Pondering

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I’ve found myself reading mystery novelist Louise Penny a lot lately.  When the news and the world is horrible and dark, her novels are calming, a refuge of sorts, just like her fictional village Three Pines that can only be found by those who are lost.  Penny’s novels don’t deny the darkness, nor do they minimize or turn away from the ugliness found in human nature.  Penny does, however, present an alternative vision of genuine kindness and deep determination to do right in the face of unspeakable injustice and crimes.

Last week, Loribeth at The Road Less Travelled wrote a lovely piece on how we teach people to suffer (she gives a wonderful answer).  It’s been in my head for the last week because it is such a difficult, pertinent question.

As I was finishing up one of Penny’s novels and reading the acknowledgements section, I was struck by what Penny wrote of her own life during the time she worked on the book: “Michael [her husband] has dementia.  It has progressed, marching through our lives, stomping out his ability to speak, to walk, to remember events and names.  Dementia is a marauder, a thief.  But every hole it drilled has been filled by our friends.  By practical help and emotional support.”

It is the final part of her thanks that took my breath away: “I wrote A Great Reckoning with the peace of mind that comes with knowing I too am safe and loved.  And not alone.”

If I had to give an answer to the question of how to teach suffering, Penny’s words in the face of slowly losing her beloved husband are the best I could manage.  Create community.  Help find a way to let people know that they are safe.  Loved.  Not alone.

This post is a part of Microblog Mondays.  If you’d like to read more, head on over to Stirrup Queens!  Thanks to Mel for hosting and originating.  

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The Perception of Infertility Stories

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I recently finished reading Julia Leigh’s new memoir Avalanche, a book by turns interesting and difficult in its frank depictions of fertility treatment*.  At times, I found myself nodding in understanding or literally gasping at some of her recollections.  In any case, I was interested when I saw that the New York Times had picked it for a book review along with another book on infertility.  While I see articles and books on topics such as miscarriage and infertility appearing periodically – and perhaps more often than I once did – I’m trying to be hopeful when a major media outlet takes on infertility.  It’s a more common issue than people think and important to discuss.

Then I read the review.

Rachel Cusk doesn’t so much review Avalanche, for which she reserved the majority of her commentary and barely touched on author Belle Boggs’ work The Art of Waiting.  Instead, she used her column inches to write essentially an op-ed on how she perceives infertility and the treatment of such.

There’s a lot in the article that as a woman who has experienced primary infertility and gone through fertility treatments ranging from Clo.mid and timed intercourse to injected fertility drugs, IUI, and IVF I find breathtakingly ignorant, judgmental, and frustrating.  Others, including Elissa Strauss in Slate , Pamela Tsigdinos in Medium , and Loribeth at The Road Less Traveled have written excellent rebuttals to Cusk, taking on many of these points as well.

Cusk writes of women writing about undergoing IVF or fertility treatment “The woman writing about the travails of assisted reproduction, on the other hand, is in a somewhat curious position…This woman doesn’t – can’t – fear what having a child will mean for her hard won social and intellectual autonomy; she isn’t concerned with the right to express ambivalence toward this oldest and strongest of binds – indeed, she perhaps views maternal ambivalence as a somewhat grotesque luxury.  No, this woman is unambivalent: she wants desperately, blindly, to become a mother…”  In this, Cusk seems to less be critiquing Leigh’s book than she is offering some sort of categorization of all infertile women writers.  It feels dismissive and untrue.  I know I did not brush away lightly the concerns about what having a child would do to my career or life.  With everything I was putting on the line, I was more aware than ever of that conflict.  I had a lot of time to consider exactly how a child might impact my life and marriage – possibly more than some fertile people simply because of the extended time and effort required.

Throughout the review, Cusk makes references to infertile women selfishly chasing something that simply isn’t going to happen, almost a delusional state where everyone else can see the writing on the wall but the woman keeps pouring resources into it, defiantly refusing to see what is staring her in the face.

This is where, to me at least, Cusk misses the point entirely.  It is because of books and authors like Julia Leigh speaking up that women experiencing infertility have these varied stories to consider in making decisions about treatments like IVF.  From the time I was diagnosed, I had books such as Melissa Ford’s The Land of IF that examined the varying pros and cons of the options open to me once the doctor told me that I most likely needed medical help if I wanted to conceive.  Silent Sorority by Pamela Tsigdinos helped me to understand that IVF was no guarantee and encouraging me to do my own research.  It was also the book that reminded me, from early on when I did not have the luxury of knowing how this was all going to turn out, that no matter what, I could – and would – figure out a way forward regardless of how treatment ended. There were so many other books I read, all with different stories and endings, from Waiting for Daisy by Peggy Orenstein to Cracked by Miriam Zoll to Good Eggs by Phoebe Potts.

These women put it out there, shared their hard won experiences and wisdom, and because of them, I was better able to consider my options, empowered to set boundaries on the treatments I was personally willing to consider, and know that I had choices.  Not always good ones, certainly not always the ones I wanted, but these books (and bloggers) had a tendency to pull off the blinders I sometimes developed in the midst of treatment and help me reevaluate.  It was often good to be reminded that everyone has different feelings and reactions and resources to apply to various paths out of infertility as well as tolerance levels for procedures like IVF.

Avalanche is a multidimensional work that examines the facets of an individual experience and how infertility – and motherhood – are perceived in today’s world.  It’s a voice in the conversation surrounding the ethics and issues when fertility isn’t a given.  The voices and experiences are indeed diverse, but for me – and many of these writers – speaking about infertility isn’t a purely intellectual exercise, it’s an intensely personal, life-altering condition.  This is another place I struggled with Cusk’s review: I cannot speak about infertility with an airy, detached, academic quality.  It is the very real, wrenching memories of sobbing in ultrasound rooms, the physical scar tissue from PIO injections, the messy reality of bleeding.  Cusk displays an incredible amount of privilege by treating the subject as merely a thought exercise instead of treating it with compassion and empathy.

Cusk once wrote the following of a review her own book A Life’s Work received: “…for [the reviewer] was not judging the book as a book.  She was judging it as a social situation.”  Cusk obviously takes exception to such judgment when applied to herself.  It is a shame that she falls into the same trap when considering Julia Leigh or Belle Boggs and their experiences.

*Pamela Tsigdinos is hosting a book tour of Avalanche on Wednesday, September 21, which I am looking forward to participating in.  If you want to join in or read along, the details are at Finally Heard/Silent Sorority.  It promises to be an excellent conversation.

Thanks to Mel at Stirrup Queens for hosting and originating Microblog Mondays.  If you want to read more Microblog Mondays posts or submit your own, head over to her blog.  

The Almost Ending

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Over the last year or so, I’ve found myself curiously obsessed with the endings of stories. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post about the ending of Deep Down Dark, and even before that, I critiqued the ending of the Harry Potter series. I’ve started a couple of drafts considering the endings of the Hunger Games series and also The Lord of the Rings, and that’s not counting the drafts I’ve started in my head about the endings of other novels or memoirs.

I spent a good deal of college reading, critiquing, and deconstructing literature. Rarely, however, did my essays involve a heavy focus on the endings. Instead, I was generally more interested in various bits of symbolism, feminist critique, or delving into specific characters. I began to wonder where I’d developed this newfound fascination with how and at what point authors choose to end their stories.

After some consideration, the best reason I can come up with as to why I’m examining the endings of stories so closely these days is because I’m convinced that if my life were contained to a novel or memoir, it would start with trying to conceive and probably end with E’s birth or perhaps when she came home for real from the NICU. I’m at a natural sort of ending point for the journey. I’d like for that to be the case: write “the end”, thank all the lovely people in my life, and close the book.

It’s the neat, tidy ending to complete the infertility story arc.

But it’s not an honest one.

It leaves out the fact that infertility still affects me. It leaves out the wholly-predictable resurgence of my old nemeses depression and anxiety as the dust surrounding my pregnancy and my daughter’s prematurity starts to settle. It leaves out the tension-filled question of what we do with our two frozen embryos and whether or not it’s advisable to even seriously consider another pregnancy at some future point. It leaves out a body that still has issues from PCOS that need addressed. It leaves out so many things, some of them more serious, some just small wisps of half-formed thoughts.

The idea that I’m still somewhere lost in the plot driven by infertility and PCOS scares the h*ll out of me. Some part of me thinks I can remedy this by essentially writing “the end, the end, the END!”, shoving the book on the shelf, walking away, and pretending it’s the decorous ending I described above.

Yet, almost in spite of myself some days, I keep writing.

Clearly, the story isn’t over.

If you want to read more Microblog Mondays posts, head over to Stirrup Queens.  Thanks to Mel for originating the idea and hosting.

Microblog Monday: Literary Crushes

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The other day, I somehow got thinking about the novel A Tale of Two Cities.  With that, came a small wave of nostalgia.  I read it as part of my high school freshman English class and almost instantly had a huge crush on character Sydney Carton.  I mean, what could either Edward or Jacob possibly have over “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done…”?

My original literary crush, however, is Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings.  I was fourteen when I read the books, and more or less fell head over heels for the guy.

Who are your literary crushes, current or past?

What is Microblog Monday?  Want to participate?  Head on over to Stirrup Queens’ blog to check it out!