Another book I've been carrying with me during my travels -- and reading slowly to make it last -- is Hard to Love: Essays and Confessions by Briallen Hopper.
The subject of these essays is family, community, and relationships in their many forms: relationships with siblings, housemates, friends, lovers, books and their authors, objects, food, and (most poignantly for me) the fellow members of a care circle surrounding a friend with cancer. Although Hopper's own upbringing was unusual (her parents were "religious hippies" in a cultish Evangelical sect), the underlying dynamics of the familial and social ties she examines are nonetheless relatable as hell. Plus, it's a beautifully written book, and even the lightest of essays (a discourse on binge-watching the old American television show Cheers, for example) is made luminous by the the author's clarity, honestly, and unfailing compassion for the ways we both support and fail each other as we move through life.
In the opening essay, "Lean On," Hooper takes issue with America's cultural adulation of the Solitary Hero (Ralph Waldo Emerson's ideal self-reliant man, Joan Didion's ideal self-sufficient woman) and articulates the value of leaning on others, and letting others lean on us. In response to Didion's assertion that the solitary self is the authentic self, she writes:
"My scepticism about the authenticity of solitude is partly rooted in experience. I don't see why the person I am when I'm rising to the occasion for students in the classroom is less truly myself than the person I am when I come home and kick off my shoes and collapse on the couch. There are verses of hymns I know by heart that I can only remember in church, but they will still be part of me till I die. I never feel more myself than when I'm writing, and I always write for readers. My sisters know I'm bossy and my friends know I'm kind, and when I'm alone I'm neither, but really I am both. My identity is not an independent state.
"I cannot imagine a solitary self even in theory. What would it even mean, after all, to be truly alone with yourself, an independent and dispassionate critic of your own individual character? You would need to be able to trace the contours of your personality as if they had never meant anything to anyone; to scour your brain of love's neural traces; to forget where your hands have been. You would need a body and soul free of microscopic chimeras, unmarked by social judgements past and present. You would need to redact yourself from every file and delete yourself from every inbox. You would need an unlisted number and a rotary phone with a severed cord. You would need to have forgotten all the books you'd read, or never read them in the first place. You would need to be the last living speaker of a dying language. You would need to have been abandoned as an infant by a wolf who refused to raise you."
(You can read the full piece online here.)
An essay about Hopper's complicated relationship with her brother starts with this delicious opening:
"There is a form of intimacy that consists of being harangued by someone in a bathrobe. A brother. He might be standing and pacing and you might be lying down on a couch under an afghan. He is exasperating in a way that tends towards escalating energy, and he intermittently throws off or emits sparks, like a grindstone, like a rasp, like a pronged plug in proximity to a faulty socket. The stakes are high for him. He suspects that your way of thinking is suspect. You suspect he may be right. You further suspect it is not just your way of thinking that he finds dubious but the person you have turned out to be.
"You find yourself arranged together this way -- pacing, bathrobe; reclining, afghan -- because you share a home. In other words, you share a domestic space in which seriousness does not depend on dignified dress or ordinary standards of civility. In this home, certain protective coverings (shirts and pants) can be dispensed with, while other kinds of protective coverings (afghans) can be piled on or, in particularly tense moments, pulled over one's face and supine body like a shroud of surrender. But it is never really surrender: just a way to collect yourself and breathe warm condensation breaths under the wool while presenting an implacable surface to the man who is talking. You are biding your time until it is your turn to speak.
"And you will inevitably speak. You will always have your say. You are arranged this way, after all, because you are brother and sister, tumbled together since childhood like agates in a rock polisher, generating your own conversational grit since you first had enough shared language to talk."
Hopper writes about the complex nature of friendships (a subject deeply under-represented in our literature) better than just about anyone. The essay on her brother ("Oh Octopus") also reflects on the family bonds we make with friends:
"Armistead Maupin, the chronicler of the legendary queer saga Tales of the City, calls families found in adulthood 'logical.' 'Sooner or later,' he writes, 'no matter where in the world we live, we must join the diaspora, venturing beyond our biological family to find our logical one, the one that actually makes sense for us.' I understand what he means. At the same time, in my experience all families are fairly illogical, and all of them (even biological ones) have their own crazy logic. A term I sometimes use instead is 'invented family,' because it implies the work of creation. It is family as a mutually agreed upon fiction. But then, all families are invented, even biological ones. A family is not reducible to legal status or DNA; it is also a provisional hypothesis constructed from surviving documents; a collection of dissonant or harmonizing stories. Perhaps the best phrase for my purpose is 'found family.' It evokes something of the feeling of lost or cast-out sheep who find themselves once again in the safe fold.
"What I love about found family is that it can accomodate all the love and meals and holidays and hospitals visits of any other family -- all the true confessions and late-night conversations and child chaos and quotidian mess and hugs and endearments and quality time; and yet it is often kinder than original family, and more miraculous, because it is a gift given when you are old enough to appreciate it, a commitment continuously made when you know what that commitment costs and means. A family found in adulthood can never attain the involuntary intimacy of siblings who have known you since birth, and squabbled with you in bathrooms and at breakfast tables from time immemorial. But sometimes, perhaps for this reason, a found family can know and love you for who you are -- not for who you once were, or who you never were."
If the passages quoted above don't make your heart beat a little fast (someone is finally writing about this!), then Hard to Love may not be the book for you. But if they do, seek out a copy post haste. It's quietly extraordinary.
Words: The passages above are from Hard to Love: Essays and Confessions by Briallen Hopper (Bloomsbury, 2019). The poem in the picture captions is from Birds, Beasts, and Seas, edited by Jeffrey Yang (New Directions, 2011). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Writing and reading outdoors this morning, with the hound close by.