This Life

I haven’t written much here, in this space, for quite a while.

My problem on the page, one I don’t share conversationally, is I don’t like to write if I have nothing to say. Don’t be fooled into thinking nothing has been happening. So much has been happening, in the world outside of myself, and within.

But every time I feel the prickling of interest, something I want to share about a feeling, a phrase, a book, a moment, before I can get it down in words, it takes flight, like a flock of birds when a wave approaches, and I’m left with nothing but a glimmer, a smoothed out stretch of gleaming sand. I can’t write about such flatness, I can’t capture something without edges, and so I take note, for myself, and walk away.

beach at dusk

Today is Thanksgiving, but I woke up, for the second morning in a row, feeling irritable. I don’t want to be woken up the way I am nearly every day, by my daughter’s thumping gait as she drags herself and her broken foot to the bathroom and back, and then the inevitable creak of my door as she opens it to ask me to help her get dressed, to find her a pair of socks, her iPod, a book.

And yet, of course this is exactly how I want to wake up, if the alternative is not waking up, or not having her in a room adjacent to mine. If something terrible or tragic were to happen to one of us, to her, I would fall apart, disintegrate.

This reasoning should invoke some gratitude, grudgingly, or otherwise, and usually it does. Today I stumbled into her room, bleary eyed and annoyed, and tossed her a pair of socks, which she rejected for dirty ones pulled from the pile next to her bed. I am needed and not needed. She is more than halfway to eleven years old. I try to remind myself that soon I will be needed less, or needed differently, and these thoughts fill me with despair.

Despair! Even though so much of what runs through my mind on a given day is LEAVE ME ALONE, like the title of one of my son’s favorite picture books. Every time I open it up, I laugh in recognition. A frowning grandmother in an old fashioned dress with a babushka on her head surrounded by dozens of grandchildren. Most days I feel like that grandma, frowning in my pajama pants and tank top, trudging up and down the stairs, to and from the kitchen, feeling bombarded by the never ending litany of requests.

But it only takes a moment, a flash of understanding about the fleetingness of time, for the ground to disappear beneath my feet, for longing and regret and sadness to compete with my need for solitude.

I just finished reading Abigail Thomas’s Safekeeping: Some True Stories From a Life on recommendation from a writer I admire and like very much, Beth Kephart. She wrote an article about her in The Millions and shared it on Facebook, a medium that offers me so much solace, and also wastes so much of my time. In this case, it was precisely the life preserver I needed.

safekeeping

The book didn’t come from my local library because for some reason they don’t own it. They couldn’t even request it via inter-library loan, because not one copy exists in the entire county, which now I realize is an absolute crime. But the librarian told me he would request it elsewhere, and when the book arrived just a couple weeks later, I was pleased to discover it came from Pittsburgh, my mother’s hometown. I love the idea that this book traveled all the way across the state to find me on the other side.

I didn’t intend to read it so quickly. It’s an ideal sipping book, each chapter is perfectly named and comprised anywhere from a single paragraph upward to several pages. There are no cliffhangers, per say, since the book is not linear, and each chapter feels utterly self-contained, and yet, I couldn’t stop. It was one of those wonderful inhalations where the insights and language feel as nourishing as food. I just wanted to eat and eat and eat.

In the morning after a particularly late night, I read several passages aloud to my daughter over breakfast, interrupting her own reading. She finished her paragraph in Harry Potter and looked up, waiting. I read quickly, not wanting to lose her attention.

“They had a big window installed in the kitchen that looked into the woods. In the fall afternoons she used to watch them empty of their light like a glass of bourbon slowly being filled to the brim.”

I wondered if she understood the word bourbon meant amber liquid, but even before I started to explain, her eyes lit up, a mirror of my own. Oh mom, that is so good, too good, and I nodded, grinning, delighted to have captured her interest and understanding. Without a prompt, I read her another brief passage:

“Some things are so sad you think they can’t get better, and nothing will be okay. She didn’t make it better, although she tried, later. It got better by itself. He has a wife and a baby girl now. They sleep in the same bed. He lives on an island.”

Stop, she said, it’s too good, I’m jealous. 

I knew exactly what she meant, but I shook my head, no no, don’t be jealous, just drink it up, soak it in, writing like this can teach you so much. 

I let her return to her own book then, and I returned to mine, both of us satisfied.

Days later, here I am, alone in my office, shut up after my irritable morning, finishing a cup of coffee and this precious book. In the span of an hour, the foggy dawn has transformed into a bright and crystalline morning. The birds have come and gone from the feeder outside my window. I now feel sated and calm, having shucked off my anger with solitude and words.

I’ll leave you with this passage toward the end of the book, and maybe one day, I’ll read it to my daughter, when she’s old enough to understand, when and if she has a child of her own, and a need to be alone, to shut a door, with herself and a book.

“What is this longing, she will want to ask. This troubling feeling of more to come. You can make something out of it, I want to tell her. But that’s what her life is for.”

I hope your Thanksgiving is filled with ebbs and flows of sensation and memory, of good food and laughter, and maybe a special book you can share with someone you love.

 

 

 

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