Sunday, April 30, 2017

Bed Time for "The Bed Book"

I fell hard for Sylvia Plath. I was hooked from the first line. Poppies in July, Fever 103, The Moon and the Yew Tree. Her words are pure energy, power. For people-pleasing 15-year-old me, I borrowed her fierce light every time I read her work. With every line I memorized, I took in a fragment of her strength and made it my own.

My love for her work was expressed in the usual way: collecting. I bought and read her collect poems, her letters home, her "novel," her journals. I collected every biography. I acquired the 1993 Plath Edition of the New Yorker. I found recordings of her readings. I eventually even obtained the book she was reading when she died: The Ha Ha by Jennifer Dawson. And when that was all satisfied, I began collecting her individual chapbooks, as they had originally been published. This was long ago. Back in the day. Back when we had to hoof it through the northwest's notorious drizzle to each book store. We had to read the spine of every musty old book to make sure our treasure was not there. Alphabetized? Occasionally. But often, we collectors had to spend hours with our heads cocked to this side, then that side, reading the vertical titles. And if they didn't have what you were looking for, you had to ask an actual person, perhaps a narrow angular woman who looked not entirely unlike the spine of a book herself, with a dower downturn at the corners of her mouth. Or you'd search the store to find the owner, round, dusted with dandruff and sitting among a pile of books. And there was usually a cat or two. And you'd ask them if they had it. And then they would accompany you back to the poetry or biography section and read the spines of every book and confirm that they did not have it. And then they would promise to keep an eye out for it, taking a little note on a little piece of paper and pinning it to cork board. And then you would check back every few weeks, trekking through rain, to see if they had gotten a copy in and had held it, or forgotten about you entirely in their ocean of notes, and shelved it, so you'd go to the way back and read every title on every shelf in the poetry section again.

Boston, 1997
Today, one could just google the author and within minutes, budget allowing, transform oneself from having never heard of an artist to owning their complete works in every possible format in less than an hour. All the fun has gone out of collecting.

Back in my day, it took years, decades, and many unsociable shopkeepers, to fulfill a collection. It was a challenge. It was devotion. It meant something more than the sum of it's parts. And that's how it was with Plath and I. Every used book store from Bellingham to Seattle knew what I was looking for. There was just one book I could never find: The Bed Book, a bedtime story book for children written while she worked in medical records at a hospital.

My fandom even extended itself to possibly the worst, most misguided coz-play in the universe. Just before Halloween, back in 1999, I'd become enamored with the phrase "Sacred cows make the best hamburger," and I decided to translate that in to my costume. I took my hero, Plath, a woman who's portraits I had bedazzled and glitter glued and pasted on to my rented room's walls, and turned her in to a costume. It was easy to do: just a cardboard box painted white, gas burners festooned with fluttery tissue paper flames. The turn-able knobs all went up to 103 degrees. I dressed as a 1960's housewife in burnt orange and avocado, a turtle neck, a wooden spoon in one hand and a journal in the other and the cardboard oven over my head. There was a photo, but I've stashed it too deeply to retrieve. I offended so many people, so many. Some never spoke to me again. My people-pleasing tendencies and making hamburger out of sacred cows don't really go together very well and I was profoundly uncomfortable with myself as I tried to socialize with a satyr and a bumble bee. I put myself in a most awkward situation and dragged the entire party along with me. It was a costume in dire need of a trigger warning, but it did actually come from a good place, I like to think.

As every other "good" (after that costume, I'm not sure "good" applies to my fandom) Plath fan, I also hated Ted Hughes, the husband who cheated on her and left her, precipitating her suicide. I hadn't read his work, I just didn't like the idea of him. When I finally read his work, accidentally of course, and accidentally loved it and then turned the book over again to see who it was who wrote this lovely thing and of course I was horrified and felt like I'd accidentally, ala Greek drama, cheated on my true love. And yet I loved his work in spite of myself. And I found solace in the idea that at least I could now see what Plath had once seen in him.

I wondered, along with every biographer and their multitude of theories, why she killed herself. Why oh why oh why? Why, we all demand to know, why! We, the bereaved fans, need an answer. Was it her daddy dying so young? Was it her demanding mother? Was it that her husband had cheated on her? Was she bipolar? What were her 13 reasons? Why, with her children in the home? Why, with her friend in the flat below hers, just steps away with a sturdy shoulder to cry on? How could someone with so much talent, not see how badly the world needed her to go on?

And yet, her suicide seemed a daring, rash statement. Everything we want from an artist. It intrigued me. And I suppose I had my own questions about suicide that had no other outlet, no other answer than to be foisted on to Plath, the sacrificial goat bearing all of our questions and unresolved issues. A friend in high school killed himself. We shared 4 of 6 classes together and since the teachers sat us alphabetically and his last name started with W, we were together for most of the day. For 1 1/2 years, we'd graded each others papers in math and Spanish. Learned tennis together in PE. We'd been CPR partners in health. We didn't go out for coffee, we didn't call each other at home or sit together in the cafeteria, but we'd been companions for 3 semesters when, on the 2nd day back from Christmas break, just weeks after we'd learned to revive the rubber infant with teeny tiny pinky-finger CPR, his chair beside mine in our first class of the day was empty.And the announcement was made.

The day before, he'd found me in the hall. He'd asked if we could talk. But I was already skipping class to talk to another friend who was having an issue, so I told him I was busy. I'd been trained as a "Natural Helper," someone people came to confide in, someone who was able to help them get the help they needed. I felt honored that people would confide in me and yet I sometimes felt I carried the weight of too many. And I'd told him a soft no; I was sorry, I was busy. I'd had no idea he was in such distress. There were no clues. I'd told him I was sorry and I'd told him I was busy, too busy for him. And I carried that shameful secret in my heart for decades. I did not feel safe grieving or talking about it then and so I ran away from home. I had my own close calls with suicide. I dumped my perfectly fine boyfriend. I drank on the bus to school, I got stoned at lunch. And I fell in love with Plath. And I did not talk about it for a very, very long time.

When I finally pried myself open, the shame burned like a vampire in the sunlight of my therapists office. And then it turned to dust as all vampires do.  I had only been 15 and he was just 15 too, maybe 16. I hadn't been cruel or mean, just busy. He needed before he came to me. I didn't cause him to do anything. Eventually, hopefully, he may have learned how to care for his own mental health. But back then, how could either of us have known just what to do, how to handle anything, how to handle these giant things, how to help ourselves, how to help each other? Even as adults, there's a befuddling muddy line between what you can do and what you can't, how to help, when, and if you can at all. A good therapist is a good place to start, no matter what role you are stuck with in these situations.

And now there is the show "Thirteen Reasons Why," widely criticized by mental health workers and anyone with any level of mental health. The premise is that a teen commits suicide and leaves 13 videos telling people what they did to contribute. The justification is anti-bullying (which I don't even think is a thing because most bullies don't self-identify and don't self-shame into changing their behavior and the bully/bullied identity can flip so quickly and easily, from home to school, from grade to grade. Compassion-training, now that's a thing that's proven to work on all parties involved). But I cannot imagine my sophomore year and all that it contained being layered with a show like this, with my own suicidal ideation and coping with the suicide of a friend who I brushed off as gently as possible but brushed off all the same at the wrongest of times. I'd like to offer a big "FUCK YOU"  to everyone involved in the this show, you money-grubbing sick-o fuckers.

I hate when people say that teens are just babies and just wait until they're out in the "real world."  Most teens are experiencing things that they won't even have the tools to make sense of for several more decades. Most teens are going to emerge from the trauma of high school with a bit of PTSD and eventually need a therapist to unwrap all that went on during such impressionable ages.

All of my soul-reckoning and true healing would wait for 20 years, for now there was Plath, with her poetic self-sabotage. And she became a piece of my heart. I filled in the missing and broken pieces with this fierce woman.

Plath's Boston apartment, 1996
At the time of her death, Plath was a New England girl, living in Old England, the land of her cheating husband. She had two young kids. She was alone, isolated. She'd had a sinus infection and it was the worst, coldest, longest winter England had seen in a century that February 11, 1963.

There came a day, when I had two young kids and we lived in Pullman and we were looking for something to do in the cold and we went, as we often did, to Br-used Books. As we meandered towards the children's section at the far back of the store, I would slowly zig-zag from section to section, lusting after all I could not fit for that brief moment (which felt like eons on some days) in to my life. Finally we would arrive in the little children's literature room in the back, lit by florescent tubes. Coyote ate board books and Blue "read" bigger books and I looked for something to fill the evenings with as we still didn't have a TV and had yet to instituted the "3 books before bed maximum" rule. There was always the library, but by the time all my library fees were tallied, I might as well have just bought the damn books. One board book had one word on each page. I paid $.50 a word in library fines.

There we sat on the floor together, feasting on a picnic of words and pictures. And suddenly, a paperback, so flimsy even the cover was thin as old newspaper, floated into my hands. The Bed Book. The last piece in my collection. I'd stopped looking long ago, of course. Young kids being what they are, plus working. I'd lost touch with my hobbies, with large parts of myself as mothers sometimes do, for a time. I'd not expected this final piece to ever slide in to place. And here it was, like magic, falling open effortlessly upon my lap.

I called Blue over and began reading it to her. It was not engaging and she soon toddled back to whatever she'd been engrossed in before. When Plath had written it, the world was still coping with "Dick and Jane" books, so it was probably interesting by comparison. But today, with authors like Audrey Wood, it can't hold up. The price was penciled in at $6, which was a song for the collectible but which felt like a lot to us then, a student family on food stamps and child care assistance, and me working more than I wanted to. Plus, Blue was amassing a pile of books in her arms and I couldn't buy every thing.

Shocked at the find, I sat in stunned contemplation. Life had come for me too over the years. I too was cheated on and left by a husband. I too had sinus infections, with young children, and a husband out of town all in the same week. I too had endured bad winters with tiny kids. I too had lived abroad, lonely, at times. I too had worked in medical records, had written in stolen moments from office jobs. I, too, often feel that February will be the end of me. As my experiences expanded, I questioned less and less the why of her suicide. Life is hard, internally, externally. Although there is no allure for me, it's not really a mystery why people want out at times. And certainly between aunts, uncles, a cousin, an ex, and a step-father-in-law, our family has dealt with the wake of this "decision" plenty enough. It's not artsy, it's just painful.

I've said it before here, but it bears repeating:  "Again, we had that talk with our kids about depression, bipolar, and how if you are thinking about suicide you needed to have seen a therapist a while ago, but it’s better late than never. If you are sad or anxious or feel crazy for over 4 weeks, you need to see a therapist. There is a giant army of well-trained professionals who have dedicated their lives to helping people in these situations. They are standing by, eager to assist. Therapy does not mean something is wrong with you, necessarily. What it means is that life has given you a challenge greater than your current skill set [and sometimes that challenge comes from within]and a therapist will help you develop the skills you now need to approach this new challenge in new ways we can’t always figure out on our own."

I imagined Plath that night, or early morning, opening the window to her sleeping children's room, rolling up the towel to put beneath their door, turning on the gas oven, kneeling before it. I was about her age that day in the book store and it was no longer an exotic image of the artist in her final work. There was nothing daring or powerful about it. I did not feel reverence for her, but neither was there anger, even as she abandoned her children. She must have been so ill. She wasn't thinking clearly. I felt neither enthralled nor repulsed. She's a fine poet, I thought, but a terrible children's writer. And severely ill. Severely. Poor woman. Leaving an inheritance of pain for her innocent children; she couldn't have been thinking. She couldn't have known what she was doing. There was no single reason, there was no reason at all. She was not capable of reason by that point, though she likely thought she was.

I imagined the thin papers of The Bed Book tearing at the first touch of any child, much less the book-eater. No wonder there weren't many around all these years later. And if the kids weren't allowed to touch it, where would I keep it? High on the bookshelf and I could only look at it when they weren't around, which was when? It didn't seem to have any place, physically, in my current life and I was appalled that such mundane considerations had seeped in to my holy obsession. Ten years ago there wouldn't have been a practical consideration in the world that would have prevented me obtaining that final piece of my collection. Had my Plath obsession drifted off to sleep over the years? Had I finally had enough? Was it time to let her rest in peace? But what of finishing my collection? Was this just another way for a mother to lose herself? Or was I finding my own own power, my own confidence and no longer need to borrow Plath's? I'd finally found the final piece. It was in my hands; literally literarily (and now alliteratively) at last within my grasp. How could I let it go? 

We brought our books down the long tempting corridor to the counter by the front window. The owner had a eye out for some Mary Oliver for me and we discussed the dearth of used Oliver books (this was still before Amazon, amazingly) while he tallied up our total: Blue's little stack, and Coyote with one to chew on. And me with The Bed Book. But when I slid the frail booklet on to the counter I said, "I found this in the children's books. It's actually a collectible and pretty delicate."

"Oh, wow, yes it is," he said, "Thanks." And he placed it to the side to be re-priced and re-shelved.

And we left, me and my two kids and their bed time books and book-snack.


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