read or deceive them into caring about a book or writing down what it means in a way that fits into a box. What I like, I like. What I don’t like, nobody can change. In fact, searching out more of what I like and defining what I don’t has made every book I read more pleasurable. Even the ones I hate. But we (English teachers, high school, mostly) don’t generally allow kids to hate the thing they read, or we haven’t given them the tools to hate a book and still read it. To hate it and to know why. So many people in my profession are afraid of what will happen if we let kids admit that a book for the class is boring. It goes against everything we need to tell ourselves.

I’m not sure how long I will keep up my reading sprint this summer. Maybe this is some kind of training I need so I can come out on the other side with a skill, a realization. Maybe it’s just filler, the carrot onstage in Waiting for Godot. But it’s eating at me.

I Don’t Want Another Mockingbird

I read To Kill a Mockingbird in 1994, as a high school sophomore. It changed me. It was the first book that showed me that stories offer clues about humanity, that they’re full of meaning beyond the literal. That they tap into a need for connection that we feel deeply beneath the narrative. I don’t exaggerate when I say it was reading To Kill a Mockingbird in Ms. McMichael’s 10th grade English class that opened my eyes to the world of literary analysis. I didn’t know I would be a book critic then, but that book certainly set me on the path, and before that it set me on a path to being an English teacher. I wrote my first successful essay on Mockingbird, an exploration of why Mayella Ewell’s carefully tended flowers–red geraniums–mean that she wants more than her sad life. About Lee’s choice of flowers–such hardy, indelicate blooms–that show how everything about Mayella is rough, even the natural beauty that surrounds her. Harper Lee’s book was the first one I wanted to explore, discuss, write about.

Because of this, I’m well aware that my feelings toward the book aren’t neutral. When I started teaching high school English at my alma mater in 2002, I was excited to share Mockingbird with my students (and my heart melted a little if they didn’t love it as much as me). Mockingbird remains a part of the curriculum. It’s a rite of passage. Every student that’s passed through my school has–if not read it–at least endured the expectation that he or she should know this story. It’s cultural currency that we want our students to have.

So in light of this, my reaction to yesterday’s news about another Lee novel, Go Set a Watchman, wasn’t so happy. I felt excited for the first few minutes after I heard the news. But my glee faded quickly as I thought about what a sequel (even a related book written before the one we know as the first) would really mean. Sequels almost never hold up to the original. More isn’t always better.

We want more from the world of our beloved characters, but the truth is often less appealing than what we can imagine. It’s too prescriptive. Full disclosure: I don’t read fan fiction. I don’t generally like sequels penned by different authors. It makes me sad that J.K. Rowling has broken her word about not writing anymore Harry Potter stories. Even if a series is imperfect (as I mostly expect it to be), I’m happy for it to be over.

Chasing after more of a character is chasing after a want that can never be fully fulfilled. Once we see Scout as an adult, we have to live with knowing that she was someone else to Harper Lee than she to us. I like to imagine her in her ham costume, her future wide open. I’m free to make what I want of her childhood, of her revelations, and of the meaning of the book itself. I’m free to imagine that Scout is in some ways, like me, and that I can absorb the lessons of her childhood as my own.

Do I imagine the world beyond the known world of books? Outside the boundaries of story? Sure. But that’s part of why fiction is enjoyable. What we learn in a finite narrative is measurable; the lessons of life are not. Fiction has arbitrary bookends of structure, and they are not the same bookends of birth and life that set the narratives of history. The rhythms are different. Fiction isn’t real by virtue of its form if not just its truth, and I would argue that the very fact that it’s incomplete is part of why we like it. We don’t want to know how Gertrude came to fall in love with her murderous brother-in-law or see Walter White teach Chemistry before his diagnosis. Partially, because these things are boring, and we spend our own lives in boredom. But partially because fiction is concentrated magic.

Also, this. One of the hardest things to learn about being a writer is how to edit. Not what to say, but what not to say. Which details to choose and which to leave hidden to your reader. There is a reason this novel was put in a drawer. And now, by all accounts, Harper Lee isn’t healthy.We know her sister protected her until she died. By publishing her novel now, I think we ask something of her that she might not have the capacity to handle: we ask her to abandon earlier ideas of editing, of choosing what is most poignant or most right, in order to satisfy our own greed for consumption.

I’d rather have something brief but wonderful than a glut of sub-par.

That’s what this is, right? We can’t get enough of a good thing. We can’t accept the work that Harper Lee gave us and be a good steward to her legacy. We can’t be a good steward to old ladies, either, because we want the brief illusion that we can quiet our urges to know everything. I don’t like what that says about us.

Miss the characters in To Kill a Mockingbird? Maybe you should just read it again.

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Doing and Not Doing

Mostly, it feels like I’ve been standing in line at Ulta.

Do you notice how there are always about fifteen people working there, yet there is always a line to the back of the store? Hate. Shout out to my new favorite eyebrow pencil, however: Anastasia Brow Wiz in Caramel.

But what I’ve been doing? Teaching. Cat snuggling. Books, and walking to podcasts. Oh, and a short Super-Bowl-avoidance shopping trip.

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What am I not doing? I think that’s more interesting–at least to me. Most of my worry time is devoted to it, anyway. Since December, I haven’t written any fiction. Zip. I tried once and all I got was two confused pages.

I feel like such a loser. Way to use your MFA, HSP. I sent my friend Faye a letter the other day, and I whined about this for about two pages (yep, I totally could have put that time to good use writing a damn story–or, you  know, this time I’m using right here to blog). But I’m struggling to get a story out. Really struggling. Anything.

Why is this? I have all kinds of excuses. The first is that I have been really busy with review work–a blessing, the best, happiest kind of blessing–but this is also a time of change. I haven’t found equilibrium yet. Damn if I’m not predictable about what sets me spinning.

Excuse #2: My whole family has been sick. Fortunately (and it’s just a teensy bit hard to admit this, but I will) I didn’t get as sick as the rest of them because I was the only one who had a flu shot. But one or another of us has been down for about three weeks. Lots of missed work for sickies. I’ve also had some ladyparts problems again, which has meant a shitton of doctors appointments of one kind or another. And a lot of laying down while they put me into giant tubes (nothing wrong, just a hassle, and time). While it’s been a time of gratitude about our double medical insurance, it hasn’t been my most productive moment for the written word.

Excuse #3: I’m trying to lose weight, which means I hate everything.

But so what, Whineypants. I know. None of that matters when it comes to what I want for myself. Do I want to be a writer of fiction? I do. And if I do, that means putting my money where my mouth is. Or maybe a more apt way to say it is that it means putting my butt into my chair. Making myself write the stories that I know I need to tell. Something. I haven’t figured it out yet. I like systems, and for this I don’t have one. Fiction feels like it needs space — in my head and in my day. I haven’t found that. Not that kind, at least.

Don’t get me wrong. Things are good. I have work. I have a routine. I have a way to make it work with my day job and my family. I have myself figured out when it comes to reviewing, and I just recently found my maximum capacity. That’s a strength, in a way, to know how much you can and cannot handle. Now I do.

But this is how it is: the job of critic will always come with crises of confidence. I go along fine, read-read-read, write-write-write, and then I get another wave of who am I to say what I think about a book? Nobody cares about you, English teacher who still lives in the town where she went to high school. That feeling is stronger from time to time and I know to ride it out — it eventually passes. But lately I wonder if I can be a critic if I’m not also walking the walk. If I’m not putting my words on the page, if I’m not sending out stories, do I even get to write about what other people have done? This is just a different kind of worry.

So that’s where I am this week. What I am doing? It’s not work. Not the right kind, at least.

What I’m Reading

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This week in words:

On Sunday | The New Yorker. I am not good at reading TNY regularly. When I’m not careful, it stacks up and I start to feel stressed out. This week I tried to start something new. I want to take time on Sunday morning to drink my coffee and read at least some of this week’s issue. I always find an article or a short story to love. It’s time I made it a ritual.

During the week | The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty by Amanda Filipacchi. I have yet to crack the beautiful cover of this surrealist whoddunit, but I am hoping to have it finished before Friday. Filipacchi wrote about beauty for The New Yorker recently, and I immediately wanted to review it:

After all, finding oneself beautiful when one is not: Is that not the next best thing to actually being beautiful? And the detail grew. Before I knew it, I was writing a fictional meditation on beauty—a disapproval of it, but also a celebration of it.

In my car | The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith, AKA J.K. Rowling. For short bursts of reading-while-driving and reading-while-exercising, I have found that I love a good ol’ fashioned mystery. I enjoyed The Cuckoo’s Calling, and so far The Silkworm seems to be equally good.

Are you reading anything great this week?