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.

 

 

The Japanese Art of Everything

I’m back after a long summer of traveling, teaching, hanging out with my kid, and reading. I read all year long, but I feel that same excitement as many of you when summer rolls around, like I’ll tackle some big reading project or spend hours lost in a book while I sip iced tea at the beach. This summer, neither of those scenarios happened. I ended up reading in a very catch-as-catch-can manner (no Awesome Proust Reading Group after all). I picked up whatever I found at my parents’ house, basically. This included a re-read of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (as arresting as I’d remembered, and funnier, made more the so by the fact that I was reading my little brother’s copy from seventh grade, and his notes were in the margins. A doctor now, and never a real whiz at literature, he referred to Scout as “he” until page 54); Julie Powell’s memoir Julie and Julia, which I’d never expected to be as hysterical and likable as it was; Orange is the New Black, by Piper Kerman (also a nice surprise, and very different from the show. Much less sex. Sorry, everyone); Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs (a crime novel that was at once totally sappy and nonetheless very enjoyable); and, drumroll please, Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. 

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If you’re a sentient human adult in the Western hemisphere, you probably know that everyone is talking about this book. Marie Kondo seems to have arrived from another planet, one where socks have a life of their own, our possessions contain their own energies, and everything we buy must give us a thrill of joy. Kondo advocates going through all of your possessions, deciding which ones “spark joy,” and dumping the rest. In our stuff-laden culture, it’s quite a radical idea—and it earned her the #1 spot on The New York Times Best Sellers List.

This book hit me at a good time. I had definitely been angst-ridden about my closet and all the items I simply wasn’t wearing; I’d been looking around my living room feeling annoyed by the boxes of CDs, the papers, all the books, and my many knick-knacks, imagining a Scandinavian-style living space with nothing at all extra. That said, it’s a tall order to drastically pare down your life. Kondo suggests doing this in this order: clothes; books; papers; komono (miscellany); and last, memorabilia and sentimental items. So I decided that at the very least I’d do my clothes. In the order she suggested, roughly, I dumped every category out on the bed, picked up each item, and waited for a spark of joy.

Easier said than done. Was it joy I felt when I fingered the label on my Target-bought athletic socks, or simply relief that I’d finally purchased some, so I didn’t have to steal from my husband every time I went to exercise? Would I be wracked with guilt if I gave away the hand-knit scarf a friend had sent that I just couldn’t wear? I don’t know, but I do know that once I tabled questions like those and just went with my gut, deciding what to lose was a lot easier than I’d expected. I’d soon filled three large trash bags. In went the gauzy brown dress I’d worn to my brother’s first wedding, which, while pretty, also made me a little depressed every time I looked at it; in went the lingerie I’d been given for my own wedding and never wore; in went the killer black pumps that I always wanted to rock but couldn’t, because they hurt my feet so much it was absolutely impossible to walk in them. (The following week, at a yard sale we happened to be having, I sold the pumps to a very tall German woman who looked terrific in them, and the brown dress to someone who was going to give it to her daughter and told me I had “outstanding taste in clothes.” Ha! She should see me in my yoga pants most days.) I threw out an entire box of ratty cotton T-shirts I was holding onto for only-God-knows-why—probably because I thought at some stage that they would be useful. Forget useful, says Marie Kondo. Forget it altogether.

After discarding my clothes, I followed her system of folding. Besides getting rid of all the stuff that doesn’t bring you joy, she suggests you fold your remaining clothes so you can really see them—upright, in neat little packages, so you’re not digging to the bottom of a stack to find the right T-shirt or pair of underwear. And it works! While I may still be guilty of dumping my clothes on the floor at the end of the day, ahem, when I do put them away, I don’t throw them in the drawer and slam it like I used to. I take the time to very neatly fold. And now, when I look in my closet, I seem to feel just a little less angst around what to wear for work. Twice now I’ve very quickly chosen an outfit and felt good about it instantly (instead of changing thirty times and littering the house with discarded clothing).

Behold.

My scarves-and-accessories drawer

My scarves-and-accessories drawer

I’m not sure if and when I’ll do the books category, though it does give me a little thrill to think of setting free some of the hundreds of books of poetry that I’ve accumulated over the years (and do not read). I will definitely do the papers category and the komono category in an attempt to free up my living room. I hope that Marie Kondo is right when she says, emphatically, that if you tidy correctly, you’ll learn exactly how much stuff you need, how much is right for you—and along with a clearer space, you’ll also have a clearer head and a clearer life.

The whole time I was reading, I kept asking myself: is this something of a metaphor for life? Could you “tidy” your life of activities, relationships, projects, and places that no longer bring you joy? I bet you could.

Think about it.

Also:

“Kissing Your Socks Goodbye”

“The Marie Kondo Effect”

Tidyingup.com

 

Book Giveaway: Have Some Faith this Holiday

In the spirit of reading books, I am doing a holiday book giveaway.

Gorgeous cover design by Jesse Taggart

The first five readers to email me at susiemeserve[at]yahoo.com will receive a free, signed copy of my 2008 poetry chapbook, Faith.

Please include your mailing address when you write.

Faith makes a great little gift, or keep it for yourself!

Read a poem from Faith here.