I love books. And reading. And reading about books. And going to the library. And if you were to look through my (pre-baby) Instagram feed, you’d get the idea. Step into my high school English classroom, and you’d get the idea. Love books. Always have. My summers are devoted to books. Creating my TBR lists in May and June is my favourite getting-ready-for-summer activity. And yet, the summer of 2017 has been a little different. I have a toddler now, and she’s a little adverse to me reading for hours in the sun. She likes books, too, and so my reading level has changed a bit. Right now she is really into Pat the Bunny, and One Fish Two Fish. The nights are for reading. Usually. And that is only if I’m not too tired, and if Netflix hasn’t grabbed my attention first.
Lately, however, I managed to devour two books. Once I started both books I wasn’t sure if I should continue. My postpartum anxiety was stifling. Consuming. Although, I don’t know if it isn’t just anxiety now. Consequently, reading anything about a child’s death makes those anxieties louder, fiercer. Still, I read each terrifying book.
Somehow I chose two books back-to-back about the death of a child, and both books are set around 2005. And in 2005 I was living and working in New York City. In 2007 I left NYC and being this the tenth year since my departure, I have been thinking back to those days in NYC and how changed my life is because I left (and never returned to) a city I still think of as home. These books are both about memory, and reflection, and regrets, and living with yourself, in your body, pain and all.
The first book in my accidentally aligned reading list is Little Sister by Barbara Gowdy. The first sentence in this book, for whatever reason, grabbed me. It shook me up, and I don’t know why. It is rather benign. When I read it to my partner he said: “THAT sentence made you want to read the book? It made me want to throw it on the campfire.” He’s not a fiction person. And we were at the campfire. I said: “Please don’t. This is a library book!” I can’t remember when I found the book online, and added it to my library holds, but one day I got an email that it was ready for pick up, and so I happily went to the library and picked up this beautiful hardcover, barely read, still with that wonderful new book smell.
I wasn’t even sure I would read it until I read the first sentence: “From her office above the Regal Repertory Theatre, Rose Bowan watched a Coke can roll down the sidewalk across the street. It missed the fire hydrant, hit a tree, spun under the cafe’s wrought-iron gate, and set off an arc around the tables, whose languorously twirling umbrellas somebody better start lowering.” That’s it. That is the line that hooked me, fit into me: “like a hook into an eye/a fish hook/ an open eye” (Margaret Atwood). Maybe it was because I spend a lot of time at my job staring out of the window, watching trash roll around, and thinking, dreaming, lesson-planning. Or it maybe it was the word “languorously” applied to the umbrellas. Whatever it was I sunk deep into this book, sitting out at our campfire, the other book I was reading forgotten (a book about witches by Nora Roberts).
The plot: the protagonist, Rose, finds herself transported into the body of a stranger during thunderstorms. Weird, right? Then you get the story of her family, and the theatre she runs. There are three primary settings: her life now, her life as a child, and her time inside this other woman’s life. Each story is so captivating that you cannot stop reading the bits in between to catch up with the three stories. Each character is so deftly drawn that the experience Rose has being submersed in another person’s body is the exact achievement of the author. For most of the book I too felt like Rose when she is brought into another life. I can’t talk about the little sister, and her mother’s pain without getting absolutely weepy, but what I can tell you is that this book is an experience. It is magical. And it made me pause, root around in my own experience a bit, and be quiet. I didn't open my phone. I didn’t obsessively check the baby monitor. I simply read.
Okay. So, if the darkness of a child’s death didn’t completely tear me apart in Little Sister, I was worried it would in Joan Didion’s Blue Nights. First, a note on Didion: how is this the first book I’ve read by Joan Didion? I think her books were just always around, and so within reach that I always left her for another day. That day was a few days ago, when I was desperately searching for a book to read and could not find something that would hold my attention. I’d start one and find myself checking my phone, or watching TV, or puttering around in the garden--not entirely sure when I’d put down the book and moved to a new activity. I needed something to GRAB me, pull me in and shake me up a bit. I searched through my Kindle TBR books, many just sitting there hoping to be clicked. I messaged my mom a few times: Have you read this one? Was it good? But I still couldn’t settle on one. I noticed Blue Nights was short and I’d remembered my mom read it. For some reason I was also in the mood for some truth. A human story. A memoir. Someone to teach me about their life, so that I might look at my own with a new view. I wanted a book to shake me up a bit, and get me thinking more deeply about being a mom. My summer is all toddler, but it is also too busy to think much about it.
So I started reading: “In certain latitudes there comes a span of time approaching and following the summer solstice, some weeks in all, when the twilights turn long and blue. This period of the blue nights does not occur in subtropical California….but it does occur in New York.” That had me. Blue nights in New York City, and I felt like I was being read a story by a friend. I am sure the voice in my head softened, the tone mellowed, the rhythm of my breathing slowed, and I’d been placed in a bit of a trance. I started reading on our front porch, as the summer sun fell into the trees. I was IN. I knew the premise of this book. I knew it was about losing her daughter. Her daughter who was about my age, she about my mother’s. I knew the story would rock me a bit, set my anxiety for my own daughter, and my life on edge.
And yes, the book did all that. Shook me up. Yet it was cathartic. Soothing. Scary, and yet alarmingly healing. My biggest darkest fear played out horrifyingly on the pages in front of me. As I read about Didion losing her daughter, I thought about my own August in New York in 2005. I had actually brought my own parents for a visit, and then happily prepared a new school year. August is my favorite time of year: I love going back to school, if you can believe it. Everything was fresh and new. I was in a new relationship. I’d moved to Manhattan. I was 23. Twenty-three. As I read, I thought about the day in August 2005 that Didion stepped out of the hospital. Her daughter was gone. And it juxtaposed so harshly with my experience on that day: 23 years old, frolicking through the streets of New York City without this immeasurable fear in being a parent, without my 2017 worry: am I enough for her? And without this need for her here beside me, all the time. Didion speaks this through her story of being a mother. The book isn’t so much about the death of her daughter, but about her experience as a mother.
A few days after I’d become a mother, I sat crying over my daughter. I was alone for the first time with her. I was it. The day loomed before me and as I thought about all the clinical things that had to be done every minute: try to breastfeed her, cup feed her when that didn’t work, pump as she screamed wanted to be held, store the pumped milk, clean all the stuff for pumping, change her, record her poos, her pees, record how long she fed, how much she fed….It was endless. And I cried and I said, to her or to me, I am not sure: I just want to be her mom. This book reminded me of that moment, and that I can just be her mom. That sometimes all the other stuff can melt away for a minute. I am enough.
The book also spoke to my fear in being a mom. In February of this year I came home from work, with my one year old, to find our home had been robbed. They’d come when we were at work and took all of our electronics, and some other things that were weighted more in sentiment than monies. The lasting terror of that break-in was how it shook my parent-heart right out of my chest. I’d wake in the middle of the night, heart hammering, sweat dripping, thinking: Where is she? They have her! They came back for her! Because really, out of all the things they took, she is my most precious, and my (yes, irrational) fear was that the robbers would realise this and come back for her. I didn’t sleep for weeks, months probably. I cranked the volume on her baby monitor. I listened to her breathe. I woke with relief when she cried: Mama! Mama! Hug! Because it meant I could go to her. Pick her up. Take her back to my bed and have her there, protected.
But in August 2005, in New York City, I didn’t know about the fear of loss. And I didn’t know how to be anyone but myself as I lived and breathed all that NYC air, watching my flip flops melt on the impossibly hot pavement. I went to movies. I shopped. I prepared my classes. I remember once emerging from the subway in Midtown. “Freebird” blared in my headphones from my newly purchase iPod Shuffle, and that was me at 23.
And now I know. And I wouldn’t go back there. Having my daughter erased every last regret I ever had about leaving NYC. I mourned that city for eight years. But in September of 2015 I realized that every moment and every decision brought me to my daughter. In the book, Didion tells of her daughter's anxieties as an adopted child. The what-ifs she’d ask her mom: what if you didn’t pick me? I have those what-ifs all the time: What if I never left NYC? What if I never returned to New Brunswick? What if we never bought this house? It’s terrifying, like my post-robbery dream: they are coming for her. If I made one major decision differently, she’d be gone.
This book gave me that insight. It is a book of memory, of reflection, of mourning, and of life. And it is told by a narrator whose voice soothes, shares her horror in such a way that I felt cautioned by the end: You are a mother. Take in each moment. Hugs when she needs them. Put down the phone. Put aside the worries about money, the job, the robbery, the everything else, and just be her mom. That’s what this book gave me.
Each book reminds me of the passage of time, that it is fleeting, that I need to pause, that perhaps there is comfort in that fear. Didion sites two poems in her book that I feel sum up each book: T.S. Eliot’s poem “New Hampshire”, and Wallace Stevens’s “Domination of Black” Where Eliot reminds us that “Twenty years and the spring is over;/ To-day grieves, to-morrow grieves”, Stevens reminds us to remember “the cry of the peacocks”.
These writings are comprised of my creative nonfiction, and books, books, books. This blog is a exploration of the books I read, the people I meet, and my life as a backyard homesteader.