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.)’

Reclaiming the c-word

buddhacwordIt was the early 2ooos. I was a young, earnest student reading Simone de Beauvoir and Gloria Steinem. I took Gender 101. Sometimes I wore a beret and sat in cafes alone drinking black coffee or cheap red wine that tasted like vinegar and scrawled in my diary. I worked part-time in a rather cool bar. I was making connections between the personal and political and my feminist conscience was taking root.

It’s fair to say that I was quite naive and innocent (still am! gah!) and involved in a one-way street on-again-off-again relationship in which I was the very cute doormat. So I started to see that guys weren’t always nice and were actually sometimes kind of ruthless. Manipulative, pathetic, ridiculous lying dogs. But I’ll hold off telling you how I really feel.

So I was working as a waitress at this cocktail bar and this new girl started. We got along well and divulged all our deepest, darkest boy-related horror stories – the ritualistic bonding of females. Then somewhat coincidentally, we both started dating two guys who worked with us. They basically screwed us over at the same time and we were upset and heartbroken in only ways that silly 20 year old girls can be. The details are hazy now but we joined forces and created SPC which stood for ‘Strong Powerful Cunt’ in an effort to reclaim the c-word. It meant that we were stronger than this petty bullshit and could override our relationship dramas. I even held a potluck dinner at my house for women only in the spirit of SPC. See, we don’t need no man. SPC eventually died out after being reprized for an event on a ship in the name of peace and empowerment, but that is another story.

Cut to a decade later and I’m chatting with my male friend who is well-educated in such things as philosophy and ethics. The conversation turns to language and we agree that the c-word is the worst word in the English language and should never be used under any circumstances. I did not tell him about SPC. And so, I buried the word in the back of my lexicon closet and may have only fetched it out once or twice in the context of stubbing my toe or checking my bank balance.

Cut to a few years after that conversation. I’m sitting in a beautiful Balinese restaurant with opulent marble floors where there is a live band and salsa dancing. I’m waiting for some guy to ask me to dance, but alas, that is never going to happen because we’re in Ubud where the ratio of women to men is 45:1. But, I spy to my right another white woman, perhaps around the same age with ridiculous cheekbones circa Hollywood 1940. I almost see a smoky haze emanating from her. I overhear that she’s an anthropologist. I’m giddy and inch my way over. We start to chat and were still talking when the band has long gone and the waiters are practically kicking us out.

Over the next week, we become inseparable, like long-lost BFFs. We engage in the ritualistic bonding of females and vomit out our worst heartbreaks, show each other our life scars. Hailing from Norway, the peculiar thing about my new BFF and perhaps the thing I like most about her is her perfect cut-glass Oxbridge accent which was acquired, funnily enough, while she was living in Bali doing fieldwork. The second best thing about her is the way she spits out bad British words like a sailor. Before I know it, I too am saying ‘shag’ and ‘wanker’ in every sentence. And then we start to say the c-word with abandon in all different contexts. It feels very cathartic to say this taboo word in relation to all manner of things that really get my goat. There is power in this word and joy at transgressing by using it.

Then there comes the reality check – back in Seoul I drop it in the middle of a conversation with a group of female friends that I don’t know that well. It goes down like cold sick. Oops. So, context is everything. Next time I trawl it out, it will be in the presence of my new BFF. She gets it. And god, it just feels so good and deliciously politically incorrect to throw the c-word at someone that has wronged you. May the c-word prosper (in the correct context of course).

A Year of Lady Book Wormery

woman-readingMy nerdy, introverted, curious self often likes to snuggle under the covers with a good book. This year was busier than usual with work and life commitments which meant that I didn’t have as much time or energy to escape with my book friends as I would’ve liked. My Kindle shamefully has dozens of titles bought this year that are at 10% or 25%. The ones I did manage to finish, however, all seem to have a theme – memoirs written by women. There is something pleasurably vicarious about reading about other women’s lives, riding the ups and downs with them, especially when there are happy endings (the story kind).

I was transported to Somalia with Canadian Amanda Lindhout’s story of her time being kidnapped and held hostage after working as a journalist in the region. There is only one word to describe A House in the Sky: harrowing. It’s incredible that Lindhout survived her horrific ordeal in which unimaginable things were done to her, and has now emerged as a poised and confident activist and aspiring psychologist. While the author’s plight is not for the faint of heart, the story is gripping and eye-opening. In sharing her experiences, Lindhoudt shines a light on Islam in Somalia and the politics of the region. Ultimately, it is a story of hope as Lindhout demonstrates an unbelievable amount of perseverance and resilience and even compassion as in the end, she chooses to forgive her captors and torturers. This is not to discount the trauma that Lindhout continues to experience, but is testament to the adage that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. The takeaway message? Well, there are two: first, don’t go to Somalia; second, it is possible to rebuild one’s life after the most extreme adversity.

On a much lighter note was Australian Sarah Turnbull’s All Good Things, an ultimately uplifting account of her time living in Tahiti with her French husband, her challenges falling pregnant as an older woman and her return to Sydney with her family after living as an expatriate in Paris for many years. Turnball writes honestly and reflectively about her daily life and the emotional roller coaster she rides as she tries to adjust to the South Pacific then back to her homeland. I have been fortunate enough to visit Tahiti, so it was with great interest that I read her nuanced impressions and descriptions of day-to-day life on this ‘paradise’. With her carefully constructed prose, she brings to light the complexities of getting what you want, highlighting the peaks and valleys of her journey.

Meghan Daum’s The Unspeakable is a collection of brilliantly written essays about her life, her work, her health and her relationships. While there are plenty of wonderfully written sentences that explode like firecrackers, the biggest delight is in her penchant for brutal honesty. It’s incredibly refreshing, especially for an upper middle class white American woman living in Los Angeles to express herself so forthrightly about the things were all thinking, but not saying. The way she tactfully yet scathingly portrays her mother is almost shocking. The world needs more woman writers like this, to expose the reality of our lives, the complexity, the messiness, the taboos. She is definitely not afraid to say the unspeakable.

Another writer I read this year for the first time (well, technically last year) was Elisabeth Eaves whose memoir Wanderlust about traveling and working in five continents is also very brave, honest and self-revelatory. Eaves’ memoir is about her need to explore, to keep moving forward, to run away from herself and anything she perceives as trapping her, like an apartment in Paris that she shares with her diplomat boyfriend. She does this with candor and self-awareness, always weighing up the costs and benefits of her actions and their consequences (which usually involve quitting jobs, moving countries and and breaking hearts). Now a successful journalist based in New York, we see Eaves’ evolution from a curious high school student to the powerful woman she has become today. She is a blond, red lipstick-wearing Type A risk-taker, living a life we usually associate with the most thrill-seeking, adventurous and virile male writers who trot from country to country, and bed to bed chasing their next story.

Food writer Molly Wizenberg’s Delancy is her second memoir, this time about the pizzeria she opened with her husband. Her writing paints a cozy picture of her life in Seattle with her family (she has a toddler) but she is careful to never romanticize or idealize how hard it is to open a restaurant from scratch and run it successfully. She writes simply yet eloquently about the good times and the bad – the reader is right there with her as she exposes the blood, sweat and tears of making her and her husband’s dreams a reality. Her narrative weaves in recipes, which makes it a delight for the unpretentious foodie.