A little Self-Pity to End the Week

My entire family is now gathered in Buzios, Brazil, for a cousin’s wedding.  I am not there. For many reasons (financial, new job) I was not able to go, and now I wonder if any of those reasons was really good enough. This Sunday is also the 9th anniversary of my father’s death, and I wish I could be there, with other people who knew him and miss him. Whine, whine, whine. I am not too pleasant to be around today.

Last night I read my girls a book about immigration, part of their ever-growing collection from the PJ Library. Ages 7 and 4, they related to the story in totally different and age-appropriate ways. D, the younger one, searched in the pictures the elements in the narrative that she was hearing, and was interested in the idea of Zissie doing something “naughty” and getting away with it.  7-year-old L, as always, had a million questions about immigration. Starting with “what is an immigrant?” This is treacherous territory – at what point, in a Jewish child’s childhood, must we reveal that large groups of Jews adopted new homelands because they were not exactly welcome or well liked?

I am a strong believer in the idea that when a child is old enough to ask a question, I have the responsibility to answer, hopefully in a clear and non-threatening way. When L asked why Zissie’s family were participating in a fundraiser to bring their loved ones from Poland, I gave her my basic answer: “Jews were not treated very well in Europe at that time. They wanted to have a better life here in America, where they would be safe and free. But it cost a lot of money to come, sometimes they had to leave everything behind.”

“Oh, so they were poor when they got here, like in the Emma Lazarus poem?” she asked. L relates every immigrant story to me: “Mommy, where you alive when this was going on?” Gasp. “No, honey, I was born in the 1970’s.” After she recovered from the shock of her old mother having been born in the “19’s,” she asked: “If people weren’t being mean to you in Brazil, why did you move here?”

This morning, through my bout of self-pity, I recalled this conversation and felt ridiculous. I had the luxury to move here in search of better educational and professional opportunities, and a lifestyle that suited me better. I was not escaping persecution, poverty, hunger, or oppression. It was my choice, which I would probably make again. I will try to keep the self-pity and whining to myself.

On Books and Feelings

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“Spider on Web Munching” by MiniMised under a Creative Commons License

“Mommy, is Fern in all the Charlotte’s Webs?” It took me a few moments to process my 7-year-old’s question. We had just read the first two chapters of Charlotte’s Web, which I had grabbed from the library shelf in a huff, in reaction to her selection of yet another Pinkalicious book from one of those “I Can Read” series, which at this point is not exactly challenging.

“There are no Charlotte’s Webs,” I explained. “This is a really famous book, a classic, kids have been reading it for years and years.”

Charlotte’s Web was not a part of my childhood, in English or in translation. I first read E.B. White in college (The Elements of Style, still very much beloved, and a compilation of New Yorker stories, as writing to aspire to in Journalism classes). Yet, I knew exactly what the book was about. Friends, through the years, discussed how much they loved the book, hated the book, were traumatized by it. It was clearly a childhood milestone.

This was not the first time I considered getting Charlotte for my animal-loving, sensitive, 7-year-old. She is a child who feels things deeply, with abandon. We tried reading the first book in the Little House series, and she was so offended by the frequent descriptions of hunting that the book was returned to its box on the shelf (she had received the whole set for Chanukah), where it remains. She vows never to look at it again.

We took on Charlotte’s Web a chapter or two at a time. She was incredibly upset right off the bat when Wilbur’s life was at risk, then relaxed into the animal politicking in the barn. The writing is so clear and incisive, yet she did not see it coming. She was so happy that Wilbur was OK, she missed all the clear hints that Charlotte was the one who wasn’t going to make it to the end of the story. As we read the last chapter, I could see her eyes filling with tears. She held it in pretty well until the end, when she let out heart-breaking sobs, completely out of control.

“Why did you make me read this book? This is a horrible book,” she said, with a stuffy nose and blotchy face.

“The fact that you are feeling this so hard, it means that this is actually a good book. You know animals don’t really talk and plot, and spiders don’t write words on their webs, but you are still feeling something. This is how good books work, they make you believe,” I said.

“I don’t ever want to read a good book again,” she said. She will, of course, read good books, watch good movies, and feel.

The next morning, her little sister stomped out of her room screaming “Daddy, there is a spider in my room. Come kill it please!” I swear this actually happened.

You can imagine what happened next. My daughter dissolved into ugly sobs again. Her little sister was very confused, as my husband transported the spider safely  to the backyard.

“I hate feeling like this, Mommy. Do you ever feel sad like this with any of your books?”

“Sometimes,” I said. The truth is, not so often, not anymore. Real life’s brutality has brought me to my knees in the last few years, and I have been either actively avoiding upsetting literature, or it has failed to upset me very thoroughly. I did not tell my girl that I prefer her sadness continues to come from fiction, stories made up by other people, and not the complexities of our own lives.

Our Needs

I recently read Maria Semple’s Where Did You Go Bernadettewhich someone had recommended as a funny, quick read. True and true. The story of Bernadette Fox, told in loose epistolary format (emails, letters, bills, FBI evidence), begins with a mother who is so neurotic and averse to human contact, she hires a personal assistant in India to take care of her family’s every need, from booking a trip to Antarctica to celebrate daughter Bee’s academic prowess, to outfitting the family for the trip, to ordering prescription drugs from a compounding pharmacy. Bernadette is a devoted mother to Bee, but just about everything else in life bothers her. She despises the bleeding-heart liberal parents in Bee’s private school, and most of all, she hates Seattle and everything that goes with it – the weather, the architecture, the people. As the story unravels, we get glimpses of what has made Bernadette’s existence seem so excruciating . Once an award-winning, talented and promising architect in Los Angeles, she crumbles after some professional frustrations and moves to Seattle with her husband once he is hired by Microsoft. The couple buy a decrepit mansion which had been a boarding school for girls, which in time becomes overrun with mildew and vines. Daughter Bee is born after several miscarriages. The baby is frail and sick, and at her bedside, Bernadette makes a trade-off that will define the rest of her life: she will give up professional fulfillment, her architect’s vision, if she can keep her baby. The realism of this scene took my breath away.

Bernadette gets her wish – Bee survives, after going through multiple elaborate surgeries during childhood. The child not only survives, she thrives, but her mother is left hollow. In a novel dripping in caricature and sarcasm (it really is funny), the process of Bernadette’s loss of self – and sanity – is sadly familiar.

I made that same barter after being told by doctors that we weren’t going to keep our little D, after having just lost her twin sister L. In the NICU, hunched over the incubator to protect a fresh C-section scar, as the whizzing respirator kept my tiny baby breathing, I unzipped and stepped out of the suit of my former self. The woman who emerged was raw, afraid, yet newly empowered to mother this fragile creature, to fight for her, with her, to experience the greatest joys and the darkest fears through the child. It is a process that special needs parents will surely recognize – the child needs, and we give, and give, and give. Time, money, energy, creativity, and love, above all. We love our children almost beyond reason, to the point of ignoring who we are, what we need. We have needs too – we need sleep. We need community, and friendship, and time for quiet contemplation. We need nourishing food. We need activities that nourish our souls (whatever that may be, in my case, travel, reading, theater, dance). We need physical activity. We need time with our partner. The list goes on.

Let Bernadette Fox be your (my) cautionary tale. You may be willing to give up everything for your child, but it won’t work. It is not true that the more you give up, the better off the child will be. And eventually, it will catch up with you.

How I love my Kindle

I got a Kindle for my birthday. It’s stunning that it’s taken me years to get one, because I’ve wanted one since they first came out. I flirted with the Nook, rubber-necked fellow commuters’ ipads, but it’s always been about the Kindle. My mom ordered it for me a couple weeks before my birthday, and Amazon promised it for early September. Oh, the wait was torturous. But it was worth it. It arrived days after Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom.

I’ve always loved reading. I used to dream of owning a bookstore/cafe (how behind the times that would be). Sadly, between a full-time job and two kids, the only possible opportunity to read is my one-hour-each-way commute. Occasionally I’d get really into a book, but then it would end up forgotten at my desk at work, or at home, and as anyone who has frequented a crowded subway car knows, flipping through a novel when your face is touching someone else’s armpit is kind of hard.

Months ago I downloaded the Kindle app for my iphone. That did solve the issue of lugging books around. But I had a hard time getting through anything more substantial than Charlaine Harris’s vampire novels. I thought maybe I was just too tired, my attention span corroded by Facebook and blogs and sleep deprivation. Maybe I was no longer a novel kinda person.

And then, the Kindle arrived. Super slim, light, easy to handle with one hand, and with a screen the size of your average paperback. It reads like a book. Real ink on virtual paper, easy on the eyes. The pages turn at the click of a finger, at either side of the screen. All the books that I had purchased for the iphone app automatically appeared once I set up the Kindle. Like magic, I am a reader again. I can’t wait to settle into my uncomfortable seat in the train to dig into a novel.

The downside, though you could also consider it a perk: the instant gratification. I can get the book I want to read (if it’s available for the Kindle, and most new books are) NOW. In seconds. I am tweaking the book budget as we speak. I am enjoying thinking about what I will download for our upcoming trip to Brazil. 10-hour flights, long airport waits. Lots of family to watch the kids at the beach… Books!

How about you? Have you gotten into electronic reading? Do you swear to turn nothing but paper pages forever? What are you reading these days, and in what format?