Sometimes a stranger on social media posts a disarmingly simple phrase that’s just what you need to hear:
“It’s okay to feel heartbroken for more than one group of people at a time.”
Stel Bailey (environmental justice advocate)
This quote has been lingering in my mind as I cautiously navigate the news about violence and deaths in Ukraine, Darfur, Israel, Gaza and even in my own state of Maine, which experienced an unprecedented mass shooting in a small town 2 ½ hours from me on October 25. My struggle has been not to shut down, not to hate or rant, but to listen, to understand, to keep feeling and hoping. And as always, literature is once again proving to be a balm and a restorative.
A long-anticipated Thanksgiving trip to my daughter Laramie in Los Angeles devolved into 10 days of the worst case of a mystery flu I’ve had in over 10 years. (Not RSV or Covid.) Superb treatment at Cedars Sinai Urgent Care and antibiotics finally restored my will to live, but in the meantime I was plied hourly by my daughter or her husband with mugs of hot lemon juice-honey and huge bowls of organic Vietnamese chicken soup, trying not to feel guilty about ruining everyone’s plans, plowing through whole boxes of Kleenex. The best medicine of all: a pile of books curated for me by Laramie, and reading them, tucked on the couch under a quilt with a box of tissues at my elbow.
Finally, nose dripping and ears popping, the leisure to read and savor two novels long lingering on my “to be read list” by the brilliant Jenny Offill: Dept. of Speculation and Weather. Funny, compassionate, erudite, stunningly original. Reading her will break your heart and put it back together again. Ironic but not cynical; knowing but not smug. Worried about all the right things. She is, for me, the best exemplar of a term, coined by Viktor Frankl , tragic optimism, among the authors I’ve recently encountered. (I count myself as striving to be among this group…) It’s the opposite of toxic positivity. Can’t wait to read Offill’s next one.
I also submerged myself in more conventional prose: Tom Lake by Ann Patchett, and The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store by James McBride. Both huge best sellers; unchallenging, well-crafted, but not books I would read more than once. Page turners, for sure. Borderline flirting with toxic positivity. Easy to see why they were/are popular. Nothing for a reader to do but read the sentences and feel good at the end. Do I wish I could produce work a fraction as skillful and readable? Of course. Just saying.
Another one that I found ambiguously mesmerizing was Be Mine by Richard Ford. A man takes his sardonic middle-aged son, dying of ALS, on one last road trip. Both storyline and prose are imaginative and compelling, yet the difficulty in relating to his now iconic central character made reading it a somewhat bumpy ride. But so often I found myself thinking, “Now this is a writer!” An impressive achievement. A dinner party with Richard Ford and Jenny Offill would be something else. I’d include David Sedaris and Katherine Mansfield just for contrast.
As if this variety wasn’t already giving me literary whiplash, I finally settled in to read a dictated “memoir” by one of my favorite novelists, Carson McCullers, Illuminations and Night Glare.
(Based on dictations to her therapist) as well as an unclassifiable volume called My Autobiography of Carson McCullers, a so-called “memoir” by Jenn Shapiro.
Talk about being humbled: Carson expresses her joy that when her bad leg is finally amputated, she’ll be able to travel to Ireland to visit her buddy director John Huston so much more easily, without the bothersome limb sticking out from the wheelchair and making getting on and off planes so tricky. Yikes. (And I was waylaid and despondent over a case of the flu!) Reading McCullers’ thoughts about her novel Reflections in a Golden Eye led me to stream the film version (with Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando). Very avant-garde for its time. And all of this is why it’s impossible for me to hate technology; an infinity of world-class culture at my fingertips. One just has to sidestep the onslaught of garbage continually vying for our attention. (Ha! Easy to say.)
I mean, what’s not to love about being able to stream an at home mini-festival of Julianne Moore movies after seeing the magnificent May December, directed by Todd Haynes? (On a wide screen during a lovely outing with my daughter one day before the flu brought me to my knees, in Los Angeles.) I had a cathartic cry at the end, just overwhelmed by the integrity of the enterprise and the brilliance of the acting. Went on to stream Safe, and Maggie’s Plan. Lots more to watch and/or rewatch.
Now I’m back in Maine and soaking up the peace and quiet. Tackling a rewrite of my work-in-progress with the help of Scott Bell’s Refuse to Be Done: How to Write and Rewrite a Novel in Three Drafts. Underlining like mad.
Not moving to Los Angeles anytime soon, though it’s painful to be so far from loved ones. Even in the throes of my inconvenient illness, we were able to add enduring, meaningful threads to our fabric of connectedness…with beloved shared books, and emotionally resonant films. And, of course, Vietnamese chicken soup with scallions. Might have been the worst/best Thanksgiving ever.
Photo provided by the author.