Book Notes - You Can't Go Home Again

The essence of Time is Flow, not Fix. The essence of faith is the knowing that all flows and that everything must change. ~ Thomas Wolfe  

Sooner or later we’re all strangers in town, even if we never leave. Friendships, jobs, businesses morph. Life happens and we evolve. There are no human museums.  

This obsession so preoccupied Wolfe that his final novel, published in 1940, ran over 650 pages as his semi-autobiographical protagonist is ostracized for literary success at the expense of his personal acquaintances and discovers the futility of fleeing to find a new home. It’s a long read in hours but a short leap to universal truth. Even I, the slowest reader I know, never lost the thread of interest over the months I took to digest it, but I’m glad I went with hard copy instead of Audible. Some stories, like life itself, need to be experienced over the long haul.

 Home, the crux of my own writings, is less the state of Maine or New Hampshire than a state of mind. Entire blocks of the little town where I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s are now unrecognizable, but I catch snatches of home in the smell of the sea, the cry of a seagulls piercing September’s rain, and the sight of aged asphalt shingles in a newly gentrified slum.




Book Notes – The Bread Givers

The only sin on earth is to let life pass you by.

I’d never heard of Anzia Yezierska, The Sweatshop Cinderella, when I picked up this book. Yet the plight of her semi-autobiographical protagonist, Sara Smolinsky, the 1920’s immigrant daughter of an authoritarian rabbi, felt vaguely familiar. As a baby-boom descendent of Eastern European immigrants, I watched a spinster grow old under her parents’ roof. Unlike Sara, she had freedom, but the spunk of self-determination seemed to have been scared out of her—a situation few young women in America today could fathom.

            So blinded by faith is Sara’s father, a man she calls more terrible than the Tsar from Russia—with his misogynistic authoritarianism, foolish pride, and incredible naïveté, that he seems to have stepped from Grimms’ Fairy Tales. Like Hans in Luck who prides himself on his bartering skills, trading a lump of silver the size of his head for a horse ,and then a cow, pig, goose, and finally a whetstone that rolls into the river—Rev Smolinsky wastes not only his riches but his daughters’ lives. He puts them to work so he can study the Torah, then thwarts their romances until time and broken hearts tame them into submission for disastrous arranged- marriages. At one point, even the mother is complicit, lying about her daughter’s dressmaking skills, just as the miller in Rumplestiltskin bragged that his daughter could spin straw into gold.

            Sara’s journey from subservience to self-reliance is a bit overly sentimental, but with such stilted characters and family dysfunction, how could it read otherwise? Most frustrating is the seemingly magical way in which Sara overcomes practical hurdles in her progress from factory worker to school teacher. Yezierska is to be commended, however, for having her heroine refuse a wealthy suitor who appears like a miraculous savior just when she most needs one. Sara is well into spinsterhood when she finally meets her soul mate and the love story peters out. Still, this imperfect narrative, fanciful as it may be, remains a compelling classic.

Book Notes - Educated

You are not fools’ gold shining only under a particular light. Whoever you become, whatever you make yourself into, that is who you always were. It was always in you.

Tara Westover’s 2018 memoir of her journey from uneducated child of a Doomsday Fundamentalist Mormon to Cambridge-educated Ph.D. is sure to resonate with anyone who has striven or strives to overcome the low expectations of their youth. A bootstraps story with a twist, it gradually reveals a dangerous family that she learns to recognize as such only with age and distance: a mentally ill father with no regard for her safety, an abusive brother who threatens her very life, and a mother who looks the other way even as she devotes her life to healing others. That she should aspire to better circumstances only makes the family all the belligerent. Yet there are heroes in her world, both kith and kin, who help her cross the divide to the world she has been taught to disdain.

A finalist for several national book prizes, Educated won a 2018 Goodreads Choice Award as well as a 2019 Audie Award for Julia Whelan’s outstanding narration. That’s how I discovered this gem, on Audible—my favorite way to “read”, but I’m sure it would have been equally compelling in print at 352 pages.

Book Notes – Safekeeping

Looking for a good book? For every one I read, I copy favorite passages out longhand. Some encapsulate a theme; some resonate on a personal level; and some are merely beautiful. Penning this mosaic of ideas affixes them in my consciousness like a cerebral Mod-Podge while creating a record of my reactions and a springboard to original thought. Here, then, is the first installment in a series I will update weekly. 

Safekeeping, a 2001 memoir by the consummately pithy Abigail Thomas, addresses events surrounding the loss of an ex-husband whom she befriended again in his final infirmity. Encompassing the forty years book-ending their brief marriage, she relates with confessional hilarity and wisdom the confusion of a promiscuous youth, the nostalgic depression of love lost, and the peace that comes with reconciliation and maturation. Told through shifting authorial perspective in which Thomas refers to herself sometimes as “I” and sometimes as the elliptical “she”, this tiny gem is beyond memorable. At 181 pages, with chapters varying from two poetic sentences to five pages, it can easily be read in one evening—and likely will be reread soon thereafter.

 After thirty-six years of marriage to the same man, this quote reminds me that I don’t always have to be right—even if I am. Now if only I could get him to read this😉.

“He was getting on in years; she wanted him to be happy. She had learned by then it wasn’t necessary to keep setting the record straight.”

The Lesson of Mother Duck

A lot has changed since I wrote this Mother’s Day essay eleven years ago for The Bay Weekly. I will be brunching without my girls this year, as one has to work and the other lives on the opposite coast. But I stand by my words; honoring our mothers should never have become an exercise in Facebook one-upsmanship. To all the young mothers out there, enjoy your day of rest as best you are able. To those whose babies have flown the nest, enjoy your best memories……………

Several years ago, I witnessed a remarkable Mother’s Day event: a mother duck hatching her ducklings right outside a busy restaurant. They were sheltered under a bench in a sunny corner, and one wet and wobbly chick struggled to gain control of his bulbous head while his siblings still struggled for their freedom. Their mother seemed available but unconcerned, like a good boss. There was no visual display of affection, yet it was evident from their proximity and eye contact that they were bonding. Mother duck checked on the progress of her remaining eggs in much the same way a baker checks her muffins for doneness just at that aromatic moment when they bear closest observation.

She seemed so poised and comfortable that I assumed she must have done this many times before. But perhaps animal mothers are just more in tune with what Mother Nature is telling them about the miracle and responsibility of motherhood. Unconcerned with layettes, feeding methods, toilet training, or the education and socialization of her chicks, she faced only one great challenge that I could see: crossing the busy road to the nearest water.

Human mothers have a much harder job, no matter how simple Dr. Spock made it sound with his advice to, Love ’em. Feed ’em. Leave ’em alone. Motherhood is an equal opportunity employer and the defining moment of a lifetime, without defining us. Therein lies the problem with Mother’s Day. It too often feels like a reason to bask in reflected glory or wallow in failure. We can thank Dr. Sigmund Freud for that, whose take on motherhood was so well summarized by the comedian Robin Williams: If it’s not one thing it’s your mother.

Thus Mother’s Day can feel like another skirmish in the mommy wars. Women are bombarded with romantic images of corsages and mimosas, sunny strolls through the park, flowering plants, flowery cards and homemade gifts from adorable children … on demand. Life just isn’t that simple.

So how does a mother with post-partum depression cope with the guilt? How does the neglected or abused child deliver on the breakfast-in-bed cliché? How does the mother of a disturbed teen deal with one day of indulgence following a year of rejection? If they are lucky (or not so lucky), there is a too-public brunch. Then again perhaps there is nothing at all: no visit, no card, maybe not even a phone call at the end of the day.

I have been party to all of the above, and I’ve come to realize that Mother’s Day is a contradiction. Mothers sacrifice. That’s their job. Kids take advantage. That’s their nature. Somewhere between childhood and adulthood, kids are expected to stop relying on Dad or some other relative to arrange the perfect day and figure out for themselves what Mom would really like. The inherent role reversal is tough on both parties, yet the hype demands that convention be obeyed. When they hit the mark it’s great.

But why do we have this ideal vision of one special day, and where does perfection fit in?

Motherhood is relentless hard work, and no matter the outcome no one should be made to feel like a success or a failure because of her kids, especially on Mother’s Day, because there are times when we will all feel like one or the other. Children are individuals with free will. They will or will not be all that they can be … both good and bad. They are neither our creations nor our reflections any further than can be explained by the mirror.

Mother’s Day should not be a Hallmark occasion but any day of the year when a woman’s children do her proud or she rises above her humanity to cope with the inevitable stresses of the job. When it is really given the status it deserves, this holiday will no longer fall on a Sunday, because most mothers today are working mothers and they deserve a real day off when the kids are in school. They would appreciate the opportunity to retreat with their peers to a place where they could whine and laugh, revel in their sisterhood and share the simple camaraderie of coworkers in any tough job.

So this year I recommend women everywhere take a tip from mother duck. Sit back, relax and just watch them grow. Only don’t let them wander into the road. If the day is a dud, remember this, too, shall pass. Whether they show it or not, they are bonding.


Mmm-Mmm Good: Decoding Table Talk

Another Saturday morning, another batch of banana pancakes. “Mmm-Mmm!” my husband says, eyeing a stack. No matter how often I make this dish, his gut reaction is the same: this exclamation so clichéd it defies replacement. It’s a learned response, right? Like Mmm-Mmm, Good! That’s what Campbell’s soups are, after all.

So, why don’t we say Mmm-Hmm instead? Isn’t that the universal utterance of accord and acceptance? Go ahead, say it. I can just hear you as you nod agreement, Mmm-Hmm. The first sound flows to the second without resistance.

Mmm-Mmm by contrast, with its interruptive glottal stop, is what babies say as they lock their lips and shake their heads in refusal. (Puréed liver?! Mmm-Mmm!)

No sooner have I spoken this rhetorical question, than I take a bite and hear Mmmmmm rise from my throat.  It’s an extended phonation of pure pleasure, and it has only one syllable.

“I heard that,” my husband says, taking a bite, and Mmmming along with me.

Mmm-Mmm is an advertiser’s fallacy showing forethought and the intention of appreciation, whereas Mmmmm, like the sound of a great kiss, is the real deal.


Psych Out

 In Pyschology 101, the teacher played a recording of babbling babies and told us to match them with their nationalities. The test was multiple choice: Swedish, Japanese, Russian, American, Algerian, Australian . . . It seemed a daunting task until telltale sounds emerged as dominant in each child’s vocalizations, be they guttural consonants, nasal twang or tongue clicks. At times there seemed no mistaking something as obvious as a Scandinavian lilt. Other times, I hesitated. Was that the monotone punch of Hindi or did I just hear the guttural R of Arabic? When the answers were revealed, no one scored over 20% because all babies, regardless of culture, babble the same. They experiment with every sound the human mouth can make and only gradually learn to focus their efforts on those that mimic the speech around them. 

I never outgrew that infantile experimentation, hardwired for language without knowing it. As a child, I shaded vowels bright and dark; I experimented with labials (m and n for instance) and fricatives (f and v); I tried changing phonemes with abrupt beginnings into gradual slides of sound and found word cousins on the way (chew and shoe for instance); I relished the nuance between zzzipper and sssipper, thing and think, got and goat, enunciating each choice three times as if a curse might otherwise befall me. I now teach these distinctions, minimal pairs, in my ESL class. There’s nothing as satisfying as doing the work you were born for, but it took me a long time to find.

In college, I left foreign language behind, a victim of impostor syndrome and a bad teacher. By the time I reached grad school, it seemed too late, so I opted instead for statistics, despite an aversion to math, and then was sent abroad after six-months’ French immersion. Speaking it for two years left me fluent enough that I taught for sixteen more. Fate has a way of finding us like that. Now, Yo hablo español; Io parlo italiano un poco; and I sing in German and Latin. 

Mind games. Talent is something you’re given but courage is something you learn. is there a gift you’ve been denying?

The Time/Language Continuum

I love conversing with my grandson, not just because three-year-olds are so uncensored and amusing, but because he was late in talking. Now every sentence is a window into his linguistic mind, and I treasure each word.

His current issue is adverbs of time. For Mothers' Day, the ladies of the family went out for coffee and manicures. It must have seemed ages to him at home with the men, for when we returned, he came charging to greet us with a grin that said he'd been patient but sure hoped we were back to stay. "Is it still Mothers' Day?" he asked.

I find this notion that a special day lasts only as long as the celebration to be shrewd. After all, isn’t a birthday finished when the party’s over? How active his mind have been during his prolonged silence.

Just as I was about to answer, his mother came in behind me and asked what he'd said. Rather than repeat himself, he looked up as if to search his mental index of language rules, then cautiously rephrased the question. "Is it Mother's Day yet?"

The older I get, the more I get this line of thinking. Each morning when I hobble on stiff feet to the mirror and see an unlined face, I wonder if I'm still middle-aged or middle-aged yet. After nineteen years of teaching, am I still a good teacher or am I a good teacher yet? Was I ever one to begin with or will I ever be?