The Whole Intimate Mess

I came across this excellent memoir, The Whole Intimate Mess: Motherhood, Politics and Women’s Writing because the author, Holly Walker, sounded familiar. Indeed, it turns out that Holly and I crossed paths briefly at University when we both worked for its student publication, which Holly went on to edit. She then went on to be a Rhodes Scholar and a Greens Member of Parliament. Overachiever much?

What I love most about this concise, well-written book is how candid it is without being oversharing-y. While it must’ve been terrifying for such a public person to lay her struggles bare, Holly navigates the personal and the political with grace, warmth, humour and vulnerability. In a nutshell, she opens up about the perfect storm of events and conditions that led to the brave decision to step down from her parliamentary role: her struggle with becoming a mum while working in parliament, her postpartum depression, her husband’s chronic illness, their rocky marriage, and the anxiety and self-harm that came along with these stressful life events.

In her vulnerability, she is down to earth and relatable. Holly also weaves throughout her at-times harrowing story quotes from other female writers from around the world who speak to, and contextualise, her struggles, and it is with the fusing of these excerpts and her writing that bring a universal quality to her work. I certainly identified with elements of her story as a white, NZ/western, working woman.

This memoir is ultimately hopeful – Holly gets help and rebuilds her life in a way that is more workable for her and her family. She acknowledges her privilege and that she has more options than most people. As a fellow lefty, the memoir is littered with examples and anecdotes of how New Zealand is not doing enough for children in poverty and the widening gap between the rich and the poor which is having a detrimental effect. Still, it gives me hope that people like Holly are working on these issues. Thanks Holly for all that you do, for reminding us that the pen is mightier than the sword, and for being such an excellent role model for the women of Aotearoa/New Zealand!

One day

This morning I woke up early, before 7am, and meditated. Just for fifteen minutes. It was gray outside and damp from last night’s downpour. I had some fruit for breakfast and went to yoga. The teacher is impossibly tall and thin. She’s like a fairy godmother beanstalk. I can’t even fathom how she gave birth to three children. She is kind, gentle, funny. She meets us where we are at. This morning, because of the humidity, my body felt tight. I heard creaking. My clumsiness and un-coordination felt more pronounced than usual. I felt weak. I blame the weather and my own laziness. I cycled back to my guesthouse. I was feeling a little cold, even wearing merino wool in twenty five degrees. I lay down on my giant bed that could easily fit four people. What should I do today? Where should I eat? What am I doing with my life? I was about to fall down the self-flagellation rabbit hole when I heard my friend Clea calling my name. She bounded up the stairs and knocked on my door. I opened it and there she was with a large block of opened chocolate.

“Here, this is for you, it’s from Norway. Sorry, but I already opened it and ate some,” she said with a mouth full of chocolate.

I didn’t mind at all, considering how expensive good chocolate is here. I ripped off a few pieces and stuffed them in my mouth. It tasted exactly like Cadbury’s chocolate. It did its job, giving me a sugar and dopamine rush. When then discussed our plans. It was raining. A lot. We were both hungry (as usual). Should we go to the restaurant nearby that we’ve been going to almost daily? We decided we would. We invited Akio, a retired Japanese scientist who is staying at the same guesthouse. Umbrellas in hand, we trudged down the road dodging puddles and potholes.

We talked over pizza and pasta. Noam Chomsky, Donald Trump, restaurants. Three countries, one language. I learnt that our Japanese companion is a Princeton-educated genius. It explains his ongoing interest in everything, his curiosity, his impeccable English. He’s here to study meditation. Like everyone in this town, he’s looking for something.

We return and I get back into a book I had picked up again after tossing it aside some months ago. I had written it off but this time, I became riveted by it. It’s a memoir written by a woman who lost her mother then her father, both to cancer. She was in her teens when her mother passed and just a few years later, her father was diagnosed and passed away while she was in her mid-twenties. This exploration of grief was harrowing. This woman, now a well-known writer, grief therapist, and divorced mother of two young girls living in Santa Monica, went to Hell and back. Her writing sucked me in – I was right there with her when she was holding her dying father’s hand, or drinking herself into oblivion, or having a sobbing fit, or just being alone and falling down the rabbit hole of shame and self-loathing.

I am tired now. I wanted to finish the book and it probably took about an hour, but I feel like I was with her in all those years, so vivid is her writing. I was drained by chaos and self-destruction. But ultimately I’m buoyed by her hard-won happiness. She learnt how to be alone, how to be happy, how to go through the grieving process, how to heal wounds so that they turn into scars. She finds self-love and acceptance through friendship and healthy relationships, work she loves serving others, writing, yoga, meditation, and most intriguingly, by taking long baths each evening. It’s here in the bathtub she realizes the wisdom of no escape. I was in awe of how much living she had done – all the jobs, moving, travel, study, and all the loved ones she had lost. She is only a year older than me. Holy crap! The book was published a few years ago. Cut to today and has had an affair, her marriage unravels. She is in a relationship with a man who lives on the other side of the country, she has published another book, also focusing on grief, and seems to be thriving. Due to her prominent, transparent social media presence, I know so much about her life now. What I love is that she is in a much better place – that depressed, lonely, anxious, grief-stricken mess of a young woman lives on in her but it is just a tiny part of her now. This gives me so much hope for humanity. We are more resilient than we think and things do get better.

It stirs up all kinds of feelings in me. I have never been to a funeral. I imagine her at her father’s funeral. I imagine myself at my father’s. It’s morbid. I think of a phrase I learnt the other day in relation to our thoughts and feelings: ‘Real but not true.’ I say it over and over again like a mantra. It’s not even 8pm yet.

 

 

When in French…

wheninfrenchLauren Collins’ memoir, When in French: Love in a Second Language is a stunning read. Treats await the reader on almost every page – whether it’s her flawless prose, her rendering of complex linguistic concepts and anecdotes, the honest and relatable portrayal of her relationship with her French husband Olivier, or my favourite, her sly and understated sense of humour with a knack for finding the irony in even the most ordinary situations.

It would be easy to not like Collins – as an American who grew up in an upper middle-class family, she attended Princeton then got her foot in the door at The New Yorker, working her way up to a coveted and prestigious writing position that sent her on interesting assignments all over the world. Then, on a whim, she decides to become their London correspondent, easily gets herself a work visa and after only three weeks in her adopted home, meets the French man who will become her husband. They marry and eventually live in Geneva followed by Paris. It sounds like a fairytale. What makes her likeable, and her memoir relatable, however, is her brutal honesty: when she moves to Geneva, she makes it her mission to learn French, which, it turns out, is not so easy. She finds the city and the people conservative and backwards. Her and Olivier argue and face the usual relationship problems as she tries to pressure him into marriage. She refers to her in-laws as ‘Les Fockers.’ She is self-deprecating and often portrays herself as awkward, annoying and clumsy. She’s also gutsy and is not afraid to go there.

As she fumbles with the French language, we are on her side. Not only is her prose revealing and entertaining, but it is also educational. No need to ever again read a boring journal or newspaper article about the theories of Chomsky. Collins is quite the armchair anthropologist and has done a stellar job of including a range of linguistic theories that are so intricately and subtly woven into the narrative that you barely even notice you’re lapping up Linguistics 101.

I eagerly wanted to share some of her most outstanding nuggets and zingers here, but I think it best you do yourself a faveur and read this formidable book in its entirety. Here’s a little sneak-peak of what’s in store:

Schnapsidee – the way a German would describe a plan he’d hatched under the influence of alcohol. Pilkunnussija – Finnish for “comma fucker,” a grammar pedant. In Mundari [a language spoken by some ethnic groups in India and neighboring countries] ribuy-tibuy refers to the sight, sound, and motion of a fat person’s buttocks. Jayus, in Indonesian, denotes a joke told so poorly that people can’t help but laugh. Knullrufs is Swedish for postsex hair. Gumusservi means moonlight shining on the water in Turkish. Culaccino is the Italian word for the mark left on a table by a cold glass. Words like these are marvelous. We make lists of them, compile them into treasuries, trade them over any dinner table at which holders of more than one passport have convened. (The German, armed with Kummerspeck – “grief bacon” will always win the day.)’

When Breath Becomes Air

dr paulDr. Paul Kalanithi is a brilliant young neurosurgeon in the midst of his residency when he is faced with a terminal cancer diagnosis. When Breath Becomes Air is his memoir, his exploration and examination of what makes life worth living. And indeed, this harrowing yet exquisite account of his life and musings as he shuffles ever closer to his inevitable death is well worth reading.

Educated Americans love nothing more than a doctor who can write and Dr. Kalanithi is one of those rare souls who excelled both in the operating room and on the page. In the first part of his story, we learn about his upbringing and his genius – he has a master’s degree in English literature and one in philosophy and considered being a writer before opting to take the more difficult path of becoming a surgeon. In his own words, “The call to protect life – and not merely life but another’s identity; it is perhaps not too much to say another’s soul – was obvious in its sacredness.”

It was not a decision taken lightly and he throws himself into his training with eyes wide open. As he writes, “The cost of my dedication to succeed was high, and the ineluctable failures brought me nearly unbearable guilt. Those burdens are what make medicine holy and wholly impossible: in taking up another’s cross, one must sometimes get crushed by the weight.”

What is remarkable is that Dr. Kalanithi continues his residency while undergoing harrowing treatments for his cancer. The grueling training required to succeed in one of America’s most prestigious hospitals (Stanford) would be impossible for most high functioning, healthy individuals. Paul has unfathomable grit and tenacity and keeps inching towards his goal even as his body deteriorates and betrays him.

This book is not for the faint-hearted. Tears rolled down my cheeks at many moments, especially as he enters his final days at the tender age of 37, just months after his baby daughter is born.

Dr. Kalanithi passed away before finishing his manuscript (oh and he was also writing this book in addition to everything else) and the last part is pieced together by his wife, Lucy who is also a doctor. In the epilogue she writes, “Although these last few years have been wrenching and difficult – sometimes almost impossible – they have also been the most beautiful and profound of my life, requiring the daily act of holding life and death, joy and pain in balance and exploring new depths of gratitude and love.”

Indeed, one of the most heartfelt aspects of the book is how Dr. Kalanithi navigates the uncertainty of his predicament and how he must recontextualize his life and the way he must now improvise given so much uncertainty. As Janet Maslin writes of the book in the New York Times: “There is so much here that lingers, and not just about matters of life and death: One of the most poignant things about Dr. Kalanithi’s story is that he had postponed learning how to live while pursuing his career in neurosurgery. By the time he was ready to enjoy a life outside the operating room, what he needed to learn was how to die.”

The tragedy of this story is of a brilliant man who is unfairly and senselessly taken far too soon (although is there any other way?), leaving behind a grieving wife and eight month old daughter. The beauty of the story lies in Dr. Kalanithi’s ability to express in words his experience, to take charge of his own narrative even as he has so little control and power in the face of his own death. I, along with millions of others, am eternally grateful to have been able to bear witness to his life and death through his writing.

 

The Anti-Romantic Child

gilmanOver the past year I have read Priscilla Gilman’s memoir, The Anti-Romantic Child, twice. As a former English professor, lover of Romantic poetry and current writer, Gilman writes lyrical, mesmerizing prose. Her story, which is, in part, about her own childhood and upbringing, is mostly about her relationship with her first son Benji who is diagnosed with autism. It is told intimately and sincerely.  In the prelude to the book Gilman writes:

“This book began as a lump in the throat, as a homesickness for the magical world of my childhood and for the home life I was looking forward to with my child. It began with a sickness of love for a child I adored but did not understand, a love searing in its intensity, overwhelming in its sense of longing and vulnerability, a love I feared would never be reciprocated, and worst of all would never make an impact…at its heart, this book is a love story: a story of two very different people learning to accept and affect and make space for each other in mysterious and powerful ways.”

Gilman, exceptionally smart and beautiful, hails from the American East coast upper crust. She dated Mia Farrow’s son, attended Yale as a student and worked there as a professor. Her parents were well known among New York’s intelligentsia. While it could be easy to write her off as privileged and entitled, her openness about her wounds and disappointments means that the reader is always on her side. An idyllic, fairy tale childhood, for instance, is ripped away from her when her mother divorces her beloved father. “It became clear to me…that my father had had another life, another side, a secret life of affairs and indulgence in drugs and hard-core pornography even as he was playing the role of the good family man and daddy who watched Sesame Street with me and presided over my innocent imaginative world,” she writes.

Throughout the book, Gilman weaves a rich tapestry of her triumphs and failures. She puts her all into her academic studies, obtaining her doctorate and giving every ounce of herself to her research, writing, teaching and her pursuit of tenure. Until it dawns on her that academia is not for her. Gilman becomes increasingly dissatisfied and disillusioned – the cut-throat competition for the few jobs in her field, the direction of her field, the insecurity of academic life, the way all it impinges on and threatens her well-being and family life. Set amongst the perilousness and instability of her career is the birth of Benji. Not only does Gilman struggle with being a working mother, but it soon becomes apparent that her son has special-needs, adding another layer of complexity to her life.

Benji comes to be known as ‘brilliant but quirky’. Gilman and her husband struggle to support him and find themselves pushed to the limits in their never-ending quest to meet his needs. His unpredictable nature and inability to cope with new situations and in new settings takes its toll on the family. Despite access to the best doctors, psychologists, therapists and teachers, it is only after myriad visits to such specialists and exhaustive research that Benji is given a diagnosis of autism.

This is set against the chaos of the birth of Gilman’s second child, her increasingly strained and rocky marriage, the long illnesses and eventual death of her dear father and in-laws and a transition to a new career working with her mother as a literary agent. In a short space of time, they move house, cities and schools. Over time, and with unflagging commitment and persistence, Gilman is able to find the right care for her autistic son and care for her family as a single mother after she and her husband separate. She begins to think about their experience as a journey, one in which she doesn’t have a map but is dedicated to scoping out the territory as she goes, never giving up, always finding a way to be resilient and keep on moving forward. Gilman revels in the unexpected delight of her son’s intelligence and musical talent. She never sees him as a burden, but as a precious gift. Eventually, while not part of the book, Gilman soon remarries and becomes an advocate and spokesperson for autism awareness.

After both readings of this text, I was struck by the fact that while Gilman had access to what is probably the best care in the world for a special-needs child and the resources to access it, it took so much time, effort, energy, persistence and sacrifice on her and her family’s part to find the right combination of care that has allowed Benji to thrive. It is a sad reality that many special-needs children around the world do not have access to the same care and are therefore unable to achieve their potential.

Gilman concludes her story by writing that: “In parenting Benj, I have gotten more in touch with a profound kind of romanticism; I have been given access to a transcendent sense of mystery and awe and wonder…While initially Benj presented as the contradiction of romantic ideas of childhood – he defied and rebuffed every expectation I had – ultimately he has reaffirmed, in a deeper and truer way, my romantic ideals and given me ‘more than all the other gifts’ [to quote Wordsworth].”