Gail Godwin and a Perfect Reading Summer

Grief Cottage (womanaround town.com)
(Image from womanaroundtown.com)

Once, when I was in college and working at a bookstore, I had a perfect reading summer. It must have been around 1978; we were encouraged, by our boss, to take books home and read them gently. Then we could knowledgeably and authentically recommend or discourage. That was the year I read, among other things, Marilyn French’s Women’s Room and Mary Gordon’s Final Payments. And that was the year I discovered the work of Gail Godwin. (If you were a young woman reading voraciously in those years, you may recognize the doors those books opened and the foreign vistas that became inhabitable through that reading.)

I think the first Godwin work that I read was Glass People, which was a sad story about a very compelling character named Francesca Holt; I found another compelling main character, although a very different one, in The Odd Woman. I read Violet Clay, and then I started watching for Godwin releases, so I was excited to get A Mother and Two Daughters  in 1982. I loved that book.

Then, life getting busy, with papers to grade, and a baby whose needs were immediate and unique, and a return to grad school, I lost the Godwin thread. There wasn’t much leisure reading, and what there was tended to be by Barry Brazelton or Penelope Leach. But I would gather the thread up again at the library, in later years, when I saw a Godwin–Father Melancholy’s Daughter, for instance,–on the New Books Shelf.

Last week, I was surprised to find a new Godwin novel, Grief Cottage.

The reviews say the question Grief Cottage addresses is this: can the needs of the living and the needs of the dead converge? I’m not sure if he actually saw the ghost he believed in at Grief Cottage, but Marcus surely was a heart-wrenching young character.  Orphaned when his single mom dies in a car crash, the 11-year old goes to live with his eccentric, sometimes cranky, great aunt on a South Carolina Island. Terrified of being sent away, he becomes almost a housekeeper–cleaning floors, changing sheets, and uncorking wine bottles (until his aunt’s drinking becomes so pronounced he asks a trusted friend for help). All summer, Marcus looks forward to the hatching of the sea turtles…and he misses it: a guest has fouled the bathroom; the boy feels compelled to clean it up.

The novel confused me in spots–the rage that Marcus displayed toward Wheezer seemed totally out of character, and I thought, in the book’s beginning, there were clear hints that the boy was gay. But Marcus grows up and becomes a psychiatrist, happily marries a woman, reconciles with the childhood friend he’d beaten so badly. It made me wonder if Marcus, as a narrator, was completely reliable. Perhaps Wheezer’s injuries weren’t nearly as bad as he imagined. Perhaps the ‘rapture’ he felt after seeing the boy-ghost was not directly related to the ghost teen’s tough and comely appearance. And surely, as a bereft and guilt-ridden 11-year old, Marcus’s viewpoint was clouded.

I enjoyed Grief Cottage; I drank it in, a great summer read, much as I drank in Godwin’s first books, and the reading is sending me to the library shelves today to look for Godwin books…for the fiction I missed, and for the non-fiction that somehow never crossed my radar screen. I know my reading is tinted by the wonder of that long-ago summer when discovering new authors and new vistas was an amazing gift, but Gail Godwin’s voice and her characters remain, for me, true and compelling. I look forward to more.

Gods and Places

Shack, Gods, Braiding

Do people get to choose the way God looks?  Is the face of God different for each of us, dependent on our need, our understanding, our certain sensibilities?

How much does the ethos of the God of our upbringing inform our approach to the world?

I’m pacing on this pondering path because of three books–books that I was nudged toward this summer: American Gods, The Shack, and Braiding Sweetgrass.

Sometimes books are entertaining, sometimes informing, sometimes inspiring. There are the occasional books that disappoint. And sometimes the themes and images run from one book into the reading of another, very different one. Then I think it’s time to explore that phenomenon. Why these books? Why now? What could I learn from this confluence?

*************

American Gods was a little bit of a departure from the beaten path for me. I’d enjoyed the Graveyard Book. On a whim, I borrowed Gaiman’s Norse Myths from the library–Something different, I thought–and I enjoyed that, too. I compared the images I’d absorbed of Norse gods–mostly from reading my brother’s copies of Thor comic books, back in the 1960’s and ’70’s–to Gaiman’s depiction. There were some overlaps, and there were many differences.

Gaiman’s depictions of the gods made them almost human (although, of course, they were gods), and their motives understandable, if not always admirable. It was fun to read, and my son Jim, excited that I liked one of ‘his’ authors, kept urging me to read American Gods. A TV show was coming up, he said, based on Gods. “You know you hate to watch a show before you’ve read the book,” he urged. So when a Barnes and Nobles gift card came my way, I used it to order the book.

American Gods is Shadow’s story. He is a prisoner, convicted of a pretty serious, although perpetually hazy, crime,–a crime which is never fully explained. But we get the feeling that he’s innocent on some level–that he did what he did as a reaction to something worse that was done to him. That maybe, he did it to protect someone dear. At any rate, he does his time and then, he is released one day early. That is because his wife has died in a car accident.  Shadow goes home to bury her, crushed and grieving.

And on his journey, he meets a man. (How many reviews could start with those words?)  But the man Shadow meets is also a god, and he offers Shadow a job. One thing leads to another, and Shadow, despite misgivings, accept the offered role.

Shadow meets many people, all of them gods in other cultures, all of them brought to the United States by some sort of immigration. All of them forgotten, reduced to human form and human occupations, and all of them readying for a confrontation with the gods Americans have adopted in their steads–gods like Media, Internet, and Retail Therapy.

The forgotten gods are not all good, or all-knowing, or even, usually, compassionate. Gaiman writes in Norse gods, Celtic gods, gods from Africa and South America. The Egyptian gods of death, Mr. Jacquel and Mr. Ibis, work as mild-mannered undertakers. Native American gods ride a merry-go-round with Eastern European counterparts. They long for the old days, all the gods do, and some of them plan to get their power back.

Why Shadow?  Why does Mr. Wednesday choose a grieving, recent ex-con without very many beliefs at all to be his bodyguard and wing man? The story unfolds.

Everyone, Gaiman seems to suggest, has themselves a god or two. Or at least, we did when we were young, and those early gods went a long way to shaping our being.

***************

My friend and colleague Shay loaned me The Shack, by William Paul Young. She was excited about the book; she was excited about the film–available via streaming, she told me. The Shack, I thought, was just the kind of book I do not usually read: a religious fable, a heavy push toward one kind of belief. But I value Shay and the book seemed short enough to whip through, so I said my thanks, and took the dog-eared paperback home.

And I read.

Mackenzie Allen Phillips—Mack–is the main character, and the premise is interesting. Mack was a childhood victim of his father’s horrific violence. In confiding in a trusted mentor, Mack opened himself to a particularly vicious bout of paternal vengeance, He was 13, and he left home afterwards. But first he put rat poison in all of his alcoholic Father’s stashed bottles. The narrative never out and out tells us so, but we believe that Mack killed his father.

And then Mack kicks around, traveling, learning, working hard, getting to the point where he even enrolls in a seminary course. He meets Nan; they marry and have four children.

And then, on a camping trip, the youngest–Missy–is abducted and murdered. Her bloody dress is found in a shack but the murderer is never apprehended, nor is Missy’s body found. Mack enters what he calls The Great Sadness.

Several years later, he gets a message: Meet me in the shack this weekend, it tells him. It is signed ‘Papa.’

Papa is his wife’s name for God.

Again the misgivings. Again, our protagonist takes the unlikely path. Again, he meets his gods.

Mack’s gods are the Holy Trinity. God the Father appears to him as a jolly Black woman who loves to cook. Jesus is a homely, compassionate woodworker. Sarayu is the Holy Spirit, not quite corporal, elusive, maddening, and very, very funny.

I was surprised to find a different kind of message here–not a push toward one belief or religious sect. Mack had to challenge the beliefs he grew up with. The reader is challenged at the end of the book: did the weekend at the shack really happen?  And if it was all a dream or a hallucination, does that matter?

*************

I had a pantheon of gods jumbled and competing in my overworked brain.  I finished The Shack and thought I’d reach for something different, so I opened the book my friend Terri recently sent me: Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer.

The book opens with Kimmerer’s retelling of the story of Skywoman falling through a hole in the heavens and landing in the vast sea that was then earth. She is saved through the compassion of the animals who help her: the Turtle, who allows her to climb on his back, the muskrat, who sacrifices his life to bring Skywoman a handful of mud from the depths.

Muskrat’s mud allows Skywoman to begin a new world. She places the mud on Turtle’s back; she walks around it, chanting, and the mud grows, deepens, dries, and Skywoman is able to plant the seeds she had with her when she fell. Skywoman, the animals who helped her–they create the earth as we know it. It is a place to be shared.

Kimmerer is an environmental scientist and a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. The native American gods–she calls their stories the First Instructions–are very real and present to her, and their stories define her belief that earth is a gift to be shared, not just with other peoples, but with all creation.

The Adam and Eve story that informs Christianity and Judaism, Kimmerer notes, has a different emphasis. It teaches that man has dominion over the earth, and that the earth was made for his enjoyment alone. How differently Eve related to the earth than Skywoman did!

“Look at the legacy of poor Eve’s exile from Eden,” Kimmerer writes; “the land shows the bruises of an abusive relationship. It’s not just the land that is broken, but more importantly, our relationship to the land.”

***************

Three very different views of gods; three very different reasons for writing: to entertain, to inspire, to inform. And to challenge. Each view is unexpected–Gaiman’s gods with their rough edges and human foibles; Young’s Papa as a robust Black woman; Kimmerer’s Skywoman, trailing long black hair as she tumbles through the heaven-hole. And the teachings are unexpected, too. Gods can die. Religion can be a barrier and a burden. Humankind is not necessarily the superior race, left by God to be in charge of His creation.

What else, my English teacher’s mind demands, connects these three disparate books?

And I realize it is the connection of place and worship and finding god.

The gods in Gaiman’s novel are unloved because they have been taken from their place of origin. In a new culture, the immigrants who brought them forgot them. They are dying off in an uncaring land.

In Young’s book, Mack must return to the place of his greatest pain in order to find God, who transforms the place of suffering into somewhere understanding, healing, and faith can grow.

Kimmerer writes about the forced migrations of the native peoples in the United States, and of the relation of people as a whole to this earth they inhabit. She writes that relationship to the earth must change–people must relinquish their ownership and share the planet with all who depend upon it.

**************

So I think about place and faith, and I wonder if there’s an effect when people move. What if your parents, and their parents before them, were wanderers? What if you yourself have shifted and moved not once, but several times?

I think of this in the context of a recent visit to home roots–to the sad, abandoned house where my parents first met. There was a pull there, an energy, a little sense of sacred. Was that sacred or was that memory? What happens to faith when it’s uprooted?

*************

I don’t have any answers–I’m not entirely sure of the questions, in fact. But the exploration and conjunction of three very different works with faith and the gods at their cores ignites the questing places in my mind. I’ll have many things to think about as summer begins to wane.

Two Ways to Look at Home

SJ

“‘The very nicest thing about being a writer is that you can afford to indulge yourself endlessly with oddness, and no one can really do anything about it, so long as you keep writing and kind of using it up, as it were'” (Franklin, 389).

******************

I first read “The Lottery” in Mr. Durkin’s junior English class, many years ago. I remember the real electric jangle that shot down my spine when I realized what was going on. That story, which started out in such a relaxed and friendly  humdrum way, so matter-of-fact and recognizable, devolved into the most grotesque kind of horror–the kind that has friends and neighbors, almost bored, demolishing a human life.

What must it be like, I wondered with a shiver, to live inside THAT writer’s head? It was a purely rhetorical question: I didn’t want to know.

Years later, out of college, I was indulging in one of my favorite pastimes: looking for unsung treasures on the shelves of the public library. I found a book called Life Among the Savages, about a family that moves from The City to the wilds of New England. It was a funny book, self-deprecating and wry. I thought I’d look for more by the writer.

“Isn’t it funny,” I remarked to the librarian, when I returned Life Among the Savages,   “that THIS writer has the same name as the woman who wrote ‘The Lottery’?”

“It’s not funny at all,” said the librarian, a little pityingly, peering at me over her half glasses. “She’s the same person.”

WHAT? I was stunned. How could the same person write so winningly about her children’s antics—and about neighbors nonchalantly stoning one of their own to death? Cozy things on the one hand, and horror things on the other. I could not reconcile it.

I just read Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life. In that biography, Ruth Franklin answers the question for me. All of Jackson’s writing, Franklin says, centers around the theme of ‘home.’

Her preoccupation with the roles that women play at home and the forces that conspire to keep them there was entirely of a piece with her cultural moment, the decade of the 1950’s, when the simmering brew of women’s dissatisfaction came close to boiling over, triggering the second wave of the feminist movement (Franklin, 409).

Jackson was an awkward girl who could never please her attractive mother. She was always too fat or too florid, too odd or too frumpily dressed. And, in her high school years, her parents moved the family from their comfortable California home all the way across the continent; they settled in Rochester, New York, where the snow was as unexpectedly cold as some of Shirley’s new classmates. Jackson felt like a misfit, the odd one out, the one one who was forcibly separated from her home.

Jackson, who, it seems, was clear-eyed about wanting to write from a very young age, attended Syracuse University, where she met Stanley Hyman. Hyman was a critic and a writer, and her intellectual equal–a man who supported her writing. Ironically, Jackson’s writing also supported him: throughout their married lives, her writing would always be the higher paid. He would supplement his wife’s earnings by teaching at Bennington. He would undermine his wife’s confidence with his serial adultery.

So Jackson was a woman, a mother, and a betrayed wife.  Her hilarious, rollicking stories of bringing up wayward kids in the country were gloss poured over true pain. Her eerie, terrifying novels were all the stories of young women, flawed or trapped, searching for a place to call home.

Jackson herself acknowledged that, in the novels, the houses themselves were characters. One of her ghost stories is even called “Home,” and the place where the protagonist settles does not seem like a very safe place for her to be.

*************

Franklin’s biography is really well-written; it is paced and fluid and reads like a novel, and my sympathy for Jackson was completely and thoroughly engaged.

And I have been thinking about the concept of home, lately, even before I stumbled on the biography at my favorite library and knew I had to take it home and read it. Home should be refuge and safety; every child, I feel strongly, deserves to grow up in a real, nurturing home. And, emerging from childhood, we need ‘home’ more than ever–the place where we are loved and safe, where we can lick our wounds and cower till they heal.

I believe that we, as society, have lost sight of the importance of home, although I do not believe that the model of wife-at-home and hubby-at-work is always the ideal. I believe that we each need to decide what ‘home’ means to us, and, as we mature, we need to provide that for ourselves…as well as for those we solemnly pledge to nurture.

Shirley Jackson tried to do this, I think–tried to make the big old house she rented for her husband and kids a warm, inviting place–a place where friends gathered and spirits flowed, where she always made sure the butter on her children’s toast was spread carefully right to the edges. In her fiction, she pushed the envelope, exploring the cost of being lost and away from home, or of being deluded into embracing the wrong home.  And that includes, writes Franklin, the home we create within our minds, as well as the physical one.

A Little Gothic Therapy

Arcadia Falls

The day begins with a message that a dear one’s cancer has spread so far and so deep that only days remain. She is far away, and we will not get there in time to say goodbye.

This cancer death comes on the heels of two others.

I feel a weight, like a heavy, flat, wooden beam, settle on my shoulders. All day long, things light on that beam, adding to its weight.

The project I’ve been working so hard on is suddenly, without explanation, terminated. A trusted colleague throws me under the proverbial bus. There’s an unexpected delay; there’s a heart-breaking disappointment. A rejection slip falls through the mail slot. Thunk, thunk. Thunk. Thunk.

At the three-way stop, the car who should be after me roars out in front of me. Then the driver, who has children in the car, reels around to gleefully give me the finger through her back window.

THUNK.

It is June, but the temperature is falling fast; I shiver. And then rain lashes against my windshield. I watch the rude lady’s van disappear, with her tender, impressionable children inside, into the gray. Gloomy thoughts and fears of loss clunk and roll heavily in my head. People get sick, I think, and people are cruel, and people betray you. People are downright, evilly, rude.

By the time I get home for the day I am sorely bent over, chin near the floor, weighted down. My throat aches from not crying. I do not want to have a pleasant conversation, a fine meal, or good and caring company.

I want a Gothic novel.

**********

I choose Arcadia Falls, by Carol Goodman, and I enter Meg’s (the protagonist’s) world. She, too, is bereft; her young husband died last year of a sudden, inexplicable heart attack. Added to wounding loss is betrayal; Jude lost all the family savings to a hedge fund. Meg, who has not worked, who has put her pursuit of her doctorate on hold now, flails around to find work that will support her and her sullen, aching daughter, Sally.

What she finds is a teaching job at a private school for the arts. It is tucked away in upstate New York, in deep woods, down paths that are hard to follow. Those dark and devious pathways feel just like the geography of my mind right now, and I pull the afghan around me, glad that darkness is meeting darkness here. Pain lego-s up with pain. I sink deeper into the cozy chair and deeper in to Meg’s world.

That world is especially satisfying because Meg is a lover of words, a woman who gave up dreams of art as a young woman; she is a folklorist. She loves words and story just like I do, so I gladly take this dark and frightening journey with a kindred spirit.

Meg blunders and makes mistakes; she initially pushes her daughter even further away, even deeper into her own grief.  The personnel at the school are a mixed lot: some seem open and friendly. Others are persecuted and long suffering. A few are bitterly, dangerously secretive.

And a student dies in mysterious circumstances and the darkness just gets darker, more opaque, cold-frightening in its mystery.

And Goodman weaves in a folk-take, the tale that lured Meg to this God-forsaken outpost, and its archetypal characters—the pure and the devious, the saviors and the damned–seem very real and believable. And the story plays out against the past–the choices of the founders affect the lives of those in the now.

I plunge into the book, not knowing whom to trust, wanting to shake Meg when she’s thoughtless or just plain wrong, feeling her hurt and isolation. I understand the joy she finds in teaching, and the guilt she feels in her attraction to the rugged sheriff. (Well, of COURSE, there’s a rugged sheriff.) I fret over Sally and whether the girl stays safe.  I shy away from even the most open of the characters, knowing a murderer sleeps in their midst. I go with Meg out into the dark, into the whipping, cutting snow, and when we finally come home,–two more dead bodies later,–the mystery is solved. The past weaves into the folktale weaves into the story of Meg and Sally, a great secret is revealed, and safety is, at last obtained.

I read like a hungry traveler for whom the book is food. And it really does sustain me.

Plunging into Meg’s darkness helps me find a way up out of mine; I climb with her out of mystery, dire financial straits, panic, loss, betrayal, and isolation. Meg mis-steps, but she recovers; she is, finally, truly pure of heart. Pure of heart wins love of child—and love of rugged sheriff, too.

Meg’s slog through the darkness and emergence into the light mirrors my own mental travels, my own wounded state. By the end of the book, even knowing that some things just suck and that there’s nothing we can do to stop them or to help our dear ones in their path, I am feeling emotionally better.

********

Why are gothic novels so satisfying? NPR.org (“A Dark and Stormy Night: Why We Love the Gothic,” by Genevieve Valentine), says these works, which may be quaint and rustic in setting, actually hit modern fears head-on. “…they’re preoccupied with contemporary problems; the essential horror of the irreconcilable world,” writes Valentine. “There’s comfort,” she tells us, “in over-the-top catharsis of the dependable dark…we love knowing what to expect.”

And that is exactly it. I knew the darkness was going to be outrageous at this private school in the woods where people keep crashing down the oddly unfenced slope, into the chasm, down to their deaths. And I expected, too, the ascent into safety, the reconciliation, the reward for the true of heart.

*********

No book can fix all of our ills, heal our friends, teach manners to the needy, or sew up the gashes of betrayal. But a Gothic novel can carry me deep, make me acknowledge the horror, and bring me back home.

It does not fix or heal me, but this story makes me ready to carry on.

***********

Image taken from amazon.com

Not By Choice, But By Genetic Chance: A Dread Disease

 

Beautiful Boy

 

It was a stunning community event. Sam Quinones, the author of Dreamland, which focuses, largely, on the devastation the opioid epidemic had on Portsmouth, Ohio, a community not so far from here, was speaking at the city’s auditorium. He had spent a day talking–talking to doctors and parents and residential care workers, to case workers and students, to everyone and anyone connected with the seeping stain that black tar heroin is painting in southern and central Ohio.

Now he addressed a crowd that almost filled the auditorium, which seats, without irony, 1,776. His talk was moving and compelling, and a panel of people whose lives were directly and irrevocably tied to opioids followed him. Theirs were the stories that hushed the crowd, that brought tears and anguished questions.

There was a mother who knows her son is safe now: he’s in prison. There was a pastor who has made fighting addiction and poverty his twin missions. There was a man who runs residential homes for recovering addicts. And there were four addicts in recovery who stood and told their stories:

Didn’t ever intend to get hooked, but couldn’t help it. Had to have it. Bad company. Started stealing–from stores and  public places, then from friends, and then finally, from family. Relationships cracked and shattered; the kids, taken away. The legal system. Jail time. Rehab and relapse. Trying again and again.

The loss of trust. It was a theme each of them spoke to. Some, further away from the addiction’s hold, were loudly encouraging. “It’s hard! But it can be done! Don’t give up hope!”

Others, still fragile, talked about the future:

“I love my parents. I hope they can trust me again one day.” 

“In a year, I’ll still be clean, and I hope to get my children back.

Their messages were like prayers written on scraps of prayer and flung into the wind: let this be true. Let this be true.

******************
In the aftermath of this event, in a community where the problem races, I went looking for things to read and found David Sheff’s beautiful boy (2008, Houghton Mifflin.)

Sheff writes about his son, Nicolas, a child of his first marriage. Nic is a bright, creative spirit. Nic, without his father’s knowledge, gets drunk for the first time at age 11–on a family vacation, during a wholesome outdoorsy family time, with a friend they’d brought along so the boy wouldn’t be bored. Nic slides into other experimentation, and winds up firmly and defiantly addicted to methamphetamine and heroin.

Sheff details what a child’s addiction does to a family, and what it does to a parent. He dissects all of his failings–his immaturity during his first marriage; the times he brought strange women home when Nic was a tiny child–women the boy would never see again. The fighting.

Sheff remarried, to a a woman who cared deeply about Nic; the new family produced a boy and a girl, little people whom Nic, the book tells us, adores. He told his little siblings stories–they had a whole imaginary world that they explored together. He took them to playgrounds; he was a protector and a confidante.

And he stole eight dollars from his little brother’s piggy bank when he was desperate to score.

Sheff’s is a story of anguish and desperate hope: the rehab program that promises a way out. The call that his boy has checked out, disappeared, given up. Nic’s resurfacing, in a dingy apartment, with a girlfriend who uses, too. Sheff writes about going to see his son who can barely rouse himself to answer the door. He writes about standing in the doorway of the apartment and not entering. The floor, he writes, was covered in some kind of brown liquid.

Another rehab, a surge of hope, a year of sobriety. A relapse, and despair. The cycle repeats often enough that Sheff’s family gives up, and Sheff finds himself on the brink of that tough love pronouncement: You’re on your own. I just can’t do this anymore.

But he and Nic’s mother decide to try one more intervention. They get Nic into a different program in a different place. This one seems to work. The book ends with Nic’s recovery.

I look Nic up to see if he is still okay, and I find that he himself has written two books about his addiction, and that he and his dad are on the lecture circuit, talking about the addiction, what it does to people, what it does to families. It’s a relief to see he’s doing well.

David and Nic Sheff

****************
Because a man I know, a social worker who works with recovering addicts says that relapse is part of this illness. And addiction IS an illness, he stresses. Maybe, yes, the addict did make that first choice–chose to smoke it or pop it or shoot it into a vein–for whatever reason: loneliness, desperation, acceptance, daring. But after that, says this man, biology kicks in. This was not the person to experiment: this person had an addict’s genes.

Like mental illness–with which it often cohabits–addiction is a disease with unsavory and odd behaviors attached, and so, instead of sympathy and help, society often offers judgement and condemnation. It’s hard not to react bitterly when someone you trust steals from you. Or threatens–and sometimes follows through–to hurt you.

I think of all the programs Sheff tried to get his boy into, and of his reluctant acquiescence to therapy for himself and his wife.  I think of the people on the stage, passionately sharing, after Quinones spoke. And I think this is an illness, a problem, an epidemic, that people cannot handle themselves. Addicts cannot tough it out to personal recovery, and families cannot hide their woe.

It’s takes a village: that’s Quinones’ message. If I had to boil Sheff’s message down, I would say it is this: Don’t give up hope, But get help, get help, get help.

Taking a Literary Tumble

Stack

I had been doing pretty well, really, with my resolve not to buy or borrow more books until I’d read the ones on my shelves.

It was a winter of acquisition: we discovered some really good used book sales at libraries and in communities. The campus library began a long purge and almost every Thursday an email would arrive, saying, “Come and help yourself to remaindered English literature books!” or “Come build a stack of fairy tales and folk lore!”

So, several times I brought home hefty bags full of books that looked fascinating, and during winter’s cold months, I read some Willa Cather and some Adela Winters St. John, read some British novelists from the early 1900’s, and cleansed my palate with some children’s books and memoirs. The unread books went from being a tottering tower to a sturdy stack.

Then we started a small discussion group at work to talk about Hillbilly Elegy, and one of the participants told me I really needed to read a book called White Trash as a companion piece to JD Vance’s discussion of growing up Scots Irish in Appalachian Ohio and Kentucky.

That sounded interesting, and I’d heard other people mention White Trash as a portal into a worthy point of view. I found it in the local library’s electronic catalog, and I placed a hold. Then I also placed a hold on a book by David Sheff called Clean. Sheff is our community read speaker this year; he also wrote Beautiful Boy,  a frank and poignant memoir of his son Nic’s battle with addiction.

So one day, I took my son Jim to the library and picked up the two books. And while Jim wandered through the stacks of DVD’s, I remembered that I had always wanted to read Helen McDonald’s H is for Hawk; a quick search showed me that was on the shelf, ripe for the picking. And I remembered, too, that I had been meaning to read Richard Russo’s Everybody’s Fool. I read Nobody’s Fool last summer; then we tracked down the film, which we watched as a family and universally loved. Everybody’s Fool was a widely sought new book at the time; I think there were 27 holds ahead of me when I looked it up on the library site.

“I’ll wait till that dies down,” I thought, and now it was on the shelf.

I also found The Bertie Project, one of Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street series, on the new book shelves. I love the concept of those books–written in installments for a Scottish newspaper–and I love the slightly surreal events that take place therein.

And I found a book about a grown daughter who returned home, after years away, to live near her mother, and who got involved with her mother’s bridge club. That was called The Bridge Ladies, it was by Betsy Lerner, and something about it just called to me.

Suddenly I had been to the checkout station and was toting home a bagful of six books, and I realized that I had taken a pretty good topple off my resolve not to borrow books until the home books were read.

Ah, well, I thought. If I’m going to fall, I might as well fall BIG.

*************

My mama always told me that if I commit to a book, unless it’s just trashy, unless it’s values are so distasteful they make me shudder, I had to see it through.  So I started with Bertie–the 44 Scotland Street series is light and funny, poignant and disturbing, but quick to read. And this one was a little more serious–this one had Bertie’s dad contemplating an extramarital relationship that might just rock the entire family apart. Bertie’s mother is one of the most enjoyably antagonistic characters I have found–it’s so much fun to despise her,–but the possibility of Stuart straying made the light-hearted book series suddenly serious.

The Bridge Ladies broke my heart. I thought it was a book my mother would have enjoyed. I was glad when the author broke through to a greater appreciation of her own mother through her forays into bridge. And, having just recently read Kay Redfield’s Jamison’s textured biography of Robert Lowell’s mental illness, I was rocked to read the author’s casual admission, embedded in a chapter, that she has bipolar disease. It made me think about creativity and ‘craziness,’ and the knife’s edge that some of us have to walk.

Helen McDonald’s H is for Hawk was lyrical and foreign in some ways–I cannot imagine cohabiting with a goshawk, or snapping the necks of bunnies as part of training one. But other themes were very familiar and very real–the depth of loss and the effort not to flounder after the death of a beloved parent. The embarrassed slog through viscous depression. And McDonald’s writing is unique and intelligent and challenging. “The hawk was a fire that burned my hurts away,” she writes, and I, not wanting to ever be that close to a bird of prey (much less its evening munchies), I get it.

I am starting now on Everybody’s Fool, surprised that our opening viewpoint is provided by Douglas Raymer, now Bath’s chief of police, but once the hapless patrolman who shot at Sully when he refused to stop driving his pick-up on the sidewalk. Raymer arrives at the interment of Judge Barton Flatt, the curmudgeon-y small town justice who sympathized with Sully and made Raymer’s life hell.

This, I can tell, is going to get interesting.

****************

And I am thinking I need a plan and a schedule for reading Clean and White Trash, both books I’d put more in the ‘learning and reference’ mode than in the recreational reading variety. I need to dust off my scholarly habits. I am thinking I may read a chapter of one each morning, of the other just before dinner each night.

My days are like bricks chinked together with books. And that is very much okay.

****************

So, I’m on the last of my recreational library books; when it is finished, I’ll find a new bedtime story from among the rich variety of books on my shelf. And I’ll read through my ‘learning’ books,–read with a pad and a pen, taking notes, making connections, typing thoughts to send to people I connect with on these topics and in these ways.

The books on my shelves wait for me, kindly; they understand that new books arrive and demand attention, that initiatives and events call for outside reading.  And the ‘visitor’ books–those library emissaries–open new doors in my mind, leave me imagining new pictures.  I can close my eyes and there, I see, is the goshawk flying, trim to the English meadow-ground; I imagine the preciseness and the devastation of its kill.

I know a little bit about bridge now, and its terminology–enough to be conversant but not dangerous.

It was a good topple, this fall into library tomes; it was a palate-cleansing, interest-piquing tumble. I slowed down and concentrated on each of the visitor books, and I enjoyed--am enjoying–their very different voices and tones and spirits.  I am learning, as I explore, a lot.

And I am ready, again, to engage with the books on my shelves, to meet authors long gone and titles long forgotten.

I will pick up that thread; I will honor my commitment to the books on my shelves. But I am energized and renewed by my trip to the library and by reading the books I couldn’t help but bring home.

Ardent Temperments…An Unquiet Mind and Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire (Kay Redfield Jamison)

KR Jamison

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“My son hears voices telling him to kill me,” I desperately confided.
“Well,” said his therapist, “don’t take it personally.

**************

They mutter under their breaths; they sing on street corners. They talk to people who clearly aren’t there.

Often they are unkempt and oddly dressed; often, indeed, they are smelly and inappropriate. They shuffle; they dart. They fix us with piercing gazes and they speak what seems like nonsense.

And we laugh–what else is there to do? We laugh or we turn our backs; we walk away from that disturbing, unusual display. It’s weird, it’s odd; it hurts us to watch.

Even for those of us who live with it, for those who understand that this is physical, a brain disorder, it’s difficult. It is hard to be in the presence–it is hard to be in the LAND–of the mentally ill.

So imagine what it must be like to live there.

*************

Kay Redfield Jamison, the blurb on the Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire book jacket will tell you, is the Dalio Family Professor in Mood Disorders, and a professor of psychiatry, at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. She is learned in her field, which centers largely on bipolar disorder; she is well-educated and well-read. She has written a definitive textbook; she has written popular books that bring the reality of bipolar disorder into mainstream conversation.

She has done this because it is her field. She has done this because it is her life.

An Unquiet Mind is Redfield’s first memoir, and it talks about her childhood, in a quirky family, moving from coast to coast. She was a brilliant, intense child; her illness manifested itself, as it often does, in her college years. From then on, her life would have two paths: pursuing the dreams she had BEFORE, and controlling her descents into mania and depression.

Honestly and without self-pity, Redfield shows us what it’s like to have bipolar disorder, and what it’s like to live through a manic episode. “During these agitated periods,” she writes, “I became exceedingly restless, angry, and irritable, and the only way I could dilute the agitation was to run along the beach or pace back and forth like a polar bear at the zoo.”

In a manic state, she might wear dramatic makeup and dress more provocatively than she would when her mood was balanced; she would say things she’d regret, and she would spend money she could ill afford on things she didn’t need. And then, gradually,  the manic state would end, and her mood would swing into its expected aftermath: depression.

“So after mania,” she writes, “when most depressed, you’re given excellent reason to be even more so.”

Yet even Jamison was medication-resistant. Even as a practicing psychologist, as one who clearly knew and advised clients that taking lithium was the key to controlling the disease, she thought she could do without it. She’d control it other ways–with exercise and diet, say, or with her brilliant mind. It took time and gentle guidance from trusted mentors, continuous family support, and descents into madness and depression, for her to finally grapple with her need for medication. She had to accept that she had an illness, and a chronic one–but one that, with the right drugs, could be controlled.

When Jamison tells of the story of Robert Lowell, who was, maybe, the finest American poet of the last half of the twentieth century, the weight and the cost of bipolar disease become even more clear. Lowell was brilliant and charming, a sweet, often shy man, and one who valued loyalty and strength of character. And when he became manic, it all changed. He commonly sought an extramarital connection, seeking out inappropriate, usually younger partners, hurting them, hurting his wife. He said harsh and damaging things, things he didn’t mean or think,  to his dearest, closest friends. He was violent at times, and he drank, drank, drank, which exacerbated the problem.

He had to be institutionalized, often  delivered by the police. Once, when they arrived to fetch him, Lowell made them sit at his kitchen table and listen to him recite a poem. Then he went meekly off to the mental hospital. Again.

Lowell’s illness afforded him a weird benefit–he remembered vividly every single thing he did and said during his manias. He knew how much he’d hurt his wife, his friends, his family. The subsequent depressions were made worse by this shameful knowledge.

And then, he’d come back into his right mind.  And a measure of how wonderful that mind was is this: his friends and his family all stood by him. They sloughed off the hurtful things and awaited his return.

*******************

“We are all,” Redfield writes in her memoir, “as Byron put it, differently organized.”

I thought, in parenting a child with high-functioning autism,–who, like many autistic folks, has additional diagnoses of major depressive disorder and OCD–I understood the biological bases of mental illness. I thought I had relinquished the idea–taught in psychology classes not so very long ago–that I, and my son’s father, had somehow ’caused’ his illness.

We would not think a harsh word or over-indulgence would cause, say, diabetes; we are willing to believe, though, that bad parenting causes autism.

When Jim first was diagnosed, we decided that openness was key: we shared his illness, freely and openly, with family and friends. We invited questions. It’s an illness, we averred; it’s physical and chemical.

And yet—when our beloved boy, who is smart and funny and devoted,—enters into an ill time, I am am angry or embarrassed or hurt. How can he SAY that? I wail inwardly.

Jamison’s books help me feel the knowledge, as well as KNOW the knowledge, that mental illness is physical illness, not in the control of its victim.

Mental illness comes with pain and wounding, with despair and glimmers of hope. And we live in a time–the best time yet–when there is real hope of control, if not recovery; of maintenance, if not cure.

Jamison reminds me of the infinite contributions that have been made by people with mental illness, of the ways in which every society has been enriched and blessed by creative members who happen to be sick. I closed her book on Robert Lowell determined to track down his poetry and letters, to see what he had to share.

I’ll read the rest of Redield’s writing, too.

And I hope that I will be more enlightened, that I will practice understanding, that my demeanor may teach another. Mental illness is physical illness.

No one chooses to be mentally ill.