Back in September, I went to Belle Boggs’s reading of The Art of Waiting at my local bookstore. It was the first reading I had ever been to. The author reminded me strongly of my Auntie Kate, a petite woman with dark hair who likes to wear baggy, colourful trousers and who I’ve witnessed making wind chimes out of the shells and flotsam she finds on the beach. The comparison stops there, really, not least because I can only speculate about Boggs’s personal use of flotsam. Perhaps a more relevant point of comparison lies with the fact that my Auntie Kate had my cousin Tom by the time she was thirty, whereas Belle Boggs struggled to have her daughter for many years. She eventually documented the experience of constant hope and disappointment in this collection of personal essays. I took an interest as soon as she sat down and started to read.
By the time that I settled myself that day amongst her small audience at the bookstore, I had already read countless positive reviews of the book and was well aware that The Art of Waiting had been extremely well received. So much more than a memoir, The Art of Waiting illuminates the struggles of life as an infertile woman in today’s world. It is not a self-pitying mantra, nor an ode to motherhood. Each essay varies slightly in its style, from some that are more memoir-esque to others that discuss things such as the scientific history of infertility treatments. In others, Boggs simply discusses her thoughts and feelings about the issue of infertility; her story stretches over a decade. Her poignant reflections draw upon societal expectations and prejudices, as well as how, in light of this, she and other infertile women come to view themselves.
The more reflective essays appealed to me above all. I am, admittedly, a little picky about essays. I like to feel that I’ve been made to feel differently about something, but I also have a weakness for abstract intellectualism, the kind of imaginative thinking that leaves my brain feeling like it just did a somersault. My brain didn’t quite explode from Belle Boggs’s writing, but I think that it would have been foolish to expect that sort of thing. Boggs is discussing a hugely personal journey. She is explaining the complications, both practical and emotional, to pursuing the dream of having a family and she does so without exaggerations or poetries.
And I certainly did feel differently about the whole phenomenon by the time I finished the book. Many a time, Boggs illuminated a preconception I had about infertility- presumptions that I hadn’t even realised I was party to. More than that, she described, fascinatingly, the different layers of loss that can be associated with the inability to have a child. This loss is not just related to social stigmatism, but to an ideal that has been torn adrift. I felt emotionally overwhelmed when I read:
“I don’t feel like myself,” I remember telling Richard. More accurately, I felt split in two. The person I had hoped to become was torn away, leaving only the person I had always been.
Phwoar. Just let that statement sink in.
Babies are indescribably important to any culture. They inspire both longing and, at times, revulsion (don’t tell me you haven’t felt relieved at being childless after a ten-minute train ride next to a crying baby). They also inspire our most tender of impulses: to nurture, to sooth, to provide. They are seen as a marker of a relationship’s success, a logical step along the path of maturity. It is still unusual for a person- especially a woman- to admit they do not want babies and women of a certain age are asked almost automatically whether they have children. When it is not possible to get pregnant the ‘natural’ way, there is adoption, surrogacy, IVF, IUIs… all kinds of options, all of which come with reservations and complications. It is a rollercoaster, whether before, during or after conception. And it is a difficulty that a surprising number of couples deal with. Belle Boggs explores all of this.
Naturally, essay collections mark a different kind of reading experience. If you are looking for a whirlwind plot and gripping narrative, don’t try this. If you enjoy feeling like you’ve gained a new perspective on an issue, definitely try this. The only critique I have is that, in her less creative essays, the material wasn’t especially engrossing. Then again, this certainly added a diversity to the writing and maybe somewhere a reader thought those parts were the best and skipped past Boggs’s more personal reflections. All in all, this was a great read. Another phenomenal find from Graywolf, one of my favourite publishers that strives and consistently succeeds to seek out writers who offer something different from the usual.
At the end of her reading, I desperately wanted to speak to Belle Boggs. There was no reason for this, truth be told; I hadn’t read the book yet and knew little about her, she had simply made an impression on me. She listened very kindly as I stuttered my praises and asked her how and when she began writing. Next to her she had a small pile of four leaf clovers that she had pressed flat to give out with the purchase of her book. Honestly, I can’t remember the answers she gave to my awkward questions, but I do distinctly remember the pile of tiny leaves heaped next to her, proving that the miracles and the impossible are never set in stone.