The Lost Diary

Last week we renovated our study, and this involved moving the desk out for a while. We took the drawers out first and realised they were crammed full of stuff, just stuff, cards, notebooks, packs of paper, letters, folders… Definitely time for a clear out. It was nostalgic enough trawling through all the cards we’d been sent when our son was born (I couldn’t bear to throw them away), and brochures from the lycée where I lived and taught in France. And then we came upon the most extraordinary thing: a diary from 1993, the year we were married, and we had kept it alternately between the months of March and May. We neither of us had any recollection whatsoever of writing it.

Now when Marguerite Duras did something similar, publishing a diary she said she had found in the back of a wardrobe that she had no memory of writing, everyone coughed *publicitystunt* behind their hands. But this turns out to be unfair. I can honestly say it is possible to write a diary and forget all about it.

Naturally, we fell upon our former selves with avid curiosity. We had just become engaged and were hunting for a house to buy. I was working at Waterstones, the booksellers, whilst applying for an M.Phil and Mr Litlove had just begun shift work as a factory manager in Leicester. We were constantly in transit between our rented accommodation, our parents’ homes and the house we wanted. We were unbelievably young and untested, naïve and romantic in a way that we laughed at in our older, knowing incarnations, because it was so terribly poignant. Hope, it seems, gives you the strength to be vulnerable.

We sat over our lunch, reading bits out to each other.

‘Listen to this,’ I said to Mr Litlove. ‘”Sleep late, having strange dreams. Have my first, ‘Litlove my wife being annoying and nothing going right’ sort of dream. Is this preparing me for married life, or is it just to balance the wonderful times we are having together at the moment?”’

Mr Litlove instantly started crying out ‘Wake me up! Wake me up! I’m in the dream again!’

‘Ha, ha,’ I said, coldly. ‘How about this bit: “Didn’t get much done this afternoon. Think Litlove will be good for me in this respect.”’ I looked up at him. ‘What? What was that expression for?’

I moved onto a part of the diary I’d written, marvelling at an era when my handwriting was still legible. I’d been really nervous about the wedding, which in hindsight had been a deep anxiety about marriage and motherhood (which I presumed would be my fate) and all it entailed. I read: “The only solution is to keep busily organising as this can only reduce my worries. Mr L. thinks I’m being super-efficient when really I’m only trying to stay calm.”’

‘Nothing changes,’ commented Mr. Litlove

And in a weird way nothing had changed. Mr Litlove noted that I complained about feeling tired a lot even when I was 24. And he found several entries in which he’d looked forward to making furniture for our house. That really surprised us; it felt like the woodworking of the last few years had been a recent desire, sprung from nowhere. But then at the same time, everything had changed. We were not that couple anymore; we knew now what our future had been. There had been amazing experiences – I’d had my career at the university, we’d watched our son grow up, we were still together and in love after all that had happened. But we’d had to go through some excruciating times, too; the dark years dominated by my chronic fatigue, bitter disappointment with each other, financial worries, the unimaginable strain of early parenthood.

Adam Phillips wrote that ‘falling in love is the (sometimes necessary) prelude to a better but diminished – better because diminished – thing; a more realistic appreciation of oneself and the other person’. Never had those words struck me as more true: what reading the diary told me was how little we had known back then, about each other and about life. Now armed with hard-won knowledge, I was disillusioned in a good way. The happiness of back then had been so intense and so fragile; neither of us could believe in it. And rightly so – ordinary contentment is a smaller, harder thing, boiled down to its toughest consistency. It has no glister, but its dullness is reliably real. I wouldn’t swap it for the ecstasies of youth if you paid me.

We return to the diary every now and then, still fascinated by its alien oddness, the only proper sign of the past. It holds such poignancy for us. The last entry in it from Mr Litlove ends: ‘I feel very lucky to be me and here and now.’ And we shiver for him, almost forgetting the surprising truth, that he survived the hubris of good luck.

 

 

An Eye-Opener

good-kings-bad-kings3I’ve heard it said that you should judge a society on the way it treats its most vulnerable members. Susan Nussbaum, whose first novel has won the PEN/Bellwether prize for Socially Engaged Fiction (championed by Barbara Kingsolver) certainly has one or two things to say about a section of society that has probably never had a book devoted to it in the whole history of fiction. Nussbaum was a drama student in her twenties when she was knocked down by a car. Now nearing sixty, she has spent her adult life in a wheelchair with partial function in her arms, working as a playwright and a disability activist. Good Kings, Bad Kings is her first novel and it achieves the wholly admirable feat of giving a memorable voice to some forgotten members of society.

Good Kings, Bad Kings takes place in a nursing home for adolescents with disabilities, a grim institution run by the coyly named Mrs Phoebe, where kids who act up are bundled into a smelly time-out room and forgotten, and where very little in the way of education or nurture takes place. Though supposed to be state run, the Illinois Learning and Life Skills Centre has been farmed out to a health-care solutions firm, determined to do what all good businesses should – cut every possible corner and reduce every possible cost.

The narrative is shared between seven distinctive voices. There are three adolescents: Yessie – a sassy Puerto Rican who uses parts of her wheelchair to even out the odds in a fight, Teddy, a young man longing to live independently and care for his girlfriend, Mia, a vulnerable girl with cerebral palsy who has also suffered sexual abuse in her past. And there are three employees at the nursing home who are on the side of the angels: Joanne, whose wheelchair and ‘gimpy hand’ are actually advantageous in getting her the job of a data entry clerk, Ricky who drives the nursing home bus and can’t help but take over the care of the kids he thinks are suffering and Jimmie, recently homeless herself and glad to have a job. Piggy in the middle is Michelle, whose job is to fill beds in the nursing house by hanging around hospitals and identifying parents who aren’t coping well.

The real grace of the novel lies in these voices, which are immediate, authentic and often funny; they counteract the often deeply disturbing content of the narrative, which does not flinch from portraying the extent of neglect and even abuse that can occur in places where the pay is bad, the hours too long and the inmates restless, troublesome and bored. Yessie is probably the standout, a streetfighter whose strong spirit is carrying her through the loss of her beloved tía Nene. As the problems escalate at the nursing home, it’s Yessie who decides that even ‘crips’ can take their future into their own hands.

So much fiction is for comfort or escapism, so much is created with pleasing and appeasing the reader in mind, that you have to love a book that has the courage to tackle a really difficult subject. The kids in the nursing home know that no one wants them; their treatment indicates that they are not considered full members of society in any genuine way, their feelings and desires are tiptoed around with a pseudo-respect that grates, while the real problems they face are ignored. There is much about this book that will infuriate and horrify you, and that’s exactly as it should be. It is a polemic, let’s not mistake that, and its message is simple: people with disabilities want to live independent and full lives the same as anyone else, and with the right training and equipment, they are perfectly capable of doing so. It’s not even as if the training would be hard:

These are kids who have never had more than a few dollars in their pocket in their whole lives. They’ve never owned a checkbook, purchased anything more expensive than a Mr. Frosty, they don’t have the first clue about banks or monthly statements or buying groceries. Mrs. Phoebe won’t even let the kids take the bus alone because she says it’s a liability issue. Everything is a liability issue… Kids like this are trained to stay helpless. So they have to stay institutionalized. There’s no other way to explain it.’

I admit I read the first chapter of this and hesitated: did I really want to read a book that I perceived would be depressing and so far out of my own experience? Well, the answer was: yes, I’m really glad I did. This is not a ‘hard’ read, in the sense people might think. The voices are wonderful and carry you through, though what happens is upsetting. I did wonder whether the portrayal should have covered more dimensions, for instance, how exhausting it really is to be a carer for troubled adolescents, how expensive proper facilities might be. But if Nussbaum had done that, how easy then for readers to shake their heads and say ‘Yes, it’s a dreadful problem, but what’s to be done?’ Books should raise our awareness of the vulnerable and forgotten, we ought to be jolted out of our comfort zones sometimes. It’s one of the things we rely on writers to do, when most of us lack the courage.

 

Tuesday Bullet Points

1. Yesterday was my birthday – I’m now 45, and wondering where the time went. Yes, I know, I’m not completely out to pasture yet, but this is still the oldest I’ve ever been and it takes a bit of getting used to. I think I’ve moved from ‘young in a good light’ to ‘officially middle-aged.’

2. I seem to be coming down with a cold, which is not great news for…

3. Tomorrow evening I’m going to the Penguin bloggers’ party for the first time, as Annabel’s plus one. I’ve been very excited about this, though I am less excited by the prospect of sniffing and sneezing my way through it.

4. My back is much better, thank you all you kind people who have asked me about it. My shoulder and arm are still troubled by my compressed nerve, which dates all the way back to the end of October last year. Oddly enough, I have two sisters-in-law who have been suffering from the same thing, and it seems to be taking all of us a while to recover, which is at least solidarity, even if I might wish instead for a speedy recovery for the three of us.

5. I’ve been reading 750-1,000 pages a week, though you wouldn’t know it from this blog. I’ll be able to tell you why in two weeks’ time, thank goodness, the restraint is killing me.

6. I only received four books for my birthday this year, but I was very pleased with them: The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion, The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop by Lewis Buzbee, Mr Skeffington by Elizabeth von Arnim, and Her Brilliant Career; Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties by Rachel Cooke.

7. I am still loving tai chi class, but I am haunted by guilt. On about the second or third week, one of the other newbies complimented me on picking it up quickly and seeming very at ease with the exercises. It was a lovely compliment, and I did that dreadful fumbling thing, not expecting anyone to say anything so nice. I laughed it off as a good facade, which was completely the wrong thing to say. I should have said that years of ballet training as a child made this sort of thing easier for me, or I should just have said, thank you, how kind. The lady who was so nice to me never came back after that session and I feel like I chased her away. My social skills are really not what they were. This does not bode well for tomorrow night, either.

8. My son is job hunting in London and doing okay, given the circumstances. He’s been getting on well with the reading, though he says he can watch any kind of film at any time, but realises he has to have the ‘right’ book for his mood. He recently finished the Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and very much enjoyed it. Thank you for all your wonderful suggestions – I’m looking forward to seeing him branch out.

9. In my current reading, I’m splitting my time between the Tudor court, riven with potentially lethal intrigue, the story of a newly appointed psychiatrist on an emergency admission ward, and you would not believe the crazy things people do to themselves, and a juvenile detention centre for kids with disabilities. I have to say that, even if things have been a little rocky lately, such reading reinforces my awareness that they are really NOT that bad!

 

A Rare Linky Post

Usually I think of my blog as the place where I put down my thoughts. But things have been so hectic of late that I haven’t really had any that are worth noting. Instead, I’m going to link to three posts that have caused me lately to stop and think.

 

Andrew Blackman: The Future of Books: Reactive?

This fascinating post reports on advances in technology in ‘reactive media’ in which we get to be hooked up to a machine that stimulates the storyline we’re reading if we get bored, or dials it back if we’re overreacting.

I guess that whether your reaction to all this is “Wow, that sounds cool” or “Please shoot me now” depends on what you want from your media,’ Andrew writes.

No prizes for guessing which camp I’m in.

 

Dutch Courage (written by my friend Ingrid): Proving Yourself

This is a beautifully written post in which Ingrid considers the subtle difference between ‘justifying yourself’ and ‘proving yourself’, a distinction linked to gender identity that she becomes aware of while supporting her young son as he grows. Masculinity, she learns, consists in part of:

The unshakeable drive to prove oneself worthy of a higher and nobler calling (love), the need to have one’s action’s approved by a band of brothers, that all-in-allness that men establish between each other through competition and the fair fight is absolutely hardwired into them. They could no more let go of it than they could drop down and walk on all fours. To laugh at this drive is to wound a man profoundly.’

 

The Guardian: Top Five Regrets of the Dying

This is an old post that Mr Litlove alerted me to a while back and which I return to every now and then to check in with and check myself against. It arose out of a book written by an Australian nurse who spent several years working in palliative care. The regrets are:

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard (apparently every single man said this).

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings (many felt that buried resentment and bitterness had played a part in their illnesses).

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends (ironically, while typing this my neighbour came to the door for a chat and after catching up with the headlines I had to shoo her away because I had so much work to do).

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

What a salutory lesson those five regrets encompass. I find myself particularly drawn to the last one, although I think that, taken wrongly, it can be made into an excuse for suppressing problems that really need to be dealt with. I’d probably change it into ‘I wish I’d let myself fully recognise what emotions were appropriate to any given situation, and let myself experience them.’

On that note, I will just say that I think my son is beginning to find more emotional equilibrium, and my back is a great deal better. Thanks to the splendid heated band-aid, I did make the event in Heffers last week with Jill Dawson (who turns out to be absolutely lovely). I was not what you’d call comfortable, but I was there. One less thing to regret. :)  Thank you all for your amazing, invaluable support; I certainly couldn’t manage without my virtual friends.