Roxane Gay’s memoir Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body begins with the explanation: “Every body has a story and a history. Here I offer mine with a memoir of my body and my hunger” (6). She goes on to explain that this story isn’t one of “triumph”, it is not a “weight-loss memoir”. She says that “there will be no picture of a thin version...emblazoned across this book’s cover” (6). She says that this is “simply, a true story” (7). And I read this memoir, highlighting most of it, my Kindle heavy with its weight, because this is a story that needs to be heard, and I wish we had more like it.
This summer I have been reading stories, mostly by women, as a way to find answers in my own life. I also want to understand what it is to be a woman in our society, and how I can make that world better for my daughter. When I found out I was having a girl, I was teaching The Great Gatsby. And of course Zelda Fitzgerald’s influential line to her husband, “I hope she'll be a fool—that's the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool” pervades the text through Daisy. And of course it popped in my head when the technician told me I was having a girl. I don’t, of course, hope for Adeline to be a fool, even a beautiful LITTLE one, but that line is almost 100 years old and it persists today. About the littleness of our female culture, Gay says “This is what most girls are taught – that we should be slender and small. We should not take up space.” Certainly we should not take up space!--Not with our bodies, and not with our minds. To be foolish, small, petite, QUIET--that is what little girls are made of.
And yet, Gay reminds us that “it is a powerful lie to equate thinness with self-worth” (84). I have spent the better part of my life equating “thinness with self-worth”, unfortunately. So many--too many--times in my life I have thought, “If I was thin, I would…”. And yet now, the thought that has usurped that refrain for me is “I do not want Amy daughter to grow up wishing she was thin”. It’s exhausting.
But, “Regardless of what you do, your body is the subject of public discourse with family, friends, and strangers alike. Your body is subject to commentary when you gain weight, lose weight, or maintain your unacceptable weight” (76). My body has always been the subject of comments. I remember being very little, eight maybe, and putting on my brand new New Kids on the Block nightie, and dancing around joyously, when a relative poked me in the belly and said: “You have a belly!” The shame of having that fat hasn’t left me. And when I look at pictures of me at that time, I see nothing wrong with how I looked. And yet. The awareness that I have an unseemly, ugly, protrusion of flesh has been with me ever since. I am fat? I remember thinking. And later, when I was in my twenties and trying to navigate a new career in new cities and in new places, any time I lost weight (I fluctuate with my weight, and have throughout my life) I’d get: You look great! You are so thin! And it was the knowing that those compliments ONLY came when I lost weight, never when I was just healthily living my life, that was the most detrimental for me. The knowing that I wasn't enough when I was fat, or even just a little fat. I had to be thin.
I think the apex of body comments came when I was pregnant. For someone who has spent the majority of her life trying to hide her body, to be small, to be quiet (my shyness was another source of unwanted comments, because being shy and quiet and introverted is almost as bad as being fat in our world), being pregnant was terrifying. I tried to ignore the comments, or just take it, because that is what we are taught to do when it comes to our bodies: our bodies are public, and hence open to scrutiny. I remember it all: “You must be due soon!” (I was six months pregnant). “Are you having twins?” NO. “Don’t worry, you’ll lose the weight.” The absolute worst moment was when I was shopping for groceries with my parents. I was almost nine months pregnant. I was tired and hot when a man came up beside me, grabbed me in a too-tight side-hug with one hand, while his other hand aggressively rubbed my pregnant belly. He told me how much he loved babies. I froze. And I look back at that moment, when I politely released his grasp, and stepped away, only to listen to him babble on about his love for children until I could politely leave. I still regret how demure and quiet I was. I should have pushed, clawed, and yelled my way out of that unwanted, aggressive touching. But I didn't, because my body is not my own: a woman’s body is the subject of the public. We get comments, hugs, demands, and unrealistic images cast at us all the time.
Roxane Gay’s book, Hunger, is hard to read. Her openness about her body is hard to digest. She says things that made be feel ashamed for how I view fat. I am just as guilty as anyone at the fear I have for FAT. Sometimes I watch the TLC show, My 600 lb. Life that Gay reference. And I watch with that sense of the carnivalesque and grotesquerie that it is intended. I am guilty of that, we all are. Otherwise, why would they make that show? It is hard to talk about these stories of the body and acknowledge that we are wrong.
It is hard to think that our diet-obsessed culture, our thin-obsessed culture isn’t right, because we have stuck to it for so long. My eight year old shame of having a “belly”, is the same shame I have now when I take my one-year-old to the pool, exposing my still-chubby postpartum belly. Gay says: “The way my friends talk about their bodies also leads me to that same conclusion. Every woman I know is on a perpetual diet” (178). And if every woman she knows is on a diet, and every woman I know is on a diet, then where does it stop? When will my daughter come to me worried about her belly? Her thighs? Will she be eight years old, like I was, or will she be told even earlier that she is fat?
There is hope in Gay’s memoir. She shares that “it’s scary...trying to be yourself and hoping yourself is enough. It’s scary believing that you, as you are, could ever be enough” (150). This fear infests our minds. If we were all okay with how we looked, there wouldn’t be a diet industry. And despite the dark moments of Gay’s story, she leaves us with some hope, “I am working toward abandoning the damaging cultural messages that tell me my worth is strictly tied up in my body” (178). This is a powerful statement. This is not an easy feat, but it is one that I will take up, if only to teach my daughter that her body is not tied up in her self-worth.
My summer reading has found a theme that I hadn’t set out to fulfill. I had actually intended on reading a few more classics on my very long TBR list. And I did read a few of those, before the summer started. But then I started writing again, and with that I started to want to hear other writer’s stories, and then I started to dig up any books I had or could find about what this life is about, and where my life is going. I am at a point now where a lot of the big to-dos are being checked off the list: University, career, house, relationship, baby--and now I am thinking back to who I was at twenty, and who I had wanted to become. These are existential questions. Big ones. And I teach an entire unit on existential questions and crises when I read Hamlet with my seniors, but I don’t often give myself time to ask these questions of myself.
I had just finished reading Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning a few days before the reports from Charlottesville flooded the screens. Frankl’s wisdom echoed in my head as the images of Nazi flags took over the news. Man’s Search for Meaning is a significant historical text that reiterates the need for education about our past. It is books like Frankl’s, one that shines light not just on the past, but on one’s own search for purpose, that we need more of in schools, and perhaps with our political leaders.
When I left school in June for the summer, my co-worker handed me this little book. She teaches the book in her history class and said: You have to read this. I teach English literature to many of the same students, so I was happy to read what they were. I sat down to read what I thought was a historical memoir about the Holocaust. And it is that, but what I hadn’t expected was a discussion of existentialism that really inspired me. Frankl’s book reveals his wisdom, his observations, and his thought-provoking quest for meaning in life.
Before Frankl and his family were arrested and sent to the concentration camp Theresienstadt in 1942 he had been working with suicide prevention in Vienna. His career is a staggering one, and inspiring; his life’s work was to help others. He counselled people who were giving up and helped them find hope. And that is what his book does.
I really can’t expressed my feelings for this book any better than by using Frankl’s own words. So, I dug through my many post-its and flags and found a handful that really speak to his purpose in this book. Here are a few:
“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
“Don't aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one's personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one's surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it”
“Those who have a 'why' to live, can bear with almost any 'how'.”
“For the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth - that Love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.”
Although an important historical text, this book points its reader towards those existential questions we should all be asking in order to live a full life. I finished the book feeling oddly encouraged and comforted by asking myself: what is the meaning of my life? Is it to love? To share my stories? To help others reach their own potential? I think that often in life we can get stuck in daily activities: work, eat, sleep, repeat. And often it is easy to lose sight of the “why”. But if we keep these existential questions always on the ready: to think about, to talk about--then maybe life starts to feel a little more full, a little less like a battle. I hope for some to read this book to search for their own meaning, and perhaps others to read it for its historical value.
A few weeks ago, I put Jennifer Weiner’s Hungry Heart: Adventures in Life, Love, and Writing on hold at my library because I’m looking for some writing inspiration. The last time I was serious about my writing was when I was taking a creative writing course and the requirement to submit gave me the push to write. Oh, how I longed to be a writer! I’ve always wanted to write. As a kid, I wrote novels and poems and stories--filling Hilroy notebooks--and in high school I started submitting poems to my local newspaper. I was serious about it in university, taking writing courses, and submitting work.
Later, I wrote a bit when I lived and taught in NYC, but only for myself. I never submitted anything. After teaching in NYC, I spent a year doing my MA at the University of Toronto. This is where my love for writing was bulldozed by that impossibly hard year in academia. I spent ten months with imposter syndrome, daydreaming of chick lit and mystery novels. I worked hard. I achieved my goals, but vowed if ever I did another year in academia it would be in something better suited for me. During that year I took one course from the Library Studies department called Young People: Collection Development, and it filled me with such joy that I’d realized I should have done my degree there. Since then I have studied writing on my own and learned more by teaching. It took me a few years to recover my love for writing--that year was rough! I am happy for it now, but when I was in it--yikes.
It wasn’t until I was on maternity leave with my first child that I started to really feel that pull back to writing. I’d take long walks to put the baby to sleep, and find myself speed walking home to write out the story before she woke up. Other times, I’d sit with a baby on my chest, she fast asleep because it was--and often still is--the only place she’d really truly sleep, and I would create. I don’t know when the first germ of postpartum creativity hit me, but since having my daughter in September 2015 I have five novel ideas in various stages of notes and drafts.
Now, almost two years into this revived creativity I am ready to write, but I still need a little push to accept this new drive. Suddenly all that desire to write and create that I had at twenty is back and I can’t lose it now. And so I have been reading other writer’s stories. I read Weiner’s book to give me a spark for my writing. This book did that, but in an unexpected way. Something about Weiner’s candid discussion about her body lifted a mirror up to my own experiences.
I read it over a week, and I would often whoop in glee. I read it at night. I read it surreptitiously while my toddler toddled around our living room. I read it in the front seat of my SUV while my toddler finished her car nap--and I ate her snacks. And the entire time I felt like I was reading something I should have read long ago. I was a bit ashamed at the way I’d been seeing myself and my weight and my diets and my addiction to weight loss. The book was a mirror, and the more I read the scarier the reflection became.
In the end, this book exposed my past (dieting, dating, writing, failing) and gave me a shinier reflection. This is that sort of book that reminds me why we read books: to think more clearly about ourselves, to see ourselves in others, and to live a little in some else’s shoes. I can say that after reading this book I have a little more of a push to write, and to be a little easier on myself.
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.