I have a confession: My Goodreads list is a lie. It’s not that there are books on there I haven’t read (okay, maybe there are some I didn’t quite finish and got the gist of with 20 pages to go), it’s that there are books I’ve read that I’ve left off. I feel weirdly guilty about this, as if Goodreads has offered this platform in good faith and I’m crafting it to my own benefit, to create a persona through a booklist. To all of 24 people. So here I am, coming clean. This is it, the most truthful book list ever. (No it isn’t either. It’s a lead-in to a long-form joke.)
About a year and a half ago, when my preschool-age son was hurling potted plants down flights of stairs and yanking framed stuff off the walls, my husband and I sought out some help that, despite our desperation, we mostly didn’t agree with. In our final meeting, after suggesting yet again we get him evaluated for all sorts of things that seemed excessive, this person told me to read a book called The Highly Sensitive Child. I’m not one for parenting books, but since this one didn’t have the word “explosive” or “defiant” in the title, I decided to go for it. None of the information in the book helped me make any real headway, nor did I think he fit the description of highly sensitive in any remarkable way, but it helped a little, especially thinking about his response to crowds and noise and generally too much information.
There was one thing that struck me, though: early in the book there’s a quiz to identify whether you should call yourself or your child “highly sensitive.” It asks questions about your response to caffeine, multitasking, the likelihood of you bursting into tears while listening to high school marching bands, and insinuates that you’ve never been one to hit the clubs at midnight. The quiz has 25 questions. When I took the quiz for myself, I answered yes to 23.
So maybe that’s why I cried uncontrollably during the intermission at Cats in 6th grade. Or why I can’t answer simple questions about whether I want ice in my drink while I’m also stirring a pot of rice. And why no one thinks I’m shy but I’ll hang around in the shadows for a year before introducing myself. Or why the mall makes me dizzy with all its smells and lights and bags and the sound of the vents going all the time. Or why I can tell you’re angry the moment I step into a room. It was kind of a watershed moment. I’d tell you my son worked his tantrums out on his own, but the more truthful explanation would be that while he grew out of most of it on his own, I also figured out how to admit that asking me for M&Ms while I’m on the phone pushes me to a limit I didn’t know I had.
Those of you familiar with this blog know I took off for three days to do yoga and study people’s obsessive need to take far too many paper napkins in cafeterias. Sometime after New Year’s I decided the best way to keep meditating was to buy some books on the topic. I bought two: one called Radical Acceptance, by Tara Brach, and another one I can’t remember and haven’t read yet by Thich Nhat Hahn. It took me three weeks to read the first book because with every affirmation I had to put the book down and walk away in order to deal with my deep-seated cynicism and ambivalence about affirmations and, in a development unrelated to the book itself, I haven’t meditated since February.
I also bought some yoga books that annoyed me almost instantly. So those can’t go on there either.
There is no Book #3, this is just a catch-all for the books I’d never put on the list. Look, there was that weekend I read The DaVinci Code. And while I have no real desire to read the Dragon Tattoo books, the Twilight trilogy, The Hunger Games, or 50 Shades of Grey, I’m not sure I’d tell the folks at Goodreads if I had. I mean, millions and millions of people are reading those books, why do their algorithms need to know about another poor slob who picked it up? At some point, the numbers on books like those are meaningless. Or maybe I’m just a snob and maybe Goodreads is a way to curate my online persona. To all of 24 people.
I never write reviews, either. I’m too bashful to feel courageous enough to organize my thoughts on one single subject like that. To have to stick to the text? Goodness, no. I admire those people who do though, because I do read them; I want to know what you think–usually. And there’s nothing I love more than the one-star reviews on Amazon, the way I love to smell the milk you think is spoiled.
Maybe I feel like I’m not pulling my weight on there–keeping my opinions to myself, hiding my true reading list. Believe me, it hurts me too, like in those annual reading challenges? It messes with my stats. But I’m happier this way, lying a little, keeping an air of mystery about me…to those 24 good people I’m connected to, many of whom don’t even use the site. And no one needs to know I skipped–sorry, skimmed–200 pages of Gone With The Wind. We’ll just keep that between us, okay?
I can read a subway map better than a trail map. I was deep into my thirties before I knew what all those squiggly lines meant on a topographical map, and why I should be wary of the ones that are really close together if I’m tired and headed uphill (steep). I’m okay on north-south-east-west, but better if there’s a road I know well to help me on a cloudy day. That’s the extent of my ability to find my way without major human-engineered landmarks. I’ll spend twelve hours outdoors, but I’m happier if there’s a place to get coffee nearby.
When I started eighth grade we were sent as a class on a trip to some camp in Maine during which I reminded myself several times that the people involved were contractually obligated not to leave me out in the woods to die, even when I sank into marsh mud up to my hips, or hung upside down on a rope over a gorge. This was all organized by my new school, the one that was intended to cure whatever had caused me to nearly flunk several classes in seventh grade, and yet, there were moments on that trip that I thought appearing to be the least capable student in town and suffering the future consequences therein might be preferable to sleeping in a tent for a week. It wasn’t that I’d never been in the woods–I had, with my stepmother’s family, but believe me, that was different. We weren’t camping, and there were cocktail parties. For comparison sake, just know that we were asked not to wear shorts to dinner. There was that kind of leeway, that someone could demand a dress code. The eighth grade Maine trip was not that way, and I counted the hours until I could go home and jump on the T to go to Newbury Comics (Even if I didn’t exactly know what the hell I was doing there, either. “Wilderness” has a broad definition.). I’m sure I didn’t hide it, and I’m sure I was pegged as pathetic by the braided, bearded hippies who taught me what a carabiner was for.
Since then, I’ve hiked plenty, but never done that whole me-against-the-elements thing for more than a few hours at a time. Always home for dinner. Most of my outdoor adventures that didn’t require a subway token have occurred within the pages of a book. It’s easy to read The Snow Leopard, or Into the Wild, and feel like you’ve done something edgy, and once you close the book, you’re done, without picking ticks off your legs, or wondering if eating that plant will kill you, or worrying that you need to watch if the trail’s going to give way. It’s all nice and safe. Which is how I joined my book club.
It was January, and my little family had just moved to a new house in an area we’d specifically chosen for its access to the woods. We wanted to make it easier to get outside to something other than a coffee shop. One day we got a calendar in the mail–some kind of thing you get when you live in a “community.” I knew other people got these kinds of things, and relied on them. If any member of my family ever had received such a thing, they probably lost them or threw them away. No one I’ve been connected to ever really embraced the community that existed within the confines of municipal boundaries–affinities were based instead on shared interests, neuroses or genetic code. I was fine with that, but part of the point of moving to a town like ours was to try out this business of being part of a place, which is why I grudgingly opened the calendar. To my surprise, the calendar advertised a book club. An environmental book club. In the next town over. (See a plan falling through already?) Until then, I had avoided book clubs for all the stereotypes that follow them around, mostly about women getting sloshed while discussing a book I never wanted to read in the first place. Also, giggling. (My apologies to book clubs the world over.) But this one seemed geeky enough to rise above all that, and I was right.
In the last four and half years I’ve read books about trees and butterflies and the looming disasters threatening song birds. I’ve read books about people who lived in trees (and managed a lot of other stuff in trees I’m not brave enough to pull off or even describe here), why I should eat organic bananas, and what it’s like to be surrounded by Komodo dragons. I know a lot about New Jersey that has nothing to do with petrochemical plants, malls or Bruce Springsteen. I attempted (but failed, for the second time) to finish Walden or Silent Spring. I’ve read too much Barbara Kingsolver for my taste, and it’s still probably less than most women in my demographic. I’ve read at least one book I wish I could write myself. I’ve developed rather fierce opinions on “environmental literature,” not all of them kind.
I still don’t know squat. I couldn’t tell you with any certainty the difference between a beech tree and a hickory, and don’t ask me about birds. I still run (literally run) from bugs indoors. And don’t expect me to hoist a pack on my back and take off somewhere with nothing but a topo map and bag of gorp. I know a little about frogs, and some plants, and I know a lot of really smart, fun people I probably wouldn’t know if I had never looked at that calendar that I frankly haven’t looked at since. Every once in a while it becomes painfully obvious that I’m still more familiar with chain link fences than trail markers, but I like to believe those braided bearded hippies who showed me how to pitch a tent would be proud of how far I’ve come.
A mess reconfigured into a list:
- Sometimes you need to quit after 50 words.
- When you tell yourself that, you usually write 100.
- All of them are bad, right up until the very end, when you realize on word number 132 that you’ve run out of time and you’re finally getting somewhere. This is fine, because it means tomorrow will be easier.
- What goes through your head while this is happening, or, more accurately, not happening: acute envy toward people who write every day, anger at yourself for having slacked for two weeks, some sort of vitriol over your total inability to develop a routine, a thought that eventually loops around to become an acknowledgement of how your lack of routine is in itself a routine. Only then do you remind yourself for the ten thousandth time that you’ve done this since you were seventeen and that it will change and only then do you feel better.
- You know that when you hear yourself say, “Maybe I’ll write an essay…,” you’re floundering. It’s like how people know a migraine’s coming on, except there’s no prescription medication for floundering.
- Floundering in itself isn’t bad, but it feels bad. The moment is bad, especially if it’s an hour. Or a week.
- No matter how often you remind yourself it will go away, that it will change, you wander around every day wondering when you’ll sit down and write again. You wonder where the story went. It’s like a friend went on vacation and you can’t remember when they’re supposed to come back. There’s a nervous energy to it that’s not quite anxiety, but a sense that you need to keep reminding yourself that you shouldn’t forget the thing you can’t remember, so that when it comes back, you grab it and hold on. While you’re waiting you give every experience the side-eye, to see if it will help you get back to the place you left. The dairy case becomes loaded with meaning. Unspecified meaning. That later reveals itself to be nothing.
- In the meantime, you’re propelled into people’s lives. You see the “stuff” people write about happening in real life and wonder what kind of sick fool mines the despair and panic of their loved ones for their own creative gain. You vow to wait at least a week before you find a way to insert what you’ve seen into what you’re writing. It’s like wondering how long before you call after the first date.
- You wonder if you’ve talked too much about the fact that you’re writing, what the act of sharing does to your creativity. If secrecy is the key to living a sane life. Then someone asks you what you’re writing about, and you tell them you can’t say and they think you’re weird. You’ve only just met them, and you think they’re nice, but now they think you’re creepy, so you’ve got to rethink this secrecy thing.
- Somewhere between being secretive and sane is a happy medium. Some days you nail it. Most days, it’s like those little mazes with the ball bearings where you want the ball bearings to fall into the little cardboard hole and instead they roll around, speeding past the hole like it’s not there until you throw the little stupid game that your kid received as party favor across the room as if it mattered.
- Next morning, you write 500 words. Piece of cake.
I live nine miles from my job at a nature preserve. In order to get to that preserve, I pass by or through (depending on the route and how you count) at least seven other gardens, preserves or historic parks, run by a town, a county, the feds or private, non-profit entity. One of them is Jockey Hollow, a national Historical Park where, among its many claims to fame, a bunch of Washington’s soldiers spent one damn cold winter. There’s an entrance to it at the end of a road that’s a block from my house. The road through the park takes me on what I like to imagine is a more direct route to my job–it’s probably not more direct, since it’s a park road and I can only drive 20 miles an hour in there–but lately I’ve been driving through it every day.
This morning, as I pulled into the park, I decided I wanted to actually be in the heavy mist left over from the morning’s rain. I found a loop trail, one I figured would take me about a half hour. I had originally thought I’d get to work early, then I decided people don’t like change, so why create undue distress?
It was short, easy trail, until I had to cross the stream.
Then I had to cross the stream again…
My feet were wet for the rest of the day. My hair was damp when I arrived at work. I thought all day about people who tell me they’re sure New Jersey’s prettier than they’ve been told.
Yup, I’m sure it is.