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It Isn’t Only a Diary: How Bridget Jones Helped Me Find Myself

Dear Bridget,
I’ve wanted to write this for some time now, but whenever I sit down to draft a letter, the words get stuck between my brain and the page. It seems odd, really, to suffer an attack of writer’s block when addressing a woman who was once famously accused of verbal incontinence. You, with your candor and ready wit and your lack of (or perhaps refusal to activate) your brain-to-mouth filter, have often inspired me to practice greater honesty in my life, with others and, more importantly with myself. I have also discovered, as have you, that alcohol, while a seemingly effective tongue lubricant for confessing honesty, occasionally does more harm than good. Over the years, I’ve tried to express to others how much your story means to me, but nothing I’ve ever said has felt like an adequate tribute, so in honor of the 20th anniversary of your story’s publication this year as well as your return to the silver screen this month, now seems a fitting moment to thank you.

I first met you as an overwhelmed, twentysomething, budding feminist graduate student in English Lit, between crying over my inability to grasp Michel Foucault and eating entire cartons of ice-cream. When not slaving over novels that I seemed destined never to finish reading and feeling intellectually inadequate because I couldn’t use the word epistemological in a sentence, I gradually discovered that my social life had slunk off into the darkness, crawled beneath a pile of dirty laundry, and died. As I slumped on the sofa with a bottle of wine and a bag of pretzels, I convinced myself, in a fit of despair reminiscent of my elementary school days, that no one wanted to befriend the strange, bookish blind girl; never mind that I was pursuing a graduate degree in English and was entirely surrounded by strange, bookish people. I imagined everyone was attending swanky wine and cheese parties on Saturday nights and couldn’t be bothered inviting me because no one wanted to give me a ride. The fellow graduate student on whom I’d been crushing turned out to be a Mormon divorcee with three kids who flirted blatantly with me while being engaged to another woman and then tried to set me up with one of his friends. Had I known the textbook definition of a fuckwit at that time, I might never have landed in that particular mess, but I digress. To add insult to injury, my roommate (an undergraduate who was also blind) told me one night that “you dress like a woman twice your age, and it’s really off-putting. People think you’re older than you are.” So now I was not only unpopular; I was so criminally unfashionable that even other blind people shunned me.

Thus I found myself, during winter break after that first semester, de-fogging my brain with your diary. As you poured your heart into my lap, counting calories and alcohol units, self-consciously scrutinizing yourself in dressing-room mirrors, and worrying about dying alone and being eaten by an Alsatian, I realized something. Your struggles, your insecurities, your doubts, your fears were mine too. When I agonized over whether or not the size of my butt was the reason I couldn’t get a date or sulked about not being invited to any fabulous parties, you were doing the same. For one of the few times in my adult life, I experienced the thrill of bonding with another woman over the struggles of, well, simply being a woman.

I had spent most of my life struggling to fit comfortably in my own body, let alone fitting in everywhere else. Rationally, I knew that I couldn’t bow to the stigmas of disability; I couldn’t conform to the image that many people associated with a blind person who groped every day for one of three identical pairs of jeans to avoid a citation from the fashion police. How though, I wondered, could I construct a body image that reflected my personality without having my physical appearance and fashion trends filtered through the eyes of others? Trips to the mall were my personal purgatory, spending hours in front of a mirror that reflected nothing to me, relying on others to tell me honestly whether or not horizontal stripes made me look like a circus tent. This reliance on the judgement of others’ opinions of my body, believing that I couldn’t construct a self-image without the ability to see my own reflection, instilled me with a deep sense of self-loathing. I believed that if someone else told me that I was too tall, or too fat, or my hair looked like a bird’s nest, then it must be true, because they could see what I couldn’t. My body was disabled, abnormal, and therefore unattractive, and this, I gradually learned to believe, explained why I seemed to be a social pariah.

Then, Bridget, I met you, and I felt, for the first time, that someone understood me. My struggles, my self-scrutiny, my feelings of inadequacy had nothing to do with my disability and everything to do with the realities of being a young woman trying desperately to keep up with, as you put it, “Cosmopolitan culture.” You, Bridget, helped me to recognize that what I see in the mirror every day is as much a projection of what I believe my self-image to be as what is actually reflected there. On the one hand, you critically yet comically revealed a sadly enduring pressure on women to maintain unrealistic body image standards; on the other, you revealed to me that I wasn’t alone in my insecurity. My seeming inability to maintain a steady, healthy relationship with a mature adult male had nothing to do with my so-called disabled, abnormal body or the circumference of my thighs and everything to do with the fact that I simply hadn’t met the person who was ready and willing to love me just as I am; moreover, it didn’t (and still doesn’t) matter if I ever do, because being a woman of substance means loving myself with all of my flaws, not defining myself in terms of how others, especially others of the opposite sex, choose to see me. You gave me the courage to believe that if I choose to pursue love, I should settle for nothing less than someone who celebrates my strength and values me as a strong, independent woman; if I choose to remain single, my life and my work make no less valuable contributions to society because of that choice.

In the same way that you dramatically imagined that everyone had forgotten to invite you to their Christmas parties, I allowed my acute loneliness to exaggerate the perfection of everyone else’s lives. I imagined that everyone else had a successful job, a fashion magazine-approved BMI, glamorous circles of friends, and wildly sensational sex lives. Their reality, I gradually discovered, was far closer to my own. You gave me what I’d spent most of my life searching for: the validation that my lived experiences as a woman were, in many ways, no different than those of other women despite sometimes being constructed through the lens of disability.

After connecting with your story, my life didn’t magically change overnight, but that reading experience opened a space for me within the communities of women I began to encounter. You helped me to find a voice to participate in the narratives that women told and bonded over every day, from agonizing over the seemingly unattainable quest to find a perfectly-fitting pair of jeans to wondering if the barista at Starbucks who always gave me extra foam was hitting on me. Having reached this realization, I gradually found myself forming deep, enduring female friendships with women who have loved me, laughed with me, cried with me, eaten countless trays of chocolate chip cookies with me, drunk through enough bottles of wine to fill a black hole, and endured hours of agonizing dressing-room scrutiny and relationship analysis as only women can. You, Bridget, with your self-deprecating humor and your willingness to keep buggering on, taught me to embrace the wonderful, tumultuous, imperfect beauty of simply being a woman.

5 Classic Christmas Stories to Read This Season

Deck the halls and gather round; Christmas time is upon us once again, and amidst the hustle and bustle of Black Friday, big deals, packed shopping malls and parking-lot disputes, I hope you’ll take the time to pause, pour yourself a glass of mulled wine or a cup of hot coco and curl up by the tree with a classic Christmas tale. This festive season has yielded some of the most magical stories Literature has known—celebrations of family, friendship, hope, and healing, all in homage to the one season, as Charles Dickens famously writes, when we see one another for who we truly are: “fellow passengers to the grave.” If you’re looking for a bit of Christmas cheer, here are five classic stories sure to fill your heart with the spirit of the season.

Image of Ebenezer Scrooge in 2009 Disney's a Christmas Carol
Ebenezer Scrooge, portrayed by Jim Carrye (2009) image credit Walt Disney Pictures

1. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Possibly one of the most famous Christmas stories of all time with numerous adaptations starring everyone from George C Scott to Kermit the Frog, Dickens’s tale of Ebenezer Scrooge’s journey through his past, present, and future in search of Christmas spirit still speaks as poignantly to us today as in Dickens’ time, if not more so because of the ever-increasing commercialization of the season. With a host of memorable characters including the kind-hearted Bob Cratchit, gentle Tiny Tim, the elfishly exuberant Fred ,and Miserly Scrooge himself, this classic story is sure to remind us all how to keep Christmas and keep it well.

2. “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry

Another classic from celebrated American author O. Henry, this story tells of how Jim and Della selflessly, if impulsively, sacrifice their greatest treasures to buy each other a special Christmas present. As you’re haggling over the price of the latest apple Watch, remember the girl who cut off her hair to buy her husband a chain for his precious timepiece. “Of all who give and receive gifts,” O. Henry reminds us, “such as they are wisest.”

3. How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss

Join the Whos down in Whoville and give a great cheer. No time to be grinchy, for Christmas is near! The good doctor delivers a dose of wisdom in this well-loved story of how the Grinch discovers the true meaning of Christmas. How the Grinch Stole Christmas is the perfect pick-me-up when your Christmas spirit seems lost in the clamor of commercialism.

4. The Christmas Box by Richard Paul Evans

First published in 1993 and later made into a television movie starring Richard Thomas and Maurine O’Hara, The Christmas Box tells the story of a young family who comes to share the home of the elderly widow, Marianne Parkin and discovers a secret at once heartwarming and heartbreaking, particularly poignant against the backdrop of the Christmas season. This story reminds us to pause and celebrate the true gifts of Christmas—family, friends, and the ribbon that binds them all together–love.

5. “Christmas Every Day” by William Dean Howells

The department stores would probably love this concept, but this, as the wise Papa in the story reminds us, is a tale with a moral. “Christmas Every Day” is a story about a little girl who wished and wished for it to be Christmas every day, until her wish came true and she discovered that the whole thing was really quite a bother with all the presents and the turkeys and everyone running themselves ragged buying presents for one another until they didn’t know what to do with them. The kernel of wisdom, of course, is quite simple; it is Christmas every day without all of the material reminders, if we keep its message in our hearts.

Question

What are your favorite Christmas stories?

Mark Twain and the Magic of Reading: a Reflection on International Literacy Day 2015

One Saturday afternoon, while languidly grading essays on my couch as the rain pelted my windows, I received an unexpected jolt of surprise when a student’s essay informed me that, apparently, Mark Twain was the author of the Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Oliver Twist. As a Victorianist, I found the latter particularly amusing; apparently I have been reading all the wrong books. Once I had indulged in a brief chuckle over what Dickens might have thought of this misappropriation of authorship, I kindly made a notation in the student’s essay, correcting the mistake—or misinformation.

When I shared the story with several friends and colleagues, they expressed incredulity at the error, exclaiming, “These students went to high school, right?”
“Yes, presumably,” I answered. “but we can’t know where they’re coming from and what their educational experiences or access might have been like.” It’s easy to arch a brow in astonishment or weap in despair over such student errors, and I’m the first to admit that many English teachers spend hours in such comiseration. Yet while this serves as our coping mechanism to maintain relative sanity during grading marathons, such moments should also provide a sobering reminder of our responsibility as educators not to chide students for what they don’t know, but to broaden their knowledge base as we share our own.

As I scribbled a comment in the margin of my student’s essay, a memory suddenly dislodged itself from the fog in my brain. I saw myself, 7 or 8 yrs old, sitting on my grandmother’s lap while she regaled me with the story of Huckleberry Finn, from her memory.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, image source Wikimedia Commons

Growing up, I lost count of the number of times my grandmother told us how important it was to get an education, because she never had the opportunity to finish college.
“You’ve got to study,” she used to say. “You have to learn, because you have to go to college.”

So-called “lack” of formal education notwithstanding, Grandma was perhaps one of the most well-read peple I have ever known. She always had a book with her, and was always ready to share her stories.
“What are you reading, Grandma?” I’d ask, sneaking into the living-room on the nights she used to baby-sit, after I was supposed to be in bed, to find her sitting by the lamp, bent over a thick volume with close-printed pages. “Isn’t it boring?” I’d ask. “There are no pictures.”
“The pictures are in your mind,” she’d explain. “You have to use your imagination.”

And that was when it all started. That was when I began to understand that, tucked between sheets of paper were entire worlds—worlds where people fought battles, hunted for buried treasure, faught crime, made friendships, fell in love, lived, and died as many times as I wanted them to. They were there to talk to me, to tell me their stories over and over again; all I had to do was open the book. Before I even picked up my first Mark Twain book, Grandma had told me the story of Huck’s journey with Jim and his adventures (and misadventures) with Tom Sawyer. It was Grandma who introduced me to O. Henry, master of the American shortstory. “Tell the one about the Red Chief,” I’d beg, for the 10th or 20th time. It was Grandma who taught me the didactic value of stories; with Huck Finn, she taught me about the wrongs of slavery and the prejudice of the American South before I could pronounce the Emancipation Proclamation or even knew that there was such a thing. With “The Gift of the Magi,” she taught me about the enormous love behind the simplest acts and the meaning of selfless giving. She taught me to treasure stories for the lessons they taught me as well as for the hours of enjoyment they brought me.

I find myself reflecting on those memories today, when we celebrate International Literacy Day, because that love of literature, that passion for sharing stories, is the reason why I teach. I want to open the world of stories to students the same way my grandmother did for me, to be their guide through the magical land of Narnia or the packed throngs of Dickens’s London. I want them to know the wonder of traveling through time and living an entire life in the pages of a book.

Question

Who are your favorite storytellers?

The Fondness of a Father: a Tribute to Jane Austen and Mr. Bennet

I stood in my closet, hands on hips, tapping my foot as I surveyed my wardrobe. The floor around me was a tangle of jeans, sweaters, and black leggings.
“Woman of substance. Inner poise,” I repeated. “You can do this. It’s just a department holiday party.”
“No, it’s not,” said the small voice of insecurity that generally likes to make its opinions heard when I’m least interested in hearing them. “It’s a holiday party with your new sweetie. The first holiday party you’ve ever attended with a date in your nearly 30 years on this planet.”
“Shut up!” I hissed. “That’s classified information.”
“It’s blog fodder,” said the voice.
“That too,” I conceded. “Now, if you’ve finished lowering my self-esteem, I’ve got a party to go to.”

After much deliberation (and quite possibly the first game of eeny-meeny-miny-moe I’ve played since grade school) I’d selected what I hoped would be the perfect outfit and was debating the merits of comfortable and sensible versus sexy and stylish in the footwear department, when my phone rang.
“So, what are you wearing to the party tonight?” (It was my dad.).
“I don’t know,” I answered, contemplating the potential danger of blind woman and high-heeled shoe versus hard wood floor.
“What? What do you mean you don’t know? You’re going to a holiday party with your new beau. This is an essential detail.”
“Thanks, Dad,” I said, endeavoring to calm my breathing that had quickened through a combination of nerves, frustration, and tight pants.
“So what are you wearing?” he continued. “You want to look nice. Something that straddles the line between ‘professional’ and… ‘available.'”
“I-what?” Christopher Columbus! I wasn’t having this conversation with my father. I have a very short list of things that I never want to hear in my lifetime; it includes cats caught in a garbage disposal and Colin Firth’s American accent. Now we’ll just add to that any conversation with my father that includes or in any way references the topic of sex or sexuality.
“I, um, Dad, I don’t…want to have this conversation.”
“Well, whatever you wear, just don’t look too sexy, and behave yourself.”
No, not the “Remember-your-catholic-morals” conversation. Please. I mean, if the fact that I’m not dating a catholic already means I’m shopping for a condo in Hell, we might as well just move in together and have done with it.
“Dad, I’m going to be late,” I hissed into the phone.
“OK, but just one more thing.”
I sighed. “Yes?”
“Have a good time. I’m sure you’ll be fine.”

With what relatively little experience I’ve had playing the dating game, my father’s involvement can probably be best described as something between Steve Martin (think Father of the Bride here) and the Godfather. The thing is, my dad understands my taste in men about as much as he understands my taste in pineapple pizza. That being said, I have a long-cherished fantasy about the moment when I will some day announce my engagement to my father—a fantasy that is scripted along the lines of this conversation between Lizzie Bennet and her father about Mr. Darcy.

“Lizzie,” said her father, “I have given him my consent…I now give it to you, if you are resolved on having him. But let me advise you to think better of it. I know your disposition, Lizzie. I know that you could be neither happy nor respectable unless you truly esteemed your husband…Your lively talents would place you in the greatest danger in an unequal marriage…My child, let me not have the grief of seeing you unable to respect your partner in life.”

Elizabeth, Still more affected, was earnest and solemn in her reply; and at length, by repeated assurances that Mr. Darcy was really the object of her choice…and enumerating with energy all his good qualities, she did conquer her father’s incredulity and reconcile him to the match.

“Well, my dear,” said he when she had ceased speaking, “I have no more to say. If this be the case, he deserves you. I could not have parted with you, my Lizzie, to anyone less worthy.”

This passage echoed in my mind as, with one deep breath, I checked my purse for emergency cosmetics and headed out the door, and—literary geek that I am—I can’t help noting that I’m typing this on Jane Austen’s birthday; perhaps I’ve somehow managed to channel her spirit. I should try writing a historical novel set during Regency England, though I’ll leave out the zombies and seamonsters, thanks.
I might blame Jane Austen for enabling my romantic notions, but amidst the Darcy dreams, she taught me a valuable lesson: boyfriends come and go, but the fondness of a father is forever.

Happy 237th Birthday, Miss Austen.

Browsing my Bookshelf: Left Neglected by Lisa Genova

This novel has been calling to me from my shelf for nearly a year, and I finally decided to pluck it from the to-b-read pile.

Synopsis: Nothing can stop Sarah Nickerson: a smart, sophisticated, Harvard Business School-educated Vice President of Human Resources for a Boston Consulting Firm, not to mention a wife and a mother of three. Adept in her climb up the corporate ladder, Sarah is keen to catch and juggle the many curveballs that life throws at her from all directions, until she suffers a traumatic brain injury in a car accident that, quite literally, reshapes her world.

A neurological condition called “Left Neglect” prevents Sarah’s brain from registering sensory information on her left—everything from food on the left-hand side of her plate to the left side of her own body. As Sarah struggles to cope with the day-to-day frustrations of living in a world of which she is only partially aware, she is challenged to see just how short-sighted she has been and that the key to conquering Left Neglect is to focus on the corners of her life that she has filtered from her field of vision. Forced to reach into the black hole of neglect to retrieve her life, Sarah discovers not just herself, but the hands of her children, reaching out to comfort and be comforted, the touch of her loving and supportive husband, and the embrace of a mother who had for so long existed, unseen, in the blind spot of Sarah’s life and heart.

Left Neglected is a novel that powerfully reminds us of how a single moment can change the course of an entire life; of how loss, in its own strange way, offers us gifts we could never otherwise have received. With Tenderness and authenticity, Lisa Genova offers us a story that bears witness to the triumphs that emerge from tragedy and the journeys that we can only take when we recognize that the first step is accepting that we must allow others to walk with us. A novel that is a true testimony to the ways in which health, illness, ability, and disability are inevitably a part of the vocabulary that shapes the stories of our lives, “Left Neglected” also speaks universal human truths about love, loss, friendship, and trust.