Be My Guide, Be My Pilot

I'm such a word nerd that one of the first things I do when life issues a kick to the gut (or the heart, or the head, or even the shins) is set myself on a mission to find succor in writing. There are my own scribbles, of course, which anyone valiant enough to still be reading this blog has had the grace and patience to put up with, but what really interests me is what others have to say.

It's perhaps a slightly odd instinct, this--seeking comfort for your own aches in someone else's words--but often it feels like one of the most important things I can do to keep myself afloat. My own attempts to find the words to explain things to myself are mightily abetted by reading the words others have used to try to work their own stuff out.

So I've been doing a relatively huge amount of reading. Some of it doesn't really count as far as succor goes, such as The Smartest Guys in the Room, which I'd started back in early February and finally finished a few weeks back, or anything whatsoever in the Times or the New Yorker. But much of what I've been reading I've chosen precisely in the hope that it has something wise and comforting to impart.

There are the reliable standards: that Amy Bloom essay, Richard Hugo's "Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg," a few select passages from Sylvia Plath's journals (pre-Hughes, natch). These I love as much because they're smart and striking as because I've held them close before and know they have the power to soothe.

There are also a few standards that I don't have much patience for this time around. I recently took my Collected Sonnets of Edna St. Vincent Millay off the shelf and turned to poems I'd long ago starred and underlined and notated, but they didn't do it for me. Millay is a brilliant poet, and one of my favorites, but she's short on the uplift, and as I read I found myself thinking, Christ, Edna, cheer up a bit. For Hugo's final lines--"and the girl who serves your food/ is slender and her red hair lights the wall"--Millay counters, "Making my way, I pause, and feel, and hark/Till I become accustomed to the dark."

Thanks, Edna, but no more darkness.

What's been my most steadfast companion for the past week or so, though, has been Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love. I'm sort of amazed that this hasn't yet been an Oprah's Book Club Selection, because it's truly primed for such. But that's not a bad thing in this reviewer's opinion. The book is smart, funny, profound, insightful, and as much of a life raft as anything else in my world at this particular moment.

I've been reading a bit of Eat, Pray, Love each night before bed, and sometimes a few pages in the morning, so it sits on my bedside table with a pen and a small heap of half-crumpled tissues. The pen I use to make notes in the margin, to underline passages I want to go back to, to highlight sentences that make me cry in recognition or understanding or hope. And thus the tissues: absorbers of these few nightly tears. It's become a mini ritual.

What's so striking for me about Gilbert's book is not so much the parallels I see in our lives (very few) or any resonant desire I feel to follow the path she does (very little). Instead, I think it's that she presents nothing as "I just..." There's no "I just needed to tell myself..." or "All I had to do was..." or "It was as simple as...." She has revelations and breakthroughs and breakdowns and all of that, but none of it is one-part or easy--and, really, how much of this stuff ever is? I rail against anything I read or hear that suggests that there are straightforward or unencumbered or quick or easy ways to disentangle ourselves from whatever's most vexing in life. I don't buy it. That stuff is messy and hard and complicated and fraught, and it makes little sense to me to try to pretend otherwise.

Gilbert doesn't pretend. And for me, that makes her experiences all the more valuable, all the more trustworthy. That's so much why I read others: to try to mine something from what they've been through, from where they end up, from what they deal with along the way. That requires feeling some sort of connection, though, even if I can't draw direct parallels between the writers' lives and my own. I have to believe that as similar or dis- as our experiences may be, taking that verbal journey through someone else's will, ultimately, contribute something meaningful to mine. Eat, Pray, Love makes me believe that.

I'm coming to the end of it, and am more than a bit tempted to turn right around and start it again. Because, although in words different from my own and about a life that's not mine, it says, in large part, what I want to say to myself but can't yet. And that's a rare thing, I think, like that line in Neko Case's "Guided by Wire": "Someone singing my life back to me." Elizabeth Gilbert is writing her own life back to herself, unspooling a great long length of rope to pull herself from her worst moments in an ocean of misery back to stable land. My straits weren't nearly as dire or as treacherous as hers, but still. There's immense comfort in being able to put a hand on that rope for a while.