The Ugly Familiar 6: Love Is Not a Victory March

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 3.1 (except it’s less of a part and more of an interlude)
Part 4
Part 5
However, maybe you didn’t read those, and maybe you want to read one post and not 6. Fair enough. Here’s what you need to know: Robert was my first husband. We married in May of 1993 and our son Jacob was born in December of that same year. We were both very young and our relationship was always chaotic and difficult.

During Jacob’s first year, I controlled every bite of food that I put into my body. I subsisted on vegetable soup, oatmeal, and dry salted potatoes, a diet so low in fat that eventually I became deficient in fat-soluble vitamins, and by consequence was covered in bruises. Every time I scratched an itch, bumped a table, or Jacob bit my shoulder, I would get a black-and-blue mark all out of proportion the to the injury. My doctor sent me to have something like 20 vials of blood drawn so he could test it for God-knows-what-all, and we all breathed a sigh of relief when those tests proved I didn’t have leukemia. The doctor seemed unconcerned that I was so thin I wasn’t menstruating and had to sleep 12 hours out of every 24 in order to maintain my brutal workout schedule. He prescribed a multi-vitamin and sent me home.

During that year, I also kept our house in pristine order. Everything was perfect. I washed my cloth diapers and hung them out to dry and they were so perfectly even and white out there on the line, they looked like movie star teeth. I swept the floors daily and mopped them twice a week. My dishes were clean and there were no sticky jam spills in my refrigerator. My jeans were size 4 and my breasts had all but disappeared.

Everything was perfect.

Eventually, not long after Jacob’s first birthday, I lost the thread that connected me to whatever force enabled me to do all of those things that were so unnatural for me. I ate some cookies or I watched TV instead of cleaning the bathroom, and soon it all unraveled and I was me again, laundry half done, dinner unmade, my nose in a book, and candy bar wrappers hidden at the bottom of the trash can. Robert told me I was “marshmallowing out” again and asked how a person who couldn’t cook anything more complicated than Jell-O could possibly manage to get fat.

When I lost hold of the thread, my period came back, and in April 1995, the rabbit done died again.

When I was four months pregnant, Robert got a new job and he asked me not to come visit him there, in spite of the fact that he would be working less than a mile from our house.

“Why? Don’t you think Jacob wants to see where you’re working?”

“You can come when you look more pregnant. I don’t want people thinking I have a fat wife.”

I didn’t respond. I didn’t know how.

My weight had fluctuated widely since my late teens, but during my pregnancy with Abbie I became genuinely fat for the first time. Part of that was almost certainly due to the fact that I entered the pregnancy on the rebound from a year of near-starvation, but also, I was angry. With food to nourish my brain, I couldn’t ignore that anger, and since I couldn’t starve it away anymore, I ate it. I ate my anger with omelettes and toast, with roast beef and mashed potatoes, with ice cream and cookies. I ate and ate and ate until I had stretch marks in places I didn’t know people could get stretch marks and I didn’t recognize myself in the mirror.

I was so ashamed, I almost never left the house. All my emotional and mental energy was consumed with food and weight, planning how I would find that thread and get back to being the perfect, tidy, slender person I had been a year earlier. I spent hours lost in a daze as I planned the diet I would pursue beginning the instant I wasn’t pregnant anymore.

Awful as it was, it was better than feeling so violently, helplessly angry.

And then there was this:

Oh, the pink juicy wonder of my Abbie. She smelled so good, I thought I might accidentally suck her up my nose. She was round and rosy and sweet and always, unmistakably, her own person, sharp and opinionated and stubborn.

Two babies were a heavy load on a weak and shaky marriage. Soon after Abbie’s birth, the cracks in our relationship’s foundation began to grow. By the time she started to crawl, I could fit my hand in those cracks, and when she learned to walk I discovered that I could climb right into some of those cracks and take a nap.

Maybe there’s a God above
All I’ve ever learned from love
Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew you
And it’s not a cry that you hear at night
It’s not somebody who’s seen the light
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah…

Part 7

Follow That Rabbit

I wrote part five of The Transcendent Familiar (No idea what I’m talking about? Here: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4). Really, I did. As it turns out, though, what I thought was part 5 is actually part 6 (I think, though who knows? Maybe it’s part 7, or 12, or 34.).

I think that, if I was writing a book, it would go just like this, with the back-and-forthing, the rearranging, the jumping-in-and-out of memories, the expanding-and-contracting timeline. The weird/wonderful thing about blogging is that the process is on display as much as the story and you get the story as I go along, instead of after everything has been all cleaned up and neatly arranged.

Or maybe not. I don’t know about writing books. I haven’t written a book since I was ten and my friend Sarah and I wrote the definitive sourcebook on endangered species.

In any case, I wrote a story about something that happened when Jacob was a year old, but then I realized I had to tell a story about something that happened when Jacob was a newborn first. I wrote it, and I’ll post it soon, but I’m treading deep into the land of Other People’s Stories, so it seems wise to go slow and let the words settle a bit before I release them into the world.

Also, I’m fascinated by memory and can’t stop turning it over and around, playing with it and following the rabbit into all his strange little holes. Over the weekend, while I was writing stories from 1993 and 1994, I was overwhelmed with a desire to listen to Fleetwood Mac, like a food craving. I dug through stacks and stacks of CDs (Almost all Brian’s; he is possessed by a need to own every sound ever recorded by The Grateful Dead or any portion thereof.) until I found a “best of” Fleetwood Mac album and loaded it onto my computer.

I haven’t listened to Fleetwood Mac beyond the occasional song that’s come on the car radio in over a decade, but in the early 1990s, they were a musical staple. The memories of that time rang a Fleetwood Mac chime in my brain and I was compelled to respond. Thankfully, Little Lies is as awesome as ever.

In other news, we’re moving! Not just moving, but moving into the The Ugliest House in Albuquerque.

I’ll forgive you for assuming that I’m speaking hyperbolically because I so often do, but this time? Not a chance. Now, I haven’t seen all the houses in Albuquerque, so I can’t be positive that ours is the absolutely, positively, for sure ugliest, but it’s easily the ugliest one I’ve ever seen so we’re going with The Ugliest House in Albuquerque as the title of the new estate.

Behold, the kitchen:

Did I tell you? Oh, and before you ask me WHY in the world we would want such an ugly house, it’s because the location and the floor plan are perfect. What are orange countertops compared to having all the walls in the right places?

Oh, my friends, we are going to have some fun. You know how Brian and I are somewhat directionally challenged? You ain’t seen nothing until you’ve seen us get our DIY on. The Ugliest House in Albuquerque has no idea what’s coming.

Isolation, Connection, and the Infinitely Recurring Memoir Controversy

This post by Alex at Late Enough led me to this post by Neil at Citizen of the Month which led me to this piece by Neil Genzlinger at the New York Times Sunday Book Review.

Genzlinger’s piece is called “The Problem With Memoirs” and opens with the memorable line, “[a] moment of silence, please, for the lost art of shutting up.”

What follows is a laughably predictable rant against memoirs by ordinary people. A(nother) pedantic man would like all of us regular folks, people whose lives are (in his estimation) unremarkable, to stop thinking that we matter enough to put words to paper (or screen). He claims that worthy memoirists “are lost in a sea of people you’ve never heard of, writing uninterestingly about the unexceptional, apparently not realizing how commonplace their little wrinkle is or how many other people have already written about it.”

And of course he is talking about books; memoir that appears on pages, bound together and placed on shelves. But since I, too, am a memoirist (albeit of the digital, short-form sort), I have thoughts about this. Many, many thoughts. I want to explain, but there is too much, so I will sum up.

There is plenty of crappy memoir out there, just as there are lousy books of fiction, history, science, or any other genre. To dismiss a whole genre as self-obsessed and silly because some books in the genre are self-obsessed and silly seems a bit……self-obsessed and silly. Online, the percentage of crap goes way up because, for most of us, there are no agents, editors, and publishers pushing us to clean things up or giving us thoughtful feedback before our words are public. But still, there are a great many of us, even here online, who take our craft very seriously, who strive to create something worthwhile from the raw material of ordinary lives.

I love memoir precisely because its writers are ordinary people living ordinary lives. If they experienced or did something extraordinary, that’s great, but it’s not what really draws me to their words. The facts of experience are not nearly as important to me as my connection to those experiences.

When Carter was three years old and I was beginning to understand what it meant to be the mother of a child with disabilities, I read dozens of memoirs by other parents raising kids with special needs. I read memoirs by parents whose kids had Duchenne’s muscular dystrophy, fragile X syndrome, bilateral perisylvian polymicrogyria, autism, Down’s syndrome, extreme prematurity, and mental illness. I inhaled books at an astonishing rate because I didn’t understand what this meant for me, this being-a-mother-to-a-disabled-child. By reading about what it meant for other people, I began to learn what it meant for me.

Then, I discovered the world of blogs, where people are writing memoir in real-time, sharing life as it happens. For a person who lives and breathes stories, thoughtful personal blogs are like crack. Writing a personal blog and having people come read it is like crack served up with a side of the finest chocolate to be consumed after an evening of mind-blowing sex. (Which is not to be interpreted to mean that, because I write such a blog, I want to live without chocolate or sex. I do not.)

The fundamental misunderstanding about memoir is that it is strictly a naval-gazing enterprise. At its best, memoir (book, article, essay, blog) is about uncovering the commonalities that exist under the surface of the facts. What happened to you is not as important as how you felt. What you did is not as important as why (unless you were a creep who hurt people and you are writing to justify your behavior, in which case you can have neither my time nor my money). When you bare your soul, I can see the ways that we are the same. We can connect.

After I shared about my struggle with trichotillomania, people came to say, “I understand.” Most of those people did not themselves have trichotillomania, but they understood the feelings under it. When I read what other people write about their own lives, that shock of recognition is what I’m looking for. It might be something that makes me laugh, or it might make me squirm, and occasionally it makes me weep, but ultimately what I want is a connection.

When I read what Alexandra wrote about pre-mourning, I felt my own, similar, sadness.

When I read what Guilty Squid wrote about her error pages and the middle-of-the night obsessions that drove her to create them, I laughed.

When I read what Casey wrote about the devastating darkness of depression, I wept.

When I read what Barnmaven wrote about the joyful/fearful experience of new love, I remembered.

I could go on for hours – connections made, understanding gained, hurts healed, joy discovered, all with “unremarkable” (but so very remarkable to me) people.

Isolation is the disease of our time. Connection is the cure. If, as the NY Times book reviewer said, the memoir genre is “absurdly bloated,” perhaps it is because we crave connection, an understanding of others’ lives and a new understanding of ourselves.

There’s nothing about a memoir by a person who accomplished something “noteworthy” that could matter more than that.

In other news, my piece Contrary to the Natural Order is featured at Indie Ink today. If you haven’t read it yet, please to be enjoying it now. And even if you have read it before, come on over for a visit anyhow. Those words have much of my heart in them; to have them so well received is an honor and I am humbled and grateful.