Archive for January, 2012

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I am the mom

January 24, 2012

So, in my secret, dark heart of hearts I want to be a children’s and young adult librarian.

Not that I don’t love being an academic librarian, and, importantly, academic librarians tend to 1) make more money, 2) have better health insurance, and 3) get more/better leave options than public librarians.

But, if money and job security weren’t as necessary as they currently are, I’d run away to help kids find stories (and non-fiction books!) that speak to them. And I read quite a lot of literature written for an audience that is much younger than I am, and I keep track of quite a lot of the literature being written. I usually feel, when I read these books, like a kid myself – I toss my brain into that world with a certain amount of abandon and become a teenager again, though a much smarter, more together teen than I actually ever was.

This isn’t because I don’t like being middle-aged. My thirties have so far been happy and fulfilling, with the great exception of Teddy’s death, which doesn’t feel to me as though it had much to do with my age, really. My teens and twenties were difficult because I was figuring out not just who I was, but who I wanted to be. I like knowing who I am. Even though I am a bit jealous of people who get to know who they are without wondering who they might have been if their kid hadn’t died. Even though some days I feel old and sad and creaky.

So, when I’m reading books written for adolescents I get the best of both worlds – a kind of youth in retrospect. My reading brain gets to be young, but grounded and toughened by experience. It has pithy comebacks and a cool, non-committal shoulder shrug. And, perhaps because I was the opposite of cool when I was, you know, actually a teenager, this is a lot of fun.

One of the most talked about YA novels to come out in the new year is The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green, about whom I’ve written before. I read it, even though I knew its protagonist was a girl with cancer and even though I knew that there would be death in the book. I read it, knowing that I wouldn’t have been able to read it in 2008, or 2009, or even 2010 when my grief was more raw.

There’s a lot to love about the book. The humor and courage and humanness of the main character, Hazel Grace, and her friend Augustus Waters, the insight into family relationships, the descriptions of Amsterdam, the reflections on love and the meaning of life in the face of the imminent dissolution of human accomplishment and memory. It’s funny and sad and thoughtful and memorable. If you are in a place where you can read a novel about kids with cancer, I recommend it. And it’s full of lines I love, like the following:

“Easy comfort isn’t comforting.”

And, “But I believe in true love, you know? I don’t believe that everybody gets to keep their eyes or not get sick or whatever, but everybody should have true love, and it should last at least as long as your life does.”

And at the end of reading it, the character I felt closest to, most wanted to talk with?

Hazel’s mom. Hazel’s mom, who has to live with the knowledge and uncertainty of her child’s diagnosis, who is strong because she has to be, who hovers and nudges, who isn’t named in the book because, while we get glimpses of who she might be outside of Hazel’s story, inside this story she is primarily (and staunchly, and fiercely) the mom.

One of my favorite things about reading is that you go into a story with your own set of experiences, thoughts, and beliefs, and when you emerge from that story, you are someone else. Books affect who you are, sometimes profoundly, and sometimes only in very small ways. And I don’t know if this is profound or not, but reading this book made me realize a truth about myself: I am the mom. I have been the mom since Teddy was born. It is sweet and bitter, and while I am many other things at the same time, I will be the mom until I die.

It feels strange, to pick up a book written primarily for young adult readers and discover your middle-aged, mom self in it. This may be the first book I’ve read where I’ve felt like a mom the whole time I was reading. It’s different, and a little strange – I kind of miss my young reading self with the pithy comebacks – but I think I know myself a little better now, and I like that.

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My best advice

January 18, 2012

I’m participating in Mel’s Free Advice Day as an alternative to blacking out my blog in protest of SOPA and PIPA. But, because I’m a pedantic librarian type person, before I give you my advice, I want to give you some information on SOPA, because I think it could be very damaging, to the internet at large and also to this particular corner of it that has saved my sanity.

Wikipedia has a very good overview: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:SOPA_initiative/Learn_more. They explain quite well how devastating it could be for web site owners to be legally responsible for policing content, for search engines to block blacklisted (or potentially blacklisted) sites from searches, of the ways that these pieces of legislation will damage the effectiveness and stability of the internet while making adding content to the internet scarier, less collaborative, and more difficult. For a more personal look at all of this, Shreve Stockton’s brief but poignant explanation of how SOPA would have affected her blog, writing, and life, is worth reading and can be found up over at The Daily Coyote.

For my part, well, I hate to think about what would have happened to me if I hadn’t been able to read blogs from around the world – the people and support that would have been lost to me. I wonder if glow in the woods would have been available to us under SOPA and PIPA. I wouldn’t have been able to write so freely about my boy. I wouldn’t have felt so supported. I wouldn’t have met all of you.

What to do? If you’re a U.S. citizen, call or email your representatives. Wikipedia makes this easy: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special:CongressLookup. Calling is more effective, but if you have a longstanding fear of telephones like I do, know that emailing makes a difference, too.

And now for the best advice I have:

Like what you like.

The world is full of people telling us what we should like, what is beautiful, what is worthy, what is noteworthy. And in many respects, these messages are good things; they help us to situate ourselves in the world and they help us discover new and wonderful things. I notice this especially in the world of literature, where awards often lead to increased exposure and recognition for deserving authors and books.

Where this becomes problematic is where all of these messages about what is good, about what we should like, make us feel like there’s something wrong with us if we don’t like the Mann Booker prize winner, or don’t have the supermodel body, or don’t enjoy the beluga caviar. I used to make covers out of wrapping paper for the novels I loved to read on the bus. “Moby Dick,” I would write on the outside, and on the inside would be the latest Laurel K. Hamilton novel, full of vampires, were-things, and improbable sex. I loved those books even though I didn’t want to. I felt like I should be loving literary giants instead. It took me a long time to realize that loving genre fiction doesn’t mean I’m unintelligent or uninteresting.

After Teddy died, I no longer had the emotional energy to pretend. When my heart was full of aching void and each day seemed to drag on gray and dull and sad, books gave me some ease and comfort and relief. I read what I wanted and needed to read. I read to take me out of myself and to find new perspectives. I read to remember that laughter was possible. I’m much better at liking what I like now, especially when it comes to books. I will never consider this a silver lining, but it’s something I learned,  something I learned that doesn’t completely suck. And now I’ve re-discovered romance novels and unashamedly read them. I read fiction written for adolescents and enjoy it whole-heartedly. I read other things, too, but I will never again pretend that I only read great works of literature. I respect Saul Bellow and Faulkner, but I’ll never love them as I do Robin McKinley.

This holds true for more than just books. My mom bought me a pair of jeans and mailed them to me this month. They are well-made and comfy, but they are baggy at the thighs and have tapered legs, and after trying them on once, I was reminded of all the times I spent with Mom in dressing rooms, listening to her explain that I should find pants with pleats to flatter/camouflage my hips. I never liked pleated pants, or thought I looked good in them, but I tried to since she told me I should. It was years later when I realized that generally accepted fashion advice wasn’t in sync with the advice coming from my mother. The lesson here isn’t that I should have listened to Stacy and Clinton rather than Mom, it’s that I should have trusted what I liked. I’m sending these jeans back and getting some curvy fit, boot-cut ones instead, jeans I know I’ll wear comfortably, jeans I’ll really like.

It’s okay to like Cheetos and avoid caviar, or to like people, and places, and things that aren’t (or are!) in fashion. It’s okay to like yourself and respect the things that you like. The fact that you like something is a big hint that it has value, no matter what other people say; what you like is important, because you are important. It sounds easy even though it isn’t, but it’s worthwhile.

Like what you like.

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Mumblings on writing and work

January 13, 2012

Angie, at Still Life With Circles, has an excellent post up on writing and procrastination, both subjects near and dear to my heart, and especially relevant to me today.

You see, yesterday I finished a full draft of an article about some library survey data and what one of the trends means for academic libraries. It probably sounds boring as hell, something common to most academic writing unless your own work/research is related to said writing. It isn’t the article I dream of writing, the one that will have a major impact on library services and make me an instantly recognizable figure at fancy national conferences. But it’s a fully drafted article. I wrote it with a colleague and after we hear back from some other colleagues who’ve volunteered to give us some feedback, we’ll submit it to a journal.

The journal will publish it, because it’s already good. By the time we submit, it will be better.

I can write, you see.

It’s something I do often at work. I advise on system-wide emails, take others’ ideas and my own and create policy statements or guidelines, put together web pages so library users will (hopefully) have some online resources that are helpful and clear and readable. I translate tech speak to human speak. I like doing this, these forays into language, into this deeply important aspect of what it means to be human. I like that this is part of my work. I can conduct rigorous research and incorporate various theories, the brain children of others, into my own work and words. This little article, it is good. It may even be moderately important. I’m pleased with it.

And yet…

The article I really want to write, the one incorporating years of research, is the one I’ve been putting off and putting off. I stared at my notes. I took more notes. I did something else. I beat myself up about not writing it on a daily basis until my interesting article idea became a nightmare, a stone around my neck, and a clear indication of how badly I’ve been broken.

Because after my administrators sat me down in their offices and told me that they like me, like my work, but that I needed to write and publish or they wouldn’t be able to hold onto me, procrastinating that one thing I needed to do, especially since that one thing was something I’m generally interested in and good at – well, that’s something I can only explain by being broken. Every time I tried to piece together some writing that would, well, save my job and grant me some security, I came face to face with how much harder writing is for me after Teddy’s death. I saw the breaks and cracks and holes where my talents and ambition and fortitude used to be.

Writing this other article, this article that wasn’t as important to me as my own pet research project, this article that I wrote with someone else and therefore had small deadlines for which I needed to be accountable, it helped me fix part of myself.

I didn’t know I could do that. Last month, I was thinking along these lines – Hello, my name is Erica and my son died and now I am broken. Also, my family is broken. Also, the world. And now I suck at things I used to be good at.

Today, I am thinking like this – Hello, my name is Erica and my son died and now I am broken. Also my family is broken. Also the world. And now I need to work extra hard to do some of the things that used to come easy to me, and I hate that and may never stop resenting it, but I’m getting better at it, at fixing parts of myself, at bringing bits of myself back or making new bits of myself to fill in holes that need filling.

I’m writing that pet article. Right now, today. I grind the words out and they hurt, but they’re good words. I’ll have it drafted within 10 days, even with beginning-of-the-semester business.

It only took me three and a half years to get here.

By the time I’m 60, perhaps I’ll be fully functional. Maybe I’ll stop thinking of myself as broken. For now, though, it’s a huge relief to realize that I’m not broken beyond all usefulness or repair.

I want to know – where are your broken places, the things you used to be good at that were/are hard or impossible to do? Have you been able to fix any of these places or find ways around the brokenness? Do you think being broken will ever, well, suck less? Or do we just learn better to deal with it?

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End of the year/Beginning of the year

January 3, 2012

Another random collection of thoughts to start off the new year, which, I guess, is appropriate, since I seem to think rather randomly these days.

I want snow. I long for snow, yearn for snow, crave it like Rapunzel’s mother craved rapunzel. It is gray and brown and muddy, bare and drizzly here, and I want winter to come and blanket us in white, to hide the mud and muck and soggy leaves and turn the world into magic again.

We visited my parents in Montana for Christmas. A good time was had by all, but I discovered that while you can go home again, it’s much harder if you take a significant other and/or child. Dot had a stomach bug and N was worn out by end-of-term grading and driving over the mountains and spent a lot of time napping. My parents are early-riser, get-to-doing sorts, so I found myself braced to defend N’s napping even though I didn’t need to. It was good, but I was constantly thinking about N and Dot and trying to make them comfortable, so it was not the relaxing change of pace I’d envisioned; nor did I get any time for myself unless Dot was sleeping and because of the tummy bug she slept rather poorly. I took a shower on Christmas Day, and N brought Dot to see me in the shower, thereby shortening my shower rather effectively – I’m not sure that this is legal, but it probably shouldn’t be.

I am facing down the fact that, while Teddy would have only been three and not-quite-a-half right now, this is the fourth new year I’ve begun without him. I’m having difficulty making my peace with that bit of math – I don’t know why it so surprises me, but there it is. A new bit of puzzlement to add to a life complicated by grief, I guess. Like the fact that three years is a long time and yet no time at all, or that Dot is my second child, though she’s the first I’ve ever watched grow into a crazy-daisy chatterbox of a brave, adventurous, highly opinionated little person. Puzzles I’ll never sort out on the math and measurements front.

And don’t get me started on grammar – I have a son (except I don’t really have him) or, I had a son (which seems to relegate Teddy firmly to the past, and feels a bit like abandonment). Dot has a brother, or had a brother – though she wasn’t around when he was born, so neither, grammatically speaking, is correct. Dot would have had a brother if he had lived. If he had lived and we’d then decided to have had Dot. Too sad, too wistful, too reliant on too many factors I can’t wrap my head around. I reject you, you would have had; even if you are the most appropriate and truthful tense, I don’t like you much. I need better words and tenses, better tools for grappling with the uneven territory of grief.

N and I stayed up past midnight watching The Lady Eve (Oh, Barbara Stanwyck, how I adore you!) and sipping prosecco. As ways of welcoming a new year go, this one was pretty wonderful. I recommend it.

The trailer is decidedly dated and rather awful, but the movie transcends it.

Wishing a kind and generous 2012 to all of you.