feeling bookish: when books are your greatest salve

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“What happens if you are so afraid that you finally cannot love anybody.’’ —James Baldwin

 

The thing about depression you’re always losing things even when the losses mount and you feel as if there couldn’t possibly be anything else left to lose. It’s a cruel thief that pilfers through your things in the night and leaves as swiftly as it came with everything that you hold dear. This week, a friend phones me from work and I can feel her sorrow over the line when she tells me that what I’ve been writing lately disturbs her–one post in particular that I’ve since deleted as it caused her, and a good deal of other people in my life, considerable anguish. She pleads with me to return to therapy and that if I were still in New York she would come from me. And I think of her arms as duvets swaddling me, and the first thing I thought was: I’m glad I’m here. It occurred to me then perhaps I purposely moved here to unravel out of the reach of those who love me. It’s a dark thought, but one that haunts me. I feel grateful for the unbelievable support my friends have given me in the past few weeks through calls, texts, emails and loans for therapy that I’m not able to afford on my own. This year has been a harrowing one, to say the least, but it’s taught me a great deal about friendship, kindness, patience and empathy. I haven’t been my best self and now I deeply understand what it feels like to lose your way but want so desperately to climb back. So I’m excited for the comeback tour and even if the road back will prove to be a difficult one.

Books have always been a comfort, a salve for anything that ailed me. When I was small, I read on my fire escape, imagining myself sprawled across the pages I was reading. For a time my surroundings gave way to the scenes and stories playing on in the stack of books I was making my way through and this kind of wandering, this loss, was a welcome one. Lately, reading has posed a challenge. I’ve started half a dozen books to only discard them. I tried to finish A Little Life and fell asleep–not any fault on the author, but rather my ability to shed my existing surroundings for a new one. Instead, I read articles–dozens of them, ever day–in fear of atrophying. Even though I am where I am now, I still want to learn. I continue to be a student.

Last week I came across a fascinating article about Pamela Moore, a writer I’d never heard of, but the tragedy of her and the power of her work has likened her to Sylvia Plath. Moore took her own life at the age of 26 but enjoyed a successful, albeit brief, career when her debut novel, written at 18, caused a sensation. Chocolates for Breakfast reminds me of The Bell Jar, but better. It’s a story of a privileged teenager’s sexual awakening–a precursor to Gossip Girl with the wealth and private parties and oceans of booze. Reading the story doesn’t feel dated even if it was written in the 50s because the rules of wealth, privilege, abandonment and being a teenager rarely change. It’s the first book I’ve been able to read in a long time–one that has managed to sustain my interest, and I’m grateful for these minor victories. Especially on days when I feel like I’m constantly failing.

What’s also made me smile is Heather Havrilesky, Ask Polly columnist, who is acerbic, funny, and unafraid to say fuck one too many times. I recently discovered her via Austin Kleon’s email list and streamed her recent Long Form Podcast interview while reading her hilarious essay on writing rituals and routines.

On a more sobering note, these two essays hit close to home. One ponders whether a girlfriend who encouraged her boyfriend’s suicide should be considered his murderer, and a brave series penned by a woman who was formerly homeless and still penalized even though she’s doing everything to get her life back on track. And finally, an astute read on poverty and privilege amidst the smart set–an apt response to Claire Vaye Watkin’s excellent “On Pandering”.

I’ve been thinking a lot about privilege and class assumptions. Over the past few months, many people have said the words, “You would never be homeless. It’s just not possible.” Part of me wonders if it’s because I have the privilege of having a few friends who would take me in, lend me their homes, or is it because the assumption that a well-educated, moderately successful white woman (by all appearances, I’m white but I’m part African, Italian, Greek and Finish) couldn’t face peril. I read statistics that tell us the economy is doing better! Unemployment is at an all-time low. But then why am I reading hundreds of status updates and posts about people across race and class who are really struggling. People who made the same money now as when they graduated college, 20-30 years ago. Even my therapist asked about my project lull. I’d been consistently busy for nearly three years but I haven’t worked on a big project since October.

To which I respond, I have no idea.

 

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the beauty + blindness that come with privilege

Photo Credit: Thomas Brault, Upslash

Photo Credit: Thomas Brault, Upslash

Years ago, a friend of mine, a lawyer working on a stop-and-frisk case, talked to me about privilege. He could be someone who walks the city streets carrying drugs, yet he’d never be stopped, never be given more than a passing glance, because he’s an attractive white male who doesn’t look the part. Doesn’t fit the profile. On paper he’s the poster boy of privilege–Swarthmore undergrad, Harvard Law, and skin as pale as parchment–until he holds his husband’s hand. Until they publicly embrace. Then he’s a fag, a homo, a queer, and it’s as if all the privilege he was able to enjoy before he touched another man’s hand vanished. On that day my friend reminded me to check my privilege and check it often. And while I have to endure the indignities that come with being a woman in America, I have to remember that I’m, by all appearances, a white, educated woman (even if I’m genetically nearly half black and Spanish), and I’m able to navigate spaces where many are denied trespass.

I think about this a lot, especially when I re-read old stories I’ve written where I talk about my hair as a “betrayal”, rather than a piece of my makeup worthy of pride and love. I think about this when I email friends listings of expensive apartments in Los Angeles of which I’m able to afford. Yes, I work hard for everything I have, but I have to remind myself, constantly, that it’s easier for me because for the whole of my adult life I’ve played the part of a white, Ivy-educated woman. I have to remember this when WOC speak cogently and brilliantly on the dangers of whitewashed feminism. And isn’t it tragic that we need a comic, albeit an eloquent one, to remind us of all that we take for granted–all the ways we need to make the world better for those who are unable to occupy our seats of privilege.

Over the past year I’ve been reading scores of articles that invite you to change your life. In this rarified life the word “impossible” is verboten because if they’ve achieved the unthinkable you can too. It’s smart marketing, really, the way in which these stories sell you on an idea, an alternative life you could be living if only you’d make the leap. If only you’d sell your possessions and hop on a plane. But that’s what marketing does–sells you something that’s actually not the thing you’re really buying.

What they’re selling, unbeknownst to them, is their privilege. Privilege has become the unspeakable, the ultimate taboo, because no one wants to hear that their journey to break ranks, regardless of how difficult it seemed to be, comes at lower cost than if someone else attempted the leap. No one wants to feel the guilt that comes with being born into a certain race or economic advantage because perhaps they think it reduces the brave choices they’ve made. It doesn’t, really, but the blindness that the currency built into these choices is a kind that can’t be bought by others, is dangerous.

You may weep into your yoghurt when you read this, but not everyone can wake up one morning, quit their job (and life), and travel the world. Not everyone can drape their tawny body on a beach or sit perched in front of a laptop in Phuket. If that were the case, everyone would do it. We don’t exist in binary states, and those major leaps can’t be copied by all but perhaps they’ll cause a ripple in someone’s life. Maybe those dramatic changes will inspire small, meaningful choices in others.

Photo Credit: Pexels

Photo Credit: Pexels

Two years ago I contemplated a move to Europe (I know, line forms to the left). In retrospect, this was the dumbest idea in which I’ve ever conceived, but back then I was unsettled, unhappy, and I was grasping for something big that could fill the emptiness I’d been feeling. Yet, so many people told me to just do it! I’ll figure it out! Don’t think! At first I was exuberant–why not just put the cat on a plane with a passport? And then I woke to the reality: I’ve six-figure student loan debt that has to be paid or the corporations that hold my debt will sic the dogs on me, and I’ve no doubt they’ve global bloodhounds in their arsenal. I’d no savings. The only language I knew was Spanish and Spain’s tanking economy was out of the question. I had no partner with whom to share my expenses and fears, and I owned a pet that would require nearly six months of paperwork and anxiety attacks to transport to another country. While I wanted to pursue this fantasy, real life logistical questions and concerns put me on pause, yet the whole of social media was intent on admonishing me for thinking logically. Apparently logic erodes delusional thinking.

All this empty talk reminded me of a piece Mark Manson wrote on the steaming pile of bullshit that is The Secret. He writes,

Other studies show that people who engage in “self-affirmations” and are then presented with information that threatens their affirmation (even healthy criticism or feedback) actually engage in more faulty reasoning than people who don’t use self-affirmations.10 In fact, people who indulge in delusional positive thinking ironically become downright angry when someone tries to contradict their wall of airy-fairy thoughts. The truth about their situation just becomes that much more painful to them.

Delusional positive thinking ironically generates greater closed-mindedness in people. They must always be vigilant and block out potentially negative feedback or criticism of their beliefs, even if that negative feedback is life-or-death important to their health and well-being.

I don’t have the privilege of parents who could finance my adventures or give me shelter should I falter from pursuing them. I don’t have the privilege of a debt-free existence because how was I going to scrounge up the $40K/year that was the cost of my Columbia education? Do I regret graduate school? Do I regret that I’ll likely pay loans until I’m steeped in earth? Sometimes. But what am I going to do other than deal with the hand I’ve dealt myself and take responsibility for my choices.

But still. These articles, for a time, made me feel guilty. Made me feel as if my life were lacking, that I wasn’t brave enough to make the choices these women had made. Honestly, that was my own shit. That was me realizing that I’m not these other people living their lives with the privileges they have. I’m me. This is my life. And while I can’t teach snorkeling in Borneo, I can make the leaps that feel right for me. The leaps that my privilege + my hard work can afford.

I guess what I’m trying to say is this: don’t let these stories make you feel small. Don’t let my story make you feel small. You are the author of your own story. Write it. Live it. Share it with others. Try to help others with their story if you see them struggling, or if they don’t have the equipment or the means like you do.

Or at least acknowledge and feel grateful for what you have.

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