I clearly remember the moment I first picked up Meghan Daum’s book My Misspent Youth. It was a Thursday afternoon, and I had walked to Brookline Booksmith from my apartment when it started to rain. I had come to pick up a special order (Eric Auerbach’s Mimesis, which I was using to write my thesis), but I decided to wait out the weather a bit and browse around the store. I wandered over to memoir and essays and a cover caught my eye. Its faded photographic image of a beach scene immediately conjured up memories from my childhood. And I suppose, that in that moment, the title itself called out to me. I wondered in that moment if my own youth was being “misspent.” I was turning twenty-five that month after all, and was about to embark on a nearly decade-long academic odyssey that would nearly kill me (hyperbolically speaking, of course). As I stood in the aisle, leaning up against the wooden shelves, I looked up the title essay in the Table of Contents. I opened to page 41 and started reading, “Earlier this summer I was walking down West End Avenue in Manhattan and remembered, with a sadness that nearly knocked me off my feet, just why I came to New York seven years ago and just why I am now about to leave.”
I was hooked.
Over the years, I have taught that essay to freshman college students more times than I can count. It remains, for me, the ideal model of a personal essay. Anchored by knowing details–like the dollar amounts and street addresses that give structure to an essay that could be otherwise unwieldy as it is so full of youthful longing and sadness and recall. I can recite whole passages of this essay by heart—so much has it become a part of my consciousness over the years. And the collection as a whole is one that I treasure—in fact, this is the only book that I would never loan to a friend.
And now, thirteen years later, there is a new collection of essays titled The Unspeakable that is just as beautiful as the last. I preordered this over the summer and when it arrived last month, I immediately started reading. Though I had to put it down while making dinner and tending to the business of children, I finished it that evening once the house had gone quiet.
The book contains ten essays, all of which are loosely organized around the idea of “the unspeakable,” that is, the truths that we all know but seldom say. Daum unflinchingly goes to the place of the real—where honesty and authenticity dwell. She writes about the complexities of mother/daughter relations (both specifically and universally) in “Matricide”; of not feeling compelled to motherhood in “Difference Maker”; and of her boundless love for dog Rex in “The Dog Exception.” While each piece functions as a discrete entity, together they form a cohesive whole that I believe is best read in sequence.
In the essay “Not What it Used to Be”—which speaks about memory, nostalgia, and moving on, I found this passage (about what one’s Older Self speaking to one’s Younger Self), “But here’s what Older Self will not have the heart to say: some of the music you are now listening to—the CDs you play while you stare out the window and think about the five million different ways your life might go—will be unbearable to listen to in twenty years. They will be unbearable not because they will sound dated and trite but because they will sound like the lining of your soul. They will take you straight back to the place you were in when you felt that anything could happen at any time, that your life was a huge room with a thousand doors, that your future was not only infinite but also elastic. They will be unbearable because they will remind you that at least half of the things you once planned for your future are now in the past and others got reabsorbed into your imagination before you could even think about acting on them. It will be as though you’d never thought of them in the first place, as if they were never meant to be anything more than passing thoughts you had while playing your stereo at night” (85-86).
Daum has the ability to cut right to the truth.
Read The Unspeakable. And if you’ve never read My Misspent Youth, read that too. Just don’t ask to borrow my copy. 😉