What Matters Most in Life: We Are Not Ourselves, by Matthew Thomas

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas is frequently touted as a novel about the American Dream but I’d like to think of it as a story about what it means to define meaning and happiness in one’s life, and that’s something that anyone – American or not, immigrant or not – can relate to.

Eileen Tumulty was born to poor and alcoholic Irish immigrants in Queens, New York. She was a hard worker and grew up with ambitious dreams. She wanted to make a life of which she’d be proud and in which she’d be happy and secure, and that included succeeding in her own career and marrying well, preferably to someone who wasn’t Irish. Well, things don’t work out exactly according to plan in terms of marriage, as she ends up falling in love with Ed Leary, another Irish-American. But he is kind and he is an academic – a promising scientist and professor – and so she optimistically begins her life with him. They eventually have a son, after years of battling fertility issues.

As Eileen rises in the ranks as a nurse, Ed receives but turns down opportunities to rise in the way that she wants him to. Instead of taking a position at a lucrative pharmaceuticals company (if I remember correctly), he decides to take a teaching position at a community college. Later, instead of seizing a chance to move to the prestigious NYU (New York University), he chooses to stay at the community college. His decisions exasperate Eileen to no end, who has visions of continuously climbing “up” in life. She is also secretly annoyed at the “browning” of her neighborhood and yearns to move into a more affluent and higher status part of town. Ed is adamant about staying where they are. Without his knowledge, Eileen begins visiting dream houses with a real estate agent.

Then one day they receive devastating news, and the rest of the book centers around this seismic shift in their family. It’s an event that causes Eileen to look back on her life and to question her long-held assumptions about what is important to her.

This is a lovely story about so many things, in particular the struggle to marry one’s dreams and definition of happiness with that of one’s partner. It is also about marriage and parenting and the sacrifices and endurance that both require. In my quick summary I don’t think I paint a very appealing portrait of Eileen, but she is a more complex and sympathetic character than what you see here. She’s got a lot of grit and she is tremendously devoted to her family. I find her quite realistic.

At over 600 pages long, the book is also a surprisingly easy and quick read for the most part. I will say that I started to lose steam at around page 400, so I guess I felt it was about 150 pages too long. The story moves along at the pace of life, and though it’s been described as an “epic,” it is a quiet story about an ordinary family. This is not one of those sprawling sagas spanning generations and filled with family secrets and twists and turns. The Learys’ story could be any family’s story.

So I was not the most enthusiastic reader during those last 200 pages, until I came upon this, something that Ed says to his son Connell:

Picture yourself in one of your cross-country races. It’s a hard pace this day. Everyone’s outrunning you. You’re tired, you didn’t sleep enough, you’re hungry, your head is down, you’re preparing for defeat. You want much from life, and life will give you much, but there are things it won’t give you, and victory today is one of them. This will be one defeat; more will follow. Victories will follow too. You are not in this life to count up victories and defeats. You are in it to love and be loved. You are loved with your head down. You will be loved whether you finish or not. (page 594)

In my opinion, this is as much a message to Eileen as it is to Connell. We have to accept that life will not give us everything we want.

You are in it to love and be loved. You are loved with your head down. You will be loved whether you finish or not.

And sometimes people, books, words, etc. have a way of finding you when you need them most. I was going through a soul searching struggle in my parenting, trying to break the cycle of severe self-criticism that extended to my parenting, and these lines almost brought me to tears.

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An Evening with Khaled Hosseini

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I was lucky enough to get a seat at Khaled Hosseini’s recent book tour for the paperback launch of And the Mountains Echoed. I first read Khaled (I’ll take the liberty of calling him by his first name ;-)) when The Kite Runner took all the bestseller lists by storm, and it’s one of the few “hot” books that, for me, lived up to the hype. I had not read any Afghan writers nor had I read about Afghan culture before The Kite Runner and so like for many readers, I am guessing, it was an eye-opening experience to be introduced to the human faces of a country that has otherwise been portrayed so severely in the media.

Khaled did a 60 minute Q&A with the designated interviewer and with the audience. He talked about And the Mountains Echoed, a story about the ramifications of one Afghan family’s decision to sell their youngest child to another family, and he also talked about his writing process and a little about Afghanistan. Like at Junot Díaz’s talk, I struggled a bit with the note taking, this time because (1) my pen ran out of ink and (2) I accidentally deleted my notes a few minutes after I started taking them on my phone. (A post about author talk attendance do’s and don’t’s is forthcoming…) Anyway, I did my best to recoup what I heard. Here is a sampling of his quotes (paraphrased to the best of my memory) from the evening:

On the Sophie’s Choice-esque theme of And the Mountains Echoed:

Those things that are very difficult to imagine are the things I’m drawn to write.

On how to find your story:

I had an impulse in the past to write something educational, moral…to get on a soapbox, but the writing always suffered. I learned that if I feel the characters, feel their pain, their wants and needs, I will find the point in the story. Whenever I tried to build a story around a point, it always became stilted. It always flattens me when I write with an agenda.

When asked how he writes so beautifully, especially when English is not even his first language (he didn’t speak any English until he came to the States at 15!):

There’s been a voice inside my head since I was a boy – I don’t mean that I have a psychological illness [audience laughs] – and over the years I have developed a cadence that I have felt comfortable with . . . I have had this inner language with me for a long time . . . when I was younger and we would all sit around telling stories, the room would get quiet when it got to my turn…it was very powerful [laughs].

On how he could write so well from the perspectives of women characters in his second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns:

I don’t think that I have any more insight into a woman’s mind than [interviewer] or any man in this audience [audience laughs]…in the beginning I would try to find out what they [the women characters] thought, but I learned to let them come to me, to let them tell me what they feel.

On The Kite Runner:

The Kite Runner was a grenade, it was divisive…some Afghans didn’t like that I aired our dirty laundry, and said that I was selling out to make money.

He said that support among Afghan readers was about 50/50, with the older, more conservative and religious generation more upset about his work. The younger and more urban Afghan people have been very supportive.

On his work with The Khaled Hosseini Foundation, which he started to provide economic, educational, and healthcare assistance to Afghan refugees:

We often forget the human story in war. Refugees live in a suspended existence. It is my job to bring to light the human story within the narrative.

I thought he was just wonderful. I was actually surprised, and then not when I thought about it, to see him initially looking a little nervous and fidgety up on stage. It’s so easy to assume that anyone this successful and intelligent would be comfortable in the lime light. He warmed up quickly as the talk went on, and I found him soft-spoken, humble, and extremely thoughtful and articulate. He showed no airs about him, and expressed gratitude that his books were being read.

After the talk was over I got in line to get my books signed. I didn’t try to craft anything special this time, especially as I observed that he was being pretty efficient in the process (there was a good sized crowd and the independent bookstore sponsoring the event was trying to move people along). I simply thanked him for coming and he smiled and replied, “Thank you.” He was quiet during the signings but spoke if readers initiated.

I was inspired after the talk to begin And the Mountains Echoed and so far it is fantastic. It’s my highlight at the end of the day to read it and I can see why everyone used to get quiet when it was Khaled’s turn as a boy to tell stories.

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On Loss and Hope: Drown, by Junot Díaz

.
The fact that I
am writing to you
in English
already falsifies what I
wanted to tell you.
My subject:
how to explain to you that I
don’t belong to English
though I belong nowhere else
–Gustavo Pérez Firmat

And so begins Drown, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Díaz’s first short story collection that he jokes “no one ever reads.”

I went about this backwards, having started with This is How You Lose Her when it came out in 2012. A young man named Yunior narrates many of the stories in the two short story collections. Drown covers Yunior’s life as a child and adolescent, while This is How You Lose Her picks up where Drown leaves off.

Yunior is 9 years old in the first story “Ysrael.” He is staying with his brother Rafa and aunt and uncle in the Dominican Republic countryside one summer because his mother is working long hours at the local chocolate factory. Yunior’s father is in the U.S., supposedly working hard to one day send for the rest of his family. In “Ysrael,” guileless and eager-to-please Yunior follows his bored and brutish older brother around, listening to his tales of sexual exploits and accompanying him as he goes to torment the disfigured boy, Ysrael. Slowly, we watch Yunior lose his innocence.

Young Yunior grapples with the fear that his father will never come for them, and later, with the knowledge that he is cheating on his mother. Often it seems, Yunior is longing for either the physical or emotional presence of his father. Yunior’s mother is the anchor in his life but even she, too, eventually drifts away. There is a particularly poignant passage in the story “Aguantando,” heartbreaking in its youthful resignation. “Aguantando” is about the family’s dashed hopes following the father’s many promises to send for them, and Yunior’s mother falls into a depression, leaving her children behind to stay at her sister’s for several months. Of the aftermath Yunior writes:

She didn’t treat me badly on her return but we were no longer close; she did not call me her Prieto or bring chocolates from her work. That seemed to suit her fine. And I was young enough to grow out of her rejection. I still had baseball and my brother. I still had trees to climb and lizards to tear apart.” (page 84)

Without being sentimental or feigning a child’s voice, Díaz seems to capture well the melancholy of a child who longs for parental love while trying to accept what he cannot control. It is interesting to later read This is How You Lose Her and see how the dysfunction has impacted Yunior’s adult attempts at intimacy.

Several of the stories are told from Yunior’s viewpoint while the narrators of the others are unclear. But together the collection paints a vivid picture of the struggles, hopes, and disappointments endured by immigrant families. More specifically, the stories give voice to immigrant adolescent males struggling to love, receive love, and find purpose within the context of barrio life and a machismo culture. Díaz’s writing is spare and poignant but gritty and honest. You can read the strong language, sex, drugs, and petty crime at a superficial level, but palpable beneath all of that is the hurting of Díaz’s characters.

There is some unevenness in the stories but on the whole I was personally touched by this volume. The themes of belonging and daring to hope hit home for me as an immigrant. But I also read this book as a daughter, wife, and mother, and just as powerful for me were the themes of familial connection and sacrifice and coming of age.

My Battles with Anxiety

I have to thank one of my readers/blogger friends for mentioning in a comment once that she suffers from anxiety. It was her honesty that emboldened me to acknowledge my own relationship with anxiety. Since then I’ve struggled whether to write about this personal issue but ultimately decided that if my words can bring comfort or validation to one more person – as this blogger friend did for me – then I am willing to do it.

I think that I’ve failed to acknowledge my anxiety until now because it has been a part of me for so long…so long, in fact, that it became my normal. As a child I suffered constantly from headaches and canker sores. I had trouble sleeping and eating, nearly falling off the growth charts, and I often dreaded school, gym class, doctors’ appointments, my father’s days off, swim lessons, the company of certain girlfriends, and the attention of boys.

Anxiety has evolved with me as I’ve gotten older, both increasing and decreasing in intensity and in ways that have baffled me. How did I once speak so comfortably before audiences of 200+ only to end up losing sleep over a dreaded Skype call with five people? Why was I once able to maneuver the maniacal streets of Boston but am now unwilling to drive further than five miles from my house in our small town? Equally perplexing, I was terrified of water my entire life and yet eagerly learned to swim just three years ago.

I was at my best during those first several years that I was bold enough to move to and live in Asia. From being the sole woman manager in a foreign company to entering a permanent relationship to having a child overseas, I was reveling in that wide space outside my comfort zone. And then one day, without my realizing why, my world began to contract. Once ordinary events and tasks became a strain for me: driving, being in groups, having a busy schedule. Since I work from home, I have a fair amount of control over my day-to-day. And I’ve been coping by managing my surroundings to meet my comfort level.

But like taking Tylenol to control your fever, you can’t really know how sick or well you are. By controlling my environment, I was comfortable, but also masking what needed to be healed.

I finally began looking for a therapist when I realized I was single-handedly downsizing my life. I love this quote by Anaïs Nin, which came to me two weeks ago as if from an angel: “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” My therapist told me that the things we avoid eventually hold power over us.

I chuckled and cried when she complimented me for “functioning as well as [I am] – for having a job, for running a household.” What does that say, when you are praised just for living and surviving? But she was acknowledging the decades-old traumas that still have their grip on me. I cried for the majority of that session, in a catharsis that began to drain the stagnancy in my body. By the time I got home I felt a peace and lightness that was alien to me. I found myself breathing steadily and calmly, and looked forward to moving on with my day. Is this what normal people usually feel, I wondered. A few hours later Max and I went out for lunch and to run errands. We were on the freeway, with me in the passenger seat. I looked down the road that for once didn’t look so intimidating and said to him, “I would be able to drive today. If I can feel like this all the time, I can drive.”

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Cultural Loss Over the Years

Tomorrow is the Lunar New Year or, as we’ve been calling it for many years, Chinese New Year.

My memories of this holiday growing up are vivid. My mother would spend days scouring the house from top to bottom like a mad woman, because a huge part of the tradition is to clean out the old and presumably evil spirits in order to ring in the new year on a literally clean slate. With a traditional (read: didn’t lift a finger) husband who was always at work anyway and two uncooperative children who couldn’t see the point, my mother was at her crankiest on the days leading up to New Year’s. Every year we spent those final days of the year wishing we could have our old mom back.

Then there were the rules. We had to get our hair cut the week before New Year’s, even when we didn’t need a haircut. We weren’t allowed to say anything remotely hinting of ill fate or that included any version of the word death (as in “Ha ha ha, you’re killing me!” or “Wow, I would die for those shoes!”). Worst of all, we were forbidden to shower, bathe, or wash our hair on New Year’s Day lest we cleansed all the good that had by then reached our bodies (which only led to more cursing about how we were going to die of stink).

And there was the food, lots of it. Chinese New Year is celebrated on not just one day but over a period of two weeks. We had an enormous dinner on New Year’s Eve and another large meal on New Year’s Day to “open” the year. Two weeks later, we would close out the celebrations with another final large dinner.

My brother and I met these meals with some groaning. Because Chinese New Year dinner is not spring rolls and sesame chicken and sweet and sour pork (well, not that my mother ever made those dishes (they’re not real Chinese food, you know)). New Year dinner was a big, pimply, ghost-white chicken with its loopy head and neck still on the plate. It was dishes and dishes of healthy blandness that we normally never saw during the year, with ingredient names like “dizzy ear” and unidentifiable foods that looked like tangled hair.

Chinese New Year, to me, was a lot of Chinese-ness that went against my whole plan to be American and “normal.” So I mopped the floor (reluctantly) and skipped the showers (until I was brave enough to dare the evil spirits to take me on) and ate the bloody chicken (there was literally still some blood in the cracks of the bones). Until about fifteen years ago, which is the last time I celebrated Chinese New Year. Because of my time in Japan and then my work schedule, I haven’t been back to spend any of the holidays with my parents in all these years.

During this time, of course, I’ve formed a family of my own. We’re a tri-cultural family now living in America and following American traditions. Lack of access to ingredients, information, and shared celebratory spirits is one major reason. There’s also the lack of confidence. My Singaporean friend suggested getting together for New Year dinner, and I immediately felt overwhelmed at the prospect of cooking for the occasion. I wouldn’t know where to start. What to cook? How to cook it? How to shop for ingredients?

But maybe saddest is my lack of connection. I’d spent so much of my youth rejecting my heritage, seeing and looking for all the parts that threatened my chances of being accepted in America. By the time I became more curious about my Chinese roots, I’d already distanced myself too much. I sometimes view the Chinese culture now the way any foreigner would.

I only realized how far I was when Fred once remarked, in a crowd of Chinese people, that he and I were the only non-Chinese. He knew he was American and he knew he was Japanese, but he did not know that a significant part of him has its roots in China.

But is this something that I need to worry about? Why does it need to be important for me to maintain my heritage, when obviously I had made my choices long ago in terms of how to live and who I wanted to live as? I think the sadness for me is that in loosening my connection to my heritage, I feel I am losing some part of a shared identity with my parents. We all disconnect in some ways and to some degree as we mature into adulthood. Being on the other side of the cultural divide within my own family just seems more severe, an ultimately necessary part of feeling at home in my own country but a division I hadn’t anticipated.

A Literary Trip Down Memory Lane, from Girlhood to Midlife

It’s my birthday week. Though I’m in far less celebratory spirits than I was when I turned, say, 21 or 25, I’ve made the decision to not rain on my own parade. So in celebration of my, er, maturity, I thought I’d take a trip down memory lane and talk about some of the books that have accompanied me on my slightly turbulent, often clueless, and always eye-opening journey to middle age.

Books that made me happy and feel like a kid

I thank books and their gifted authors for rescuing me during those stressful years when my family immigrated to the States. I’m honestly so grateful that I learned to read quickly since that was the activity I depended on to stay sane. I read and loved many books but these three stand out because they were so much fun:

The Ramona series, by Beverly Cleary

The Mrs. Piggle Wiggle series, by Betty MacDonald

Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh

The first books that made me really think and feel

In late elementary school I began to gravitate toward the kinds of stories that I would eventually seek as an adult: human stories about inner conflicts, struggle, and growth:

A Summer to Die, by Lois Lowry

Deenie / Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, by Judy Blume

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith

Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank

Books I read on the verge of becoming a woman

One summer during my teens my mother confronted me about my copy of Judy Blume’s Forever, which she found in my bookcase. I got angry at her for snooping around in my room but decided not to tell her that I actually hadn’t picked up the book again since I was twelve (or was it eleven?). Hormones and curiosity were running high, and these were some of the more memorable books that opened my eyes to sex, lust, love, passion, and a world with the opposite sex:  

Forever, by Judy Blume

The Thorn Birds, by Colleen McCullough

Flowers in the Attic / Petals on the Wind / If There Be Thorns, by V.C. Andrews

The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë

Looking for Mr. Goodbar, by Judith Rossner

Delta of Venus, by Anaïs Nin

Good Bye, Columbus, by Philip Roth

A Doll’s House, by Henrik Ibsen

Books I read while exploring an emerging adult identity

It was during college and graduate school that I began to really notice the negative space around me. How had I been shaped by biology, circumstances, geography, and history? I began appreciating what it meant to be a woman and racial minority in the United States. Here are some of the books that made an impression or impact on me during this time:

The Bell Jar / The Journals of Sylvia Plath, by Sylvia Plath

Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë

The Awakening, by Kate Chopin

The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The Woman Warrior, by Maxine Hong Kingston

Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison

This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua

Making Face, Making Soul/Haciendo Caras: Creating Perspectives by Feminists of Color, by Gloria Anzaldua

Strangers from a Different Shore, by Ronald Takaki

Reviving Ophelia, by Mary Pipher and Ruth Ross

Books as therapists

And then I started looking for Mr. Right…and was so clueless as to why I kept dating nasty men that I began turning to the kinds of books that I had to hide in my underwear drawer whenever I had guests over. This is just a fraction of the self-help books that lined my shelves during my twenties and just those with the less embarrassing titles. The very last one I bought was The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, which I read together with Max when we were engaged. Since then I haven’t read another book on relationships; now I figure that the best way to understand my husband is to talk to him myself.

He’s Scared, She’s Scared: Understanding the Hidden Fears that Sabotage Your Relationships, by Steven A. Carter

You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, by Deborah Tannen

The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert, by John M. Gottman

Books that helped me in the hardest, most perplexing job in the world

This is only a tiny fraction of all the books I have read, purchased, or borrowed on the subjects of pregnancy, labor and birth, childrearing, and child development. These two that introduced me to the sisterhood of motherhood were among my favorites because honestly, the non-judgmental sisterhood is the only thing I’ve needed besides an equal parenting partner.

The Girlfriends’ Guide to Pregnancy, by Vicki Iovine

Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year, by Anne Lamott

The first book I read for fun since becoming a parent

I read this while bleary-eyed from sleep deprivation during Fred’s first year and I even read it with one hand on the frying pan. It was a fun page-turner that made me realize I can make time for reading no matter how exhausted and overwhelmed I am. After this, I slowly eased back into pleasure reading for the first time in a long time.

The DaVinci Code, by Dan Brown

The book that I needed to read

Those peak career and parenting years are a self-absorbed time. With a tunnel vision I focused on my own family while allowing my parents to fade into the background. Then one day I picked up Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin and I was devastated. It’s the story of an elderly Korean woman who goes missing in a crowded Seoul subway station, and over the days and weeks that her husband and grown children try to find her, each family member reflects on his or her past with the woman. Almost all have regrets of not having appreciated enough the woman who had given her life to them. I recognized myself in the grown children and my mother in the elderly woman.

In the years since I’ve begun to develop a new relationship with my mother, and for the first time I learned of her early love for reading and writing, how she grew up in rural China with almost no books except a few Russian novels in translation that belonged to a cousin…and she would devour them, staying up until three in the morning, reading by lantern light. Instead of looking at my mother as someone from a foreign time and place, I’m now seeing her as a woman who was once a girl with interests and dreams very similar to my own.

Thank you, Mom, for giving me a life so rich with books and hope and love and opportunity.

Please Look After Mom, by Kyung-Sook Shin

What books have left a mark on you? What did you enjoy reading while growing up? And did you also read V.C. Andrews? 😉

Love, loyalty, hurt and anger – the powerful world of mother-daughter relationships

I am so honored to be contributing to the wonderful writer D.A. Wolf’s series on mother-daughter relationships. This was by far the hardest piece of writing I have ever done, and more than once I asked myself why I had promised to contribute a piece. But I’m so glad for this experience writing and collaborating with D.A., which literally changed me.

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I’ve just spent my fourteenth holiday without my mother. In the years since I packed up two suitcases and moved from the States to Japan, a defining event in our relationship, we have been a long distance family, missing milestones and special occasions like birthdays, holidays, and the birth of her only grandchild.

There have always been reasons: the distance (even now that I’ve moved back to the States), her health, my work. I try to see her once a year and when I do I realize how much I miss her… how for so many years we knew the daily rhythms of each others’ lives and now that’s no longer the case.

For many years I had been the dutiful daughter. I acted as my immigrant parents’ interpreter from the age of seven when they moved from Peru to New England, and I helped them to navigate life in America. I attended college ten miles away from where they lived, and I moved back home after graduation. It was a shameful admission to my American friends that I was choosing to live with my parents, and a slap in my mother’s face that I was wishing I had chosen otherwise.

To continue reading this piece please click here to go to D.A. Wolf’s blog Daily Plate of Crazy.