by Lydia Netzer
2. I am not Herman Melville.
3. I am vulnerable to weather.
These are the three disappointments of the day.
Last year, on my birthday, somebody died. That was a different disappointment.
Last week, I took a canoe trip with my two children on the Allegheny River. One minute we were floating lazily along, and I was taking pictures of different sunbathing rocks that would have looked like the one that my main characters Sunny and Maxon were sitting on when he proposed. The next minute, the air turned chill and I heard thunder. We tried, valiantly, to make it back to the canoe rental place and get safely into their office or our van. However, we ended up blown across to the wrong side of the river. We climbed out of the canoe and pulled it up into the rocks, and spent the next half hour or so clinging to the slippery side of a large boulder, unable to see or speak because of the strength of the thunderstorm that was raining down on our heads. In the river valley, thunder almost deafens you. We were afraid to go into the trees, the canoe was swamped and barely above water, and it was all bad.
My daughter is eight and weighs about 40 pounds. My son and I tried to make a roof over her with our bodies, but she was shaking terribly from the cold and driving rain. I was very positive, very calm and sure for the children, but the thing that was raging in my head, and the thing I was screaming at Dan later on the phone, was that nature was doing a very good job of reminding me that I am very small, and very weak, and that the world does not care if one person drowns in a river on a Saturday, or if one child gets hit by lightning while freezing on a rock. I live my life in a bubble of technology and communication and abstraction. Then I come out of my bubble, feeling as invulnerable as an idea, and put my proud ass in a canoe, and then a thunderstorm comes. I was wearing a *dress*. How stupid and vain.
So, I am vulnerable to weather. And on top of that, I’m not Melville.
I can remember when I was 32. Actually, it was when I was turning 33. Melville wrote Moby-Dick when he was 32, and I had always felt, in some hubris-soaked part of my overachieving little brain, that by the time I was 32, I would have something massive to say to the world, like Melville did. I felt that I would write my “magnum opus.” As I turned 33, I can remember crying to Joshilyn on the phone that I had failed, that I had gotten old, that I had nothing to say.
The year I was 32 was also the year my mother died, the year I was pregnant with my daughter and struggling to parent my son, the year I was trying (again) to write Shine Shine Shine only with three female main characters instead of one, and it wasn’t working. None of it was working -- not being pregnant, not parenting, not having people stay alive, and not writing my novel. So because this ridiculously arbitrary age of 33 came and I had not produced a noble work of timeless majesty, I cried and pissed around and moped. And felt spent. There were lots of times that year I felt like giving up. How stupid again, and how vain.
Today is my birthday. Last year, on my birthday, somebody died.
She was legally my sister, biologically my aunt, functionally my parent. She was not that old: 67. She died with about a hundred to-do lists scattered around her house. I found them as I was sorting and cleaning. One of her favorite things to do, it seemed, was to buy a new notebook, open it to the first page, and write out an enormous to-do list. The lists I found over those weeks of organizing dated back a long way. They included huge projects like “Empty the Garage” and “Sew Five Outfits” and “Lose 20 Pounds” and “Plant Vegetable Garden.” It was both heartbreaking and horrifying to see how ambitious these lists always were, and to realize that she never crossed anything off. This is not to say that she never did anything. She did plenty. But not these things. She died with all these lists full of lofty, noble, challenging goals, and they were collecting in drifts around her house, and she’s dead now, and they mean nothing.
Her death was unexpected. It’s possible that she felt, like I feel, invulnerable to death and danger, that she felt it couldn’t actually happen to her, she couldn’t actually die, not with all those lists and all the intentions she had. After all, I did survive that thunderstorm and flood. I didn’t drown or get burned up in lightning. It could be I am invulnerable after all. To death, to aging, to weather, to an adjusted timetable for success. I could still live forever, AND be Melville, AND walk through fire.
1. I’m turning 40 today. (If I say it enough times, it will seem real.)
2. I am launching a book this year.
3. I am able to survive a thunderstorm, outside, in a dress.
These are the three celebrations of the day.
All of this has really happened: I aged. I coasted through 33 without a novel. I have loved my family, I have parented my children, I have supported my friends. And here’s the big thing I have to say to you today about something that really happened too. My life to-do list has always had one giant and blazing bullet point: WRITE A NOVEL. That has been done. It came late, and took a long time. I am older than I thought I would be and sadder than I thought I would be, but I am here. I’m proud to show you the book trailer for Shine Shine Shine: not “before I turn 40” or “in my youth” but right now. Happy birthday to me.
Like the song “Robots”? The music from the trailer is available for free download here: The Virginia Janes. Happy birthday to YOU.