Is existence, in and of itself, a legitimate source of hope? Is any source of hope legitimate?
I was reading from a collection of short stories last week. The Best American Short Stories, 2009, to be precise. It was an uncharacteristically jubilant burst of reading (no interruptions), and eventually, I circled back to the introduction by Alice Sebold, who is perhaps best known for her novel The Lovely Bones.
In her preface, she explains her process of selection for the annual volume; inclusion in any of the “Best of” series is quite an honor. Ms. Sebold meticulously leads us through her reasoning as she initially eschews the desirability of book awards or honors, only to ultimately conclude that recognition does indeed hold an important place in any field.
Pointing out that assessing literary works is inevitably subjective, she nonetheless believes that we should acknowledge storytelling - all sorts of storytelling – and the act of doing it well.
I found myself nodding in agreement as I continued through her thoughtful introduction, even reaching for a pen to mark a passage that stopped me cold.
It was this statement:
Often, a reflection in the mirror, even if hideously accurate, stands as confirmation of existence, and this mere confirmation then serves as hope – we are still alive in dark times.
Alive in dark times
As a nation, one could say that we are all “alive in dark times.” As an individual, knowing the full flesh of my own story, I am certainly alive, and in a very long and very dark tunnel. There is light at moments, but overwhelmingly, “dark times” would describe recent months and more generally, recent years.
As for Ms. Sebold, she was speaking of a brief period following 9/11 during which poetry seemed to flourish, a period when we seemed to be swept up in a national wave of mainstream commercialism, as if in both we were trying to re-establish balance. To find normalcy, even as we marched stalwartly (if somewhat blindly) into our current economic woes, including the unfortunate downsizing (and reshaping) of the publishing business and related fields.
Being, in my own minuscule way, a casualty of that imploding industry, I had a particle of skin in that particular game, and perhaps at the worst possible time. Likewise, my skin in the corporate game was lost to a crumbling culture just as the domestic bubble burst on millions of families, leaving us disoriented and licking our wounds.
Welcome to America in the 21st century. Certainly, I have not been alone in this recessionary abyss. I have not been alone in the obliteration of decades of savings. But in the swirl of water under the bridge (and down the drain), I’ll return to the immediate response I had to Ms. Sebold’s comment on existence as a source of hope.
I don’t think so.
Reflections in a personal mirror
As a woman at the half-century mark, I no longer relish any view in my personal mirror, and it grows harder to hold the mirror steady. Yes, reflection confirms my existence, and along with it – the process of aging and doing so alone.
It could be worse, I tell myself, as I move on to other priorities: parenting, making a living, regaining my health. But I take no hope in gazing in the literal mirror.
Next I examine my writing. This is a more objective activity and a different sort of analysis, one which encompasses a greater range of observations than loosening skin or graying hair. The fact that I persist in writing daily, albeit at times mechanically, is an affirmation. But is it busy work, or self-indulgence, or an armament against despair?
I think about my half-empty nest. Is getting up each (school) morning, making a bag lunch for my teen son, then riding alongside him in the car hopeful? Or is it responsible action, habit, and unspoken commitment?
If muddling through 20 hours out of each 24 on the smallest amount of expenditure possible is existence – shutting off lights, turning down heat, narrowing the list for the supermarket yet again – is that hopeful? Yes, there is still a roof over our heads and still a grocery list to scrape to the bone. For now. I am not complaining; I am evaluating. But none of this feels hopeful.
Then I think of words, of their beauty and their power. My fists unclench, my muscles let go their knots just a little, and I admit that in writing daily, I am alive in a brighter darkness. I force letters to stand at attention, to assemble in formation, to march their units one in front of the other, sequentially. I cajole and coax each one through a chaotic funnel in my brain where sequential is not the order of the day, and I insist: language must appear, however listlessly it does so. And words offer a grudging glimmer of optimism in their manufacture.
Health check: failure to thrive
When running Ms. Sebold’s words through my mental machinery, I had another thought, seemingly out of nowhere. Of our children. Our collective children. Our moral compass in this country, such as it is. And our failure to thrive.
My mother knew all about “failure to thrive.” She was an expert, in more ways than one. A complex and troubled woman, she was the source of my greatest pain. She also laid the foundation for my most profound passions: language and art.
On the plus side, she was brilliant, clever, theatrical (which is useful at times); if it did not involve those closest to her, she was capable of enormous generosity. It was generosity in service of her narcissism, offered at a distance and strangely abstracted, yet those facts do not diminish the end result. She spent hundreds of hours in her seventies donating time and raising money for a children’s clinic in a large local hospital. Specifically, it was a clinic for infants and toddlers who suffered from “a failure to thrive.”
She promoted the work of the clinic, as well as raising thousands of dollars over the years. For someone of modest means, that was a considerable achievement in a life of unusual gifts that were overshadowed by disappointments – a slow deadening of potential I never came to understand.
As for failure to thrive, it is a descriptive term, and comprises a number of observable problems that indicate lagging development in key areas. While it can occur in any infant or child, the organization my mother assisted dealt specifically with babies and toddlers of poor women. To a certain extent, the term was a euphemism for starvation – insufficient or improper nutrition, and neglect, benign or otherwise.
I remember being baffled by my mother’s devotion to these particular children, though I was glad that she was able to contribute in a positive way to something. Why was I confused by this preoccupation of hers? I will not pretend: she made life miserable for those who attempted to love her.
There were few exceptions; I was not one of them.
Also ironic – my mother was morbidly obese, incapable of ever feeling full enough (of love, attention, or food). Yet she turned her charitable efforts to those who were being starved, physically and emotionally. Just as she was, in her own way.
No one knew what went on behind closed doors in our murky household: the oddities of food abuse, violent outbursts, the jealousy of any accomplishment I cared to call my own; daily life was interwoven with cruelty and intimidation. That is starvation of a sort, though I didn’t realize it at the time. And so it remains odd for me, from the vantage point of midlife and mothering teens, to look at my upbringing, even then, alive, in dark times.
Reflections in a societal mirror
Is failure to thrive the same as slow starvation? A collection of ills that impedes growth and development? Does it cripple the capacity to trust, to give, to love, to accept love? Does failure to thrive dwarf the ability to hope?
I see the contradictions (and tragedy) in my neighborhood, my school district, and my city. Indeed, in my country, where we epitomize a failure to thrive when it comes to the moral contract we make as parents, as siblings, as spouses, as neighbors. Where are our priorities? What do we value? Are we guilty of dismissing failure to thrive even in our professional roles as writers and poets, as politicians and clergy, as teachers and physicians? Who hasn’t walked away from the stranger who needs help? Or worse, the friend?
I return to Ms. Sebold and her words: where there is existence, there is hope.
In literature, there are lessons and there is beauty. Both embrace us as we read, riding the words and their pulsating heartbeats, reassembling our understanding as we jostle around inside another’s imagination. Tales spin us our heavy coats in winter, and the gossamer sleeve for summer’s heat. We choose our words carefully to construct possibility. Our words choose us, to tell their stories.
If I refuse to be the same sort of mother as the one I was born to (and I have), if I can still honor the great gifts she gave me (and I do), then, this journey which has been all too dark, all too often, is not without purpose. I have not failed to clothe (in words or love); I have not failed to parent my own sons.
But have I parented myself, providing sufficient nourishment to do more than exist? Have I parented my neighbor, my community, my country?
We stagger through our days and nights dutifully, even lovingly, raising our children and commuting to jobs, if we still have them. We couple and uncouple, at times dully, at others, with genuine caring. And we continue. That we do not take the easy way out (most of us), leaping from buildings or deserting our families – is it enough? What if we believe that failure to thrive is unacceptable, and we give “thriving” a run for its money? And what if that fails?
Does existence guarantee hope, or only extend the length of time that we fail to thrive?
Doing the work, recognizing the work
In the spirit of Ms. Sebold’s recognition of work well done, however imperfect the machinery of our society, I should give credit where it is due.
My mother helped infants in her community. She planted seeds of learning in my earliest experience. As for me, I am still capable of choosing to turn forward or back. These are not my only choices; there is plenty of fertile terrain in between. Yet I know that my mind resists stagnation, even on the bad days. I remain nimble enough to circulate through a maze of possibilities, pin a word to the page, and hold it until I pound out its outline through keys whose letters are wearing away.
Failure to thrive is a contagion; I am as caught up in its viral consequences as any of us, insofar as our society is like a child, developmentally stuck, malnourished, neglected when it comes to the simplest and most vital elements of our humanity. But I am aware. Perhaps where there is awareness, there is hope. And maybe that is as much as Ms. Sebold can say to me.
If we accept that we are suffering from a failure to thrive, then what are our next steps, beyond the plodding of a numbed, adolescent nation, the disenfranchised follower, or the happily ignorant? Where there is hunger, are we capable of culling sustenance from consciousness, and securing a way to feed our children, and the child in each of us?
I would like to believe the answer is yes. I would like to believe that words will help. I would like to believe in Alice Sebold’s hopefulness. And that we needn’t accept a failure to thrive, on any dimension, in any community, at any age.