Lemme tell you a not-so-secret-secret about ‘adulthood’: Nobody knows what the f they are doing.
So much of being an adult is dealing with sucky situations – all the sudden a lot of your friend’s parents are dying, or your sister-in-law gets cancer (again), or this one has an affair that devastates that one, or your cousin suffers another miscarriage while her sister is expecting twins. Literally, life just becomes chock full of situations that you are not prepared to face, and suddenly you have no other choice but to face them. At least, that’s what adulthood has been for me, and for the majority of adults in my life.
The thing about these situations is not just that how horrible they are to go through, the worst part (to my mind), is that they are completely unpreparable for. You can read 9000 books about child loss (although I don’t know why you would torture yourself that way), and still, you know nothing about that actual experience of losing a child. You can read every first hand account of early-onset Alzheimer’s patients, and yet when your best friend from grade school no longer remembers her home address, you still pretty freaking helpless.
Again, though, we are all just… doing the best that we can.
So here’s another secret: Even though you will not know what you are doing, and even though you will feel overwhelmed and like this situation is impossible for you to face? You will still have to face it. There are no other options. And it’s 100% all about how you show up. Because there are adults who face those hardships by not facing them – by using substances to alter their realities; by using everybody’s all-time favorite, denial, to pretend those situations aren’t happening, or that it doesn’t impact them; by literally saying they just “can’t do this” and bowing out of all the emotional and physical work that the situation requires. Sometimes, those are the routes you have to take, I guess.
It’s almost enviable, to the caretaker in me, that ability to ‘can’t’ and bow out. That’s not who I am though, and it’s not how most adults choose to get through the hard stuff, either. Contrary to the overabundance of ‘let’s drink our way through this’ themed merch for adults; most people I know realize that that is not an appropriate way to live through the every day overwhelming suckiness of some periods in your life. (I recently had to explain the “our family tree is littered with alcoholics and genetics is a thing” discussion with my off-to-college nephew, so I’m definitely in the ‘drinking for fun is different than drinking to survive your day’ mode.)
So, for real – nobody knows what the hell they are doing, but – here is the most important part – you show up anyways. You let the grieving 12-yr-old cry on your shoulder, because it’s fall and that’s when her mom got sick, and she doesn’t know why she’s so upset, but you do, so you dig into your satchel of patience and you let her be extra moody and snappish for a few days. You corral your own anger at the husband who figuratively blew up his family, via selfishness, so that you can let his kids sit through a facetime visit while his wife cries alone in her room. You hold hands – wrinkled hands that taught you to tie your shoes, or all 50 states and their capitals, or smooth tiny hands that curl up around one finger. And you hold your breath while you count your sister’s breaths through her panic attacks. nd you make wishes – that this had never happened, that you all will make it through this, that you can somehow, someway help. And you, for real, just Show. Up.
But it is ridiculously hard to do that… Don’t think I don’t KNOW this.
It is so easy to write “Just show up”, but when you’re faced with it in real life – a friend whose world and spirit are crushed, a mom who can’t figure out what to do without her mom, a two year old throwing a tantrum at bedtime because his dad hasn’t been home in a few weeks – it is so goddamn hard to show up. To keep showing up.
And that is why I am grateful for books.
I don’t know how many times I’ve said (or written) that books have saved my life, but I’ll keep saying it because it’s never not going to be true.
But here’s another truth that I don’t say as often – I think books have helped me save other people’s lives.
And maybe that sounds dramatic, and maybe it is, but it feels real to me. Because I’ve never lost a child, but I sat with my cousin when we buried her baby and – because of books – I knew enough about grief and pain and loss to keep my mouth shut while she stared, blank faced and in shock, while other people started to wonder aloud why she didn’t cry.
It’s because of books that I know that sometimes grief shows up on the sunniest days and sits with you and makes you wonder why you even still exist, if the hole in your life is going to remain so overwhelming forever, and it’s because of books that I can say that the hole won’t be that large and gaping forever.
It’s books that remind me that sometimes showing up is bringing soup and minding babies, and other times it’s cleaning off a table that’s got three months worth of papers on it or making sure there’s toilet paper in the house. Books that explained that showing up can be done long distance – via phone or text or letters, deliveries of pajamas on sad anniversaries, deliveries of candy on happy ones.
And if all those acts – big and small, in person and over tiny cellphone screens – don’t add up to saving lives, then I don’t know anything about being a human – let alone an adult -at all.
So, I’m going through it right now, some of my friends and family members are in the middle right now, of big stuff, and small stuff, and HARD stuff. There’s a lot of struggle to go around. So here’s some of the books (a very incomplete, partial list) that are helping me to show the f up, in my life and in theirs.
They should each be subtitled “How to adult when you really feel like running the hell away”, basically.
First is There is No Good Card for This by Kelsey Crowe & Emily McDowell. Because it’s 100% true – 99% of the things in our lives that we have to deal with do not come with accompanying Hallmark cards, even if they should. This book is an excellent reference for what to say, (and, usually more importantly) what not to say, and how to deal with a wide variety of complicated adult-life-suckiness. Everything from unemployment & fertility issues to death and divorce is covered (with easy to use cheat sheets!), and it’s a great guide on how to be a caring human, while also remaining a cared for human. (A particularly difficult balancing problem I tend to have, personally.)
Then NetGalley happened to suggest When Life Hits the Fan by Janet Fouts, and wow, wasn’t that convenient timing? Because Fouts writes about being a caregiver, and the crash that can come when that’s all you’re focusing on in your life, and how to create a balance between being there for other people and being there for yourself. And oh, yeah – did I forget to mention that? That even in times of extreme horror and frustration, you’re also supposed to be living your actual life? Feeding yourself and caring for yourself and doing all of the things that adults have to do for themselves (like paying bills and all that bullshit?) Yeah: Nobody gives you a time out on your life, when everything else comes crumbling down. And so, Fouts’ account of so many caregivers and their stories, and how they learned to be compassionate not just with others but also with themselves came into my life at such an appropriate time, let me tell you. It’s hard advice to follow, but there ain’t nothing easy here, in grown-up land.
Next is Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed, which is a compilation of the best advice columns Dear Sugar ever did. It also covers a wide variety of topics, and deals with hard things with such grace and openness that it helps (me at least) to both give great examples of how people can connect with each other, and how important listening is. (Also definitely recommend the now-defunct Dear Sugar Podcast, which you can listen to old episodes of on any podcast app.)
Then I’m gonna throw some poetry at you, because I happen to believe poets manage to distill truth down in a way that only few art forms can accomplish (see also: internet memes). For poems, right now, my 2 go-tos are Billy Collins’ anthology 180 more Extraordinary Poems for Every Day (#168 Why I Don’t Take Naps In the Afternoon & #29 Please Come Late, in particular) & Rupi Kaur’s the sun and her flowers, which you should read from beginning to end and back again, as many times as possible. (“she is not a porn category; or the type you look for; on a Friday night; she is not needy or easy or weak – daddy issues is not a punch line.) You can also follow Rupi Kaur’s Instagram, for even more inspiration. (Honestly, Instagram is also a lifesaver some of these days, depending on who you’re following. There’s some real hope to be found there, real connections, other people who are facing hard times.)
I’m also gonna mine previous reviews and give a quick shout out to Raising Human Beings, The Art Of Comforting, How To Be A Heroine, & Rising Strong, (And also anything else by Brene Brown, just FYI., who keeps me believing that struggling through adulthood is a valid and valorous experiment.)
For their ability to keep me motivated, informed, and feeling courageous enough to show up everyday in my life and in the lives of those I love, and for letting me know it’s ok when I don’t feel that courage or strength, that I’m still doing my best on the very hardest days, thank god for books (especially ones with a sense of humor – all these images are Emily McDowell’s, btw).