On The Unspeakable

 

Image retrieved from meghandaum.com

I’m pretty smitten with this Meghan Daum character. I read rave reviews of her recently released essay collection The Unspeakable, only to find that every other reader in town found these same reviews and requested the book from the library before me. So I get my hands on the only other Daum work offered by the Baltimore County Public Library system (which marks a shamefully huge omission in their catalog since she has published a total of three essay collections and one novel), Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in that House, a surprisingly delightful read about Daum’s years-long obsession with finding the perfect home. When the library’s automated system emailed to let me know The Unspeakable was finally mine for a short three weeks, I jumped straight in to this volume with even more enthusiasm for having had a taste of Daum’s talent already.

Daum is a dazzling writer, there’s really no other way to put it. Her essays are ripe with gorgeous metaphor, display her unparalleled intelligence, and steal readers’ attention with their painfully honest wisdom. I found myself reading certain passages over and over again, caught up in the beauty of their perfect structure and artful parlance. But Daum doesn’t just have a way with vocabulary and phrasing; she pours her whole heart into every last sentence she composes, producing profound truths that left me marveling at the depth of her grasp on everything from life’s most meaningful mysteries to the dark fathoms of her own psyche.

Take Daum’s essay “The Best Possible Experience” which recounts her participation in a panel on delaying marriage trends, peppered with reflections on the poor example of marital bliss provided by her parents and tales from Daum’s own bizarre dating history. Personally, I wish I could have witnessed Daum deliver her carefully prepared piece, a meditation on the intersection of materialism, marriage, socioeconomic status, and the randomness of falling in love, to the aging audience members of the halfheartedly-attended event. Daum’s recollection of this (seemingly brilliant) speech isn’t self-aggrandizing so much as self-deprecating, poking fun at her audience’s complete disinterest in and, what she initially believes to be, misreading of her speech. The audience then proceeds to sap up every word from their next panelist, a best-selling author who simply reads from the introduction of her book in which she humorously derides women for being so choosy when it comes to love.

When one audience member labels our author as the romantic one and her fellow panelist as the practical one, Daum is completely taken aback, then ensues on a thoughtful consideration of romance and authenticity rivaling the brilliance of her previously recounted speech. You see, Daum always categorized herself as a profoundly unromantic person, given her aversion to traditional notions of commitment and long-term partnership. But upon further inspection thanks to a vocal audience member, she realizes that maybe her openness to experience and near-religious belief in the importance of authenticity are actually evidence of a nascent romantic nature, that her desire to meet wildly diverse types of people and to hear their stories indicates a sentimental hope that a stranger’s life could come to intertwine with hers in a great, unlikely love story. What I love about this piece is its display of Daum’s uncanny talent for slyly reeling readers in so that they end up just as surprised as Daum at her concluding discoveries; at first we, like her, are duped into thinking Daum’s no-holds-barred approach in these essays is far from sentimental, only to realize upon further consideration that her sincere efforts at writing authentically are better classified as heart on your sleeve, an undeniably romantic approach.

Basically “The Best Possible Experience” completely stole the show for me, and it was only the second essay in the book. In fact, I would have desperately loved The Unspeakable even if every other piece downright sucked. But that isn’t to say that the following essays are a drop off in any way; I simply connected with this piece and immediately wanted to ponder it at great length and depth, while also fighting the urge to forge on to the next wonderfully insightful installment.

Many of the other essays are actually much darker than this one, but the book never borders on depressing or cynical. Daum brings a refreshing degree of honesty to her writing that touches on those unspeakable things (hence the title) that most people would find ways to skirt around. She contemplates her mother’s death, their troubled relationship, and her ambivalence of feeling toward a person so overly concerned with appearances and desperately lacking in motherly warmth. Modeling after her mother, Daum worries how the home health aide, hired to care for her mother through her final days, views this family that faces its matriarch’s death in such a matter-of-fact, unsentimental, and tearless way. Daum forces readers to face truths about aging that are blatantly unpleasant, from the misguided nostalgia we feel for a youth that was never as good as it seems in hindsight, to the irreconcilable loss of a future ripe with possibility once certain decisions force our lives into corners and dead ends we can never hope to navigate out of. She highlights the contradiction between our overly-sappy, sentimental affection for animals, particularly canines, and their patently genuine animal nature, exploring her own fathomless love for these “ticking time bombs that lick our faces,” a species which she would rather have present at her deathbed over any human companion.

One of the more unspeakable topics that Daum touches upon in many of these pieces is motherhood, or rather her lack of interest in entering the realm of motherhood, even after learning that she is pregnant by her husband who desires to raise a child, followed by a miscarriage that is both a welcome relief and a source of great sorrow. These disclosures are heart-wrenching and at times unbelievable. They fall outside the lines of civil conversation, verging on bold truths we would be equal parts scared and shamed to admit even to ourselves. But what makes Daum such a gifted and unique writer, what makes her work so necessary to read, is that these harsh and unpleasant admissions also readily evoke deep empathy from readers.

In a piece reflecting on her experience meeting Joni Mitchell, Daum attributes to Joni the lesson that “if you [don’t] ‘write from a place of excruciating candor you’ve written nothing’.” The Unspeakable itself is a testament to this teaching, an exercise in exploring the ungenerous and unexplored sides of life with poignancy, frankness, and comedy (because what reveals the darkness of things with more honesty than humor?). Daum truly takes Joni’s words to heart, and luckily she is gifted with the rare ability to speak the unspeakable and gain so many devotees in doing so.

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On This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage

 

Image retrieved from annpatchett.com

I’m a sponge for stories. I love to consume them in whatever format they’re presented to me – in a book, on film, or from the lips of a performer. But one thing I’ve never had the knack for was telling them myself.

I remember an 11th grade English class assignment that required I compose a short story. I felt completely unprepared to take on such a daunting task, and the finished product felt flimsy, shallow, and absolutely unreadable to me. Looking back, I can forgive myself that awful attempt at fiction on account of my youth and lack of guidance. I was such an avid reader back then as I am today, so I’m certain I judged myself too harshly against the shining paradigms of fiction which I poured over on a daily basis, the carefully crafted work of inspired and wizened and older professionals. It’s hard to say why this one high school homework assignment sticks with me so vividly even a decade later, especially when my inability to create plot, evoke emotion, coherently string together events, and engage an audience is not confined to the written word – I can’t tell a story (or a joke for that matter) to save my life.

But reading Ann Patchett’s This is the Story of a Happy Marriage makes it seem so damn easy. Not the writing it down part, but the creative element of storytelling. One of the longest and earliest essays featured in this collection recounts Patchett’s method of composition, how she creates an entire story in her head before ever putting pen to paper. She argues that developing a story is one of the easiest parts of fiction writing; all you need is a character or two and then you simply ask questions about those characters, put them in situations of all sorts, delve into their past experiences to understand why they are however you imagine them to be. You will find that you begin to write what you know, argues Patchett, but it won’t be long before something of interest develops too. In Patchett’s able voice, the construction of a novel sounds like a lovely pastime, a sort of daydreaming on a higher level. While I envy her ability to so effortlessly create interesting and engaging fiction, I have no desire to become a novelist. Nonetheless, it sure was interesting to read about and I almost wanted to try my hand at a short story or two. That’s the power of Ann Patchett.

Although entitled This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett’s essay collection is not solely about marriage and relationships, nor confined to her love of writing as the beginning of this review may suggest. Prior to picking this volume up, I knew little of Patchett and that is probably a large part of why I found this collection so intriguing. Essays are one of my favorite forms – I love how one writer’s nonfiction, read in close succession, can provide such a strongly nuanced feeling of a person. Every essay collection I’ve had the pleasure to read has been brimming with wisdom and left me feeling delightfully inspired and positive about life. Although there are certainly staple essay topics found in most volume across writers, each collection retains a highly specific and undefinable feeling in my mind, wrought by the particular author’s sensibility, writing style, and choice of topic.

Patchett and I don’t share nearly as much in common as I do with some other beloved essayists on my list, like Barbara Kingsolver and Jonathan Franzen. A child of divorce, a divorcee herself, a Southerner, a lover of Los Angeles, childless, and a product of a Catholic school education, Patchett’s upbringing and life experiences could not be further from my own. Voyeurism of sorts played a role in my fascination with this book. Her first marriage, doomed before it even began, is at once entirely foreign and alarmingly familiar, the type of relationship that someone could so easily fall into and, unlike Patchett, never emerge from. She explains her marriage as being ground in divorce in an essay that she wisely placed at the end as it trumped all the other relationship woes and advice previously disseminated. The close friendship Ann develops in later life with the nun who taught her to read and write in primary school is touchingly funny and still unfathomable to me, the child of vaguely Catholic parents who only shared horror stories about nuns during their Catholic school days. I find myself thankful for her account of training for the Los Angeles Police Academy, one of those experiences I’d much rather read about than try my own hand at. And of course, I was complete won over (and nearly brought to tears) with meditations on Patchett’s beloved dog Rose and her deeply adored maternal grandmother, a woman Ann cared for in the later years of her life.

Her friendship with Lucy Grealy is the subject of a controversial but touching convocation address at Clemson, leading into Patchett’s arguments for the right to read. Though she later goes on to admonish herself for the naivete of her speech, Patchett’s words rung so true to me: “A college education is about expansion. It’s about seeing many different viewpoints, hearing many different voices. You will find that the more you learn, the more complicated many things get, because you will have the intelligence to recognize many aspects of a single idea.” Maybe I was particularly drawn to this bit of wisdom because it sums up my hunger for essays, especially the type that Patchett composed and compiled in this book. I find myself eager to read anything of this form as a means to learn from people similar to and different from myself. The essay has a fairly express purpose of making a point, not veiling themes in metaphor and symbolism as a more artful novel would, but explicitly structuring anecdotes and arguments in thoughtful ways to evoke an idea.

I’m not sure what I can say to adequately prepare readers for this collection without denying them the pleasure of discovering and evaluating Patchett’s wisdom on their own. As Ann suggests, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage makes my world delightfully more complicated. Her engaging essay collection marks one more contribution to the multitude of ideas, big and small, planted in my head by a wide range of thinkers and writers. This book is a brilliant example of why I love to read.

On Moranthology

Image retrieved from http://www.caitlinmoran.co.uk/

Caitlin Moran has quite quickly taken up residence as one of my new favorite writers. Though she is a renowned columnist across the pond, it all started for me with her New York Times bestselling book How to Be A Woman, a memoir of Caitlin’s girl- and womanhood. Spanning all matter of subjects relating to the fairer sex, Moran tackled pubic hair, abortion, undergarments, high heels, and motherhood in one seamless, hilarious, intelligent, and winning volume.

After that one, I couldn’t get enough Moran and so sought out her next book, Moranthology. Similar in structure to How to Be a WomanMoranthology is a series of essays on an array of topics that Moran handles with her trademark wit, sass, and wisdom. The content of the second book is a bit more varied than the first, including topics such as the Royal Wedding, her interview with Keith Richards, arguments for the preservation of chivalry, and the importance of libraries, but her reflections on each one were a bit brief for my tastes. The majority of the essays in the book are actually columns and articles that Moran had published previously, reprinted here for easy reading in all their concise glory. With each essay occupying little more than three pages on average, I felt as though I got to know Moran more widely than before, but not nearly as deeply.

Moranthology is highly entertaining, as has come to be expected of anything written by Ms. Moran, and a quick yet satisfying read. I aspire to be like Moran one day – making a living by writing about whatever quirky curiosity or everyday mundanity happens to light a fire under my essayist ass on a particular day. Despite her at times light-hearted approach to an array of subject matters, Moran demonstrates a thoughtfulness about the modern world that few pop culture commentators or members of the media possess. But it is this wisdom and depth that I wish Moranthology had provided more of – I found myself yearning for just a bit more out of each essay, hoping to prolong my move on to the next piece and the end of the book.

On Ambulatory Compositions

There are countless memoirs born of pilgrimages taken by foot. From Bill Bryson’s tale of walking the Appalachian Trail to Cheryl Strayed’s memoir of her adventure on the Pacific Crest Trail to the lure of El Camino de Santiago, numerous accounts of walking distances long and arduous and perilous have been shared in print and on film.

For quite some time, I found it surprising that so much walking could produce so many stories. How much plot is there to develop through the monotony of miles upon miles of trail? How much story can be weaned from the seemingly infinite number of footfalls that carry our memoirists to their distant end? Surprisingly, and maybe quite obviously to everyone else but me, a whole lot.

But maybe it isn’t so surprising. After all, I was never such a prolific amateur essayist as when I was employed as a dog walker. All those hours of walking for work allowed me the opportunity to think more deeply and with fewer interruptions than any other day to day circumstances did. I have found that walking, whether with animals for pay or through beautiful trail on a months-long pilgrimage, allows for meditation quite unparalleled by any other physical state of being. Sitting is too stationary for me, requiring that my mind wander in countless directions at once to overcompensate for my great physical stillness. Running requires a mental fortitude that leaves little room for higher thinking or insightful analysis to occur. Driving leaves me far too prone to necessary, at times potentially life-saving, distraction and reactions. Even placing myself before a blank computer screen or an empty page cannot inspire the outpouring of insightful and well-composed thoughts and sentences that walking can. A walk requires physical movement toward a destination but it is slow and plodding, largely effortless but constant and rhythmic. It not only parallels the writing process but lends itself to the type of deep and thorough meditation that inspires that process.

And so we walk and we write about it. And we browse bookstores and wonder how Bill Bryson can have so much to say about his months walking along the Appalachian Trail or how Cheryl Strayed could muse on the deserts and mountains of the Pacific Crest Trail for more than 200 pages. And then we find ourselves on sidewalks, hiking trails, paved walking paths, mall aisles and realize just how easily the words come while we walk. Our thoughts aren’t so much on the walking itself, the rise and fall of each foot or the nature of the terrain under our feet. Our thoughts aren’t even necessarily on anything related to ourselves or our immediate surroundings. Our thoughts are slowly stringing themselves in a most beautiful and seemingly autonomous way from point A to point B, like a strand of Christmas lights with periodic flashes of dazzling light along the way.

The only trouble for me is remembering it all. Those perfectly constructed phrases strung together in my mind’s eye on a walk are hard to recall when I make it back home. I’m torn between a desire to prolong my ambulatory state, so ripe for creativity and literary brilliance, and an eagerness to get home and record it all for posterity, to take pen to paper and make those delightfully composed thoughts more permanent and lasting.

That the protagonists of so many months-long pilgrimages are able to remember their detailed reflections and coherent strands of thought is mind-boggling to me. I’m sure there is quite a bit of editing post-pilgrimage, and additions and revisions are bound to be made upon returning home and opening up a computer to transcribe the whole experience. Nonetheless, walking sets in motion quite nicely the best mentality I’ve yet to find for writing, the prime conditions for thinking thoughts that are constructive, eloquently articulated, appropriately framed and meaningful enough to share. Though writer’s block may settle in when forced to write for a specific purpose, I find that my words are never stifled when I open myself up to the compositional possibilities offered by an easy stroll.

On Small Wonder

I believe that there are a few authors who really speak to each of us in an extremely personal and almost eery way. Maybe they’re not always on the mark, maybe every piece of work they churn out isn’t our favorite, but in some small way, their writing has made a profound and unparalleled impact on us that will forever burn their names in our hearts and minds.

This is how I feel about Barbara Kingsolver. I haven’t been able to fully immerse myself in all of her novels, but Animal, Vegetable, Miracle really moved me in a way that few pieces of nonfiction have ever been able to and so did her collection of short essays entitled Small Wonder.

Inspired by the tragic events of September 11, 2001, Kingsolver meditates on a wide range of issues, most of them pertaining to what it means to be an American and what it means to be a parent. Bolstered by Third World parables, stories of foreign travel, anecdotes from her own family life, and a revolutionary sensibility inspired by the likes of Susan B. Anthony, Emma Goldman, and Martin Luther King Jr., Kingsolver has woven a stunning fabric of truth and authenticity that makes the personal political.

The thing I find most inspiring about Kingsolver is her optimism, her belief in the goodness of human nature and the potential for change. Nearly all of her ideas ultimately come back to love, peace, and respect. Though she may write on international conflicts, humanitarian crises, the domestic homeless population, or the war on terror, her views are remarkably accessible to all because they are grounded upon the small wonders of everyday life. The love a mother feels for her chid, the comfort of having a family to come home to, the right to live a healthy life – these are the things upon which she frames her larger critiques and interpretations of modern American society.

Armed these so-called revolutionary standpoints, Kingsolver’s point is not to inspire guilt about the wasteful and selfish ways of America, but rather to inspire a sense of responsibility to make a change. Despite the many national decisions made with which she entirely disagrees, Kingsolver does not allow these discrepancies between her country’s ideals and her own to diminish her sense of national pride. Instead, she draws upon the same ideas that inspired the founders of our nation as she holds out hope that change is possible. The United States holds the resources and the power to be a role model, to make changes that will improve the whole world, not just our small corner of it. Kingsolver implores us to take that potential and do something productive with it, to create a movement to spend our money more wisely and generously while restoring our sense of contentment grounded in something other than our latest purchase at the mall.

Kingsolver dreams of an America that cares just as much about its homeless citizens as those that are safely housed with their families every night. She envisions a country where the local independents can thrive, where unnecessary desires and obsession with consumption takes a backseat to the simple joy of working to put food on the table and fulfillment from relationships and family. As a storyteller, Kingsolver’s imagination is obviously in great form but this ideal US is not some unattainable dreamland in her head. Reading the pieces contained within Small Wonder will make you realize how possible and necessary these changes can be, from the impact of harvesting vegetables in your own garden, to caring about your fellow citizen enough to sacrifice a few dollars of luxury spending.

Small Wonder will make you reconsider what you thought you knew, and it will raise questions you may have never thought to ask before. But Kingsolver will also undoubtedly instill in you a sense of hope and the revolutionary spirit to alter your life for the betterment of yourself, future generations, and those in need all around. And she’ll perform this great feat of inspiration by pulling on the most fundamental and universal of human heartstrings: love and family.

On Phonelessness

Just the other day, I lost one of my most prized possessions: a $20 antique silver ring that I’ve worn pretty much every single moment since I first bought it about two and a half years ago. I was torn up and tore my house apart in my search for the ring, going over every last step I took since the time when I imagined it had slipped off. Luckily my search lasted just a little over 24 hours, but it was a painful 24 at that. I don’t know why I’m so attached to the ring or why it felt like the loss of something so much bigger, but now I cherish it in an entirely new way.

So I find it a bit laughable that I am so much less distraught over the loss of my iPhone. I didn’t actually loose it – I’m not that absentminded – but it has died, I think irreparably so. I loved this phone mostly because of my very neurotic nature. I loved having my music and camera in one place, the world wide web at my fingertips, and most of all, the limitless notepad where I stored all the books I wanted to find at the library, music I planned on listening to, gift ideas, directions, potential topics for blog posts, and oh so much more that I think I have irretrievably lost.

But oddly enough, I feel enlightened, unburdened, carefree. Maybe a portion of my lack of distress is simple due to the fact that phones are replaceable. I doubt I’d replace this one with another iPhone for I’m much too poor to do that. But I almost wish I didn’t have to replace my phone and could, instead, exist with simply internet access and a landline (though I don’t have the latter so I guess this plan doesn’t work out so well). But it’s impossible to deny the fact that, sadly enough, I need some kind of telephone in order to communicate with the world. I walk dogs part time and my boss likes me to text her before I head out in the mornings so she knows that I’m covered for the day. I need to be on call for my other part time job because I work with kids and if they get out of school early or if something happens at the Community Center where I work, my boss needs to be able to get in touch with me quickly so I can adjust my schedule. Working with other people just makes it impossible to stay as isolated as I sometimes want. Even socially I imagine there would be repercussions. So many people just don’t want to take the time to make a phone call these days, especially when a quick and easy text message will suffice. So for the person who may not be dying to talk to me, the fact that getting in touch with me would require picking up the phone and calling a landline could simply end our correspondence – that would just be too much effort. Which makes me feel bad about myself, but also about the ways that we communicate now and the changing shape of relationships.

On the one hand, I love constant connectivity because I can get in touch with someone at virtually any minute I think of it. If I want to let me fiance know I’ll be home late, or if I see a funny reference to an inside joke with a friend, I can get my point across in a matter of seconds and connect with that other person. This is a blessing and a curse, and I guess the benefit of such connectivity doesn’t always outweigh the downside.

I find myself constantly frustrated by people who don’t pay attention to me because they’re attached to their phones. There’s a reason we have nicknames for these new forms of technology such as “Crackberry” and I have witnessed such addictions first-hand. Even people I know with not-so-“smart” phones are oftentimes constantly texting and missing the happenings before their very eyes. I’m not always so innocent because there have been times when my hurry to return a text or my fear of forgetting something before making a note of it on my phone have removed me more than was necessary from the present moment. And sadly this has almost become acceptable behavior which most people get away with scot-free. I’m a big fan of multitasking and I always wish there were more hours in a day to get to all the things I want to do, however there is a line that we are dangerously close to crossing with no hope of a return. It is simply impossible to multitask when it comes to conversations, relationships, and communication in general. Have you ever tried to carry on two conversations at once? In doing so, both parties are bound to get less than your full attention which is both rude and alienating. And that’s my rant about the abundance of cellular phones and the danger of such plentitude – our relationships and conversations will suffer as we grow increasingly distant from those who we interact with face to face.

I know that people need to get in touch with me somehow for practical reasons, so I’ll find a replacement. But I already spend too much of my time worrying about things other than the present moment, I don’t need some new-fangled technology to add yet another distraction. So I think I’ll be just fine with Mike’s recycled flip phone – a Motorola model that I had some 5 years ago. I don’t need to always be able to figure out what the name of the song on the radio is before it ends or to text people immediately once the urge to do so strikes or to have email capabilities at all times – smart phones really aren’t necessary for my lifestyle. And I love that I had so much fun setting up my “old-fashioned” cell phone. Sure, I can’t send or receive photos on it and I’ve lost the ability to get online, but I was just as excited (maybe even more so) to choose my settings, wallpaper, and ringtones for this phone as I would have been for a brand-spanking-new model. It’s the simple things that do it for me. So, after relishing a few brief moments of phonelessness and soaking up every last vibration-free second, I’m back in the world of the hyper-connected. I’ve got an aged but reliable phone and, though the iPhone and I had a good run together, I’m perfectly content with reverting back to my roots. Who really needs an app for everything anyway?