09 June 2010

Your haunted head

(Today's writing prompt: "Japanese lore suggests that if you fold 1,000 paper cranes, your wish will come true. What would your wish be, and what would you be willing to do 1,000 times to get it?" That's more like it.)

Currently, I am reading Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge. I am also reading at least four other books--par for the course--but this is the one that has captured my attention.

There is something about the interlocking stories in this book that brings to mind Shirley Jackson's short stories. Certainly, there is a similarity in the setting--both take in small town New England--and in the elegant and evocative writing styles, but there is a defining darkness of the human spirit that lurks in both. In many of Jackson's stories, there is a dissolution of the psyche and redemption, if you can call it that, takes the form of madness. In Strout's book, there is no lack of depression and suicide, but I'm still holding out hope that Olive finds a means of saving herself. In many ways, she seems the mature, senior version of Jackson's lost young housewives.

Not all of Strout's stories revolve around Olive herself. She is a mirror and is mirrored in the events of those around her, including her husband, her mostly estranged son, and her former students. There are slightly cryptic revelations about her parents, that she sees herself as a relay station for whatever darkness gave her father reason to kill himself. In many ways, her vision of herself seems to come through the eyes of others, in particular her size, which can take on a sort of monstrousness, depending on the circumstances.

It is this last that allows me a sympathy for Olive that I might not otherwise have felt. From the onset of adolescence, my mother always made my size an issue: in her eyes, I was a leviathan, and graceless in my enormity. A few years back, I quipped to my doctor about my size, and she turned to look at me, confused.

"You weigh what you should for your height and frame," she told me.

"Well, I've got the frame of an Amazon," I replied, rolling my eyes.

"Your frame is medium, bordering on small," she said with a certain severity, holding my wrist before my eyes. But it looked to me to be the same old wrist, frightening in its hugeness.

Curious, I went back to photos of when I was a young teen, and finally saw the truth: I was simply a very tall and gawky child. There are even photos where there is virtually no weight to me, my mother's perpetual running commentary and cruel teasing to the contrary. It finally, finally dawned on me that my mother had spent years channeling her own frustrations on to my young head. I was a number on the scale to her, a number too heavy for her own short self, even if it was almost too thin for a child who was nearly five inches taller. I finally realized that she had projected her own heavy build onto my lighter skeleton and her anger has made it forever impossible for me to see my physical self for what it is. I was her mirror, and an unsatisfactory one at that, until she recreated me in her own image.

Of course, what's funny (and it does amuse me) is that today, when I am 10 lbs. heavier than I was when she sang that I "couldn't get through the barn door," my mother fusses that I am too thin.

My wish was only ever to be loved and accepted for who I am, whatever I looked like. I suspect that is Olive's desire as well. The small miracle is that I have been shown, most gratifyingly, that I am. My wish has been granted, many times over. I have a family and a circle of friends who choose to be with me, people who simply enjoy what I bring to the party, people who take pleasure in the fact that I am simply there to be with them. Truly, I can't ask for anything more than that. And I have been willing to pay--and will keep on paying--for that privilege with a thousand smiles and small deeds to show them that I appreciate their company, too.

Go listen to some music: "Your Haunted Head" from the album Concrete Blonde by Concrete Blonde.

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