Animal Dreams

Family constellations are fixed things. They don’t change just because you’ve learned the names of the stars.

I think I owe Barbara Kingsolver at least $5,000. I figure that is what reading Animal Dreams at 20 years old did for me in terms of savings on future (now past) therapy bills. Now, almost 20 years later, I’m reading it again. I’ve been wondering how it will hold up all these years later. I was almost afraid to read it again, wanting to preserve the memory of the first time.

What struck me in the book when I first read it was the relationship between the sisters, of course. And of Codi ‘s (the main character) feeling so much apart from the world around her, so alienated from what should have been her home. And her very different than mine, but equally conflicted relationship with her father, particularly her anger towards him for so many past wrongs, and what she perceived as so much withheld love. I started the book and couldn’t put it down. I read it standing at the Muni stop, in the line to get my bagel, in the elevator up to the seventh floor. When we had a slow day in doc services, we were allowed to read, so I read it at my desk, in the days before cubicles, in a room with eight other desks. There is one part in the book that breaks your heart – you are waiting for it, you know it is coming, and when it finally comes, you still can’t believe what was going to happen really happened. I read that part at work and my co-workers laughed at me because I blubbered all the way through the chapter in direct view of everyone. I didn’t care – the imperative to keep reading was stronger than maintaining an image.

So, when I started reading the book again last week, I wondered if I was just a melodramatic, hormone overloaded girl who overreacted to a book, or if it really was that good. Answer – both. As usual. It is still a beautiful book, and the things that hit me hard then, still resonate deeply. But the big thing I notice about it, is that so much of what absolutely smacked me sideways then, is something that I just recognize and accept now. The relationship between Codi and her father shows that sometimes love is not enough to overcome our own shortcomings. That we can wish to do better for the people we love, and still not actualize it. That there can be an ocean between intentions and actions where family is concerned. Now, as a parent, I understand that even more keenly. I see all the time where I wish I could be better for my own kids, and where despite my best intentions, I fall short, over and over again. I think, looking back, when I read that book, I really started forgiving my father, or, if not forgiving, then understanding. Accepting. I’m not good at forgiveness, but I get better and better at accepting all the time.

Now, I look at my father and I as two people who both bear some responsibility for our relationship, or lack thereof. I see that we love each other, I see that we both wish things were different. I know in my heart that he has regrets, and now, I have my own set as well. I don’t know if we will overcome the barriers that have been there for so long. But, and I know this sounds like a cop out, I don’t know if it matters.

In a few weeks, I will take the girls back east for 11 days, and we will pretend like everything is ok, that it’s normal not to speak for two years. We will fall right back lockstep into our usual patterns, and while there will be moments where it feels like another elaborate charade of a pretend happy family, it will be authentic in its own way. This is us. This is how we operate. This is our normal. The inheritance of 40 years of (sometimes deliberately) missed signals .

Codi’s father says this: She is his oldest child, his favorite, she is every mistake he ever made. And I can see those words in my father’s eyes.

Codi says this: For the first time in my life then, and just for a few seconds, I was able to see him as someone I felt sorry for. It was a turning point for me, one of those instants of freakishly clear sign when you understand that your parent might have taken entirely the wrong road in life, even if that road includes your own existence.
And I feel that completely, when I look at my father not as a daughter, but as a mother.

I have stood in the doorway and looked at my own children and thought this: God, why does a mortal man have children? It is senseless to love anything this much. And I have to believe my father at one time was equally overwhelmed by uncontrollable love for us, for me.

It’s a bit of circular reasoning – in this instance, by accepting that sometimes love simply isn’t enough, I am freed from expectation and can let love be enough.

4 thoughts on “Animal Dreams

  1. What a beautiful entry. I'm reading a lot about forgiveness lately, it's a whole new world. I'm sorry you went through that with your Dad and I kind of hope you might one day have an opportunity to discuss the letter with him. And that when you do, it will be good.x


  2. I read it in 3 days in snatched moments and loved it. A beautiful, moving story. Thanks again for writing about it, I'll be keeping it to read again and again.


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