I’ve been rereading Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story, one of my all-time favorite memoirs, and I came across a passage that has always resonated with me so deeply:
There’s something about facing long afternoons without the numbing distraction of any sort of anesthesia that disabuses you of the belief in externals, shows you that strength and hope come not from circumstances or the acquisition of things but from the simple accumulation of active experience, from gritting the teeth and checking the items off the list, one by one, even though it’s painful and you’re afraid….Passivity is corrosive to the soul; it feeds on feelings of integrity and pride, and it can be as tempting as a drug. If it feels warm and fuzzy, it is probably the [addictive] choice. If it feels dangerous and scary and threatening and painful, it is probably healthy.
These days, I no longer automatically distrust what feels right. I have learned that if you are honest with yourself for long enough, you start to parse out the differences between your reflexes, which often aren’t to be trusted, and your instincts, which emanate from your truest self. But I will be forever aware that the more I fear something, the more I should clamor to learn from it. And when I first read the above passage, I was just beginning to undertake a journey not unlike a detox although I was sober. It was like reading a transcription of my secret thoughts — of my dawning recognition of all the different anesthestics, from love affairs to friendships to food to books to the business of being a prettygirl, to which I deferred rather than simply trusting myself. I was 25 and still afraid of my own shadow, let alone my independence.
Knapp died in 2002 from lung cancer. Though she was a life-long smoker, she clung to the belief that her beloved cigarettes did not kill her. Either way, I believe it was better that she died clearheaded than with a clear set of lungs, if she had to be felled by one of her addictions. For I looked up to her as one of my literary and spiritual big sisters, although I doubt we would have liked each other very much in person. She was shy and somewhat socially conservative: a true-blue Bostonian, the sort who sent larger-than-life me fleeing the region to black-sheep NY as soon as I could. But the beauty of a really skilled memoirist is that through her words you can connect with someone whom you might not admire or even recognize in regular life. It is a testament to how good Knapp was at her job that I wept for most of the day I heard about her death although I never met her while she was on this earth. I knew that, unlike most people, she actually stayed present for most of the life she managed to live.
So it is not strange that I miss her still. Selfishly, I miss the possibility that she could live more and learn more and write more so I could continue to understand more of my life through the lens she so painstakingly provided. So that I could keep anticipating from her example more of my own challenges and progress. Sometimes I fantasize that she will posthumously pen another one of her fiercely precise memoirs (she wrote three in all), this time about what it was like to die.
There are so many ways that growing up is lonely, but perhaps the most daunting is that eventually, whether or not we like it, we become the grownups by default. Although, as Knapp herself wrote:
It seems like such an obvious insight, so simple it borders on the banal, but I’d never before really grasped the idea that growth was something you could choose, that adulthood might be less of a chronological state than an emotional one which you decide, through painful acts, to both enter and mantain. I’d spent most of my life waiting for maturity to hit me from the outside, as though I’d just wake up one morning and be done, like a roast in the oven. But growth comes from the inside out, from trying and failing and trying again. You begin to let go of the wish, age-old and profound and essentially human, that someone will swoop down and do all that hard work, growing up, for you. You start living your own life.