Finding the Interesting

And didn’t it always go like that – body parts not quite lining up the way you wanted them to, all of it a little bit off, as if the world itself were an animated sequence of longing and envy and self-hatred and grandiosity and failure and success, a strange and endless cartoon loop that you couldn’t stop watching, because, despite all you knew by now, it was still so interesting.

— Meg Wolitzer, The Interestings

 

I have had a difficult fall, wherein I did feel, most of the time, that I was falling, or off balance, or already fallen.  I spent some time in the hospital, learning the great value of psychiatric nurses.  Post-partum depression, anxiety, OCD, you name it – and it is important to name it isn’t it, considering the stigma that still exists around mental illness…  The world cracked me open.  I was too broken to find my way back to all the good and bad and in-between people in it.  Until I wasn’t – a blessed combination of medication, insight and love (wise words of Andrew Solomon from his wonderful book The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression) and oh, humour, humour is BIG (I love, love, love Maria Bamford!) – until I was remarkably, thankfully, returned to a ragged kind of wholeness.  And what seems so miraculous now, so noteworthy, is my interest in life, in all its stupid, shining, circuitous goings-on.  I am grateful (and still somewhat amazed) that it is ‘so interesting’ once again.

One of the things that is interesting to me these days is how many people were so incredibly compassionate towards me while I was sick – and that sometimes this compassion came from the most unlikely quarters.   I’m thinking of you, grouchy pharmacist lady I had written off as hostile, who looked me square in the eye and said, ‘It’s such a struggle, isn’t it?’ beaming goodwill and true fellow-feeling.

And so much of that compassion involved people willing to hear my story and to share their own.  Which is why I am so excited that The M Word, edited by Kerry Clare, is closer and closer to becoming a book.  This collection of conversations about motherhood tackles some hard truths, from many different angles.  When I was in the thick of my crisis, I felt embarrassed by my contribution to the anthology – although it outlines some of my struggles with new motherhood, it was written from a place of strength.  It has a happy ending.  I was ashamed that my relationship to motherhood had once again become so challenging, so darkly complex.  I felt like a fake.  But that of course is the point, I think, of my essay, and of the collection as a whole.  When it comes to mothering the answers are myriad, and the right answer today is seldom the right answer tomorrow.  You can pre-order a copy of The M Word now.

Also interesting, and incredibly sad to me, is the recent death of Nelson Mandela.  I was lucky enough to be in the same room with him in 1990, at a Toronto high school, with 1500 other students.  It was four months after he had been released from prison and he had asked to speak to the young people of the city.  People rose to their feet, chanting and singing, when he entered.  The atmosphere in the room was electrifying.  It is one of the most pivotal and galvanizing memories of my life.  The idea of revolution fascinates me – and I am always so inspired to encounter individuals who manage to combine love and understanding of their fellow humans with a strong conviction that change MUST occur.  I am still working on how to integrate these ideals into my own life, and I am wrestling with the concept of revolution and the effect of large social movements on individuals and families in the novel I am working on.  Yet another arena of my life and thinking where I have very few answers – but I keep working on it…  Goodbye Nelson Mandela.  I feel so fortunate to be part of your legacy.

Finally, I am so pleased that my dear friend Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer’s newest novel is set to make its way into the world soon.  The book is called All the Broken Things, and it is absolutely lovely, full of yearning and intimate history – and bear wrestling!  It tells the story of Bo, one of the Vietnamese boat people, and his complicated relationship to his family and his new home.  Kathryn’s mechanic’s daughter, a 15-year-old hugely talented artist/filmmaker named Carol Nguyen, made a book trailer that captures the mood of the story perfectly.  You can watch the trailer here.  Please do!  And seek out the book!

Okay, that’s me blogged out likely for the next few months.  All best for the holidays, friends.  And here’s to a brighter and shinier 2014 (although I will try to enjoy the dull bits too…)!

 

 

Omnibus Heart

Here is an art (heart) piece by M.  I love that it contains other smaller hearts and a piece of pirate gold!  And that it is hanging out next to Joan Didion in her cool shades.  Haven’t written for a long time — too overwhelmed by parenting and teaching and also a recent (and lovely) visit to lakeland around Waterloo, as part of their tribute to the book Lakeland by Alan Casey, this year’s One Book, One Community pick.  I had a wonderful time; I got to visit Edna Staebler’s cottage and read with poet and recent Edna winner Jeffery Donaldson, plus spend time with Kim Jernigan (outgoing editor of The New Quarterly and one of my favourite people).

So — scattered sensibilities and now summertime brain.  Plus this blogging thing is not a habit yet; I have moments where my thoughts cohere into brilliant combinations, really super sentences.  Then something happens — say, a park visit, a phone call, a craving for coffee — and the sentence flees.  I can see the back of it from my brain’s small window — a flash of eloquence, a well placed semi-colon rounding a faraway corner.  Then, gone.  So this is my attempt to rectify my delinquence in posting.  It might be a bit of a ramble, so bear with me.

I’ve just finished reading Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion for my book club.  I loved The Year of Magical Thinking but haven’t yet mustered the courage to crack Blue Nights (too sad for me in my current exhaustion and thin, thin skin) so was really looking forward to her earlier work (some of which I’d already read) and was not disappointed.  I was definitely less compelled by the journalistic pieces, which often felt high brow tabloid-esque — but this, I know, is less a matter of quality than a function of the time and place they were written.  I can (and do!) acknowledge how ground-breaking this work must have been when it first emerged.  But I was more drawn to those personal pieces — really rigorous self-examinations — that felt like they existed outside of time.  I wonder if this is because I can more easily trust a narrator passing judgment on herself than on others…  One of my favourite essays was ‘On Going Home’, a perfect little riff on how it feels to revisit your childhood home as an adult, the weariness a person feels whilst wandering the rooms of her past.  Here’s an example of how succinctly Didion captures moments that trouble a consciousness, that engender questions and also a kind of philosophical paralysis:

That I am trapped in this particular irrelevancy is never more apparent to me than when I am at home.  Paralyzed by the neurotic lassitude engendered by meeting one’s past at every turn, around every corner, inside every cupboard, I go aimlessly from room to room.  I decide to meet it head-on and clean out a drawer, and I spread the contents on the bed.  A bathing suit I wore the summer I was seventeen.  A letter of rejection from The Nation, and aerial photograph of the site for a shopping centre my father did not build in 1954.  Three teacups hand-painted with cabbage roses and signed “E.M.,” my grandmother’s initials.  There is no final solution for letters of rejection from The Nation and teacups hand-painted in 1900.  Nor is there any answer to snapshots of one’s grandfather as a young man on skis, surveying around Donner Pass in the year 1910.  I smooth out the snapshot and look into his face, and do and do not see my own.  I close the drawer, and have another cup of coffee with my mother.  We get along very well, veterans of a guerrilla war we never understood.

Fantastic, right?

Mad Hope sighting at my local!  Hooray independent — books, bookstores, publishers, thought!

Also, I am reading next Wednesday at the Brockton Writing Series, at Full o’ Beans Coffee Shop, right here in my ‘hood.  Would love to see you there!

 

 

Meg Wolitzer on ‘women’s fiction’

The very smart and funny Meg Wolitzer has this to say about ‘women’s fiction’ in the New York Times book review.  I think she’s right on the money and could quote multiple bits, but here’s a couple of choice excerpts.  On book covers:

I took semiotics back at Brown University in the same heyday of deconstruction in which Eugenides’s novel takes place (he and I were in a writing workshop together), but I don’t need to remember anything about signifiers to understand that just like the jumbo, block-lettered masculine typeface, feminine cover illustrations are code. Certain images, whether they summon a kind of Walker Evans poverty nostalgia or offer a glimpse into quilted domesticity, are geared toward women as strongly as an ad for “calcium plus D.” These covers might as well have a hex sign slapped on them, along with the words: “Stay away, men! Go read Cormac ­McCarthy instead!”

And this on short stories:

Over centuries, the broad literary brush strokes and the big-canvas page have belonged mostly to men, whereas “craft” had belonged to women, uncontested. It’s no wonder that the painted-egg precision of short stories allows reviewers to comfortably celebrate female accomplishment, even to celebrate it prominently in the case of Alice Munro. But generally speaking, a story collection is considered a quieter animal than a novel, and is tacitly judged in some quarters as the work of someone who lacks the sprawling confidence of a novelist.

I’m pretty happy creating ‘quieter animals’, but certainly have felt some of the tacit judgment Wolitzer describes re: the relative ‘smallness’ of short stories, and their assumed domestic nature.  I feel like the conversation needs to be reframed.  What’s wrong with small and quiet anyway?