“Are you talking to the books again?”
I’m currently surrounded by about 500 books, acquired yesterday from an elderly couple about 20 minutes away from town who were selling them on behalf of another woman whose sister just passed away. Apparently she didn’t have any friends, she just read a lot, played music, and did outdoorsy things like hiking and skiing.
Far from being an expert, when we went out to their property to price the books, I was mostly guessing. All of them looked at least 15-20 years old, at most 60 years old. So they were in great condition, but they’re old. Not old, just old. When it was obvious they didn’t like the amount I proposed to pay for the whole lot, I tried not to talk about the age too much. It seems insensitive to talk to elderly folks about something not being valuable because it’s old. Old in people years, not in ancient civilization years.
Old in people years is precious, but not exciting or sexy. Some books get to transcend people years. That’s part of the reason people like them so much. Books are timeless!
Except they’re not. I have already maneuvered around and sneezed and coughed and waded through enough piles of books to see very plainly that most books are not timeless, as objects or as ideas. Most books live regular people lives. They live, they’re shiny for a while, then they get “that smell”, and then they die.
It’s difficult to be objective about the arbitrary value of a book. I often find really great stories in thrift stores that are mass produced and thus too boring to sell in the store for more than fifty cents. Maybe a dollar. You can’t have too many books like that – they take up space. I want to liberate these books, give them away for free if I have to, but I’d quickly run out of the limited budget I have to start with buying freebies.
My aesthetic eye is actually much more useful at this point than my knowledge of books and publishing. If the design looks so generic that a first year graphic design student could do it, I know it won’t re-sell for much. As ignorant as we tend to be talking about art and design, we’re a demanding public. The graphic designer is just as important to the success of the book as the writer. (Of course, this depends on how you define success, which is always in flux.)
When I buy a bunch of books and then later look at them online, I am generally pretty spot on for how much I estimated their value. It turns out you can judge a book by its cover.
That said, as I steadily work at adding each book to my inventory Excel sheet, noting the condition of the book, if it’s signed, if it’s a first edition, I often find beautiful illustrations and type between some of the most mundane-looking covers. I catch a sentence with a genuine voice. Collect a slip of paper with a drawing on it. Find an inscription to a loved one.
I am sorry we didn’t see you this Christmas. It wasn’t the same…
I hope you enjoy this story as much I did at your age…
Happy birthday! I can’t believe you’re already 15…
Let me know what you think of the book.
It’s not that hard to look at a book and discern its monetary value if you have a visually critical eye. If you quickly flip through it and spot some water damage or a handful of dog-eared pages, knock the number down a bit lower. Too much damage and it’s dead weight.
Sometimes I find a book that is old and smelly, or damaged in a way that makes it less appealing to look at, and I can’t bring myself to discard it because a little girl has written her name in crayon on the inside cover or the words are printed so crisply that I run my fingers across them like bedsheets with a high thread count.
“Are you talking to the books again?”
“Well, as long as they don’t respond.”
Talking to people on a regular basis is more difficult when you’re perpetually angry. It’s also difficult to write about. There’s no way to dress up rage. Not unless you’ve got some righteous purpose, like your daughter was kidnapped or you’re Batman. Hollywood is good at making rage look fun, useful, or sexy.
The truth is that it’s ugly, generally useless, and always poisonous to the possessor.
Recently all of my female friends have been enthusiastically gushing about Mad Max: Fury Road. Many have described it as an amazing feminist film. From the previews I was looking forward to seeing it, too, and hoping to feel inspired by Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa just as I have been moved by powerful female characters since I was a little girl.
I suppose it started with Catwoman. Ellen Ripley. Sarah Connor. Dana Scully. Individual roles in movies that were not very good overall. The gist: Women who are (mostly) self-sufficient, tough, intelligent, passionate, and courageous.
At the end of Fury Road I found myself feeling… tired. Worn out. Wounded.
There was nothing wrong with the film and I really appreciated that the “wives/breeders” were not depicted as fainting, delicate little flowers under the protection of Furiosa. The fierce and knowledgeable crones were a great presence as well. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many women in an action film. Plus it totally passes the Bechdel Test.
The women I have admired do not have episodes of dizziness, weakness, disorientation, visual disturbances, and/or irrational anxiety. The problems they have can be fought with their minds and their fists. Maybe explosives or giant robot suits.
If I could fight my way to redemption, I would. I cannot express how badly I wish I had more than just a nebulous phantom to fight. I would bloody my fists on its face, bite and claw like a rabid animal. All the tension in my body craves it, something to push back against. As it stands, the very nature of it sometimes prevents me from walking down the hall to the bathroom unattended. I am perpetually behind in cleaning, emailing, writing, and art projects.
What does my fight look like? What are my weapons?
This past week I’ve been sick with a head cold that at times has made me especially weak, which means a lot of time in bed resting. First I read Beyond the Miracle Worker: The Remarkable Life of Anne Sullivan Macy and Her Extraordinary Friendship with Helen Keller, then A Dangerous Woman: The Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman. In both instances each woman is faced with her own battles – Anne as an impoverished orphan experiencing fluctuating disability over the course her life, not to mention teaching the unruly deaf-blind child Helen Keller; Emma as a poor, Jewish Russian immigrant dedicated to the ideals of anarchy, art, and birth control for women.
Obviously their battles are much bigger than mine. I have always been grateful not to suffer chronic pain and it would be absolutely devastating to me if I couldn’t see my husband’s face anymore. Speaking in front of a crowd of strangers about subjects that will likely land me in prison sounds terrifying. The most I’ve ever done for any cause is write an article or sign my name to a petition online. (If only social justice was less social. Amirite?)
Rather than focusing on the dull subject of who is or is not allowed to feel like they are struggling or how that is to be experienced, predominantly what I selfishly take from these biographies is that if I can recognize the legitimacy of their non-physical, non-flashy fight, then what is preventing me from recognizing my own? If their real life sassy spitfire battles without guns are enough, why are my efforts not enough?
Anyone who has nebulous health issues knows that there is constantly a balancing act between pushing yourself forward and pulling back to recover. It’s one of the most insidious aspects of disability. What can I really do? What are my actual limitations? It’s hard not to trick yourself into feeling like a victim of your own body, or to put yourself in dangerous situations because you refuse to acknowledge your limitations. There’s bound to be missteps and failures.
At the moment, I am failing to recognize my own health and ability, even while consciously pointing to it, I suppose mostly because I have to keep trying and my reserve feels low, if not emptied.
I can say this for Furiosa – as I have tried to think of way to end this post on a hopeful yet honest note, a scene from the film comes to mind in which Furiosa’s will overpowers her injury and the circumstances surrounding her, and although it’s just a movie fantasy, it is a reminder that our will counts for something. I cannot apply brute force to change the reality of my episodes, but I can reach farther into myself and cultivate a will power that is not fueled by anger alone. In my spectrum of feeling, as a friend pointed out to me today, I am just as fierce in love as in rage. The women I have admired, both real and imagined, were not and are not cold automatons narrowly devoted to a cause. Passion and hope fueled and sustained their fight. If I burn out now, it’s because I’ve been feeding the wrong fire.
Every time I write something here and subsequently share it, I go through an awkward process in which I anxiously ask my husband to read it, then he usually asks me to clarify certain sections or asks a couple questions. He offers criticism if I’m off the mark, or tells me if he thinks I’m holding back out of fear.
Me: “Should it exist in the world? Is it useful?”
(For the moment, I’m going to ignore how often I ask that about myself and stick to the subject at hand.)
Narcissism comes up so frequently in online exchanges that it seems plausible we are all suffering from narcissistic phobia. Everyone seems afraid of appearing like they care about themselves, experience vanity or insecurity. Frequently I find myself embarrassed about my – gulp – blog. I don’t even like saying the word. Blog. Yuck. Yet Space In Which I Write Things And Other People Can Read Them On Their Computers Or Phones seems a bit long.
Full disclosure: I’m pretty narcissistic. Or at least I think I am. I spend a whole lot of time thinking about myself, about why I do things, about my hair and my nails. No matter how much reassurance and love and support you give me, it will never be enough. I will swallow it whole, not even bothering to chew, then look at you expectantly for more. I have asked myself if I deserve it, and honestly the answer seems irrelevant. These qualities are charming in cats, but deplorable in humans. Who can talk. And have thumbs.
If you’re still reading, know that I always hope what I have written will be useful in some capacity to another person and if it weren’t for the dozen or so people who have told me they’ve gotten something out of my blog, I would have stopped sharing my writing already. Still, this whole icky process seems like flaming narcissism.
What I actually feel is that I am making room for some humility.
The reason I never learned how to skate board is because I couldn’t do it alone in my bedroom. The reason I don’t sing if anyone else is home is because someone might hear me. The reason I have quit multiple piano classes and Spanish or French classes is because inevitably someone else will hear me fumbling through the learning process.
I have repeatedly made choices to avoid appearing, by my harsh generalization, pathetically inept. I wouldn’t judge someone else for messing up the pronunciation of “Puis-je aller aux toilettes?” yet I would practice this phrase over and over just in case I needed to use the restroom during class.
It’s the only thing I can remember from four years of French in high school.
The very first time I took a piano class and was tested on a short fragment of a song, I wept because I made a mistake. Actually, I didn’t make a mistake. I thought I did. I wasn’t 5 years old. I wasn’t 12. I was 18. My teacher said, “Oh, you’re one of those perfectionists.” I’m really not a perfectionist. Look at my writing. Look at my art. Look at my makeup and hair. I’m not a perfectionist.
In fact, my sense of inherent personal failings has led me to cultivate a style of imperfectionism so as to appear confident and entirely self-accepting. (Although I genuinely, truly don’t care about perfecting my braids or having creepy American Psycho white teeth.)
It’s just very painful for me to be “wrong”.
Anyone who has experience writing over the span of at least five to ten years knows that you will come to disagree with or downright feel embarrassed by things you have written before. Even things that you felt strongly and confidently about. There are articles I have written that I remember thinking I did such a good job on this only to years later experience repulsion after reading.
Writing helps me figure out what I think and feel. There’s a lot of upheaval occurring in my life at the moment so it makes sense that I would be writing now more than ever before. Believe it or not, I keep most of said writing private. Sharing the writing is another matter.
How can I determine if I’ve actually made a mistake if my means of self measurement are permanently skewed in the direction of negative criticism? How can I learn new things and engage that process with others if I cannot allow myself at times to be wrong? I don’t want to require the passage of years before I can adjust my position or return to a subject.
All of this feels like a foolish endeavor to me. Which is why, for now, I need to do it. Flexibility does not develop in stagnation. One has to stretch.
A lot of people I know turned 30 this year or late last year and frequently what I hear expressed by them is, “I haven’t accomplished anything.”
I’m turning 30 on April 30th. That’s right. It’s my golden birthday. I’m not sure what I have accomplished. Honestly, I’ve more thoroughly considered which Jeffree Star or Melt lipstick I should buy with gifted birthday money. (I count it as nothing short of a birthday miracle that so many cruelty-free makeup brands are re-stocking this month.) Of course it’s worthwhile to consider choices you’ve made. It’s also worthwhile to add some color in your life where possible. Purple lipstick war paint does that nicely.
To my friends who, in their late twenties and early 30’s lament over “not accomplishing anything”, I have this consolation to offer — most people don’t accomplish anything really fascinating that early and even if they have they probably can’t recognize what it is that they’ve done or why they’ve done it. The people who do truly remarkable things early in life usually just end up burning out and screwing up later. Like child actors and poorly made fireworks. Occasionally there’s the freak who manages to have the longevity of the tortoise without actually being one — maybe an elephant? — but it’s not useful to compare yourselves to those people.
Just like comparing yourself to a friend that comes from a really wealthy family who therefore goes on a lot of exciting trips. He or she did not “accomplish” touring Italy for the summer. He or she did not “accomplish” having no student debt and thus being able to take an indefinite internship at an organic farm in New Hampshire. Your friend might be a hard-working, generous, compassionate person, but they are not better than you just because they have a more superficially exciting Instagram.
Your life, like mine, is probably composed mostly of small things. Beautiful, small things. I bet you have done a lot more than you give yourself credit for because those successes were not glamorous.
Maybe for years you took tiny measures to keep your mother or father out of jail and out of a coffin. Had to figure out at 17 or 18 how to be a mother while still trying to figure out what you want. Worked full-time while going to school full-time. Lost your home and had to come to terms with how impermanent such an important structure and symbol can be. Divorced and had to really learn what it means to be independent.
Maybe you learned how to love other people. Decided to have boundaries, but not barriers. Made it a point to be a better listener. Started a garden. Shared affection without expectation or guilt. Gave a gift. Received a gift. Read a book about an unfamiliar subject. Spent an afternoon in a museum. Walked on an unfamiliar trail. Completely changed your career path. Decided to stay instead of leave. Decided to leave instead of stay. Spoke up because you had something to say. Allowed silence because it felt right.
Living is necessarily a vulnerable state of being. More than likely, you have accomplished some living. And that’s quite a thing. The shiny and exciting part is you’re not done yet.
On Saturday I bought five books of poetry, a book about psychoanalysis, and a book about sailing from the annual library fundraiser. It was hard to get through the transaction. I felt like my skin was peeling off and I was casually attempting to hold it back without being noticed as the library volunteer asked me to enter my pin number. Smile. Say thank you. Say have a good day. Take your bag. Walk away.
My impulse is to hesitate before each action and contact. I don’t like to touch things without considering them first, without preparing myself. So I have to remind myself don’t hesitate and try not to wince at the contact with my paper bag full of books. Each minor agitation tells me I shouldn’t try to walk home. It doesn’t feel minor. And I was right. Just the sounds in the parking lot made me feel panicked and vulnerable. How could I have crossed even one busy street?
It’s exhausting to try to appear “normal” in this state. While I waited for a friend to pick me up from the library, I tried not to cry and shake. I tried not to let my hands coil and tangle. I tried not to stare blankly too long in any direction or let my eyes dart around in obvious distress. I sat where only people driving by would possibly see my face. The sky was darkening and the breeze hitting my skin smelled like rain.
I texted R (sort of) because I knew he would tell me it’s okay. He did. It helped. You’re safe. You’re okay. Stay here. Sit. Don’t cry. Wait. You can trust your friends.
Experiences like this used to drive me to isolation at home. Days or even a couple weeks would go by and I’d never leave the apartment without R or a close friend. Not even to take out the trash or recycling. I would avoid making any solid plans with people and feel tremendously guilty if I needed to cancel. I tried not to interpret the sound of their disappointment over the phone as annoyance and criticism. I tried not to imagine it if someone texted or called them on my behalf.
It’s easier now to take each day at a time and to recognize that the episode will end. I can’t go for a bike ride when it’s over, but I could go for a walk or wash the dishes. I can make dinner and enjoy the company of a friend.
My mom often used to tell me that as a child one of my favorite things to say was, “I can do it.” I said it with irritation, according to her, as if I was annoyed at the mere suggestion I couldn’t. As if I wanted to prove myself.
As I try to come to terms with being disabled, I frequently have to reaffirm for myself that I can do things. I’m under the impression that this is really common experience for disabled people (and I suppose very young children). How do you acknowledge and make accommodations for your disability without it ruling your life? How can I help other people see the full range of my capabilities while also not misleading them about my condition (which always leads to more complications, inconveniences, and worry)?
Quitting school was not a solution.
Isolation was not a solution.
Hiding was not a solution.
Lying was not a solution.
Stubborn pride was not a solution.
Pretending I would just “get better” was not a solution.
They’re still not solutions.
In the past two months I’ve sold more art and writing than ever before. I’m engaged in two separate collaborative projects and hoping to begin work on planning the next Cat Party exhibition. There are other ideas circling my mind that I haven’t had time to work on yet. My enthusiasm and curiosity has not waned at all.
I guess it’s not something you say. I am doing things to enact the belief that I can still do things. Otherwise I don’t know what I look like as someone who can. I can’t see anything now. I am feeling around in the dark for my well, for the words to connect and for my world to inhale deeply.
When I first started having episodes again — confirming that me and my doctor’s original hope that a period of being medicated would break the cycle happening with my immune system was not going to work — it was devastating. I felt betrayed by my body and I wanted to punish it.
This is not a new phenomenon for me. Between the ages of 13 and 26, I committed various self-harming acts against myself. Cutting, burning, binge drinking, not eating, purging, unprotected sex with strangers, and so on. It’s not that I felt sorry for myself so much as I was trying to find a way to exist. It’s difficult to explain that sometimes you might cut yourself in small, controlled ways just to prevent yourself from slashing your wrists.
I have never been ashamed of my scars because I know that, for better or worse, it was how I survived.
People learn new ways to survive all the time.
Almost immediately following the realization that I was going to keep having the episodes, I found that I didn’t want to eat. Smug satisfaction filled me when I portioned out very limited and specific amounts of food that I would eat in a given day, mostly to prevent me from being sick or drawing attention to myself. If my stomach revolted, I inwardly scowled. You don’t deserve to eat! A cold rage burned in my bones. I didn’t care about losing weight or anything like that. I just wanted to punish my body.
I wanted the hunger to remind me to fight.
Then that determination shifted from day to day. Sometimes riding my bike outweighed heavily restricted eating, or if my husband guiltily suggested that we splurge on a “fancy” coffee. It became difficult to predict how I would feel from moment to moment, so I followed that current and observed myself with bemused detachment. Part of me hoped it would escalate. That I could stop pretending to “handle it well”.
One day after a lunch date with friends — coconut veg soup, water — it occurred to me that I was engaging in thoughts and behaviors that mimicked previous eras of believing myself to be completely out of control, crazy*, and damaged despite the fact that those things are not true about me.
I feel intensely. Some moments are suffocating, they’re too heavy. Something small has to come forward to clear the air.
A bike ride
a long walk
a perfectly brewed cup of Earl Grey
the way heavy whipping cream billows seductively when poured into black coffee
a middle of the day text from R asking how my day’s been so far
going to an art exhibition downtown
a surprise gift from a dear friend
stitching while enjoying an audiobook from the library
writing for small jobs and writing for myself
weather warm enough to enjoy an evening walk and an ice cream
crossing a line through completed chores on my list
a satisfying meal.
Moment to moment still feels uncertain, despite the fact that I eat pretty consistently now. I wrote most of this a week ago, but I feel reluctant to share it. What if I’m not done yet? What if I want to skip meals? What if I need to lie about eating and a loved one is suspicious? Most of the time, though, I realize that the small things are collectively helping me view myself differently.
Maybe I don’t need this secret. Maybe I don’t need a back up plan.
Yesterday my husband and I went for a bike ride, 10.2 miles to and from a local trail. I wanted to keep going, but we both had things to do that required us to go back home. It’s not just the cycling that makes me want to keep going, it’s the trees and the air and the wild flowers. It’s the fact that every time I feel surprised to be here.
I still want to fight. I just want the fight to go down differently. I want to triumph, not just survive.
* The “crazy” I refer to here is the popular expression of female insanity. The madwoman in the attic. Gaslighting. Etc. In general, the traits I listed are meant to be regarded hyperbolically and in no way as a fair description of people struggling with self-harming behaviors.