16 January 2008

The Book and I (revised)

A new friend recently loaned her copy of Eat Pray Love. We're new friends and both relatively new to the Gulf Coast. Every few weeks we get together and go somewhere and do something. On the day she brought the book to me our plan was to check out Ocean Springs. It was my turn to drive so she came to my place and left her car.

She said, "Oh! And here's the book..." and laid it on the couch. I said thanks and looked at it -- didn't touch it as I recall. Just looked at it. And we left.

When I came home I looked at it again and didn't touch it. My lip curled into a little snarl. Nothing grotesque -- just a barely perceptible sign of mild distaste on the left edge of my mouth. The title on the cover was spelled out in unique font; I could see the printed letters had irregular shapes. But I didn't look closely enough to really see what was going on.

I wasn't fully committed to a negative idea about the book but something unacknowledged in me did not like this book. Or this author. Or something. It was like the feeling I used to get in junior high school around certain girls. Like Sylvia Stubbins. When Sylvia entered a room I felt a mixture of embarrassment and anger and fear and longing. She was popular and never wore a piece of clothing in her life that wasn't either universally recognized as "in" -- or soon to be recognized as such. She was popular with white kids and black kids (I was only popular with white kids...).

(We actually had only recently begun to identify as "black," thanks to James Brown's hit record, "Say It Loud: I'm Black and I'm Proud." I was an intellectual artist girl child being raised in a moderately conservative Baptist community. There, Brown's proud and exuberant slogan broadcast a pride that aspiring Negroes had not fully embraced. The message sounded militant, aggressive and more expressive of Black Panther politics than the salt-of-the-earth, faithful lifestyle that they nurtured.

I still aspired to acceptance in that community but the fires of discontent had begun to smolder. Within two years, I would run away from home and the event would mark a turning point in my life; it would be the first eruption of a true flame of rebellion in my soul.)

Though she sometimes pretended otherwise, I was on Sylvia's radar, too. Beginning in middle school, she actively sought opportunities and devised tactics to challenge or ridicule or upset me. I never shed tears in her presence but internally, great shreds were torn in my psyche and my heart was terrorized and broken often.

A private vibration of recognition flowed between Sylvia and I. We actually admired (were envious of) each other but, somehow, in the complex socio-political scheme of middle school, we had both been recognized as leaders and landed in a freeze-frame scene holding antagonistic postures of opposition. We'd earned our statuses mostly in separate sectors of the social galaxy: me in academics and music and Sylvia in sports, fashion, and general "sociability." Eventually our worlds would intersect in theater, though she was drawn to a place on the stage while I preferred a seat in the orchestra at the piano.

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The book lay on the couch for a couple of days. A visitor was pleasantly surprised to notice it. "You're reading Eat Pray Love," she cooed. "Yeah. Somebody loaned it to me," I mumbled, trying to distance myself from the book. From the apparent throngs who adore the book; no fewer than six women have mentioned it to me in the last few months and it's been mentioned on NPR. After my visitor left, I touched the book for the first time and moved it to the end table. Where it lay for another couple days.

Two nights ago I decisively carried the book upstairs and granted it a place on my bedside stand. Along with The Piano Teacher (Elfriede Jelinek) and the November and December issues of The Sun. "Alright!" I thought. "I don't want to read this book. I don't want to like this book. I hate liking things that everybody else likes. I hate that someone has written a popular book -- that I have not written a popular book."

But the stories in The Sun had not grabbed me by the throat like they used to do regularly. And the language and story of The Piano Teacher were bumpy in that way that certain translations can be; so I had not been able to lose myself in it -- though I fervently wanted to.

So there was a space in my reading life for Eat Pray Love. I was ready to confront my resistance.

Almost.

I fought the urge to climb into bed with a book. I spent a few sad, frustrating minutes at my malfunctioning piano trying to make music. I fixed some food and ate. I watched a "Frasier" episode on DVD. I played a computer game and answered some email. I washed my face.

I looked at the book, a bomb bathed in gentle lamplight. I climbed into bed and pulled The Piano Teacher out from the pile. A couple of nights before I'd watched the film version of the novel. I opened the book to the bookmark, read less than a page of Jelinek's (as translated by Neugroschel) quirky voice and closed the book.

OK. I'll do it. I'll open Eat Pray Love.

I don't want to like this book. I read the Intro...the mathematics of the prayer beads...I like this device...I don't want to like this book... Hummm.... She has changed the names and the reasons for her decision are reasons I would have given. And she warns that she will break her own rule -- just once -- and explains why. More reasoning in my own style.

I don't want to like this book. I close the book and examine the cover. "Eat" is spelled out in pasta. Cute. "Pray" is spelled out in prayer beads. Well...okay. "Love" is spelled out in...flowers? That look sorta like satin ribbon? Nah. That's not what I would choose. I smile. Maybe I won't like this book after all.

I read on. Damn! Anne Lamott's favorable review appears right on the cover, hovering under the "pray" beads. I like Anne Lamott.

Chapter One, Page One (or Book One, Story One) begins: "I wish Giovanni would kiss me." Hah! I snort. I don't like this book! But I keep reading to collect evidence. I don't like this book. I won't like this book. Let me count the ways."

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I reached paged 53 last night. The author had arrived at a discussion of depression and loneliness, describing them as two familiar strangers who track her down in Rome. Argh! She's hitting close to my bone...

I closed the book somewhat disturbed. As I turned off the light a little before 2 am I said aloud, "I don't want to like this book but I think I do..."






***first image in this post is entitled "Adolescence" by artist Gary Slipper

5 comments:

  1. Dear Sojourner --

    A colleague of mine we both know did a fine sermon based on the Eat and Pray parts of this book, and we actually ate something as we got to the Eat part of the sermon ... Raisins. It was raisins in short cheap plastic cocktail cups with toothpicks through each raisin, so that people didn't have to dig their fingers in the cup and touch everyone else's raisins. (The toothpicks were my idea ... I know you approve :-)

    I haven't read it yet, but if you like it, and my colleague liked it, and NPR, and Oprah, and everyone else in the friggin universe apparently, I'm probably going to read it and like it, too.

    Although ... I did go see Juno Sunday, which everyone has been raving about. And while I laughed outloud at some points, and was entertained, I didn't come out like OMG ... WAGM! The girl in the lead was good -- felt like a real window into a 21st century teenage (smartass) girl. But she was getting on my damn nerve by the end ... fortunately, I had already fallen asleep! ;-)

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  2. So far, I'm getting the OMG effect only mildly and intermittently. There's no telling how the book might have struck me if I'd been able to read with an open mind.

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  3. Right ... The open mind ... the ever-elusive open mind. Starting from nothing instead of with preconceptions, prejudices and habitual responses. Thanks for reminding me to stay awake to my own propensity toward closed-mindedness.

    It's funny, though ... There are times when I haven't been expecting anything of a situation, and came away very surprised, as well as times when I expected something to be good, and it turned out to be great for me (*Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon* and *The Incredibles*, for examples), and other times when I was expecting something to be great and ended up disappointed.

    When I'm most conscious, I think, what I'm "going for" is being loosely attached, both to my experiences and to my feelings about them. Having the capacity for deep delight and pain, as well as the ability to let them come and go.

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  4. Right ... The open mind ... the ever-elusive open mind. Starting from nothing instead of with preconceptions, prejudices and habitual responses. Thanks for reminding me to stay awake to my own propensity toward closed-mindedness.

    It's funny, though ... There are times when I haven't been expecting anything of a situation, and came away very surprised, as well as times when I expected something to be good, and it turned out to be great for me (*Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon* and *The Incredibles*, for examples), and other times when I was expecting something to be great and ended up disappointed.

    When I'm most conscious, I think, what I'm "going for" is being loosely attached, both to my experiences and to my feelings about them. Having the capacity for deep delight and pain, as well as the ability to let them come and go.

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  5. Right, The book. Maybe I'll try it.... at least you got to page 53! I had many Sylvias, too- ditched & scorned & troubled by the "right" kids, the"right" behaviors,which I seemed to violate with every step.... good training for sticking with Self, if we make it, huh?
    OKOK. maybe I'll see Juno, too- I had the same response to Hidden Tiger Gdelicious did..... we'll see....

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