Various Updates

I realised that there have been a few ongoing plotlines chez Litlove that I haven’t updated lately. For instance, my painful arm and shoulder which I thought for a long time was due to a trapped nerve. You may recall (though I forgive you if you don’t, it’s been a while) that I had had both osteopathy and phyiotherapy with no particular result. My arm seemed to be settling into its compromised movement and nothing made an impact on it. So I decided to try the Alexander Technique.

Well, never has there been a better example of brain triumphing over brawn. The Alexander Technique is extremely gentle, a lot of patting and smoothing by my practitioner who has gradually been easing the knots out of my nerves and muscles. I’ve had about five or six sessions and almost unbelievably, the situation is improving. I can move my arm far more freely than I could before, and with only the odd twinge here and there. After seven months of zero progress and being cracked and twisted and pummelled in often painful ways, this feels nothing short of miraculous. My only problem is I’m too scared of tempting fate to triumphantly announce my cure. So we won’t go there. But my goodness, has she made an improvement! People, if you have muscular-skeletal issues, find yourself an Alexander Technique practitioner. It’s not just effective, it’s actively pleasant. My practitioner is not a great talker, though she likes a laugh, and my memory of our sessions will be of her uncluttered room with sunlight streaming in and the extreme peacefulness of her gentle attention. And of course the tap-dancing skeleton, who has also become a serene witness, his skull a little on one side in quizzical observation.

The problem has been caused not so much by repetitive strain as repetitive bad posture. My left hand is the one I hold books in, and my practice has been to tuck my elbow into my side while I read and bend my head down towards the page. Over the winter months, when I get chilly from sitting still, I tend to carry around my microwaveable wheat baggie, which I also stick under my left arm – it’s got a book at the end of it and is clamped to my side anyway, hence the arrangement. And my left side is the one I go to sleep on, often with that arm wedged underneath me. So twenty-four-seven that arm has been held at an awkward angle without my noticing what I was doing. The muscles at the back of my neck and down into my shoulder have probably scrunched up into a big clump that was putting pressure on the bone, and muscles have a long and persistent memory. It will take a while to remind them that they do not have to exist in their old, embattled position. I need to make long-term adjustments to my practices – books propped on cushions on my lap or in book stands on a table, a writing slope for taking notes and much reduced use of my laptop.

I’m still considering taking up pilates in the summer, but I’ll definitely be sticking with tai chi. I started in the beginners’ class back at the end of January and have recently moved up to what they call ‘continuing’ classes. This was a shock to the system. I’d grown to love my beginners’ class and our tight little group of four initiates and four experts. We spent our weeks slowly learning a whole ‘set’ of tai chi which has over a hundred moves in it. I can do it, so long as I’ve got people around me I can follow – as our instructor said, the one thing tai chi really improves is your peripheral vision – and I think it’s beautiful. The movements are slow and graceful and often satisfying in a profound way I don’t have words to describe. This alone is probably very good for me – the fact it’s a couple of non-verbal hours in my life. Oddly enough I’ve turned out to be good at it, which is surprising after all those years of being a sports dunce and the last person picked for any team. And of course I don’t feel particularly good at it; it just feels sort of straightforward to do. Doubtless years of ballet as a child helped. Being twenty years younger than the others is my secret weapon.

So, anyway, I’ve moved up to the next class which is packed. There must be thirty or so people who turn up for it, and after the expansiveness of being eight in a large hall, we’re now all crammed in sardine-like which has proved hot the past few weeks. We begin by going twice through the full set, which feels like it might last forever (in reality it lasts about 40 minutes). And then we do a bunch of foundation exercises, which we do for another long, long time. After that comes a 25 minute break and then a final half hour working on a small part of the form. I’m gradually meeting a few people as they are all very friendly. Two sisters introduced themselves to me, one of whom, poor woman, is currently fighting two types of cancer which is more courage than I can imagine having. She was cheerier than me, too, which was rather humbling. ‘Did you tell her about your bad arm?’ Mr Litlove asked me when I recounted this. ‘And your sore gum?’ Husbands, dontcha love ‘em? I actually told her sister that I’d had 13 years of chronic fatigue and felt let off lightly by comparison. Lots of people in the class have health reasons for being there, as it’s supposed to be a very gentle but effective exercise. Gentle and effective is certainly what’s working for me right now.

And then my son is still not exactly what you’d call happy, but he has recently signed onto a temp agency that supplies waiters and bar staff to social functions. He’s done this mostly under his own steam, and is hopeful that it will earn him a bit of cash and give him useful skills and experience. In about ten days time he is going on holiday to Spain with ten of his friends, which is the good news. The bad news is that his ex-girlfriend is one of them and they began organising the trip before they split. Goodness only knows what will come of this trip; it could be anything from some necessary closure to emotional chaos. But my son has evidently thought it all through and decided he wants to go nevertheless. Even though he knows it’s not likely, I expect there’s a part of him that hopes they might get back together, which Mr Litlove fears but I doubt. ‘Though if we do get back together, I won’t tell you and Dad,’ he said, to which threat I couldn’t help but smile and say that the list of things I didn’t need to be told was surprisingly long and included dangerous expeditions, late night emo showdowns and trips to the ER. My neighbour was telling me her theory the other day that we have been too nice to our kids while they were growing up and so are involved in their adolescent shenanigans when their normal response ought to be to keep them well out of our sight. I like that theory; I may just run with it.


How Not To Give Good Advice

I’ve been on a run of books lately that all deal with heartbreak and grief. In one a man flies aimlessly around the world for two years, unable to come to terms with the loss of his beloved. In another, an otherwise staid headmaster takes off his clothes and walks naked through a snowy Central Park, in what turns out to be the last of a series of hallucinations produced by an unhinged mind. In a third, we don’t know what happened, only that there was an ominous silence in the story for six years. I’m not sure if the gods of literature are trying to make me feel better or worse about my son, who is still often lost and lacking direction after his brush with heartbreak. The novels are all in agreement, however, about the state of mourning love: the mourner needs people and pushes them away, he wants to do things but cannot summon the energy, there is a blank absence of purpose and nothing makes much sense. Many people give well-meant but infuriating advice, larded with the usual platitudes.

The latter has been me, it seems, lately. Honestly, you’d think I’d never dealt with a troubled student before in my life. For four years, I calmly accepted whatever the students threw at me in terms of personal problems and I barely flinched. I felt great compassion, usually, for their struggles and a firm, steady belief that they would get past them and find their way again. In fact, I was generally convinced that what they were doing in their personal wilderness would turn out to be very valuable in the long run. As painful as their experiences might be, it was quite likely they were losing comfortable illusions that really didn’t do them any good, and getting closer to the inconvenient truth of who they were. In other words, they were growing up.

But when it’s my son who’s miserable, it feels completely different. Here I am, instantly exhorting him to buck up and feel better, to try something new and take a chance, all things that frankly you have to be feeling strong to even comtemplate doing. Forget taking the time it takes to heal, I want him back up on his feet right now, or yesterday, ideally. We fell out on the phone at the start of the week because he was expressing a feeling that he had no future, and I was instantly trying to point out how ridiculous such a statement was, coming from a 19-year-old. And I really should know better! If I had forgotten that we calculate the future by taking a snapshot of the past, I should remember at least that when we feel properly miserable, the only way forward is one day at a time, or a half-day on the bleak stretches.

What becomes very clear to me is that when we say ‘Buck up’, we are really saying, please take your pain out of the public view because it is causing me discomfort. And we’re also saying, a little bit, I am superior, because if it were me, I would recover quicker and easier than you are doing; I wouldn’t make such a fuss. Things, in other words, that are designed to make us feel better, and have nothing to do with the person who’s sad. The nicest interpretation of the buck-up is that sometimes we have to hold a positive image of the other person’s strengths while they have temporarily lost access to it. And sometimes we can remind them of all the possibilities and opportunities that they still possess. But the main thing that study support taught me – and which I seem daily to forget – is that healing emotions and minds is exactly like healing physical ailments. If you’ve broken a leg, you can’t just get up and walk on it, there’s a process to be gone through. If you’ve broken a heart, there’s all sorts of feelings that can’t be accessed until the time is right for them.

But this is much easier to accept when you are not invested in the life and happiness of the person who suffers. I am caught by my longing for my son to feel happy again, because I love him and I hate the fact he’s sad. I would do anything to make him better. In fact, the one saving grace of late is that when I have clumsily counselled him and he has got mad at me, it does seem to relieve some of his feelings. I find this reassuring – I can mess up and yet somehow this turns out to be okay! When I’m feeling sensible, I do realise this is the extent of my possible involvement, as the most powerful thing he can do is to rescue himself. In the meantime, I have plenty of novels reminding me of this, though once I’ve finished the one I’m reading, I may look for something with jokes. It seems there’s only so much good advice that anyone can take.

What Some People Do In The Name Of Love

We were brutally woken at dawn yesterday by thunderous hammering on our front door and yelling. It sounded like a raid, but when Mr Litlove went rushing to the window it was just youths and they (he? I never did ask) went away. I admit I was terrified. It didn’t help that my recurring nightmare of late is of being inside the house whilst it is being broken into – not exactly fun to think that was coming true for a few minutes. Because our house fronts directly onto the street we’ve had people (men or young boys) knocking on the windows and doors late in the evening when they are on their way back from the pub. But we’ve never had anything quite so pointlessly sadistic happen before. Who would want to do such a thing?

theKissWell, one of the many great qualities about reading is that you usually find within the pages of a book a whole lot of people much worse off than yourself. Having been meaning to read Kathryn Harrison’s memoir, The Kiss, for weeks now, I finally got around to it on the weekend. It tells the story of Harrison’s incestuous relationship when she is reunited aged 20 with the father she hasn’t seen since early childhood. When it was published in 1997, it met with a mostly hostile reception, critics decrying the queasiness of such an honest account and reproaching the author for having written and displayed it in the public domain, particularly when she had children of her own.

Much more interesting was an article it spawned that argued such adult reunions were often fraught with sexual intentions. It’s known as Genetic Sexual Attraction and: ‘What is not well known is that in an estimated 50 per cent of cases the meeting is accompanied by strong feelings of sexual attraction.’ What the outrage also seemed to discount was that in Kathryn Harrison’s case, her fascination with her father was platonic, and he was the one who insisted on taking things further. As ever it amazes me that whenever sex comes into the story, it’s always the woman on whom the censure primarily and publicly falls. Very little seems to have been said about her father, except that maybe the poor man didn’t want his dirty laundry put on display; it might, after all, damage his reputation as a Protestant minister.

Harrison must come from one of the most dysfunctional families to have disgraced the literary page. Her parents were 17 when they met and had Kathryn, her mother an aspiring actress who found herself married to a man selling encyclopedias to try and make a living. Her mother’s wealthy and somewhat controlling parents intervened and insisted on a divorce when Kathryn was six months old. She was then brought up almost exclusively by her grandparents. Her mother did live with them for a while, but it was not a success. She was far too young to be interested in her own child, not to mention enraged by all that had happened to her. Kathryn was well aware that any love she received was conditional, for instance on Kathryn being able to learn to speak and read French, something she found at six and seven almost impossible to do. However, when as an adolescent it was her weight in question, she found it all too easy to stop eating. The search for admiration was also a rebellion. ‘You want thin? I remember thinking. I’ll give you thin. I’ll define thin, not you. Not the suggested one hundred and twenty pounds but ninety-five.’ She would suffer from periods of anorexia and bulimia from then onwards.

When her father re-entered her life while she was in college, his upfront and outspoken fascination with her was as hypnotic as it was disturbing. ‘I don’t know it yet, not consciously, but I feel it: my father, holding himself so still and staring at me, has somehow begun to see me into being.’ When she drove him to the airport to see him off, he kissed her, changing their relationship irrevocably.

In years to come, I’ll think of the kiss as a kind of transforming sting, like that of a scorpion: a narcotic that spreads from my mouth to my brain. The kiss is the point at which I begin, slowly, inexorably, to fall asleep, to surrender volition, to become paralyzed.’

This is a literary way of saying that her father blackmailed her emotionally into a full affair with him. He would argue that God had given her to him, that God was revealed to him through her body and her love and that she was everything to him. He would write endless letters and call her up to three times a day.

”How am I” he says when he calls, and he says this because how he is depends utterly on how much I love him. Without me, there is no meaning, purpose or pleasure in his life.’

For the neglected daughter of an emotionally-withholding mother, this was hopelessly binding stuff. When love threatened not to exert its power over her, her father was equally ready to use his anger too:

 “Well,” he says, and he folds his arms. “You’ve done what you’ve done, and you’ve done it with me. And now you’ll never be able to have anyone else, because you won’t be able to keep our secret. You’ll tell whoever it is, and once he knows, he’ll leave you.”

As is usual when the mind is held hostage, the body speaks. Kathryn suffered from a whole panoply of symptoms. First a bad case of shingles, then depression and insomnia, bulimia and finally pneumonia. The latter she succumbed to when she had moved in with her father and his second family – her father’s second wife in full awareness of what was going on between them but so controlled by Kathryn’s father that she accepted it. In all this sorry story, it’s the complicit nature of the adults around Kathryn that’s most upsetting. They are all too self-obsessed or weak or distracted to offer her any help at all.

This is a horrifying book, but I didn’t find it a depressing one. It is an amazing testimony to the human spirit that Kathryn Harrison went through all she did and somehow managed to emerge the other side. Not that she says a great deal about the healing process. Her grandfather dies, and then her mother dies at 41, and it is as if an evil enchantment has been lifted. In a moment of perspicacity, Kathryn understands that it was unacknowledged anger towards her mother that was responsible in part for bringing her and her father together. It was the love she ended up feeling for her mother that broke the spell.

I quite understand how people might look at a book like this and think it isn’t their cup of tea. But I’m less sure why anyone would want it censured. After all, it’s denial and wilful blindness that cause most of the worse emotional abuses, or at least allow them to carry on unhindered. Unfortunate as it is, there is a dark side to humanity, one that acts out time and time again. We can be sanctimonious about it, and wish it out of our sight. But I don’t think it will ever go away unless we look at it without flinching, and consider the circumstances that cultivate it.



First Cousin Once Removed of the Great American Novel

The ‘Great American Novel’ is a redolent term that reviewers tend to use towards a certain kind of book: a thick doorstep of social realism, wide in scope, ambitious in theme and literary in style. We’re talking Jonathan Frantzen, Philip Roth, John Steinbeck, Don DeLillo. The essential quality of the novel is that it must capture the spirit of the age, and say something significant about the experience of being American in the contemporary world and the present moment.

Funny, then, that I should find myself thinking about the possibility that the great American novel has an unusual cousin, a long-lost relative from the backwaters who has a quirky, some might even say, eccentric take on American life that might be every bit as truthful and potent as those fat mainstream novels. The ones I’ve read have all been written by women, they concern themselves with the fraught dynamics of family life and they contain a heady dash of magic realism.

For a nation that disapproves of the passive voice, magic realism with its essential unaccountability, its bright-eyed embrace of the fantastic, is always going to be a hard sell. You won’t find the challenging extremes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez here, or the brash playfulness of Angela Carter. But when it appears, it often salutes rural wisdom, the inherited knowledge of generations, or a simple but vivid case of altered perception. I’m thinking of Alice Hoffman, basically, and the candy-sweet voice of Sarah Addison Allen, and further back in that lineage, closer to its mainline and altogether darker, Toni Morrison.

The Moon SistersTherese Walsh’s new novel, The Moon Sisters, lies somewhere on the spectrum between Alice Hoffman and Sarah Addison Allen. It’s a simply told tale of two warring sisters, who must find a way to come to terms with the recent loss of their mother, despite their differences. Jazz, the elder, is rational, distrustful of sentiment and pragmatic. Her response to the sudden loss of their mother under disturbing circumstances is to get herself a job at the funeral home. Olivia, by contrast, is the flighty, dreamy one, homeschooled, imaginative and synaesthetic. Her response is to stare at the sun for so long that she just about blinds herself. And then, in this debilitated condition, she decides that the only way to assuage her grief is to make the long trip to the Monongahela glades and see the will-o’the-wisp phenomenon her mother longed to witness. A failed writer, their mother could never manage to finish her novel until she’d seen these fairy lights, something that was always unlikely to happen, given her depressive state. When she is found dead in the family kitchen, Olivia believes it was just an accident with the gas stove; Jazz has no doubts it was suicide.

An so off Olivia goes, infuriating Jazz, who finds herself once again obliged to protect her ditzy younger sister and embark on a trip she has no desire for herself. In no time at all the sisters run into trouble and fall in with a group of train-hoppers, whose motives for helping them are distinctly unclear. Told in alternating chapters, the narrative whistles along smoothly, the trick of inhabiting each sister’s viewpoint brings the urgency of their desires into relief alongside the vexatious nature of each sister’s response to the other. Olivia can’t bear Jazz’s anger and contempt, her insistence on attempting to lay down the law which makes her react subversively against it. And you cannot help but feel for Jazz who does not understand her sister’s emotions at all and sees only reckless self-harming behaviour. It’s a very good, convincing portrait of the love/hate that binds siblings together, pushed to an extreme because of a family crisis that no one knows how to deal with. A variation on the buddy road trip narrative, they will eventually be forced to come to terms with their differences and understand that what binds them together is stronger than the characteristics that pull them apart.

And what of the spirit of the age embodied in such a narrative? For me it was tied up in a throwaway remark that Oliva remembers her mother saying, when Jazz has spoiled her belief in Santa Claus: ‘my mother pulled me onto her lap and reminded me of one of her life truths: It was okay to believe in things that others didn’t believe in. It was okay not to believe, too.’ When the parameters are set so wide, what couldn’t fit in there? A few will-o’the-wisps are nothing. Olivia’s synasthesia is hardly radical. Yet in the very battle between straight-minded Jazz and hippy-dippy Olivia there’s a nation’s struggle at work between logic and liberality. Between the puritan pursuit of hard work and the desire for self-fulfillment and freedom of expression in whatever form it may take. That’s why this kind of fiction intrigues me: beneath its easy-read surface lies a complicated tangle of ideology. No wonder a little magic is needed to make it all come right.