And Now We Have Everything

I’ve been really interested in essay collections (since I just finished writing what I hope is one) and have been making an effort to seek out collections by women. A few years ago I read some of Meaghan O’Connell‘s writing for The Cut and found myself laughing and nodding along. I’d been looking forward to her book for months.

Although I saw online that the description of getting the epidural in “Birth Story” made at least two (!) readers faint on the subway, I actually found myself feeling overwhelmed with the tender vulnerability of how closely life and death brush together during labor and delivery. Not nauseated, but actually baby-fever-ish. O’Connell is funny, but she’s honest, too. Her honesty, though, isn’t frightening and grim but intimate and a relief.

O’Connell explains that she started writing more seriously and with more focus after her son was born because she realized if she didn’t, he could become an excuse for any number of things she wanted to but did not do with her life. Although my early motherhood was different in so many ways than hers, this sentiment resonated so much that I wrote her my very first author fan email (!).

I started writing essays about motherhood and pregnancy because I felt like there was nothing out there like what I wanted to read–everything was either medical (potentially useful but not always what I was looking for), glib “aren’t kids jerks” (which is just not my vibe), or uncomfortably saccharine (I’m newly refusing to use the word “sentimental” as an artistic insult…more on that some other time maybe). This book was that. Along with Sarah Menkedick’s Homing Instincts, it begins to fill that void and I have been recommending these two books to every relatively-new mom I know.

Lincoln in the Bardo

I loved this book. I had read some of George Saunders’s short stories with a sort of academic interest (“oh, look what he’s doing here!”) but never really felt like his writing clicked with me. Then, I read “My Writing Education” in The New Yorker and loved it. I loved him–his kindness, thoughtfulness, carefulness.

When Lincoln in the Bardo was published, for some reason I thought it was really long and very historical. If only I’d realized it was about ghosts and the Tibetan concept akin to limbo, I would have read it right away.

As I guess everyone else already knew, it was not a traditional piece of historical fiction. I went through an intense Lincoln obsession in eighth grade and was thinking somehow that knowledge would taint the reading experience (either I’d be mad that I didn’t remember much from all those biographies I read in the mid-90s, or I’d remember so much that I’d be wondering when Secretary Seward was going to make an appearance).

The novel is, again as I guess everyone else already knew, smart and thoughtful and kind and strange and haunting. My mom and I spent some time talking about the minister in the Bardo–what had he done? why was he there?–and finally landed on the idea that he’d feared God, and taught others to fear God, in a way that had prevented him from finding peace with the end of his life (in the novel, and from what very limited understanding I have of Tibetan Buddhism, that acceptance is what allows people to leave the Bardo and begin their subsequent lives). It’s been a long time since I encountered a book that made me want to re-enter the world of the novel rather than do research as a means deciphering the points that confused me.