I lost a lot during my thirties. I lost friends and family members. I lost opportunities. I lost ill-begotten beliefs and misconceptions. I lost bets with myself.
I am a lot lighter now, mentally and physically, from all that losing. I was left with what I have now: a family that is growing up, an adopted home, a clear vision in regards to my writing and teaching, a healthy exercise regime, and a restored reading habit.
I started reading, as in chapter books, when I was four. The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew. Before that it was Dr. Seuss and A Child’s Garden of Verses, starting around two and a half. This means that most of my forty years have been spent with the printed word, with rhymes and puns and heartbreak and intrigue.
I have always read narratives, fiction mainly but nonfiction as well, and have a hard time reading non-narrative books, such as linguistic textbooks. I majored in the social sciences, which felt very practical since it was not literature or art. I was trying very hard in my twenties to be practical since at twenty-three, I found myself pregnant. I turned away from writing courses and art history and committed myself to anthropology and sociology. I realize now that I only succeeded (and mildly at that) in those courses because it required reading ethnographies and writing long essays. Ethnographies are simply stories about people, writtten from an attempted objectivity but narratives all the same. And the essays I wrote, they were praised not because of the new concepts I was putting forth but because of the writing itself. One of my professors even suggested that I apply to a creative writing program instead of pursuing a graduate degree in anthropology. I could have listened to this truth about myself but I was determined to be more pragmatic and down-to-earth. And this involved turning my back on my dream of writing for a living and ignoring my reading appetites.
When I was pregnant though, I did a lot of reading, mainly Russian novels, the thicker the better. Lots of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. I knew that once I had a baby, my reading time was going to be colonized by the wee one’s needs. I read Middlesex (not a Russian novel) the week I went to the hospital to bring little Sebastian into the world and that experience, the induction, the bad hospital food, the shitty condescending doctors, are now mixed with the journey of Cal as he learned what it meant to be an intersex man.
I had only a few weeks at home with him before the semester started again. And because I wanted to graduate sooner than later after having someone to take care of join me in this world (before that I had been floundering, drifting from major to major), I doubled my course load, figuring that it was easier to do so when Sebastian was little than when he was older, and resisted the urge to wander through the fiction section at the school library.
It was not an easy year but we made it. As I approached graduation, I decided to find a job overseas (I had never even flown on a plane at that point) with health insurance (always a big deal for me since I had to rely on Medicaid when I was pregnant and had really terrible care). Japan became a possibility then a probability and then, poof, we were living here and I was teaching full-time and supplementing my income in the evenings as a conversation partner (it’s a thing). Back then, there was no Amazon here and I had to rely on whatever dog-eared books they had at the international center, airplane books, mostly, and some travel guides. It was around then that reading became less of a priority for me. This coincided with the rise of social media in my life, which, for a while, helped to stave off my homesickness and loneliness. I was a new mother far away from my village in a land where I was a deaf-mute and illiterate to boot. Chatting with friends and sharing pictures and links became a coping device.
I had another kid and then another and then another and by then, I barely had three minutes to shower or go to the toilet. Books were a luxury. Not only were they hard to come by, they also were too valuable to have around grubby fingers. I remember packing up my books in Nagoya after having kid number four because he was very fond of pulling books, in a grand sweeping style, off the bookshelves to make a loud cascading clatter on the wood floors. Once the books were in a box, I forgot that I had them until it came time to move back to America and I sold them to other foreigners who were desperate for reading materials. There were some in the mix that I had not even read yet and oddly, I did not feel any remorse about this.
By this time, I was in my thirties. We moved back to the States and suddenly I could get books but I hardly knew which books to get. I reread a lot of books from my youth or random books my parents had left behind when they decamped from my childhood home, where we were staying, to their much nicer place an hour south. Then we moved again, back to Japan. Things were beyond rough for a long time. Writing emerged as a means of dealing with reality head-on and social media soon slipped in my esteem. I ordered a book, slowly read it, then ordered another one. Slowly, slowly, I rebuilt my reader-self, one book at a time. When we moved here, I had a box of books to unpack. If I was to move tomorrow, my library would fill several boxes.
I was straightening up my bookshelf last night and basking in the pleasure that comes from touching the spine of a book and recalling the worlds that are encased within those covers. During my reading drought, I still wanted to be a writer, but had I seriously attempted anything, I would have failed. I thought then, in my thirties, that it was better to be free from influences, that the only way to establish my own voice was to listen only to my voice. The problem was that I was not interested in listening to myself and so I sunk into a void where all I heard was silence.
All writers will tell you that it is impossible to write without reading, without being immersed in the language, wrapped up with imagery and submerged in syntax. I stumbled onto this truth out of desperation, always having been too stubborn to take advice from others. And I am so glad to have arrived here, in the reading world again. I look back to that bleak period of my early to mid thirties and see that a lot of my heartbreak and confusion could have been avoided if I had continued to read rather than clinging to the lie that reading novels and short stories is impractical.
I had to lose that ill-fitting idea of the one-size-fits-all adulthood. I had to be face-down in the mud of life so that I could know the joy of standing upright, of climbing to the highest peak I can find and owning all that I can see. And I can see so much now.