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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(Literary Wives) Not Enough Marital Connection and Too Much Facebook: Wife 22

I apologize for my sporadic writing of late, but I’m back to review our (on-line book club) Literary Wives’ October book, Wife 22 by Melanie Gideon.

Wife 22 is a book about contemporary issues: growing disconnections in family – between mother and children and especially between wife and husband – and the role that technology has come to take in the modern family.

Alice Buckle is a 44-year-old mother to two (a surly teenage girl named Zoe and a still affectionate tween boy named Peter) and wife to William, an advertising professional who loses his job about a third of the way through the book. Alice is a passionate playwright who now, because of family commitments or a past failure, works part-time for the drama department at the local elementary school with funds from the PTA. Like many upper middle class suburban wives, she is trying to juggle schedules, raise good kids who would still like her, make sure she hasn’t lost her husband in the midst of parenting, and, somehow, remember what her own needs are.

Twenty years into her marriage, though, she is falling apart. Her position at the elementary school is shaky; her daughter is constantly sarcastic toward her; she is nearing the age at which her own mother had died; her husband feels like a stranger; and she is spending too much time on Facebook.

Then one day Alice receives an invitation to participate in a marriage survey/research study. She accepts it and is assigned the anonymous username “Wife 22.” She is given a lengthy set of personal questions asking her to reflect on her marriage and on marriage and love in general. She is paired up with an equally anonymous “Researcher 101” with whom she occasionally and then, eventually, frequently corresponds. Their emails soon become more and more flirtatious and more and more intimate. Alice is in the giddy but uncomfortable position of finally feeling the intimacy that she wishes she had with her husband.

1. What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

There are several wives in the book. There’s Alice, of course, and then there’s her best friend and neighbor Nedra, who is about to marry her long-time partner, Kate. There are also a few minor characters in the book who are married. The experiences depicted in this book all fit our modern, western definition and expectations of what it means to be a wife: to be independent, to feel purpose beyond marriage, and to be emotionally connected to and respected by one’s partner. Alice is flailing in the absence of these things, and she needs them to feel herself again. She had once worked full-time in advertising along with William and she was good at it. She and William had once been so in love with one another, so connected. No doubt the intervening years parenting and the growing complacency in a long-term marriage have diluted that early connection. Nedra offers a contrast to Alice. She has been living in a committed relationship with Kate for many years now (and have a teen boy). Though not legally married until late in the book, their relationship is rock solid. There is another minor character who is happily married and another who eventually divorces, presumably all due to how well they’ve mixed their particular formulas for a successful marriage under our modern definitions.

2. In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife”?

Alice really wants connection with her husband and she is clearly very lonely. But she is passive. When her husband gets “laid off,” she goes behind his back and asks his co-worker to send her the video from work that did him in. She watches in horror but doesn’t let on to him that she knows anything about it. She later helps him get a job but she does that in a round-about way, behind his back, as well. It’s been a few weeks since I’ve read this book, but I don’t seem to recall an instance of her trying to talk to William about her feelings or needs. Of course, I understand this is a catch-22 (hence the book title perhaps…) – the less she and her husband communicate, the more distant they become; the more distant they become, the harder and more awkward it is to communicate. So she finds herself on the verge of getting in too deeply with another man and she has knowingly allowed herself to get into this position.

In my opinion Alice has defined “wife” as a rather weak player in marriage who allows circumstances to dictate the direction she – and her marriage and family – will go in.

~~~

Overall I really enjoyed the book. I’d been on a steady diet of literary fiction and very heavy subjects, and Wife 22 was a breezy, funny, and thoughtful read that was right up my alley. As someone who has also been married a long time, I appreciated the discussion of husbands and wives trying to connect, and the technology context was also quite fun. I wasn’t entirely crazy about the twist at the end of the book, which I had suspected, and which made the story a bit too romantic-comedy-movie for me. I can totally picture this book as a Jennifer Aniston movie. Anyway, I did like it all in all.

………………………

Please also check out my fellow Literary Wives club members to read their takes on the book!

Ariel of One Little Library (she will post in a couple of weeks)

Carolyn O of Rosemary and Reading Glasses 

Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J. 

Kay of WHATMEREAD

Lynn of Smoke & Mirrors

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My First Mile: Overcoming a Lifetime of Negative Beliefs About My Body

I wish someone had told me, years ago, that the way I saw myself at 10 or 15 could be the way I’d see myself at 25, 35, 45.

Certain self images can and will change but others will be stubborn as hell to budge.

I had weight issues growing up, but not the variety that our society pays attention to: I was underweight. In fact, I think I may have even fallen off the growth charts at some point. I remember catching colds frequently and being teased about my small frame. I turned down friends’ invitations to the beach because I didn’t dare get into a bathing suit. But most damaging of all was what I came to believe about my physical ability.

Moving was not my activity of choice. My mother said to me once that she could stick a book in my hands as a child and forget that I was in the room. I preferred daydreaming, reading, writing, and drawing. P.E. in school was an exercise in torture and humiliation from elementary school on through high school. Unlike the physical education that my son is now getting, my schools didn’t emphasize wellness, or at least that is not what I remember. What I remember is cringing at dodgeball, kickball, softball, and relay races. P.E. was about competition and winning.

And yes, when it came time for the captains to pick their teams, it would always come down to me or the fat boy as the last candidate. Maybe no one felt good about this because I remember their sympathetic and uncomfortable looks, even at 10 or 11. I was a nice girl, everyone liked me, but competition is competition.

Am I being melodramatic and overly sorry for myself when I say that I still tear up when I think back on that? Over 30 years later I can still feel the wind blowing over my hair and hear the muffled sounds of chatter as I stand there waiting for the captains to make up their minds and wishing that I could disappear.

As a teen I learned to forge my parents’ signatures to get out of P.E. and swim classes. I discovered that I could wear gym clothes that passed for regular clothes and sit out the rest of class after attendance was taken. I took myself out of the category of humans who could do things with their bodies. “I’m not an athlete,” “I’m not good at sports,” “I don’t exercise” all became part of the identity I would, for years to come, describe to others.

Thankfully though, life became more humane after high school graduation. I enrolled at a women’s college despite their graduation requirement of a year of P.E. credits. It was in college that my eyes opened to real physical education for the first time. The choices seemed endless, and kind: yoga, ballet, strength training, aerobics…yes, there were competitive or “hard” sports like lacrosse and squash but the menu was inclusive. I came to look forward to each semester when I could try something different. By senior year, I felt safe enough to even sign up for tennis. But my tennis instructor, also the coach for the women’s team, soon put me into the bottom group of the class so she could focus on the more talented players. “Your forearm is so thin,” she had said to me. “You’ll never be truly good at tennis.” I wasn’t trying out for the varsity team; I just wanted to try.

And so it went. I didn’t become a permanent couch potato as an adult, but I have been up and down. I joined a gym for the first time at 27, after a bad relationship break-up, and continued for a couple of years. And I tried yoga for the first time, as well as ice skating and rollerblading. With each sport the person teaching me would say the same thing: “You are really good for someone who has never done this before.” It was nice to hear, but my own messages about my athletic potential overpowered their words. I continued to dabble in yoga on and off over the years, but I abandoned the others.

It is ironic that I ended up marrying an athlete, seeing how I had always been intimidated by athletes. And then I birthed an athletic son. I also work with many successful professionals who had once been athletes. The last ten years of my life have been a gradual armchair lesson in the transformative value of sports, of believing in your body, of developing teamwork skills, perseverance, and a goal-setting mindset through sports. Most eye-opening was the fact that many “athletes” were not necessarily born but made…made over the course of many years if not decades of physical obstacles and self-doubt. It was this shred of belief that perhaps my body isn’t so different from everyone else’s that at 41 I overcame my lifelong terror of the water to learn to swim.

And last week, on Memorial Day, I ran my first mile without stopping. I never thought I could run. I was one of the last to finish in my high school running assessments, straggling in the rear with my lungs hurting. It was Max, who ran his first half-marathon at 48, who said that I could do it. Even after I had broken my ankle, even after undergoing surgery, even after believing for nearly 40 years that I didn’t have it in me to run more than 30 seconds before gasping for air. Max has been running with me, coaching me gently a few times a week. He didn’t know me when I was 10 or 15 or 20. He doesn’t know the person that has been occupying my thoughts all these years. Instead, he sees the woman I never met: beautiful, athletic, capable of anything.

Last Monday, when I could feel that I was running much longer than I ever had in my life and without any pain in my lungs, I began to cry, trying to juxtapose what my body was doing against all the pictures that were passing by of my days as a child. I did it. I finally did it.

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How to Love and Be Kind to Yourself

A major eye-opener for me over these last few weeks that I have been doing my “emotional work” is the fact that I don’t love myself enough. It’s an odd thing to say, when you think about it. I do think I love myself, or otherwise I wouldn’t be so scared of dying. But it’s true that I am not kind enough to myself. I am not kind to myself the way that I am kind to others.

This is more rough draft and homework than it is prescribed solutions, but here are some ways I’ve come up with to “love” myself more:

1. Find something good in the mirror.

Whenever I look in the mirror or at a picture of myself, the first place my eyes go to are the features I don’t like. There are parts of my face and body that I have not been satisfied with since the time I was 10. If they have been there since I was a child, then I guess they’re not going away without surgery. I haven’t really made peace with these parts and maybe I never will. But one thing I – and we – can do is at least balance that picture a little, so that in our minds we are not just a package of all that is wrong with the human form. Occasionally I’ll look in the mirror and actually like my eyes, or my cheekbones. I like how the muscle in my calves is getting more and more defined now that I’m running more. I need to look at my face and body with different eyes, and let go of the mental picture of the ideal woman that I have been holding myself up to (and falling short of) all these years.

2. Catch yourself doing good.

Positive behavior reinforcement is big at elementary schools now. Catch kids doing good as opposed to giving attention only when they’re “bad.” This could work wonders on me too. Instead of closing each night with guilt that I still haven’t gotten around to cleaning off my desk or that I had fed soda to my child once again, I could instead think about the things I did well, regardless of how simple they may seem. After all, if my family goes to bed well fed and peacefully, how badly could I have done?

3. Banish “I’m such a bad mom” or “bad” anything from your vocabulary.

It’s amazing how rampant “I’m such a bad mom” is. I can’t begin to count all the times that this self-condemnation has rolled off my tongue whenever I made a mistake, and I can instantly rattle off different examples of the ways my friends have used it. “My daughter has a cavity. I’m such a bad mom.” “My kids had to walk all the way home in the heat. I’m such a bad mom.” “I forgot to give my son cough syrup. I’m such a bad mom.” Or sometimes it goes before the confession: “I’m such a bad mom. I am so critical.” “I’m such a bad mom. I let him watch t.v. all afternoon.” And sometimes there’s no example. Sometimes I just say, “I’m such a bad mom,” period.

Maybe we say this so often that it’s lost its meaning, but can you imagine doing the opposite? What if we said, “I read Goodnight Moon 7 times without stopping. I’m such a good mom.” or “I stayed up with her when she woke up coughing. I’m such a good mom.” Alright, so it sounds almost silly as I type that, which goes to show just how foreign the concept of praising ourselves is.

4. Correct your mistakes.

I had to start doing this recently, to save myself from falling into an abyss of guilt and self-hatred.

I’m at the point in my life and parenting where my past issues are catching up with my son’s entry into tweenhood. It’s new territory for me and I’m sometimes employing familiar but unhealthy tools to relate to my child. More than once I had broken down into tears the instant he stormed out of the room in frustration. Yes, I had a reason to get angry, but as the adult it is my responsibility to react maturely. I could have handled things differently. And so during these times I sit in my room while he sits in his, blocked off from each other by our closed doors. This is usually when I do hate myself, when actual words of reprimand start going off in my head: I’m such a bad mom. I’m awful. I am screwing him up. I have one chance to be a mother and I am messing this up. I am awful. I am awful. I am awful. 

Everything feels so dire when I start thinking like this. And then I realized one day, I have a choice. I can’t take back what I said, but I can make things better, and save us both from sinking into what will one day be an ocean of hurt.

This happened last night. I said something that didn’t come out the way I had intended, but it doesn’t matter, because it had come out and it had hurt him. After I pulled myself together I walked into Fred’s room and told him in tears that I was sorry I had hurt him. I explained to him what I had meant, and that my anger and frustration had prevented me from reacting better and from choosing my words more carefully. He nodded at me slightly and went back to his crossword puzzle. Five minutes later, he came into my room to ask me for help with the puzzle. Twenty minutes later, his arms were wrapped around me as I sang him to sleep.

My point here is not that “I’m sorry” is enough, and that anything can be fixed with an apology. What I’m trying to say is that while I’m on the path of learning how to do better, I can expect to make mistakes, but I have the power to correct them as well.

5. Talk, connect, be vulnerable, ask for help.

You’ve all been so supportive as I swung back and forth on this over the last few weeks. Ultimately I do believe that we poison ourselves when we hesitate to share with others the parts of ourselves we don’t feel proud about. Keeping things secret implies shame. I have a stepson, and for years I kept this within our immediate family only. My mother made me swear to not tell anyone that Max has a child from a previous marriage. There is so much stigma around divorce in my culture, particularly from my parents’ generation. Then one day a friend told me she didn’t learn about her half-brother until she was 18. She said, “The fact that my parents kept everything so hush-hush made it seem like there was something so bad and so wrong about my brother, like it was shameful for him to exist.” Her words changed me. I couldn’t bear the thought of any child having to be made to feel that way, and ever since then I have been open about my stepson’s presence in our lives.

The same holds true of all those different parts within us. Mental illness. Suicide. Divorce. Abuse. Illness. Dysfunction. Failure. Mistakes. Struggle. Hardship. Plain old bad luck. When we cling to this and hold it inside we are equating it with shame which contributes to our self-loathing. But maybe by opening up – whether it’s on a blog or with one trusted friend – we can begin to redefine shame, and give it a new name: human.

Small Moments, Huge Joys

It seems that over the last year or two I’ve become more sensitive to stimuli around me. Or, maybe, I’m finally slowing down enough in life to take in the sights, sounds, smells and touches that I once barely noticed. And though life definitely feels slower than it did in the years I was building my career and taking care of a very young child, the stress and anxiety haven’t necessarily gone down proportionately. Raising a tween, I’m finding, is challenging me on new and more anxious levels. Our parents are getting older, and more frail. College and retirement are no longer so far that they’re out of sight. I’m being pushed into another life stage just when I was starting to get comfortable in my previous one.

I take the moments of tranquility whenever I can, and I’m grateful that I’m paying attention when they come to me. Sometimes I’ll seek these respites, like driving to a café or paying for a yoga class, but I love it when they come to me, out of the blue.

The following are some of the very ordinary sights and sounds in my days that lift me no matter how down I might feel:

1) The sound of our dishwasher

Hearing our dishwasher swish and shush is the first time in many years that I’ve noticed how comforted I can be by a sound. Since we don’t have a big family I do a lot of things by hand, from washing dishes to hanging laundry, but occasionally I’ll go all out and load the dishwasher. Pressing the “on” button is like hitting “launch” on my internal rocket to escape. Machine on, kitchen lights off, Cecilia out. The shooshing tells me that I’ve got the evening off.

2) The sound of Dr. Phil’s voice

I’ve recently begun hearing the muffled sounds of Dr. Phil’s voice from the television downstairs. As some of you know, Max and I own our own business and we work from home. I think to many friends we look like we’re never working, because we volunteer at Fred’s school or do Costco runs in the middle of the day. The truth is that the pressure of sustaining your own business is nerve-wracking, and while I will try to take one day off a week, Max is working whenever he can squeeze it in.

Even when he is watching Dr. Phil.

Max has only been in America for five years, and Dr. Phil is a fascinating piece of americana to him. I roll my eyes every time he tries to update me on the latest story of parent turning against child (or vice versa), but the truth is that I like it. The sound of Dr. Phil’s voice means that we’re in our off-season at work, Max is relaxed, and work is rolling along.

3) A memory of Fred being scolded 

Fred is part of his school’s taekwondo team, and he participates in a number of competitions and performances every year. Most recently he has been training intensively for the team’s second out-of-state competition. As a martial art, taekwondo is an exacting sport, and this is the one area in his life where he does not get a trophy just for showing up. During training his coach does not tolerate any goofing around or any slack in discipline.

Then one day, as all the members had to run to their respective positions, the coach bellowed, “FRED! WHAT IS THIS??!!” and proceeded to imitate Fred’s manner of “running,” a move that was more like a joyful hopping and skipping through a spring meadow. We all laughed in affection, because that’s pretty much Fred in a nutshell.

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Fred marching in a martial arts parade at age 7

After all, this is the same kid who earlier this week replaced his white board to-do list of homework and chores with this:

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How I birthed such a positive and happy child will remain a mystery for my lifetime. But anyway, he’s divided the white board into three sections, one for him, one for me, and one for Max. “Have you been epic today, Mommy? Did you feel epic?” He kneels before the 4 foot white board waiting for my answer. I hem and haw and “pretty good” is the best I can come up with. Epic, though, is now my goal. 😉

What ordinary moments make you feel extraordinary?

A Short Literary Trip in Boston

I was back briefly in my hometown of Boston a couple of weeks ago. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to call up any friends except for my 76-year-old second grade teacher. We had a small family reunion and celebrated my mother’s birthday together for the first time in maybe twenty years. Next time I hope to be in town longer to see more friends!

One thing I did manage to squeeze in, between all the “family bonding” that my mother wanted to do, were several trips to bookstores. All those years I had lived in Boston I took for granted a historical literary world that was my backyard.

My first stop was Brattle Bookshop in downtown Boston, across the street from Boston Common, the oldest public park in the United States and the camping ground for British soldiers in preparation for the American Revolutionary War. Brattle Bookshop has been around since 1825 and is one of the largest and oldest antiquarian bookshops in the country. My most memorable experience with the store was finding a copy of the biography Gable and Lombard during my Gone with the Wind obsession as a teen. Pre-internet, this was a huge feat, given that the book was out of print and I had to search two years for it.

I like the idea of their outdoor book racks, which you can see in the photo below. There are three floors of books inside the store including a floor of rare and antiquarian books. And outside they sell a diverse mix of bargain books, all priced from $1 to $5. There were a number of old editions (pre-1900 and turn of the century) as well. The only problem was that it was pretty cold that day – in the 30s/40s F – but fortunately I finished browsing as soon as I was coming near the end of my comfort zone standing in the cold for so long.

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Brattle Bookshop Mural

“20 Authors Upon the Wall Mural,” by local artist Jeffrey Hull

My next stop was Harvard Square. Whatever your feelings on Harvard the institution and the elitism it represents, you can’t deny the eclecticism and vibrancy of the town that was birthed by the country’s oldest university. I’d worked in the area a number of years and remember walking past the sets of The Firm (Tom Cruise movie, for those who weren’t around then) and With Honors (a forgettable Joe Pesci film) during lunch breaks. It was pretty neat, too, to see academic greats like Cornel West, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Howard Gardner in and around town.

And so that brings me to this gem of an indy bookstore, Harvard Book Store, which has been around for over 80 years. The store is open until 11 pm every day except Sunday (when it closes at 10), and every time I’m in there the place is bustling. They also have author events virtually every day of the week (and sometimes multiple times a day).

This is me, just window shopping this time.

This is me, just window shopping this time.

The Harvard Coop, founded by Harvard students in 1882,  was also fun and lively with its crowded café and four floors of books connected by a winding staircase.

I found a beautiful copy of Charlotte Bronte's Villette here, that I haven't been able to find anywhere else, including amazon.

I found a beautiful copy of Charlotte Bronte’s Villette here that I haven’t been able to find anywhere else, including amazon.

When I got tired of book browsing we took a break at Café Algiers on historical Brattle Street (the street where George Washington established his first headquarters during the Revolutionary War). Café Algiers is a tranquil, grand (in my eyes), and bookish Middle Eastern coffee shop and eatery and one of the few businesses in the Square that have remained over the decades.

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The last time I was here was to meet an old classmate. He had kissed me at our reunion, igniting all kinds of dreamy hopes in me. After avoiding me for a couple of weeks, he offered to meet at the café, where he told me painfully and uncomfortably that he was still in a relationship. The tea tasted bitter that day, but this time I was with my husband, son, and brother, and I enjoyed the best (the only) mint chocolate coffee I’ve ever had.

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And then there were these shelves, the ones I spend the most time looking at whenever I am home.

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This was my bookshelf growing up, pretty much unchanged since I left home for college a whole lifetime ago. The stuffed animals are still on the very top shelf, now protected and wrapped in plastic thanks to my mom. My photos are still there, as are my trinkets from different trips, events, and friendships, costume jewelry, extra buttons that came with clothes I’ve long stopped wearing, and, of course, books. The shelves are a bit messy now as I’ve been raiding them over the years, either selling/donating or taking some books back with me. Since I left home I’ve lived in nine apartments/houses in five cities on two continents. The more my life has evolved the more meaning this bookcase holds for me, as an anchor in time, a tether to the self and life that exist now only in memories.

 

Have you been to Boston? What are your favorite literary cities? What are your favorite literary places where you live?

I’m a Slow Reader and Other Reading Confessions

I stumbled upon a blog post over the weekend that talked about reading speed and skill and an online reading test. This, of course, prompted me to check out my own reading level. I found this Speedreading Test Online, which times you as you read a passage and then tests you on your comprehension.

I am only slightly above average in reading speed, and good at comprehension (I slowed down my reading when I knew I was going to be tested); I’d expected or at least hoped to be good and excellent, respectively.

Of course, I took the online test with a grain of salt. It was a fun exercise to do especially when I don’t have any intention of shelling out several hundred dollars to get an actual assessment. My results were eye-opening insofar as they got me thinking back on my road to reading.

I probably started reading quite late, at least compared to the children I am seeing today. We didn’t speak English at home and I learned to read through phonics and leveled readers in my bilingual 1st grade class. We owned very few English books and I visited a library for the first time in the second grade when my school (founded in 1848) was rebuilt and with a new library. I caught up quickly because I loved reading. I had no interest in math, science, or sports but reading suited my temperament, my interest in people’s lives and in the written word, and my need for escape.

But some time in the 4th grade reading became a chore to me. We had independent math and reading times at school when we would do math problems from a set of leveled math cards and reading comprehension questions from the SRA set (does anyone remember that??). The idea was that you would keep moving up every time you finished a card. Well, at some point I found the reading passages so dense and tedious that I started to do more and more math, which really goes to show you how torturous I found those SRA cards. And that quarter was the first time I’d ever gotten a C – my only blemish in a pool of A’s. The teacher told my mother that the C was for my lack of effort in reading.

And so began my ambivalent, two-faced reading life: I was accepted into English Honors and AP classes in high school but struggled with boredom through (at least) half of the required reading; I chose English literature as a college major but always felt a league below the very top students in my department.

If you looked at my academic record over the years, or my bookshelves, you’d perhaps assume that I had been a good and dedicated reader. I’m the only one intimate with my reading deficits, of my tendency to read but not really read: seeing words but not having the patience to let them sink in deeply and to digest them. I skimmed or skipped often, particularly when I was struggling with depression, and sometimes read without deep understanding or appreciation or only as much as was necessary for exams and papers. I collected many books but read minimally during my adult years. I’d often felt like a fraud.

More than twenty years out of school now, I’m trying to start over. It’s one of the reasons I began blogging about books and re-reading the classics. I admire the many readers who can sink into 50, 100, or more books a year, the many people who don’t have a problem getting into The New York Times or Economist every day. I struggle with patience, salivating at books while simultaneously having to sometimes force myself to sit still long and often enough to make faster progress. And I struggle with mental clutter. Not infrequently my attention span competes with the many other thoughts and emotions that run through me at any given time. And yet more than art, more than sports, more than science, I love literature. I love the written word. I love reading.

Is it just me? Do other seemingly literary and intelligent people struggle with the same issues? I can only wonder. But I do take great comfort in the fact that it is never too late to build an authentic literary life.

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What has your reading experience been like? Is reading “easy” for you? Do you struggle or have you ever struggled?