Casually connected

Wires and Windows, by Franco Folini on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

Back to normal. Which is to say, we greeted this Monday in our customary way – ill-prepared, waking at 6 but not sentient or verbal or effective until 7 or even much later (if you were Young J and got up on the wrong side of the bed and then decided flipping the whole bed over – metaphorically – would solve things). We are simply not a morning family. I hovered and tried to do what I could, but ultimately the chaos sent me retreating to the safe house of the bedroom, where I could contain any collateral damage I might cause by trying to handle an explosive situation while still on crazy-making steroids. I sorted laundry to fold, then became too exhausted to fold it.

This morning heralded the return of our cleaning person (I’ll call her Rosa, not her real name), whom I’d called off last week because I couldn’t face the turmoil. J and I (meaning all J) spent the weekend getting the apartment ready for a cleaning. Things were shifted, decisions were made, and my primary contribution was expanding the shelving devoted to books in the boys’ room, now that board books give way to I Can Read and Hardy Boys and Tintin and other multi-volume series. The stuffed animals, which had been permanently spilling from their compartment, are now imprisoned in two shopping bags. I’m unsure of their fate. I think the kids are too.

While I waited for Rosa to arrive, I did the “small” task I’d left for myself this morning, after folding laundry: switching the boys’ duvets to the winter ones. As soon as I began I realized my folly. This is an insane workout under normal circumstances, and in my condition it was beyond what I could do. I have noticed, however, as you may have if you’ve been reading along, that I possess a certain amount of stubbornness which often gets me past the point of no. It gets particularly strong when it comes into contact with IKEA products (like the duvets).

Three weeks ago today, the first day of truly bad stomach, I had gone to IKEA to pick up a cabinet J decided we needed to replace a flimsy one in a hallway closet. I took the item name and went, unquestioning, to the warehouse (despite my dodgy stomach). I arrived at the correct shelf and bin and realized the package in question was a box weighing 77 pounds and measuring five feet tall. I had 90 minutes until I needed to pick up Young A from school. I made what I felt was the only sensible choice – slid the box off the shelf onto a dolly, crushing various fingers, paid for it and my dozen packages of paper napkins, wheeled the thing to the garage, folded down the back seat, and wrestled until I’d got it in (a few more fingers down). I had the same sweaty exhilaration I felt when I got Mom to her bus the other day, an against-all-odds triumph that transcended the sheer stupidity of what I’d gone through with. The cabinet? Remains boxed. It sat in the car for two weeks until J had a neighbor help him carry it up the stairs, neither of them sure how I’d even gotten it in the car. It is now the cabinet of my unwellness. Perhaps it will never be assembled.

Rosa arrived. I’d very much been looking forward to speaking with her, catching her up on my ordeal, which would be pleasantly distanced by my telling it in Spanish. When she arrived, though, I was on the phone with Nurse Practitioner K, who was overjoyed at my progress but still unwilling to drop my dose of steroids, at least until tomorrow. And given my Very Stupid Mistake with avocado salad of a couple weeks ago, she made sure to tell me I should continue to steer clear of avocados.

I got off the phone and gave Rosa a huge hug. She stepped back and took a look at me and told me how well I looked. You can imagine how that went. I told her briefly what I’d been through and that she can be glad I’m okay, but that I really cannot accept a compliment like that, because I have suffered a lot. She finally relented. She told me how strong I was, and she told me how great God is (not something I am used to hearing from her, but apparently she’s had two friends convinced their faith healed them of cancer). And then told me her life story starting with her husband abandoning her after 25 years of marriage and the tailspin of self-blame that sent her into for over a year, until her good friend shook her out of it and she started seeing a psychologist and things got better. (Where I come from, by the way, this is a completely normal interaction to have with the person who has arrived to clean your house. I wouldn’t have it any other way.) It was a cathartic start to the purging of the house. She’s exorcising the demon dirt from my bathroom and bedroom right now. I can’t wait.

I’ve thought a lot lately about a Yiddish expression that Primo Levi used as an epigraph for The Periodic Table: “Ibergekumene tsores iz gut tsu dertseylin” (Troubles overcome are good to tell). As good as it has been to talk through my pain, through gritted teeth and clenched fists, it is even sweeter to talk over it now, to gain that needed distance where humor (my all-sustaining force) becomes possible.

Thinking about The Periodic Table is a portal for me, straight back to a moment in time so different from the present. My senior year in college, I took an English seminar on the nonfiction novel, with Professor John Russell.

The same semester, I was struggling to get out from under the required junior English class, Expository Writing, which I was going to have to take to graduate. I’d tried to take it once before, and come up against a TA named Jennifer, whose worldview was so completely antithetical to my own I’d had to withdraw from her course as my grades on papers slipped to the C’s.

From high school, I’d known I could write, and I would write, and the occasional roadblocks education tried to throw in my path (which involved trying to get me to learn how to organize a logical argument, compose a coherent thesis, basically how to dutifully fulfill my readers’ expectations) chafed a great deal. It never occurred to me, for example, that my 20-page analysis for my French poetry seminar, on how Pierre de Ronsard’s deafness pervaded his sonnets with images of incapacity, might have been better received if I’d actually had a thesis to stand on. The probable fact that I suffered from attention deficit never occurred to me. I just kept poking down corridors until I found the teachers who didn’t care about that petty bullshit. In a large state land grant institution’s English department, you find them.

Professor Russell had a fantastic syllabus – we read books that were vital and visceral and smart and funny and devastating, like the Levi, and Out of Africa, and e.e. cummings’ The Enormous Room, about his experiences in World War I. There were themes that were important which connected these works – the one springing immediately to mind as a feature of nonfiction novels being the notion of bricolage, French for tinkering, which meant the writers would intertwine disparate threads, topics, moods, in order to evoke the sense of a novel from nonfictional events. That concept, and indeed the whole enterprise of a nonfiction novel, has never been far from my mind since starting this blog.

Professor Russell was a great champion of mine – papers and exams would come back with highest praise (“your coinage is expert”) and it made me regret not having been an English major (I majored in French and Italian literature). I wrote a final paper on Brendan Behan’s Borstal Boy in which I interspersed verses of an Irish song, “The Auld Triangle,” through the sections. The summit of my achievement that semester was being invited to visit Russell’s graduate seminar, where the Shiva Naipaul book on Jonestown, Journey to Nowhere, was being discussed. He’d liked some things I’d said and wanted his grad students to hear me say them. As luck would have it, that day one of his students was giving a presentation at the start of class. It was Jennifer, the TA who had shown only disdain for my writing. I got to sit and watch her squirm as I occupied the seat of honor. It felt… nice.

I finished the semester and faced some facts. I was going to be graduating. I didn’t want to go on to grad school in literature – I was rapidly burning out on reading and writing. I’d been working at the campus library and volunteering at the Library of Congress. It seemed like as good a path as any, so I headed down it.

In the spring, I ran into Professor Russell in the reference stacks. He asked what my plans were. I told him brightly that I’d be starting library school in the fall. His face fell. His kind and grandfatherly demeanor crumbled. “Now, what do you want to go and do a thing like that for?” I was taken aback. As was he, I suppose. It stung. I did not keep in touch. I launched a promising career as an academic librarian (a career which, twenty years on, has all but evaporated).

Professor Russell had been working on a scholarly work, called Reciprocities in the Nonfiction Novel. Many years later, I remembered it and searched the library catalog, and found it had been published. I retrieved it from the stacks, and on a crosstown bus ride, I read the introduction (which had been written by another English professor of mine).

I learned that Professor Russell had worked on the manuscript for many years, never being satisfied with it. He began a slow slide into dementia, and retired. The manuscript had to be taken from him. With the help of his colleagues, the book was eventually published. A copy was brought to the nursing home for him to see. His response? “That sounds like a great book. I’d love to read it.” His life’s work, become a plot twist worthy of any of the greatest nonfiction novels.

(Sorry, I need a nap.) (Sorry, this wasn’t really about cancer.)

2 thoughts on “Casually connected

  1. This is great, great writing. Perhaps because it’s about writing. As well as the limits of formal academia and its practitioners, and those quiet victories.

    Anyway, we miss you, J, Lil’ J and Lil’ A.


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