Friday, April 24, 2015

"People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babblings in Peed Onk," by Lorrie Moore

Last night and this morning, Elizabeth and I have been having a discussion via blog comments and email.

Here are our comments on Elizabeth's blog's post.  She wrote about things shifting in a good direction, and the fear this can generate (she's a fantastic writer--go read it right now then come back and read the rest of this post):

Alison:  Ah, Elizabeth--you're digging into this. It's scary to dig into hope. I may be uneasy (grouchy?) by the expectations that you're brave, wise, etc. But I know that this framework works for you (isn't it odd how we can find some similarities that emerge from our differences of opinion). 
Anyway, my tired brain gives you a hug. And I'm super glad to hear that you might have the possibility of hope. 
I like the idea of digging into hope. I'm not sure what you mean by the "uneasiness" or grouchy way you feel -- nor what framework you're referring to. Plea service elaborate, wise Teacher!

Alison: Rereading my comment, it sounds like I'm saying that I'm uneasy about YOU, and I apologize! I think what I'm saying here is that when people say I'm wise, part of me wants to say, "Akkkk! No, I'm just making my way through this the way any of you would! It's not my wisdom that's brought along a brain tumor to a wise person!" So I generally appreciate the warmth that's conveyed through…what…I'm not even sure. I guess I'm talking about some of the compliments as feeling distancing. If a friend touches my shoulder and makes the "This can really suck, can't it?" facial expression, that can feel really connected.
I am truly throwing this out there without even rereading.

Elizabeth gave a response via email:

Yup. THAT I understand and know exactly. My favorite is the old "I could never do what you do." It makes me feel incredibly isolated. My favorite ever short story is by Lorrie Moore -- "There Are No People Like That Here" in Birds of America. In it, she recounts the story of a woman whose baby is diagnosed with a cancerous tumor. The people who she most relates to, who help sustain her, are those who fully acknowledge the suckery of the situation. Who say "holy shit!" when they see the baby in the hospital crib after surgery, etc.

So she recommended the story (info in the subject line).  And I read it.  It's Friday at noon, and I felt a little guilty because this story shouldn't get in the way of the grading.  Which I wasn't doing anyway (please notice the blog/email conversation that was not the same thing as grading papers).  But I realized that our conversation and my reading do play a role into my research.  And that's not a joke.

So here's the quick response I would have written to Elizabeth.  I figured I might as well share it with you, too.

The story starts with the Baby's bleeding which almost immediately leads to the children's cancer institute, with rooms of families, or divorced fathers.  They're sitting there, being out of control, seeing some of their children being in the process of dying, seeing how vulnerable their bodies were.

The text is written in an explicit third person.  The child (called Baby) gets some description, but Mother, who's central to this story, and Husband (notice that he's not central here--not fully connected to Baby), are presented as voices and feelings, not as descriptions of their bodies or the sounds of their voices.  The doctors all have titles, too, as do all the folks who are living at the children's cancer location.  There they all are.

What does this mean, Elizabeth?  What does it mean to have such separateness?  To me, reading the story, it felt like I kept being pushed out.  I'd want to connect, but I'd be pushed:  this is Mother, not the beautiful/fat/activist/traditional/etc. person.  And her focus is her Baby.  Of course it is.  And as a reader, I'm being given some feedback from the person who's written this book, and who's occasionally asked questions and framed things to me specifically.

I end up feeling like I'm watching different pain and fear in a space where I'm not invited.  I'm looking at them.  Here's one thing:  "She is feeling relief and rage simultaneously:  there is a feeling of prayer and litigation in the air.  Yet essentially, she is grateful.  Isn't she?  She thinks she is.  And still, and still:  look at all the things you have to do to protect a child, a hospital merely an intensification of life's cruel obstacle course."  The simultaneous feelings…I can relate to that with my own health.  Life's a cruel obstacle course for all of us, though.  It's part of what it means to be a person in the world.

And another thing:  "'You've got to have a second child,' says a different friend on the phone, a friend from out of town.  "An heir and a spare.  That's what we did.  We had another child to ensure we wouldn't off ourselves if we lost our first."  She goes on to say that it's a rope she has planned.  This story relates to my world of talk.  I've had conversations about this issue with more than one friend.  A response to life's cruel obstacle course.

It's not a story with an easy ending.  There is an ending--things change at the end--but that doesn't matter to me.  What matters is watching the tools the Mother assembles:

[The Father says] "All of those nice people with their brave stories…Don't you feel consoled, knowing that we're all in the same boat, that we're all in this together?"
But who would want to be in this boat? the Mother thinks.  This boat is a nightmare boat.  Look where it goes:  to a silver-and-white room, where, just before your eyesight and hearing and your ability to touch or be touched disappear entirely, you must watch your child die.
Rope!  Bring on the rope.

Eizabeth, what do you think?


  1. Replies
    1. Well, yes. I wasn't expecting it to be as intense as it became. That came up as I was writing.

  2. I have been reviewing Sylvia Plath's "The Unabridged Journals" page 599-608 - "THE INMATE" - her vivid description of the morbidity of her hospital stay for an appendectomy brutally poured into words that spout comedy, anesthesia of the mind and sadness into what she made - A Creative Environment - for a few days - worth the read - quite applicable - I am a dark soul, too. You cannot place butter on a torched marsh mellow and expect it to satisfy your palate - but you can put a stick through it on a bad day and hold it to the flame - and crush it and watch it flame and melt - and sit down and eat the rest of the bag.

  3. Hmmm. I'm not sure how to respond. I read the short story when it first appeared in The New Yorker shortly after my baby was diagnosed with her rare epilepsy syndrome. We had already been in and out of hospitals and on numerous hideous drugs, yet she still seized. I was pretty overwhelmed and well on my way to forging an entirely new identity, although I didn't know that then. When I read the story, I ripped it out of the magazine (this was pre-internet) and carried it around with me until it fell apart. There was something about the coldness of it, the dark hilarity and incredulity that resonanted for me. I remember feeling at the time that everything that was happening was not really happening, that the decisions I was forced to make were ridiculous, absurd -- I was both ferocious in my love for my baby and horrified to be disappearing. Does that make sense? That there were other people like me (Moore's Mother in this story) was immensely comforting. I felt as I read that I was writing it. I'm no literary critic, Alison -- but this story was an essential part of the early days, twenty years ago, when I literally knew no one with a child who had "problems." When I re-read the story, as I did after telling you about it, I am struck again by its resonance. The humor, the bitterness, the ferocity and above all, the ability (so hard-earned) to hold contrary/contrasting things at once. Equanimity?

  4. Thank you for this--your reflections are powerful. "The dark hilarity," "not really happening," "ferocious…horrified." Yeah, I can see that it has resonance. Yeah, we're having to live in places of contrasting things.

    Your thoughts are always valuable. And I'm too tired to write now more right now. More later.