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October 18, 2016

Book Notes - Belle Boggs "The Art of Waiting"

The Art of Waiting

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Belle Boggs' essay collection The Art of Waiting is a brilliant and empathetic meditation on infertility and childlessness.

The Boston Globe wrote of the book:

"An eye-opening, gorgeously written blend of memoir, reportage, and cultural analysis. . . . Examining infertility and childlessness through the lens of her own struggle to become pregnant, Boggs presents not only a courageous account of her personal experience but an illuminating, wide-ranging study of the medical, psychological, social, and historical aspects of a condition that affects one in eight couples nationwide."

In her own words, here is Belle Boggs' Book Notes music playlist for her essay collection The Art of Waiting:

The Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Medicine, and Motherhood, my first nonfiction book, was written in a sort of hybrid style—a mix of research, memoir, and cultural commentary about the stories we tell about fertility and family building. I wrote part of the book during a period of great uncertainty, when I didn't know when or how or if I would have a child, and the book's central story is my attempt to find community within that struggle—meeting other people who shared their stories of infertility, childlessness, adoption, and child-free living. Another part of the book was written after I became pregnant and had my daughter, who was conceived via IVF. Finishing the book, as a new mother with a brand-new teaching job, was hard, but music helped.

"A Little Lost" by Arthur Russell. During an intense and disappointing period of fertility treatment, I spent a lot of time listening to Russell's album Another Thought in the car, driving from work to doctor's appointments and back to work again. I was also reading Tim Lawrence's biography of Russell, Hold on to Your Dreams, a fascinating and sad tale of a genius who was so ahead of his time. This song is incredibly romantic and beautiful.

"Walking the Floor Over You" by Jim Reeves. While I was writing the book I spent some time at a VFW in Norlina, North Carolina, where Willis Lynch, then almost 80 years old, played guitar and sang at Friday night jamborees. Lynch was a victim of North Carolina's eugenics program—he was sterilized at age 14 after being deemed "unfit" to father children—and had become, in his later years, an outspoken (and eventually successful) advocate for compensation by the state. Music was one of the other ways he channeled his creativity and talent; he loved Jim Reeves and Hank Williams especially. This song, in its way about waiting, was one of his favorites.

"Little Green" by Joni Mitchell. It's hard to get the complexity of adoption right—even our common language around adoption, "biological mother" and "gave up for adoption" fails us ("biological" because adoptive parents are very much part of their children's biology, "gave up" because of its implication of lack of choice and agency). This song about Mitchell's daughter, "born with the moon in Cancer" when Mitchell was 21 years old. It's one of the best, complex depictions I know of adoption's sorrow and choice: "You're sad and you're sorry, but you're not ashamed."

"Hold On, Hold On" by Neko Case. I saw Neko Case perform twice while I was working on the book, both times with the same good friend. For my friend, for a lot of women, Case is a kind of role model—frank and open about being single, an artist, with no kids, and also an advocate for other women and for children. I remember at one of the shows there were toddlers near the stage and Case kept saying, "Little kids dancing!" Like she couldn't get over how adorable it was—it was almost painful. In this song, which she performed at both concerts, Case names an "echo chorus" that lies to you, but that chorus is also the most exultant, gorgeous part of the song. I love how you don't want to be the Valium-having bride in the song, but the "mean girl," the girl who's "hanging round the ceiling half the time."

"Whip It" by DEVO. Before I had any idea I'd have trouble having my own kids, I taught fifth grade at this hippie charter school in Durham, North Carolina. It was a project-based school, so we always had a ton of stuff lying around—art supplies, robot parts, sticks and leaves and mud and snakes kids caught on the playground (well, they'd let the snakes go). "Whip It" was our clean-up song: you had to be done cleaning up your area by the time the song was over. I love kids but I'm not really into their music. Why not listen to Devo instead? Everybody loves Devo.

"Froggie Went-a-Courtin'" by Bob Dylan. An exception to my kid-music aversion is this very old song, which Bob Dylan recorded; Doc Watson and Bruce Springsteen and Kermit the Frog all performed it too. One of the more painful things about infertility, for me, was the fear that I wouldn't have some of the experiences I'd long imagined—reading the books, playing the games, singing the songs I'd imagined sharing with my kid. This is a song my grandfather sang to me when I was little.

"Do What You Wanna Do" by Devin the Dude. I think of Devin as a calming, profane voice of reason, great for giving all kinds of permission, which is sometimes what a person needs: permission not to go to the baby shower, the birthday party, the holiday dinner. "Do what the fuck you wanna do" is sometimes a good mantra.

"Paula Deen's suicide note" by Maria Bamford. Not a song exactly, but a bit from Bamford's comedy album, Ask Me About My New God. It's basically a list of ingredients in an imagined Paula Deen recipe: "little balls of butter, shortening, Crisco, fatback, cracklings, blubber, margarine, mayonnaise… each day I wake to a fresh nightmare." When Beatrice was a newborn I'd recite it to her in a crazy voice, and it seemed to soothe and sort of amuse her. I could do the whole thing, with some improvised parts.

"Air" by Waxahatchee. Beatrice says this is her song, and she demands to hear it over and over again in the car: "Let's listen to my song. Can you play my song?" I'm not sure how this came to be such a special song to her—maybe she likes the line about the carton of milk? It's both very amusing and very annoying to have such a small person insisting on hearing the same thing over and over on the way to school—in a 10-minute drive, we can listen almost three times. After I drop her off I listen to the Jesus Lizard.

"My Boat" by Tift Merritt. Merritt adapted this song from a poem by Raymond Carver; it will be on her new album, Stitch of the World, which comes out next year. The poem/song has layers of poignancy for me: first, I love thinking about Carver on the boat where "you can do whatever you want," where all his friends are welcome and everyone has his own radio. But in Merritt's aching, beautiful voice the boat becomes something else—an even more specific metaphor for art and the (woman) artist's wish-driven, hopeful life. "Room enough for all of them," Merritt, a new mother, sings. "And my baby." The fact that the boat is still at the builders is what gets me.

Belle Boggs and The Art of Waiting links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Boston Globe review
Dallas Morning News review
Globe and Mail review
Kirkus review
The Millions review
Minneapolis Star Tribune review
New York Times review
Publishers Weekly review
San Francisco Chronicle review

The Atlantic interview with the author
Independent Weekly interview with the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes playlist by the author for Mattaponi Queen
Raleigh News and Observer profile of the author
Weekend Edition interview with the author

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