Month: March 2014 (page 1 of 2)

Ten Again

When I was about ten years old, I wanted to be a nun.

On the other side of the playground from my parochial elementary school, there stood the abbey, and inside that building lived the sweetest habit-bedecked woman I had ever met. Unlike the formidable stanchions of respect that taught us five days out of the week and smacked us with rulers upon occasion, this nun (whose name I have completely forgotten, if I ever knew it) was wizened and gentle.

My friends and I used to sneak over during recess and knock on her door. She would welcome us in and give us hard candies and prayer cards printed with saints and Mary. The atmosphere when you stepped into her small kitchen was one of perfect peace, and unnerving quiet.

After a few weeks of banging at her door on a daily basis, we were told to stop pestering the longsuffering sister, that it interrupted her day and that she didn’t like it. At eight years old I was skeptical (I have always been a little skeptical). She had never greeted us with anything but open arms, adjured us to pray, and told us to come back anytime. The conspiracy to thwart my daily escape from the noise of my sweaty and boisterous comrades on the playground seemed patently unfair.

I obeyed, however (I have also always been obedient), and never went back. I missed her. I wonder if she missed us. I am still skeptical that the injunction to cease and desist actually came from her lips. When I think back on it now, I have to think hard as to why, exactly, I thought her life was so incredibly cool; why, exactly, did I want it? And I know the answer.

The little house was always dim, and silent. The noise of the playground sounded far away and faint. She never gave the impression that she had been doing anything but meditating and praying when we knocked. Her life was one of patience and holy stillness, and peace. I didn’t have that in my life. I wanted that.

Instead, I grew up and had 13 children. Peace now is just as difficult to find as it was then, when the canvas of my home life was tension and stress and anxiety, stretched tight over the framework of my days.

I think about that little nun, and her solitary existence, and sometimes I wish I was a cloistered sister in a monastery; sometimes I think there would be nothing better than to escape into silence and vows and daily liturgy.

My life lacks serenity.

And I feel the craving for it, like a pot that’s boiled all the water away and now sits over the fire, burning into nothingness. The stench of my need is acrid like smoke, and it fills my heart.

I don’t want to be catholic, nor a nun, not really. I love my family and the boisterous, obstreperous people that populate my days. My soul, however, needs the quiet assurance that this life, this noisy chaos that dominates every waking hour has legitimacy too, that it, also, is holy in the eyes of God.

In my heart I am still ten, a little girl in need of direction, in need of purpose, in need of a word from her Creator. I sit in my small monastery, my wee house, the little room built with such great love,  and I pray. And he comes, and he whispers “be still” and he whispers “courage, dear heart” and he whispers “you are mine.”

And I find peace amidst the strife.

sigh

Upon the back burner
there simmers and sits
a pan aged and blackened
And full of regrets.

I try to ignore it
And yet I can see
It’s burbling over
and full of debris.

The scalding aroma
pervades every sense
eyes water and burn with
emotion intense.

I stifle the urges
Surrender my will
Speak peace to the turmoil
But it never stills.

I try to ignore it
This pan full of pain
And yet it will bubble
And ever remain.

8 Reasons You are Miserable, and How To Change Them

Disclaimer: I am not an expert in Happiness. I wish I was. Wouldn’t that be a great thing in which to have expertise? I have conducted no studies on happiness; what follows are my own observations and conclusions, based on my own life. I am–unfortunately–something of an expert in misery.

1. You have defined happiness in the most limited way possible. Whatever happiness looks like, it’s only that. Only ever that. That one picture in your mind, that is happiness. It cannot possibly look like anything else.

When you look at happiness as a One Thing Only proposition, your chances of achieving it shrink faster than little Nick Szalinski in Honey I Shrunk the Kids. Pretty soon even a cheerio is bigger than your chances of ever finding it. Broaden your ideas of what happiness is; redefine what sorts of things will bring you happiness. I think that happiness looks like a house on the beach and a best-selling novel for the world to read. But I need to see that happiness can also look like a small room of my own and simply writing, for myself.

2. You have decided there is only one path to happiness. Whatever that One happiness is, let’s put additional stress on it by insisting that there’s only One Way to get it.

For example, your happiness depends upon your children being educated. Okay, I get it. That’s important. Let’s decide that the only way to achieve that happiness is for all of them to go to college. The end. No matter if they might be perfectly suited for the Vo-Tech, it’s irrelevant. They MUST go to a traditional, 4 year college! You’ve just constricted your chances at happiness. Allow for various ways in which happiness can be attained; there are all kinds of ways to get there. Some paths might take longer than others. This is okay too.

3. You have impossible standards.

Perfectionists are some of the most miserable people on earth. Loosen up. I’m slowly learning to give the people in my life permission to do things differently than me, even if it means loading the dishwasher completely wrong. The dishes get clean anyway! Wonder of wonders. Stop trying to control everything, and tell yourself that it’s okay to have crumbs on the floors and spots on the mirrors. Running yourself ragged chasing perfection will not only make you miserable, it will kill you. Happy is its own perfection.

4. You put yourself never. Not last. Never. Put yourself never.

Too many people call this being “spiritual”. They dress it up by saying they are denying themselves and taking up their cross, but the old Acronym JOY stands for Jesus, Others, You. This implies that YOU are somewhere in the list. Too many people spell joy as JO. I personally told myself there was no time for any of my own plans or dreams. I didn’t deserve them. This is a big, oozy, weeping pustule of a lie.

5. You stopped dreaming.

I talked about the importance of dreams here in this post. This is part of number 4–you’ve put yourself so far down the list that you don’t even plan for any of your future anymore; even your future belongs to everybody else. Misery follows close behind.

6. You tell yourself medication is for pussies. You don’t need it.

So many times I told myself that I just needed to pray more, do more, read more, and try harder, and I would be able to pull myself out of my depression. Ain’t so. I liken it to being at the bottom of a pit. At first you maybe able to climb out, but the longer you are there the deeper it gets. The tools you need to cope are at the top of the pit. You can no longer reach them. You need a boost. This is called medication. I’m probably a broken record on this point.

7. You compare yourself to others.

Hoooooboy. This is a big one. How many times have you seen a pretty picture or read a happy post on Facebook and had a pang of envy? It’s a natural human emotion, but if you’re still buying into the lie that everything is as it appears, this is a HUGE wake up call for you. Beautiful people poop too, as the saying goes. Happy faces can hide the saddest lives. And even if those sunny, Pollyanna types really do have bright, trouble-free lives, well, I bet they’re really boring people as a result. Come on. Honestly. The most interesting people are complex and somewhat turbulent. Congratulate yourself on being one of them. Just kidding. Sort of.

8. You constantly predict the future negatively.

You know the cycle: oh my god my kid told a lie–he’s going to be a juvenile delinquent, he’s going to drop out of school and become a bank robber and land in prison for the rest of his life. Rend the clothing! Wear the ashes! Everything is irreparable. I am the queen of catastrophizing, which is a real word that means, well, making minor things into major catastrophes within mere seconds. Mountains out of molehills. Maybe it’s my flair for the dramatic, but I can spiral myself into the pit of despair, and fast. So don’t do it. If you can catch the spiral before it gets a foothold–if you can realize what you are doing before it really gets rolling–you can reverse it, and learn to look at problems realistically and honestly. I used to be halfway down before I knew what was happening. Now I catch it almost before it starts.

Do you know of any other ways to misery? Care to share them in the comments?

 

Top Ten Ways to be a Big, Fat, Jerk*

10. Patience is for pussies. Have none.

9. Desire to control everything. Insist on things being done your way. From filling ice cube trays to loading the dishwasher, your way is not only the best way, it’s the only way. Unless you’re an idiot.

8. Treat service people like they are below you. They are. That’s why they are serving you.

7. Make more work for others. They’ve got nothing better to do. Leave your mess everywhere; somebody else with far more time on their hands will clean it up.

6. Monopolize conversations. Yours is the most soothing and melodious voice. Naturally everyone wants to hear it over all others!

5. Be too good for common courtesy. Friendly waves, thanks you’s, and holding the door for someone are simply enormous taxes on your limited strength.

4. Be easily offended. The bad drivers, the person who didn’t hold the door, the waiter who give you bad service…they are doing those things on purpose because they think you are  a schmuck. Prove them wrong by acting like one in return. This is certain to work.

3. Walk only in your own shoes, ever. Never assume that someone else’s way might be the best way for them. Don’t extend grace. Don’t give the benefit of the doubt. If someone is doing something you disagree with, it’s because they’re stupid. The end.

2. Have no respect for the natural world. Look at the earth myopically. Kill snakes. Smash spiders and bugs. If it doesn’t look like you, it doesn’t deserve to live. God gave you dominion, remember? He doesn’t care anything about all that other stuff he made. Stomp away!

1. Beware others’ opinions. They are almost certain to be bankrupt. Surround yourself only with those who agree with you, so that your ideas are never challenged. Forget that “iron sharpening iron” thing. It’s stupid. You’re the only iron around, anyway.

*this list was frighteningly easy to come up with. What does that say about me?

 

 

What to Expect When You’re Not Expecting Any More

We all know where to find advice when you’re expecting. The tried and true books, the best friends who’ve gone before you, the mother whose advice you’ll ask and never follow, etc etc. But as someone who was always the one expecting, the one who was pregnant for most of her adult life, there was a dearth of advice to be found for what happens Next. After the children stop coming. When you’re Done with a capital D.

Everyone seems to think that finishing with childbearing is a welcome relief, that when the door closes there are blasts of trumpets and wild applause and clicking of heels. Which there are, don’t get me wrong. But there are also unexpected tears and bursts of longing and horrible emotional meltdowns that no one warns you about.

Or maybe that’s just me.

I don’t think so, though. I suspect there are more women than myself who struggle with being Done. It’s not that we want more children, it’s just that we can’t seem to figure out who we are without a baby in the belly or at the breast. Our identity is all wrapped up in being the Fertile Myrtle, the goddess, the One With the Bump. I didn’t want it to be so, but it was in spite of myself.

I never enjoyed pregnancy, but I always have loved the end result, that squalling bit of wrinkled humanity that was laid upon my chest just moments after emerging from the dark netherworld of my guts. Everything about them was intoxicating, and I miss it. Sometimes terribly. So that’s my first point.

1. Expect to miss it. There is a definite period of mourning that goes on when one closes down the baby factory. Like all mourning periods, one person’s will be quite different from the next person’s. No one can tell you, or dictate to you, when you should be “over it”. The longing for various aspects of childbearing will almost certainly hit you with a wallop when you least expect it. Carry tissues at all times.

2. Expect people to be clueless and insensitive. This holds true for almost every situation in life. People are clueless and insensitive. Expect it.

3. Expect to have sudden desires for small fluffy things, like puppies and kittens. I’m still certain that I need a dachshund in my life. Something to coddle, and perhaps dress in small clothes. Yeah. That’s it.

4. Expect to hate your period. After not having more than a dozen periods for years, suddenly I am confronted with this hideous thing that happens to me once a month. Good God, what is that all about? Wait, now I remember. It’s a constant reminder that I am NOT pregnant; a monthly telegram telling me that it’s All Over, in more ways than one. All over. Get it? Yuck.

5. Expect your Significant Other to be confused by you. Wait? You’re crying? You want to be pregnant? No? You don’t? You just want a baby? No? A puppy? What?

6. Expect to baby your last baby to the nth degree. It’s okay. Let him/her have the damn pacifier and blankie. Forget about potty training (it will happen eventually, right? RIGHT??). Share your bed way longer than you did with any other; after all, there’s no newborn coming in to take their place. Breast feed til they’re five, what difference do they know?

7. Expect to confuse yourself. Like so many things, perspective is everything, and grief takes many forms. The waves of emotion will pass, and you can learn to ride them without being driven into the surf by them. But when you fail to maintain control and you are flat on your face with a mouth full of sand, be gentle with yourself. It’s hard. Really hard. Eat some ice cream, and cry. It helps. Borrow a baby from somebody. They’ll enjoy the reprieve, and you might satisfy some of the worst cravings. Just try not to look like a half-crazed baby maniac in the process or they might not hand them over.

So that’s my take on Ending Childbearing. I’m sure some of you have advice as well; feel free to share it in the comments!

Dream a Little Dream

How long has it been since you spent time dreaming about something you’d like to do? Were there things you thought you would have accomplished by now, but you haven’t? Have you given up on old dreams, or simply stopped thinking about them? Have you ever made a bucket list (a list of things you’d like to do before you kick the proverbial bucket)?

There was a time in my life, not long ago, when I was so consumed with day-to-day survival that I never dreamt about anything. Everything I ever hoped to be or accomplish was so far on the back burner that it was on another stove entirely–the broken one in the corner of the garage that was waiting to be hauled to the dump, to be exact.

I had decided my dreams were impossible and silly. I had decided that they weren’t meant to be. I had decided that it was best never to think about them again rather than dredge them up and look at them, which would only lead to feeling discontented.

Instead, I felt broken, empty, discouraged, fatalistic, resigned, and depressed. But at least I wasn’t discontent!

When I finally had the nervous breakdown that I deserved (ah, a week in the loony bin, what a vacation!), I took time to reevaluate where I had been standing for so many years. As it turns out, the space I thought I was giving God to move was actually just me, giving up. It was me, deciding that I didn’t deserve any of the talents and gifts that God had given me. I decided, somewhere along the way, that they must not be for me after all.

And along the way I committed the grievous sin of saying it was what God wanted me to do, that he wanted me to be an empty shell, devoid of personality, that it was what He meant when he said “deny yourself…”

I don’t believe that anymore. Now I believe dreaming is crucial to one’s mental health.

The first thing my husband and I did during my recovery was begin to talk about what we would do after the children were out of the house. In the past, I never thought about it because, hey, these kids aren’t EVER going to get out of the house, right? Wrong. They will, eventually, and refusing to even think about that day contributed mightily to my feelings of discouragement, like there was never going to be anything for me but Wal Mart and laundry, forever and ever, amen. Dreaming about a little camper and traveling to all the states in the continental USA got me excited for the first time in decades about the future. And if you’re not excited about the future, you’re in trouble.

Making a bucket list is a good way to start if you’re out of the habit of dreaming. Think about what you’d like to do, if only you had the time. And then, MAKE TIME. Here are a few things on my own list:

  • banjo lessons
  • hang gliding
  • scuba diving
  • see the Redwoods
  • go to Puerto Rico
  • make pottery
  • get published

I believe that the ability to dream is a God-given gift to the human race. Without dreams we only have nightmares, and so dream, baby. Dream big, and dream a lot, and then get busy working to make them happen. Don’t wait for God’s “permission” to perform the stuff He put in your heart in the first place! It’s an affront to His goodness, His abundant love, His great big imagination, to think that He would give you talents and then not let you use them.

He’s waiting to see what you will do. Make it good!

It Doesn’t Have To Make Sense

So
I thought I was pregnant
for a minute

I wasn’t late
I didn’t think
but I couldn’t remember
because
I forgot to make the mark on the calendar
the tiny mark
that tells me
when the spectre of life
would pass

And the man and I
we were not as careful
as we might have been
otherwise.

And so I didn’t know.

Not really.

And I didn’t want to be
and yet I did.
Because I’m stupid that way.
and conflicted
and full of nonsense
and half-baked dreams.

No.

I really did not want to be.

I was going to be devastated if I was.
Distraught.
Full of sorrow.
Angry.

So I am happy.

And I sit now
writing a poem
about how it feels
and I tell myself
that I am glad
as I cry.

10 Ways to Alienate Someone With a Mental Illness

I posted about how to help someone with a mental illness yesterday. I’d like to explore the flip side of that post here.

LOWAMI = Loved One With A Mental Illness.

1. Imply that they’re not working hard enough. Believe me, mental illness is exhausting. Telling a LOWAMI that they need to pray more, meditate more, try more things, speak to more people, read more books, or go more places is straight-up overwhelming. Encourage movement, but let them go at their own pace. Chances are, they’re doing all they can just to keep their heads above water.

2. Speak nothing but platitudes. “If He brought you to it, He’ll bring you through it!”, especially when spoken with an excessively chipper air and an enormous smile, is reprehensible. Words are not magical incantations that solve problems. Pithy sayings do not bring healing. “God has a plan”, when said to a person who feels like the bottom has just dropped out of their life, is not comforting. Asking how you can help is.

3. Assume they’re stupid. When you find out that someone has a diagnosis, don’t decide that every decision you ever disagreed with in the past must be a result of that mental illness. Just because we’re crazy doesn’t mean we’re idiots. Our lives still have validity, and that includes our judgments, even when you don’t agree with them. Don’t use a diagnosis as a chance to say “I told you so.”

4. Blame their circumstances. Mental illness is a chemical imbalance in the brain. It has nothing to do with the circumstances of someone’s life. A person is not driven crazy by children or husbands or wives or pets or jobs, no matter how common it is to say so. A clinically depressed person is going to be depressed no matter what their circumstances, because something is wrong in the brain. Don’t blame the stresses of a LOWAMI’s life for their illness.

5. Act like it’s a personality defect. Personality disorders are not the fault of the person suffering from them. I know this is hard to accept but contrary to popular opinion, you can’t actually do anything you want to do and be anything you want to be. Sometimes you simply don’t have the tools. It has been said that coping with a mental illness is like trying to peel a potato with another potato. Everybody tells you that you’re doing it wrong, that you need a peeler, but then they just keep handing you potatoes, expecting them to get peeled. Somebody just hand us a damn peeler, please.

6. Discourage treatment. Unless you are a complete asshole, you would never think of telling a sick person to go off high blood pressure meds, or stop taking insulin, or rip out their heart catheter. Mental illness requires treatment, and discouraging it because you think mental issues are separate somehow from “physical” issues (tell me, since when is the brain not a physical organ?) is dangerous and foolhardy.

7. Offer to help, and then don’t. Just stop offering. Please.

8. Constantly suggest alternatives to prescription drugs. Vitamins are good. Acupuncture is good. Essential oils are good. Nutrition is good. Prayer is good. Meditation is good. Voodoo witch doctors are good. Okay, maybe not so much that last one. The point is, these things are good, but we are tired. We are tired of everyone being certain they have the ONE THING that’s going to fix us up, FOR GOOD. Please don’t view our illness as the perfect platform for your latest MLM. We don’t want to be the poster child for “Manny’s Soul Wax” or whatever it is you’re selling.

9. Compare their progress with someone else’s. Just because someone else who is depressed has made a spectacular recovery on drugs X,Y or Z does not mean that another depressed person will have the same results. The brain is a complicated, squishy, sometimes mysterious organ. Everybody’s synapses fire differently. Everybody’s receptors react differently to different stimuli. Different people have different side effects. No one drug is going to solve all the problems for everybody. If your LOWAMI has switched medications it’s probably for a damn good reason. Don’t second guess.

10. Avoid them. We’re devastated, we’re floundering, we’re wondering who we are, we’re lost and afraid and uncertain. Now is not the time to bail. You don’t have to be our savior, just keep being our friend.

 

10 Ways to Help Someone Dealing with Mental Illness

Mental health is an enormous issue in the world today. Many of us know someone or are someone with a mental illness. The National Institute for Mental Health reports that 9.6 million adults in the US have a Serious Mental Illness, one that interferes with their daily lives, requiring medication and therapy in order to overcome its effects. This is 4% of the population, but these are only reported cases. The NIMH estimates the actual number of people suffering to be in the tens of millions.

As someone who is part of the statistics (hello, my name is Jenni, I have a bipolar 1 diagnosis), I have some insights that I think might be helpful to others. This has probably all been said before, but it bears repeating. If someone you love or even sort of like has been recently diagnosed, they may be reeling from the implications. You may be unsure how best to help. Here are a few things to keep in mind.

(in the interest of keeping things readable, the term “loved/liked one with a mental illness” shall henceforth be abbreviated to LOWAMI. This sounds vaguely Hawaiian, which makes me unreasonably happy.)

1. Be there. Please don’t disappear. Please. Your LOWAMI needs you. What we have is not contagious. We don’t expect you to have answers. We don’t want you to have the perfect words. We wouldn’t know what to do with perfect words. What we want is to know you are still our friend, still available for lunch dates or phone calls or bitch fests or gossip sessions. We still need these things. Maybe even more than before. These things make us feel connected, make us feel a part of life, keep us from feeling alienated and alone.

2. Take some pressure off. On the other hand, don’t expect your LOWAMI to be a social butterfly. If their diagnosis is new, they may be struggling to understand what it all means. They may need some time away from large events where they are surrounded by people. Having a diagnosis feels a lot like loss. Suddenly you realize you are not who you thought you were. To me, it felt like part of me had died. I needed time to deal with the loss. I didn’t want to be around large groups of people. Actually, I still don’t. I’m not sure when that will change.

3. Listen. Okay, so really. Listen. You may have to hear the same things over and over, but try not to get frustrated. Change takes time. You may want to reach over and throttle your LOWAMI at times. This is normal. Punch a pillow instead. Mental illness often involves a lot of circular thinking; what you are hearing is just a fraction of what is in our heads. It helps us to get it out.

4. Encourage. If your LOWAMI thinks throwing pottery might help, sign them up. If their therapist suggests journaling, buy them notebooks. Sometimes small steps are large victories. It may not seem like much to you that your LOWAMI made a phone call or went to the Post Office today, but for them it might have taken a Herculean effort. Appreciate that. Tell them they are spectacular.

5. Avoid Platitudes and comparisons. Hooboy, this one’s a biggie. Platitudes, for those who are not sure, are saying and advice that have been said and given so frequently that they lose meaning entirely. Saying things like “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!” and “God won’t give you more than you can handle!” are surefire ways to piss off a LOWAMI who feels like a train wreck. Don’t say “I was depressed once too….” to a LOWAMI with clinical depression. Don’t say “oh yeah, my hormones wreak havoc on me once a month too…” to a LOWAMI who is bipolar. Just…don’t.

6. Seek to Understand. The brain is a freaking complicated thing. It’s pink and gray and mushy and amazing. The secrets it holds have only just begun to be unlocked and made sense of. If your LOWAMI’s illness has a handbook written about it (and I’m fairly sure it does), READ IT. I’m not kidding. Read it. Doing so will help immensely in your ability to understand what your LOWAMI is going through. It will help you deal with the emotional crises particular to your LOWAMI’s illness with greater efficacy and may very well help you maintain a firm foothold on your own sanity in the process. It also makes your LOWAMI feel like you give a crap.

7. Just say No to Quick Fixes. Black paste made from the smashed seeds of the Chihuahua plant in the remote rain forests of South America might have cured your second cousin’s sister-in-law’s niece’s nephew of his crippling ingrown toenails, but please don’t suggest your LOWAMI take it for his/her OCD. If you think something might help, it’s okay to suggest it, but don’t be hurt if your LOWAMI decides to discuss it with his/her doctor before buying a case of whatever it is. And please don’t use us as a platform springboard for your latest MLM.

8. Expect turbulence. If you are truly available to your LOWAMI, you just might find yourself on the receiving end of some pretty epic shit. You might get buried under an avalanche of tears, rage, angst, worry, sorrow, fear and/or any number of other violent emotions. Don’t be surprised if progress is two steps forward and one step back at times. Or two steps forward and three steps backwards. Or standing completely still. Or any combination of those. Over time, progress will be made, as long as movement is happening.

9. Offer Help. Bake cookies. Babysit. Make a meal. These things are invaluable to a LOWAMI who is feeling completely overwhelmed by life.

10. Pray. However you can, however you do, just do it. And keep on doing it. Have faith that the light will dawn, slowly but surely, in the end.

The Magic of a Good Book

My favorite place in the whole world during my formative years was without a doubt the library. Ponca City, Oklahoma, for all its small-town faults, has a singularly spectacular library, due to the vision and philanthropic efforts of one Mr. Ernest Whitworth Marland, founder of the Marland Oil Company which later became the Continental Oil Company for which my father worked. Despite being a child molester who married his adopted daughter way before Woody Allen made it fashionable, Marland spread his wealth with abandon, flinging it hither and thither like an out of control fire-hose of greenbacks, building mansions on the prairie and importing exotic animals only to watch them wither and die in the harsh winters that were typical of Oklahoma.

Although he was spectacularly terrible at animal husbandry, he was not all that bad at commissioning buildings, and the Ponca City Library remains a testimony to his ability to demand that something beautiful be erected in his honor. With soaring ceilings and marble columns, the library says SHHHHH!!! in the loudest way possible. Only downstairs, in the children’s area, was speaking at a rational pitch admissible. Scattering in all directions, my siblings and I would examine every spine in the place, heads tilted 90 degrees until our heads ached. At first I plucked books at random, books with bright colors and interesting titles. After a while, I began to recognize names and cultivate distinct preferences. Certain authors made their way into the giant cardboard box my mother toted with her more often than not; names like Cleary, Peet, Williams and Seldon were early favorites. As I grew and my scope lengthened and stretched, L’engle, Lewis, Sewell and even *gasp!* Bloom were toted home with eager anticipation.

The blessed day upon which I discovered a writer by the unlikely name of Roald Dahl was surely a sunny one. Surely the birds sang with unusual vigor and flowers bloomed with preternatural brightness. Surely the atmosphere held its gaseous breath as I crept towards the “D” aisle and thumbed through the books, head cocked at its usual painful angle. Surely the world itself giggled madly as I approached James and the Giant Peach and pulled it from its spot. Surely there was a burst of wild celestial applause as my eyes grew wide with awe at the drawing of the small boy and the enormous fruit on the cover (and yes, I am extremely partial to the original illustrations by Nancy Ekholm Burkert) and sat on the floor, its indoor-outdoor carpet smelling of old milk and playground dirt, immediately enraptured.

To say a love affair ensued would be understating the facts. On the heels of James, I relished Charlie’s adventures with Willy Wonka inside the most spectacular chocolate factory every imagined, rooted for a truly fantastic Mr. Fox, grew outraged at the mistreatment of a small girl named Matilda, grossed out at the Twits, held my breath as a little boy got caught by witches, and laughed at the misguided dreams of a particularly enormous crocodile. I devoured his books like they were the greatest smorgasbord ever set before me, as indeed they were. In the hands of Mr. Dahl, words became much more than mere collections of letters and were instead golden tickets to other worlds where adults knew nothing and children were always brave and right. Villains were never sympathetic and heroes were never conflicted. Gross was more than gross, it was vile, noxious, despicable, and shocking, and beauty was resplendently effervescent.

I loved Dahl because he never talked down to me. He expected me to know big words. He let me hate with abandon and love without limits. Occasionally he threw in a phrase like “silly ass” and it was our little secret; he trusted me to understand that bad words had their place in literature, and in life, so long as you saved them for the right occasion. His characters shone with bright, bold colors and he lifted the mundane out of life and polished it until you saw the beauty. The good guys might have always won, but the bad guys were second to none in the halls of villainy, so in that way they won as well. Nobody lost in a Roald Dahl book, least of all the reader, who was so enriched by his experience upon closing the back cover that, if he had any sense, he immediately turned it over and began again. My sorrow upon realizing that I had, in fact, read every single children’s book he wrote, was tempered by discovering that Mr. Dahl wrote books for grown-ups too!

Of course, I had to wait to read them but was not disappointed once I had the chance.

To this day I wish I had let him know, before his death in 1990, how much he had meant to me. What was I so busy doing that I couldn’t have penned him a line or two? Oh, that’s right, I was raising two children and was pregnant with a third. When I heard that he had died I felt the sorrow like a shooting star streak across my heart; an echoing thud shook me to the core where it landed. If I could talk to him today, I would tell him how much he had enriched my imaginative world as a little girl, how vastly he had enlarged my vision, how Charlie and James and Matilda and Danny and Sophie had kept me company on more than one lonely day when I wasn’t sure where I belonged. They always welcomed me into their worlds, and so they belonged to me, and I to them. I think that he would have enjoyed knowing that. Maybe, somehow, he does.

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