My mother was literally incapable of letting go. She kept souvenirs and remnants of the past packed in shoeboxes and closets and held on to every pain and injustice ever done to her more tightly than others did to money or valuables. She persisted from day to day in the belief that change was superficial and there was always something beyond or behind her current struggle of circumstances, and, growing up, I wanted nothing more than to avoid the same trap.
In the few months of decline between when they discovered the metastasized cancer and when she died, she was outwardly strong but inside was nothing but a wall of denial. She never talked about the hopelessness of her situation and because of that it took quite some time for us on the outside to understand the reality of the situation ourselves. I’m certain she never even admitted it to herself. She believed things were more or less they way they had been until, one day, they weren’t.
When she had got to the point where she couldn’t move up and down the stairs very well, she made a makeshift bed in the living room and mostly just watched TV. I would sit with her when I came to visit and watch hours upon hours of the Game Show Network. It drove me nuts, truthfully. I couldn’t understand how the minuscule amount of entertainment in banal game shows two or three decades old could interest or distract her at all.
Eventually, I realized it was precisely the banality and the vintage she wanted. Like her antiques and photographs and swimming medals from high school, those game shows were evidence of a time when her life was better, and they helped convince her that nothing could really be that bad and that everything would be okay. Hosts in pale polyester suits, assistants with feathery hair and glossy lips, contestants with safe suburban dreams of winning big, and cheesy set decorations that had not yet learned irony. The kind of shows that would have been on when I was an infant and she stayed at home with me. They played endlessly on that channel, through the night as my mother drifted in and out of sleep, and they would always flicker on brightly until morning.
“'We are our narratives' has become a popular slogan. 'We' refers to our selves, in the full-blooded person-constituting sense. 'Narratives' refers to the stories we tell about our selves and our exploits in settings as trivial as cocktail parties and as serious as intimate discussions with loved ones. We express some in speech. Others we tell silently to ourselves, in that constant little inner voice. The full collection of one's internal and external narratives generates the self we are intimately acquainted with. Our narrative selves continually unfold.”—On the neuropsychology of narrative and our new digital selves.
One of my favorite fairy tales has always been Rapunzel. It’s truly a disturbing story, rich with metaphor of the pain and danger of being female.
At its beginning, a woman (unmarried and clever and therefore a witch) is so wickedly jealous of a neighbor woman’s pregnancy that she forces a bargain of her rare, desired lettuce for the other woman’s unborn child. The soon-to-be-mother, in the throes of prenatal craving, makes the bargain, and although she repents upon birth, the witch mercilessly holds her to the agreement and takes the infant daughter away. As if to mark her forever with her birth mother’s mistake, the witch names the girl after the type of lettuce - Rapunzel.
To protect the girl, she locks her in a tower where the only method of entry or exit is Rapunzel’s own long, heavy mass of hair. The girl grows up in captivity, with no human contact or access to the world at large. Her adopted mother/captor visits her to bring her what she needs to survive and assure her how she is much better off safe and secure in her tower without the risk of injury, harm or disappointment. Without the risk of love or men. Virginal, she can stay safe forever in her tower.
Of course, a man finds a way in, and with him come opportunities and horizons Rapunzel had never known existed. She decides that maybe she would rather have that. Unfortunately, the witch discovers them and sends the intruder flying from the tower. His eyes pierced by the witch’s thorns, he wanders, blind, searching for Rapunzel. For her part, the witch casts her out as a traitor, her binding and safety net gone, her hair shorn to her scalp.
From there the story is retold differently. Most versions describe Rapunzel, pregnant with her lover’s twins, taken in by a village, where she cares for her children until their father happens by, and her tears of joy cure his blindness. Occasionally, a version will just kind of taper off before the reunion, with Rapunzel carrying on alone as a single mother.
This tale runs the gamut of female archetypes, several embodied by Rapunzel herself. Her own story is really very modern and plumbs the depths of human desire, fear and evil. My favorite retelling of it is by the young adult author Donna Jo Napoli, who wrote Zel with all the psychology and sex the tale deserves. She also finds the essential moral of it, at least as it’s always stood to me. She describes Rapunzel, rebuilding her life outside of the tower:
That’s when she reminds herself that life is no longer slippery. The urges she felt to self-destruct ended when the torture ended. The madness stayed in that tower. She is here.
Is she safe?
She doesn’t believe in safety. She believes in life, in all its beauty and fragility. She has her daughters. She has her art. She feels rich. Her soul mends.
Fairy tales, as Chesterton reminds us, are not true because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be defeated. The other thing they tell us, that we tend to miss more often, that the dragons are merely stand-ins for our own unexamined tendencies and faults. Such as our unchecked wants, our impulses that we allow to control us, our desperate fears and our need for security. In real life, we fight them all. Fortunately, they can also be defeated. Whether we know it or not.
That in the beginning when the world was young there were a great many thoughts but no such thing as a truth. Man made the truths himself and each truth was a composite of a great many vague thoughts. All about in the world were the truths and they were all beautiful.
The old man had listed hundreds of the truths in his book. I will not try to tell you of all of them. There was the truth of virginity and the truth of passion, the truth of wealth and of poverty, of thrift and of profligacy, of carelessness and abandon. Hundreds and hundreds were the truths and they were all beautiful.
And then the people came along. Each as he appeared snatched up one of the truths and some who were quite strong snatched up a dozen of them.
It was the truths that made the people grotesques. The old man had quite an elaborate theory concerning the matter. It was his notion that the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood.
“I dreamed of having a book of my own, of writing one that I could put on a shelf. Please, no matter how we advance technologically, please don’t abandon the book. There is nothing in our material world more beautiful than the book.”—Patti Smith
No longer can you just toss a beribboned packet of love letters into the fire and neatly, simply burn away the evidence such a love ever existed. Now it’s a hunter’s job to track down the text messages, the emails, the Twitter connections, the Facebook notices, the Tumblr relationships and every other digital breadcrumb, and dispatch them all so you never stumble on the path backward. The photo of the flowers he got you your first birthday with him that he sent you so you could keep it after the flowers were gone, saved on your hard drive so you would never lose it. One big destructive fire would be so much less painful than each pixelated pinprick drawing the blood out a drop at a time. It’s even worse when the end isn’t certain. You could go on bleeding forever, because the internet never stops.
Regrettably, this episode of the show featured Columbus, Ohio, the state capital, home of OSU and the Buckeyes, and the good people of this heartland city, eager for the national spotlight to show themselves off, were a tad miffed that one of their own had seemed to directly disparage their city. I had only been there once or twice before for book events, not food tours, so I did not mean to suggest that Columbus was Applebees’ country, only that ex-urban interstate cloverleafs were.
But that’s not how it came off. Talk about a hornets nest, sheesh … I more or less covered my head with my arms to keep from getting clobbered and ran away.
”—Michael Ruhlman follows-up on his comments about Columbus, Ohio food in an Anthony Bourdain No Reservations episode with a guided 24-hr foodie tour of the city.
“Glaser, designer of the iconic ‘I Love New York’ design, had an unfortunate Larry Summers moment when he said that the reason there are so few female rock star graphic designers is that ‘women get pregnant, have children, go home and take care of their children. And those essential years that men are building their careers and becoming visible are basically denied to women who choose to be at home.’ He continued: ‘Unless something very dramatic happens to the nature of the human experience then it’s never going to change.’ About day care and nannies, he said, ‘None of them are good solutions.’”—I raise a kid AND work at a career. On my own. I’m ten times tougher and a more well-rounded person than you’ll ever be. I’ll take that over “rock star” status any day. Eat it.
“[F]ailure instructs the writer. Every novel, in the moments before we begin to write it, is potentially the greatest, the most beautiful or thrilling ever written … Our greatest duty as artists and as humans is to pay attention to our failures, to break them down, study the tapes, conduct the postmortem, pore over the findings; to learn from our mistakes.”—Michael Chabon
He’s been critiqued for his use of the phrase ‘little girl,’ but I love Bruce’s women. From Mary from ‘Thunder Road’ (my favorite) who ain’t a beauty but yeah she’s alright, and isn’t looking for a savior but just someone else to run away for a while on the open road, to Rosalita and Wendy of ‘Born to Run,’ Bruce gives you women who are real, who you (or at least I) can see yourself in.
He explores relationships and feelings in a thousand complex ways instead of writing the same falling-in-love or getting-heartbroken song over again. I don’t have time or space here to list them all, but I think the best I can say, the best explanation I can give, is that Bruce writes of real life, of the tiny moments in it that transcend, yes, but also the struggles and heartaches of everyday existence. That he writes from the point of view of a (now quite wealthy) white heterosexual man but one who understands and loves women as people as well.
Taken together, the letters from families struggling through the Great Depression create a larger story of a city and a nation struggling to accept a new notion: that without help they might not survive, no matter how hard they worked.
"In many cases these were individuals with their backs against the wall, watching their children go hungry every night," Mr. Gup said in a phone interview last week.
At a time when accepting charity was seen as a moral failure, Mr. Stone’s promise of anonymity shielded the letter writers from shame. An unemployed woman caring for her sick daughter and disabled sister wrote to Mr. Stone, “If I thought this would be printed in the papers I would rather die of hunger first.”
About five years ago, I was a single mother with a few-month-old infant daughter. I lived in a studio apartment in the same town as the college I had just had to drop out of it. I had no job and my daughter and I were living on savings and public assistance.
Us middle-class and above folk tend to think of those less fortunate as another species, whether we’re aware of it or not. We don’t think of them as individuals, with pasts and passions and talents. We think of them, if we’re kind, as creatures who deserve creature comforts and not much else. This may come out of an underlying conviction the unfortunate have done something to cause their situation. Sometimes this is the case. Sometimes they’ve done nothing more than the fortunate who are born into different situations have. In either case, they’re still individuals, and we sadly misrepresent them as something less.
Few people realize now, what situations I’ve personally lived through. They assume I’m just like them. But I’ve been without a home and money and food. I’ve pulled myself and my daughter back from the edge of poverty with little but my own hard work - and the much-needed bits of help given by the few people who saw us both as individuals who were worth it.
The first Thanksgiving of my daughter’s life, someone set two grocery bags outside of my apartment door full of food - boxes of stuffing, potatoes, cans of vegetables and a whole turkey. I never had any idea who did it. I didn’t even have the skill or time to cook all of it. But I’ve never forgotten what it meant to have a stranger express to me that I was still worth helping.