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 Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House

Meghan Daum’s pseudo-memoir “Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House” is an account of her life told in zip codes, outrageous home prices, swoon-worthy woodwork, disastrous architectural layouts, and soul-crushing house hunting failures. I worried that I would quickly grow weary of a 245-page book about the trials and tribulations of real estate, despite my love of all things interior design and HGTV which, like Daum, I can wholeheartedly attribute to my mother’s influence. But “Life Would Be Perfect” is far more engrossing than even a final reveal episode of Rehab Addict. Via her constant search for the perfect home, Daum takes readers on a deep and entertaining exploration of her life story and the seemingly-innate desire for homeownership. Our author is a fascinating and intelligent personality in her own rite which makes her book so readable; Daum writes brilliantly, with great wit and an expansive vocabulary, but also frankly, exposing her flaws, pretensions, and ridiculousness to readers with no holds barred.

By meditating on her history of homes, and a very robust history it is as she tried on dorms, apartments, and houses with more fervor than most brides search for the perfect gown, Daum explores the way our abodes cradle not just our daily lives but also our very precious identities. We follow Daum in her exhausting efforts to fulfill her childhood dream of renting a sprawling and elegantly bohemian New York apartment to her more adult (but still childlike) desire for a Laura Ingalls Wilder-style prairie farmhouse, farm included notwithstanding the fact that Daum has really only ever lived in suburbia or New York City.

Over each incarnation of Daum’s elusive, imagined perfect home, she explores what longings were at the heart of her search – the desire to be among the New York literary elite, living in a home filled with the warmth of worn Oriental rugs, the sound of intellectual conversation, and the subtle essence of effortless wealth; a display of rugged individualism and the pull of a vast landscape in her own little house on the prairie; the appearance of self-possession, confidence, and excellent taste conveyed via careful interior design as a prerequisite for introducing one’s home, and thus one’s very self, to a new suitor. This theme of home being mixed up with imagined identities and real hope is perfectly captured in the very title of Daum’s book, playing upon the equal parts ridiculous and rational belief that our homes define us, that our houses can make or break or alter our lives, that the places we live are of profound significance, that our decor has meaning all its own.

Though this is a story of housing dreams and disasters, it also encourages readers to engage with Daum, at once a frustratingly impulsive and entirely relatable narrator. As she signs yet another lease or completes the paperwork to purchase a home in Lincoln, Nebraska the very same day she first saw it, readers will at turns cringe, be consumed with jealousy, wonder at the cost of all those damn movers, cheer her on, and wish to see these homes, both the gorgeous and the ramshackle ones, in the flesh. I reveled in descriptions of her beloved New York City apartment on 100th St between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive, pursed my lips in disgust at her search for a home in the smog- and traffic-laden, over-priced hills of Los Angeles, and envisioned what my own prairie farm home would entail. I wished I could try on homes for size just as much as Daum, then gently reminded myself how much I deplore the reality of moving. But my shuffling thoughts were always followed by a wistfully envious phase, envy of Daum’s freedom both financial and geographical, her bold search for a perfect place to call home.

Balanced by the reality that our homes, like ourselves, are imperfect and impermanent spaces, “Life Would Be Perfect” inspired dreams of my own ideal forever home and sparked reflections upon the places I have lived, been defined by, missed out on, and hope yet to find. Unlike the cookie-cutter perfection of interior design and home-buying shows that leave me bereft, covetous, and unsatisfied with my own slightly grubby, hand-me-down rental, Daum’s indulgent meditation on her housing history made me more fond of my own space and all its reflections of me (not including its grubbiness though). Culling wisdom from years of attending open houses, making more moves than I could keep track of, and renovating to perfection, Meghan Daum considers why home is so important to us, how the physical and aesthetic concerns begin to override the true function of a house, and the true measure of a perfect home.