We’ve been in Middleborough, Massachussetts for almost nine weeks. It’s been strange living in a conservative bubble, having lived most of my life in liberal hamlets, from San Francisco and Berkeley to Cambridge, New York, and for the last twenty-six years, Austin, Texas, where the local slogan is “Keep Austin Weird.”
Middleborough is the largest city in Massachusetts, but a small-town mentality prevails. The uniform consists of jeans and a long-sleeved t-shirt, with a flannel or hoodie to keep warm. The same pub menu is served at every restaurant in town.
Middleborough has charmed me with its cranberry bogs; with its old-fashioned coffee shop, where white-haired veterans sit in the window every morning looking out at Main Street; and, of course, with its public library, built in 1902 with high ceilings, fireplaces, Greek columns, and signs on every table reminding you to be quiet.
But the town gives me the creepy crawlies. It feels as if they’ve shut out the modern world, purposefully remaining in the 1950s with all of the decade’s racism, sexism, and homophobia intact.
I am lonely for like-minded friends, for artists and intellectuals, for a good discussion of what is happening to our government. I cannot find a New York Times or a New Yorker anywhere. Other than the wonderful bonding experience I’ve shared with my daughter, books have been my only true companions.
Here is a partial list of what I’ve been reading. While I’ve been indulging in a lot of fiction and poetry, I’m sharing four memoirs. These true stories, these authors’ authentic voices, have kept me sane.
LIDIA YUKNAVICH, THE CHRONOLOGY OF WATER
I am admittedly late to the Lidia Yuknavitch literary admiration society. I picked up this memoir the day before I left Austin and finished reading it on the plane. It begins with the stillbirth of the author’s daughter — letting you know you’re in a for a raw, emotional ride — and then flips back through her difficult childhood, her abusive father, her drug and alcohol addiction, and her youth as a competitive swimmer. Everything is out in the open, without apology or self-censorship, including the details of an intense sex life.
The writing is so hot it makes you want to get to work and start speaking your own truths. It makes you want to scream onto the page with as much abandon as she does. When I finished reading the memoir, I did not want to leave the author’s world and immediately picked up another book of hers, a novel, On the Backs of Children. Like Chronology of Water, everything in this books is turned on its head. The narrative and structure break every rule and you are carried along by the author’s daring and intensity.
What books or works of art had you running to the page or the studio?
DONALD HALL, LIFE WORK
Ever since reading Hall’s memoir, The Best Day, The Worst Day, I’ve fantasized about the New England farmhouse he and his late wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, lived and worked in. They called it “The Poetry House,” and he lovingly describes their quiet days working there. In Life Work, which he wrote before the The Best Day, The Worst Day, he chronicled his family history in that house–the hard work of living on a farm, including the division of labor amongst his ancestors.
Hall also shares his writing days, laying out for the first time what “the best day” looks like — writing, lovemaking, more writing, quiet reading
Life Work made me think about what my best day might be and how I might help my students and clients get more best days. Although it crossed my mind that Donald Hall was able to work the way he did because he had inherited a farmhouse and his wife prepared his meals.
What would it be like to assume your days were your own? What would your best day look like?
SONYA HUBER, PAIN WOMAN TAKES YOUR KEYS
In this book of short essays, the author lays out her life after being hit by a cluster of autoimmune diseases. So much was familiar to me — the overwhelming fatigue, the longing for the old energy and focus, the frustration of not being able to read when you are engaged in a profession that requires you be well-read. I loved that she rendered something invisible on the page, describing her experience in fresh language.
But there were so many essays about how hard things were, I found myself getting angry. Huber never questions why she was hit with autoimmune disease or why so many women seem to be suffering from it Whatever is happening in our bodies reflects what’s happening in our world — the air we breathe, where we get our food, how our homes are built and furnished.
The book made me want to encourage everyone I know to reduce their toxic load as much as financially possible, to stop polluting our bodies and our earth, and to support access to alternative medicine.
Of course that would have been my book and this was hers and it was about pain and loss and the author’s fight.
What struggle would you like to share? How migt it speak to the larger political truths of our time?
ROXANNE GAY, HUNGER
This book was rough. A few chapters in, the author describes in horrifying detail being gang-raped when she was twelve years old by her supposed boyfriend and his friends. Then the weight she put on to keep herself safe, to make herself unattractive to men. Not fifty pounds, but five hundred. In chapter after chapter, she describes the pain of being a morbidly obese woman in a culture that values thinness over all.
In addition to her personal experiences, Gay surveys the media, especially television, for its shaming of fat people. I admired the way she brought her professional life as a media critic to bear on her personal experience.
There was little light in this book, however. While Gay begins to care for herself in the end, she seemed careful not to fall into the trap of the triumphant narrative. Being that overweight was a misery not easily escaped.
How do you see your reality reflected in the media? What do you want to do about it?
I loved of all of these books, not because they were perfect or because I agreed with everything the authors wrote. I loved them because they inspired me as a writer — they all experimented with language and form — and because the authors challenged me by daring to be exactly who they were.
This is my wish for all of us, that we stand up and say the truth of our lives in our work. That we dare to be ourselves and not what the culture tells us we should be. That we stop seeking approval and start screaming onto the page or the canvas or whatever our medium, no matter how unsightly our lives might be to others.
What are you reading now? What books or works of art have been your companions during difficult or lonely days?
As always, I’d love to hear.