caroline knapp is one of my gods.

Caroline Knapp, and Lucille

The Merry Recluse: A Life in EssaysThe Merry Recluse: A Life in Essays by Caroline Knapp

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Caroline Knapp is part of the pantheon of writers who know how to write. I admire her work tremendously—her insights, her turns of phrase, her sheer intellect, her honesty and wit. The following quotes are from her collection of essays and commentary, brilliantly titled: The Merry Recluse.

On life without booze…

From Life Without Anesthesia:

Anxiety looms and you think: This is why I drank. Sadness washes up: This is why I drank. Rage surfaces, or doubt or self-loathing: This is why I drank. Addictions, after all, are enormously self-protective. They’re coping mechanisms, antidotes to strong emotion. […]

Life without anesthesia often has the quality of vigorous exercise, as though each repetition of a painful moment, gone through without one’s substance of choice, serves to build up an emotional muscle. When you drink away feeling—or starve or eat or gamble or obsess it away—you deprive yourself of the chance to really understand it, to come to grips with fear and self-doubt and rage, to truly battle the emotional landmines that lurk within. Addictions may protect you, but they also stunt growth, prevent you from walking through the kinds of fearful life experiences that bring your from point A to point B on the maturity scale. When you give them up, when you begin to get through those difficult moments, you find yourself flexing muscles you never knew you had. You find yourself growing.

On Sunday morning coming down…

From On Loneliness

I have had a long, intimate relationship with this particular form: sometimes I think I was born with it, born with a particularly acute sense of myself as apart from the world, as somehow different or lacking. I can remember sitting in my bedroom on a spring day as a child, watching leaves rustle against the windowpane, aware of a feeling I was far too young to name: it was a sense of absence, I think, a belief that the world bustled on outside that window without me, that I was unable or perhaps unwilling to join in. It’s not that I didn’t have friends—I always had, and still have, many friends—but the loneliness of my experience tends to be immune from reality, from circumstance or logic: it lives within me, a small, persistent demon that stirs in my quietest moments, during unplanned evenings, on Sunday mornings. It is a sense of void.[…]

I’ve tried drinking loneliness away, exercising and shopping it away, scouring it away in fits of housecleaning. I’ve also had some success with all of these strategies, particularly the one involving bad men: there’s nothing quite so distracting as an obsessive love affair, and if a sour romance makes you lonely—well, at least you can blame the feeling on someone else.

On the man selling young girls experience…

From Harassment 101:

The professor in my case was someone I’d admired tremendously, someone whose counsel I’d sought and valued. He’d praised my work, inspired me to go into journalism. Me? I was just out of school, shy, unsure of myself, overwhelmed with the prospect of being let out into the world, scared. I had a terrible time letting go of my idealization, seeing him as wrong or out-of-line. I also worried that I’d been na├»ve, sitting there drinking martinis with this man and not acknowledging any possible romantic implications. And I worried about whether I’d done something to bring the incident on, sent out some kind of signal of availability.

More likely, I’d sent out other signals: insecurity, a wish to be seen as special, a yearning to be valued by people I held in high esteem. Those feelings are powerful, and I think some people (some men) are equipped with special radar for them; they pick up on precisely that hunger for approval and move in.

The day after he phoned me, we went for a walk near the campus and he talked about how “interesting” he thought I was, about my “fascinating mind.” […]

Looking back, I think what bothers me the most is the confusion I must have felt about what it means to be valued. This culture has such difficulty producing girls who feel good about themselves in terms that are not purely physical, who feel intrinsically worthy as whole people, and I see myself back then—21, scared, insecure—as utterly representative of the times. I knew a lot about being pretty (which seemed important), but not much at all about being powerful (which seemed abstract), so intellectual respect and sexual interest from men felt tied up together, inextricably linked.

On the complexity of female friendships…

From Grace Notes

Sounds familiar right? We women have a gift for closeness. So why was this friendship so wonderfully surprising to me? Contrary to conventional wisdom, sustaining a close, trusting friendship can be a dicey business for women—at least in my experience. This may be true by definition: institutionalized relationships like marriage and family are bolstered by social supports. Friendships, on the other hand, are subject to few rules, few measurable standards of success or failure. When things get rocky with a girlfriend, you don’t cruise the Yellow Pages for a Friendship Counselor. When a friend lets you down or goes through a major life change that makes you feel left behind (marriage, babies, moving cross-country), family members don’t urge you to “work” on the relationship. Friendship bonds can be very real and vital but they’re also among our most transient ties, and so a certain degree of attrition is natural and predictable: people change, they go their own ways.

On starving and obsessing, in pursuit of…

From Food as Enemy

At some point in any addiction, a behavior stops being something you use to control your feelings and turns into something that controls you instead. I probably crossed that line that summer. Whatever I was trying to starve away—loneliness, uncertainty, anger—gradually became less important that the starving itself. […]

One night I came home and found my roommates in the kitchen with a friend. They were sitting at the table drinking beer, sending out for Chinese food, and they were all laughing. I felt incredibly wistful for a second, watching them there. It was such a relaxed, normal picture, and I was so far removed from it.

But it didn’t matter. The rule was not to give in, not to give in, not to give in. It was the way I organized my life, the way I defined myself. So I went out running instead.

On her sister’s daughter…and everything…

From Letter to Zoe:

It’s odd for a person like me, who doesn’t have kids of her own and doesn’t spend much time around them, to feel such a range of potent feelings around someone as tiny as you. Kids used to scare me a bit—I saw them for the most part as little unformed psyches, just waiting to be irrevocably damaged—but I feel less of that fear around you—or, at least, the fear has given way to other, mo9re powerful emotions. A few weeks ago, I came over with a small gift, a bee knapsack, black and yellow with wings on it. you put it on and you marched around in it, and times like that you look so cute I have to physically restrain myself from scooping you up and hugging you to death. I stare at you sometimes like I’m watching a fire, mesmerized by your tiny presence, your perfect child’s skin, your two-year-old saunter. I spent most of my life assuming you had to earn the affection of others, that being loved required passing tests and jumping through hoops and proving yourself worthy. It’s amazing to me to see, in you, that it’s possible to be loved, and deeply so, simply because you exist. That is your gift to me, as precious to me as you are.

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boscobaybee said...

I met Caroline once at Fresh Pond with the love of her life, her dog. She has been dead for many years. I think of her often. She was a what you see is what you get person. She spoke little, but always factually. I have loved all her books and miss this wondeful woman for what she could have been. I imagine she is "blowing up" Heaven with her honesty. RIP Caroline.

boscobaybee said...

I met Caroline once at Fresh Pond with the love of her life, her dog. She has been dead for many years. I think of her often. She was a what you see is what you get person. She spoke little, but always factually. I have loved all her books and miss this wondeful woman for what she could have been. I imagine she is "blowing up" Heaven with her honesty. RIP Caroline.