I was on the phone this morning with my friend on the East coast. She recently returned from her frankly stellar honeymoon cruise around the Mediterranean, and after regaling me with her now-insider-tourist viewpoint (Istanbul Markets = Yes; Parthenon = overcrowded; Sistine Chapel = Who are we kidding, Yes.), she asked me what I was up to.
I told her that I’m recently reading memoirs on marriage. I said, even though it’s not something that’s currently on the radar, one day it probably will be, and like someone who’s gonna climb Kilimanjaro, I ought to read the guide book.
So, I now have on my coffee table, Vow: A Memoir of Marriage and Other Affairs, one woman’s story of how infidelity on both sides corroded her marriage, and No Cheating, No Dying: I had a good marriage, then I tried to make it better. Also, out of a rubber-necker’s curiosity, a while ago I’d read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed to see if her second book would be as good as the first (and, well, sort of).
To me, reading these marriage memoirs is like getting the read-out from a fallen plane’s black-box: What went wrong? What went right? What are the junction places and fuses that tend to blink out first? What can you do, if anything, to reinforce them before they do?
I've had a thirst for this kind of reading over the last several years. I was a Fiction Fiction Fiction only reader for many years, Stephen King, Ray Bradbury,…JK Rowling, because real life was *so boring,* and allegory could be so much more useful... But, lately, I find myself almost exclusively prowling the non-fiction, first-persons; most specifically, picking those that have something to do with where I want to be.
Last Spring, it was the memoirs of Tina Fey (comic, leader, success), Betty White (comic, still-kicking), Nora Ephron’s I Remember Nothing: And Other Reflections (writer, comic, realist) and Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed which actually inspired me to research the best hiking boots for someone with flat feet (not purchased).
I read the following to balance out the light, or rather I read the above to balance out the dark I was reading at the time: Jeanette Winterson's Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal and Augusten Burrough’s Running with Scissors.
I wanted to know many things from reading these books: I wanted to know how to be a successful woman in tough businesses, I wanted to know how to be an artist, writer, performer and make it stick, and mostly I wanted to know how you keep moving forward in a hard world, and keep your sense of humor.
During the time I was sick, you couldn’t peel me from a cancer memoir. It was all I read. Except for that one on divorce (Stacy Morrison’s Falling Apart in One Piece: One Optimist’s Journey Through the Hell of Divorce), since it seemed equally catastrophic, and I like the word optimist in a title.
When my friend first leant me the Lance Armstrong book, It's Not About the Bike, last October, I said thanks with a pressed I’m-never-gonna-read-that-Nobody-else-knows-what-it’s-like-to-have-cancer smile. But, still, I brought it back to the hospital with me for my second round of chemo, and eventually hardly put it down between temperature- and blood-pressure monitorings.
People asked what I thought about all the controversy that was coming out about him then, and I said I didn’t give a shit – He survived cancer, and lived to write a book about it. That's all I needed to know.
Honestly, I can’t remember the other ones I read – chemo brain, perhaps – but that’s what I read these books for: How in the hell did you do that? How can I?
This summer’s reading of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life resulted in home-made tomato sauce (and a half a plat of rotting tomatoes), an awkward okra experiment, and many afternoon delights with a basket of fresh figs.
And now, now, it’s marriage. It’s also, Going Gray: What I Learned about Beauty, Sex, Work, Motherhood, Authenticity, and Everything Else that Really Matters, Anne Kreamer’s exploration of what it means to grow older in American culture, one strand at a time.
This is probably the book that sparked my whole memoir thing, long before I actually read one. I’d still been living in San Francisco, Borders was still in business, and I was at the Stonestown Mall. Somehow, perhaps while looking for some “recovery” related book which are often in the “self-help” section, I saw her book, and remember picking it up, reading the back copy and noting that it was an interesting idea.
This week, I saw Kreamer's book on the memoir shelf of my now-housed-in-a-trailer-behind-a-school public library branch. I picked it up. And devoured it.
So, what about all this? What does it “mean” or matter? Well, one thing, I suppose, is that reading these books enables me to see that I’m not alone in my struggles--I’m not alone in living in the world with real people and real tragedies and real humor, and most importantly, real chutzpah.
Also, aside from Lance Armstrong and the Burroughs one (which frankly left me more disturbed than helped), all the books I’ve been reading are by women.
Women, claiming their right to share their inane (Betty White), heartbreaking (Winterson), path-back-toward-the-light (Morrison) stories. Women using their voice to say, Here, here is where I’ve been frayed and flayed and fraught and fought, and I'm still here to tell you about it.
These women are my heroes. And so I will continue to head straight for that shelf in the library/trailer, because I want to climb Kilimanjaro, too.