Lily and The Octopus

“I want to get you something for Christmas but I never know what…” a friend said to me about a year ago. I thought we were past the gift-giving phase, neither good nor bad just what it is when you’ve been friends (and I mean that literally and not as code for any other status) for almost, very nearly 20 years. It’s a lived-in kinda phase now, that perfect balance of knowing without anxiety. Most of my anxiety was about being known. I’m past that now. In this situation.

After adamant attempts at convincing this was absolutely not necessary, I caved and said, “oh, that’s easy. Books.” I didn’t speak the word nonfiction, assuming that, given the vintage of the friendship as previously explained I was, well, known. And so, one day prior to Christmas, a bag with tissue paper and a little card attached to the strings showed up with a book: Lily and the Octopus. With and appealing cover and that perfect weight of a new paperback–not too hard to wrestle like a hard cover but with a certain heft of industry print–I was actually enamored at the thought of a novel for the first time in a very, very long time.

I used to voraciously read anything I could get my hands on but usually novels without any discrimination. I’d give a good go to anything with a pretty cover and a compelling snippet on the dust jacket at the library. My years in an after-school book club when I was a high school teacher are some of the most memorable for the depth of discussion and arm-chair analysis we would do on the wide variety of titles that just came our way. Some of them changed my life and I didn’t know it until years later.

But since I finished graduate school and fell down the social media well during the COVID pandemic, I’ve struggled to read in general and have really struggled with fiction. I almost wonder if all the stress and critical thinking killed an imagination gene I didn’t know existed. Over the years since I’ve dabbled; Piranesi by Susannah Clark has been my greatest triumph thus far. Even that, though, felt exhausting to read in a way I didn’t anticipate: it was emotionally exhausting. I’ve thought about it for the past six months since reading it and still acutely feel heartbroken but a little hopeful. I think I started to realize that maybe my diversion from novels was actually a hiding from feeling things. on purpose.

I’m much more comfortable dealing in the reality of things that nonfiction uncovers, as brutal as they can be, because of the distance, the passage of time, and the fact that I’m an observer to whatever that is. What I’m realizing is that fiction becomes me. Those emotions are real. I think that’s the point of the genre…but it’s not a place I go carefree. For me today, that’s exhausting

So, when Lily and the Octopus showed up, for ten seconds I thought it’d be a good re-entry with it’s hand-drawn cover and light font. My only worry was that there’s a dog on the cover. How’d you decide on this one,” I asked my old friend-gift-giver. “It’s got a dog in it and was highly rated…so I figured how far off could I go.”

He’s right. I have a medium-sized, long-bodied pug-beagle mix rescue dog named June who shines a very bright light into my sometimes solitary world. But she’s going to turn 8 in June (I did not give her her name but I kept it both for convenience and fittingness…I’ve never ever known a June but I sure know one now) and over the past year I’ve found myself more and more consumed with a feeling I hear psychologists call anticipatory grief. That is, experiencing grief for something that will inevitably happen. Like June dying. Which I think about and pre-grieve nearly every day if I allow it to happen. And it makes me feel ridiculous in a world that’s got so many heavy things to grieve about now but that’s the one my brain has trained itself on. For this reason, I was happy to have a book about a dog to look forward to.

Until I read the snippet on the back cover that says Lily, the beloved co-main character, gets sick in this story. Now, obviously, no major plot points are revealed on the back cover of a novel…but this has been enough to make me wonder if I can handle it at all. I’m now concerned that I’ve started anticipatorily grieving Lily’s possible death. In concept, Lily is not real. But as soon as I start that book she will be. And I’ll worry about her on every single page of that book. If it even looks like she might die, I’ve already given myself permission to bail. A book about Genghis Khan would never do this to me.

So, this little book with a cutely drawn long-dog on the cover has been slowly making it’s way to my “for reading now” pile. It’s not quite there yet.

I’m just not ready.

I’ll go with an Italian mystery series first. If there’s murder in the plot, typically I don’t have to worry about any dogs dying. So far.


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