It was a fairly normal evening: we ran a few errands after Kendell got home from work, we picked up some dinner. We watched an episode of The Vikings while we waited for Jake to get home from his night class and Nathan to be finished at his friend's house; we tucked Kaleb in, we talked to the Bigs about a few different things.
We went to bed.
Kendell woke me up a few minutes after I'd fallen asleep, because his nose was whistling. I nudged him and he mumbled something and then we were back asleep, except maybe that whistle didn't let me all the way back. Maybe I was on alert, in some unconscious region of my brain.
Maybe I have never really felt at peace since his last surgery in October. Maybe part of my sleeping self is always partly awake, listening, because once your husband's heart has been cut open and been pieced back together, maybe you never stop worrying.
We went to bed, and then I hushed his whistling nose, and then he woke me again. I didn’t know what time it was, hours later it seemed, and again it was his breathing, but this time it wasn’t a benign nose whistle. This time it was a death rattle of a breath, a screeching, gasping breath with his face screwed up tight with the agony of trying to get air into his lungs (agonal respiration I later learned, the body’s very last attempt to save itself)
and I was shaking him as hard as I could, I was screaming are you OK? And I knew he wasn’t,
so I was grabbing my phone and calling 911 while I raced around our bed to his side
and then hours
or seconds later the 911 operator was walking me through giving him CPR, I was plugging his nose and taking a breath and then lowering to breath into his mouth and I thought
I can’t do this
and I thought
I’ve kissed his mouth one million times, I can do this
and then I was breathing into his mouth and feeling my own breath only fill up his cheeks
and then I was pumping as hard as I could on his chest
and I am pretty sure I was hysterically laughing and screaming all at once, this can’t be happening
but another part of my brain was calmly reminding me of the times I’ve watched someone playing a doctor on TV give chest compressions and I knew I had to push as hard as I could even though his chest seems so fragile to me, a thinly wired cage, and I actually had Meredith Grey’s voice in my head, or maybe it was the 911 operator
who told me after some indeterminate time—perhaps three CPR rotations of breathe and compress, perhaps five—to run as fast I could to the front door, where I let in a police officer who raced back down the hall with me.
He and I got Kendell onto the floor, and he kept up the CPR while I felt his pulse at his wrist, felt my husband’s pulse, which was a sharp blare and then nothing, sharp blare, nothing, sharp---
And then the EMTs were there and I stood in the hall by my bedroom, completely numb but still making that hysterical sound around the words I can’t believe this is happening now, because now has felt like it has always been coming, ever since that first heart surgery, because who can trust that life can keep going, right there in my hallway I didn’t, right there I thought it had ended and I couldn’t bear being alone so I raced downstairs to wake up my sons who had slept through it all, and they stood in the hallway with me, holding my hand, one of them, and another’s hand on my shoulder and I stopped making that sound.
The EMTs had to shock him four times before they got his rhythm back and because I didn’t have my glasses on or my contacts in, I also couldn’t hear any of the sounds they made (or maybe my brain didn’t let me hear) because in my memory that time in the hall is entirely silent until one of the EMTs said OK, got it, let’s move him and then I could squeeze past into the bathroom for my glasses.
(When I could see I completely melted down into an ugly, ugly laugh because if Kendell could’ve seen our bedroom—the vacuum knocked over, the tv askew, medical paraphernalia tossed everywhere and five men in shoes on the carpet—he would’ve been so pissed and it seemed ridiculous that I would never be able to tell him that.)
The EMTs took Kendell to the hospital. The policeman waited for me for a couple of minutes, while I raced to put in my contacts and put on a bra. Ridiculous what you think about in moments like that, but was I was thinking of was the night before my dad died, when the hospice nurse came to give him a sponge bath and change his clothes, and he dressed my dad in my mom’s t-shirt but I made the nurse go back and put on one of his t-shirts, because I knew my dad was dying and I didn’t want him to die in a woman’s t-shirt.
I didn’t want to go to the ER and be told my husband was dead without a bra on.
They didn’t tell me he was dead.
They took him into the same ER room where his mom died. They did medical things while I stood in the hall outside, while I sat in a chair, while some of the EMTs talked to me. I paced, I sat, I knew I had to call someone, a nurse stopped and brought me some water and asked if she could call someone for me, so I picked up my phone. I didn’t want to call or tell anyone because saying it out loud would make it real, because what even was this “it” that I needed to say out loud? I still didn’t know what was wrong. But I called his sister and she didn’t answer—it was 6:15 by now—and then I called my sister who answered by saying “what’s wrong?” and I don’t even know what I told her, but she came.
There are so many stories I could tell about those hours. The waiting. The way I flashed between calm and hysterical. The first conversation with the ICU doctor, who used terms like “possible anoxic brain injury” and “medically induced coma” and “base reflexes not responding well.” Conversations about what “DNR” really means. The moment I went back home to find our will, where our advanced directives are, and I couldn’t find it and I thought I’ll just ask Kendell, he’ll know exactly where it is and then there was a little bit more of that ugly hysterical sound.
There are so many stories and ways I could tell it, but reliving it will take time for me. Writing all of it down.
In the end, this is what happened: for unknown reasons (low potassium, slow heart rate, scar tissue build-up, congenital deformation in the sinoatrial node) Kendell’s heart went into cardiac arrest. He went into ventricular fibrillation but his breathing woke me up. The immediate CPR, the fast response of the policeman and the EMTs (they were at our house two minutes after they left the fire station), and, quite possibly, simple, inexplicable luck saved him. He was in a coma for two days, most of that while undergoing a cooling protocol to hopefully preserve his brain function. The doctor kept telling me bad news, that this and this and this were bad signs, and is it strange I am grateful he never gave me any false hope? But when they turned down the drugs and started waking Kendell up, he immediately responded. He woke up and he couldn’t breathe around the tube so he gestured until I figured out that he wanted a pen and he wrote (after a few attempts) I can’t breathe and then there was a different kind of hysterical sound.
Here is the terrifying thing: every nurse, doctor, EMT, and medical person we spoke with told us that most people don’t survive. One EMT said that Kendell was the reason he became an EMT, because 99% of people don’t survive, but Kendell did. Not only did he survive—he is OK. His short-term memory is a little fuzzy, but hopefully that will clear up with time. So, once we left the hospital—he had to get an internal defibrillator—I started looking.
And the statistics are dismal.
The highest one I found was 20%--meaning, 20% of people with cardiac arrest and v-fib live. (Eighty percent die.)
Another study said 5%.
Another one found that 1.79% of people with cardiac arrest and v-fib survive without any noticeable anoxic brain injury.
All of those numbers—they are terrifying. They make me look back on the entire experience and feel unable to understand why my husband is still alive, why he’s at work today and tomorrow he’ll go with me to Kaleb’s soccer game and he’ll be around for Mother’s Day.
It makes absolutely no sense that he is alive and normal. (Or, as I keep teasing him, as normal as he’s ever been.) I don’t understand it. He doesn’t understand it. But the fact is—the miracle is: he lived. He’s OK.
What is left is just filtering: trying to understand what happened, trying to let it change us in positive ways. I’ve learned that when something medical happens to someone in a family it happens, to some degree, to everyone in the family. I didn’t have to go through what he did, but it was fairly traumatic for me, too. (Ask me if I’ve slept well in the month since it happened. If I haven’t woken up panicked every night to make sure he’s still breathing, to make sure that I’m also still breathing.) My husband almost died. My husband should have died.
I can’t stay the same after that.
Like many readers, I keep a lengthy list of books I want to read. But honestly: I almost never refer to it, because I also subscribe to a readerly belief that the books you need to read will find their way to you. I tend to choose what I read by a combination of book reviews, what my library friends are talking about, what comes in on my hold shelf, and serendipity. If I read about a book and the description speaks to me, I'll see if my library has it, and if not I'll often suggest that we buy it. But sometimes I forget. Or sometimes the collection developer forgets to put me on the hold list.
But I don't stress too much about getting my hands on most books (there are, of course, exceptions; I'm particularly excited to read Ursula le Guin's newest poetry collection and, Megan Abbott's newest, You Will Know Me, which is a thriller about, wait for it: gymnasts!). I think that if the universe wants me to read a book, eventually I'll find myself reading it.
Such was the case with The Grace Keepers, by Kirsty Logan, which I first read about on Book Riot (I think). My library eventually got a copy, but I forgot all about it until I spotted it on a discard cart, and then I remembered it: a story about a future world that is mostly water, with scattered islands, and a society that (thus, obviously) values land ownership much more highly than owning a boat, which the majority of people must do, and has, as part of its culture, a rule that boat dwellers—called damplings—may not be buried on land. And the cover? Well. It seemed intriguing, especially the most inventive part: the boat dwellers are buried at sea, in the doldrums, in grace yards. Each sunken body is guarded by a cage with a bird in it; when the bird dies, the family can stop mourning and move on. The work of the grace yards—preparing the bodies, saying the rites, putting the bird into the cage—is done by grace keepers.
This is a story in two parts, that of Callanish, who has exiled herself as a grace keeper after making a mistake that cost her mother dearly, and of North, who works in a circus. Callanish has a secret, which she hides with her white dress, gloves, and slippers; she lives caught between memory and the needs of the mourning. The circus North works in is made of damplings. They travel from island to island to perform; their main sail becomes the big top, and each of the performers float behind the larger boat in small coracles. North performs with a bear, a different dance depending upon the mood of the island they've sailed to. Her bear is like a child to her, but a child with the potential of damage. Aside from the bear, North is alone in the world; her parents died performing in the same circus, and while she has affection for the other circus members, she doesn't quite trust them. Not even the ring master, Red Gold, who has decided that North will marry his son.
An unexpected death takes the circus to the graceyards, where Callan and North share a quiet moment of spoken secrets, unwittingly creating a bond that will weave the two stories together.
When I first read about this, I thought it would be atmospheric and slightly creepy, and I was right. It's a blend of The Night Circus, Station Eleven, A Wizard of Earthsea and Waterworld, but it also reminded me quite a bit of The Shadow Behind the Stars (more in tone than in plot). The imagery of Callanish tending to the floating cages of dead and dying birds, the little ways the story nodded to the past (which is our time), the enormous cruise ships of revivalists, and the underlying struggle to remain human when most of what makes us human is gone: all of these are elements that will stick with me, but nothing more than the end, which is haunting and evocative and absolutely perfect.
Don't be surprised if it's one of my favorite books this year.
It might be a strange thing for a 40-something person to say, but it's true: I adore fairy tales. Finding them remade entirely in novels, or even just slight nods, here and there, within a story. I'm wont to reach for my (lusciously-leatherbound) copy of Grimm's Fairy Tales in certain gloomy moods, as the bleakness and generally-dark outcomes somehow cheer me up. Anne Sexton's Transformations, a book of poems that retell fairy tales in dark stanzas and images, is one of my favorite-ever books.
When I was a kid, this affection was about magic and otherworldliness and my desire to be somewhere (or somehow) other. As an adult, the affection is deeper. It's more about how a good fairy tale can reveal something true about humanity, and how finding those pieces of myself within a tale is a sort of magic, sparkling and comforting all at once. It's still also about the darkness and bleakness, the penchant in human nature to make wrong choices and do bad things. A fairy tale, for me, is both revealing and covering: how it really feels to be a human, cloaked with bird wings and candy houses.
I'm always up for reading a new fairy tale.
Michael Cunningham's new book, A Wild Swan and Other Tales, might be subtitled "Fairy Tales for Grown Ups." Not that there's anything specifically lascivious. It just manages to capture that darkness in the originals and bring it in to the contemporary world. Or, at least, some of the tales are contemporary. "Poisoned" is about Snow White...but it is also about marriage and relationships and how what is really hard about them is that the newness cannot last. "Jacked" has the Jack who climbs the beanstalk, but it's also a tidy little summary of how it feels to parent teenagers. (It includes this paragraph, which I might have read 127 times: "Mothers, try to be realistic about your imbecilic sons, no matter how charming their sly little grins, no matter how heartbreaking the dark-gold tousle of their hair. If you romanticize them, if you insist on virtues they clearly lack, if you persist in your blind desire to have raised a wise child, one who'll be helpful in your old age...do't be surprised if you find that you've fallen on the bathroom floor, and end up spending the night there." Not that my sons are imbecilic, they're not, and I don't think I've romanticized them, but there is something that resonates with me there. Something about the contrast between the son you imagine and the one who stands in front of you, who can never be exactly what you imagined because while you created him in your body, the entire world creates who he turns out to be, standing in front of you.)
Rumpelstiltskin is there.
And a disturbing rendition of Beauty's beast.
And a tale I will never forget, "The Steadfast Tin Soldier" reimagined, which is also about marriage and relationships and enduring to the end and how sometimes it really is endurance that helps you manage.
I loved these tales so much.They are sardonic. They—most of them, except the very last—might start with "once upon a time" but they refuse to end up at "happily ever after" (as life, too, refuses).
And the drawings, by Yuko Shimizu? Perfect: black, white, stark, haunting.
Aside from The Sleeper and the Spindle, it might just be my favorite collection of fairytale retellings.
(HERE is my list of favorite fairy tale retellings, for your perusing pleasure.)
In one of the scrapbook Facebook groups I belong to, we were discussing the pros and cons of handwriting versus printing the journaling on your scrapbook layouts. I was surprised at how many people think it’s faster to handwrite your journaling, because for me that always takes longer. I’m a fast typer but a slow handwriter. It’s hard for me to get a visual idea of how much space the story in my head will take, so I usually end up writing the journaling more than once because the first time doesn’t come out right. Sometimes, when I want to journal by hand, I’ll still type a draft on the computer, get all the words right, and then hand write it! (I’m pretty sure that’s missing the point of handwriting, isn’t it?)
(Also, there’s some truth to the fact that I might be just a little bit particular with how my journaling looks and how I write the story itself. I know many scrapbookers aren’t as persnickety about this as I am.)
I do spend quite a bit of time crafting the stories I include on my layouts, but once I’m done writing, I can have the text printed quickly, so today I’m sharing some tips for printing your scrapbook journaling as fast as possible.
Use the Position and Size options as necessary.
Very Important: Don’t forget to remove the border line on the text box (unless you want a black line around your text). Right click the text box, choose Format Shape, Line Color, then choose No Line.
Here's the layout I made with the journaling I was printing on a scrap:
3. Print on your background piece, even if you don’t have a wide format printer. This does take a little bit more time and planning, because you have to know where you want the journaling printed as well as allow for the seam. This is where it’s great that you’ve already written a draft of your journaling and designed the layout! To print on the background of a 12x12 layout, you have to (obviously) cut the background so it will fit in your printer. As you’re designing the layout, create a place that can be covered by something that is 12” tall. This can be a row or column of photos, a long piece of patterned paper, a row of embellishments. I’ve even covered the seam with ribbon. For my next layout, I wanted to use three photos, and I figured I could make them cover the seam even if one was wallet-sized:
Also, keep in mind that you don’t have to have the seam at the 8.5” mark. You can put it where ever it works on your layout, so long as the piece you’re printing on will fit. Also remember, you can change the page orientation to Landscape if you want to have a horizontal instead of a vertical seam. Once you’ve planned for the seam, figure out where the journaling needs to be printed and place it exactly there, using the Relative Position option in the Position menu. If you’re worried, print a draft on a piece of scratch paper to make sure the text is in the right place.
For my layout, I wrote the journaling, picked a background and some embellishments, and figured out where I wanted my journaling to go. Then I formatted the journaling, using a text box to put it in exactly the right spot, and then cut the 12x12 paper to 8.5x12:
I printed on the big piece, taped the seam back together, and then arranged all of my elements into this layout:
(Looking at this image I just realized I didn't dot my i's! guess I'll go back and do that. Also resisting the urge to apologize for using those thickers on the word "sweet." Why is it slightly embarrassing to use older product?)
4. Print at the highest resolution. This has absolutely nothing to do with the speed of printing, it’s just a personal choice, but for me, I feel like if I’m going to print, I want to make sure it looks really good. The printing resolution is found on the Print menu, then Printer Options, and your choices are based on the type of printer you have, but I always print my final draft at the highest resolution my printer will do.
As I wrote these tips, I found myself imagining another scrapbooker reading them and thinking “forget that, way too complicated.” I think it might seem complicated reading about it, but once you’ve done it a few times and know the process, it’s pretty fast. Admittedly, maybe not faster than finding a journaling pen! But then, there’s another reason I tend to print my journaling instead of handwriting it: I can fit many more words in the same space if I print.
Do you have any tips for making the process of printing scrapbook journaling go faster?
The display shelves in a library are a way we librarians promote books for different reasons. We put books there to help draw attention to forgotten gems, to inspire someone to read something they might not otherwise, to winnow selection down from what might be an overwhelming choice. In my library, we have displays based on genre in fiction and on topic in non-fiction. We also have staff displays, where each librarian has a shelf to put out books he or she loves; filling my staff display shelf is one of my favorite parts of my job, and I think we each unknowingly have little fan bases who check our shelves first before wandering the rest of the library. Throughout the library there are also new book displays, where we put (YES!) new books.
A few weeks ago, a patron noticed that our non-fiction new book display had a grouping of books that shared a similar theme. There was one about common core, one about Gloria Steinem, one called The Essential Bernie Sanders. Two about Jesus: Rescuing Jesus is about how Christianity is changing to become more progressive and inclusive, while Jesus Behaving Badly attempts to look at Christ through an objective lens (was He a revolutionary? was He racist?). Perhaps the two scariest books were Atmosphere of Hope, which discusses possible solutions to the climate change crisis, and What is Islam, which discusses how “Muslims have historically conceived of and lived with Islam as norms and truths that are at once contradictory yet coherent.”
This patron took a picture of these objectionable books and then posted it on her Facebook page. She felt driven to drawn public awareness to the biased, left-wing, ultra-radical ideals of the Library. Then, just to make sure we were all aware, she posted the picture to the library’s Facebook page, along with a link to all of the comments and objections her friends had made.
Reading these threads, I was stunned. Absolutely, jaw-droppingly stunned.
And not just by her failure to understand the concept of a “new book” display. Or to see the humor in it—it’s kind of funny that so many “left wing” books ended up next to each other on a shelf which is essentially random on everything other than publication date. She somehow got the idea that the new book display was managed by one specific librarian (who her friends called illiterate) who is obviously trying to poison and control the minds of all thinking people who come to the library. And sure, the general population might not understand that there are many librarians responsible for buying new books, not just one. Nor that we take our jobs seriously, and that one of our roles is to represent modes of thinking that reflect a wide array of people, not just one group. But there is a sign, a very large sign, right on the top of the display, that reads “new books.” It doesn’t say “our communist ideals” or “liberal forever!” It just says “new books.”
No, what stunned me was the response of her friends.
One commenter said the books about Jesus were written by anti-Christs. Another said that the “anti-Christian and pro-Muslim, pro-feminism pro-communist and pro-climate-scam” display must have been put together by Obama. Several said something along the lines of “I no longer go to the public library because the books there are wicked.” Many suggested doing something to make the books unavailable for anyone to check out (scatter them around the library on the wrong shelves, check them out and then don’t return them for as long as possible, hide them behind other books).
Only their tone suggested burning them.
I didn’t know.
I really didn’t know that people like this truly exist. Don’t all people instinctively understand that society cannot only be made of one way of thinking? Or is it just that I choose to surround myself with more open-minded individuals?
Maybe it’s just that I don’t think I could stand to be friends with such close-minded people. I don’t know if that, ironically, makes me close minded. But I couldn’t ever find common ground with someone who fails to understand that there is a variety of ways of thinking about the world. Or that objectivity helps you to see things more clearly—yes, even Jesus (whom I love). Climate-change deniers make me almost unbearably angry; the argument is so head-in-the-sand asinine that, all apologies, if you seriously feel that way I’m not going to hang out with you. Not even on Facebook.
Even more inexcusable to me is the blatant judging-a-book-by-its-cover in their responses. None of them know anything about the books, other than the covers. None of them would have likely bothered to even pick one up, read its cover copy, and think about its premise. I don’t understand this way of thinking, this refusal to look at anything other than the surface of things. To me, it is built on fear. If, for example, I really believed that climate change was a hoax, created by…well, I don’t know who is benefiting from this supposed hoax, or what they are gaining, but will go with that nebulous “someone” getting “something” from it…if I truly believed that, why would I be afraid to read someone else’s point of view? In fact, wouldn’t I want to read it, so I could have more points to discredit?
It is only when one’s belief or way of thinking is shaky that one is afraid of looking at different perspectives.
If I have learned one thing from being a librarian, it is this: a book is “good” or “bad” based only on individual readers. This is why we need many books with many different perspectives. The people on that Facebook thread are too narrowly defining what makes a “good” book: to them, the only good book is the one that reflects back what they already think. Everything else is bad, and as they are certain of it, their job now is to protect anyone else from reading such “bad” books. Because everyone else must think exactly like they think.
I stewed about that Facebook thread all day. I composed spiteful, sarcastic responses in my head; only my professionalism kept me from posting one. Then I went home and told Kendell about it, who laughed at the shallow thinking and reminded me that I can’t change them. People think what they think.
But oh, how I want to change them.
Because as the night went on—the night of Utah’s caucuses—I started equating the people in that Facebook thread, their vitriol and their fear, their narrow-mindedness and their surety that theirs is the only right way of being, with the supporters of Donald Trump. Doesn’t his slogan “make America great again” have to do with one answer? By “great” I think he means how it used to be in, say, the 40s or 50s, when American society was dominated by rich white men. When women were mostly in their rightful place—at home with the children—while men ruled the world. When black people knew their place, when Hispanics stayed on the other side of the border, when gay people kept themselves properly hidden. When handicapped people were the brunt of jokes.
“Great again” is a return to when the world made sense to one specific group of people, and the voters who support Trump want that world back. It hinges on the word “again”; it wants to go backward instead of forward.
They want singularity instead of multitudes. They want one way of being and everyone else can bugger off. They want the stereotype of “American citizen” to be the only American citizen.
They want one answer to be the only answer.
Deep down, that way of thinking doesn’t only disturb and anger me. It terrifies me. It reminds me of something Margaret Atwood said about utopias: “A union was a Utopian idea. So was Nazi Germany. So was Cambodia. And there’s a whole list of them, of people who thought, ‘Well, we have to build the perfect society, and we know what it’s like, but there’s a catch—we have to eliminate a bunch of people first, because they’re getting in the way.’”
An ideal society cannot be perfect, because “perfect” requires a single way of being right. An ideal society requires multiplicity. It requires messiness and upheaval and clashing ideas. Only one idea—that way lies genocide.
I think multiplicity is equally terrifying to some, because yes: our current way of being isn’t simple, old-fashioned American whatever. Living in a society with multiple mores requires that you understand your own mores. It means your ideas and beliefs will be challenged. It demands that you be flexible and open and even loving and accepting. It means becoming comfortable with the fact that your way of being is not the only way.
But it is also glorious.
It means that happiness, success, or goodness aren’t achieved by only one route—and that means more access to happiness, success, and goodness. It means that if you are afraid of feminism, you can continue being afraid of it because no one can take that fear away from you. It also means that I am free to continue believing in and promoting feminism. When we narrow ourselves to only one way of thinking, we remove other avenues to understanding and knowledge.
I want American to move forward in being great. Not to go backward to some idealized version of greatness. To something sanitized and monochromatic and very, very white. I think our greatness lies within our multitudinous aspect. We have always been a country of migrants, it’s just that now, the migrants are no longer white Europeans. Our greatness lies—or, it can if we allow it—in our ability to see things in many different ways.
Our greatness is found in libraries, where yes: we have left-wing books. We also have right wing, and moderate. We have books with completely whack-a-doodle theories, but if that’s your thing, it’s there for you. If your thing is bodice-rippers, if your thing is gentle fiction, if your thing is art history or wicca or crocheting with dog hair, it's there for you. My thing—literary novels, and poetry, and essays, and writing about women’s rights, and memoirs and how-to-run-well and quilting and gardening—my thing is there, too. That they are all in the same library, that they may even lean upon each other on the shelves: the fact that more than one way of thinking exists doesn’t damage any individual way of thinking.
Maybe libraries themselves are a metaphor for America’s greatness: a collection of many different ideas. As a librarian, part of my work is making sure that all of the ideas are accessible. As a citizen, part of my work is respecting the varieties of our communities. That is a greatness that Trump and his followers, that the commenters on that Facebook thread, are terrified of. Their narrow ideals would shape us into something equally narrow, rigid and unyielding. The very opposite of greatness.
Last night, the library where I work hosted a book club meeting. I had chosen the book, so I led the discussion. I was a little bit nervous that no one would come, as I’d picked a book I know would seem scary in my community, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. (It’s fairly amazing the quaking, the way faces blank and pale at the mention of the word “feminism.”) Only a few people came—six or seven—but we had a lively and passionate discussion anyway. What surprised me, though, is that only one person loved the book; everyone else told me that they hated it.
Not just surprised. I was stunned, because The Handmaid’s Tale is one of My Books. You know how you happen to come across a book at a specific time in your life, and it is exactly what you need, and in one way or another changes everything?
That’s what this book did for me.
When I was 17, rebellious and angry and full of fire to make my life something incredible, I discovered an amazing thing: buying books. I'd always owned my own books, courtesy of my mom, but there is a huge difference between being given a book and buying a book with your own money.
One of the very first books I ever bought for myself is this one:
I can't remember, now, exactly why I bought it. Likely it was a recommendation of the Quality Paperback Book Club (anyone else a member?) and maybe it even came on autoship. But I read The Handmaid's Tale.
And I was completely, utterly changed.
I'd been a reader all of my life, of course. I read widely, across almost every genre. I'd read Steinbeck and Bradbury and Fitzgerald, Steven King and Danielle Steel and Rosamund Pilcher. But I had never read anything like The Handmaid's Tale. It was brutal and puzzling and unimaginable. It was unforgettable not just for the story—a totalitarian regime overthrows the American government and creates a society based on Old Testament stories, stripping women of all of their rights—but for the way the story was told.
I was sitting in the bathtub, reading The Handmaid's Tale after something that felt tremendously and hugely brutal had happened in my own life, and I read this:
You can wet the rim of a glass and run your finger around the rim and it will make a sound. This is what I feel like: this sound of glass. I feel like the word shatter.
And then I got out of the tub and found a green highlighter, and I highlighted those words. I wrote in a copy of a book I owned.
It changed me because it turned me into an annotater, but it was much more than that. After The Handmaid's Tale, mediocre books would never again do. I wanted that rush of beauty and difficulty and brutality and trueness in every book I ever read again. I wanted to learn how she did it. I wanted to do it myself. I wanted to make sure I wasn't the only person who knew such things made of words could exist. Do exist.
The Handmaid's Tale made me an English major, which made me a teacher, which made me a librarian. I'm not sure I would be who I am as an adult without it.
But those are just the personal reasons I have for loving The Handmaid's Tale.
It's bigger than just me of course.
Like every real dystopia, it gives a warning: if we keep choosing this, then look at what could happen. If we are apathetic to cultural change that limits freedom, we make it easier for change to progress. If we are entirely enmeshed in technology, others can control us in ways we might not expect. If we don't stop damaging the environment, we will damage ourselves.
Mostly the warning is this: We are never not in danger of losing whatever advancements we’ve made in equality, so we cannot become complacent.
I love it for that warning, even if the threats have (somewhat) changed.
I love it for the writing, too. As much as the story. For the descriptions of flowers, for the repetition of the word “flesh,” for how Offred stumbles in telling her tale, circles around, tells it in different ways.
And for the way the shadowy “us” (every bit as nebulous as the “they” who created Gilead) try to rise up. Ofglen kicking the man at the reaping in the head so he didn’t have to suffer. The passing of the term “May day” like a thing the handmaids who knew could hold in their hand. “I believe in the resistance as I believe there can be no light without shadow,” Offred thinks, “or rather, no shadow unless there is also light.”
This was my sixth or seventh time reading the book, and this time I was drawn to the character of the Commander. We aren’t ever inside of his head so we have to read his motivations only by his actions, but with this reading I could see that he wasn’t the antagonist. “Men are sex machines,” Aunt Lydia taught the handmaids, “It’s nature’s way. It’s God’s device. It’s the way things are.” And yet, the Commander sneaks Offred into his room so they can play Scrabble. I think the Commander, while quite possibly a jerk (that comment about women wearing different clothes in order to trick men into feeling like they were always with someone different), is more than just a sex machine. I think he wants companionship, a relationship of some sort. He is in certain ways as bound by this new society’s rules as Offred is, flattened down to the only seemingly-essential part of himself, which is semen.
I love that after reading a book six or seven times, I can still find something new in it to think about.
If I ever get a tattoo, it will be of words from this book: “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.” In a pidgin-Latin sort of way, that means “don’t let the bastards grind you down.” I’ve never forgotten reading that, either; quite often it is the barbaric yawp I make in my head, out of protest of whatever.
I had forgotten, until I re-read it, what comes after. Offred finds the Latin words scratched out of the paint on the back wall of her bedroom closet. “I don’t know what it means,” she thinks, “but it sounds right, and it will have to do, because I don’t know what else I can say to God.”
Sometimes I don’t, either.
I understand the objections of last night’s book club members’ discussions. It does only offer women a very few choices (which is sort of the point). It is a horrible place to find yourself in, the Republic of Gilead, whether you are Offred or you are reading Offred. Execrable things happen. It is maybe hopeless, and oh! that ending!
But I will always love it.
What books have changed your life, in small ways or large?
Today is International Women's Day and as usual I'm late to the party, but only because I was busy.
I went running this morning—running in tights and a form-fitting shirt, and I felt entirely safe on the street.
I went to the dentist with my daughter. My amazing daughter who is smart and determined and passionate, who loves clothes and shoes and bargains on clothes and shoes, who wrote this on her Facebook page this morning: "Everyday around the world women take the road less traveled by living as second class citizens. Feminism seeks to establish a second road, paved by equality and opportunity regardless of sex."
I drove myself. I drove myself in a car that I own. I drove myself to work, where I helped all sorts of people with all sorts of different questions and problems. Sometimes they frustrated me, sometimes I wondered (with pity, really) how they manage to function in a world so full of technology that baffles them, sometimes I laughed with them, but I always feel grateful for a job that helps me feel both fulfilled and that I am fulfilling others.
I went home to a house I help pay for. I fed my family. I laughed with my husband. I argued with him about politics, I told him to scoot out of my way; I will, after I post this, sleep, safely and knowing he is imperfect but trustworthy, with him in our bed.
I thought, all day, about something an old high school friend said on Facebook. He said he was disappointed, after watching the movie Suffragette, that Mormon women don't leave the church because of its patriarchy. He accused us of staying out of fear and complacency and ignorance, and claimed that we are betraying the courage of the women who suffered and worked to bring women closer to equality.
(To which most of me thought, wow, I'm glad a man could figure out so succinctly and exactly why all women remain in the church! That was exactly what I needed! A man to tell me how I am wrong and what I should do to right myself!)
(But a smaller part thought maybe he is right.)
Can I call myself a feminist?
Am I a feminist only because I take advantage of the freedoms that others worked for me to have? Does being a feminist only mean doing visible work to help further women's rights?
Or is it enough that I have taught my daughter to be a feminist? And that my sons and I have long discussions about how to treat women, and what feminism is, and why gender shouldn't determine destiny or rights or what to wear or how to act, not just for women but for them, also? Or that my husband, who didn't quite know when he married me at 19 years old, has been thoroughly schooled by me about equality, and that sometimes I think this is my marriage, not society, I should stop yelling at him but I keep on because I want him to understand?
Is it enough that I believe in women's rights, that I have written letters to senators and governors to share my protests, that I have been known to rant and throw things out of frustration when I think of all the inequality that still exists? That I read women writers, that I buy poetry and essays and novels by women at about a 10:1 ratio to that of men?
Maybe it is through words, through writing and reading and talking, that I am most clearly feminist.
Because I am: a feminist.
I love women. I see us: I know we are flawed, that we have a meanness that is perhaps inherent to our very being, especially when we are in groups. But there is the other side, especially in friendships, sometimes in groups, where we just woman together. I know---"woman" isn't a verb, and using nouns as verbs is pretentious and silly. But there is a thing that happens, when you are with women who you trust, when you are able to come out of the screens of wealth, appearance, and pride, when birth stories and chocolate chip cookie recipes and PhD travails and I love my job are all valid, when knowing you are understood, you are seen, you are heard, then you are able to love women. To see them, to see us, with our scars and our beauty marks, our pride and our ways of protecting ourselves, with our skill and our talent and our intelligence—when you are in that experience, you know that the way the world undervalues women is not just wrong but misguided.
What if the whole world valued women?
Not just put us on a pedestal. Not just "honored" us because we are mothers, because we are feminine and soft and smell pretty. But really: valued us? What if half of the world’s population had the same opportunities as the other half? What wisdom, knowledge, love, technology, innovation and momentum might we discover?
What if all women, not just the lucky few, could run down a street only because they loved running, not out of fear, not away?
What if being a feminist doesn’t only mean fighting for more freedoms, but being aware of the ones we have, of valuing them, of savoring them by using them?
I think the women who fought for those rights would appreciate that outcome of their fight.
I started this thinking I would write about women writers and about female characters who have changed me—Moira from The Handmaid’s Tale, Esther in The Bell Jar, Edna in The Awakening. And not only novels, but essays and poetry—how Maxine Hong Kingston’s work changed me, and how Adrienne Rich’s poem “An Atlas of the Difficult World” has saved me more than once.
But I found there is a deeper pool still. Being a woman and a feminist is, for me, tied to books, writing, and reading, but it is more than that. It is essential to me, this belief that we should be able to choose what our lives bring us. Feminism is never one single answer because every life holds different questions. The only “should” is for more: women should be safe everywhere, we should have access to education and property and opportunity, we should be able to chart our own course.
It’s complicated. It’s worldwide. It’s important. And even though my efforts might not change the entire world, I will keep on fighting my small fights, influencing my small sphere, noticing the ripples as they spread and join up with everyone else’s.
I will keep running down the road. Even if I am afraid.
Especially if I am afraid.
Part of a conversation with a casual acquaintance about books and reading: "Oh, I never read that fiction junk," she said. "I only read non-fiction because I don't have time for made-up stuff that isn't real."
My husband's response every time I get weepy over a TV show or a movie: "You know it's not real, right? It's just a made-up story."
My response to my hair dresser's outrage over how The Hunger Games trilogy ended: "For me, the ending was perfect because it was real. Their society was horrible and ugly; did you really expect a happy ending where everyone who loved Katniss was safe?"
Her response to my tirade: "It's a novel. A piece of fiction. The author could end it any way she wanted, so why not end it happy?"
I've been thinking about these little tidbits lately, especially as I am working on broadening my reading scope, if only so I can recommend more than only novels and poetry to library patrons. What is truth, and where do we find it? What is "real"? What emotional responses are manipulated and which area authentic?
Why do I read fiction?
What purpose does it serve in my life, and why am I drawn to it; how does it influence me?
I think the distinction between fiction and nonfiction is thinner than most people imagine. A novel about, say, Lincoln and a biography about him each require research and extensive knowledge. The difference, someone might say, is that the biography would then be based on what "really" happened, on people who really lived, on what Lincoln said, thought, and did, whereas the novel would be based on...oh, yes: things that happened to Lincoln, people he knew, and what he did.
Or, maybe it's that biography doesn't have made-up people in it. All of the people are real, whereas in the novel, there could be made up characters. But of course, whether the character actually lived (Lincoln) or was someone invented by an author, the writer can't know either one. The writer has to bring to life a person, historical or imaginary, on the page, with historical details, knowledge of language patterns and social mores and ways of being.
For Abraham Lincoln to feel alive in a book—nonfiction or fiction—the writer uses specific techniques that help the reader feel like the representation is a true one. The Abraham Lincoln in a biography is just as crafted as the one in a novel.
But that's history, you might be thinking. What about fantasy? Fantasy is built on nothing "real." It's all made up. Which is true: there is no Charn (that we can get to), there is no Barony of Cressia or Havnor or Mordor. No humans were ruled by Jadis, no one fought John Farson; none of us have crawled with hairy feet up Mount Doom carrying a ring that could destroy the world.
But within fantasy novels I have found knowledge—truth even—that enlightened my world. "In the end, it's only a passing thing, this shadow...folks in those stories had lots of chances to turn back, only they didn't. They kept going because they had something to hold on to." That's just one example out of many.
Fantasy works—fantasy reads "true"—only when the characters are built on some sort of humanity. They might not be human, but they have something similar with people, and it is within those similarities that the connection is made. Independent of setting and plot, fantasy is real when it is based on the human condition.
In fact, I think that the quality of "realness" is one of my deciding factors for what makes a novel "good." To me, a good novel is one that captures something real about being alive and being human. It's why I generally despise happy endings, unless the book has earned them in some way: because life, in general, isn't full of happy endings. It's what we do with the time we're given (to crib from Tolkein again): that's where the truth of the story exists.
Don't get me wrong; there is plenty of fiction that isn't real. Most romance novels aren't. Most cozy mysteries, most gentle reads. In fact, there's plenty of fiction that is, to use my casual acquaintance's words, "fiction junk."
But that doesn't mean that fiction itself is junk.
"Fiction can bye truer than fact," Richard Peck once wrote. "It isn't a frivolous pastime unless your reading taste is for the frivolous.
The best fiction is concerned with the truths of humanity. It might not have solutions, but it seeks to understand the culture that creates it. It knows that the human experience is almost never black and white, but shades of grey, and that within the shading is the goodness and realness and true-ness of the story. It isn't only about story, about escaping real life for a fluffy, predictable narrative, but about people grappling with real troubles that people really grapple with.
All my life I have found truth in fiction. Truth that has shaped my decisions, my understanding of the world, my relationships and my hopes and my ambitions. In fact, that desire for truth is what keeps me coming back to fiction.
Here's an example. Last week, I was doing some research at the library, and came across a book review for Jenny Downham's new novel, Unbecoming. Books about redheads are nearly universally appealling to me, as are those that switch time frames and narrative voices, so yes: this is an Amy-style of novel, especially when you consider that it's set in England, and one of the main characters has Alzheimer's, and it's about secrets between generations. But when I read about it, I didn't just think "hmmm, that sounds like something I would like." Instead, I felt driven to read this. Luckily for me, my library had just gotten a couple of copies in, and one hadn't been checked out yet.
It tells the story of Mary, whose mother died during World War II, one of those personalities that lives large, even from her birth; the story of her daughter Caroline, who was raised by Mary's sister Pat, and Caroline's daughter Katie, arguably the main character, who is trying to survive her parent's separation, moving to a new town, and the troubles of teenage friendship. Finding out she has a long-lost grandmother (who also has dementia) doesn't seem like it will make her already-difficult life any easier, except Mary is able to act as a catalyst to Katie understanding some important things, both within her own life and about her mother.
I loved this book for many reasons. The story, the characters, the setting; the way the characters changed, made mistakes, found their courage. But the thing that made me lay my head on my kitchen table and weep a big wet puddle was a little piece of knowledge. A part of an answer to the series of questions that is central to my life right now: How did I fail at being the mother my children needed? Have I been a good mother despite that? What do I need to change in order to be a better mother?
Here is the little piece of knowledge. It is near the end of the story, when Katie and her mom have had a big blow up and they might have come to a better understanding of each other:
Katie thought of what the perfect mother might be like—one who approved of you and loved you and was interested in all that you did, but who had a fascinating life of her own so you didn't feel guilty about leaving her. A mother who was at home when you needed her, but absent when you wanted space, who would sew on your buttons and help with studying, but was also scintillating company and completely cool in the eyes of your friends. Katie thought this mother was possibly a combination of Pat, Mary, and Mum, and that made her smile, like it was feasible to take the best bits from three women and make a perfect parent.
Mary is made up. Caroline and Pat and Katie are fictional characters, their experiences invented stories. And yet, they brought me an answer. And proved one of my core beliefs: good fiction always has truth in it.
Sure: I could read a non-fiction book about becoming a better mother to teenagers. I have read them. But being told "do this, and then do that" rarely helps me. Instead, it is in the experiencing of a story—mine, or someone else's, real, or imagined—and coming to a piece of knowledge through the process of experience: that is when I am able to understand. That is how I can fit that little missing piece of truth into what is aching with lack.
I read that and it rang true. It made me feel...OK. Relieved of the pressure of having to be the right kind of mother for my kids. That description of Katie's perfect mom is probably fairly representative of what many teenagers wish their mom was like, and yet (and I think Katie knows this, too), no mother can be that mother. No mother can be perfect. Even me, with my kids, the people who formed out of my very own matter, even though it feels like I should be able to be everything they need—I cannot. Which is why we have more people in our lives that only our mothers.
Truth is scattered. Life, or the Universe, or whatever God you believe in: something wants to bring you the pieces of your truth. They are there if you watch for them. You can find them in conversations, in meditation, in moments of triumph and failure. You can find them in books, too. Even in novels.
Especially in novels.
And that is just one of the reasons I read fiction.
Why do you read what you read?
I am a Mormon.
I have a complicated relationship with my religion: I grew up in a Mormon family who almost never went to church, even though we were all baptized when we were eight. I grew up in a neighborhood where I was excluded from friendships because we didn't go to church. I turned into a teenager who rebelled against almost everything the church taught for many reasons, partly because of that wound of being excluded, partly because I did not understand what the church teaches because I hadn't hardly ever gone.
I am sort of like a convert, constantly learning what being a Mormon means.
I am sort of like those Mormons who come from long lines of pioneer stock, since I do, in fact, come from a long line of pioneer stock—doubters and Jack Mormons nearly every one—which means I feel I own my religion enough to question it.
I may not rebel like I used to, but I do always question everything the church teaches. I hear something and I have to learn it for myself, have to understand how it fits within my own ways of thinking and being. And—maybe because I have always been on the fringes—some of what seems like doctrine to a traditional Mormon seems like utter rubbish to me.
I am comfortable on the fringe. I am doing the best I can with the situations I have and I am at peace with knowing my relationship will always be troubled.
But one thing I love about Mormonism, one thing that is the opposite of rubbish for me, is the temple. I love the temple, even though that complicated relationship means I don't go as often as I might.
When a new temple is built, anyone who wants to can tour it during the open house. After the open house, the only people who can go inside the temple are those with recommends, but during it, everyone can come on in, so our children and teenagers can see the temple then. We've had several new temples here in Utah since I was an adult who might choose to go to a temple open house, but I've only gone to three: the Timpanogos temple, the Oquirrh Mountain temple, and, last week, the Provo City Center temple. (Which means I missed Payson, Draper, Monticello, and Brigham City.)
I felt strongly that I needed to go to this temple open house. Provo is the next town south of where I live, so it's not a long drive, but it was something more than the proximity. Partly it is the history of the building—the new temple is an old building, which was almost destroyed by fire about five years ago. Before that, it was a tabernacle, and one of my great-great something grandfathers, Thomas Allman, made much of the woodwork inside it, including the pulpit. I always meant to take a tour of the tabernacle to see my ancestor's handiwork, but I never did. Part of my feeling about going to the open house was just to be inside a building that was important in my family history, even if the original work is gone.
But as an endowed person, I can go inside the temple after the open house, so it was something more than that.
It was built on a memory that surfaced very sharply for me this Christmas, when I was working on my Christmas writing prompts. The memory wasn't gone, but it wasn't something I'd thought about for a long time. One Christmas, when I was about nine or ten—about Kaleb's age—my parents took me and my sisters to Temple Square in Salt Lake City. In December, Temple Square is covered in lights, and for whatever reason, that year we went to see them. My memory is this: I'm standing in the dark in a garden square which is full of smaller, naked trees, each one bedazzled with white twinkle lights, looking up at the temple itself, the air made sharp by darkness and cold, and a thought comes. A feeling, but almost words: One day, you will be married here. I stayed there, in the dark, in the cold, in the light from the trees, a little bit astounded, my pagan heart a little bit quivery. It wasn't subtle, this feeling. It left a mark on me and I never, ever forgot how that felt.
Not like coercion.
Just like fact.
Even through my many years of rebellion and anger, I never forgot that moment. And, after many years and much changing and a conversion in my heart I was, in fact, married in the Salt Lake City temple.
And now, even more years later, here I am. The mom of two kids whose own relationship with the church is complicated. The mom of two more who I hope I can help form a less-perplexing relationship with the church. I think about my rebellious and disdainful self, and my friends who felt the same, and which of them came back to the church and which of them didn’t. I wonder—what changes a person’s heart? I can’t choose for my kids. I can’t make them have spiritual experiences or the desire to grown in faith. I can be an example, but in the end, they have to choose, like I chose.
But not a small factor in my choice was that experience at the temple so long ago.
So I took my husband and my two youngest kids to the temple open house. I had in my mind a photograph I wanted to have taken, after the tour, when we were outside the building. A picture I’ve seen on so many of my friends’ Facebook and Instagram pages, and on their blogs. A picture of the Perfect Mormon Family™. All of us together, all of us wanting to be there.
I don’t have that.
What I do have is this family. This family who I love. Some kids not, currently, interested in the gospel. (Or currently highly perturbed by it.) A husband who is sorta-kinda involved with church. My two youngest who came along because I wanted them to come. And me, with my imperfect, doubting faith.
Kendell was afraid that if I handed my phone over to a stranger, he or she would drop it, so I said, “Fine, then, you just take it of the three of us.” This was his first attempt:
Then we tried again and got this:
Which is better but shows almost none of the temple spires, and we're surrounded by random people.
Then a kind old lady walked up to Kendell and said “here, give me your phone, you should be in the picture with your handsome tall sons and your beautiful wife” and I glared at him to yes, hand over the phone and quit acting so weird about it, so he did. And here are the pictures she took:
(That is a burst shot of Kendell's elbow as he walked over to us. Yep.)
I wanted to cry. Because isn’t that it? Isn’t this what life is always teaching me. I can want something. I can want something good. I can do what I can to make it happen. But there’s wanting, and then there’s reality, and there’s the interpretation of “good” in the first place. Maybe some people get the ideal. All of those families on social media, with their seemingly-willing hearts and their faithful smiles and their togetherness. Their kids on missions, their temple weddings. That is the Mormon version of “good.” The ideal everyone shoots for.
But if I am honest with myself, I know this: I’ve never been the ideal. I’ve never been the standard. I’ve always been on the fringe, so how could I expect to make the ideal, the standard, the perfect? There is this truth: I love my kids. Not despite but because. And also there is this knowledge: I might not have perfect kids (in the church’s eyes), but I do have some damn fine kids. They are smart and ambitious and want to make something of themselves. They are kind and they are good workers and one day they'll all be productive members of society. Their relationship with God, with faith, with religion—that is not only on my shoulders. Life will bring them their own spiritual moments and they will choose what to do.
And then, there was this moment:
After we had walked up the beautiful spiral staircase, Kaleb tugged on my sweater. I bent down so I could hear him, and he said “Mom! This place has a really good feeling. I didn’t think I wanted to come but this feels really, really nice. Maybe I will get married here one day.”
I remembered. Myself at his age, feeling that feeling. That feeling that stuck with me through everything. Everything.
Hopefully that feeling will stick with Kaleb.
Hopefully all of my children have been given something, something that will stick with them so that when the time is right, when things are better or hearts are mended or even when things are at their very, very worst, they will feel it again and they will know what to choose.