My mother always said I was born mad, screaming at the top of my lungs for the first two years of my life. She would find me asleep standing up and draped over the side of my crib. Nights were the worst. They still are. I never remember feeling calm.
I know how it feels to want to feel calm. Calm isn’t in my genes, but I felt something close to it the moment my kindergarten teacher handed me a “See Jane Run” ready-to-read book, so she could place me in a reading group. There was a beginning and an end to that story, and the letters lined up in ways that made perfect sense, unlike my own mind and body, constantly fighting to stay together to keep me from floating away with every daydream and fantasy.
When I was five, I believed that books could maybe teach me how to be ‘okay’ in a world that I’d come into with all my wires crossed, a genetic mess pumped full of Diet Coke since conception. Because it was the eighties. So I used books to escape feelings I didn’t want to feel for very long. Even now, it is a rare moment to catch me without a book somewhere - in my car, my purse, my gym bag.
My little girl stomach stayed tied in knots, my skin erupted in Eczema and Sebaceous Dermatitis for years. I was born in the desert of West Texas and grew up dehydrated on a low-fat, oil-free, sugar-filled, water-negligible diet. I had weekly visits to the austere Germanic Dermatologist with a thick European accent, and life was a melange of antibiotics and antihistamines and shots and dry ice treatments. I would go weeks without a bowel movement, except when I was at my school library or the corner book store.
I had escaped feelings about my body almost entirely by the first grade when I met Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew. And then before I hit double digits, I had learned all I needed to know about love and loss from Catherine and Heathcliff in “Wuthering Heights” and how to persevere and never be a victim from Jane Eyre. I read about the secrets of a woman’s heart from Emily Dickenson and the unstoppable power of lust from V.C. Andrews and Danielle Steele.
By fifth grade, I knew that a desirable girl must be as nice as she is clever as she is smart, and as brave as she is effortlessly beautiful and playful. And always appropriate but always herself. These were the rules for survival, the rules to avoid abandonment. She must have an understanding of music and literature and style, and captivate through performance. She must know a little about business and foreign affairs, but not too much. And every respectable woman must have at least one female best friend.
As far as I know, none of my heroines knew how to change an air filter, and most of them couldn’t cook or operate electronics. From J.M. Barrie, I learned that girls love boys and boys love fun and everyone loves to fly for a little while. And then, in sixth grade, I was taught by Doestovsky and Tolstoy and the Bible that the games boys play turn into both the unquenchable desires and immeasurable destruction of men. Nature was clearly no match for man, so the physical sciences were of little value to me. Science was boring because it was useless when it came to surviving in my world.
But as for the ways of the world where my body happened to be stuck? I never learned those ways in books. I knew myself in other worlds, how to navigate through Narnia, conquer Mordor and travel the wastelands of Stephen King’s Gunslinger. I sometimes still look at the stars and feel more connected there than to the ground. And I remember we are all made of stardust.
Like it or not, at least for now, we all have to learn how to live on the ground. Today, when my mind races, driven by fear that I might get stuck all alone with just myself, when I want to reach for a book, any book, to take me away from my unfamiliar and imperfect body and towards the comfort of my mind, I try to be brave and reach instead for a hand. Touch brings me back to the ground. Just like an infant attuned with her mother’s gaze, hand curled around mother’s pointer finger, body wrapped and rocking to the rhythm of the heartbeat, my adult brain must find calm and order where my infant brain could not. Brains, just like our bodies, are always changing. New cells replace old, new behaviors and beliefs light up neuropathways for the first time. And breath fuels it all.