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Pickle Me This

March 3, 2013

On Reading for Comfort and Answers

belonging“It feels as if coming to this house, and picking these books to read, has had in its chancy juxtoposition something of divine revelation. I’ve always had a penchant for doing this, opening books at random, letting words or phrases leap out to show me the way–for decades, I have turned to The Books of Knowledge, my grandmother’s encyclopedia, and riffled through the pages looking for answers whenever I am in doubt.” –Isabel Huggan, “Homage to Kenko”, from Belonging

I knew nothing about what to expect in the days and week’s after Harriet’s birth, and most of my imaginings about the whole thing were so incredibly wrong, but the one thing I got right somehow was deciding to tuck Laurie Colwin’s A Big Storm Knocked It Over in my hospital bag. There could have been no book more perfect for those days than that one, that book with the passage that summed up the whole experience of new motherhood like nothing else I’ve ever read (“The days seemed to congeal like rubber cement, although moments stood out in clearest, starkest brilliance…”) and helped me understand what we were going through, that women had felt like I had time and time again before me.

Last week, in fits of anxiousness and desperation, I wanted to turn to Colwin again, to Laurie Colwin with her perfect combination of lightness and edge, with her acknowledgement of the presence of joy in the world, but then I couldn’t bear to. Colwin’s capacity for joy is all the more heartbreaking when one considers her sudden death, and when one is consumed by hysterical thoughts of one’s own sudden death, such things are not to be considered at all. They will bring no consolation. (They will again though. I plan to spend my summer reading Laurie Colwin and Barbara Pym.)

There were other things I had to read though, a new book for review and also Sally Armstrong’s new book Ascent of Women, as I was putting together a Q&A for 49thShelf. The former was hard to take partly because I had to read it on on PDF on an iPad (and what a relief to finish! To return to the reality of paper again) and partly because the protagonist’s best-friend-dead-from-cancer whose sudden demise had inspired the protagonist to no longer take her own existence for granted failed to inspire me at all, except to cringe. Sally Armstrong’s book was more useful, offering the gift of perspective and taking my mind off my own problems. I was grateful for the distraction, though the book plus my own anxiety last Tuesday lead to terrible dreams of a million giant-sized Mohammad Shafias. Very odd.

I decided that I would read Isabel Huggan’s Belonging next, partly because I received a very kind note from her last week, also because I remembered how much comfort and happiness I’d received from reading The Elizabeth Stories in October after first-trimesterness had kept me from enjoying any book for ages, and mostly because I’d been saving it–perhaps for this very moment in time.  It occurs to me that in books, I was looking for the same answers I’d been seeking in my desperate google searches last week, but the difference was that in books, or perhaps just this book, I was even finding some.

Like this:

“Over time, I’ve come to understand that when Jamal says that a situation is normal, he means that there are flaws in the cloth and flies in the ointment, that one must anticipate problems and accept them as a part of life. Whereas I’ve always thought that things are normal until they go wrong, Jamal’s version of reality is causing me to readjust my expectations for fault-free existence and to regard the world in a more open fashion.”–Isabel Huggan, “Leaning to Wait, from Belonging

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