My Fearful Symmetry

I used to buy so many books, ignoring the “why-aren’t-you-normal” questions from my now ex-husband about what I was going to do with yet another potentially unread treasure crowding our shelves.

How could someone who’s lived such a different life from mine, ever understand how books gave my heart a home from the moment I knew they existed? I hid in them, discovered from them, absorbed and consumed them.

Late at night, I sought safety from the angry outbursts of my family, by hiding in my safe closet and reading the same books over and over in the bare bulb light.

My reading was one of the few things I did that was approved of, and I gladly lived adventurously through Little Women, Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. They were brave, and when I lived through them, I was brave, too.

I went from a voracious reader to someone who read very little in the past 3 years. Each time I tried to focus on someone else’s words, it ripped me apart or the words bounced off the page, so I gave up. Perhaps I couldn’t take anything new in, until the old was gone enough to make proper room. I knew I did not want another’s words to accidentally open any more painful flood gates. I had all I could handle struggling against drowning in the ones I’d opened on my own.

But I hadn’t abandoned words and books altogether. When my world broke apart a few years ago, instead of purchasing and reading books, I rediscovered writing. And when I couldn’t stand the pain of that, or I’d said all I could say in some moment, I’d wander aimlessly through bookstores so I could still be surrounded by the comfort of words nestled between all those wonderful covers.

One day, I began taking pictures of the titles that jumped out at me, a habit which continued for quite a time. An author’s careful choice of phrase, intended to entice a reader to a story, often also succinctly described that moment in my life. It always surprised me how the perfect titles found me. And taking pictures of them created another diary of where I was on my journey.

I went to the bookstore and took those pictures for awhile, but then I stopped going altogether. Instead, I involuted almost completely into myself, filling all the bandwidth I had for words, with my own outgoing stream. As I prolifically wrote over the past several years, I’ve wondered many times when the words might stop pouring out long enough to let more in. It seemed it would never happen. But recently, it’s begun to slow, and I am grateful for the space of quiet this morning, where something new has finally found a way through my door.

I’ve just spent three weeks in the northern U.S. I’d gone up there to see my grandma again, and while I was there, she passed away. I stayed on, and indulged in some beautiful scenery and a deep level of introspection. I didn’t think I’d reached any conclusions, and as I traveled back home, I didn’t think much had changed for me. But when I arrived, I walked in the door to find out that even though nothing had changed, everything had, because something was different in my heart.

For the first time in too long, I am cleaning up my life. And while I’m at it, I’m cleaning up my house, too. I’ve begun caring about it and the time I have left, in a way I haven’t for years. I am acting on all those plans I’ve dreamed up and blown off.

And I’ve begun to open my heart. It is still deeply wounded, but I can see it healing or forming finally into scars I can live with. I have the energy and strength to face forward now, but didn’t realize how much better I was doing until, to my surprise, I picked up a novel today for the first time in years. It was a novel sitting in a pile with others I’d also surprised myself by purchasing a few months ago.

The novel is called Her Fearful Symmetry, and it’s by Audrey Niffenegger. It is immediately poetic, and there is something in the way the author describes her characters that reminds me of how one of my very best friends describes people. He is conservative and meticulously precise with his words. He would be a brilliant writer, and would charm the world with his words, as he charmed me, if it was the life he chose. This endeared me to her style immediately, as if I’d just come home to something deeply and beautifully familiar.

The book opens with a focus on Elspeth, who is dying of cancer at 44, leaving behind Robert, a man who loves her dearly. He adores her details, her quirks, her habits, yet as is often the case, he doesn’t really know her at all.

The author, through Robert, describes all the feelings I have actively swirling in my own head and heart about my grandma, my dad, and my mom dying. She accomplishes this fully, in only a few pages, completely revealing that nothing I’ve felt is unique or uncommon. Yet her words make me believe I’m special, for having a sensitive heart that recognizes what she’s saying is true.

And in just a few chapters, before the story has taken more than an hour of my time, she’s also already left me longing, ever so slightly, for a love in my life like Robert. Such an extraordinary fete in the face of my adamant refusal to consider getting involved with anyone. She’s made me imagine an infinitely human man who will treasure my complex details enough to hold them gently, while loving the whole of my heart enough to squeeze me fiercely, knowing I’m strong enough to take it…a man who loves like Robert loves Elspeth.

In short, she gave all the correct words to feelings about death and love I haven’t been able to express on my own yet, despite all the writing I do and I’ve done.

No doubt the experiences I’ve had over the past three weeks, and the efforts I’ve finally been making since I returned, have contributed to my feeling of well-being today. But this wonderful book has already done more than its share to help me accept my feelings about the deaths of my family and my marriage, and at the same time has given my heart a little hope for the fanciful feeling of falling in love.

I am so happy to have reading back in my life, and I can’t wait to read the next chapter in Her Fearful Symmetry. I bet it will continue to renew my hope that I can return to my own symmetry, after several years of fearing I never would.

~ cj 2013.08.02

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6 Responses to My Fearful Symmetry

  1. cjromb says:

    BTW, I wasn’t intending to do a book review here, as I’ve only just begun. I just loved the parallel between the word symmetry in the title of the book, and how I feel like I’m finally finding some symmetry again in my own life.

  2. Steve says:

    Nice CJ. I’m glad the book took you to a happy place of understandind Im surprised you could put it down. Sounds like you liked it a little bit. 🙂

  3. Morine says:

    Death can teach us much. The deaths of your family members may have taught you how important it is to embrace your life now, live it fully and with gusto, as it is fleeting, in the great scheme of things. We have such a short time here. The death of your marriage, combined with the book, may well have reminded you of the reward that can come in risking to seek love, as it, too, is sometimes far too fleeting.

    Pain changes us. We can hide in the closet, never acknowledging it. Or we can look at it in the light of day and use it to determine what direction to take next.

    Your return to reading just might encourage some prolific writing from you….

  4. Dee says:

    ” Such an extraordinary fete in the face of my adamant refusal to consider getting involved with anyone.”
    Is fete the word you wanted? Somehow I believe it is. Celebration fits you.

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