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Acclaimed author Lauren Slater ruminates on what it means to be family.
Lauren Slater’s rocky childhood left her cold to the idea of ever creating a family of her own, but a husband, two dogs, two children, and three houses later, she came around to the challenges, trials, and unexpected rewards of playing house. In these autobiographical pieces, Slater presents snapshots of domestic life, populating them with the gritty details and jarring realities of sharing home, life, and body in the curious institution called “family.” She asks difficult questions and probes unsettling truths about sex, love, and parenting. In these pages, Slater introduces us to her struggles with her mother, her determination to make a home of her own, her compromises in deciding to marry (her conflicts manifesting as an affair on the eve of her wedding), her initial struggle to connect with her newborn child, and the dilemmas of mothering with a mental illness. She writes openly about her decision to abort her second pregnancy and her later decision to have a second child after all. She tells us about the searing decision to have elective double mastectomy and how her love for her husband was magically rekindled after she saw him catch fire in a chemical accident.
It’s not all mastectomies and chemical fires, though. Slater digs into the everyday challenges of family living, from buying a lemon of a car and fighting back menacing weeds to gaining weight and being jealous of the nanny. Beautifully written, often humorous, and always revealing, these stories scrutinize the complex questions surrounding family life, offering up sometimes uncomfortable truths.
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Lauren Slater is a psychologist and writer. She is the author of several books, including Blue Dreams: The Science and the Story of the Drugs That Changed Our Lives, The $60,000 Dog: My Life with Animals, Playing House: Notes of a Reluctant Mother, Welcome to My Country, and Opening Skinner’s Box: Great Psychological Experiments of the Twentieth Century. Slater lives in Harvard, Massachusetts.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
At the age of nine years I went to my first overnight camp, located in Poland, Maine, way up off 95, by a kidney-shaped lake where, across the shore, we could see the serrated lines of red roofs and, on sunny days, white sails walking along the water. The camp was called Tripp Lake, and it was for girls, or so my parents said, who were especially competitive, girls like me, not yet pubescent, packed with all the power of a life that has yet to really unfold, bringing with it the hard parts, the shames, the sadnesses, none of that yet. I wore my hair in what was called a “pixie cut,” which was a nice way of saying it was short as a boy’s, a crew cut really, and at that age white-blonde, so the stubble glittered silver in the summer sun. I spent my evenings playing capture the flag, an exhilarating game that requires fast feet and a bit of cunning.
Understandably, my parents thought it best to send me to a place where my energies could be shaped and expanded. I agreed. I thought I might be Olympic quality, like those skaters I’d seen or the skiers hunched over their poles, ricocheting down mountains where ice hung from all the trees.
I remember the first night at the camp, but no, let me begin before then, at the bus stop, about to leave and feeling, for the first time, a shudder of intense grief. My mother, an aloof woman whom I nonetheless adored, looked pale, her eyes foggy and distant. My father was a small man in the bakery business. Lately they’d been fighting. She wanted something grand out of life, something more than a muffin, whereas he was content to nozzle whipped cream on top of tarts. I loved my father, but I loved my mother more, more problematically is what I mean, in the crooked, hooked way only a daughter can.
I hugged my parents good-bye, and when I hugged my mother I could feel a circle of sadness in her. By leaving I felt as if I were betraying her. I had heard their voices at night, his quiet, hers shrill, you and you and you, and I’d seen my mother sometimes sitting on the porch looking out at nothing. She was a severe and brittle woman, and even at that age I knew brittle was breakable. Sometimes, driving in the car, she crushed the accelerator to the floor, just for the feeling of speed, and other times she cried with her mouth closed. I had the feeling, there at the bus stop, that she wished she were me, about to board a bus heading for the horizon, a green-striped bus with Peter Pan dancing on its flank and girls unabashedly eating apples. And because I felt her longing, inchoate, certainly unspoken, my chest seemed to split with sadness, and also guilt. This was a new emotion for me, an emotion that sat in the throat, an emotion that was maybe more imagistic than all the others. Guilt made me imagine that while I was away, my mother would come undone, her arm would fall off, her hair drift from her head. Guilt made me imagine that she would sit at night and cry, and what could I do about that? I wanted to say I was sorry, but I didn’t really know what for. I couldn’t have said it then, what I’ve since felt my whole life, that separation is a sword, painful, to be avoided at all costs.
My first night at camp: I could hear the flagpole rope banging against its post; I could hear the cry of what were maybe coyotes in the woods and the susurration of thousands of tree frogs. I couldn’t sleep, so I stepped outside, onto the damp dirt that surrounded the cabin, and in the single spotlight that shone down I found a tiny toad, no bigger than a dime, with still tinier bumps on its taupe back. I lifted the amphibian up. I could not believe god or whoever could make an animal so small, an animal that would have, if I cut it open, all the same organs as me, in miniature, the locket-sized heart, bones like white wisps. How easy it is to break an animal; I could have crushed that frog with my fist, and part of me wanted to, while another part of me wanted to protect it, while still a third part of me wanted to let it go.
Before camp I’d been a more or less happy girl, but that first night I couldn’t sleep, and by morning a wild sadness had settled in me. Where was I? Where was she? Someday I would die. Someone somewhere was sick. It was as if a curtain had been pulled back to reveal the true nature of the world, which was terror, through and through.
I became, for the first time in my life, truly afraid that summer, and the fears took forms that were not good, that did not augur well for my later life, although I didn’t know it then. That first day, sitting on the green lawn, watching a girl do a cartwheel and another girl mount the parallel bars, I developed an irrational fear that is still hard to explain; I became hyper aware of my own body, the swoosh of my blood and the paddling of my heart and the huh huh huhs of my breath, and it seemed amazing and tenuous to me, that my body did all of this without any effort on my part. As soon as I became aware of this fact—almost as though I’d discovered my lower brain stem and how it’s hitched to the spinal cord—as soon as I came to consciousness about this, I thought, “I can’t breathe.” And truly, it felt like I couldn’t breathe. I thought, “I am thinking about my breathing, and if I think too hard about my breathing, which you’re not supposed to think about, I will concentrate it right away,” and I swallowed hard, and then I became aware of all the minute mechanisms that comprise a swallow, and so I suddenly felt I couldn’t swallow anymore. It was like the lights were going out in my body, while meanwhile, in front of me, girls did cartwheels on the green lawn, completely unaware that I was dying.
After that, the fears came fast and furious. I was afraid to think about walking because then I would fall; breathing, because then I would suffocate. Swallowing was the worst one of all, to suddenly feel that you have no way of bringing the world down into your throat, of taking it in, no way. I then became afraid of the camp dining hall with its vicious swordfish mounted on one wall and its huge bear head with eyes like my mother’s, dull, distant eyes, eyes at once wild and flat. I became afraid of pancakes, of toothbrushes, of cutlery, of water, the counselors urging me into the lake, where fronds fingered through the murk and scads of fish darted by, making a current cool against my legs.
That first week at camp, I fished a dime out of my uniform pocket (we wore only blue-and-white standard-issue uniforms) and called my mother. From far, far away I heard her voice. When had her sadness started? With my father, or before that, with her mother, who insisted that she, the oldest of three girls, do endless tasks and child care, so she was never able to shoot marbles, too busy shining the silver? My mother, I knew, had been a good girl, exceedingly good, and because of that, she hated my grandmother. She called her “Frances,” and all holidays were barbed affairs, my mother sniping at her mother, making faces at the food, because she, if only given the chance, could have done better.
My mother did not go to college, despite the fact that she’s bright. In my imagination, when I construct a history for her because she’s so closed about her own, she wants to be a singer on a lit stage, or she wants to be a painter with her canvas at a quiet lakeside. She wants something larger than her own life, larger than her husband’s life, larger than the house and kids, where what she does all day is clean. Much, much later on, when I was near grown, after she and my father divorced, my mother would develop a passion for Israel, its military might, and she became fiercely, ragefully Zionistic, and, totally bursting the caul of her confinement, she smuggled Bibles into the USSR. But this was later, after she found an outlet for her energies, and if only I’d known that was going to happen, that she was going to get into something good, if only I’d known, maybe my fears would have been fewer.
From far away my mother answered the phone, and I said, “I want to come home,” and she said, “Don’t be a quitter, Lauren.” She wanted a larger life for me, a life where girls stand on stages, take charge of a team, swim the length of a lake and back in a Speedo suit. But as long as she didn’t have these things, I felt much too guilty to take them for myself. None of this did I say.
At camp, we were divided into teams, and every activity, from drama to Newcomb (a kind of volleyball), was cast as a competition. I watched the older girls run with their lacrosse sticks, cradling them close to their sides, the ball in the gut-string pocket a soft blur. I watched as we, the younger girls, were taught to dribble and to shoot. Part of me wanted fiercely to win these games, while a still larger part of me could not even allow myself to participate, for somehow I would be betraying my mother if I did.
I was put on the Tigers team. Every morning after breakfast, standing at attention beneath that mounted swordfish, we would sing:
Shielded by orange and black
Tigers will attack
Catching every cue
Always coming through
It was a summer of color war. I remember, in particular, a game called bombardment, which we played in the gym on rainy days, Tigers versus Bears. In this game, each side is given a whole raft of rubber balls, and the purpose is simply to hurl them at each other as hard as you can, and whoever gets hit, is out. Before I’d left home, maybe I could have played this game, but certainly not now. Brown rubber balls came whizzing through the air, smacked against the lacquered floor of the gym, ricocheted off a face or a flank, and one by one each girl got hit and so would sit out on the sidelines. I was so scared of bombardment that whenever we played it, I hung way in the back of the court, where the other team’s balls could not reach me. And then one day, because of this, I lasted throughout the whole game; everyone on my team had been hit except me, everyone on the other team had been hit except a senior girl named Nancy, a fourteen-year-old who had one leg shorter than the other. Because of this, she had custom-made shoes, her left heel stacked high enough to bring her up even, so she didn’t tilt. Out of the corner of my eye I’d watched Nancy walk; even with her shoes she was strangely clumsy, gangly, always giggling nervously just at the rim of a group of girls, her desire to be taken in palpable.
And now Nancy and I were the last two left in the game. Everyone on the sidelines was screaming Go go go! Nancy’s skin was as pale as milk, the strands of veins visible in her neck. Her gimp foot, supported by the huge rubber heel of her sneaker, seemed to wobble. Go go go, but I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t hurl that ball at her. It seemed existentially horrible that we were called to do this sort of thing in the world, to live in a way so someone had to lose. I stood there, locked in place, mesmerized by her skin and her foot, while Nancy lifted the ball high above her head and hurled it towards me with as much muster as she could muster, and I just stood there and let the ball hit me on the hip. Nancy won. That was the only outcome I could tolerate.
It didn’t take long for the counselors to realize that something was wrong with me. I cried all the time. During free swim I retreated into the fringe of woods. The woods were next to a red barn where horses hung their heads over stall doors and there were golden squares of hay. Somehow, being near the horses calmed me. I liked their huge velvety lips, their thoughtful mastications. I liked the way they almost seemed to slurp up hay. I liked their rounded backsides, their plumed tails; I even liked their scat, flecked with grain and sweet smelling. Still, whenever I enter a barn and smell that smell, I do a Proustian plunge back to that first barn and the chestnut ponies.
Riding was a camp activity reserved for the older girls. I began to watch those girls cantering around the ring, the horses seeping dark sweat on their muscular chests. The riding coach’s name was Lisa. She was a wisp of a woman in tan jodhpurs with suede patches at the knees. Once, when I was alone in the barn, I found her riding clothes hung up on a hook near the tack room. I tried on her green hunt jacket. It hung huge on me, but it felt cozy, and on its lapel there was a tiny brooch in the shape of a dragonfly.
“Would you like to try?” Lisa asked me one day.
“I’m only nine,” I said.
“Well,” she said, “I have a horse who’s only nine too. Maybe you would make a good match.”
“What’s his name?” I asked.
“What’s yours?” she said.
“Lauren,” I said.
“Smokey Raindrops,” she said. “But we call him Rain.”
Rain. What a beautiful name. It was more a sound than a designation. “Yes,” I said.
In fact, I didn’t get to ride Rain that day. First, all the counselors, along with Auntie Ruth, the camp director, had to discuss it. Should I have lessons even though that was not a part of my camp curriculum? Would that make me happy? They thought it might.
Riding is a sport that, like any other, requires doing more than just the circumscribed activity. There is the ritualistic preparation, like the waxing of skis or the oiling of strings or, in my case, the grooming before the tack. A few days later, Lisa showed me how to use a currying comb, pick a hoof, leaning down and cupping the hairy fetlock, lifting the leg, the shine of the silver shoe with six nail heads in it. Time passed. Days passed. I found caring for the horses soothing, and I found when I was at the stable by these big snorting animals that I could forget about my own breath and just breathe.
All through the summer Lisa taught me how to ride, alone, no other girl there. She taught me how to post, how to do dressage, how to jump. I learned to hoist myself up, foot in one stirrup, other leg flung over the broad rank back. “When you post,” she said, “watch the left leg. As it extends, you rise.” The trot of a horse is like a metronome. It synchronizes you. It hypnotizes you. Left foot rise. Left foot rise. Your whole mind funnels down into this foot, the flash of hoof in the summer sun. And I’ll never forget the day Lisa taught me to canter, how she said, “Trot out, give him a kick with your inside foot,” and suddenly the horse’s tight trot broke into the rocking run, around and around the ring we went, so fast it seemed, the world blurring by in a beautiful way.
Riding is largely a singular sport. Although there are shows and red ribbons, first places and sixth places, it can still be done, nevertheless, with no attention to that. You cannot really play lacrosse or soccer unless you are playing against someone, and this against-ness requires that you see yourself as separate, with all that that implies. But horseback riding you may do alone in the woods, or in a dusty riding rink, or even in your mind, which can canter too. Riding is not about separation. It is not about dominance. The only person you might hurt is you. You are, at long last, without guilt.
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