The author of the unforgettable story collection The News from Spain explains the tough realities we all need to figure out.
By Joan Wickersham
1. You Have A Good Girl And A Bad Girl Inside You, And The Good Girl Is Usually The One Who Gets You Into Trouble
The good girl waits to be called on. She takes no for an answer. She doesn’t want to disturb anyone. She carries maturity and good citizenship to the point of paralysis. She holds herself in check, tells herself, "Don’t you dare." The bad girl dares. The bad girl shocks me, and I have a lot to thank her for. She said, "I love you," and she said it first. She said, "I quit this job." She said, "I’ve been working on this book for eight years and it stinks and I’m throwing out the manuscript and starting over." When I look back at the things I regret -- the jobs I wanted and didn’t go after, the editors with whom I never got in touch, the misunderstandings I didn’t try to clear up, the interesting people I never talked to -- I can see how often the good girl was in charge: cautious and correct, and wrong.
2. Sooner Or Later One Of Those "How Can She Stand It?" Things Is Going To Happen To You, And You’ll Stand It
My father’s suicide. Without warning, on a February morning when he was 61.
3. Having One "How Can She Stand It?" Thing Happen Does Not Protect You From More Things Happening
A year after my father died, my mother was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer. Along with the fear and grief and rage, I felt a sense of cosmic unfairness, as if the universe had lost track of the quota and given our family more than its share of pain. The hard truth is: There is no quota. You can get hit once, twice, or ten times, clustered together or spaced far apart. It’s one thing to know intellectually that anything can happen; it’s another to actually feel the chaotic vulnerability of life, which for me didn’t come with the first terrible occurrence, but rather with the second.
4. Sometimes The Only Answer Is "Who Knows?"
My mother’s surgeon said this, when I asked him about her prognosis. I wanted to hug him, even while I believed that deep down he knew that she was going to die. But she went through surgery and chemo and she didn’t die, though the next few years were terrifying. Learning to live with uncertainty is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, and I’m continually having to re-learn it. But there is also something deeply lovely about uncertainty: the possibility of optimism. If the story of the future truly isn’t written yet, who’s to say it won’t end well?
5. Your Mother Is Tough, But Not Immortal
My mother died 16 years later at the age of 82, from causes unrelated to the cancer.
6. If You Can’t Take It Or Leave It, You Might Have To Leave It
For me it was flour and sugar. I gave them up more than a decade ago. Sometimes I miss them. But not enough to take back all the bad stuff–the bewilderment and shame of trying, and failing, to be moderate; the 80 extra pounds–that went along with them.
7. Love Doesn’t Always Color Inside The Lines
It is possible to be attracted to a man who is not your husband, even when you are happily married. Ugh. I don’t even want to include this one. But I guess that’s what makes it a hard truth. I have one married friend who admits, frankly and cheerfully, that she sometimes develops crushes. The rest of us don’t admit it. We hide it and feel embarrassed and disloyal and guilty. You don’t have to do anything about these feelings, but maybe it helps to know that other people have had them too. The bad girl knows it’s okay to write about this honestly. The good girl knows not to act on it. And in this case, they are both right.
Earlier on HuffPost OWN: 6 Things You'll Never Regret Doing
Offering to Play Don Draper for Your Friend
In the olden days of dating (and on "Mad Men"), the men used to order for the women. The idea, apparently, was that either the men were better decision makers or they somehow mysteriously knew what the women wanted. Like most really bad ideas, however, there is a little nugget of goodness in it. According to a study at Cornell University, <a href="http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/Dec06/eating.mindlessly.sl.html" target="blank">the average person makes 200 food and beverage decisions a day</a>. Add to that: the few hundred million other decisions she makes each day about everything from whether to text or email you to whether to wear panty hose or tights or pants to work. When you meet a friend for dinner, show how much you appreciate her by reserving a bit of your brain for her -- and offering to eliminate four bedeviling choices at the end of the day, specifically her drink, appetizer, entrée and dessert. Besides, if you really do know this friend, the odds are that you actually know what she wants (for anyone who's listening -- me: red wine, oysters, steak, raspberry sorbet with a some kind of elaborate cookie).
Taking a Tour of the Everything House
Sprinting to school each morning, my 6-year-old son has a lot to say. None of it provides any insight into how a human being can take 42 minutes to put on one tennis shoe. Instead, his soliloquies are about a place called the Everything House. The Everything House has bedrooms, a pool, a playground and France inside it. Adventures happen there, involving my son, his brother, Darth Vader and a ninja named Zane or Zane DX, depending. At the end of various battles and action scenes, I show up as a guest character and tuck everybody into bunk beds. We are always late and my son's stories are long and full of lengthy digressions like the <i>real</i> reason the dinosaurs died (a car accident). But letting a small child -- be it yours or somebody else's -- tell you such a tale does a few things. First, it signals to that miniature person that he is worth listening to, which inevitably leads to a bump in his long-term self-esteem. Second, it makes you think about new possibilities, which may or may not come to fruition but do make the day-to-day of life easier. Such as a house with a school in it, which the mothers and children reach simply by walking down the stairs.
Rereading Your Second Favorite Book
My favorite book is <a href="http://www.oprah.com/book/As-I-Lay-Dying-by-William-Faulkner_1" target="blank"><i>As I Lay Dying</i></a> by William Faulkner. I reread it every year. Many other people also have this habit with their favorite books, including Faulkner himself, who used to go back to <a href="http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/4954/the-art-of-fiction-no-12-william-faulkner" target="blank"><i>Don Quixote</i></a>, my father, who returns to <a href="http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/angle-of-repose-wallace-earle-stegner/1002937522?ean=9780141185477" target="blank"><i>The Angle of My Repose</i></a>, and my friend Allison, who revisits the Bible. What I've noticed across the board is that these books tend to be the ones with fat, thick spines and wise, life-changing import. They teach you big things. Your second- or third-favorite book, however, is like a younger child; it doesn't have to work that hard -- it can even goof off. Mine is <a href="http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/little-house-in-the-big-woods-laura-ingalls-wilder/1100545480?ean=9780064400015" target="blank"><i>Little House in the Big Woods</i></a>, which I've also learned a lot from (specifically to always mind my pa and never go sledding on Sundays). And yet until this year, I didn't make room for it on my to-reread list. Because we tend to think of “favorite” as singular. A favorite book. A favorite movie. A favorite person. But it's not as if adding to that group will diminish your feeling for the first selection. Choosing favorites may just be like loving: the more, the more rewarding.
Crashing High Mass
Walking home at night, I sometimes pop into the evening service of a Russian Orthodox church. Everyone is over 60, wearing black dresses and listening attentively to a priest chant about something very important that I can't understand. On top of that, I don't know what to do half the time (everybody stands, despite the chairs lining the walls), and I worry that I'm offending them with blond, American Presbyterianism. But there is something to be gained by drifting into an unknown spiritual gathering. You may not improve yourself by learning about another religion. You may not achieve enlightenment, either. But you know what <i>never</i> goes on in churches or temples or synagogues of any kind? Yelling. Nobody yells there. Nobody even gives you a dirty look or tells you that you can't wear leggings with a cropped top (<a href="http://www.oprah.com/spirit/Rules-for-Life-After-35">which we all know you can't—even to the gas station</a>). These are places where people are trying to be the best people they can be—which, at the end of day, is a good place to be.
Telling the Smothered (Tiny) Truth
In plays and in movies and in the compulsively addictive TV show "Revenge," families always have terrible secrets that they can't come clean about: ill-gotten funds, affairs, murders. Now, I just don't have that much big, sexy dirt, but what I do have are a lot of boring, small situations with attendant feelings that I don't allow myself to voice -- usually because I hope the problem will get better or go away. And yet, finally, after months and months, speaking up to, say, your son's violin teacher about the fact that a 3-year-old can't stand still for 10 minutes (and certainly not with a fragile rental instrument in his hands) engenders such dreamy relief that you must do it. You must! And the violin teacher must do whatever she was going to do in response: feel criticized and betrayed or decide to work in four-minute intervals with plenty of potty breaks. Tiny, smothered truths are hangnails of our emotional lives. They distress you more than you ever think they will. End them.
Going for the Mug Instead of the Key Chain
This one may cost you a little bit of money and maybe even some self-respect, but buying a totally tacky mug with your name on it—instead of the cheaper and less easy-to-spot keychain -- from a weird roadside attraction is the way to go. Especially if you're on I-10 near Dragoon Arizona and take Exit 322 on the hilltop between Benson and Willcox. Why? Because such a mug broadcasts in big, fat letters that you are the kind of human that's proud of having seen "<a href="http://www.roadsideamerica.com/story/2023" target="blank">The Thing</a>." Further, if you screwed up the courage to walk through a creepy wax museum after dark, using your cell phone as a light, avoiding the cats and bird and weird swarming moths that surround the Thing, then you need to commemorate this moment of bravery with a durable, quality souvenir...hypothetically speaking.