I’ve been oh-so-slowly reading Lit by Mary Karr for months now. I lost it for awhile – stuffed between two different stacks of papers – but mainly I’ve been savoring it. Now that I’m getting deeper into the book, I’m surprised to find myself meeting myself, head to tail like, at the place where I first discovered Karr – at The Liar’s Club, the memoir she published in 1995. I read that book during my final year in Seattle, before I wanted kids; read it when I was mightily depressed; read it when I was first writing personal essays but didn’t believe I was a writer. The book was pivotal to the rise of the memoir, pivotal to questions of truth and memory in “non-fiction”, pivotal to many women’s memories of their own childhoods (no matter that few people had as lousy of a childhood as Karr or lived through them to write about those times with such exceeding grace).
Lit affords us the rare vantage point of the moment when a writer begins to consider a book – in this case, a group of stories about her poor Texas childhood. We are rarely privy to this time of conception, a time in which miscarriages are more common that full-term – much less beautiful births. That Karr is starting her project from a place of considerable self-hatred and shame and to know what she’d eventually pull off is somewhere between amazing and inspiring.
Karr is just sober when she receives a Whiting Award – money from heaven to support what has become her rather intermittent work as a writer. What she’s mainly been doing is drinking, raising her pre-school aged son, squabbling with her husband, and trying – without faith – to get sober. She teaches one class as an adjunct at Harvard and spends a lot of time on playgrounds, wondering when she can get back home to her stash of beer. When she goes to the Whiting ceremony in New York, sweating and scared shitless, stuffed into a dress that is decidedly not her, she’s a few shaky months into AA. Over the course of the evening, she meets an agent who finds her childhood stories interesting enough to give her a business card – more mana from heaven. Later, Karr will tie the meeting directly to the efforts she was making toward sobriety, a karma-like tit for tat.
Fulfill the contract you entered into at the box factory, amen. Make the containers you promised to tape and staple. Go quietly and shine.
A tribute to life’s incongruities, the chapter before the one describing the award ceremony finds Karr stuck in a rusting old automobile with three oddball men she knows only through her AA sponsor. They are on their way to a meeting in another town. One of them, Jack, has “a little touch of the schizophrenia.” Karr has been struggling with prayer – the thing that everyone is prescribing to her at this juncture – and she decides to take up the subject with Jack. Her sponsor has encouraged her to see God existing in all people, an idea repellant to Karr; she asks Jack about prayer and what she should do in part to prove her sponsor wrong. Jack’s response, Karr is sure, will be idiotic. Instead, it’s this side of brilliant:
“Get on your knees and find some quiet space inside yourself, a little sunshine right about here. Let go. Surrender, Dorothy, the witch wrote in the sky. Surrender, Mary. Yield up what scares you. Yield up what makes you want to scream and cry. Enter into that quiet. It’s a cathedral. It’s an empty football stadium with all the lights on. And pray to be an instrument of peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is conflict, pardon where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope …”
“What if I get no answer there?” Karr asks.
“If God hasn’t spoken, do nothing. Fulfill the contract you entered into at the box factory, amen. Make the containers you promised to tape and staple. Go quietly and shine. Wait. Those not impelled to act must remain in the cathedral. Don’t be lonely. I get so lonely sometimes, I could put a box on my head and mail myself to a stranger. But I have to go to a meeting and make the chairs circle perfect.”
I LOVE the box factory. I, too, want to go quietly and shine, to fulfill my contract. I make the oatmeal. I spread the peanut butter on the bread. I vacuum. I stack the dishes. I make the containers I promised.
My friend C. told me yesterday about all of the kids whose names she saw on the middle school list who have 4.0 grade points, kids who until recently were among her daughter’s best friends. Now, her daughter is struggling just to want to go to school – grappling with depression and a tough case of what I call After School Special Syndrome in which all of the pains of being an adolescent have descended at once like furies. It’s surreal for C., who has the best possible attitude toward it all. The fact that her daughter is all in one piece and going to school pleases her. Still, it’s odd for her to see the names of these kids who have been at her house playing and drawing since they were tiny. “You drop off normal,” says C., “and it all looks so different.” I loved this – the notion of dropping off normal, this center line we all want to live on but really never do. Not really.
I’m grateful for the Jacks with their circle perfect chairs and the Maxes with their potato knishes every Wednesday night. I’m grateful for C. who sees beauty in her daughter’s efforts. I’m thankful for my kids who are finding their squared pegged ways in a round holed world with courage. And I’m very thankful to Mary Karr for sitting in a car with three unhinged men, eating frosting out of a can while trying to figure out how to pray, and then staying sober to write a series of painfully honest and beautiful books.