Monday, November 5, 2012

Required Reading

The world [Monday] breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places. - Ernest Hemingway

The young, blond woman standing by the counter at the library this morning looked exactly how I felt.

I heard her ask about the cost of printing something. She said, "But I don't have any money. I'm trying to print something so I can get a payday loan."

You could hear in her voice the growing anxiousness, the panic that comes up when not one thing seems to go right or smoothly.

"Do you need a dollar?" A patron, waiting to check out, set down her pile of books and pulled out some change.

I could hear the woman say thank you and in the thank you I could hear the sound of something broken. Or breaking. It's that sound when you are trying so hard to hold it all together. Sometimes, kindness is the thing that shatters you. Her eyes filled with tears. She took the change and rushed back to the computer she was logged onto.

While I looked at the new books and wandered into the stacks, I saw her again. She was having trouble printing out whatever it was she needed. The librarian was going to help her.

I kept wishing I was the type of person who could walk right over and hand her everything in my wallet and say, "Here, take this money. Nope, just take it. You have no idea how many times I have been where you are. Please don't go to those vultures at the payday loan place."

But I don't have anything in my wallet.

I was at the library this morning because the library makes me feel better. It's like the bookstore without the price tags. There are times when I'm convinced the library is probably the best thing we as a society have ever created.

The kids had their six-month check-ups today. We don't have dental insurance so that's $266. They were due for X-rays. I declined the fluoride treatment ($35 each).

Kate's teeth look great. Jacob is going to need a few cavities filled. It's going to cost about $600.

I signed the treatment form and made an appointment for Jacob to go back in December. I jokingly said, "Merry Christmas, kids."

But I could tell Jacob was worried because he could tell I was worried. I got too quiet in the car.

Quiet is the thing that worries him.

Here's the cycle, here's how it goes, here's how loving people can twist your stomach into knots: I worry, he worries that I'm worried, I worry because I know he's worried about me worrying. I feel guilty that he worries. I feel guilty that he has to be aware of money issues at all.

I work it over in my head, where this money will come from. I am too quiet while I work it out. Jacob offers to give up drinking soda because soda causes cavities.

I keep doing stupid things like giving Kate $20 to go to the movies or $15 to spend on hair dye so she can color the ends of her hair purple. I keep buying myself $4 lattes. I keep not dealing with things like the car that won't start or the axle that needs to be replaced on the other car. I keep working it over in my mind. What should I take care of now and what can wait? What's the next right move?

I keep waiting for something to happen so that I can breath easy for a goddamn minute.

I took the kids to McDonald's after the dentist even though I should have saved that $15. But that is what we do after the dentist. We get breakfast. I'm so tired of having to give up things even if they seem silly and inconsequential.

Going to McDonald's with Jacob is one of the things I wrote about after Charles died. Jacob still had braces then.

After Jacob’s regular orthodontist appointments, we would stop at McDonald’s on the way to his school. Jacob would have two bacon and egg biscuits (no cheese) and a coke (no ice) and I would have a vanilla latte and we would make up stories about the old men who regularly met for coffee at the McDonald’s on Valleydale Road. We decided they were secret ninjas and they met here each day to discuss their secret ninja missions.  
During one of our McDonald’s breakfasts, Jacob told me his class was reading The Story of My Life by Helen Keller and they’d watched a movie about her.  
“Helen Keller freaks me out,” I said. “I mean, not the person but the situation. I’ve never understood how she learned anything. She was trapped in silence and darkness. How did she break free? I don’t get it.”  
It became a running joke between us, my inability to comprehend how Helen Keller could find her way out of that darkness and into the world. Jacob, because he was a teenager and liked to tease me, would ask me “Why?” questions about the vastness of the universe that I couldn’t answer. 
When I would say, “It really is so hard to comprehend, isn’t it?” he would laugh and say, “Yes and what about that Helen Keller?”  
But he never asked me any questions about his dad. 

After I dropped both kids at school, I cried in the car because that's what I do. I have no idea why, but I think the car is a good place to cry the way some people think the car is a good place to pick their noses. I mean, it's not like no one can see you so it doesn't really make sense. Mostly, I think it's because in the car you can be in a space between places. You can decide to cry there and pull yourself together before you get home or go to work or go inside the payday loan place.

I decided to go to the library on the way home and load myself down with free books, to comfort myself with stories that aren't mine.

I'm currently reading The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe. It's a memoir about a man whose mother has pancreatic cancer. For his entire life, he and his mother discussed books and, during her cancer treatment at the end of her life, they formed an official book club for themselves. The memoir is full of the books they have read and discussed.

I love coming across the titles of books I have read. Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach. Anne Lamott's Traveling Mercies. The Hobbit. The Chronicles of Narnia.

My head is full of the names of books Will Schwalbe has mentioned that I haven't read. I was trying to remember the titles of some of them when I stopped at the library.

Will Schwalbe and his mother Mary Anne approached books the way I do. Books are sometimes a place to find answers, but most often they are a place to ask questions. The best books give you permission to think about things like faith and love and humanity. They give you a way to ponder your own mysteries by searching through the eyes of characters.

Books are such clear and convincing proof that we are all the same, we human beings who - in the name of politics or religion - shriek and yell and burn things and rip each other apart in order to prove how different we are.

We are not so different from one another, no matter what culture we are born into, no matter who we vote for or who we worship or who we love.

I was standing at the shelves full of new arrivals when I heard the young woman who needs the payday loan. I recognized her in that way that you recognize someone's struggle. I knew her in the way I know how demoralizing it is to not have enough and to feel exhausted by your attempts to fix things that are broken; the way I know what it sounds like when just one more thing going wrong will make you want to cry in front of strangers in the library; the way I am familiar with the truth that it will be a gentle offer of help that will actually make you cry.

It's all going to be OK.

That's what you want to say to someone you don't even know. She isn't even the first person I've seen crying in public in the past five days. Last week, I went to Walmart to buy Kate some black tights for her Halloween costume, and a girl at the door was on her cell phone crying. "His name is Thomas." That's what she said, sobbing, to whoever was on the other end of that call.

It's all going to be OK.

That's what you want someone to tell you. Hell, it doesn't even matter if they know what they're talking about. Most people, let's face it, don't know shit.

But there is power in hearing someone else say those words and say them with assurance. And the thing is, you can be dumb as a box of rocks and you'd still be right about that.

It is all going to be OK. (It's going to suck again, too, but then it'll be OK. Then it will suck...You get what I'm saying.)

One day I switched purses. I cleaned out the one that was in the closet so I could use it again. Everything in it was from the first few months after Charles died. There was the last half of a gift certificate to Saw's BBQ that I never used. A coworker had given it to us so we could get dinner one night. There was a letter from Blue Cross Blue Shield about how I owed them $600 for Jacob's orthodontic work, for a mistake they'd made in calculating benefits. I remember I cried about that, too. But the bill got paid, didn't it? And I hadn't thought about it since then.

Now the same purse holds a print-out of a new treatment plan and its dollar amount. It holds an estimate for car repairs. It holds a worn photograph of a haircut I like. It holds the book I'm reading. You never know when you're going to have a minute to sit down and read. You have to be prepared.

What's that phrase? It's not one thing after another. It's the same damn thing over and over again.

That is why it's all going to be OK over and over again, too. I don't know how. It's a mystery. But the passage of time somehow always solves that mystery.

I hope that woman from the library gets a hug from someone she loves today. I hope someone tells her it's going to be OK. I hope someone in her life offers to give up soda or something, just because he loves her and worries about her and is willing to give up something silly and inconsequential just to make her feel better.

I hope she checked out a good book or two before she left the library.


  1. Replies
    1. Thank you! I'm about to send you 300 plus pages of stuff I've written! : )

  2. This made me cry. Thank you - I loved it.

    1. Thank you. Is it weird that I like it when I make people cry?

  3. Amy! It all sounds so familiar. It will all be ok over and over again even when we can't see how/

  4. I needed this today, thank you.

    1. Thank you. I honestly LOVE to hear this! It makes me feel like things are going to be OK or something.

  5. Replies
    1. Thank you! (You're on my loyal reader list/Lake Como with George guest list.)

  6. You are so good at this writing stuff

    1. Thank you! I needed that! Thank you so much for reading. I'm glad you found me!


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