Review: I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O’Farrell

9781472240750.jpgMaggie O’Farrell’s I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death is a love letter to life. It is a luminous, heart-wrenching, uniquely graceful and gorgeous symphony of those moments in life in which our vulnerabilities and susceptibilities come to bear. It is a testament to our perseverance against insurmountable odds, our capacity to survive, to prolong. There is an ever expanding body of literature on coming to terms with mortality, and this memoir ranks with the best. It is certainly one of the most potent.

O’Farrell frames I Am, I Am, I Am around seventeen encounters with death during her life. Some of these moments are near-escapes; many highlight the serendipity of roads not taken, of choices that might’ve been fatal; one of her most devastating evocations is her candid detailing of the difficulties her daughter faced — and will continue to face — because of a condition named anaphylaxis, and the burden this places on O’Farrell as a mother. But rather than wallowing in the inevitable hardships, O’Farrell’s piece is a testament to her daughter’s courage, and a reminder that none of us are alone, whatever our ailment or affliction. We preserve, so often by uncovering and unleashing an inner-strength we didn’t know we possessed until we reached an almost-breaking point, and  by utilising the strength of our loved ones; those who are the rocks in our lives.

I Am, I Am, I Am includes a chapter about an occasion on which O’Farrell was hospitalised, aged eight, with severe encephalitis that left her immobile and incapacitated. Doctors expected her to be permanently disabled, and there is a particular moment, when she overhears a nurse telling another patient that she is dying, that is excruciatingly hard to read. How is an eight-year-old child supposed to process this? More importantly, how is a child meant to come back from such a point, when the adults, the supreme leaders at that particular juncture of life, have given up hope? O’Farrell clearly used this memory — whether intentionally or intuitively — to shape her maternal instincts, which enabled her to better cope with her daughter’s illness. When the nurse closed the door to her room, O’Farrell was isolated, alone; forgotten. It is clear through her writing that her daughter — in fact, anybody whose life O’Farrell has touched — never will be.

I Am, I Am, I Am is a literary  milestone. Totally enthralling, masterful, and passionate, it reminds us that every minute, every second, every heartbeat is a moment to savour, to appreciate, and to enjoy. Maggie O’Farrell is such a gifted writer, and this is the kind of book you could spend hours highlighting sentences and whole paragraphs of. By the time you were done, you’d likely find more highlighted sections than non-highlighted ones. I Am, I Am, I Am is provocative, moving and essential reading. For young, for old, for everyone.

ISBN: 9781472240750
Format: Paperback (216mm x 135mm x mm)
Pages: 304
Imprint: Tinder Press
Publisher: Headline Publishing Group
Publish Date: 22-Aug-2017
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Oh, Valentine’s Day

Oh, Valentines Day. A day of unmet expectations. Or inappropriately exceeding expectations – guilty! – when there were none in the first place.

(Because nothing is more awkward than giving someone flowers on Valentine’s Day and getting the text message: “Thanks. That’s sweet. X.” as a response. We, uh, never spoke again).

For those in established, long-term relationships, it can feel like an obligation. Not that either partner hates showering their loved ones with affection; just, why does it have to be on this day, this corporate holiday? Grrr!

For blossoming romances, it’s a chance to go all out. To make it official: we’re boyfriend-girlfriend! Or boyfriend-boyfriend. Or girlfriend-girlfriend. Whatever! As of right now! With these flowers! We’re a thing! It’s real!

Despite it’s corporateness, I love Valentine’s Day. Few days embolden me more to stew in my own personal cocktail of insecurity, honesty, immodesty and self-deprecation. It’s designed for those in fledging relationships, or aspiring romances, to take a chance. Yeah, go on. Send those flowers! Send that card! Tell her you like her!

Oh, it’s not reciprocated? That’s OK. It’s Valentine’s Day. We’re all a little love-crazed on Valentine’s Day. It’s fine. Normalcy resumes tomorrow.

One of my ill-famed Valentine’s Day moments (of which there is a phone book) occurred just out of High School. This girl and I, we weren’t going out yet, but there was a spark, I was sure of it. Or at least, pretty sure. There was maybe a spark. Possibly. One minute I’d think, Yeah, something’s here, and the next I’d think, God, what are you thinking?! But on this Valentine’s Day I woke up thinking: this is it. Time to do something huge. Time to make my move.

It was time to send flowers.

There were problems with this plan. Firstly, I couldn’t afford flowers. Secondly, I was petrified of delivering them: what would I say when she answered the door? What would I say if a parent answered the door?! Thirdly, how would I get to her place? I didn’t drive. The answer was my mum and dad. Which added a fourth problem: telling my parents I liked a girl, and dealing with the repercussions.

Anyway, to cut it short: I borrowed money from my parents, got a lift from them, and arrived at the girl’s house… where I promptly dropped the flowers on the front veranda and dashed back to the car. I don’t think I screamed “Go! Go! Go!” at my mum, but I probably wanted to. Then I whipped out my phone and texted her something like: “Left flowers on your veranda. Hope you like them.” Or something similarly poetic. And I probably added a smiley emoticon, because when your heart is all aflutter, emoji’s work wonders. It worked out OK in the end, though. Somehow. Miraculously. Well, for a while.

I totally get that there are those who view Valentine’s Day as a day of required love, and abhor it for that reason. I guess I have this inexplicable partiality for seeing people loved-up. Not that I want to witness their public displays of affection, you understand, but there is something very unifying and heartening about seeing couples holding hands, leaning into each other, roses, or another gift, in hand.

Some days it feels like the world is full of hate and bitterness. Valentine’s Day might be infested with corporateness, and for those without that ‘special someone’ (and especially those who, quite frankly, don’t want a ‘special someone’), the whole day can feel like a gigantic Fuck You. But there are too few days that encourage humanity to showcase their love and affection for one another. I can’t help but bask in it.

Although the day we shatter status quo on marriage in this country and let any two people wed will make it absolutely pale in comparison.

Tonight I’m Missing Home

It started with a song: Swedish House Mafia’s Don’t You Worry Child. Not my usual jam, but my iPhone was on shuffle, and tuned to my Running Playlist after an unconvincing 9km jog around Prospect Park this evening. In the rain, no less. Humph.

Running July

I downloaded the song the day before I ran my first half-marathon in September last year. I needed a playlist, and Robbie William’s Greatest Hits wasn’t going to cut it – – although Millennium and Bodies made it on. Naturally. Alas, there was no place for Feel, my patented Favorite Song of All Time. Still waiting for the right remix. It’ll come, I’m telling you; it’ll come.

Anyway, September 21, 2013: the day I ran my first half-marathon with best mate, Aveek. It started at Milsons Point and headed right over the Sydney Harbor Bridge. And I mean, right over. As in, they halt traffic and let the runners have their away. Amazing! See?

Running Bridge

And that song – –  Don’t You Worry Child – – started playing as I had this iconic view of Sydney, in all its morning glory.

So naturally, that sticks in my head, and resonates, and reminds me of home.

But more than that, the song reminds me of the night before, when Aveek and I stayed at a random backpackers hostel about a kilometer from the half-marathon starting point. There was the usual banter, you know, mate-to-mate chat. We went to bed early; had to be up at 5am, after all.

Nothing of note happened. I didn’t reveal my deepest, darkest secret to Aveek. He did not reveal his.

But for some reason, tonight, when I was running, and that song came on, my mind shifted back to that night. And of the afternoon after the run; sharing a 9am beer at the Sydney Opera House, exhausted as heck, and hungry. Man, we were hungry.

And that leads to other memories. Other runs, around home, my daily ritual; coming home, running more or less the same route, six nights a week. My second half marathon around Homebush; eating Chinese food the night before, with my parents. A mistake, let me tell you. And an earlier memory, running the City2Surf in August, with a bunch of mates, and the beers and banter afterwards.

Turns out one song is the key to unlocking the memories, and letting them flood.

So, tonight I miss home. The memories are returning thick and fast.

But I’m in New York now. Time to make some new ones.

The Running Man

photo

I began running consistently on the 9th June 2013.

I started because I’d agreed to participate in The City 2 Surf with a couple of mates. Two of them were regular runners. Their stats on the Nike Running app proved this. I was approaching the looming 14km run – and the dreaded killer hill – with an extensive history of cardio reserved exclusively for the gym. Six days a week I spent half-an-hour on the treadmill and twenty minutes on the bike, listening to music or podcasts, bored not-quite to tears, but close, as I expunged memories of a day sat at a desk, staring at a screen.

I was never a fit guy. I was, actually, the fat kid in school. It never really bothered me because very few kids derided me for it – at least not to my face. Sure, there were stifled remarks when it came to participating in weekly sport and things like that, but they weren’t cutting. No, the punches that packed the most wallop came from within – that voice in the back of my mind that lambasted me for not being able to do what everybody else seemed to find so easy. I’m very critical about myself. I always have been. Scathing, in fact. My own recriminations hurt far more than anything somebody else could articulate. But for a long time, in my younger years, I was stuck in a vicious, depressive cycle of wanting to change who I was, but not having the confidence to do it.

One day, that changed. I was inspired by several friends who had begun to take their personal fitness and development seriously. And I was buoyed by a growing love for football (soccer). So, at 17 years of age, I began running down to the park every afternoon after school and would kick a ball around for an hour. On my own, using rugby posts as goals, I would dribble past an imagined opposition, score, send the ball downfield, chase it, and begin again.

And I loved it.

Especially as, over time, my stamina grew. I began running for longer – began running faster – and by the time I graduated I was looking leaner.

And with that came occasional plaudits from my peers.

“Looking good, man.”

“Man, how much weight’ve you lost?”

I could never gauge the sincerity of these comments, because my brain would always warp those comments into condemnations of my previous size. Their comments, to me, sounded like:

“About time you lost some weight, you fat f**k.”

More time passed. I joined a gym. These were my university days, where I would sometimes skip classes just to ensure I spent a few hours doing cardio. Now, family would say I was too thin. “You don’t eat,” they’d say. “You spend too much time at the gym.” But exercise was my drug. When I was involved in physical activity, that devious, self-deprecating voice in my mind dissipated. I would often postpone going out with friends and family in order to squeeze in another session. I wasn’t interested in toning my figure. Whatever that means. I wasn’t really interested in anything besides culling that Goddamned voice. I exercised to silence it.

It was like that for a long time. I went to the gym because I had to. I hated it. I was bored. There is nothing worse, more monotonous, than running on a treadmill and staring at the same wall, day in, day out. But I needed to drown out the voice, so I continued.

Cut to earlier this year. Still going to the gym six days a week. Maintaining a routine I genuinely despised. Then I agreed to do the City 2 Surf, and I forced myself to change my routine, to actually begin running on the street and partake in proper training.

And you know what? Like football at the park, all those years ago, I loved it.

Free from the routine – able to navigate a variety of routes around my neighbourhood and beyond – I ticked off the City 2 Surf and promptly signed up for a couple of half-marathons. I am challenging myself to take on a full marathon next year. I’m not sure if it’s a realistic target – I am pretty wiped after 25km, let alone 40km – but it’s something to strive for.

And, see, that’s the difference. Now I run to challenge myself – to reach targets, and hopefully break personal bests – and because I enjoy it. The voice is still there. Of course it is. Occasionally it pierces the hard shell I’ve cocooned myself in. But it’s no longer the reason I spend hours of my week pounding the pavement. I do it because I derive genuine pleasure out of every run – even the bad ones.

2013 and Beyond

tumblr_mg1lsgCFxj1rcrw09o1_5002013 began in the company of two of my greatest friends in a small, chock-full bar in Santa Monica.

And it was awesome.

We drank, laughed and danced.

The latter is, worryingly, becoming a tad too recurrent for my liking in recent months.

What can I say; I’ve got no rhythm.

When initially planned, the trip was a solitary affair. I am quite content with my own company; possibly to the extent that, if left unchecked, I’d collapse into full reclusive status.

And I’m sure, had things progressed as planned, I’ve had enjoyed my time away.

But I’ve no doubt it wouldn’t have been half the fun.

Not even a quarter.

And I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have got my photo with a Stormtrooper.

When I reflect on 2012, I think of it was a foundation year; setting me up for 2013 and beyond.

I quit my job and moved into the field I’d always intended, working in an editorial department, learning the ropes with some amazing professionals, who inspire me every day to work harder and, simply, be better than I currently am.

I wrote a lot – oodles of drafts – polished several projects – but didn’t submit as many as I wanted.

I froze up when it came time to pull the trigger.

In 2013 that will not happen.

I’m blessed to be friends with several writers and artists, all of whom are at various rungs of their professional careers. Their successes motivate me to continue on this path and put in the hard yard that are necessary to get anywhere. These guys are incredibly talented, but they haven’t rested on their laurels. They have worked damned hard – and I need to do the same.

I must do the same.

In 2013 my mindset must be: No Fear.

In all walks of life.

I am too comfortable in the shadows. Too content to wallow in my own self-doubt. Everybody has lulls. But perhaps up until now I’ve been too comfortable with simply latching onto it and using it as an excuse.

No more.

I want 2013 to end as it began.

With the drinks, laughter and dancing, sure. That’s a given.

I want to end it happy. In the company of those dearest to me.

And with several thousand words out there, circulating.

It’s all down to me.