Hildegarde

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Undone

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John wanted to know, bac there somewhere, why, if I really hate a book I’m reading, I don’t just stop reading it. 

The short answer is that I just can’t.  It drives me nearly crazy to leave anything I  start undone.  I’ve written entire novels just to tear them up and refuse to let anyone see them.

I didn’t use to be like that.   When I was a small child,  I left most things without finishing them, which drove my father crazy, and one day he told me that the single worst thing I could do to myself, and to my life, was not to finish what I started.  I don’t remember the exact wording of the lecture, but I do remember the effect it had on me, and it has never worn off.

I was fie or six years old when I decided I was going to grow up to be a writer, but I don’t thinking writing ever was an ambition for me.  I wrote early and often and long and I never really stopped, even in college and graduate school, when going on with it definitely interfered with the quality of my academic work.   Hell, I’m fairly certain I got rejected from Sarah  Lawrence because, thinking that their status as an “arts” school would make them really impressed with all the writing I did, I let them know about it, and they nattered at me throughout the interview that, really, that kind of thing was going to affect my grades someday.

It’s been the case throughout my life that the people I’ve known who have been most self-consciously bohemian have had the souls of bureaucrats.  You can grow a ponytail and put a beret on it, but it’s what’s inside the skull that counts.

At any rate, I wouldn’t call writing an ambition because I did it in the same way I read–obsessively and naturally, without making me feel in any way pressured.

For me, ambition was always about hat I thought of not as “making it,” but as “making it out”–away from the things and people that felt truly awful to me.   It didn’t help that my mother absolutely couldn’t stand me, or that she couldn’t stand me for the same reason some of the girls in my junior high school couldn’t, because she hated “bookish” women and “intellectuals” of all stripes.  Like those same junior high school girls, my mother tended to label as “intellectual” anything more difficult than an article in Time magazine.

I wonder how much of my love for English literature is a result of something exactly opposite the impression Robert seems to have gotten of it when he was in school.  In the places where I went to school, the snobbish in-crowd people were athletic and definitely opposed to “grinds.”  Playing tennis and riding a horse well were to be admired.  (Okay, this was Fairfield County, Connecticut here).  Reading a lot just proved you were a loser. 

Except, of course, you immediately got called “stuck up” if reading was what you liked.  That was true n ot only of the girls I went to school with, and of my mother, but of my mother’s entire side of he family.  And, of course, they were the side of the family I saw the most.

I think almost everything I’ve ever done in my life, everything I’ve accomplished, from degrees to books to serious traveling, has been a result of two driving ambitions, both of them negative:  to get away from these poeple, and to make sure I never ended up sitting on my ass at sixty, sighing about how “if I’d only done that then…”

I know I don’t usually get this personal, and it’s probably boring the hell out of m ost of you, but I recently made the mistake–or not mistake–of trying to write a character from inside the head of my cousin Pam. 

My cousin Pam was the shining beacon of perfection, as far as my mother was concerned, all the time I was growing up.  She’s the daughter of my mother’s older sister, and two years older than I am.  She not only did everything first as a matter of course, but she was then and is now simply one of those people who was enormously popular with other children.  When the cousins got together, she ran the show.  When the parents talked about who had accomplished what, Pam was always the one everyone agreed was the most impressive.

Here’s something I’d like to be able to write about sometime.  If you actually go back and look at what was happening, at the factual reality of the situation, this makes no sense.  On any objective measure of what we were all doing–getting into the honor society, say, getting into a good college, later getting advanced degrees and publishing thngs and the jobs we had–then at the very least, both my cousin Annie and I were doing much better.   It was almost as if it didn’t count.  The adults around us seemed completely  unable to see it, and since they were unable to see it, so were we.

What blinds people to reality like this?  How could so many adults, who were supposed to be mature and know better, have been fooled like this? 

Okay.  Let me amend this a little.  My father was not fooled like that, not even for a split second.  And later, when this finally all blew up, he was the one who was adamant about taking my side.  But by then I was in my forties, and though I have a hard time letting go of anything emotionally, I was past the absolute worst of it.

In between the childhood hurtfulness and the adult emotional weariness, though, there was a period in which really odd things kept coming to my attention.  For one thing, Pam would tell people I’d said things that I hadn’t said, and sometimes I would realize that various people were convinced I thought something or the other (that one of my nephews was “stupid,” for instance) that I not only did not think but that I’d never even considered.

The more I looked in to the situation, the more I realized that not only had I been Pam’s target as a child, but I had remained one as an adult, and that was when  I hit the wall of incomprehension.  I mean, for God’s sake, why bother? I do as much as possible to stay out of the way of these people.  I don’t see them for years on end.  Why go through all the trouble of creating a mythology about me the only purpose of which is to  poison my relationships with people with whom I do not actually have relationships?

So, I started to write this character, and I started to let my head do that thing where the character just takes over, and it suddenly hit me:  if I’d been Pam when we were growing up, I’d have been jealous as hell of me.

Pam’s family had virtually no money.  They lived in an apartment in a triple decker in New  Haven until Pam was almost in high school.  Then they bought a small house in West Haven and had to rent the upstairs to afford it, leaving them with the cramped lower level with no dining room and only one bath.

My family had a ton  of money.  We had a great bi house in Fiarfield County, with quite a bit of property around it, plus another house, on the water, in Florida–and that “vacation house” was bigger than Pam’s even with the upstairs counted it.

Pam was fat from childhood.  I found it completely impossible to gain weight unless I was on the pill, and never gained serious weight until I got pregnant. 

Pam wanted to go to this little college in Ohio.  Her parents didn’t have the money, and she couldn’t get sufficient financial aid, so she ended up settling for commuting to the University of New Haven.  I wanted to go to Vasar, and I didn’t have to bother applying for financial aid. My father just wrote the checks.

Pam flunked out.  I got into a first rate graduate program and my father celebrated by giving me a six week trip to Greece.

Pam declared that school didn’t matter anyway.  All she wanted was to settle down and have six kids.  She never married, and never had a child.  I had Bill and then the boys.

From Pam’s point of view, I’ve probably spent my life looking like somebody who has everything she’s ever wanted, and a good deal more.

Here’s the thing–I wonder if I would have done half the stuff I’ve done in my life if I had ralized this in childhood. 

I did a fair number of things, especially academic things, in a desperate attempt to prove to my mother that I was better than Pam, that I was someone to be admired, too, and to Pam that I wasn’t a complete loser who ought to be despised.

Maybe, if I’d been smarter about people, and able to see the situation more clearly, I’d never have done any of it.  Maybe I wouldn’t even have gotten  Pay McKenna and Gregor into print.  

Sometimes I write to learn to nderstand other people, but sometimes I write to learn to understand myself.

And at my age, I really shouldn’t be this clueless.

Written by janeh

June 4th, 2009 at 10:09 am

Posted in Uncategorized

9 Responses to 'Undone'

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  1. Do you really think that? It seems to me, looking around me, that it’s the exception to put any effort into understanding people – others or yourself.

    An incredible number of people go from week to week without going beneath the surface at all. I don’t think it’s everyone, but I do think it’s probably at least half, and probably a majority. They react to what happens, and they don’t really understand, at a fundamental level, that other people may look at things differently than they do.

    I’m sort of struggling with this with one of my employees now. She actually does her job really well, but when she gets frustrated with other people and vents, I have a really hard time getting her to consider that maybe the other person’s perspective is different from hers.

    I find that fairly astounding – the knowledge that people don’t see everything from my point of view has pretty much always been with me. But I do think that reading, especially if you’re a reader who really gets into the milieu and characters, is an exercise in learning how other people tick.

    And most people don’t do that any more. Television is much more of a surface thing most of the time.

    MaryF

    4 Jun 09 at 10:26 am

  2. As a child, I invariably finished what I started reading, but as an adult, I can now toss a book that I don’t want to finish. Not toss *out*, exactly, I still hate throwing out books, but donating or selling or returning unfinished to the library. I always liked the idea of writing a lot more than actually doing it.

    I’m not really certain what reality is. I’m no post-modernist – I think there *is* a reality – I just think it’s hard to be sure I know what it is and I don’t really expect others to know what it is either. I came to this conclusion after I went back to the Old Home Town with some relatives (someone had to help with the driving, and I have a license) and discovered that a ‘memory’ about one of my school nemeses I could have sworn was absolutely true actually wasn’t. There was actual physical evidence in the memorabilia dragged out for the occasion that this person had not dropped out of school, but had finished in the same class I did. And this came on top of a situation in which I got to know some women of the type that made me feel inadequate – you know, the poised, perfectly groomed, on top of everything type – quite well, and found out that they weren’t. Oh, they were still poised and well-dressed, but they had their own insecurities which I hadn’t been able to see. I still forget this sometimes, and find myself reacting the way the women Mary knows – looking at the surface and assuming that’s reality. I don’t think this is the same thing as knowing people react to and see things differently. That’s been quite obvious to me for years, maybe always. Understanding that some people can maintain excellent facades, or levels of privacy about their personal lives, which makes judgements about them unreliable, that took a lot longer. I don’t call it ‘hypocrisy’, though. It can have different roots (like privacy, or the need to function in society), and anyway some so-called hypocrisy is nothing more than the inability to maintain one’s own high standards, so I don’t consider the term the all-purpose insult some use it as.

    People often don’t see other people as they are. They don’t see *themselves* as they are. They certainly don’t always see accurately how other people value themselves and others, like their sibs and cousins. That’s part of what makes people fascinating.

    It also is part of the reason I’m so suspicious about memories of relationships and wrongs based on memories that are decades old, one person’s point of view, and nothing documentary. But if I say that sort of thing in the context of reparations and apologies, I’m considered a particularly nasty kind of monster.

    Cheryl

    4 Jun 09 at 11:03 am

  3. This is not directed at Jane or anyone (except perhaps myself) but it’s what I feel.

    There are some people who get stuck in their school days (high school or college) because those were the best days of their lives. Others get stuck because those were the worst. Eventually we all have to get over what happened then, or what our parents or peers did to us that shaped us, and begin to shape ourselves in the now.

    I was one of those “in-between” kids in high school. I wasn’t particularly popular, and I wasn’t picked on. I had a few close friends, I could hang with the geeky but popular choir kids, though not the sports popular kids, but nobody called me names or persecuted me in any way. I’d say, actually, I was in the majority. *Most* people in high school are neither persecuted nor persecutors. But we make very boring stories later in life.

    My husband tells a story about a co-worker who seemed to have a golden life. Young, educated, handsome, with a lovely wife and a rocketing career, he seemed to have it all. He was suave and confident and in command of himself. Then one day my husband was talking to this guy’s wife on the phone, and for some reason she remarked, “Oh, Blair is terribly insecure.”

    If Blair was insecure, what hope was there for the rest of us? In some ways it’s a relief to know that everyone has that front. I’ve come to the conclusion that all normal people have these doubts about themselves. People who are *actually* as confident as they appear are not in touch with reality. Or so I comfort myself.

    I think every family has this mythology about family members and close friends & acquaintences. They tell stories which may not be true but become true through repetition and distance in time. Your great-uncle Melvo died in WWI. Your cousin Sam got arrested for ginrunning during Prohibition. Lacey can do no wrong, Farley can do nothing right.

    I wonder now if those stories about all the wonderful things my collateral cousins accomplished were merely supposed to encourage me to excel as well, rather than being the criticism of *my* accomplishments they seemed to be at the time. People often misunderstand children most of all. You never know how a kid is going to take a remark about themselves or others. As a parent, it seems to me a child will *always* construe any remark as both personal and in the worst possible way regarding themselves.

    Telling child A something about what child B has or hasn’t done never does A any good, and often does them damage. I wonder what Pam was hearing about Jane all those years ago? I bet she *wasn’t* hearing (even if it was ever said directly to her, which it might not have been, don’t want her to get a big head, y’know) all the wonderful things that were being said about her to Jane.

    Families. They love, nurture, teach, protect and warp all of us.

    Lymaree

    4 Jun 09 at 2:27 pm

  4. “It’s been the case throughout my life that the people I’ve known who have been most self-consciously bohemian have had the souls of bureaucrats. You can grow a ponytail and put a beret on it, but it’s what’s inside the skull that counts.”

    That reminds me of the 60s – when the student rebels against conformity were all wearing a standard uniform of long hair (men and women), beards and jeans and all saying “Never trust anyone over 30.”. I often wonder what they say now that they are in their 50s and have children in university?

    As for bookish childhood, there are advantages to having Jewish parents. They want their children to be bookish!

    jd

    4 Jun 09 at 6:31 pm

  5. Our schools may have been quite different, but the best thing to be as a boy in high school was definitely an athelete–varsity football or basketball, followed by anything with a uniform and a schedule. They all took precedence over scholarship of any sort. (Being beautiful and poised took first second and third place for girls.) The two groups–jocks and beauties–defined the in crowd.

    After Columbine, when some idiot newscasters announced the shooters had been after jocks, all of my people knew immediately it wasn’t so. They’d shot a wrestler. In the jock hierarchy, you’d start by shooting basketball and football players, and you might be out of ammo by the time you were down to wrestlers. We ALL knew that–rather shocking my father who was varsity football and basketball.

    Snobbishness over literature is an English teacher thing. You lost “cool” points for reading anything not assigned, and the thicker the book was, the more points you lost–but no student cared about the contents. Only English faculty carried on a relentless war against the enjoyment of unapproved literature. Now that I think of it, I’m not sure they were in favor of enjoying approved literature either. It was grim duty all the way.

    robert_piepenbrink

    4 Jun 09 at 6:32 pm

  6. I apologize for posting twice but I should have put this in my first comment.

    I’m not going to comment on High School because 1950 – 54 was so long ago. I agree with Cheryl that old memories are not reliable.

    jd

    4 Jun 09 at 8:18 pm

  7. The adults around may not have been blind–they may have had such completely different values than you & your father that all of your accomplishments were trivia in their eyes, a waste of time that you could have used to achieve what *they* valued. Let me guess. Cheerleading? Homecoming queen? Which are probably trivia in yours. In some families, that’s a recipe for loving mutual incomprehension. You can love and support someone even when you don’t understand why he wants what he wants. I’m thrilled when my nephew wins a soccer game, even though sports bore me silly, because it makes *him* happy. Apparently your mother & her family were/are not capable of that.

    With such different values, your parents must have an interesting marriage.

    If your cousin is still trying to make life difficult for you, it might be worth telling her how much you envied her, and why. If you’re lucky, she might stop trying to backbite you.

    Lee B

    4 Jun 09 at 10:32 pm

  8. Robert, you must have had the most appalling English teachers! I don’t know how typical that is. I didn’t have “English Teachers” as such until Grade 9-11 – before that, English was taught by classroom teachers – and my English teacher was, if anything, much better and less boring that some of the others. He clearly loved English literature, but I don’t recall him saying or implying anything about ‘unapproved’ literature. I know those ideas were around, mainly because people like the local librarian, teachers, family members said things like ‘Well, I know some people think children shouldn’t read , but I just like to see them read.

    Cheryl

    5 Jun 09 at 6:50 am

  9. I wonder. After 40 years it’s always possible I’m blaming them individually for the appalling collective choice of texts. Still, no one among my peers described their teachers as better. The only exceptions were two thrilled by the reading selections and who went on to teach English. For the rest, English was just something to be endured. And when you’ve made an English class a matter of endurance even for those who read well and like to read, I think it’s a reasonable conclusion that you’re doing something wrong.

    robert_piepenbrink

    5 Jun 09 at 8:56 pm

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