Beautiful Book You Must Read: Holding Silvan, A Brief Life

It’s been a while since I’ve plugged a book on here, not because I haven’t been reading (I’m always reading!). I loved Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle Books One and Two, for example, loved them because they took me so fully back to my time in Norway and because Knausgård manages to elevate the domestic to the sublime, to make regular old life seem like something very powerful and profound indeed. And I’ve been slowly but gratefully working my way through Bonnie Jo Campbell’s book of short stories Mothers, Tell Your Daughters. Currently, I’m turning most of my attention to my book club book for next month, a non-fiction number called Midnight in Broad Daylight by Pamela Rotner Sakamoto, which, if not entirely my cup of tea, is a good story nonetheless.

But last week I halted everything to devour a memoir called Holding Silvan: A Brief Life by my new friend Monica Wesolowska. 

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In Holding Silvan, Wesolowska describes how, after a seemingly normal pregnancy, labor, and delivery, her newborn baby is determined to have massive brain damage—so massive that doctors predict it is only his brain stem that will ever fire. What happens next is the process of letting this baby, who will have no life to speak of beyond the one he could be afforded on machines, die.

It’s been a while since a book has affected me as physically or as intensely as Holding Silvan did. As I emailed to Monica the next day:

“During the part when Silvan is actively dying—if that’s not an oxymoron—I felt this almost physical energy tugging at my body, at my uterus and breasts and forehead, almost pulling me forward and out of my chair. Every fiber of me that’s a mother felt his dying, and I just read and read and sobbed and sobbed until L came in to see why I was crying and I just wanted to grab onto him and hold. This may sound overwrought, since our losses are so tiny in comparison to yours, but while I was reading and crying I also felt like I was healing some of the difficulties of our past five years, trying to have another baby, losing a seven-week fetus when we found out it was ectopic (and I nearly bled to death), all the near misses and dashed hopes…”

I did—I sat in my living room and sobbed for what felt like hours. And while that may not seem like the most ringing endorsement—I know some of you want reads that are “uplifting,” I have to say that my gratitude for this book, for its beautiful, careful prose, its pacing, and the lessons in it about letting go, death, and motherhood, were so profound to me that I think in a way it IS an uplifting book.

I hope you read it, and I hope when you do that you buy it from your local bookstore (ahem) or, if you must, from Powells or Amazon. And pass it on. And buy a copy for someone else you know. Monica’s book was put out by an independent press, the terrific Hawthorne Books in Portland, Oregon, and with independent press books it’s always a big help to spread the word, grassroots style.

Happy, poignant reading,

Susie

If you’re looking for more great memoirs, check this and this out.

 

 

Who Am I, Anyway?

I’ve been ruminating on identity a lot lately.

Me.

Me.

At the San Francisco Writers Conference this past weekend, there were so many opportunities to tell someone who I was—in ten seconds or less. The first time someone asked “And what do you write?” I botched my answer, stumbling with some “Ums” and “wells” and “kind-ofs.” Then, I agonized over how I would introduce myself at my panel on revision on the second day, the one I was doing with two experienced editors in a room I suspected would be packed (it was). In my notebook I nervously jotted down phrases like “I write about the darkness in everyday experience” and “I write about the light and the dark of being a woman” and other horrendous, lofty mouthfuls I absolutely could not see myself pulling off in public.

Then one of the other editors from the panel, who is also a new friend and a lovely person with whom I’d just had a delicious lunch in Chinatown, said: “Just say it all—you’re a poet, you also write personal narrative, you write about your experiences with anxiety, motherhood, and infertility, and then mention your memoir.” Wow—that was easier. And when it came time to introduce myself at the panel, I said exactly that, switching the pronouns, and was amazed at how easily it rolled off the tongue and how comfortable I felt not stumbling with some catchy catch phrase. Later, two people came up to me to tell me they couldn’t wait for my memoir to get published, that it just sounded wonderful. Isn’t that nice?

And, perhaps because I wasn’t saddled to a catch phrase all weekend, I was able to let go and be a poet for a few days, too, speaking on a couple of poetry panels, workshopping, and reading at the Friday night poetry reading. A poem that’s been just sitting in my computer for two years was enthusiastically received—a poetry press editor insisted that I send her my manuscript, provided that poem is in it.

So I came away from the conference feeling pretty good.

At one stage, in the lobby of the hotel, a group of women somehow converged—we’re all mothers, and we all live relatively close to one another in the same town, and there was talk of us getting together to write or commiserate or workshop. A trading of email addresses and a “where do your kids go to school?”s. And somehow, in that moment, my identity shifted from “writer” to “mom who writes.”

“How old are your kids?” one asked another.

“Ten and eight. You?”

“Seven and five. You?”

Then it was my turn: “Six,” I said. “Just six.”

And while I felt a part of this, because we all know what it’s like to try to pull off a writing career when you’re also raising children, because we’ve all given birth and nursed and been up all night losing our minds with exhaustion, I felt again that other identity of which I’ve been so conscious in recent years: that I’m the mother of an only child. If you don’t have kids, you might think, what’s the difference? Either you’re a mom, or you’re not. But I tell you, it’s different, really; having one kid means when you have a playdate your house is still pretty manageably noisy, and your plane ticket bills are cheaper. And two bedrooms don’t feel cramped at all, and it’s not too hard to get a babysitter.

But it also means smarting when, at a babysitting co-op meeting, someone says casually, “Oh, it’s so crazy once you have your second!” and every woman in the room except you groans and nods in some kind of humble brag, lamenting and loving their full, full, and more full lives. This happened recently, and I sat there feeling utterly apart because I couldn’t say whether it’s crazy when you have two. Because I have not been able to have two. Because I may never know.

But while this was so hard for so many years, this feeling of wanting something I couldn’t have, lately I’ve been wondering if I really wanted it as badly as I thought I did. I’ve been wondering if maybe my life is just perfect as it is.

“God, it’s so nice to have adult conversations for a change,” one of the moms at the conference said, and I thought, but I have adult conversations all the time. My life is very manageable with one kid who’s in school or childcare 36 hours a week or more; I see friends, I work, and I spend many hours alone, writing. Besides, conversations with L have rarely been a chore. Maybe this is something about my kid, or my parenting, or something else, but I have realized lately how, when I’ve been so busy wanting something else, my nice life has been here all along with me.

And again, it’s kind of like writing. At a recent meeting of my Creative Women’s Cocktail Hour, my friend Ascha had us choose lines from a book of poetry and write them on an envelope. Then we shared the lines.

IMG_2811Mine—”like someone trying to walk through a fire,” “What I would do with the rest of my life,” and “your old soft body fallen against me”—all from The Gold Cell, by Sharon Olds—seemed to speak to how you have this relationship with something and it lasts your whole life. My writing and I, we’re like old lovers; we fight, we make up, we get on with it, we fight, we make up. We walk through fire together, and we’ll be together forever. And this is a comforting thought, because when my writing and I are not connecting, it doesn’t mean we’re breaking up; it’s all just part of the journey.

And I guess that’s a bit like parenting, too, like me parenting my one beautiful child: his young soft body fallen against me, for the rest of my life.

Like walking through a fire.

—-

Sharon Olds’s poem “After 37 Years My Mother Apologizes for my Childhood”

**Nota Bene! Susie will be reading on Friday, 2/26 at the Madness Radio Book Launch! With Bonfire Madigan, Will Hall, Jacks McNamara, Mandala Project, book contributors and more…1017 Ashmount St, Oakland, California 7pm. Hope to see you!** 

My Printer Died and It Felt Like the End of An Era

My printer died.

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This happened on the same day that our car, which we had just purchased a new battery for, wouldn’t start in the driveway, and though arguably less crucial to life, and much cheaper to replace, the broken printer filled me with a more terrible sense of loss. I’ve had that printer for sixteen years. Sixteen years! That’s longer than I’ve known my husband. I bought it when I was in grad school, when I was tired of sending out poems printed all wobbly on my mom’s hand-me-down ink jet. The HP 1200 LaserJet cost $350, and at the time, that seemed like an enormous amount of money. I remember feeling like an adult, and like a real writer, when I bought it. It lasted through countless Apple computers—Four? Five?—and has printed countless poems; it’s printed my poetry manuscript and parts of my memoir and various essays in their draft stages, and many student assignments, and it was only when I went to print the first forty pages of the novel I’m writing that I mistakenly fed it a recycled piece of paper that was actually two pieces of paper, with a staple between them, and something snapped.

It seems outrageous that after all these years, it was a staple that did it.

But that, I suppose, is life, and if I make too much of the demise of a printer, let me just say that I’ve had this feeling lately that life is all these concentric circles, these interwoven links, and that everything is connected. So, for me, the loss of the machine that’s helped me put my writing into print for over a decade feels a bit like the loss of an entire era, like the loss of those lovely grad school years when the printer was new, those years when I could spend an entire day working out a poem, bring it to workshop, take it back home and work on it some more. That first year of grad school I lived in a makeshift apartment in a rickety old house in Amherst, and it was my first year living alone in quite some time (I’d had a live-in partner, and college housemates, before that). I can remember the night I thought drinking a second bottle of wine by myself was a good idea, and the night I broke up with someone but slept with him anyway, and the night I overheard every word of an argument between my landlords over the recycling bins and whose turn it was to take them out.

And then I moved, to an apartment in Northampton that was as charming as it was noisy, and the printer came with me. My desk was an old door from a house my parents were renovating propped up on two filing cabinets, and the cords for my computer fit through the hole where the door knob would go. The printer was on the far right, and despite this unwieldy late-nineties desktop computer and the large LaserJet, there was enough space for me to sit, comfortably, between them. The desk was in my bedroom, but I’d made a psychic barrier between the bed space and the writing space, and every morning I wasn’t teaching I’d stumble over to the desk with a cup of coffee and get to work. Some days the poems came like water, trickling easily out of the faucet, and other days they were labored and slow. Always, I’d print them, read them out loud, change a comma, read them out loud again. I drank so much coffee in those days; my anxiety, and my adrenal glands, shudder with the memory.

But was it a simpler time? Of course it was. When writers ask whether an MFA is worth it, I cite those hours at that desk and the feeling of summer camp, like I was writing in Northampton while Leah was writing in Sunderland, with Leslie at her desk in the adjacent room, and the Bens back in Amherst and someone else out in Greenfield, all of us working away like satellites in communication with one another, pausing for whatever; or not working, and pulling our hair out, and blocked—but that was our job, that, just to try to work, not to parent or to homestead or to be married or to publish—we didn’t even worry that much about publishing! Perhaps we should have. But just to do the work. I’ll never get that time back; I’ll always want that time back.

I left Northampton on January 1, 2001. On New Year’s Eve at 9:45 p.m. I’d been painting my blue walls back to white and packing the last of the boxes. Later, I walked over to see some friends. I’d already kissed Laura goodbye, and Leah was long gone, and Mikey vowed to stay in touch (and did). Jim Foley was very much alive. And off I went the next morning, drove out to Portland, Oregon, with my little brother, hitting every winter storm whatever region we were passing through could throw at us. And when he flew back to Boston a day or so later, leaving me to my new life, I cried like I’ve never cried before or since, with loneliness, with anguish, with the deepest sense of loss.

But, and perhaps this was no accident: a week later, I met the man who would become my husband. And then so many things happened that truly feel like fate: us deciding to travel together for a year, and us getting engaged while we were traveling. And me writing a book about that year of travel, and about my surprise, after always having felt outside of it, to have found a man who truly loved me. That book spanned the next decade of my life. And then we moved to Norway and had a baby, and when we got back, we tried again, and again, and again to have another, and I wrote about that, too.

And here I am, terribly pensive of a January morning. L didn’t want to go to school, and his face turned puffy with tears. B tried to rationalize with him about school and its importance, but I eventually just held him and said, “You’re having a really tough morning.” My morning was tough, too: the printer, the car, the muddled-ness, the awful news of the world.

“You’re squeezing me too tight,” he said, but I wasn’t sure what else to do but hold on.

 

Is Writing an Act of Bravery? How About Sleepovers?

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An act of bravery by a grimacing kid. And a not-so-subtle message unrelated to the rest of the content of this blog post. That is all.

I was so thrilled by the nice response I got to my essay in The New York Times a couple of weeks ago. Like the other pieces I’ve published recently, like this one and this one, the essay was deeply personal and more than a little revealing. Besides admitting to sometimes wishing my son would move out to a nice farm in the country for a week or two, I also came clean (again) about my struggles with secondary infertility.

I noticed that when all my lovely friends and supporters re-tweeted and re-blogged my essay, or shared it on Facebook, they kept referring to it as brave. “A brave essay by my friend Susie Meserve,” one of them said, and another, “Thank you for your honesty and bravery.” Honest, I’ll cop to—always. (Honest to a fault, methinks.) But brave? At the time I posted my snarky little article about parenting, another friend was publishing a piece about negative portrayals of women of color in television, for which, I’m sure, she received a $%^& storm of offensive comments. And of course I thought about the incredible bravery of Jim Foley. I was hard pressed to think of myself, in an essay complaining about the boredom and existentialism of parenting, as being “brave.”

I raised this with my friend An Honest Mom, who shared the smart point that we always think of other people as brave before we accept the idea that we ourselves are. And that, for many people, what I did in those personal essays—admitting to pettiness, jealousy, parental ennui, grief, and infertility, not to mention contending with years and years of rejection as a writer—is just that: brave. Well, gosh. That made me feel good. After all, I am the woman who spent seven years writing a book about my own anxiety, and how when I traveled around the world with my now-husband, fear kept me from experiencing all kinds of adventures.

That I might be brave for sharing that truth about myself is almost uncomfortably ironic, and more than a little pleasing to think about.

I had been mulling this over for a few days when I stumbled into a sweet conversation with my son L, who at five seems to have simultaneously inherited his mother’s risk-aversion and society’s ideas about what bravery really is. I was puttering around the kitchen while he drew pictures on the floor and practiced writing “letters” to me and his dad.

“Mama, did you know I’m not as brave as J?”

“You’re not?” I feigned surprise. J is an extremely intrepid friend. He’ll scale anything around.

“Nope. He’s much braver, because he climbs much better than me.”

“Well, you know,” I said in a fit of genius, “people are brave in different ways. Like, for example, I’m not very brave about climbing either, not like Daddy or J. But I’m brave because I write things that people don’t always like, and I write them anyway. And sometimes it’s hard to be a writer, because people say no to you a lot, and it’s brave that I do it.”

He was enthralled.

“And,” I continued, “I know a way that you’re brave that J isn’t as brave.”

“You do?”

“I do. You do a great job at sleepovers. And J still has a really hard time with them.”

“Yeah!” he said, jumping up and down. “I’m brave at sleepovers!”

“Yup,” I said, feeling utterly content with everything: my tenuous bravery, and L’s.

This question of bravery keeps coming up. L is more than a little obsessed with it lately. Playing “dinosaurs versus dragons,” he’s constantly asking me which team is braver, and his answers reveal a very narrow-minded idea of courage. For example, yesterday he told me that the dinosaurs were braver because they were winning. I suggested that maybe the dragons were braver for keeping on fighting even when they were losing, but no—that was the wrong answer.

I’m obviously more hip to bravery than L, but nonetheless I wonder whether my own ideas about what’s brave have been a little primitive. Like traveling with B. The entire time, I told myself that he was the brave one, because he seemed to be completely unafraid. But maybe, for pushing through my fears, for not giving up, for ultimately deciding I could have traveled forever, I was brave, too.

I don’t know. But I nonetheless like the idea of reframing bravery. For many years, I haven’t believed that I have been very brave at all. But I have started to wonder if maybe bravery is something different than I’ve thought.

And, an aside: NaNoWriMo. The goal is 50,000 words. Me? I’m shooting for 25,000. It may not be an act of bravery, but anyone who meets that goal, while working and parenting and preparing for the holidays, my hat is off to you.

Stay tuned for the 2014 Literary Gift Guide, coming soon!

Susie

Why I Didn’t Read the Comments on my Salon.com Article

The Internet trolls were out to get me, but I got away. Troll painting by Theodor Kittelsen via Google Image Search

The Internet trolls were out to get me, but I got away. Troll painting by Theodor Kittelsen via Google Image Search

Amazingly, if I do say so myself, I managed not to read the comments on my Salon.com article that came out over the weekend. This was purely self-preservation. The editor had warned me that people would write copious and awful things in response because the subject matter is controversial (being jealous of other women when I already have one beautiful, perfect kid? What’s wrong with me?), and I knew she was right. In fact, before consenting to have the essay published, I thought long and hard, again, about whether I wanted to put that piece of myself out in the world. And I decided I did, but that I would make every effort to resist reading the comments. And so, while I did glance obsessively at the stats (how many Facebook shares? How many Twitter shares?), I did not click on that little speaking-bubble icon as it jumped from 10 to 20 to 30 to 46. Not once. I did ask a friend to do a Readers Digest–style synopsis for me, and that was awesome. But otherwise, I did not read the comments because I felt I could predict what mean things would be said: You’re a bitch, you’re selfish, you have “first-world” problems, you’re ungrateful. There would be disdain, and more than a little anger directed at me.

I get that. I do.

I don’t claim to be perfect, but what I was going for in the essay, and what I think came through if you were looking upon the piece charitably, was an expression of feelings that I wasn’t and still am not proud of, but was and am trying to work through. I think ultimately that admitting to having shitty, petty feelings is something I can be proud of, and trying to work through them, something of which I’m prouder still. I don’t regret a thing about publishing it, but I of course do worry about what’s being said about me. Or perhaps worried is the wrong word, because, online, in this world we live in, that article isn’t really representative of me. It’s this persona that I created and that has been created about me, and it bears very little resemblance to the actual me, sitting on my couch in sweatpants, in need of a shower, my left contact lens feeling sticky, thinking about getting up and getting another cup of tea as I type.

I say that because, while I did not read the comments (have I mentioned that yet?), comments have of course reached me. Friends have written directly with all kinds of lovely and supportive words (God, I love my friends) and some strangers have tagged me on Twitter with nice things to say. Others have been not so nice, or perhaps, just more misunderstanding. A woman on this blog who has suffered terribly with infertility sounded restrained but also called my parenting into question, like maybe wanting a second child makes me somehow not present or thankful for the first (Oh my dear L, how could I ever not be grateful for you?). And one Twitter comment that at first irked me and then cracked me up referred to we women nowadays as dissatisfied with our lot because we need “the perfect Mummy Instagram life.” (If she spent ten minutes in my messy house she’d know that very little about me is mainstream, perfect, or Instagram-worthy!)

But of course, that reader isn’t in my house with me; she doesn’t really know me. Nor I her. And I don’t know the infertile woman who posted here on my blog reminding me to be present with my kid because I have it better off than she does. She doesn’t know that actually I’m a very nice person and my heart goes out to her for her losses. It does. And yes, reader, in case you are wondering, too: I am grateful for my kid and I cherish him, I promise.

I think it’s important to remember that anything ever published on the Web is going to be only a part of the picture. As writers of personal essays that get published on the Web, we put these little slices of ourselves into the world and ask them to be scrutinized. It’s kind of like showing someone a dirty fingernail and asking them to guess whether the whole body is clean; you can’t actually tell. That’s the risk of personal writing, and it may also be the strength of it. We’re all a lot more interesting, and scandalous, when we’re only revealing part of things. But add to that the conundrum of the Web–anonymity, viral insanity, and unlimited access–and you have a muddy and incomplete picture of a person that some people want to take as complete.

But I must say I think writing has always been like that. Even in fiction, read from books, from the public library, it’s so tempting to think that the author is the same as the protagonist, and if the protagonist behaves badly that the author has behaved badly, too. This has always been true, but Goodreads, Amazon, and comment threads have made that author all the more accessible (and vulnerable). Is this a good thing?

I will say that a nice thing has happened for me since I wrote and published that essay over the weekend. I’ve softened a bit. I feel sometimes, as a writer, that I get this little tool to help me through the world. When things go badly for me, I often think, but I can write about it. And writing about–and coming out about, because it’s very, very personal–my infertility has helped me shape my understanding of it. I feel both less obsessed with it and more content with what I’ve got, and also brave for having said it all in the first place.

Thank you, friends and readers, for your support.

xo

Susie