When Fiction and Reality Meet

Room

My favorite reading experience, where the book I was reading matched the circumstances around me perfectly, used to be easy to pick out. I often used to take the train from the Chicago suburbs to Champaign-Urbana, when I bounced back and forth between my parents’ house and college. This particular trip I took was in the evening in the middle of a cold, clear winter. While the train was usually full enough that I was obliged to make small talk with a seatmate, this time it was almost completely empty and silent. Every other time I sat under fluorescent lights with dull grey metal all around me. This time I found myself in a refurbished Pullman car. Red velvet lined the seats, with a fringed gold trim edging the armrest. A sumptuous carpet rested under my feet. The lights had a soft glow emanating from ornate sconces. I burrowed myself into my seat, cushioned and alone, and picked up where I had left off reading The Shining for the very first time. The opulence matched The Overlook Hotel, and as I glanced out the window at an endless stretching snowy winter, seeing a single farmhouse light in the distance echoed my own isolation and that of the Torrences. For nearly twenty years that has been my favorite.

I may have a new contender. I have been sick with a really horrible protracted cold, and my boys are now sick with the same excruciatingly slow virus. My husband is traveling for work, and the boys have now missed three days of school. Last night my oldest wanted to sleep on the couch, so when he went to bed I tiptoed to my room and grabbed a book since I was not going to be able to fall asleep at 8:30. I had bought Room by Emma Donoghue more than a year ago and hadn’t touched it since. I’m not sure if I was worried that my heart wouldn’t be able to take it, but for some reason it nearly jumped off the shelf at me this time.

We are told the story through the perspective of a five-year-old boy named Jack. He and his mother are held captive in a small room by the man who kidnapped his mother years ago. The book opens on his fifth birthday and describes how they manage to make a life for themselves in “Room”, a place Jack has never left. It opens on the day of the spring equinox. I began to feel eerie, as yesterday was the spring equinox as well. Jack describes what TV shows he likes to watch, and because this is set in contemporary times, they are all shows my children watched too. Backyardigans, Wonder Pets, Dora the Explorer. The way his mother helps structure their days reminded me so much of what it was like when the boys were small, when one day can bleed into the next if it is just you together in the house, seeing no one else, going nowhere else. A state I am in right now. It is just us, quarantined away from the world, only using the resources we have on hand, and with each other as our sole company. It is both intimate and confining all at once.

Jack counts his teeth with his tongue when he is trying to distract himself. Each time he does I do the same and am reminded that a crown popped off one of my teeth earlier in the day. As I think about when I’ll be able to get that fixed Ma takes a ‘killer’ (painkiller) because her bad tooth is aching very badly. She is also waiting to get her tooth fixed, though for her it may never happen.

I read more than half the book in that one sitting, entranced, both seeing myself and the day I just had and the day I was about to have stretched before me, and seeing how much more I had that they didn’t. A window. A telephone. Food in the cupboards. The ability to open the door and feel fresh air on my face. Things I would never have stopped to appreciate that I still have even if I don’t have the Outside right now.

I’m not capturing how odd it felt, how odd it feels when your reality and fiction blends so perfectly together that you cannot extract one from the other. It isn’t something you can plan, though luckily sometimes it comes together. I read a scene from The Signature of All Things where the protagonist laments how useless paper is on a tropical island exactly one day before discovering all our paper was a humid mess in Puerto Rico. We read Harry Potter for the first time through the 2016 election and the coincidences were spooky (though that is an essay for another time). I guess I’ll tell this story better after twenty years than I do now, but I wanted to say…

Books are magic in a totally unpredictable and unusual way. And in the middle of a boring household cold, I got to experience that again.

 

Why My Posts Have Been Sporadic Lately

sky.JPG

My posting on the blog has been a bit dodgy this summer (dodgy, huh, I must be reading too much Harry Potter with the boys). Sometimes, in the past, less-than-consistent posting has meant good things are happening (feeling healthy, vacation, etc.) and sometimes that has meant bad things are happening (you know, feeling sick and such). This time around it has meant something different, something I have never attempted before.

I am working on writing an entire book, and it scares the bejeezus out of me.

80,000 words is a fairly standard length for a collections of essays or memoir. My goal is to get at least those 80,000 words into a first draft by next summer. I began about a month ago. So, three hundred words at a time I have plugging along with occasional super productive days of 600 words. This gives me weekends off and is achievable even on bad health days (like earlier in this week I had written about 500 in the morning and spent the afternoon in the ER with shortness of breath). Which is really important considering…

It is going to be a collection of essays around what it is like to be one of those people who floats on the edge of healthy and sick all the time. It will have episodes that illustrate what the depths of brain fog feel like, what being in pain does to your ability to parent, how hard it is to get dairy-free food in Wisconsin. Some chapters (like that last one) are sillier than others. It alternates between the hard and the easy, just like my life does. The tough ones take it out of me as I relive times when I felt overwhelmed and uncertain and scared. And as anyone who ever did theater knows, making someone laugh can be harder than making someone cry, so the goofier chapters aren’t a walk in the park either. It is kind of more exhausting than I had anticipated!  At any rate, it certainly wouldn’t do to sacrifice the healthy days I have overextending myself writing too much at once. That would be quite self-destructive.

There is also the emotional tightrope I’ve been walking daily between anxiety and audacity, humility enough to say, “This isn’t working” and the confidence enough to say, “Now this is working!” Not going to lie, it is messing with my head. It is simultaneously as terrifying as jumping out of an airplane and as boring as a 1.2 on a treadmill facing a brick wall. I am beat tired.

So there have been fewer other posts. I have some in the works – I want to write about our glacier tour in Alaska, about the beginning of the school year, about a Little House on the Prairie Cookbook – but it is going to be slow going.

Thank you for your patience and understanding!

Now if you’ll excuse me, I am off to calculate how many words I have written so far against my goal total…

Dang, only five percent.

But that’s a lot higher than zero!

Surrogate Soulmate

pearls

My husband is most certainly my soulmate, the constant North Star whose presence points me in the right direction. Well, he’s actually more of a wandering star, traveling for work nearly every week. Houston, Calgary, Paris, London, Rio …Cincinnati. All the glamourous destinations. I miss him, greatly. Oh, the family grinds on and our boys have inside jokes with me that their dad is unaware of (I’m not going to tell them here, that would spoil our fun), but it is hard. That person who makes me laugh the most, and who never asks me to help him with common core math homework, he is gone a lot. And it often feels empty.

So I have gotten myself a surrogate soulmate, for when my real one is unavailable. If I am feeling the onset of insomnia borne from loneliness, I will get out one of my Pearls Before Swine comic books by Stephen Pastis. Now, no getting on my case. I have read and appreciated fine works of literature: Steinbeck, Austen, Camus. I used to teach them, even. None of those authors reminds me for even one second of my soulmate the way this collection of comic strips does.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? No, I shall compare thee to an anthropomorphic rat, goat, pig, zebra, crocodile and the occasional lemming. This comic strip is subversive and smart and dumb and hopeful and misanthropic and silly and honest and funny. And so is my guy. I don’t get lost looking at the empty side of our bed, cast in dark shadows from my nightstand lamp. I giggle quietly for a few minutes before I set my glasses down, click off the light and burrow into my pillow to sleep peacefully. Because both my soulmate and my surrogate soulmate know how to sell a really bad pun, making me laugh every single time.