Saturday, December 26, 2015

"You're not crazy. You can survive this, whatever 'this' is."

Joelle in South Africa

So many threads woven through Joelle Renstrom's book (Closing the Book: Travels in Life, Loss, and Literature) mirrored much of my life and writing:
* caregiving for her ill father and grieving after he dies
* seeking new aspects of herself in travel
* trying to teach meaningfully
* turning to literature as a guiding force
* developing a spiritual vision.

Her writing is gorgeous; her fine sentences elevate even the darkest subject matter.

One big difference between us is that she's a science fiction aficionado. I wanted to know about that, and other things, in our conversation:
I see your book as a coming-of-age at one of the most profound levels: coming to terms with mortality due to the loss of your dad. Is this how you would describe it? What else would you want readers to know about your book?

I shy away from describing it that way. For me, the book is really about making a choice. The choice is about what we do when our lives blow up. The first step is realizing that one has the power to make a choice in the first place. That took me a long time. It seemed that the world had spun out of control and I was powerless to affect anything. While I couldn’t cure my dad’s cancer, I could control my worldview. I could—and did, for a while—embrace a tragic view of the world and of life. But ultimately, who wants that?
My book is about ways we can reconcile control and lack of control, since life is a dance between these two positions, and how we can regain agency when it comes to making sense the world and our place in it.
Toward the beginning of the book you say, "I'm a great appreciator of terrible beauty, but I can get stuck and wallow in the terrible part for a while before I remember to open my eyes." By the end of the book, you seem to be less of a wallower and more of a wonderer. To what do you attribute this shift?
My answer to the previous question gets at this shift, I think, which was about realizing that I don’t have to participate passively in life. There will always be death and sadness—I can always consider myself a victim if I choose to. But I don’t have to position myself as the unwitting recipient of what other people or the universe offers. I don’t need to fix the world or the way things work, which is good, because I can’t. What I can change is my relationship to the world and the levels on which I can understand how I function within it.
The most concrete example I have of this shift comes by way of travel. After my dad’s death, I went on a pilgrimage to Scandinavia, my fatherland. I’ve learned that a relatively easy way to change my relationship to the world is to change geographically my location within it, which then catalyzes other, often unpredictable shifts.
When traveling, there are things one can’t control, such as whether a bus is late or whether it gets someplace safely, but in order to enjoy travel, one has to let that go and focus on what one can control—where am I going on my walk this afternoon? Will I talk to this person sitting on my right? Will I sit here a moment and think about my dad, even though it means I’ll start crying in a crowded place? Even though they might seem small, making those decisions was a huge step in renegotiating my relationship to the world and to myself.
I like how you describe your teaching experiences, how you help students to dig into books. What do you like best about teaching, and what do you find most challenging?
I used to work in an office—a few of them, actually—doing a variety of different jobs (a paralegal, a marketing editor, a researcher). But I didn’t like any of them. At the end of the day, I’d ask myself, what good did I do today? And the answer was always none (aside from making it possible to pay my rent). With teaching, I don’t ever have to ask myself that question.
The hardest part is when students struggle—academically, emotionally, socially, whatever—and all I can do is to ask whether there’s anything I can do. I can listen if a student needs to talk or help a student who has questions, but other than that, there’s not much I can. Sometimes I want to take students by the shoulders, shake them, and tell them how it is, set them straight. But it wouldn’t work. People have to find their own way, and for teenagers, this can be particularly painful. The hardest part is accepting that I can’t live their lives (or write their papers) for them.
Your book made me want to read Arthur Clarke, and I now have Childhood's End on my Kindle. I've read Ray Bradbury, whom you also write about, but not much more one could categorize as science fiction (unless you count Cloud Atlas, which I loved--not the movie but the book). Why do you like (and teach) science fiction, and what books and authors would you recommend?
Science fiction blows the doors off the confines of reality. I love literary fiction, but sometimes I get tired of reading realistic accounts of relationships, jobs, and well, reality. There’s really only so many ways to describe the situations we all know so well. Sci-fi offers alternatives to that while at the same time avoiding frivolousness. We get social commentary from sci-fi, we get thought experiments. Even works about robots and aliens are, at their heart, about what it means to be human. I’d rather explore that question from more interesting and unexpected parameters (or no parameters at all).
As for recommendations, I’m more about soft sci-fi (sci-fi that focuses on people, rather than on technical specifics) like Bradbury and Clarke. That said, I’m a sucker for Asimov, whose prescient robot works predicted current and future trends in the field. Hyperion by Dan Simmons, Sirens of Titan by Vonnegut (which is and isn’t sci-fi, depending on who you ask), Dune by Frank Herbert, Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, Old Man’s War by John Scalzi, Glasshouse by Charles Stross, Frankenstein (the father of them all), anything by Ursula LeGuin, Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, Octavia Butler…I could go on and on.
What surprised (and captivated) me the most was where the book led by the end, to what I would call a growing spiritual awareness. Is that how you would define it? What led to this shift, and why does it matter to you?
I don’t think I’ve used the phrase “spiritual awareness” to describe what happens in the end of the book, though that’s certainly an accurate description. “Spiritual” is a buzzword that people generally take to mean something specific, and probably not how I would define spirituality for myself. And while spirituality and religion are in my mind quite distinct, part of the reason I tend to avoid that word is because the two are so often associated. But anything that involves something significant that happens to us on the inside could be called spiritual. A feeling of awe, or peace, or whatever—all of that is spiritual. And by the end of the book, I was able to cultivate those feelings again, which is how I knew I’d be okay.
For me, the biggest piece of this transformation was realizing that thinking about something isn’t the only way to interact with or understand it. I’ve always been an analytical person. When confronted with something difficult, whether it’s a problem at work or a conflict with someone else or even death, I tend to lodge that problem in my brain and turn it over and over in an attempt to work it out. But sometimes, that’s not possible. Sometimes, it’s even detrimental.
That’s one thing I love about travel—you can’t just sit and think. You have to move. For me, spirituality comes from a shift away from thinking and analyzing and a movement toward simply feeling and being. My brain puts me at the center of the world, which often inhibits my understanding of things on a bigger scale.
Joelle in the Azores
What would you tell your younger self?

Dear self,

You think you have a plan. You think you know what you want from life—you even think you know how to get it. But listen, and don’t take offense at this: you can’t possibly know those things. And honestly, you don’t want to know. What fun would that be?
Life will not go according to plan, but ultimately, that’s the best possible outcome. If it went according to plan, you wouldn’t learn much about yourself and the world. If it went according to plan, your seven-year-old worldview and goals would dominate your life, and that’s not really what you want (trust me on this one).
Planning doesn’t determine who you are—it’s how you react to all the things you didn’t plan that shapes you. And you’re way, way better at dealing with the unexpected than you think. You’ll see.
Is there anything you'd like to add?
Death and coping/recovering from the death of a loved one is an intensely personal experience. In a lot of ways, it’s also a selfish one. I don’t—and can’t—write about how my mom, brother, or sister processed my dad’s death. That’s not to say their experiences don’t matter, just that they’re not mine to tell. I don’t want to project my journey onto anyone else or to suggest that what helped me is anyone else’s Rosetta Stone.
That said, such narratives do offer invaluable comfort. Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking kept me sane—if Didion feels like I do, I thought, then I’m not crazy. If Didion can survive this, then survival is possible. Ultimately, that’s what I hope to offer readers. You’re not crazy. You can survive this, whatever “this” is.

Joelle Renstrom is a freelance writer based in Somerville, Massachusetts. She maintains an award-winning blog, Could This Happen?, about the relationship between science and science fiction and her work has appeared in Slate, Full Grown People, Guernica, The Toast, and others. She teaches writing and research with a focus on science fiction, space, and artificial intelligence at Boston University.

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