I read Franny and Zooey, the book J.D. Salinger wrote after Catcher in the Rye and Nine Stories, every couple years to keep up with the dramatic little-sister-existential-crisis part of me. I remember first reading it in Italy and our residential program director handed me another book, saying, “Do you know what book she is reading obsessively in that? Here it is.” And it was the strangest collection of Desert Father writings I’d ever seen, and I hated it and read about ten pages (though I left it on my nightstand for weeks to prove my interest).
But lately, like Franny I’ve been reading curled up on the couch, in the bathtub, and just before bed, reading something that feels like her ascetic text, but actually it’s a French theologian who was a sophisticated advisor to King Louis XIV. My dishelved copy of his three hundred year old writings is one of the books my mom sent me when I had Lux, with a simple annotation, “These helped me when I was at home with all of you kids.” My mom was home with seven kids and there are several books.
Fenelon says things like “let your anxieties flow away like a stream” and “do not listen to the voice that suggests you live for yourself” and “the pain you feel at your own imperfections is worse than the faults themselves.” He writes very simply and his words ping like drops of hard alcohol into my subconscious muddy puddle.
Becoming a mother has not come easily always. I’m not stir crazy. I’m not bored. Mostly I’m delighted. But at times I miss the narrative of the self propelled life. I’ve never been more aware of my urge to live for myself, aware of what Fenelon would call my self-love.
I heard a quote about motherhood in the most unexpected place the other day. Joe and I were watching a documentary about the bizarre performance artist Marina Abramovic (“The Artist is Present”). I wasn’t really listening, and then I perked up at the first sentence, and then I thought this! is! it! Because people ask what being a mom is like, and how it’s going, and I have trouble explaining it.
The hardest thing is to do something that is close to nothing. It’s demanding all of you because there is no story anymore to tell. There’s no objects to hide behind. You have to rely on your own pure energy and nothing else.”
Of course there is an object, you might say—a tiny human. But in the day to day there isn’t a narrative. The work is slow and breathtakingly repetitive. There are rarely moments of great completion. The demands feel illogical and relentless.
And yet I do feel as if this child might have chance of helping me get rid of my blossoming trifecta of impatience, arrogance, and antagonism toward sympathy. Like Marina says, I realize that the wave of selfishness that crashes when I wanted her naps to fall in line perfectly with my plans, that wave that frustrates me so, does come from the lack of anything to hide behind. Here I am, I’m selfish, and I want to do want I want. At the heart, it is not Lux that frustrates me, it is my own frustration that infuriates me.
Fenelon would say this happens to all of us, from a variety of sources. Mine happens to be Lux, yours might be a family member, an illness, a job, a quiet call that persists. I guess the turn I’ve taken lately, for the better, is to hear what else he says, this:
Learn to see yourself as you are, and accept your weakness until it pleases God to heal you. Your goal is to be as patient with yourself as you are with your neighbor. If you die a little bit every day of your life, you won’t have too much to worry about on your final day.
Does any of this ring true to you these days? Thanks for returning and reading, despite the intermission. : )
Photos of watching the rain, something we’ve been doing again lately, from this summer.