I’m currently teaching Hamlet in my senior English course. One of the exercises in writing I’ve assigned is the “Existential High School Student”. The assignment asks the students to reflect on the following questions: Who am I? What is my true identity? Where am I going? What is my greater purpose? How should I live my life?
It is a good time to ask these questions, when students are graduating high school and embarking on all new adventures. Think, I say, and really dig into the question: What kind of person do I want to be in this world? When I review the assignment with my students, I inevitably reflect on the questions myself. I am a new mom, I am a teacher, I am a reader, and I want to be a writer. It has only been recently that I decided I am old enough to drop the “want” and call myself a writer. And as I accept my new roles and my new self, it is the existential questions that I have been drawn to in other writers. At 36, I’ve found myself in a time of reflection that has me on a reading quest. In January, I started finding books that asked the same questions.
Let me take a moment to tell you that I am a book hoarder. I am constantly on the search for the great book. I like reading about books almost as much as I like reading books. As a result, I put a lot of books on hold at the library. I’ve memorized my NB Public Library card numbers (I have two). In January, four books appeared on my holds list, ready for pick up, and by happenstance the four memoirs were connected. Each story reflects the author's experience at my own age, and each story examines those very existential questions I ask my students. Ultimately, it was the reading experience that linked the four books for me: I felt as if the authors all reached out, grabbed me, and sat me down for a fireside chat. By the end of the month I’d read four books that came together in so many ways, but the driving force behind each was the beauty of the storytelling. The shared story so profound and inspiring that it has taken me some time to write about the experience.
I started with When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. Reading this little book felt like I’d been given a tome of poems, and an evening with a wise old friend who I wish I’d known. Kalanithi was diagnosed with terminal cancer at 36. As I read this memoir--the weight of wisdom and philosophy and literature and poetry all falling out at me--I was sure he was a peer of the Romantic writers I’d come to adore. I could almost picture Kalanithi sitting alongside Byron and the Shelley’s talking about “What makes life meaningful enough to go on living?” and then setting out to write this masterful little book. But it was not under these sublime circumstances that Kalinthi wrote his memoir, instead it was at the end of his medical training, at 36, diagnosed with terminal cancer that he leaves us his story. Reading his book felt like taking part in a shared story. His is a story that demands to be told, and a reading experience like none I’ve experienced.
Next, on my library holds came The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying by Nina Riggs. Admittedly, I had ordered both books after reading this article in the Washington Post: ”Two dying memoirists wrote bestsellers about their final days. Then their spouses fell in love.” The stories not just of the two memoirs but of the coming together of the love between these two bereaved people just floored me. Reading Riggs book was its own experience. I fell in love with every word she wrote. She is funny and heartbreaking and poetic. I remember one moment reading her book thinking: this is absolute poetry. Where Kalinthi wowed me with his philosophy and expression of the sublime, Riggs’ memoir moved me with prose like poetry did when I first really read it at University. Like sitting down at 18 and discovering Plath and Roo Borson and all these beautiful greats, that was what reading this book was for me. And so I dug around and found she’d written a book of poetry and I set out to find it. Beauty. That is what this book left me feeling. The absolute beauty of life. All the messy things about running after my toddler, coming home to the messy bits left by a dog who’s rummaged through the garbage, all those tiny moments of life she slowed down for me and whispered: Just take it in. Just watch, listen and slow down. This book is pure beauty.
On my holds list came two more memoirs. I had so many books on my holds, but these four books came flying at me all at once and each author so close to my own age that I felt in some way it was meant to be. These stories needed to be read and sitting down to read a memoir feels like that. You sit and read and you take in someone else’s story in your hands. You give them your time. And that is how I came to My Lovely Wife in the Psych Ward by Mark Lukach. I read this book over a Sunday, sitting on my sofa with my toddler, sitting at lunch, and into the evening, finishing it late at night. I kept reading. I felt like Lukach had words to share, had an experience that needed to be read, and he makes his audience a part of that.
The fourth memoir that came to me was similar to Lukach’s account of living with a partner suffering mental illness. A Beautiful, Terrible Thing: A Memoir of Marriage and Betrayal
by Jen Waite was again a read in which I sat down and listened like I would to a friend. She wanted her story to be told, to be heard, and that is how I approached it. I read about her life in New York City and her subsequent move to Maine. I followed along watching as her shocking breakup mirrored one of my own. I finished with the intent to reach out and write to her. I intend to still. I want to tell her: you’re not alone. I want to write to her and thank her for sharing her story, an inspiration to share my own.
Four memoirs, four voices, and four existential reflections on life. I recommend each one, so go out and take the story in, appreciate the beauty of a shared story, and then go write down your own.
I read three Jessica Valenti books over the past two months. I couldn’t quite get enough of her style. And really, just her words gave me all sorts of hope for so many things. I didn’t read her books in order. You can. Or you can choose one that suits you now. I checked them all out of the NB Public Library. You can, too!
Let me start with the first one I read: “Why Have Kids?: A New Mom Explores the Truth About Parenting and Happiness”. I wish I had this book when I was in my twenties. I wasn’t sure then if I wanted kids. I certainly wasn’t ready. But the message of this book would have warmed me to the idea. Or at least softened my hesitation. Valenti’s thoughts on parenting parallel my own. She says, “when we parent, we’re trying desperately to control an inherently uncontrollable situation” (165). And so she suggests a community-minded experience. Not the insular one we have now. She suggests that we start “thinking about raising our children as a community exercise. Shifting our consciousness in this way has the potential to change so much. When we take the pressure off ourselves to be the one and only caregiver for our children, it will not only free us from the increasing loneliness of solitary caretaking but also open a world of love and support to our children. When we think about society, instead of just our individual kids, it makes it that much easier to demand government and workplace policies that honor parenting for everyone. We can fight for extended paid leave for all parents” (166). Her cry for parenthood is that we support one another. That there isn’t one way for parenting our kids. She exposes the prescribed ways we dictate for motherhood, exposes the BS and the anti-feminist legislations, and proposes to support one another instead. Simple. Revolutionary? Perhaps. Read it.
Next, I read “Sex Object: A Memoir”. Valenti explores how violence against women is “not a matter of if something happens, but when and how bad" (11). If I wished I’d had “Why Have Kids” a decade ago, I wish I had this book in high school before I went to university. I think reading a book this honest and open about being a woman would have armed me somehow as I went to university, and later, when I was 22, traveled to New York City to start a teaching career. I didn’t know the world beyond my books, and my experiences in small town Canada. I think this book would have been that honest friend with all the wisdom I needed during those years. Reading it now, her story helped define things in my past. I couldn’t help but parallel my own experiences as I read the book. Around the same time Valenti lived in NYC and started writing this book--from what I gathered as I read--I moved from New Brunswick, Canada to live in Brooklyn, and then Queens, and eventually Manhattan. She made me think more clearly about my own experiences on the subway, and on the streets of New York. Things I took for just part of the world, didn’t give me pause when it should have. I didn’t speak up. I didn’t fight back. I kept my head down. I didn’t ask questions. But I think maybe if I had this book in my hands, sitting on the subway in the early morning or way too late at night, I would have felt a little less powerless. My head raised a little higher. Read it.
Now, I am finishing “Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Woman's Guide to Why Feminism Matters”. I started reading it at the end of August and then September kicked my butt with back-to-school. But, as I continued to read my library copy I realised more and more that I needed my own copy. I needed the marginalia! So I ordered it from Amazon, and now I am back at it. If the other two books are those I wish I had as I navigated my early adulthood and started my life as a mother, this is the textbook to feminism I wish I could buy in bulk and hand out to every young person who graduates high school. Congratulations on your emergence into adulthood, now please go study this book and be a great human. That is all. Read this book. Buy this book and take notes. And if you’re on my Christmas list, you may be getting a copy!
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 nights ago, I watched Embrace, a 2016 documentary by Taryn Brumfitt, on Netflix, and I cried within five minutes. I sat in the dark of my living room, my daughter and partner asleep for the night, and I watched a woman who looks like me on the screen. She looks like me and not because she is there for a gimmick, or because she’s someone’s best friend, or because she is quirky, or sad, or about to turn into a beautiful thin person--she looks like me because she chooses to love her body and not buy into an unrealistic ideal of the female body.
This documentary chronicles Brumfitt’s pursuit to answer her questions about our bodies. The website for The Body Image Movement asks “why poor body image has become a global epidemic and what women everywhere can do to have a brighter future”. She travels the world, interviewing women about their body image and reveals a disturbing look at how focused we are on “thin”. Most importantly, she says that she wants a better future for her daughter. As a high school teacher and as a mom, I worry about the same things the film discusses. On the film’s website, the movement says “We Say No To” and lists the following:
I’ll give you a brief look at my own experience with this rabbit hole of dieting. When I was in junior high I was teased relentlessly because I was “chubby”. I wasn’t overweight; I had full cheeks, but I wasn’t thin. Then somewhere between junior high and high I grew a few inches and suddenly I was “thin” for the first time since childhood, and I still thought I was fat. I was 5’4” and 115 lbs and I thought I was ugly and fat. I spent the rest of high school trying to maintain this new weight loss that I’d achieved through a growth spurt. There were no other narratives for me to look to besides “thin, thin, thin.” And so I worked at keeping myself that way.
I’ve weeble-wobbled with my weight over the years ever since. I have been thin again a few times over the years (although never as thin as my post-growth spurt self because the “growth-spurt diet” has yet to be invented). I know exactly what I need to do to get my body to my thin weight: I need to eat about 500 calories a day, and work out about two hours a day--no breaks. I know this is my “thin diet” because I did it twice in my twenties. It worked great! But I wasn’t healthy, and it wasn’t something I could maintain.
The last time I did this extreme dieting I was twenty-nine and recently single. The breakup was a hard one. I didn’t talk about it much, so I threw myself into exercise and diet. I was the most unhealthy in all my adult life, but probably the thinnest. I still remember my exact diet and exercise regiment. I still remember the compliments. But I felt like an imposter. I was thin, but as a teacher I was supposed to be a role model. The extreme conditions I placed for myself to be that thin were dangerous and unrealistic. The moment I started to live again I gained some weight back, and I was healthier. Instead of obsessing, I worked out to get strong, and I ran because I liked it. I wasn’t thin, but I was healthier than ever. Still, I idealized my past self regardless of how great I felt.
Now, I am approaching two years postpartum. I am about twenty pounds heavier than my pre-baby weight. I am also healthier than ever because I walk my toddler, play all day, eat more fruits and veggies than ever in my life, and we do yoga and pilates together. It has been a fun summer and a healthy, active one. I lost zero pounds. I naturally lost some in the first year, but I didn’t embrace a diet that I knew would drop that weight because I needed energy to feed my baby, and work, and live. I also couldn’t work out two hours a day--or even daily. I had a baby who never ever slept. Still, with all of this logical information in my brain about how detrimental an extreme diet and exercise plan would be for me, I feel ugly and fat. I am thirty-five years old and my old junior high fears shadow my thoughts.
Sometimes I look at my daughter and think: I hope she doesn't get fat like me. Other times someone remarks how much she looks like me and I think: Thankfully, she isn't fat. Over the past month I started to worry about something else: What if she catches on? What if she hears someone tell her she looks just like her mom and she knows her mom hates her body? What will that tell her about her own body? It has to stop with me. With the birth of my daughter, I started to wish for something more than being thin, I started to wish for her to grow up in a world where thin is not the ideal of beauty.
So I have a choice: show my daughter what it is to love her body. Show her how to eat great food, and be active for FUN! And for strength! Or, I can limit myself to 500 calories a day, and a two hour daily workout just to be my perfect “thin”. I think after taking a walk with my toddler this weekend while she yelled “Running! Jumping! Walking!” that I will take the LIFE route.
Embrace starts to rewrite the narrative of the female body. Brumfitt’s message isn’t that we need to say goodbye to physical fitness and healthy eating, but that we need to let go of an unrealistic, unattainable ideal. We need to know that thin is not the only way to be healthy. We need to do this for our daughters, for the students in our classrooms, and for ourselves. Watch the film (it’s on Netflix!). And then watch it again with your mothers, your friends, your children, your partners. The beginning monologue is all too familiar for me, and I suspect it will be for you or someone you love.
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.