waffles

I am back in the waffle place where I was a week ago, when my mother died. It’s loud now. Then, it was quiet, and I read this as my mother lay dying thousands of miles away:


I didn’t know she was in the act of dying. I trudged out here because eating proper food was something she would have told me to do, and despite purchasing two huge bottles of Gatorade to try and make up for all the water I lost through crying, I still felt (and looked, I’m sure) like I had a terrible hangover. A server with pink hair tried to flirt with me, missing both my wedding ring and my general misery, but she retreated when persistent questions about my book met only bleak looks, and eventually left me to my reading.

A week later, I read:


And I think of the many posts I’ve written over the years about anger being more productive than despair. That remains true. But it is too hard, maybe, to stay angry the length that an Alzheimer’s diagnosis requires. It can flare up, when petty people luckier than you waste their time and their mental cognizance on stupid shit, right in front of you, where you can see, and seethe. When those they love treat them like they’ll always be there, because they can’t imagine–haven’t been wrenched into imagining and then living–any alternative.

But staying that angry starts wars that can’t be won. At least, I assume that is how you end up with people wanting to cryo-freeze themselves into better times, or re-seat their aging brains in younger bodies, or…all these batshit things you see people do. Take over countries. Launch a bomb at a man who threatened your father once. 

One of the petty people I resent most sent me a long letter. Amid a pile of storebought sympathy cards and watercolor flowers with embossed silver script, she sent me a long letter on notebook paper. I prepared myself for religious bullshit, or affirmations of being there for me to fill a void she’d better not dare even to try. 

Instead, she said what I already knew, and what I so resented her daughters for not seeing: she was in the same place I was. Lost her mom that way and will go out that way. I know for a fact she spent all Mother’s Day sobbing, but here she was writing in ballpoint pen on notebook paper, telling me it would become less shit in time.

Of all the well-meant falsehoods people shower you with when someone dies, hers is the one I’m grateful for. 

Because I know how much it cost her.

all the light we cannot see

I am reading this book — no, I haven’t given up on Proust, but my copy is digital and I don’t always want to look at a little screen when I’ve been looking at big ones all day — because I’ve wanted to since I heard the title. It’s beautiful. The moment I encountered it, I think on list of acquisitions, I wanted to read it. And now I can.

I love Jutta’s fury over the bombing of Paris. She has no claim to it. She is so far from tojisha status anyone would say she was putting on airs. But this thing, this most beautiful and loved thing to her is being broken, somewhat in her name, and it’s ripping her up. It’s a only a few lines that document this but it’s perfect. We can’t be doing this. Give it back to me. Not even the city, which she has never seen and has no sensible expectation of ever seeing. But the idea of it. They’re killing even that. And she’s furious.

super

Today was Free Comic Book Day.

I didn’t know that, because I’m not really much of a comics person. I found out via an almost slapstick line-of-sight reveal: from going up the wrong ramp, seeing a fence I couldn’t get past, looking back the way I came, encountering a man in a spacesuit and cape, dismissing him as irrelevant to my escape, then realizing that he was out there advertising the comics shop hidden behind the adobe wall forming one side of my enclosure.

Ta daa. Free Comic Book Day.

comics

I’m not traditionally a comics person, but I do try. I love Batgirl of Burnside, for example. I’ve seen…half…of the big movies? A lot of the reasons I’m turned off by superheroes are pretty cut-and-dried, I know. Nonsensical costumes, gravity-defying boobs, dumb love plotlines. A too-eager reflection of the real world, but tweaked, when what I typically want is a depiction of Anywhere But Here (see: Ferelden! the Shire! Morrowind!) with all the narrative and emotional pull of life as we know it.

But, costumes and gender problems aside, I also always took issue with the portrayal of hero flaws. They seemed far too pronounced. Even in third grade, tasked with writing a super hero story, I chafed at the weakness I was given to write about (we pulled weaknesses, like strengths, from notecards in a basket). “How can she be old enough to be super if she’s afraid of water?” I argued with my teacher [conveniently forgetting my own mandatory, remedial swim class for Kids Who Are Afraid Of the Deep End]. “Real people don’t do this!”

What I meant, or what I’m reinterpreting what was probably a much less nuanced argument to have meant, is that real people’s weaknesses aren’t so clear-cut and laid out there, plain to see. You don’t just fall apart at the exposure of your weakness, whether that’s water or cancer or the discussion of either. Right? I spent decades eschewing superheroes not so much for their superpowers as for their over-pronounced frailties. Everyone has weaknesses, sure, I thought. But you deal with them. They don’t weigh on you for episode after episode, lurking in your subconscious or your body like bombs, waiting for the proper moment to blow your plans to smithereens.

starlord

Except, that’s exactly what they do.

**SPOILERS FOR GOTG2**

When Peter Quill’s father tells him he put the tumor in his mother’s head, his reaction was instantaneous and 100% what I screamed for him to do in my head (albeit mostly in profanity): he attempts to blow this guy the fuck away. That the speaker is technically his father matters not one jot: here, personified, is the reason his mom died. Blam. You absofuckinglutely attack that. Thumbs-up, Starlord.

The deep satisfaction I got from Quill’s kneejerk reaction was not lost on me. Coming out of the theater to a confusing barrage of dammed-up texts about my mom’s hospice care, it was not lost on me. Maybe not as a third-grader (let’s be real: the cultural critique game is not that strong in those afraid of the deep end) but definitely as a teenager onward, I had disparaged superheroes for the giant bullseyes they walked around with, glued to their backs. “Hey father issues, over here!” “Oi, Krypton, pick me!” “Enclosed spaces! Come at me bro!” People, I thought, don’t work like that. Everyone’s issues are deeply buried and they only come up in the quiet of your own mind, are dealt with, and then are shelved away, hopefully a little better cataloged than before, but otherwise ignored.

Yeah, um. Nope.

If I someone were standing in front of me who could somehow credibly claim to be responsible for my mother’s illness, I’d beat the everloving fuck out of him. It’s a giant emotional bullseye that I was just too sheltered, or lucky, to realize I’d have to carry around one day. I wouldn’t even pause — as Peter Quill doesn’t even pause — to reflect upon the recriminations, legal or moral or otherwise, of my actions.

I have acquired my bullseye. I pick up an issue of Runner’s World magazine, see an article on one man’s doomed attempt to keep running in the face of Alzheimer’s and bam, slap that sucker right back down on the shelf, unwilling to bring that freshly energized sadness into my day. (Still haven’t read the article.) I walk into a movie theater with a bunch of friends to see X-Men, knowing zero things about X-Men, and suddenly I’m burrowing nine miles back into the depths of my hoodie, fleeing Patrick Stewart’s all too accurate portrayal of dementia’s viciousness.

It’s not that I didn’t think people had (and I’ve tried not to use this word, because it has been co-opted by too many people to mean too many different things, and not with the best of intentions) triggers. I grew up in the nineties and aughts. From What About Bob to What Dreams May Come, we knew shit went down. That people got fucked up. But I always thought it would be…well. Other people, I guess. Not me.

The level of fuckery required for superhero-level bullseyes, I thought, didn’t apply to me. Unlike families I’ve since come to know intimately, no one in my house screamed at each other or threw things at each other, or starved themselves or drove their cars into trees on purpose, and I thought well, good. Bases covered. I’m safe from bad things. I knew the disease was coming, had seen it take my grandmother, and figured I was as ready as one can be.

I was wrong.

In a movie rife with enjoyable comedic and emotional beats, Guardians‘ portrayal of Quill’s reaction there is still my favorite moment. Because it is so true. (And, I guess, a little forgiving, if I think of it as true.) No one presses pause there to make judgmental Instagram reposts of Pinterest quotes in Lucida Handwriting pontificating that they would have shown compassion to their mother’s killer. No one chastises Peter for having feelings. They just do their best to help him mow down the fucker who killed his mom. And who also, okay, will kill everyone else if left to his own devices, but that, for me (if not for Quill — this is why he’s the superhero and I’m not) is beside the point.

Maybe, then, the unrealistic thing about superheroes isn’t their giant bullseye weaknesses just waiting to be exploited.

It’s that they get to overcome them.

 

mother tongue

aquarium

I wanted to write a post about reading The Handmaid’s Tale as a teenager. How it was my mother who encouraged me to read it, when it came up as an option in school.

But I don’t remember enough.

I can’t tell her about it, now. She doesn’t know it anymore. Might not know me. But I recall not wanting to read the book, namely because I didn’t want to listen to my classmates, like the guy who told me I should fuck dogs if I thought fucking women was okay, weigh in on it. I didn’t want to read it but I did anyway, because my mother so rarely weighed in on what we should or should not read, and she said I ought to read that.

I remember bringing up the butter as moisturizer — “how could you…?” — as an artless segue into a discussion about the ending. (Spoilers.) My mother walked a fine line between the Reviving Ophelia generation of mothers, rightfully concerned about their kids cutting or killing themselves; and the blatant pragmatism of someone who had already considered her future and decided that yes, there were worse things than death. This was accompanied by all these corollaries explaining that then and only then, only in such an environment as that, would it even be conceivable to–

–and I’d cut her off flatly, reminding her that…oh, I can’t remember the pet phrase I had for it. I had a pet phrase for everything. Something about not wallowing in a puddle of my own despair. I didn’t like — abhorred, even — the idea of her treating me even for a minute with kid gloves, as some fragile Ophelia in need of bookshelves’ worth of doctoral opinions about child rearing. (I don’t know where I got the idea that any parenting advice obtained from a book was bad, but there it was. Maybe I just hated the cover, how fragile it made us all look.) But I also wanted her to keep leveling with me the way she was doing, about Handmaid’s Tale. About rape, I guess, and suicide. As far as I knew, no one else’s mom was leveling with them on this — at least not honestly, without the cellophane wrappings of religion or dogma or someone else’s words getting in the way.

If I could watch it with her, I’d thank her for that. For not pretending these things don’t happen. Or that by not talking about them, you can keep them from happening to you. But I can’t talk to her about it, because she’s no longer herself. And I guess, to her, I’m no longer me, either.

IMG_1219

So, anyway. The choice of song during the credits made my skin crawl. Is there a term for one’s skin crawling in the face of too on-point juxtaposition? If someone comes up with one, do let me know. I will then apply it all the times I catch myself biking to or from work, in despair over not remembering a thing — the Italian Cypress species of tree, for example, or Jamie Fraser’s full name — even as I wait for updates from my father on my mother’s bedridden, unknowing, pain-wracked condition.

I was grateful to her for the words she shared with me, after all. It is only right to keep trying to shape myself with them until I go helplessly down the same road she did. Even as I remember her saying that there were, indeed, worse things than death.

I know, Mom.

legit why we engage in fiction (no matter the medium)

From Remembrance of Things Past, pt.1:

“Next to this central belief which,while I was reading, would be constantly reaching out from my inner self to the outer world, towards the discovery of truth, came the emotions aroused in me by the action in which I was taking part, for these afternoons were crammed with more dramatic events than occur, often, in a whole lifetime. These were the events taking Place in the book I was reading. It is true that the people concerned in them were not what Francoise would have called “real people.” But none of the feelings which the joys or misfortunes of a ‘real’ person awaken in us can be awakened except through a mental picture of those joys or misfortunes; and the ingenuity of the first novelist lay in his understanding that, as the picture was the one essential element in the complicated structure of our emotions, so that simplification of it which consisted in the suppression, pure and simple, of ‘real’ people would be a decided improvement. A’real’ person, profoundly as we may sympathise with him, is in a great measure perceptible only through our senses, that is to say, he remains opaque, offers a dead weight which our sensibilities have not the strength to lift. If some misfortune comes to him, it is only in one small section of the complete idea we have of him that we are capable of feeling any emotion; indeed it is only in one small section of the complete idea he has of himself that he is capable of feeling any emotion either. The novelist’s happy discovery was to think of substituting for those opaque sections, impenetrable by the human spirit, their equivalent in immaterial sections, things, that is, which the spirit can assimilate to itself. After which it matters not that the actions, the feelings of this new order of creatures appear to us in the guise of truth, since we have made them our own, since it is in ourselves that they are happening, that they are holding in thrall, as we feverishly turn over the pages of the book, our quickened breath and staring eyes. And once the novelist has brought us to this state, in which, as in all purely mental states, every emotion is multiplied ten-fold, into which his book comes to disturb us as might a dream, but a dream more lucid and more abiding than those which come to us in sleep, why then, for the space of an hour he sets free within us all the joys and sorrows in the world, a few of which only we should have to spend years of our actual life in getting to know, and the most intense of which would never be revealed to us of their development prevents us from perceiving them. It is the same in life; the heart changes, and it is our worst sorrow; but we know it only through reading, through our imagination: in reality its alternation, like that of certain natural phenomena, is so gradual that, even if we are able to distinguish, successively, each of its different states, we are still spared the actual sensation of change.”

proust post #1 – overture-combray

proust-outline-of-people

The whole reason I’ve been circling this book for the better part of a decade, carefully putting off reading it (as instructed by a professor — I need to be better about not being so obedient people in power over me in this way) until I was “old enough to appreciate it,” was that it was about memory. And it hasn’t been disappointing so far.

The class in which the book came up wasn’t even literary — it had to do with the fluidity of gender and its expression in media, primarily in Japan. But the professor sidetracked himself on a description of a scene which I now believe is one I’ve just passed in the book, about a madeline cookie dipped in tea prompting, through its taste, an unfolding of memories formerly locked away. The professor seemed to imply, at the time, that this dogged quest to retrieve lost memories, and then their sudden unexpected return, was a loop expressed throughout the full epic length of the book, but since that entire cycle was expressed in that one scene within the first fifty pages, I wonder if I have been loyally not-reading this book for 9 years in obedience to the orders of a man who hadn’t yet finished the first 100 pages himself.

Again, deference is great, but I should probably take less as gospel the words of people in power over me. Especially those I met for one semester, and never saw again.

Loyally cut for spoilers, because I still remember my resentment at the spoilers for Anna Karenina I received as a 15-year-old about to read it:

Read More

no more waiting 


I was told not to read this until I was forty. But it was a fortysomething person telling me that, so for all I know he now thinks it would be better to wait until 50. But I’m done waiting. The bit about the panic in forgetting who you are upon waking was enough. The you don’t need Alzheimer’s lurking in your genes to feel such simple terror was enough. We read — I read — to see that we are not alone. So I’m not putting this one off any longer.

I know it’s not important and won’t fix anything.

Edit: I was lucky in my choice of translation, it seems.