realizing that someday she’d miss this

That’s the important part. Not in the book, but for someone to realize. Near the end (spoilers!) of The Whole Golden World, we are told:

Dinah leaned in for another hug. Morgan could smell her mother’s shampoo, and she breathed deeply, realizing that someday she’d miss this smell. At college, if she ever managed to go, or on her own somewhere, or…someday when her mom would be gone.

This is not the climax of the story. That’s long gone. But this is the climax for me. That realization. And it’s one of the best things you can hope for a teenager. That they know. That they take advantage while they can. They they stay present.

I did. My mother laughed it off but I fretted when invited out too often, to too many sleepovers or movie nights or a month or two spent with relatives miles distant. I worried she’d be lonely, that she’d see me growing up and away and be miserable about it, that she’d worry I was getting drunk or pregnant or addicted to something, like so many other teenagers. But mostly I worried that I’d look back and remember that time I was gone and think, I should have been there.

And I was right. I should have been there. And I was. I stayed behind so often. So I have memories of us laughing at something silly on daytime TV, or of (on occasion) impressing her with some bland insight into something, or of her telling me some scrap of her youth, a story I’d never heard before and wouldn’t ever again. I held onto all of those memories and continue to do so, as she loses her own. I wasn’t the kid who snarks at her mom or dad and then slams the door on her way out to bitch to her friends about said mom or dad. I’d hate myself if I’d been that person.

And in this moment at least, our more-or-less heroine, Morgan, sees that. Frustratingly, it’s only as regards one parent–she has no insights about her dad, who is shoved to the sidelines for much of the novel and is only trotted out for blazing, let-spittle-fly anger at the end, which is for some reason rewarded and treated as endearing and indicative of closure. Really, that’s all you think dads are good for? Threatening child molestors? Yelling hoarsely in front of TV cameras? Did your father really never sleep on the kitchen floor lest the new puppy be lonely, or doggedly save a first-grade art project in a treasure can on his desk for twenty years?

“Straight men are dumb” seems to be the hackneyed theme for the second half of the book. We could have used more of Morgan’s dad, especially once he’s suddenly home all the time. Every interaction he has, he is painted as the brash blundering Angry Dad. It never dawns on her that his rapidly-quickening girth might rip him away from her at the drop of a hat. His wife never even articulates it inwardly, for all that we know that she notices. She, who worries about everything all the time, cannot be bothered to spare any worry for this.

If you pay them no attention they may disappear like smoke.

My whole life I’ve been surrounded by people who take their parents for granted. Then their dad wraps his car around a tree or their mother finds a lump in her breast. And I’m sure their parents would not begrudge them the time they spent weaning themselves away from home–being ground against the parking break in some idiot highschool boyfriend’s truck, or drinking peach schnapps under a bridge somewhere. They’d forgive these kids who frittered away the little time left they had with their parents. They’d say it was part of growing up.

I don’t. I don’t forgive them.

Because I stayed present, hoarding the memories, bringing the tea, dallowaying it up–and they still got more time than I did. And it’s not fair.

The door opened, and Ricky loped in, breaking into a grin. “There’s my girl! There’s all my kids. Damn, if this don’t make me happy.” He strode across the creaky floor and planted a kiss on Rain’s cheek. He smelled like the aggressive strawberry air freshener he used in his car to cover up the cigarette smoke. “I’m sorry as hell for the reason, but I’m so glad you’re here.”

“Me too, Pop,” she replied. “I am, too.”

You don’t always get to do this. And you can’t get back to the days when you could.

Don’t fuck it up, kids.


i take that back…

Only halfway through and already we’re to the courtroom drama. I hate courtroom drama. Also, the girl and the guy are assholes now. It’s like we took Mrs. Robinson and turned it into Breaking Bad. Blech. This would be why I don’t read these kinds of books that often. We’re not all looking for a sexed-up version of Law & Order, people.

women giving warnings

I am reading The Whole Golden World now. An advance copy I got for free. I picked it up because of the title and the cover. The title reminded me of Let the Great World Spin, and the shining snow reminded me of the way I thought snowy winters would be.

I know these characters and this place. Wherever it is–I hope she doesn’t end up specifying later. I understand why so many writers brought up where and how I was try to fill their lives with exotic experiences to titillate readers who don’t want to read about what they already know, but there is something relaxing in retreating to a world you recognize instantly–not from fandom but from familiarity. And, too, the tone of it is familiar. The Deep End of the Ocean, Layover, The Friday Night Knitting Club, A Map of the World. I haven’t read many of these books but I know them instantly when I start them. Books written by women and for women, and a specific kind of woman at that, a well-off suburban mother who hasn’t yet experienced devastating loss but who is being told it could happen.

I summoned, briefly, as a teenager, the disdain that is still so rampant for Oprah’s book club picks and the power that little sticker holds–until it was pointed out to me that my prejudice was ridiculous, that her recommendations have gotten millions of people reading who otherwise wouldn’t; and moreover that her recommendations have included books like The Grapes of Wrath and The Great Gatsby, so what exactly do I have to look down on in her choices? So I did away with that vanity, and my awareness of the varied nature of her picks kept me from saying “this book here, this is going to have one of those ‘O’ stickers one day.” Because maybe it will and maybe it won’t. But it has the feel of those other books. The ones I used to think were all she recommended.

They weren’t fun, but their characters were instantly known to me. The warm and the cold, they’d populated my own suburban childhood. And the women were traceable–you could sketch, from their drawn and wracked faces in the shadow of loss, the girls they had once been. And, reading them as a teenager, I felt them as a warning. This could become you. Have a child and have it stolen–have its best friend drown in your pool–have it turn into a school killer despite all your efforts to raise someone who loved you and whom you loved in return–and this can happen. Constant vigilance, clearly, is required. And even then you might still be fucked.

There was the scene in The Friday Night Knitting Club where the boring, straitlaced woman’s children are off to college at last and her husband is standing naked in the rain in their backyard in the summer night, crying, come out and join me! And she says absolutely not, get inside, what if the neighbors see? And he comes in very calm and says “And that is exactly why I’m leaving you,” and he’s gone. Just like that. And I thought, don’t ever be that woman. You think your fear of what others think is safely bottled up inside, but the person you love will see it and will flee from it if it’s too constricting, if you let it squelch what lies between you.

And the endless repeating scenes of men turning away from women who are in pain, either from the loss of a child or from the failure to conceive one in the first place. None of the books are terribly clear on how to deal with that. Jhumpa Lahiri, A.L. Kennedy–it’s not just in novels that we have to watch that particular unravelling. The only thing to take away, I gathered, was that–to articulate the somewhat-over-simplified and somewhat-perhaps-truthful gender stereotypes inevitably put forth by these books–the way men and women experience grief is profoundly different. The ways each seem to feel that it’s okay to deal with it are profoundly different. (Though of course, every story seems to regard sleeping around as an antidote to this grief, the assumption being that messing around with naive strangers will remind you of all the reasons you loved and wanted to have a baby with your significant other in the first place. Thanks for that crystal-clear moral lesson, ladies!)

The Whole Golden World, though, has intrigued me for the several months since I received it, sitting amidst a slew of other advance copies, awaiting the freeing up of my reading schedule. Because–just from reading the back you can get this; it’s not a spoiler–for once it gives agency to the children involved. The child involved, anyway. We’re not writing her actions off to innocence or some mental or physical immaturity. Or to treachery, either–she’s not evil. She’s a teenage girl who knows what she’s doing, feels trapped by being a teenager surrounded by other teenagers, and acts to change that. And I think we are going to be allowed to see her as such–not just as a focal point for maternal angst. And I look forward to it. Because I was that girl. And, who knows, I could raise that girl. And I’ll be damned if I turn my back on her because she saw everyone around her so fucking miserable and dark and found a place and a person she could lighten and fought for the right to do so.

a good march

I love a good march. And I was listening to oneĀ on the way home from my video game music class today (which once again, rather bitingly, made me wish I’d learned to play piano as a child), with a window seat for once and able to watch so many accidents almost happen. The people writing the fearmongery articles about drivers on phones are right; at one stoplight I counted six cars deep before I got to someone who wasn’t texting or talking on their phone. I watched people race lights, run lights, almost run over pedestrians, screech to sudden stops. And over it all my [current] favorite march played. And when you listen to something broad and reaching as you are watching things narrow and petty, it’s easy to feel lifted up, looking down–not condescending, just like you’re not a part of it. I know I’m extrapolating a bit from the fact that I watched the movie and the book but the music made the movie more powerful in than the book, in some instances, and I am allowed to extrapolate.

But as I kept watching these people almost die, and shake their fists at each other instead of dying, I kept popping back to that finale on my phone, and to do so I had to bring up the screen with the album cover on it. And I saw the version of Tom Hanks they’d chosen to grace the top of the pile and thought hey, wait, why did he get redeemed. That version of him. All throughout time–and yes, I speak here explicitly of the movie because, with that handful of actors playing as many characters as they did, it’s easier to draw lines–he did kept doing things wrong. Purposefully, for personal gain. And even then, in that last vignette, he let Sloosha die. So he tries to save the child–so what? Maybe those other characters did something worthwhile during the rest of their lives–we are presented with at least that possibility, in some cases at least.

Then I remembered that he lets Sloosha die out of fear. Not to take Sloosha’s wife, or his house or his goats or something. He’s just afraid. And he regrets it. And I don’t know which David Mitchell wants us to believe grants him grace–the acting out of fear instead of malice, or the regret. I would think the fear–I don’t think regret solves much–but I don’t know. But he lets him off the hook. He could’ve rotted on the rotting planet, and his previous incarnations have certainly suggested he deserves it, but Mitchell lets him off Earth to live on, rebooting–much like, maybe, regressing to just fear instead of malice and avarice and personal gain is a kind of primordial reboot. Or could be seen that way.

Anyway, I was trying to puzzle this out, listening to the overarching march of centuries, watching people almost die crankily, furiously, on a too-narrow street on their way home to the suburbs.

crisis management

So I’m accidentally texted by someone who doesn’t know where my dad works about the shooting at the Navy Yard.

And let me tell you that anytime someone gasps, or looks stricken, at their ipad or at their phone or at a screen I can’t see, I assume it’s another 9/11, and I demand to know what it is that they see even as I start scrabbling around for my phone. And I had already thought–have already planned out, since I got this job–where I need to be for reception, whose desk I need to commandeer for a phone and a computer screen so I could guide loved ones, over the phone, out of, for example, a bombed Metro if they had to exit a train, or flee down below from bullets above or something. The reception is pretty good down there. And I am very good at giving calm, measured directions. Turn left. Feel along the wall until you come to a turn. Close all your other apps to conserve battery life. Do not for the love of god hang up.

And I don’t have to do that today, and don’t ever want to have to do that, and I can’t tell people here how it feels, because no one they love was ever in danger like that.

you were here


I’ve heard it my whole life. You were here. Because I’ve usually been there, it’s true. But now, the Cloud Atlas march in my ears as we wind over and around the Potomac, through Harpers Ferry and Cumberland and Sand Patch, after days of talking about death and forgetting and decline, sudden or gradual, I know I’ve been here. And I know years from now I could be saying it to someone else. But I can’t imagine it. I just can’t. I’ve never been able to project forward like that, even imaginatively. Only backward. What would I say? You’ve been here, and your grandfather before you who almost died here, and me with a lump in my throat after him, thinking of it, of his talk of selling off everything he held dear after he dies for real. No one needs a geography of sadness. It is not a gift.

late night lurking

I have been looking through old albums at all these women who went and had children, even as my own mother sleeps upstairs in the grip of a dementia that is taking her away from me bit by bit, and I think, how did they do it? Was it worth it? They brought people into this world only to love them terribly and then forget them utterly. Sometimes not without wounding them deeply on the way out. My dad is trying to eat his way to an early death. Is it worth it, doing that to your loved ones? Even if you don’t know you’re doing it at the time, because by then you are too far gone to know. Beforehand, I mean, when you can still make the choice: is it the right one?