I Hide My Chocolate

Midlife observations

Month: December, 2013

Ten Books and One Musical


A List

Recently, one of my oldest childhood friends invited me and others from his Facebook community to share the ten books that have touched them over the course of their lives.  Ah, this is perfect for me!  I was an English major, I read a lot, and I love reflecting on what has affected me (and why) as well as what has affected others (and why).  There was just one problem.  I panicked at the instructions:  Don’t think!  (Really?  Don’t think? Impossible!) List 10 books that have impacted you.  Share your list and tag 10 friends to share theirs.

My reaction went something like this:

I can’t remember anything I’ve read except for Little Women and Nancy Drew.  Why can’t I remember anything I’ve read?  How do they remember what we read in high school?  I have no memory of those books.  My list is not nearly as interesting as their list.  There are only women authors on my list.  Aren’t there any books by men that I remember reading that had an impact on me?  Maybe I should Google lists of “important” books and pick some from there.  Share with others?  So revealing and embarrassing.  To hell with this, I am not participating.  Cue:  stomp off and hide.

It’s kind of like when a new friend or colleague asks you what your favorite movie is and the only thing you can come up with is a completely childish and uncool answer, like The Sound of Music (the original version with Julie Andrews).  I have actually burned answers to some of these generic ice-breaker questions into my brain so that I am no longer caught off guard.  I now answer the movie question with more recent movies that reflect more of who I am now and are more socially sophisticated (Wall-E, The King’s Speech and Gravity…oh and dare I admit it, Star Trek:  Into Darkness).

Why is it that all the books that come to mind are from my childhood?  It makes sense that we choose books, movies, and heroines from our childhood.  This is when a book we read really could and did affect the direction we pursued. 

The more troubling question that I kept pondering was why can’t I remember more?  Every explanation comes back to trauma and anxiety and the role it has played as an undercurrent in my life. 

I read voraciously as a child.  Especially in Summer when I was considered too shy and sensitive to go to camp.  Instead, I stayed home and read.  Not just The Secret of the Old Clock, but every single Nancy Drew mystery.  Not just Little Women, but every single book by Louisa May Alcott.  It was my escape and a way of learning about others.  Girls who took risks and survived adventures were my favorite (and still are).

I remember that at my loneliest, most anxious time in my teens and early 20’s, at the height of my disordered eating, I would eat alone and read while I ate.  One bite per paragraph.  That way the meal would last a long time and I wouldn’t have to face my lonely anxiety nor my gluttonous desire to fill the emptiness with food.  It is impossible to remember what you read if you are focused on what you are eating. 

Another important part of remembering is to document your thoughts, your stories, either by writing them down or saying them aloud, perhaps multiple times.   When anxiety felled me, I hid away.  Not participating in the world, choosing instead to live in my head.  I would say what I thought I should say, but not always what I really thought.  What’s the right answer that will get me the A?  It is impossible to remember what you read if you are focused on pleasing the teacher…or some other dominant authority figure.

I was always embarrassed about revealing what I was reading.  It was not cool.  It was not sophisticated.  Or maybe it was too sophisticated.  (Who reads all of Jane Austen at 16?  That’s just weird.)  It is impossible to remember what you read if you are focused on hiding it and not sharing what you are reading and what you think about it with anyone. 

I see this with my mother.  After multiple operations over the last 25 years to remove a benign but persistent growth on her vocal chords, she has nearly lost her voice.  Indeed, metaphorically, she has lost her voice.  Unable to speak, she no longer remembers her stories, the stories of her life.  The stories in the books she reads to pass the time.  I am convinced that she does not have dementia.  She simply does not use her memory muscles because she does not speak.  She cannot speak her truth.  Andperhaps we don’t listen for it.

Memory is funny, often elusive, and changeable depending on who is remembering, who is telling the story.  The anxious, less confident self may not reveal her memory, her story, her truth.  She may defer to the more confident – or at least the more dominant or authoritative person who does speak.  For me, it has taken my writing and the increasingly less tentative telling of my stories and the expression of my thoughts to reduce my anxiety and make concrete my memories. 

Of course, perhaps the most helpful tool for finding my voice has been to be less focused on me, less judgmental of me, and more open to others.  Who cares if my list is not “right?”  So, even though I had to dig deep, here is a list (not necessarily THE list – that is too intimidating a requirement) but a list of 10 books that have had an impact on my life.

    1. Winnie-the-Pooh, by A. A. Milne.  My mother read the Pooh books aloud to me many times, inspiring a life-long love of reading and writing and sharing.  I felt very close to her.
    2. Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott.  This book seems so quaint and dated to me now, but I lost myself in it every time I read it.  Jo March showed me that girls could overcome their constraints.
    3. Nancy Drew mysteries (all of them), by “Carolyn Keene.”  Feisty, brave, smart Nancy was my heroine.
    4. The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank.  This introduction to the Holocaust and evil remains unbelievable and compelling.
    5. Mastering the Art of French Cooking, by Julia Child.  Julia Child inspired me that dinner could be more than eating chicken and potatoes in 10 minutes at the counter.
    6. A Chorus Line, book by James Kirkwood, Jr and Nicholas Dante.  Music by Marvin Hamlisch and Lyrics by Edward Kleban.  A musical, not a book, that moved me profoundly and set my course in the dance direction for better or worse for decades.
    7. The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood.  Transfixing terror.  I couldn’t put it down.  Perhaps the heroine’s name, Of-fred, was part of the fascination.
    8. A Room of One’s Own, by Virginia Woolf.  Still an amazing feminist manifesto.
    9. The House of the Spirits, by Isabel Allende.  Passionate and magical.
    10. Meditations from the Mat, by Rolf Gates.  This book changed my life, expanding my appreciation of yoga and setting me firmly on my yoga journey.
    11. Where’d You Go Bernadette?, by Maria Semple.  The first book of grown-up fiction I’ve read in years with a wonderful plot, heroine, and funny literary devices for telling the story.  It made me wonder where I went.   And to be happy that I’ve found myself.  And interested in fiction again after decades of reading nonfiction and business-oriented books.

What am I reading now?  I just finished Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins, the third and final installment of The Hunger Games Trilogy.  My daughter turned me on to the series and I found it to be a page-turning suspenseful dystopian story with a strong heroine.  My analytical engineer of a husband gave me a book on Reiki for Christmas.  Hmmm, is this a sign?  This energy stuff has always seemed like a bit of crazy hokum to me, but I am open to exploring it right now.  And impressed with his thoughtful gift-giving.  The other book that is on my nightstand is Wave, by Sonali Deraniyagala – the searing memoir by a woman who lost everyone she loved in the 2004 Tsunami.  Why I would want to read such a painful book?  I am drawn to stories of survival, women’s survival.  These stories remind me of what we are capable of, what matters most.  And, after all, I am a survivor.  We all are.

Dear Santa


The List

Around about now, my gift-buying panic sets in.  I didn’t buy enough stuff!  I got more fun stuff for my son…my daughter will be disappointed!  I got more expensive stuff for my daughter…my son will be disappointed!  Somehow, in the chaotic peak of the Christmas rush, being judged a good gift-giver is a referendum on my self as a mother.  I didn’t get everything on their list. 

The list.

After Thanksgiving, my kids write to Santa with their list of what they want for Christmas.  My daughter is pretty good at coming up with a quantity and a variety of realistic and shoppable girly items, acceptance into college notwithstanding.  My son has one thing on his list, year after year.  A dog.  (Actually, a dog is on my daughter’s list every year as well, but somehow we have keyed in on the dog being more of my son’s desire.  That is because she, like girls everywhere, is more accommodating and adds other items to the list.  He is single-focused, dare-we-say-it … stubborn.)  He’s resigned himself to the fact that we are not going to get a dog because our lifestyle is not compatible with having a dog.  Besides, he’s grown attached to our dog surrogates:  two beloved parakeets named Cooper and Ginger – both Christmas presents from the last 2 years.   With two birds already and no dog in sight, his realistic and shoppable list is bare bones this year. 

The list ensures that everyone gets stuff that they want and Santa doesn’t waste time and money on stuff that people don’t want.  This is an expedient way of dealing with the chore of gift-giving that I learned from my parents.  New pajamas.  Check.  Esoteric book from the top 10 list.  Check.  God forbid you should deviate from the list.  The gloves need to be black not brown.  The slippers can’t be too firm nor too slippery.  And the hand knit scarf that took weeks to design and create?  Too long.  Too thin.  A strange color.   It’s languishing unused in the back of the shelf in the closet.

Gift-giving was a very transactional process when I was growing up.  There was little room to surprise and delight.  As for Sheldon, in my son’s favorite show The Big Bang Theory, gifts (and friends) are an anxiety-producing obligation.  When Penny tells Sheldon she has a wonderful gift for him, he rushes out and buys a gift basket in every size and value so he can immediately reciprocate with exactly the right basket.  She surprises him with a napkin autographed by his hero, Leonard Nemoy.  Sheldon is so overcome with surprise and delight that, after dumping all the gift baskets on Penny, he realizes that he can’t possibly reciprocate such a meaningful gift and does the unthinkable.  He hugs her. 

The combination of a spiritually bereft upbringing with an obligatory approach to gift-giving has made me approach the holidays quite Scrooge-like.  Don’t give me another chotchke!  When will the parties be over so I can get back to my disciplined routine?  Bring on the new year’s resolutions!   It is with effort that I create a holiday with my family that is more than a realistic and shoppable list.  A holy day that is about love.

This year, I was determined to be joyful.  To look at the work involved with Christmas as a labor of love, not of duty and obligation.  My husband and my children love Christmas.  We’ve worked hard to make it a special and magical time.  We maintained the myth of Santa so well that neither child figured it out until each was 12 and in 6th grade, when my daughter overheard two careless moms discussing it at the bus stop and my son burst into tears when we took him aside and revealed the truth – afraid he was getting to be so old that his peers would make fun of him.  To deal with the end of the Santa era, we spent the following Christmas on a sailboat with almost no vestige of our usual traditions.  It didn’t feel like Christmas.  Last year, I breathed a sigh of relief as the effort to maintain the myth was gone.  But then, my children complained that the appearance of the gifts under the tree was no longer a magical surprise.  They begged us to do it after they were asleep on Christmas Eve.  Even though they’ve been inducted into the secret of Santa, they (and I) want to hang onto childhood secrets just a little bit longer.

So, this year, my daughter’s last Christmas before college, we set up our tree earlier than usual.  I did not complain about schlepping down the ornaments from the attic.  Well, that’s not true.  I did catch myself yelling at my son, as he brought down all the Other decorations from the attic, “Do we really need all that stuff?!” He calmly looked at me and said, “Yeah, Mom, we do.”  He proceeded to decorate the mantle and then put back the boxes.  I breathed and remembered my intention to be joyful and tried not to anticipate the chore of undecorating.

This weekend, I decided to tackle the stores one more time, because even though I got most of the stuff on their list, I did not get enough, equating quantity of gifts with quantity of love, never a successful equation.  I found myself braving the traffic, the parking lot, the lines, the people.  I went over the lists one more time.  And then, I stopped.  What can I give them that will be a delightful surprise?  What can I give them that will show them that I have listened to them?  That I care about making them happy?  That I love them?  Instead of diligently crossing items off the lists, I opened my eyes and found a few funny and sweet things that are not on their list.  Nothing big.  Nothing expensive.  Just something that I know they will appreciate.  After all, isn’t that what Christmas is all about?  Finding light in the darkness, giving love to family and friends.  Creating traditions.  Sharing celebrations.  Honoring what is magical.  Even, perhaps, awesome.

I am going to set my alarm for 3 am, my usual pee-in-the-middle-of-the-night time, and sneak downstairs.  Stealthily filling the stockings and placing the gifts under the tree.  I’ll move the fireplace screen, to look like Santa’s been there.  I’ll make sure we leave Santa some incredible bitterdark chocolate as a special 3 am treat for myself.  I’ll sit and gaze at our beautiful tree that we decorated, together, with love.  I’ll sneak back into bed for a nap before magical, awesome Christmas morning.

Merry Christmas.

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