I said no, I wasn’t really planning a celebration. But in truth, the celebration I had in mind was a secret.
A silly, salty, solitary, singular celebration that only two other souls in the world knew about. A celebration that had no name, but that I can easily imagine other people doing, each in their own way. A celebration that would honor a path that commenced in tears, meandered through dark nights of sorrow and deep woods of hard work, and then, four years later, took me to the sight of a long-hoped for and glorious dream.
It all began four years ago. As some of you who’ve read or watched interviews with me already know, I’d been teaching creative writing at a college in Pennsylvania for many years. I adored having the opportunity to mentor students, share the insights I’d learned into craft, encourage them when their spirits were low, applaud when they finally puzzled out a technique that had eluded them, and cheer when they moved their writing to a whole new level. I was just an adjunct, with one class a semester, but I probably put in forty hours a week, and I didn’t mind a single minute. I loved many things in my life – my husband, my writing, my public speaking, my occasional delicious comfort treat of pretzels – but I wanted my students and my teaching to remain a part of that list.
Then my department decided to restructure. I was invited to reapply for my position, and after a grueling six-month process, I was not hired. The person who delivered the news offered no reason, and I was too upset to think to ask. So I packed up my office, turned in my keys, and said goodbye to that time in my life.
Then I fell into a state of shock and grief. If you or anyone you’ve known has ever been restructured, pink-slipped, downsized, or swept out of a job like a layer of dust, you know that the experience throws a person into deep, harsh emotions: loss, fear, self-doubt, despair, sorrow, and perhaps even betrayal. One wonders why it happened. One might even obsess about why it happened. Yet one – or at least this one – struggles not to feel bitter or angry. This proves difficult when friends express outrage and acrimony at what happened, and the temptation is to take those feelings on as one’s own.
My dear friend Bonnie Neubauer was not one of those friends. Perhaps this is because she was one of the people who’d been at my side through the whole tumultuous six months, and knew I’d become so sad I was almost trembling with unhappiness. Perhaps, though, it was because Bonnie is naturally drawn to hope rather than anger.
In the morning, when I opened the front door for the newspaper, I found her gift. I laughed and brought them inside, amazed by her love.
Over the next few weeks, as I wondered when I might ever stop feeling so bereft, I ate the pretzels one bag at a time – until I had eaten nine of the ten bags.
Over those same few weeks, I decided to start some new writing. I couldn’t imagine how I could produce anything, given the state I was in. So I asked Bonnie if she would start meeting with me one a week, so I’d have a productivity deadline to produce new writing. She agreed to this plan, as well as to my request that we keep our meetings to ourselves.
The first week we met, I gave her a short story. She liked it quite a bit, and said, “This is good. Do something like this for our next meeting.” We then scheduled our next meeting – for her birthday. I went home thinking, Well, I’d better give her something really good if it’s her birthday.
And then I sat down that week, set my pen on the page, and, still awash in sorrow, with no plan in my head except the desire to give Bonnie a birthday gift worth receiving, began The Story of Beautiful Girl. Instantly, I was with the widowed, retired schoolteacher (Hmm….No connection there, of course), and she was in a state of grief. The knock comes to the door. There are two strangers. And that very day, the story began to pour out of me.
I brought the full first chapter to our next session, Bonnie’s birthday. She read it and said, “This is great! Where’s the next page!” I said, “Next week.” And we both just knew that this was my next book, and I was on a track with it that would not quit until I finished.
For the next four weeks I brought her chapters, and then I said, “I know what I need to do, and can now work alone.” She didn’t know the rest of the book until the week I sold it, two and a half years later, to Grand Central Publishing.
But sometime during those first few weeks, when only Bonnie knew that this story was arriving in the world, I told her that I still had a bag of pretzels left. I’d put it in the glove compartment of my 1995 Toyota Tercel, and was waiting to eat it until…until I wasn’t sure what. And we both looked at each other, and somehow felt the faith to say – “Until this becomes a New York Times Bestseller!”
So for the next four years – yes, four years – I drove around with that .9 oz., 100-calorie bag of Synder’s Mini-Pretzels in my glove compartment.
Many were the days when summers transformed the glove compartment into a broiler and winters turned it into an ice locker. Many more were the days when I found myself craving a snack of any kind, or the emotionally soothing taste of pretzels specifically. And I would glance at the glove compartment. You do have something to eat sitting right there, the voice of temptation would tell me. Pretzels, no less. Snyder’s pretzels, too.
But then I would think: No. I made a vow to myself – and Bonnie – that I would wait until the book I’m writing gets written, and gets sold, and gets loved by the publisher, and gets loved by the public, and hits the New York Times Bestseller list.
Did I believe it would? I don’t think so. Did I have a superstitious sense that if I ate the bag, the book would fail to achieve that level of success? I don’t think that, either.
Rather, I believed I owed it to the sorrow of that time in my life. Even though I no longer felt the acute jab of loss, had ceased wondering why it happened, and had found ways to incorporate my former students into my life, I still wanted to honor that moment – and the way that, in the darkest depths of despondency, a book had magically, miraculously taken root and flourished immediately. Not only that, but it was a book filled with love and goodness and compassion and people believing in each other. It was a book that would feel to readers – I hoped – like a gift of pretzels left at a door in the middle of the night.
So for four years, those pretzels sizzled and froze. Never forgotten but rarely looked at, they waited. Like the Voyager, they left their expiration date in the distance and continued on toward an unknown destiny. I told Hal about them, but no one else. The whole idea was just too ridiculous – and too absurdly, fabulously hopeful.
And then, The Story of Beautiful Girl came out on May 4th. And two weeks later, it did indeed get onto the New York Times Bestseller list.
I could have gone out to dinner with Hal. I could have thrown a party.
Instead, I called Bonnie. “When?” I asked.
We set a date and a time: this past Sunday, at 5:00. We picked the Borders in Glen Mills, PA, where I’d shown her some of those first chapters.
Bonnie said, “I’ll bring another large pack of pretzels, in case those are stale.”
I thought, I don’t care if they’re stale. And for a moment I also thought, You dip the parsley into the salt water at the Passover Seder, so you remember the tears of the slaves. I laughed the thought off – it’s hardly comparable. But I was reassured to think that there might be circumstances, and perhaps even rituals, that were like my bag of pretzels. A way to blend a tribute to suffering with an acknowledgment of triumph. A rite that celebrates the replacement of tears with cheers.
So on Sunday at 5 we met. I brought the bag out of my glove compartment. I held it up.
Bonnie did so, too.
Then I opened it, and reached inside, and put one in my mouth.
It was staler than paper and had lost all taste except the salt. And I couldn’t have enjoyed it more.
Bonnie was not as thrilled.
Afterwards, we went into the bookstore, found The Story of Beautiful Girl on a prominent display rack, and felt triumphant.Much had happened in the past week (which I’ll summarize below). But nothing was as wonderful as standing there, beside a sign saying “Borders Recommends” and a rack my book was sharing with Caroline Kennedy, Kim Edwards, Roger Enrose, and Chaz Bono, with the taste of salt in my mouth.
It was ridiculous, I knew. It wasn’t a five-course meal. It wasn’t a splurge at Tiffany’s, or a trip to Paris.
But it was the best bag of pretzels I ever ate.
And the sweetest celebration I can possibly imagine.
In other news, here’s what happened this past week.
The writer Dave Bakke, who wrote the book God Knows His Name, which helped inspire one of the characters in my book, wrote a stunningly moving column about the connection between our books. Click here to read it. (Use the magnifying glass to enlarge.)
Roger Ebert, the film critic, saw Dave Bakke’s column and sent out a tweet to his half-million followers.
The Story of Beautiful Girl stayed at #30 on the New York Times Bestseller list for a second week.
The Story of Beautiful Girl moved from #15 to #13 on the Indiebound Bestseller list, which is for independent bookstores.
Seattle PI published an incredible review, which happened to have been written by a woman with a disability. “Both captivating and heartbreaking, the book is meant to be savored, not merely read. Adeptly nuanced and originally wrought, the book explores our compassion and intolerance toward people different than ourselves….The author masterfully intertwines their life stories, inner thoughts and the hope that sustains them….It is her insight into the indomitable spirit of the human soul that infuses The Story of Beautiful Girl with brilliance and honesty. .Reading The Story of Beautiful Girl will change your perception of those whose challenges differ from your own. This book will move you to a better place.” – Holly Weiss
The blog The Jewish Muse published an interview with me in which we discuss the spiritual aspects of the book: “Rachel Simon Artfully Weaves Religious Themes Into Novel.” Click here to read (and, again, use the magnifying glass to enlarge).
Candis magazine, which is in the UK, chose The Story of Beautiful Girl as its Book Of The Month, saying, “A gripping yet tender storyline that unfolds as the insurmountable obstacles are faced with bravery and loyalty. You’re sure to be reaching for the tissues.” My book will be released in the UK on Thursday, June 5.
I also gave two talks and did a book signing at a conference for the National Association of State Directors of Developmental Disability Services (NASDDDS), in Philadelphia. My talk during the day was about being a sibling, and how provider agencies could work more collaboratively with family members like me. My talk in the evening – which was open to the public as well as the conference attendees – was about The Story of Beautiful Girl. The later talk, with accompanying reception, was sponsored by a fabulous organization, The MENTOR Network. I met many professionals at both talks, and was thrilled to see many friends and former students at the second. But because I was too busy throughout the day, I didn’t get a chance to take photos. So I’m posting just this one of me and self-advocate Julie Petty.
Three says later, I attended my 30th reunion at Bryn Mawr College. Since my teaching position was also at Bryn Mawr, I had the opportunity to catch up with some of my wonderful former students as well as with my classmates. Along with the pretzel ritual which Bonnie and I performed the next day, I was able to put my sorrow of four years behind me much more fully. See below for those photos.
This coming week I begin a lot of travel, with talks in Connecticut, Minnesota, and Washington, DC. It will be a hectic time. But I now have a new large pack of pretzels. I don’t have much sorrow these days, but I’m glad to know it’s there if I need it.