Thursday, March 10, 2016

We are not all so different

I have a small book to recommend this week. It’s not a huge historical saga spanning generations. It’s not a book with a broad political statement. It’s not something that will change your life in profound ways. It’s simply the gentle tale of Lucy, a young girl in her last year in high school, a girl on the cusp of becoming a woman, and trying to figure out life. I guess it fits in the category of Young Adult or YA as it is abbreviated. What is remarkable is that Totally Unfamous is entirely written in verse, in poetry. And good poetry. There are times when I absolutely fell in love with the word pictures, but more about that later on.

My husband, who got to know the author a bit, was the one who first introduced me to this book. “I have something you have to read,” he told me. I did, and blown away by its simple beauty even then.

Lucy’s mother died in a horrific car accident and her father has remarried. How does Lucy feel about that? She’s not sure, and when her father’s new wife is pregnant, Lucy is even less sure. Throughout the book, the soon-to-be step-sibling is called "the half-baby.” Maybe that will tell you how she feels.

I’m leaving off the best part. Lucy is a gymnast. I learned terms I had never known before - aerials, Arabians, flight series, floor work. I have a granddaughter who is a gymnast and I know the dedication, the time spent in the gym. It’s not just an extra-curricular hour after school. It’s four hours after school every day after school and more on weekends. We’re talking major athletics. I never cease to be amazed when I watch her go through her routines.

Here is how the story begins:

what they see

they see
a gymnast
a girl
an athlete
someone quiet
someone average
someone small
they don’t see
so much
they don’t wonder
if every time I flip
my body into the air
doing some crazy trick
once did
if maybe I haven’t
lost myself
in this gym
I call home

I know what you’re thinking - I don’t read YA fiction. And maybe you don’t. But let that first passage resonate for a minute. We can all say that, can’t we? What do people see when they look at you? At me? They see someone doing some “crazy trick” like baking bread, like weeding the garden, like driving to work. But do people see the real you? The real me? Probably not. And you can get to feel "lost" in that garden, that kitchen, that office, you call home. 

I want to share some of the more beautiful poetry in this book, and some of these I will copy out in full:

the worst thing in the world

is having your whole life
laid out before you
with every possible side road
mapped and planned
and realizing
that the map that you helped make
is no longer what you want
but you don’t really know
what it is you want
so you stay quiet
and keep following the map
simply because
you don’t have any better ideas
I need a better idea

A person doesn’t have to be eighteen to feel like this. I’m way past 18, and there are days when this could be my journal entry.

Shortly after her mother died, Lucy had difficulty performing in the gym. Her body simply would not obey her.

I couldn’t focus then either
everyone around me got better
while I slowed down
my body feeling heavier
as if the air had become thick
like honey

This is a teenager. As we get older, all those aches and pains add up. There are days when I get out of bed and it feels as if I, too, am walking through honey. One of the things I enjoy is volunteering at a nursing home. I see people there, people once vibrant and alive, who baked bread and canned peaches and chased after children, but whose bodies have betrayed them. Merely getting from one room to the next it’s like the air had thickened around them, became hard to navigate through.
We are not all that different. No matter what age we are, we are not all that different.

Sometimes the simple things speak the most to us.

No spoilers here, but this lovely little book follows Lucy and her friends, her new on-again off-again boyfriend, but also deals head on with darker subjects - unwanted pregnancy, rape, stalking, fear and God, and all written in this sensitive poetic way. 

Some of the wisest words ever written are - “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle,” I thought of that quote continually as I read this book. 

When I see that young, beautiful eighteen year old (and all teenagers are beautiful, all of them), maybe it will help me to look past her youth and see the pain and anxiousness going on inside there. And when I see the beautiful elderly woman (and all of our elders are beautiful, every single one of them), maybe it will help me to look past her wisdom and age and see the pain and anxiousness going on inside there.

No, we are not all so different.

Next Time: Unfollow, a long-form New Yorker article which gives a brief but utterly captivating look into the Westboro Baptist Church through the eyes of the granddaughter who left it. Click here for the link to read it.

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