The gulfs in marriage and home: Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri

I am so grateful to a couple of blogger friends who recently urged me to move Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri up on my reading list. This book had been sitting on my shelves unread for maybe three years.

Interpreter of Maladies is Lahiri’s first published work, a collection of short stories that also won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000.

The stories take place in both America and India although we often get the sense that we’re in both: the characters are making a new life in America or traveling back to India to a country that’s unfamiliar or consoling a friend who’s been separated from his family.

The stories are also about marriage, about secrets and lost connections. The opening story is a powerful one about the gulf that takes place in one marriage after the death of the couple’s first baby. Other characters struggle with infidelity, loneliness, hunger to be noticed, and bewilderment at the behavior and thinking of their partners.

And there are stories of women living on the margins of society in India – the ill, the displaced. They, too, long for connection and belonging.

I’m trying hard here not to resort to cliches or overly dramatic expressions to describe how I felt reading these stories, but the only thing I can say is that I was amazed at how much punch each of these short stories could pack. Lahiri captures the immigrant’s and the outsider’s story with such nuance and poignancy – the optimism, the hope, the alienation, the longing, the loneliness…and all of this is rolled together with the parallel emotions faced in each of the characters’ marriages or relationship with the community. These are stories for anyone – Indian or not, immigrant or not – who’s ever felt a part of themselves empty, who’s ever wanted to be full and yet not known how to feel whole.

Understanding, accepting, and appreciating the language of husbands and fathers

When Fred was a baby I became more aware of how some (many) women often corrected the way their husbands parented: they didn’t like the way they diapered, bathed, dressed, fed, or played with their babies. Around the house, too, I would see it. One husband-friend of mine once shook his head after being criticized by his wife and said to me, “See? I’m afraid to do anything. And she wonders why I don’t help more.”

I didn’t really go through that, because Max was actually better with babies than I was and he is often better around the house as well.

But I had my one area of “expertise,” and that was the emotional rearing of our child. On this I was convinced that I was better. I grew up with and was influenced by a mother who, while critical, almost never raised her voice. She never shouted, never punished, and never talked down to my brother and me. For better or worse, she spoke to us almost as equals. This was in sharp contrast to many of the other Chinese mothers and caretakers I knew. I had one extreme daycare teacher shout at us, “Shut up or I’ll chop your heads off!” I was told that this was how people talked “back home” (back in the villages of China).

For years I corrected Max on this aspect of parenting. He, like all parents, came into parenting with the experiences he knew growing up in his family and in his culture and his style, I felt, was a little too Asian and old school for my tastes. And so for years we talked, fought, and cried over this. Finally, nearly ten years later, we are pretty much on the same page. I think it is our greatest achievement as a couple.

Then a few weeks ago I found myself repeating something I’d promised I’d try my best not to do: correct Max in front of Fred. It was a knee-jerk reaction and the words came out before I knew what I was doing. Max and Fred were butting heads on something and I didn’t like the way Max was handling the situation.

Max was furious with me and walked off to his office, so I emailed him. (I know it sounds odd but we email when we’re mad (it’s better than us screaming).) He wrote back that he and Fred have their own relationship and that they are doing fine without my stepping in to complicate things.

Maybe that should’ve been obvious, but it was the first time I really saw and understood that. Sometimes I would cringe or “tsk tsk” at the way Max talks to Fred – the teasing, the gruffness. It’s not abuse or humiliation, just different from how I would talk to Fred. Then I realized that different in this case perhaps simply means “male” or just “different” rather than “wrong.” I relate to my child as a woman does: I nurture, soothe, validate. Max, too, is very affectionate and tender with Fred, but he is not me and he has his own style. And the thing I haven’t allowed myself to see is, I do screw up, a lot. As “expert” as I am on all of this, it’s textbook smarts and I over-personalize parenting and stress out and criticize and even a decade later I am no better at this gig than I was when I first gave birth. Children keep changing and the only thing I can count on is my determination to keep understanding my child and to understand myself better through that experience. I know I need to give Max this chance too. So I  accepted that I have to let go…and let them build their father-son bond, a bond that is as unique and necessary as the bond that I have with Fred.

Yesterday they had another minor episode. I was in another room so I don’t really know what happened, only that Fred showed attitude and Max got angry. But I minded my own business and trusted that Max would be able to handle it fine and I went out to run errands. When I finished an hour later, I walked into a house filled with the cacophony of two recorders playing Mary Had a Little Lamb. Instead of working (we work from home), Max had joined Fred to practice the recorder. Later after dinner, the two belted out When the Saints Go Marching In over and over, doing their best renditions of Louis Armstrong. And then closing their finale they mooned me. They nearly fell to the floor laughing so hard while I just sat in my chair rolling my eyes…and inside falling more in love with the two of them.

Men, boys. Fathers and sons. They’re foreign to me sometimes, but the joy and the love – I get that.

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Reading beyond your genres and comfort zone

Onlyoublog_outside of genreI am tempted to get Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Cardespecially after seeing it on sale for the Kindle.

Ender’s Game, of which the movie version is out in the theaters right now, is a YA novel about a brilliant boy who’s been drafted to train as a soldier to fight future alien attacks. It’s classified under Science Fiction and, on Amazon, under Science Opera, something I have never even heard of. It’s also the kind of book that is ordinarily not my cup of tea and not up my alley.

I couldn’t admit that I wasn’t really into science fiction until I was an adult. Growing up I hung out with a group of girlfriends who were obsessed with Star Wars. Succumbing to peer pressure I suppose, I followed them blindly to stand in long lines to see every sequel to Star Wars 6+ times. Secretly I wondered if I was missing something.

So over the years I’ve pretty much stuck to non-fantasy reading, having a hard time even with dystopian fiction and magical realism.

Until a couple of years ago, when more than one intelligent adult friend told me that I HAD to read The Hunger Games. Dystopia and dying children. You pretty much can’t turn me off more than that. But I gave it a go, because I trusted my mother-girlfriends who all seemed to react to the series with an emotion I had honestly never seen when it came to books.

I won’t say that I LOVED The Hunger Games the way my friends did, but I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it enough to have bought the whole boxed set (though my interest didn’t sustain me enough to finish the third book…probably because I had spaced the books out too much) and to have waited for and watched the movie soon after it opened.

The best part, though, is that after reading The Hunger Games I noticed myself paying more attention to books that I normally never took a second glance at. Other dystopian literature. Stories about war and terrorism. Manga. Science stories. Books about religion. Stories about places I had no familiarity with. Writers whose nationalities I knew little about. Writers whom I’d always considered intimidating. In fact, the less I knew about something, the more likely I was to want to check it out.

I’ll admit that if Ender’s Game is only about aliens, I may not be so interested. But it’s also about the pressures to perform and satisfy adults and the isolation of being taken away from your peers to train to such a high level. That story line appeals to both the mother and daughter in me. And the aliens? Well, it’s an excuse to let my hair down, and I remember how good that’s felt the few times I’ve done it 😉

What is normally your cup of tea and not your cup of tea? Have you tried to read beyond your usual genres? If you have, how has that gone?

Coping and self-soothing

I was surprised yesterday when sitting down to guide Fred to plan out his homework schedule he said, “I want to be calm before I do math, so I’m going to play piano first.” My thinking was to get the hardest homework over with first, but Fred chose to read and play music instead.

It made me think about how, when and if one learns to self-soothe. I grew up in a stressful household but also in a family that didn’t “talk.” It wasn’t part of our culture to discuss feelings and besides, my parents didn’t have time; they were so focused just on surviving. But it’s human instinct to find or create coping skills, however immature or ineffective they may be in the long run. As a child I spent a lot of time reading and daydreaming – activities that took me, at least mentally, far from where I was. My little brother and I, using our stuffed animals, created an entirely new family complete with its own history and life.

As an adult I often relied on a busy schedule. At one point I was active in a handful of volunteer activities and joined a gym on top of a full-time job. My mother remarked that it was as if I were trying to numb myself by keeping every minute of my life occupied. Maybe I was. Maybe I was afraid of what I’d feel if I had time to feel.

I’m so grateful for all of your support last week when I posted about my inertia. Since I wrote that post I’ve had a great week. It is pretty amazing how much things can fall into place once you make that first change. Since joining the gym I’ve looked forward to going back each day, and since decluttering the dining room I’ve moved on to the kitchen. I also began doing small things: getting out of my pajamas and putting in my contacts before work (I work from home and usually rush to start due to my clients’ time zone), eating breakfast before 9:30, drinking more water and less juice, leaving my laptop in a different room and on a different floor after 8:00 p.m., and noticing my tone around my family more and apologizing when I need to, even for small things. I didn’t notice all the ways I had not been taking care of myself until I started to do it.

I feel I need to do all those things first before I can think about the more commonly thought of self-soothers like massages and aromatherapy candles. I’ve done that, along with the scented shower gels and lotions, and now I know why they hadn’t worked for me; I hadn’t taken care of my body’s most basic needs first.

I’m not sure why I’ve been so neglectful of myself. There are, of course, those intense years of early motherhood when the last person on your list of priorities is yourself. Those are the years that you eat standing up, fold laundry and cook when you should be napping, and throw talcum powder in your hair instead of washing it. Those years have formed a habit. Except I think I was kind of negligent even before I became a parent. While I’d taught myself to escape as a child, I never learned to stay and feel better.

This week Fred had an unfortunate incident. It wasn’t good, but it wasn’t the end of the world. He locked himself in his closet, sobbing, “I just want to die!” It was a wake-up call because I saw myself in him. It was just a week ago that I had felt and cried the same thing to my husband. An article on suicidal thoughts says, “Often we don’t want to die; we just want the pain to end.” When you’ve never had a chance to properly face and process difficult emotions, they can easily become overwhelming…and crippling and threatening. And then eventually life itself becomes overwhelming, and even taking basic steps for self-care becomes difficult.

I know that my 9-year-old wasn’t literal about wanting to die, but I do know that he was feeling something more powerful than he could handle. He wanted to be anywhere except where he was at that moment. I know. I have been there…many times and over long years I have been there. I’ll make sure that Fred is never there alone, and that he knows he is stronger than anything bad he feels.

How do you cope or teach your children to cope with life’s more difficult moments?

Every woman’s nightmare: The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood

I finally read my first Margaret Atwood. I have heard so much about this acclaimed and prolific writer that I was almost salivating to start. Most sources seemed to recommend beginning with The Handmaid’s Tale, and so I did that.Onlyou_Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale, as many of you know, is a dystopian novel written as a fictional memoir by a woman captured in the theocratic regime of the Republic of Gilead. We learn about her story in bits and pieces as she moves along. We know that she didn’t always live under this regime, that once, some years ago, she had been married to a man named Luke, that she had had a young daughter and a regular job, and that she used to wear things like jeans and jogging pants. We never learn her real name, only that she is now Offred, a name designating her as the property of a high level official named Fred.

As we read on we understand that Offred, like other women, is being watched constantly. Along with other handmaids, she wears a red cloak with white wings that shield her face. She is governed by an Aunt. Her activities are limited to eating, sleeping, shopping for groceries, and copulating with Fred – also known as the Commander – once a month in efforts to get impregnated.

The Republic of Gilead was created when the President of the United States and members of Congress were assassinated. The new leadership is a dictatorship of extreme right wing religious radicals, with a goal of repopulating the country after infertility reached crisis low levels due to the ravages of war, radioactive material, etc. They have driven away and persecuted “undesirable” populations such as Jews, blacks, and homosexuals. Women are denied every right and used only for procreational purposes. (Infertile women are sent to work in labor camps.)

Through Offred’s memoir, we learn how she tries to bear her unbearable and uncertain conditions. She flashes back frequently to memories of her husband and daughter, whose whereabouts she doesn’t know. Offred seems beaten down and her best friend Moira, who doesn’t hesitate to challenge authority, calls her a “wimp.”  As the story goes on, Offred does begin to pick up more information and to take on riskier behavior, and the story gets more interesting.

There are a number of themes in the book and numerous religious references (of which I’m not knowledgeable enough to talk about though). One that struck me is the argument that women have it better now that their lives are controlled. As Offred quotes her Aunt Lydia saying, “We were a society dying . . . of too much choice.” (page 25) Women are safer now, this rulership claims, protected. Women used to live in uncertain times, with men who may or may not be faithful and committed, and many did not enjoy respect as mothers. At least in Gilead, women can simply focus on bearing children.

Maybe the most significant fallout of this heavily controlled environment is the loss of human connection. Women are placed in a caste system that encourages alienation and resentment. Romantic or even simply emotional relationships are illegal among most groups and punishable by death. At one point the Commander, starving for such a connection, invites Offred to secretly play Scrabble with him. He asks Offred, “What did we overlook [in our new world]?” and, with some of that power now melted through intimacy, she is able to respond honestly, “Love.” (page 220)

I can’t decide how I feel about the book. I enjoyed it as a story about women and I enjoyed Atwood’s writing. On the other hand, I found the themes interesting but not compelling. For example, the argument that women have it better in Gilead is something that I found too hard to believe…I was hoping for something a little more grey, that would make me think – uncomfortably – hmm, I can see that. Some readers have criticized the story for being far-fetched and it is definitely easy to believe so, until you think about other regimes like the Taliban and North Korea. Maybe the obstacle for me was that there were many holes in the story, due to the fact that this was told from Offred’s point of view, and Offred was essentially a prisoner who was pretty much kept in the dark as to what was happening. Or, it could very likely be that I am not familiar with dystopian literature and so I’m not sure what I should be reading or how I should be feeling.

Overall, as far as storytelling goes, I enjoyed this book and there were times when I couldn’t put it down. It’s chilling and horrific but ultimately there is a sliver of hope. I’m definitely looking forward to reading more books by Margaret Atwood, especially Cat’s Eye and Alias Grace which may be more accessible to me in terms of subject matter (I’m not a huge fan of dystopian fiction, to be honest).

Have you read The Handmaid’s Tale? If so, what did you think of it? What other books of Atwood’s would you recommend? (And a friend/reader tells me that Offred does offer her name! I missed it!)

Overcoming inertia (and living with ‘depression’)

Please give me a hand because I had two major accomplishments this week: I started decluttering the house and I joined a gym. 🙂

It’s been a long road to these two mundane achievements. I’ve had depressive tendencies for most of my life. Though I still have some qualms about telling people, I’ve become pretty open about it. It’s a part of me the way being introverted or being sensitive is a part of me. I see it in some of my family as well and so I know it’s in me and in my blood (or perhaps in my neurotransmitters). But it doesn’t make me weird (I don’t think) and no one who’s ever met me would ever describe me as sad or depressing. I’ve done well in life – at school, in my career, in my personal relationships. But having had a major depressive episode during college means that I’ve learned to live with this little bomb inside my body, wondering when and if it will ever go off again. In recent months it has, to some extent, though this time more often as a by-product of hormonal fluctuations.

I’ve sometimes asked Max, “Does it feel like a lot of work for you to make dinner? Is it easy for you to get out of bed in the morning?” At some point during adulthood I had a nagging suspicion that how I feel sometimes is not how normal people feel.

On bad days, doing the simplest things like preparing a meal or going to the bank feels like this: You’ve just come home from a 12-hour day at the office and you are being asked to then walk five miles to make a presentation before 200 people. Exhaustion and dread color the simplest tasks of living.

I’ve had some bad days more recently, and it was enough to scare me into making some serious changes. I love my family so much, and my friends. I have it good but when your thoughts are distorted you just can’t see all that you have, how privileged you are. You can’t see that pain is temporary and small compared to all the joy and love you have but can’t feel at that moment. I told Max and a couple of good girlfriends what I was going through because this time I didn’t want my struggles to fester in secrecy. I am grateful for those breaks of clarity.

One of the things I wanted to do was to create serenity in my surroundings. So I reached in and found enough energy to clear off the dining table to start with.  You don’t have to do the whole thing if you want to make a change. Just enough to get moving, to break out of that inertia. The first step is the heaviest and the slowest.

After the dining table, I moved on to the kitchen counter, and then the t.v. area. I intend to declutter the whole house over the coming months.

Yesterday I joined a gym. Since I broke my ankle a year ago my favorite yoga teacher had to temporarily close up shop and I haven’t resumed my exercises. But the lack of physical activity was, I really believe, literally killing me, one small minute at a time.

I didn’t like the gym, to be honest. It was all men and I felt self-conscious even though it wasn’t like anyone was looking at or bothering me.

I stepped on the treadmill first and selected “Fitness Test.” It had me walking at different speeds and inclines and then asked to put my hands on the sensors to measure my heart rate. After the six-minute test, the following message scrolled across my control panel, in red caps: “YOUR PERFORMANCE LEVEL IS VERY POOR.”

I almost had to laugh, because this was a most unexpected message in this age of positive reinforcement and self-esteem boosting. I was expecting the machine to say ‘CONGRATULATIONS’ but instead it told me I sucked! The honesty was refreshing, actually, because I really am out of shape and I need to be scared straight, basically. It was pure boredom and torture being in that gym but as I read the message scrolling by over and over I became resolved to come back to this gym as often as I can.

The gym is across from the supermarket where we normally shop. That is a major reason why I selected this gym, and it was part of my itinerary to hit the market after my workout to get groceries for dinner. Though I walked out of the gym unenthused, I noticed that I walked out of the market lighter and brighter. I went home starving and eager to start dinner. I would’ve whistled if I knew how. The endorphin rush came more like a drip, but I’ll take it. I’ll keep taking it.

~~~

I do want to say that in cases of serious depression, people cannot just “snap” out of it. If you know someone whom you suspect may be depressed, please take initiative to offer your most non-judgmental support. If you are feeling depressed, please, please reach out to someone.

On 2013 reading (or any) challenges: Give up or make a final push?

Due to a (ahem) mathematical error I committed myself to reading 50 books this year. It’s not a small goal for me, especially since I apparently only read 10 books the year before.

I started 2013 with a bang and at one point was several books ahead of schedule. Then since the summer it’s been all downhill.

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Now, I’ve tried to play with this a little, by taking the total number of pages read (conveniently calculated for you by Goodreads) and dividing it by 300 (pages), my personal definition of what constitutes one book. When I do that I come out slightly ahead at 37 books (thank you, East of Eden and The Book Thief).

Well, a couple of weeks ago I was 15 books behind even with the manipulation of page numbers, and I was pretty much ready to give up even trying. It’s sort of like watching those final few minutes of a basketball game where a team is behind 5 or 6 points and there are 2 minutes left on the clock. Some teams will still scramble for I don’t know what, while other teams will give up and end up further behind in a pathetic display of utter hopelessness. I have to say I can relate to the latter.

Then I posed the question to my 9-year-old, who blazes through several tomes of Rick Riordan a month: “What should I do?”

His response: “Of course you should go for it!”

I was thinking that I am entering the busiest part of my work season and the majority of my books are 300 pages or longer, not to mention that I am only doing this for myself and none of it is even required.

“At least TRY and get as close to 50 as you can. You’ll feel really good satisfaction if you can get near 50.”

Why did it not occur to me that I could at least shoot for 48 or 45 or something? Anything in the forties would signify an achievement. And did I forget how exhilarating it can feel to “win”? Actually, the answer would be yes…I think it’s been several years since I “achieved” anything (my first publication) but that’s another story for another time.

“Pick good, short books. That’s what I would do.”

Seriously, I should consult with my child more often on life matters.

That evening, I went through my shelves and picked out the slimmest books I have. I’d like to think that this is not cheating, because all the books on my shelves are books on my to-read list; I’m just relying on my crunch players right now, and benching Leo Tolstoy and the like until next year. My end-of-the-year contenders include:

Memory: A Novel, by Philippe Grimbert

Holidays on Ice, by David Sedaris

Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri

A Separate Peace, by John Knowles

The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka

All My Darling Daughters [manga], by Fumi Yoshinaga

The Gifts of Imperfection, by Brene Brown

Darkness Visible, by William Styron

Traveling Mercies, by Anne Lamott

These, added to my current reads, should get me close to 50.

So how do I actually get all of this accomplished? My boy says,

“I think you should only spend 60 minutes on your blog. Whatever time you usually spend over that should go into reading.”

And,

“You spend too much time on Facebook. Cut that time down to 40 minutes a day…no, 30 minutes. Thirty minutes at most, and use the rest of the time to read.”

Indeed, I waste a lot of time on the internet. That is why I often don’t start reading until 11 at night, at which point it takes me two minutes to read the same sentence five times.

When I first poked around at all these various reading challenges I noticed how nice everyone was about it. “50 is simply a goal; of course how much you end up reading is up to you.” It’s nice and understanding and forgiving, but it also lets me off the hook too easily. I’m thinking that if I set a goal, I should do what I can to attain it. I won’t kill myself over it – it’s not like my career or my future is resting on the number of books I complete this year – but by definition a challenge isn’t supposed to be easy, and it’s supposed to be more than what I can normally do comfortably. I will push myself, precisely because this is just for me.

How are you doing on your reading or other challenges? How do you motivate yourself to reach your personal goals?