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.

 

Happy Irish-Italian-American Day!

irish-Italian
[Picture of red tomatoes and a box of spaghetti above. Picture of shamrock and plaque that read “Home is where your story begins” surrounded by Celtic knots below]

I am half Irish-American and half Italian-American, more or less, give or take. On the Irish side there are a few Scottish and French ancestors, and on the Italian side we are more accurately Sicilian. This is a fairly common background for people who live near Chicago, Boston, or New York, as both of these European immigrant groups settled in these cities in large numbers. I get that it isn’t very common in the rest of the country – when I lived in Tennessee and Texas I was hard-pressed to find anyone who was either Irish-American or Italian-American, much less both.

Chicago, however, is city that dyes its river green every St. Patrick’s Day and has a bag-pipe filled parade. It is also a city that celebrates St. Joseph’s Day on March 19th with groaning tables of Italian food and the color red. Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland, Joseph the patron saint of Italy. It stands to reason, that in the Chicagoland area March 18th should be Irish-Italian-American Day. You know, split the difference and celebrate the best of both cultures.

My brother and I went back and forth on suggestions. Maybe of viewing of Brooklyn or Return to Me (apparently there is an Irish-Italian restaurant). I can’t remember if it is A Bronx Tale or Goodfellas that features characters who cannot be full mafiasos because they are part Irish-but I’m thinking I’m tired of Italian heritage being reduced to the mob. Maybe I’ll watch the beautifully animated Song of the Sea again.

My general feeling is that I would be best served eating Italian (and Italian-American) food while listening to Irish (and Irish-American) music. Gnocchi, lasagna, caprese salad, tiramisu, cannoli, lemon knot cookies, pizzelle, agli olio, espresso, eggplant parmesean, stuffed artichokes, pasta fagioli. Gaelic Storm, the Cheiftains, Van Morrison, Flogging Molly, U2.

The reverse would be all right too, if perhaps a tad less illustrious. I really do love a good stew, potatoes are always a favorite, and my oldest kid even likes cabbage. I can appreciate opera (Nessun Dorma sung by Pavarotti is heaven) and Frank Sinatra will always have my heart.

I could binge read, James Joyce and Dante, William Butler Yeats and Petrarch.

Check out the artwork of the Book of Kells, and the Renaissance.

Drink beer or wine.

And both places are beautiful.

You know, it is almost as if there is no wrong way to celebrate.

So for everyone out there who has both Irish and Italian heritage in America, in between Shamrock Shakes and sweets tables, there is one day that could celebrate both. Let’s do it!

Happy March 18th, everybody!

Expecto Patronum

expecto-patronum

These are dark days. Exhausting days. Days that promise a new affront to decency and stability every damn hour.

I am trying.

I have been filling a journal with things that make me happy, unfailingly happy.

Activities.

Songs to dance along to.

Song to sing along with.

Foods.

Movies and TV shows.

Reminders to take my medicine on time.

Reminders to breathe.

Lists of things I want to teach the boys.

Things I can do to make my environment more orderly.

Beautiful things.

Silly things.

Lists of painters I love.

Lists of comic strips that make me smile.

Reminders to stretch.

A list of exercise classes I can get to quickly.

Nail polish colors.

Names of people I love.

Inside jokes with my husband.

Lists of things with soothing textures-smooth stones and fluffy hair and grass.

Descriptions of places I love.

Little things I can to do show my family I love them.

 

Anything I can think of to pierce the darkness, it goes in the journal.

 

I flip through it whenever I need to, and I need to almost hourly right now.

 

I am not going to lose my soul to this fight.

Expecto Patronum.

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.

My Social Media Confession

Social Media Confession

 

I don’t consider myself to have a diagnosable issue with OCD.

I have a lot of rituals and routines that seem to provide me with some relief from anxiety, but they are largely invisible and don’t cause problems. Does it really matter that I turn on the playroom light every time I turn on our house alarm, or that I take the empty hangers out of my husband’s closet the moment he travels so that I don’t have a visual reminder that he’s gone for the week, or that I have to eat my frozen enchilada meal oriented in the right direction? Is it the end of the world that I have parking spots I prefer (the ones that are directly next to a sidewalk, for instance) or that I like to arrive at important doctor’s appointments at least ten minutes early? Our household philosophy is “It’s not a problem until it’s a problem.” That may sound silly, but what it means is that we try to give ourselves leeway about our quirks. If they start to get out of hand, then we give it our undivided attention to try to get it back to manageable. It’s a little like when you know the house is gotten a bit messy, but you don’t obsess over it. Then you trip over a basketball and land on Legos and yell, “This is why we don’t let it get this bad around here! Time to clean up, now!” All of our family quirks are like that, when it is a problem we fix it, but we don’t consider it a problem until it really is one.

Well, my OCD tendencies are becoming a problem, in one very specific area – my phone.

I am going to confess something I’m a bit ashamed of. Every morning I have to check my social media. HAVE to. It has become something that causes me a lot of anxiety and distress if I

A. Don’t do it at all.

B. Do it out of order.

Or

C. Don’t complete my rounds.

I HAVE to check Facebook, then my e-mail, then Pinterest, then Timehop, then Instagram, then WordPress, then Buzzfeed. It takes a ridiculous amount of time. Most mornings I am up too early anyways, so my rounds don’t interfere with anyone or anything else. I’ve tried to slow down but I find myself extremely anxious at not completing this routine. It bothers me immensely. I feel very unsettled and cannot move on with the other things I need to do. There is no good reason for this compulsion, and the interference with daily life – this is when you get into diagnosable territory. This is when it becomes a real problem and not just a “quirk”.

This morning, though, was the worst. My oldest had to wake me up at seven because I needed to get up and make lunches and give my youngest a bath. I knew I was running late. I knew I had forgotten to plug in my phone, so it was on very low battery. I knew that my oldest had been sweetly responsible in waking me up, and that he had been up for an hour and wanted to chat. What I did, instead of making breakfast or actually talking with my son, was I stood next to the charger with my phone plugged in, checking my rounds and ignoring him. I nodded and didn’t make eye contact, and I said, “uh-huh” in response to every question, and I left him out. He barely seemed to notice how much I had just invalidated him, how I had just demonstrated how much more important my rituals and my phone were than anything he had to say. That was the saddest part of all, his acceptance that he should play second fiddle to my anxieties and to a stranger’s comments on Facebook, and that he still loved me and felt no resentment towards me over it. It’s not a problem until it’s a problem. It is a very big problem.

I don’t have a resolution to this problem yet. But it sure as hell has gotten my undivided attention now. I am going to fix this, because my son shouldn’t have to be happy with scraps of divided attention; he shouldn’t have to share me with an iPhone.

Houswifery and Rage Against the Machine

housewifery

I have tried to like housework.

I really have. I have quotes scribbled into my notebooks about the Zen nature of caring for the objects that serve you well. One reminds me that caring for pots and pans we use or combing our tangled hair, is an act of self-care and should be done carefully. Another is a conversation on how to reach enlightenment, where the student asks the teacher how to do so, and the teacher replies, “Chop wood, carry water”. The student then asks what one does after enlightenment and the teacher replies, “Chop wood, carry water.” The act of cleaning, scrubbing, folding and putting away can be meditative.

I have more quotes scattered around the house and Pinterest boards about how women authors balanced housekeeping and writing. (This is not a question many male authors have had put to them, nor have many commented on it spontaneously) Agatha Christie found herself plotting novels while doing dishes. I think about the episode of Big Bang Theory where Sheldon takes a menial job to free his brain for a creative breakthrough.

I own books called The Hoarder in You, Love the Home You Have, and The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.

I have bribed myself with clothing, and lunches out of the house, and new books to try to goad myself into the domestic duties are mine to tackle.

My husband is a neat and tidy person, an equal partner in shopping and cleaning and childcare when he is home. But four out of seven days he is not, and the entirety of our house’s functionality rests on me.

The only way I have found to prod myself to do the right thing, when all these other things fail, is The Housekeeping Playlist.

The Playlist is raucous.

I yell along to it instead of singing.

Head-banging and fists pumping in the air might be involved.

And it consists almost entirely of Rage Against the Machine songs.

People of the Sun. Bulls on Parade. Renegades of Funk. Guerilla Radio. Testify.

Sleep Now in the Fire.

Once I get a good dose of “F*ck the system” out of my system I am ready to tackle dirty dishes and wiping down stainless steel appliances. Maybe it’s my way of announcing to myself that it’s okay that I feel pissy and whiny and don’t want to be stuck doing this. Maybe it’s the deep down irony of yelling at the patriarchy and then looking like a stereotypical housewife perpetuating the system. Maybe it’s a way for me to remember that me not wanting to clean is a ridiculously small and petty thing, compared to what bigger injustices are going on in the world. Or maybe I just need a beat and some passion in my day.

We watched American Hustle last year, and there is a scene where Jennifer Lawrence is smashing around the house to “Live and Let Die”, yellow rubber gloves on, vacuum nearby and ready to go. I yelled out, “That’s me!” as my husband started laughing his ass off gasping, “That’s you.”

I really tried to like housework. I did. Once in a while, you’ll still see me staring off contemplatively while I wipe down a counter. Or peacefully sweeping up. Or on my hands and knees humming while I scrub like Cinderella. But, if it looks like I’m having some sort of seizure through the kitchen window, the playlist is most likely why. And the house might just end up spotless.