Last week, I had the privilege of hosting authors Sarah Hepola (Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget) and Kate Bolick (Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own) for a Happier Hour Literary Salon here in my home. As expected, the night was rich with fascinating conversation and both authors left all of us riveted and inspired.
Guests swilled Lucien Albrecht Crémant d’Alsace Brut and Lucien Albrecht Crémant d’Alsace Brut Rosé from our friends at Pasternak Wine, bought books from Ariadne who was here from Posman, and noshed on a menu of delicious fare (think: Peking Duck Quesadillas, Luberon Spiced Lamb, Potato-Truffle Mille Feuille Strip Steak, Ahi Tuna Tartare, Butter Poached Lobster on Black Brioche, and the most exquisite/delicious selection of international and American artisanal cheese, antipasto and grilled flatbread) provided by Cloud Catering & Events whom I met through the brilliant Jeannie Uyanick of C&G Weddings.
When the time came, we gathered for what was a truly remarkable talk in my yellow living room. Each author spoke a bit about her book and why she wrote it and then we opened it up to a lively dialogue about two highly relevant, oft-tricky topics: drinking and marriage.
In my brief introductory remarks, I confessed how meaningful the night was for me because I have – as many of you know – been thinking and writing and struggling with the question of alcohol for the better part of twenty years now (I arrived on Yale’s campus at 17 and wasted no time falling in love with wine), but also because of the marriage thing. As I said last week, I entered into marriage rather unthinkingly. I never really considered the option of not getting married. I thought, perhaps like many of us did and do, that you finish your education, suss out a career path, and find a partner with whom to settle and have children. I am deeply thankful to be so happy in my marriage and family, and do not take this for granted for one minute, but it is wildly interesting to look back and think that I never questioned this step in my life.
As always, it’s so difficult to capture the magic of these nights in a single blog post, but I insist on trying. Here is a list of things I learned, or realized, or remembered, last week at the salon. You will see that this list includes a smorgasbord of things: facts, insights, questions, anecdotes.
- There was no singular moment. I asked Sarah and Kate whether there was a singular, dramatic moment in which they made their decisions to stop drinking and to not marry. Both said that there were no such distinct moments, but that their choices have been the result of an accumulation of moments, of insights. Sarah joked that she woke up with the epiphany that she should stop drinking four times a week. Kate confessed that she never had a lightning bolt that she shouldn’t marry, but rather the instinct that she needed to be alone, to carve a life of her own, and that she will do this for as long as it feels right.
- Only 50% of people can experience a blackout. Sarah described herself as a “garden variety drunk” with a rather non-extreme story. Throughout her drinking days, she functioned at a high level, but it was when she started having more and more blackouts that she realized she needed to stop. Blackouts are when the brain shuts down and memory of a night is lost. The scary thing: you can be talking to someone who is experiencing a blackout without knowing. Something I didn’t know: only 50% of us are capable of this type of drinking-induced short-term memory loss. Sarah also mentioned that as she’s toured and talked about the book, some of her most touching/emotional moments have been when children of alcoholics have come up to her and said that they now realize that their parents were having blackouts and being verbally/physical and as kids, they never knew what was going on.
- Being on one’s own can be amazing and hard. Maybe this sounds obvious, but I was most taken with Kate’s honesty about her choice to forge an existence on her own without a husband. She noted that so many books and voices fall on one of two extreme sides of the spectrum, either trumpeting the euphoric freedom of being single or lamenting it as deeply depressing. Kate’s book was so compelling, I found, because she delves into the ambiguity of this life path. There are wonderful moments and there are hard ones. Isn’t this true of any good life?
- Both authors wrote their books to help others. It was clear to me that both authors wrote these books to process their own stories, yes, but also to reach and help others. Kate spoke about how she wrote her book so that young women in their twenties who are living these questions could read it, could realize that there is a rich and compelling history to the question of whether or not to marry. Sarah also spoke about the phenomenon of reaching others with her story, how many people have contacted her to say, “This is my story.” She also confessed at being baffled by this statement, how driven people are to see the universals in experience, to feel and utter those two words Me too.
- Both books are about the experience of being a woman in this modern world. At first blush, these memoirs seem very different. Before the event began, Sarah and I were joking about how polar opposite the covers are… Sarah’s has a dark and blurry cover suggestive of sinister content while Kate’s has a happy, vibrant cover featuring the author gorgeous and all-smiles on an old-fashioned sofa. And yet. The books have a considerable common ground in that each honestly explores what it means to be a woman in today’s world, the newfound freedoms and conundrums that attend a greater, yet neither complete nor clear, equality with men.
- Both books (like all good books) force us to ask big, hard questions. I loved both of these books because they made me think. Yes, Blackout is Sarah’s story, but it is impossible to read without wondering about your own drinking or habits. Are you drinking too much? Are you drinking to feel free and alive, to banish insecurities about body and worth and talent? Are you drinking simply because you can, because you refuse to have limits? Yes, Spinster is Kate’s story (and the story of five fascinating women in history), but it is impossible to read it without wondering about your own romantic choices. Did you marry because this is what you wanted or because you felt the choice was mandated by society? Did you ever consider being alone, making a life of your own instead of, or perhaps in addition to, tethering your life to someone else’s? Have you lost yourself in marriage or in non-marriage? Is there a ready way to reclaim that self?
I could go on and on, but won’t. Instead, I urge you to read both of these beautiful books. I’m so grateful to Sarah and Kate for joining me, and all of us, in my living room. As you can see from this picture, it was a packed and happy house.
For more information on Happier Hours Literary Salons, visit the website.