I'm one of those annoying people who never shuts up about books. And it's not because I've read so much (I haven't, relatively) but because words are my primary map for life. There are hundreds of books that made a mark on me, but the ones on this list are those I return to again and again and recommend to others most often.
I got the name Alma from my favorite book, The History of Love by Nicole Krauss. It’s a magical, gorgeous, achy book that stole my heart. I love so many bits from that book, but one of the favorites is this: The first woman may have been Eve, but the first girl will always be Alma… Maybe the first time you saw her you were ten. She was standing in the sun scratching her legs. Or tracing letters in the dirt with a stick. her hair was being pulled. Or she was pulling someone’s hair. And a part of you was drawn to her, and a part of you resisted – wanting to ride off on your bicycle, kick a stone, remain uncomplicated. In the same breath you felt the strength of a man, and a self-pity that made you feel small and hurt. Part of you thought: Please don’t look at me. If you don’t, I can still turn away. And part of you thought: Look at me.
In “The History of Love” by Nicole Krauss, one of the main characters, Leo Gursky, and his best friend develop a system of communication where one of them can bang on the ceiling or floor to ask if the other one is alive. (They live in apartments above and below each other.) Three taps for the question. Two taps back means “yes”, one tap is “no”. I don’t need to point out the obvious hilarity in this system, but the theme carries out right through to the end of the book, where Leo is figuratively reunited with Alma. Alma, I said.
She said, Yes.
Alma, I said again.
She said, Yes.
Alma, I said.
She tapped my twice.
I was in yoga class on Tuesday night, we did all kinds of crazy poses I hadn’t done before. We also chanted at both the beginning and end of class, which is unusual, and I’m sure if there were any first-timers in the class they were sufficiently spooked enough to not return. But, I’ve come to love the chanting now and then. Something about the way sanskrit syllables tumble through my mouth, so foreign, and although I only know the meaning of a few words, there is a force behind the sentiment in those chants. They are all purposeful if not a bit odd, full of wisdom and so, so very old. It’s like being in the presence of someone very powerful, yet you can’t explain why, you just feel it and are glad to be there to absorb some of that wonderfulness, whatever it is. The chant we did at the end was one I didn’t recognize and was particularly beautiful. We transitioned from sitting and actually singing the words ourselves to lying down in shivasana and listening to them being sung by some amazing voice over the music system. Maybe it was God :). There’s something so raw about laying in that position at the end of practice. This is something that has really evolved since I’ve started doing more yoga. Where I used to just dissolve into immense relief that it was OVER, I started to find other things, namely space and emptiness. It’s not all peaceful in that it always feels good - oh no - but it’s whatever it is and there’s space enough for it all to exist and in that space I have learned to stay, stay, stay. With whatever comes up just stick around and let things come and go.
Tuesday night as I was laying there, it happened to be particularly peaceful. I felt very well taken care of surrounded by the pretty music in that dark, warm room and the tiredness that had settled into my body after all the turning and bending. And then I got a tap, tap, tap in my belly. My body perked up to take notice of what felt like…kicking! And indeed, tap tap tap, it was the first time I could unmistakeably identify the movement in my stomach as baby movement. I took in a long, deep breath and a huge smile grew on my face as I moved my hand to my belly over the spot where she was moving. Tap, tap.
"Hi, little girl."
Last Friday, we got confirmation that the little being growing in my belly is indeed a girl (!). I had a feeling this would be the case, but it was nice (and scary) to have that confirmation. Like most girls, I’ve had my share of favorite names throughout the years. I remember the first name I liked was “Katrina” in the 3rd grade and that was TOTALLY going to be the name of my baby girl when I grew up to be an adult in one hundred years. I’ve had some real gem favorites along the way, ranging from cutesy to embarrassing to kitschy. But when I read one of my favorite books of all time, “The History of Love" by Nicole Krauss, I immediately threw all other name choices from the top of the list, as I would be naming my daughter Alma, after the narrator of the book and also the subject of the primary story (not the same person, both Almas). Alma means "soul" in Spanish, and in Italian. I think of this book almost daily and pull my copy out to flip through the dogeared pages now and then to read my favorite passages, always to a sigh, a smile, an ache or a goddam I wish I could write like that.
Those who know me best know that I claimed this name and now I’m being asked, "So, will she be an Alma?" I find myself hesitating. I suppose I’m both sad and excited to give the name away (so much as it is mine to give). Like your most favorite possession that holds unspeakable significance - that of discovering new, identifying, changing, fall in love, remembering old love, recognition, confirmation, and so much more - ah, the magic of a good book. There’s an element of reverence and attachment to both the book and the name, but how better to let it live than to give it to my own little girl?
This is a passage from the book that explains Alma, and just one of the reasons that I fell in love with her, the idea of her, and the book itself.
My mother used to read to me from The History of Love."The first woman may have been Eve, but the first girl will always be Alma," she’d say, the Spanish book open on her lap while I lay in bed. This was when I was four or five, before Dad got sick and the book was put away on the shelf. "Maybe the first time you saw here you were ten. She was standing in the sun scratching her legs. Or tracing letters in the dirt with a stick. Her hair was being pulled. Or she was pulling someone’s hair. And a part of you was drawn to her, and part of you resisted - wanting to ride off on your bicycle, kick a stone, remain uncomplicated. In the same breath you felt the strength of a man, and the self-pity that made you feel small and hurt. Part of you thought: Pleas don’t look at me. If you don’t, I can still turn away. And part of you thought: Look at me.
"If you remember the first time you saw Alma, you also remember the last. She was shaking her head. Or disappearing across a field. Or through your window. Come back, Alma! you shouted. Come back! Come back!
"But she didn’t.
"And though you were grown up by then, you felt as lost as a child. And though your pride was broken, you felt as vast as your love for her. She was gone, and all that was left was the space where you’d grown around her, like a tree that grows around a fence.
"For a long time, it remained hollow. Years, maybe. And when at last it was filled again, you knew that the new love you felt for a woman would have been impossible without Alma. If it weren’t for her, there would never have been an empty space, or the need to fill it.
"Of course there are certain cases in which the boy in question refuses to stop shouting at the top of his lungs for Alma. Stages a hunger strike. Pleads. Fills a book with his love. Carries on until she has no choice but to come back. Every time she tries to leave, knowing what has to be done, the boy stops her, begging like a fool. And so she always returns, no matter how often she leaves or how far she goes, appearing soundlessly behind him and covering his eyes with her hands, spoiling for him anyone who could ever come after her."