Burning a Hole in My Head
Some books end and you’re sad – not because the book had a sad ending, but because it’s over. East of Eden was like that for me. For four days, I couldn’t put it down and didn’t do much else (much to Mr. J.’s chagrin.) Then, when I knew I only had a few chapters left, I started lingering. Each word, each page. When I only had a few pages left, I’d turn each page with dread and anticipation. I wanted desperately to know what happened next, but I also knew that soon I wouldn’t know what happened next to me. What other book could be this compelling, this all-consuming? When a great book ends, you almost feel like you’ve lost a friend. Definitely, you’ve lost your companion for a moment in your life. I still remember what was going on when I read East of Eden – not in the world, but in my life. It was July, hotter than hell and we had just moved into our townhouse. There was so much to do and all I did was read (see: Mr. J.’s chagrin, above.) The bed wasn’t yet assembled and there were boxes everywhere so I read much of the book while I was sprawled out on the new carpet (cooler on the floor, anyway). I drank lots of Diet Pepsi and stayed up late and got up early. I had just finished teaching two classes for summer session and this was my reward for the student who wrote “pee hole” instead of “urethra” on his final exam. That book marks that exact point in my life.
Yesterday’s book ended and I laid it on my chest while I stared at the ceiling. Minnie snoozed beside me. Mr. J. was downstairs, grading papers or paying the bills or checking e-mail on his laptop or doing one of the millions of things he’s always doing. I wanted to cry but I couldn’t. This time I didn’t want to cry because the book was over. My chest felt heavy but it wasn’t because of the small book I had placed upon it. This book kicked my ass. Welfare Brat.
Talk about a slap in the face. Talk about putting things in perspective. Talk about something that made me feel overwhelmed and helpless and hopeless yet confused and amazed. Mr. J. and I went to dinner and I wanted to explain this book. One of the reasons this book is burning a hole in my head is because Mr. J.’s childhood was in many ways like the author’s. Yesterday I kept saying, “OMG. You have to read this book, honey. You have to read it. This author grew up with 5 sisters and a brother in a two bedroom apartment in the Bronx. Her mom was a single mother and there were 4 different dads among the seven of them. Her mother wasn’t big on going to school and if you didn’t feel like it, then you didn’t go. Sometimes her mother would tell the author, Mary - #3 – that she had to stay home from school and watch the little kids because she, Sandy, the mother, was too hung over to do it herself. Can you believe it?” I shook my head in amazement and waited for Mr. J. to show some shock, something. He stared at me and then blinked. “Uh-huh.” Then he took a bite of his portabello mushroom wrap (with chicken). He doesn’t want to read the book. He’s made a few comments like, “Oh, sure I’ll read it, what with all my spare time.” He doesn’t have any. But I don’t just think it’s about that.
Maybe one of the many, many reasons this book was so compelling to me is that I feel like it gave me more insight into my husband’s past. I can’t tell you about Mr. J.’s childhood in much detail – not because I don’t know much detail but because it’s not my childhood and therefore not my story to tell. I can tell you though that while we all have stories to tell and we all (okay, maybe not all) can say we came from a “dysfunctional” family, I know I didn’t really know the meaning of that word until I met Mr. J. and learned about his life. The things that sent me running to the therapist’s couch for so many years make me cringe now. Oh, I didn’t have the exact right clothes for high school and oh, I never learned how to properly wear eyeliner and boo-hoo, woe is me. I didn’t have everything I wanted, but I had everything I needed. I had my own room and my own bed and new clothes never worn by anyone else. I had trips to Disneyworld and trips to the dentist. I always knew where both my parents were and I was never left unsupervised, without food, for days at a time.
This book rattled the teeth in my skull. What it means to have problems, real problems is something I don’t often think about because I don’t have to. I also sometimes think about what it means to escape those problems physically, but never escape them mentally. This book is about that. The author escaped the Bronx. She went to college and got a Ph.D. One of her seven siblings also escaped with a Master’s in Social Work. The author writes how when she tried to explain to an admissions rep that she didn’t really know anyone with a car who would be able to drive her to campus on move-in day, the admissions rep didn’t believe her. But she managed to get out in spite of insane obstacles that I can only conjure up in my head with some effort.
Mr. J. got out. He has two degrees, both in Math – not in Math Education as he is quick to point out. One of his other siblings (of six) got out. He went to college, got a degree, has health benefits and saves for retirement. I think his heart has been more damaged, he has more of an aura of sadness about him, but when you look at the circumstances of his life, at least externally - he got out.
What has fascinated me for years (and what made me fall in love with Mr. J. and what makes me love him more with each passing year) is why and how some people get out and some people don’t. It is intangible, I think. We could talk about grit or raw determination or work ethic but that’s too simplistic. Mary Childers, author of this amazing memoir, wrot a sentence that I think will stick with me for many years and maybe become my new mantra. I won’t do it justice and I’m too lazy to get up and quote the book directly, but basically she says it boils down to circumstances. Lives are launched and derailed by circumstances. Yet it’s more than that, too.
I don’t know. I haven’t got any answers. I just had to get these thoughts out of me, out of my head, on to “paper” because swirling around in my brain they weren’t doing me any good. What does it mean to “suffer”? What does it mean to be poor in America? How do some people get out and some people continue the cycle of poverty and what can we – what can I – those of us who are not the working poor - do? I’m not a politician and I never will be because I don’t know. It’s complicated. And yet it’s not. Clearly, education is the way out. Clearly, smaller planned families and accessible, affordable birth control (among about a dozen other things) are the way out. But what if that’s not the way your world works? The author’s family- especially her mother – chided her for “wanting to escape” and showing off and basically disowned her (albeit briefly) when she went off to college. Mr. J.’s father wanted nothing more than for Mr. J. to break the cycle and get out and achieve his dreams. His siblings are . . . another story. I think they envy him. I think they feel he owes them. He should help more than he already does financially. How dare he not help them support their children – his own nieces and nephews? I don’t get it but reading Welfare Brat helped me get it a little bit. This world is confusing and complex and with each passing day I understand it less and less.
And no I’m not on drugs and yes, I think my doctor would say I’m mentally balanced (more or less). This is just something I’ve been thinking about since I’ve met Mr. J. (over five years now!) and this book helped me get a glimpse into a world I never lived in and I don’t understand. Thank you for reading this atypical post. This is just garbage that was littering my head and I’ve needed to throw it out for quite some time now. Otherwise, I’m not going to qualify this with my usual disclaimers. (Okay, wait – there’s still some of my typical neuroses left. I so desperately needed to get this down on paper that I didn’t spell check this and I won’t go back and edit it right now or maybe ever.)