In life there are always two things happening at the same time.
What you have to do.
How you feel about it.
The trick is keeping them separate.
This seems really basic, and 90% of the time, we just do what we have to do. Whose life isn’t mostly obligatory tasks that we grind through? Nobody is gleeful about taking out the garbage, or about nearly any other household chore come to think of it. Most of us have to push past considerable resistance to pull on the running shoes (and we still might not run). In life there are loads of stuff where we just put our heads down and get it done.
But then there’s lots of other stuff where it’s easy to get bogged down in how we feel about it. Job-hunting fits squarely in this category for me right now. It is a little crazy-making if I think about it. I obsess to an unhealthy degree about the jobs I applied for that I really want—compulsively checking email to see if anyone has responded to me or daydreaming about what my life would be like if I worked there.
Or I obsess about how I’ll never get hired, or what dumb things I did to get myself into this position, of being 50 and unemployed with a crazy quilt of a freelancer’s resume that most hiring managers skim and skip.
So every day through sheer force of will, I try to think only about what I have to do, and not about how I feel about it. It’s like I’m aspiring to attain complete bright-side superficiality. I vastly prefer deep dark catastrophic thinking. This is hard work.
But truthfully, what isn’t? Heroic stories are always about hard stuff. Heroes don’t have an easy time of it, so if I want to be the heroine of my own life, I have to accept that it will be hard. It’s not supposed to be easy and the hardness comes in different ways. For me, right now, the hardness is not obsessing.
For some people, the hardness is evading torture by uber-Nazi Klaus Barbie. We all have our journeys to take.
I am a sucker for books about espionage, especially when the Nazis are involved. And this story is true, and truly hard to believe. Virginia Hall is one of the most incredibly brave, resourceful, dedicated Resistance fighters of WW2 but unless you work for the CIA or you’re a big WW2 history buff, you probably haven’t heard of her.
This book reads almost like a novel. Sonia Purnell turns factual history into an emotional and viscerally exciting story. Almost every page includes footnoted information, but the narrative flows with bristling energy. Purnell doesn’t bludgeon us with the flagrant chauvinism and misogyny she endured, but her feminist revisionism does strike a triumphant tone.
Also, did you know that when the Germans took over France, the French almost immediately started starving? The Nazis scooped up all the food and shipped it off to their soldiers. Reading what a struggle it was to even survive only heightened my sense of wonder at the brave souls who risked it all for the Resistance.
Another fun fact: Virginia Hall and nearly everyone fighting relied on Benzedrine pills, aka uppers. They popped amphetamines to get through the sleepless nights when they’d peer into the skies for parachute drops of supplies, or to stay alert as they awaited replies from Britain on the wireless. Hall and others who survived the war had serious health problems as a result.
And Hall did all of this while hobbling around on a crappy wooden prosthetic leg she nicknamed Cuthbert. It would make her leg bleed and blister but she never quit (talk about what you need to do versus how you feel!).
Beyond the incredible stories—how initially she nearly single-handedly represented the British efforts to help arm and supply the French Resistance, how she escaped capture time and again even once trekking through waist-deep snow in the Pyrenées to Spain (with Cuthbert!), how the sociopathic uber-Nazi Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon, was obsessed with hunting her down—beyond all that, this woman’s story resonated with me because she did all this while every single person was ruling her out, telling her no, and underestimating her potential.
I am not the only 50-year-old woman who at one point or another has felt like she was considered a “woman of no importance,” by potential employers, colleagues, younger people, men, and to think that a heroine like Virginia Hall would have to combat this same idiocy both connected me to her and disgusted me. Why was this unbelievable badass forced to beg her way into jobs then be outranked by weak-willed idiots? And why are women still dealing with this sort of crap?
I know it wasn’t Purnell’s intent, and obviously Hall’s achievements are about so much more than inspiring middle-aged gals in 2019, but her story showed me that whatever it is I’m struggling with, I can dig in and make it one more day.
And now for something completely different, my Audible suggestion this week is going to be an asterisked recommendation. Truth is, I think most of my beloved readers will find this book boring. Hell, I found it boring. But sometimes boring is nice. (This was rejected as a possible blurb for the back of the book.)
I love shipwreck stories—In the Heart of the Sea is an all-time fave, I loved The North Water, and of course there’s the Moby Dick of shipwreck stories, Moby-Dick. This, however, is a thoroughly researched and detailed naval history. It’s about one boat, the Erebus, and its two journeys to both poles. It never returned from the North Pole, and the mystery of what happened took a century to fully solve.
Listening to this book, for me, was a “nice boring” because it was a pleasant and horizon-widening escape from daily life. As accompaniment to making dinner, it’s a huge improvement over the nightly news. I learned lots of interesting stuff about how British seamen lived and communicated at the time, since Palin recites many facts directly from archived letters. I was humbled and astounded at the frigid and terrifying hardships these men endured, and the courage they possessed to sail into the ice of Antarctica and the Arctic. And Michael Palin’s voice is fantastic.
I wasn’t expecting it to be Monty Pythonesque, but I think maybe I was looking for more absurdity in the telling maybe? There are definitely moments when Palin’s wry perspective adds something witty to the tale, but this is a straight-ahead work of historical research. No dead parrots.
Some people explore uncharted lands, some people fight back the Nazis. Me? My hero’s journey is just about not compulsively checking my email. At least, that’s my hero’s journey right now. Who’s to say I won’t be running guns for the resistance one day in the future. God knows we may need it.