Sunday, August 28, 2016

Walking away.


Sometimes the best counsel comes from yourself. Consider this example: a high school senior in 1985 chooses as her yearbook quote, "...selfhood begins with a walking away, and love is proved in the letting go." She found the last lines of this C. Day Lewis poem in the Norton Anthology of Poetry, and selected them as a direct message to her mother to LEAVE HER ALONE. Plus, her first choice, "Two roads diverged in a wood" had been claimed by nearly everybody else. Then, 30 years later, she stumbles upon the old yearbook, reads the vaguely familiar quote, and Googles the poem.

 
It stuns her, for her child will be leaving for college soon, and letting go is just what she'll have to do.  C. Day Lewis wrote the poem for his son Sean, and it perfectly captures the diffident, determined path of the young, seedlings breaking off from their "parent stem."

I can tell you, it generated a synapse in my brain to experience this poem as both child and parent.  In an instant, I understood both sides of the experience: walking away and letting go.  My adolescent self taught my adult self an important lesson: you remember what it feels like to want so desperately to be free of your parents, so don't be hurt when your own child feels the same way.  

No matter how you may want to manage this parting, mitigate it, rationalize it, the truth is your son needs to walk away just like you.  He cannot wait to be free of you, for you to LEAVE HIM ALONE, and this is okay.

Fast forward to August 2016, and my husband and I take our son to college in Rome, Italy, because he not only wants to leave, but to go far, far away, and that is okay too.  And on check-in day, when my husband wants to unpack  and settle him in his dorm room, a request which ruffles some feathers, adding to general levels of stress and freshman exasperation, I simply ask, "Do you want us to go?"  And our son replies, "Yes."

So we walk away from him, exit the dorm, roaming the cobblestone streets to find a place to eat lunch called T-Bone: the American Steakhouse, a choice which would embarrass our son tremendously, since it is so touristy.  I actually think, well good thing he's not with us. Leaving him to go eat a hamburger and drink red wine to ponder our dismissal is all okay.

We meet him for dinner later that evening and, again, the next evening, both times asking about his day. What time did he finally receive his dorm packet? What are his roommates like?  When does he select his classes? He answers cheerfully at first, then slowly clams up, losing patience with our queries, a conversational pattern that started around age 11, and has peaked, I hope, at age 18.  But this is fine, honestly, because I, like my mother, can carry on a one-sided conversation with a college-bound child. Be kind (but not a pushover), be safe, and always have a sense of humor, I tell him. He looks away and I know he is, again, counting the minutes until he can leave us. 

So, I give him a the biggest piece of advice in my arsenal, something no one had ever told me, a grand jewel of irony gleaned from life and books, specifically two read on this trip.*  This is important, I say, please listen: "You will only fully understand a place by leaving it!"

It's a basic, spare declaration, so simple as to not have sunk in (despite his nod and grimace of acceptance to the contrary).  In any case, like my mother, I repeat the advice two times for good measure because it is so important. Life is all about comparison/contrast. How can you know what the American South really feels like unless you immerse yourself in a foreign culture like Italy's?  How could you even begin to treasure the palm trees of Florida until you are surrounded by Rome's palm pines?  (And this one too, please oh please: how can you truly appreciate your parents if you never leave them?)
 
As we settle into our empty nest, I've begun working on a caveat to this advice: the farther away you travel, the better you understand. It certainly helps justify all our upcoming trips to Italy...and back. For I'm slowly starting to understand this phase of life: as we parents walk away from our children, we are learning too.
 
 * Circling the Sun by Paula McClain and My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Sunday, June 19, 2016

I'm Glad About You by Theresa Rebeck

As you get older, you see your choices narrow, and the saying "timing is everything" seems truer and truer.

Theresa Rebeck's novel I'm Glad About You is a love story about choices made when young and living with the consequences of these choices through the years.  Allison and Kyle are high school sweethearts who cannot seem to get their goals to sync up.  She wants to sleep with him; he, a devout Catholic, refuses.  He wants a life of service, medical mission work in a third world country; she wants to pursue acting, perfecting her craft and herself;   The relationship lasts about six years, through college and bit more.  Then Allison and Kyle break up for good. 

Or do they?

Rebeck sets up situation after situation where Kyle and Allison could possibly, just maybe, break away from their self-interests and reunite.  After all, Kyle has changed his medical focus from saving the under-served to placating the healthy.  Allison has found that success in the entertainment industry isn't all it's cracked up to be.  Neither has had fulfilling relationships, particularly Kyle, whose marriage to the selfish Evangeline serves as a constant reminder of what might have been.

Spoiler alert: despite what the reader may want, Allison and Kyle never do reunite  Instead, the author shows how each makes the best of career and relationship blunders, of which there are many.  What each finds through good choice after bad choice after good choice is a different kind of happiness~to quote another favorite book, a "separate peace."

The title of the book comes from the Navajo version of "I love you."  There are no words for love in this language, according to Rebeck, so "I'm glad about you" serves as that sentiment.  And it sums up what remains for Kyle and Allison.  Their friendship, their history is something to be terribly glad about.  It remains honest and solid, because friendships from youth, whether romantic or platonic, gather a beautiful patina with age.  These relationships are the slow ripening fruit of life, and Theresa Rebeck shows how Allison and Kyle's is becoming particularly delicious. 

I hope she writes a sequel; it would be lovely to see these two rendezvous in their 40s or 50s.  Might roads not taken ultimately merge?

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Our Roman Spring





 The Roman grave of John Keats with his poetry.

As I’ve mentioned before, the best way to prepare for a trip is to read something really good about your destination before embarking…not a travel guide or websites or anything produced by an app. I mean a really good story about a key city or person related to the trip, no matter how tangential.

Take Rome, for instance.  After many conversations, our family decided to visit our son’s number one college choice there. To prepare, I continued my search for books about the city and came up with a number of hits. (I’d already read The Borgias, a biography by G.J. Meyer, http://bestbookseverread.blogspot.com/2016/01/what-happened-to-rome.html.) I visited a bookstore near our home and found two more on the list: The Marble Faun (by Nathaniel Hawthorne), and The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (by Tennessee Williams). I ended up reading Williams’ book—Hawthorne’s had minuscule print and thick pages.  My eyes weren’t up for it.

Roman Spring is a novella about a widow of a certain age losing her looks and her mind in the Eternal City. Karen Stone’s lavish apartment and terrace overlook the Spanish Steps. A few days into our trip, we finally made it to the top of this landmark escalier. (In a roundabout way, because construction hindered foot traffic, and we ended up ascending via a side road by accident).  Near the top of the steps, not 10 feet away was an absolute match for the terraced apartment described in the book. I pointed out the balcony to my husband.
“What’d you say? Who lived there?” he asked. “Someone famous?”
“Maybe a character in a book I just read. It’s really, really neat to see it!”


I think he sighed--he’s used to me choosing fiction over reality...and the more imaginatively off-topic a subject is, the more I gravitate toward it. For instance, several months ago my son and I watched the Rob Brydon/Steve Coogan film The Trip to Italy (twice), which made me want to visit the Protestant Cemetery in Rome to see the poet Shelley’s grave, which then made me want to see his friend John Keats’ grave, which led me to re-read my favorite poems by them and then reminisce about all the Romantic poets. (It’s amazing how poetry makes more sense at age 48 than 18). Of course, on our Rome trip we had to go to the Keats-Shelley House beside the Spanish Steps and see where Keats died of consumption at age twenty-five. Now I’m really keen on tuberculosis fiction.

As one would expect, on our trip we also saw the usual obligatory Roman things: the Colosseum, the Forum, Bernini sculpture, some baths and fountains, and more fountains and baths. These were beautiful in their relative antiquity, old, older, and oldest. But, for some reason, what remains most lively in my mind about our Roman spring, is Keats and Karen Stone enduring on opposite sides of the Piazza di Spagna, unseparated by time and reality.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

What happened to Rome?

You might be wondering what happened to me, as I have not posted here in some time.  True, I was buried in work and family commitments, but I still found time to read, so if I had really wanted to write, I could have.

The disheartening thing about social media is that it reveals the creative genius of everyone else. Most people are not only passable authors, they are darn good ones.  And the videos teenage boys everywhere are creating~well, the legitimate media world ought to be beefing up its collective resume.

To add another voice into this above average mix seemed pointless.  Okay, so I loved Kate Atkinson's companion novels, Life After Life and A God in Ruins, so much that I cried reading the latter.  But the idea of casting this cry into something creative wearied me. The final post would not be as good as someone's else's about the exact same thing, both easily laid down and measured word to word by Google the master builder.

So, I just decided to continue reading, and I had no desire to write about anything until last Friday, when I had a discussion with my son about Rome.

I had been reading The Borgias: A Hidden History by G.J. Meyer.  (It was only after starting this book that I realized there is a Showtime series called "The Borgias." Now I wish we had another free preview weekend.)  I knew nothing about the Borgias, except for having a vague idea that Lucrezia was a scheming shrew.  Meyer's premise in this family biography is that the Borgias weren't really as bad as everyone thought.  Over the centuries, enemy gossip hardened from hearsay into fact, Meyer hints. Less scholarly sources on the internet lead me to believe that Meyer is in the minority~cyberspace articles gleefully crow about Borgia corruption. Meyer seems more concerned with chronicling every single Italian city-state battle during the Renaissance, whether or not a Borgia was present. Frankly, the narrative is a little dry, although his "Life in Rome" type chapters  are very good, describing malarial banquets and necromancy. There's even a little bit about syphilis and masks. That's good stuff.

Well, you can imagine that the world of the Borgias would be a good starting point for a conversation with someone intrigued by Rome, which our son is.  Truth be told, I was only reading The Borgias to learn about Rome in a roundabout way.  I could have picked up a travel guide, but I learn better about a place if it's couched in fiction or biography.  I want to know about the Eternal City, but I really can't take such a huge topic head-on. It's intimidating. So, my son and I are eating turkey sandwiches, and I ask him how to pronounce "Cesare," and he answers my question (which any of you with teenagers knows doesn't always happen), so I ask him another question:  what happened to Rome?

And he tells me.

Now, if you want to learn about the fall of Rome, there are plenty of books, both paper and electronic to help with that goal. I won't go into detail here, but believe me, bad emperors and decapitation in the Teutoburg Forest are juicy stories worth pursuing.

What I will tell you is this: good conversation can spring from a so-so book.  It's a kind of miracle to learn history from one's child.  He knows more than I do about many, many things, including antiquity.  Trajan's Column and Hadrian's Tomb, and the Vatican, all buried deep in my mind, now excavated by this discussion. Why those things are there, and what happened after they were built, and what's happened since.  As he reminded me of history, I saw the gray St. Johns River through the restaurant window, spanned by bridges and trains, palm trees bending to the wind on both shores. It had been a gloomy day with rain showers, but I could see a patch of blue sky just then.

We are such creatures of our place and time, I thought, is it possible, just for a little while, to be more than that? To break away from existing in Jacksonville, Florida, 2016 C.E? Yes, it is possible when you start scraping at history, and what you dig up makes sense through the eyes of someone young enough to be your son, and, luckily, who is.

As we walked back from lunch, I looked up, and the same bridge that skirted the river looked like a cathedral from underneath.  I pointed this out to my son, and he said, just wait until you get to Rome, you won't think that anymore. I thought, now there's something to write about!

So I will.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Never give up~an old lesson.

I recently read a novel about a scrappy medical school graduate who solves a crime linked to her own violent past.  The title of the book is Toro, and the character's name is Allie Parsons. For the sake of transparency, let me disclose that my brother, Frank Schwalbe, wrote this book, but neither because of nor despite this relationship, Allie Parsons won my heart.


Allie is a former stripper and drug addict who survived a violent attack from a bull-like predator named Toro, but lost a child and an eye.  This event forced a reckoning through which she found a faith in God and a passion for medicine.  When the book begins, Allie has won a prize pathology residency in a Tampa morgue and is looking forward to a better life with her daughter, Chrystal. But strange episodes both inside and outside the morgue soon threaten the order and normalcy Allie has struggled to establish.  Chock-full of memorable characters, including sidekick Andrew Wong and the steadfast Pastor Virgil, Toro establishes Tampa, Florida, as a setting of mugginess, medicine, and mindfulness in the face of pure evil.

It is this mindfulness where Frank's book shines.  He told me he wrote this story for the nurses he works alongside every day.  Many are single mothers, and their determination and sheer energy to keep going in the face of incredible odds inspire him.  The character of Allie Parsons demonstrates this single-minded, eyes on the prize determination.  Never give up, our mother taught us, and Allie never does.  Toro took her eye, and when she cries, which is seldom, there's only one stream of tears~a poignant trait I can't seem to forget.  The source of Allie's strength is her faith in God, a subtle plot in the book which accurately reflects how religion in old Florida is as silently a part of you as your own eye.

Mom constantly encouraged Frank and me never to give up.  Sadly, one of the lessons I've learned as an adult is that sometimes it's okay, even advisable, to quit.  Our mother never agreed with this realization, and she would have wholeheartedly loved the character of Allie Parsons for her indomitable spirit. She would have been very proud of her son for writing such a good book which teaches a valuable lesson for those wise enough to perceive it.

April 1, 2015


Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Family and the American Dream.

It has been a while since my last post, mainly because I've been reading and not wanting to write. Alas, I guess it's time to rejoin the conversation.

I had been procrastinating a post about Matthew Thomas' novel We are Not Ourselves, and in the meantime read Meghan Daum's memoir The Unspeakable. Why not combine my assessments into one review? (Lately, I've been into the idea of "economy.")  So, let's start the comparison/contrast now:

We are Not Ourselves is a many-paged Irish family saga of growing up in NYC, yearning for a better life, and accepting the life you get.  The Unspeakable is Daum's honest account of her foibles as a member of  Generation-X.  Similarity: both heavily rely on family themes to make this point--the American Dream is achievable only in piecemeal.

Exactly which part of the American Dream sputters is where the two books contrast.  Eileen Leary, the mother in Thomas' book, wants all the trappings of financial prosperity~the successful husband, the big house, the beautiful child.  Instead, she gets a unambitious professor, a duplex, and a reluctant son.  As she bullies everyone into upward mobility, the family's infrastructure begins to erode, most notably shown by her husband's progression into dementia.  Daum, in her memoir, is a bit more ambivalent (typical of Generation x) of what she wants in her American Dream. She has achieved financial success as a writer, but her path to marriage and family is paved with anguish and second guessing. 

Where the books synchronize well is in the exploration of family relationships, collateral damage of dreams.  The first essay of The Unspeakable titled "Matricide" is a somewhat sarcastic account of Daum's mother's career success, eventual illness and death.  The reader can tell that this mother/daughter relationship was fraught, fraught, fraught.  After divorcing Daum's father, her mother reinvented herself as the local high school drama teacher, following her own dream, but her daughter finds this metamorphosis inauthentic.  She describes her mother as pretentious and a caricature of a "drama teacher."  Daum's comments are mean-spirited, but anyone who's ever been a daughter understands why she's saying these things~her mother bugged the hell out of her and she's going to tell you about it. And anyone who's ever been a mother feels sorry for the mom and a little protective as well.  "Matricide" is the perfect exploration of how a mother's dream can chafe the daughter; though the daughter might not like her mother, she still loves her.

The Leary family has similarly imperfect relationships with each other. Though both adults in the family work full-time in fairly good jobs, this effort produces none of the financial trappings Eileen so desperately wants. As son Connell gets older, he grows more aloof around his father and mother; there is a no joy in this household, perhaps because Eileen's constant push for financial success has sucked away any happiness and laughter.  Ironically, it is through the father's descent into Alzheimer's that the family comes around to a sort of  peace regarding the imperfection of their lives.  A letter from father to son, written early in his diagnosis, is one the most beautiful expressions of parental love in literature.  Again, like Daum's family, the Learys may not like each other, but the love that sustains them in crisis is very real.

So what exactly is the place of family in the American Dream?  According to these two books, family is where the Dream takes its toll.  Ambition, expectation, achievement, perfection~these things are not necessarily de facto good nor all of a piece. The family bears the brunt of these hard-line goals.  But, as these books show, the American family has the opportunity and good fortune to make a separate peace from the American Dream, which should be rich enough for anyone.





Sunday, June 29, 2014

Running away from it all: wives who hit the road

Recently, my friends and I were discussing the sub-genre of women's fiction which features wives impulsively running away from their lives. Caroline Leavitt's Into Thin Air,Tess Stimson's The Wife Who Ran Away, and (more psychotically) Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl are a few that come to mind.  This theme is immensely popular with female readers: it taps into that highly seductive query of "what if?"  What if I just kept on driving/walking/swimming/pedaling out of this town?  What if the road forked, and I just left my life?

Of course, we really don't want to leave our lives on a whim like that.  It would be too sad and far too messy; repercussions of hurt and shame would haunt us before the first mile.  That's where fiction steps in as delightful proxy.  The reader suffers, laughs, and learns with the audacious wife without ever having the leave her couch.

My favorite books featuring runaway wives are Anne Tyler's Ladder of Years and Sheri Reynold's The Homespun Wisdom of Myrtle T. Cribb.  Tyler's Delia Grinstead feels invisible in her large, quirky Baltimore family.  The daughter and wife of a doctor, Delia has always served as a help-mate, manning a small in-home medical practice, first for her father, then for her husband.  She never had a career or education beyond high school and has instead raised three children.  One afternoon, after a spat with her husband on the beach, Delia simply walks away and hitches a ride with a contractor.  Impulse follows impulse, and soon Delia is ensconced as a secretary in a small town, living a satisfyingly austere life in a boarding house while her family wonders what's become of her.  Likewise, Reynolds' Myrtle feels stuck and unappreciated in her life; the wife of a crab fisherman who both loves and belittles her, Myrtle is anxious and crippled by self-doubt.  She is deeply troubled by her body and her relationships with others:  perceived deformity and diffidence make her feel inauthentic.  Driving to a surgical appointment, Myrtle (emboldened by downing her husband's pain meds) decides to keep on going, leaving her life and all its imperfections behind.  She soon discovers the town drunk, Hellcat, has inadvertently hitched a ride in the truck bed.  As they travel and tipple, the two become buddies.

The lesson of both Ladder of Years and Homespun Wisdom is that sometimes you have to leave your life to find it.  Delia learns that she is indeed a capable, efficient person who could have been a career woman had she wanted; the truth is, though, she finds she is most perfectly suited to be the wife and mother she is.  By leaving her family, she understands that she will be strong enough for her children to leave her, which, nearly grown, they are doing in small bits every day.  Myrtle learns self-reliance and confidence on her pilgrimage; she holds her husband accountable for his hurtfulness but also learns that her self-negation and silence over the years have not helped her marriage.

The pathway to these characters' life lessons is through other settings and other people.  Interaction with personalities not part of their regular lives highlights the flaws and virtues of Delia's and Myrtle's family and friends. Experiencing the "other" will take you more authentically home.

Honestly, these stories are the best marketing pieces for travel I've ever seen; simple family trips provide a change of scenery, a taste of other worlds which give us more of an appetite for our own.  And, of course, books are really this very same thing~mind travel of the simplest, most efficient sort.  Through good fiction, wives all over the world are escaping and coming home right now without ever really leaving.