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Archive for June, 2012

Against Wind and Tide

I got kicked in the stomach by a book last Wednesday.

I’ve been reading Against Wind and Tide: Letters and Journals, 1947-1986 by Anne Morrow Lindbergh off and on for the last month. Reading this book has felt like coming home to me like no other new book in my memory. I started reading Anne’s letters and diaries when I was 17, and was struck by how fully she was able to explore her faults, her joys, the world around her, by writing. No writer in the world makes me want to set the book aside and write like Anne does. No writer I recall looks at herself with the same warts-and-all attitude.

So it shouldn’t have surprised me when I picked up Against Wind and Tide on Wednesday night and read:

“Looking back now, one can see her life in more proportion. The dimension death gives is not a phrase. One suddenly sees people’s lives in better proportion, not as a flower growing upward toward the final bloom of those last days; more like the length and breadth of a tree that has been felled. One sees it all of a piece: the continuous grain of the wood. The last days, the final illness (whether of days, months, or years, as it was with her) is seen in undue proportion until death gives life its perspective.”

Wednesday morning we woke to a text message: our friends’ grandma had passed away. June had been unwell for some time — she’d had Alzheimer’s and other health issues — but as everyone always says, nothing prepares you for that actual moment when someone is gone.

We’d never known June at the top of her game, unfortunately. We laughed and played along a year or two ago when she introduced us to her grandson and his wife (who we’ve known since 2007). We oohed and ahhed over the gorgeous red-headed baby she was holding but whose mother she couldn’t find. But we knew her as well as we could — we knew she was a firecracker.

That night, as I was mourning June’s loss, Anne came along again and, in her reaction to the death of her mother-in-law, gave me perspective. Illness absorbs the end of life in many cases — it obscures the person inside — it turns them to a diagnosis or a life expectancy — but death allows us to regain the perspective. Illness is only a small part of the story.

As we gathered for June’s wake and funeral, I listened to family and friends bring June back to life through their stories. The tree of her life stretched long, past the halls of the funeral home or the church or the straight lines of white tombstones at the cemetery. All through their stories, she traveled and danced and defended her grandkids and called the White House weekly to complain while her son was in Vietnam.

On the way home from the cemetery, I realized that I was mourning now, in part, for myself: I would never know this spirited and lively woman as her family had. I had missed her.

One of the many, many remembrances of Nora Ephron I read this week echoed the same idea: while these dynamic and interesting people are alive, we hold out hope that one day we can get to know them, that one day we’ll be invited to a Nora Ephron book party or similar. When they die, we’ve lost our chance, and it makes their death all that much harder to take.

Nora left her movies and essays. Anne left her letters and diaries. June left her amazing family, this wonderful loving clutch of people who have made me and Mike and Erin feel like one of them. We feel her love through them. And we will get to know her more the best we can through them.

One writes not to be read but to breathe…one writes to think, to pray, to analyze. One writes to clear one’s mind, to dissipate one’s fears, to face one’s doubts, to look at one’s mistakes–in order to retrieve them. One writes to capture and crystallize one’s joy, but also to disperse one’s gloom. Like prayer–you go to it in sorrow more than joy, for help, a road back to ‘grace’.
— Anne Morrow Lindbergh (War Within and Without: Diaries and Letters of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, 1939-1944)

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I want to buy some books for a young friend of mine who likes to read. She sounds like the twelve-year-old version of Abbi — fiercely loyal to her favorites and to the concept of reading those favorites over and over again.

But what to buy?

My first instinct was my favorites from that era in my life. I asked her mom if she liked things like Anne of Green Gables and Little Women, and her mom said she preferred more futuristic books, like The Hunger Games.

Now, I’ve read The Hunger Games, and I feel like my thirty-year-old self had pretty much the same base reaction to it that my twelve-year-old self would have (she would have liked it but not loved it, been Team Peeta, and would have, annoyed, written a long and fervent journal entry about all the sentence fragments and other lazy writing).

And then I wondered: do my childhood favorites even translate to a tween of 2012? Do any of the books I loved still resonate? I loved (and still love) not just putting myself in a different life but in a different time, but do girls still do that? Or rather, do they put themselves in a different time looking backwards or looking forwards?

There’s chatter online about an updated Anne of Green Gables series, and the optimist in me thinks that it could possibly be okay (although horrid memories of Anne 3 haunt me to this day). The practical side of me doesn’t even ask how they intend to do this or how much they intend to change, but instead why they intend to bother. If they are saying that without a modernization, today’s audiences won’t be able to relate to the characters, this says to me that someone out there believes that characters being relatable hinges solely on their relationships to things like technology and current events.

So how does Anne work in a different time period? Would a little girl who talked to her reflection in an orphanage get sent to a new home or to psychiatric evaluation? Does Anne become a barista instead of a teacher? Is she embarrassed because her Rollings Reliable blog post went viral? Does Anne’s frustration at being teased seem more angry if she smashes Gilbert’s iPad across his head? (And would his name still be Gilbert, or would he become something depressing, like Chase or Brody or Ashton?) Can Josie Pye be a mean enough “mean girl” without Twitter? Does Ruby Gillis need Facebook to keep track of her beaux? Does Anne’s desire for pretty things and to fit in work for modern girls only if she wants skinny jeans instead of puffed sleeves?

Do we need modernization, or is shared experience of being lonely or angry or wanting to fit in or finding where you belong enough? And just because it’s enough for me, is it enough for someone else?

I considered, then, why and how I read. And if that differes from why and how other people read.

When I was young, I was never much for horses or dinosaurs or even science fiction. I wanted stories about people, mostly stories about people doing things that I wouldn’t or couldn’t do. Whether that thing I couldn’t do was travel in a covered wagon or tell some boy I liked him didn’t matter – I wanted to try on all the personas and experiences I’d never had. So I read and read and read. I read about Anne Shirley dyeing her hair green and Jo March cutting her hair off. I read about Anastasia Krupnik writing to a man in a personal ad from the New York Review of Books and planning a romantic dinner date for her father and his ex-girlfriend and taking modeling classes. I read about the whole cast of characters created by Paula Danziger and Judy Blume, girls I liked and empathized with, whose names I can’t even remember but whose ordinariness seemed foreign and exciting to me.

I saw myself as something of an outsider as a pre-teen and teen, and whether I actually liked it that way or told myself I did, I maintained a distance from my peers. I had experiences through books that I thought I should be having but wouldn’t have, either because I wasn’t in a position to have them or I told myself I was above such things. It didn’t matter that I didn’t have a boyfriend or a cohort of close friends to pal around with – I read about girls who did. And even more importantly, I read about girls who said and did satisfying things, who stood up for themselves. On the occasion I said exactly what I wanted to say in the moment I wanted to say it*, it would always backfire or I would sound stupid or nothing at all would come of it. So I kept quiet and kept reading.

I liked Anne especially. It didn’t matter to me that she and Diana were signalling with candles in the window instead of calling on the phone — I liked her and I liked her story and I liked how Lucy Maud Montgomery wrote her story. Maybe it’s just the nostalgic nerd in me, but I’d like to believe that girls today still can like Anne. But to know if that’s possible, I’d have to know why and how teen girls read today, and if their reasons for reading are anything like the ones I had when I was that age. I would like to think that the reasons are similar. I can’t believe that being twelve has changed so very much in the last eighteen years, because being twelve how and where I was twelve didn’t seem so different than Anne a hundred years prior. And for that matter, I don’t know that being sixteen in Panem is that different than being sixteen anywhere else. The situations, certainly, are different, but the struggles Katniss goes through (how do I balance what is expected of me and what I want? how do I deal with all of these emotions when I’m not sure how I feel? why can’t I just run away and leave it all behind?) sound pretty standard to sixteen.

* Thank you, Nora Ephron and Kathleen Kelly.

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