Have you ever learned a critical lesson from an only okay book?

A man without a wife can be lonely in a big black Mercedes, no matter how many readers he has.  – Howard Jacobson

Have you ever read a book that just didn’t do it for you, but had one character, one scene, or one line that has stuck with you forever? You’re going through life, feeling sorry for yourself that you don’t have more time to write, and then BAM. You remember a line from a book you had otherwise forgotten, and you thank God you read it?

That’s how it is for me with the line above from Jacobson’s novel, The Finkler Question. The book itself was only okay to me. The characters, meh. Kind of endearing, but kind of annoying, too. The story was not funny in a laugh out loud kind of way, but was witty, in an internal chuckle kind of way.

But that line. I have come back many times to that line. And it made the whole reading worth it.

I met with a fellow writer recently to trade critiques, and our conversation gradually transitioned to where to submit, who pays, who doesn’t, you could pitch it this way for this publication, that way for that journal. She is far more seasoned than I am, and when I asked whether her writing contributes substantially to her family income, she responded, “It doesn’t supplement my husband’s salary, but it pays for my writing studio.” And I was instantly jealous. A writing studio!  God, how I’d love a studio. A room of my own, with a window seat, and light on my face, and a door that closes.

But more than that, a designated room would mean that writing was more than a hobby. That it was something serious, that I had time to do, that I wasn’t squeezing into an hour here, a half hour there. I’ve got 17 pieces I have started, then abandoned when it was time to wake the kids up, or volunteer at the school, or shop for groceries, or meet the school bus. By the time I get back to the essays, the mojo is gone. I’m not with the feeling anymore, and I can’t finish.

At these times I get frustrated. I fantasize about having large chunks of time to focus on writing, to research, to finish pieces, to edit, to polish. I go into my head, mulling all those incomplete essays, thoughts for this one jumbling with ideas for that one, and I think, if I were alone, and didn’t have all these responsibilities, I could take care of these. I could get them out, get them done.

A man without a wife can be lonely in a big black Mercedes, no matter how many readers he has.

And then that line from The Finkler Question snaps me back to reality, reminding me what it would really mean, at this stage in our family’s life, if I dedicated that kind of time and mental focus to a life of words. Because that line, regardless of its context within the novel, is about more than the emptiness of fame and fortune, or the loneliness of the writer’s life. It’s about throwing yourself into something so deeply, dedicating so much of your attention to this passion, or job, or hobby, that you risk losing contact, sacrificing closeness, with the most important people in your life.

There will come a time in the not so distant future when our children leave home, and there will be silence where their voices once were. Like the writer in The Finkler Question who lost his wife, I will rattle around in our empty house, with all the time in the world to write, and every room will be a room of my own. I will think of the pies I made with our daughter, of reading The Old Man and the Sea with our son, of answering their questions about sex and bad words, and I will give thanks for that single line in an only okay book. The line that reminded me to take my time, to enjoy my kids. A woman can be lonely in a room of her own, no matter how many readers she has.

The Finkler Question by Howard JacobsonThe Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson.  “Winner of the 2010 Man Booker Prize, Jacobson’s wry, devastating novel examines the complexities of identity and belonging, love, and grief through the lens of contemporary Judaism.” (Publishers Weekly)

During the holidays I will be republishing posts from my first couple of years on Butterfly Mind. My site has this fancy new look now, and since I don’t foresee myself writing a lot over the next couple of weeks, I didn’t want the makeover to go to waste. This post was originally published two years ago today, on December 18, 2012.

Diary or Memory: Which is the Reliable Narrative?

Blue Daily DIary cover on andreabadgley.com

I’ve been reading through my diaries, and have found plenty of scandal that made me laugh so hard I cried*:

We all hate Crystal now. Guess what! We’re having a prom! (April 15, 1986; 11 years old)

We don’t hate Crystal.  I’m glad because she’s a lot nicer than Hilga [who determined who we hated and who we didn’t]. We didn’t win quizbowl. (May 10, 1986; 11 years old)

Today was my first day of middle school.  We have 4, hundred pound books and we have to carry them home and to school and all that junk. (August 25, 1986; 11 years old)

I love Teddy so much!  He’s so cute.  He’s got blond hair, he’s tan, he’s got pretty straight teeth, he eats a lot. (October 12, 1986; 12 years old)

I was always into straight teeth.

But what is strange to me is that these things that I’m reading from my 11-year-old self are not the things I remember from being 11 years old. The people I mention are contemporaries of plenty of people I do remember, but until I read my diary, Crystal and Teddy had evaporated completely from my psyche.

It makes me wonder about the whole trustworthy narrator thing. Several times I have read my own words and thought, that’s not how I remember it. In my little blue diary I wrote that I was excited when I started my period, but I don’t remember being excited. I remember being mortified because I couldn’t get to the bathroom and I was afraid I’d have a stain on my jeans and omg everyone is going to know I’m on my period.  It seems strange that the memory that I’ve carried with me my whole life is so unlike what I recorded on the page.

Terry Tempest Williams wrote a beautiful book, When Women Were Birds, in which she inherits her mother’s journals, a tradition within her Mormon clan. Her mother told her, “I am leaving you all my journals, but you must promise me you won’t look at them until after I’m gone.” And when Terry looked at them, after her mother was gone, she found that they were all empty. When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations On Voice is Williams’s grappling with those blank pages – why are all the books empty? Where is her mother’s voice? Why would her mother buy all these journals, not write in them, keep them, and then pass their silent pages down to her?

There are many entries like my first-period entry, entries that jar me in their discordance with my memory. The memories that stick with me are the ones I took for granted at the time, that weren’t remarkable to an 11-year-old girl, that didn’t merit recording in a diary.  Like how pretty the marsh looks in summer, when a storm is coming, and the grass looks neon green against a blackening sky. Like the mud-romping shoes I made with my brother, and the heavy stillness of the marsh at low tide, when the sun beat down on us, and I could barely breathe through the thick humid air. Like laying on my clean, cool white comforter and reading books after I’d showered, when I was rewarded with coming inside into the air conditioning after Mom had turned us out of the house for a few hours.

None of those things – the marshes, the mud-romping shoes, the books I read – made it to the pages of my diaries. I know because as an adult I wanted to write about them. These scenes are vivid in my memory; if they are the things that stick with me from childhood now, they must have been important to me then. Surely I can mine my diaries for details.

Alas, no.

Perhaps Willams’s mother recognized this, this limiting of narrative that a journal necessitates. Perhaps she knew that what she recorded on the page – the page that would eventually be passed down to her daughter – would be but a small part of her whole experience, and that words on a page would inevitably narrow her existence to anyone who was not her, who did not have her memories that filled the negative space between the lines, the everyday things that she took for granted, the things that didn’t merit recording in a diary.

When I began scanning my teenage diaries, I could only read a few minutes before having to go outside and soak up some sunlight. They take me into that dark place of adolescence, of not being sure who I was, of being a follower, of wanting desperately to be liked, of trying not to stand out. It doesn’t feel good to go back to that place. When I read the melodrama of my 16-year-old self I think, my God, I hope our kids never read this, they’ll think I was a miserable soul.

In my memory of teenage life there is glee that balances the angst recorded in my diaries. I remember riding with the top down on my VW Super Beetle and singing at the top of my lungs. I remember slumber parties with pizza and cake and Pretty in Pink. I remember laughter with my best friends, and coffee at Daybreak Café, and reading our musings about the universe to each other at Waffle House, smoking cigarettes and eating grits.

In my diaries there is only venting. In my teens I wrote when I was upset, when I needed to process. Anyone who found these diaries would only get the darkness, and not the light, of my teenage life. A writing buddy inherited her mother’s diaries and what she finds there distresses her. I told her about my teen diaries, and how filled with angst they are because I only wrote when I needed to vent, when I needed a place to sort my thoughts and vomit emotion. This was eye-opening to her, that perhaps that was her mother’s method as well. That perhaps the pages did not tell her mother’s whole story.

Maybe Terry Tempest Williams’s mother knew this as well, that journaling to sort, to process, to vent, to vomit could leave a powerful and potentially inaccurate legacy.

Despite what I’ve learned about the (un)reliability of my childhood diaries, I don’t care about incongruity when it comes to my journals as a new mother. What I remember about my colicky newborn son’s first weeks is desperation. When I remember myself during that time I picture my eyes as a dying horse’s – wide open and rolling in panic. What I remember is do-gooder’s poo-pooing my anxiety, saying “Oh, colic usually goes away after three months,” and my fright that I wouldn’t make it that long. What I remember is standing in the street waiting for my husband to come home so that I could hand our screaming son to him. So that I could collapse into tears myself.

What I wrote about in my journals were our son’s laughter, his coos, how fulfilled I felt holding him, gazing at him, feeding him. How he melted my heart.

He turns his head and looks straight into my eyes. And then he smiles. No matter how tired I am, when he does that it’s all gone, and I’m head over heels in love. (December 28, 2003; Mom 29, Baby 4 weeks)

Those journals and the joy they contain show me that I wasn’t the monster I remember myself being. The words that chronicle our son’s first year do not reflect the angst I remember but instead record the glee.

I like the Mormon tradition of Terry Tempest Williams’s family, of women’s voices being passed down through the generations through their diaries. I am sad for Williams that her mothers journals are empty, and she does not know why. Perhaps her mother was wiser than I and knew that whatever she wrote would tell a slanted tale, and knowing her words would be passed down, she could not be free with them. By leaving the pages blank, she gave Williams a gift of exploration, a wide open story instead of a narrow narrative.

I was not that wise or creative. Instead, after toting my childhood diaries around for 28 years, never considering that my children might one day read them, I find myself wondering now – is this the narrative of my life I want my children to know? Is it true?

My husband has always told me I’m a black and white person, that I see the world as This or That, rarely as a blending of both, as I’m currently doing, pitting diary against memory, as if one were truer than the other.

In the end, there wasn’t one thing about him that was truer than the rest. It was all true. – Paula McLain, The Paris Wife

Memory and diary are not mutually exclusive. They both contain truth. As a woman with a fickle memory, I would have once said that the diary was the truer – it is a written record of the events of a life as they were happening, when they were fresh, when time and consequences hadn’t yet shaped them into something more or less than they were at the time. Now, though, looking back on the bits I chose to record and holding them up against the memories that never made it onto journal pages – the blank bits behind the words – I realize that my memories are equally real, equally valid as records of my life. Diary, memory – it is all true.

I don’t know what I’ll do about my childhood diaries. I’ll keep them through our kids’ teen years to remind me what it was like to be that age, but after that I don’t know that I’ll pass them along. Those aren’t the story I want to tell.

My motherhood journals though. Those I’m hanging onto. Unlike my childhood diaries which disappoint me that they don’t contain the memories I cherish, my motherhood journals make me so grateful I want to cry. My motherhood journals do not tell the whole story, but they tell the story I had forgotten was there. My motherhood journals tell the story I want to remember, and am thankful the pages record: the joy, the wonder, the beginnings of brand new lives. They tell the story I want to share with my children – their story, our story – and we can fill in the blanks together with our memories.

* Names have been changed to protect the innocent (and the guilty).

Chaperoning the fourth grade field trip to Jamestown, Virginia

Wet socks
Wet toes
Tangled hair
Muddy shoes
Bad coffee
Drizzle
Rain
Gritty eyes
Happy son.

First of all, let me just say that teachers are saints. If you have a child, or even if you don’t, I’d like you to please take a moment to silently applaud the teachers who are taking care of our nation’s children: teaching them history, encouraging manners, spending entire days with rooms full of children who aren’t their own, smiling, clapping, telling our kids they are awesome, dispensing hugs and band aids, and cleaning up barf on charter busses to Jamestown. Every time I am around our children’s teachers, I am in awe of what they do, and I am deeply grateful for them.

This past Monday and Tuesday I chaperoned our son’s fourth grade spring field trip to Jamestown, Colonial Williamsburg, and Yorktown, Virginia. Our son has been excited about this trip since the first week of school when they found out they’d be going. Fourth grade Virginia curriculum includes Virginia history, and in our school and many others, that means a field trip to the places where the United States as we know it began. Our son raised money selling Virginia Diner peanuts, and after many long months of preparing and waiting (and a five-hour bus ride in the rain) we donned ponchos and foul weather gear and stepped out into the drizzle.

The thing I love most about my job as Mom is doing things like this. Even though I bitch and complain about having to be around all these kids, and how loud it’s going to be, how it’s going to be like herding cats, how we have to be vigilant about keeping the kids away from the river, and constantly counting heads, and looking for the ever-shifting red hood, blue poncho (distinguishable from the other blue ponchos only by the pink soles of the shoes that peek out from the bottom), clear poncho with a blue hoodie underneath, and green raincoat – even though I complain about all of this, the thing is, the kids are actually awesome, and I secretly love every second of it.

I love volunteering in the classroom, I love chaperoning, I love watching our children in their non-home habitats because I learn so much about them when I’m present but not in charge, when I’m standing quietly on the sidelines. In sports I get to see how motivated our kids are, how they interact as a team player, whether they respect and respond to their coaches, how they react to winning or losing. In the classroom I get to observe while our children’s attention is focused on something else; I get to observe the other kids in their class – who are the attentive kids, the class clowns, the sweet ones, the troublemakers?; I get to experience the teacher’s style; I get to see when my son laughs, which lessons engage him, which kids he gravitates towards. I get to see what his days are like so that when I ask him at the end of a school day, “How was your day?” and he says, “Fine,” I am able to accept his introversion with grace because I will have an idea of his experience, will be able to picture his classroom, will know something of his day beyond the one-word answer he gives me.

On field trips I get to experience what they experience, I get to learn what they learn, and most fun of all, I get to witness their unfettered joy at being out in the real world, learning real stuff – stuff that they learned from books and in the classroom but that is so much more exciting when you experience it in real life. In Jamestown I got to see our son’s interest in the Powhatan canoe, the way he scanned it from stern to bow with his eyes, held his hand over the still-warm coals reenactors used to burn a hollow in the tree trunk. In Colonial Williamsburg I got to gently prod him because he was lagging behind, too busy taking pictures in his awe. I got to hear him giggle at the slapstick 18th-Century Grand Medley of Entertainment – the type of theater production Thomas Jefferson might have attended – at the Kimball Theatre. I got to watch him touch the plaque that marked General George Washington’s church pew, I experienced the pride of hearing him explain the Virginia House of Burgesses – the first assembly of elected representatives in our country – to our tour guide, and to seeing him sit on a jury in the Capitol building’s courtroom.

The following day, with aching muscles from the cabin’s hard mattress, with no real coffee in my system, with puffy eyes and ratted hair, I got to experience with our son the feel of the Yorktown encampment on a cold, wet, muddy, raw day. I could not imagine being a soldier there, wet and dripping and sleeping on the mucky ground, and I think the day gave the kids a tiny feel of what it might have been like for our Revolutionary War ancestors. Despite the cold and wet, the kids loved the musket demonstration, where the reenactor explained the difference between the match-lit musket of Jamestown and the flintlock musket of Yorktown, and where she showed them how to load and fire the weapon. They gagged and squealed “GROSS!” when our guide demonstrated the surgeon’s tools on volunteer musket-maimed kids, and they grinned as they squeezed into tiny solider tents.

 

The kids were pretty worn out by the time we stopped at the battlefield, the real Yorktown battlefield, and stood where George Washington stood, on the same ground that General Washington paced and strategized and gave orders from, but their exhaustion did not stop them from shouting out answers when their teacher stood atop a bench with a semi-circle of cannons around her and asked, “What happened here?!”

“The Siege at Yorktown!”

“Who won?”

“We did!”

“Who surrendered?”

“General Cornwallis!”

“Where is Surrender Hill?”

“Redoubts 9 and 10!”

“Well let’s go look at them!”

And she jumped down from the bench and all the kids ran for the hills. We oohed and aahed and paused to take in the panorama, and then the kids were running again, towards the busses and their potato chips, their DSes and their pillows, as we, the parents, dragged our tired feet from the battlefield. We basked in memories from the trip on the long, dry drive home, where our work was done and where our little ones munched candy and worked quietly on their trip journals, watched videos and giggled, and slept the beautiful sleep of children.