It’s finals week, and after it is over I will be done at NILA and NILA will, soon, sooner than anyone wants, close its doors for good. I, in a final tribute of probable stupidity, have decided to write my last paper, a compare-and-contrast behemoth, on three essay collections: Meagan Daum’s The Unspeakable, Leslie Jamison’s Empathy Exams, and Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me. I’ve been reading these collections over again in spurts and fits, little bits here and there, skipping ahead, going back to reread the best parts, my text full of the little “hl`s (for highlight) crowding every page. I’m writing about the stance all three of these writers take of speaking uncomfortable things, that each, in her own way and through her own prose, teases and sometimes tears at the walls we build around ourselves so that we won’t have to squirm. Jamison speaks of empathy, of people with afflictions the medical community have never wholly acknowledged or validated finding and comforting each other, of the pain that we may actually want to feel but are too shamed or closed to explore. Daum writes about her chagrin at dating people so she can write about them, her ambivalence about having children, and her coming to terms with being put in a medically induced coma, nearly dying, and having nothing more profound to say about it than, “I’m glad that’s over.” Because, you know, near death is supposed to inspire us, or, at the very least, force us to start believing in god. And Solnit, with her blunt dissection of why society has been afraid of marriage equality, her eloquent essay about Virginia Woolf and embracing darkness and the unknown, and her fierce assertion that women deserve and desperately need to be witnesses to their own lives and stories, and how we still have far to go to fully celebrate that.
I love these writers and these essays, not because I agree with all of them, but because they dare to go to places that are visceral, they dare to speak about vulnerability and fear and force me to think and question my own biases, and oh there are so many.
In rereading these essays, I’ve thought about how I’d read them at the beginning of the semester versus how I read them now, with the knowledge that we will all say good-bye and scatter soon. These three women are providing me so much comfort and healing through their words, their strong voices, their tenacity in writing, no matter what else there is or isn’t. I feel like I know them, and forget that I only know them through pages and words and attributing their feelings to mine. When I read Daum for the first time, I was furious with her; you know how the things you hate about someone else are the things that glare back at you in your own reflection? The first time I read Jamison, it was the week following the Nila announcement and I felt raw like someone had broken my heart. When I first read the Solnit essay on Woolf, it annoyed me because it seemed like all she was doing was using the essay as an excuse to plug all her other books. Yet, now, I’m reading with fresh eyes, with fresh enthusiasm and love for the these women I don’t know, for the inspiration and hope that if my voice can be half as true as theirs, I’ll have accomplished a writing miracle.
To be honest, there’s been a lot of crying over the rereading. Some bad crying, but mostly good, tears of relief, of finding solace here. I walked the mile to the bus in the drizzle of a gray afternoon, thinking of words and ideas and hope, and listening to the seagulls calling somewhere over there, and smelling wet green grass and mulchy earth. These gray days are perfect writing and reading days for me, and I want to hold on to this one for a while.
Before I get back to it, I want to leave with a quote from the afore mentioned Woolf essay, “Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable.” Solnit begins with a quote from Woolf herself: “The future is dark, which is the best thing the future can be, I think.” Lovely and true and hopeful, but the best comes from Solnit herself, later in the essay, and this is what I want to remember.
“Despair is a form of certainty, certainty that the future will be a lot like the present or will decline from it; despair is a confident memory of the future… Optimism is similarly confident about what will happen. Both are grounds for not acting. Hope can be the knowledge that we don’t have that memory and that reality doesn’t necessarily match our plans.”