Showing Up

Well, I think we can all agree. Last week sucked.

In the midst of our national horrors, from the Boston bombings and subsequent manhunt to the gruesome explosion at a Texas fertilizer plan, Ian and I witnessed a much quieter, and to his family, no less tortuous drama – a colleague lost his wife in a dramatic, inexplicable and hearbreaking fashion. I actually knew the wife a bit better than her husband, having worked with her several times in the past six months. From her initial collapse early in the week, to life support until her family could all say goodbye, to her obituary which ran yesterday, her death in many ways overrode the national tragedies occuring, at least in our household.

I’m not sure if I’m qualified to say what a mother’s worst fear is, although I would have to guess losing your child is probably it. Perhaps second is passing away before your child reaches adulthood – passing away unexpectedly and quickly, with no chance to say goodbye, which is what happened to our friends. She left behind a six-year old daughter, and I can’t imagine the wrenching conversation that took place when her father told her her mother had passed away.

My father runs marathons and cross country skis competitively, and like Martin Richard, I have waited at countless finish lines in my life, cheering and rooting for him. Those finish lines always felt inherently safe, surrounded as I was by family and friends and a multitude of other supporters. That sense of safety was ripped away from thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people last week and in its place comes a renewed vulnerability in open and public places.

What is safe? WHERE is safe? How can we continue to put one foot in front of the other when so much awfulness occurs, well, everywhere? We live in a world where people willingly kill one another for twisted, ideological beliefs, where we sacrifice the health of our earth for marginal profits, where too many people seem willing to further their own agenda in lieu of taking care of one another.

I felt shattered last week, and at the same time, so guiltyfor feeling shattered. After all, no one in my own family had died suddenly – I wasn’t in Boston or Texas during either tragedy. There is a danger in internalizing things too much, and I don’t want to become paralyzed the way I was immediately post-9/11, when wave after wave of panic overtook me for nearly a year and, from then on, every few months for almost a decade.

I don’t have much advice to offer, if you are like me and easily lost and, well, shattered, when Bad Things happen, but I can say this: it helps to show up. After 9/11, which, in retrospect, came on the heels of several terrible losses in my family, I failed at showing up, big-time. Barely in my second year of marriage, I was living in rural West Virginia with no friends or nearby family. I was unemployed and using food and cigarettes to assuage my depression. It was easy – too easy – to fall into the cable news cycle and in many ways I’ve been dealing with the effects of that one bad year ever since -conquering my addiction to cigarettes, struggling off and on with my weight ( which had never been an issue for me before), facing panic attacks instead of letting them overcome me.

So last week – Ian and I, we showed up. Ian went to the hospital whenever he could. We went to church. I checked in on those I know who have friends and family in Boston. With the exception of listening to some of the manhunt on Friday, I caught up on the latest news each morning – I didn’t drown myself in it. I went to yoga, swam laps at the pool, played for long hours with chalk in front of our house with Grace. Ian and I showed up for each other, for those who love us and for ourselves the best way we knew how, and it certainly worked better than cigarettes, beer, pizza, cable news and solitude, I can tell you that much.

I struggle when I hear bad news. I can’t even wrap my head around how someone can be here one minute and gone the next, especially when it’s from something as startling as cardiac arrest. The kind of death and destruction that comes from acts of terrorism I’m at least somewhat sort of able to wrap my head around, even though I’ll never make sense of it completely. What I do believe now in is the importance of creating a life one can be proud of – a life I can be happy living even if today were my last day on earth. Against all common sense that life, for us, is happening in Pittsburgh, in a 100-year old house that needs constant love, and it’s a smaller life than I imagined back in my bound-for-broadway teenage dreams. It includes an occasional cocktail before dinner, signing up for the church potluck, going to work and coming home and making dinner every.single.day – it includes watching a bit of television with Ian each week and working a ton on our house, and lots of reading and writing and friends. It’s a blessed life – a beautiful life – one that makes showing up for others an easier choice than throwing up my arms and giving in.

This has been a hard post to write -I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because the myriad thoughts swirling around in my head aren’t organized enough for the written word, or maybe it’s because certain emotions should be left unexpressed, at least on the internet. I toyed around with writing a marriage Monday post on scorekeeping – I deleted another post about fashion that didn’t feel quite right, either. This is what I ended up writing when I showed up to write, so I am going to let it stand.

People of the Book – Geraldine Brooks

Some of the writers I admire the most are former journalists who turn to writing fiction. Dennis LeHane is a great example of journalist-turned-fiction-writer, and Geraldine Brooks is another. Hindsight being twenty-twenty and all of that, I sort of wish this is the career example I had followed, but I watched my mom struggle as a small-town journalist for decades and, more importantly, got to know many of the young journalists we rented part of our house to growing up, and readily realized no matter how great a journalism school I attended, more likely than not I’d end up in some similar backwater town covering the status of strawberry crops and bovine tuberculosis. Also, lest we forget, I mostly wanted to be a Broadway actress until I was 24 or so (nobody appreciates revisionist history).

Still, though.

Oh my God you guys, I am tired. Grace has been waking up in the middle of the night several times a week recently. I think it’s a combination of the stress of potty training and what it inherently means and her two-year molars which are taking FOREVER to come in. This is partially why it took me a month – a month! – to finish Geraldine Brooks’ marvelous, beautiful People of the Book. I like this reason much better than another, less justifiable one – that this book brought to light tremendously lacking areas of history on my part and I had to educate myself as I read. The blame rests with Brooks for the final reason – she created such an intricate, complicated, compelling and yet gorgeously written narrative that I found myself really taking time with the book in an attempt to both understand and savor it.

People of the Book is anchored by the narration of Hannah Heath, an Australian rare book expert hired to analyze and conserve the famed Sarajevo Haggadah, which has been rescued from Serbian shelling during the Bosnian War. The book is one of the earliest Jewish works to contain images, and has survived sine 1350. Hannah discovers various items in the haggadah as she conducts her work, including a white hair and wine and salt stains. These items set the structure of the book, with each item serving as a piece of the book’s story. In between these stories, Hannah tells her own story as the preserverer of this piece of art.

This book illuminiated so much lacking in my educational background when it comes to religion and history that it is embarrassing. For instance, conceptually I understand that Jews have been persecuted for centuries. In reality, anything that occurred prior to the Inquisition I am pretty blurry, if not downright uninformed, about. And while I’m familiar with parts of the Bosnian War, a war that occured during my teenage years, I still found huge pieces of information just shocking, particularly the close proximity of the warring factions which yes, I know, is a ridiculous thing not to have realized but again, as a teenager I was more into the lyrics of “Miss Saigon” than, say, maps. I had to take my time reading this book, looking terms and timelines up on occasion and refreshing my knowledge of Jewish culture. The stories of the caretakers of the Haggadah are stories I will always remember, and they are so wonderfully told that I think they will be shaping my reading for the coming year, if not longer.

I thought Hannah was a strong narrator – she was certainly a character who stuck in my mind, and I cared very much what happened to her. I have a few quibbles with her storyline (and I guess this is where I say SPOILER ALERT) – for instance, the dischord between Hannah and her mother felt slightly – just slightly – overdone, and I didn’t necessarily need Hannah’s ancestry to out of nowhere suddenly be Jewish – it was sort of hammering home the point just a little too much – but even as I thought these things I realized I didn’t really mind, because the brilliance of the rest of the book triumphs over these minor quibbles.

Brooks is an astounding writer and I am excited to tackle March sometime this year. I’ve never been as over the moon for Louisa May Alcott as other readers are but I never considered myself terribly interested in the plague or Bosnia and she’s managed to prove me wrong on both of those accounts. Reading writing by Geraldine Brooks makes me happy to be alive – I can’t recommend this book highly enough.