Not a Book

       

    Lately I’ve been staring at the background of my email, which Google has designed as a series of mountain scenes. My favorite is an aerial shot of the snow-capped mountains beneath a cloudless sky. There everything is sunshine, behind the translucent subject headers of the emails to which I have not yet responded, and I stare at it because I would rather to be there, in that bright land of healthy, blue mountain air. I check my sunshine-blue email in front of my window, outside of which everything is green and saturated with real daylight: green garage, green shed, green grass, green pine tree, green bushes, inexplicably green garden that I stopped watering after my landlady informed me that her squash had already grown by mid-August, because at that moment I had to say f*** it, then.

This spring I thought I could become a gardener, but it turns out that gardening requires an attentiveness to other living things, and also a regular schedule of being home, and also knowing what you are growing and which ones are the weeds, and possibly a good incentive, like needing to harvest one’s own food to survive. I failed on all of these counts but I blamed it on the drought in Colorado. My boyfriend, A., suggested that I not try caring for an animal companion just yet. This experience reminded me of a movie I watched on instant Netflix where Sandra Bullock plays a writer who gets out of rehab, and she and all of the other recovering addicts are advised to buy and care for a spider plant, as an entry point to self-care and relationships. I am not an addict nor am I recovering, but I think I must suffer from the same kind of fog-laden solipsism that makes people keep spider plants long after they shrivel and drop small pieces of their brown, disintegrating bodies onto the carpet, because the rest of our lives demand our attention so much more loudly. Of course Sandra Bullock’s character was a writer in that movie. She even said once, in defense of her alcoholism, “I’m a writer!”, and this explained everything, until we learned it was all about her mother.

The gardening situation is a case of not-a-book, a joke A. and I have been tossing back and forth about me. A few months ago I confessed to him that books are the only things I am actually good at, meaning, the writing, reading, and analysis of. This is one binary through which I can organize my successes and failures in life: books and then everything that is not a book. I have been browsing through many how-tos and self-help guides regarding writing in an effort to somehow defibrillate my own story drafts, and also because I require that kind of emotional support from strangers, and the general consensus appears to be that nobody writes unless they absolutely have to, and usually because they are not going to be successful at anything else. I am miserable when I don’t write, and I am miserable when doing anything else for a living, so I have to include myself in the ranks of those who write because, really, it’s all we’re good for.

Fiction writing requires the opposite of common sense; it requires other senses that nobody really seems able to name, despite all of the books that have been written about it. I have the fiction writing sense, but all of my practical, common sense is the result of my parents’ teaching, meaning that it’s not actually common sense for me at all but rather a painstaking memorization of certain functions. I have learned passable skills for daily life; I am a high-functioning writer the way that people with certain disabilities, disorders, and addictions can be labeled high-functioning. I have been taught how to work and play nicely with others, how to show up on time, how to say things like “fast learner” and “experienced” in interviews, when, in reality, it will take me three times longer than my coworkers to master the use of the espresso machine because where are all of these parts supposed to go and which button again? I am not efficient in performing hands-on tasks, or truly friendly, or good at selling products; I only know how to pretend to be these things. I know how to form alliances and play to my strengths, so that in my workplace I will be well-liked despite my deficiencies. The espresso machine is not a book, and this is the whole of our joke about me. The other day A. solved an intractable problem with my bottle of honey by simply chopping off the tip of the plastic spout so that the hole was larger, thereby increasing the flow of honey into my tea. I was elated. The chances are good that I would never have thought of that. Honey, I reminded him, is not a book.

Luckily, surrounding myself with other people who do possess common sense means that I am constantly amazed by the everyday magic they can perform on my behalf. From my loved ones, I learn simple tricks for negotiating my relationships to the objects in my life. But I think I will probably never have that innate quality that allows most other people to routinely see and do the obvious. This has resulted, growing up, in my vague sense of failure to become a self-sufficient adult. I could never, like my sisters, develop a sense of direction based on the frequent routes we traveled. Landmarks hovered in my memory but their placement in space shifted; their contours and coloring, even, differed in my mind from their actual appearance. This continued until I learned to drive­—also not without trauma—and even then, I couldn’t find anything until my family (in an effort to keep me alive, if not self-sufficient) gifted me a personal GPS.

My best friend from high school grew up to be a licensed ship’s captain; another friend learned how to build and repair a car. These both require the kinds of down-to-earth hands-on practical skills my father endeavored to teach me, but I was not that kind of student of life. I admire these friends not only for what they have achieved, but for what their skills tell the world about women. We so often have to prove that we too can take care of ourselves, that we can be even more self-sufficient than the opposite sex. As the legend goes, Albert Einstein could not tie his own shoelaces, but we have no such legend for Marie Curie, who had better have been able to dress herself. I think sometimes that I would be doing more good for feminism if I could just change my own oil. Alas, I have no patience or memory for practical tasks. I suspect that this would change drastically were it to become necessary to my livelihood, but the incentives as I see them now are much too abstract to motivate me toward anything other than writing stories.

So now, gardening, too, can be numbered among my failures to interact with the physical world and its penchant for the obvious. Obviously, A. pointed out this summer, the bed to the far left is all weeds. He was right, but it was not so obvious to me. But those might not be weeds. They could become tomatoes, I said. How do you know? Maybe they’re all just little tomato plants. They were not, and they are still not, but I remain stubbornly attached to the possibilities I can imagine for those weeds. It seems the imaginary daylight of Google, the impossible blue of that background, will always be slightly more compelling, and somehow, a little more real for me than the real.

 

 

Speaking of books, I have been very busy with them since this semester began. I wrote this blog post in September. Last month I also wrote a righteous post for Broad! titled “Did you Even Read It All?” about the “Having it All” debates. As a caveat, I was maybe too upset about our tendency to not read anything closely on the internet, and the trend of labeling people bad feminists. But you can read the post for yourself and let me know what you think.

Last month Molly Templeton also published my how-to piece, "How to Stay in Love with a Broken World", over at The How-To Issue tumblr, which is her wonderful response to the New York Times Book Review's How-To issue this summer.