Catalogue for a Coming of Age by Liz Harmer
Liz Harmer’s “Catalogue for a Coming of Age” is one of three winners of the 2020 CRAFT Creative Nonfiction Award, judged by Joy Castro.
The narrator of Liz Harmer’s “Catalogue for a Coming of Age” recalls a self on the cusp of everything, brimming with mania and first lust, navigating the card catalog, mental illness, and a stifling home life. Shimmering and brilliant, delineating received categories and then slipping between them, “Catalogue for a Coming of Age” is roving and aphoristic by turns as Harmer’s quicksilver intelligence spins and twirls upon its own assertions to interrogate them, offering a chronicle of a “body waking to find itself turned inside out.” Has a library ever been so blatantly erotic, a site for such intellectual ecstasy? —Joy Castro
Content Warning—mental illness and implied sexual assault
In 1999, I worked two jobs and had just gotten out of the hospital. A few afternoons a week and on Saturdays I shelved books at a small branch of the public library, as I had been doing for two years, with a brief hiatus for my breakdown. My second job was as the assistant manager at a Little Caesar’s around the corner from my house. One of the delivery drivers, Peter, had oily ropey blond hair and reminded me of Kurt Cobain.
I was on lithium and I was lonely. The world diminished from the vantage of the row townhouse where I lived with my parents in Stoney Creek, Ontario. I did not know then that all of us—my parents and my brother and I—were processing my break from reality as a trauma we’d all endured. I had become a small and sorrowing version of myself, quiet in the shelves, quiet before the dough machine, quiet in my shiny black apron, dusted with flour, quiet in the passenger seat of Peter’s car.
021 Library relationships
All of my colleagues at the library were women. I was trying to learn how to be. My mother kept her womanhood hidden. My boss looked like the famous babysitter from an eighties movie. My favorite clerk, L., eleven years older than me, had wide hips and glossy black curls I envied. Her Italian father had smuggled figs into Canada and grown a small orchard. While mad, I told her in a letter that I had a strong affinity for her and that I believed my essential spirit to be Italian. I wanted more gregarious shouting at large tables and fewer Dutch cuckoo clocks sighing and clicking more loudly than over-measured speech. A mad person will sometimes offend, and I wanted to be L. I wanted to be the senior page, S., a year older than me, also Italian Canadian, whose glossy black curls also floated down her back, who had her shifts written down in her pretty penmanship in a small date book, the hours circled once each.
098 Prohibited works, forgeries, hoaxes
Shelving, I once found a book of censored erotica. Mouths and cages, cocks and trembling assholes. Those were the years I learned to apply my hands to my arousal. I was a virgin, except in my mind. When I discovered an orgasm, it seemed a secret almost of the mad-making variety.
101 Theory of philosophy
In theory, philosophy would console me where God could not, where drugs and therapy could not.
I thought I’d invented it, my view of microcosms each stacked infinitely inside each other. So that a person’s body was a small universe. Nodes like stars. Each thing containing another. For years I’d find proof that others knew all this. For example, a shoe is made, used, breaks down, dies. A star has a lifespan. An orgasm rises and falls. For example, the human species began as a fish, began as cells, and each person begins as a fish afloat in the belly of a woman, the belly of a woman is a sea. But these are just metaphors, and I was only a poet, taking everything too seriously.
123 Determinism & indeterminism
There was a lot to figure out for someone who had only just graduated high school: What is the world like? Is there a God and did he speak to me? What’s sex? What’s love? What’s a woman and am I one? If God spoke to me, should I take the pills or what? Why can’t the world’s knowledge be folded into a card catalogue, where we could sort it? Will I have a thousand years in heaven to finally understand all this? What if I sat in front of this shelf for a while, thinking? It’s closing time, Liz, the library’s closing, are you ready? Are you ready? Who’s taking you home?
I wanted to know what I was made for. I wanted God to command me. I was not unwilling to follow a command. What about that watch you find on the beach? We know there’s a watchmaker, but where is he?
130 Paranormal phenomena
When I discovered that reports of alien abductions were housed among the nonfiction, I sat for a long while and thought.
131 Occult methods for achieving well-being
Peter, who drove pizzas through town, believed strange things about our origins. When I told him what had happened to me, he sucked on my ear. His hot breath on my ear and in my ear, his tongue—I felt it in the folds and fissures of my vulva, my vagina, my good home, the origin of all things. Was an ear a genital?
Peter with his Kurt Cobain hair told me not to judge him but he was sure something weird had created us. Had I read about the lizard kings from another planet? Think about it! I tried to think about it, but his hands were on my arms and belly, my legs. Half the time he was trying to fuck me and half the time he was high, staring up and sure the lizard men were coming in their spacecrafts.
135 Dreams & mysteries
While in the hospital I told Dr. S. I was upset about the nightly sedatives I took. They didn’t let me dream. She asked me if I would rather dream or be well, and I didn’t understand those options, and she prescribed me another week in the hospital.
137 Divinatory graphology
It’s not insane to look for signs and clues. Though it was insane when I came to believe that by becoming (suddenly) beautiful, I had become (finally) good.
God was everywhere, or had recently been.
153 Mental processes & intelligence
154 Subconscious & altered states
When I felt the quaking in my mind, even I could see an explanation was needed. The second one that I supplied was that I was using all my mental power at once, not that mythical ten percent. I fitted this with the first explanation: people who have slipped into this new dimension, this New Earth, had awakened their dormant brain-power and, like me, did not need to eat or to sleep anymore.
All of it made some deep sense.
165 Fallacies & sources of error
Still, I had made some error.
176 Ethics of sex & reproduction
A youth pastor I knew told me I should be careful. Two youth leaders at that church talked about fumbling through sex for the first time with each other on their wedding night. A friend told me—did I know—you had to guide the erect penis in? A teacher said that love, sex, and marriage were three legs on a stool and had to be each at the same length.
Whenever Peter was near me I touched my ear. Whenever Peter was near me I was so wet my wet was like a thirst. But my culture buried deeper still. I could not let myself go completely, even I, who had so recently let go of the grasp of my own mind as though it had been only a bright bunch of shiny balloons.
I had loved Jesus since I was six years old. My love for Jesus could fill a book. My love for Jesus would be enough for a thousand years of pondering. We were Calvinists. This was not supposed to be about my feelings.
223 Poetic books of the Old Testament
Ecclesiastes: Hold on to the ones you love all the days of your meaningless life.
238 Creeds & catechisms
What was my only comfort in life and in death? That I was not my own, but belonged, body and soul, to my faithful savior Jesus Christ.
239 Apologetics & polemics
Apologetics had once been my favorite holy duty. I loved to force people into fights about God. Now I find these arguments dull and pointless.
That girl in 1999 recovered from her high in a nun’s silence. My psychiatrist’s office was itself a lithium pill. The ceiling three stories high, the building as spacious as a mall. I was mellow, dull, a bit scrubbed clean. So, is there a God? I asked everyone. Isn’t there a god? That girl was broken but she was hot. Hot, Peter said. You’re so hot.
302 Social interaction
All summer I walked through neighborhoods with E., whom I’d met at the psych ward. In the hospital at almost any time of day I’d find her in bed. She said things to hurt my feelings, but many girls did this to me. We both lived in Stoney Creek, as it turned out, but her problems were larger than mine. She passed me joints, which I smoked, because, on lithium, I agreed to anything. I smoked the joints she passed me but did not get high.
Nothing would make me high again, I thought, as I walked down those sunbaked sidewalks with E., who said, “I want to win the lottery,” who laughed, “When I say I want to win the lottery I mean I want to get pregnant.” E. knew Peter and sometimes she was witness to what happened between us. That body waking to find itself turned inside out.
My family would sometimes talk about how they had defended me from gossip among the Christians. People called me crazy, and they came to my defense. These announcements made me clench my jaw and fists.
310 General statistics
People with bipolar disorder have twenty times the normal lifetime risk for suicide. A diagnosis of bipolar disorder shaves seven years from your life. According to one study, misdiagnosis of bipolar disorder occurs somewhere between 4.5 and sixty percent of the time.
When I tried to get life insurance they told me I was ineligible for the standard rate due to my diagnosis.
376 Education of women
You tell a child that God wants her to answer him above any other call. You tell a child that if God asks you to sacrifice your son, you should immediately prepare to kill him. You tell a child that, even so, the main thing is that she get married, have children, but also you give that child the Bible and that child can read. She can read where it says how marriage is not important. She can read where the sky splits open. You tell a child that it is better to die than to live and then you act surprised when she goes mad for her love for God.
391 Costume & personal appearance
Years later, a teacher will tell me that when I walked through the school it made her wonder if a person’s frailty was her beauty. She wondered if I knew I was beautiful. I did not. I certainly did not. I wanted to be so beautiful that no matter how ugly I was I would be loved. I wanted to trade my beauty for love.
For costuming, I had chosen thrift store clothes and anorexia. I wore my blond waves long. I was beautiful: where was my love? I had been too ham-fisted. Had taken it all too seriously.
Peter told me that I was only hired because I was hot. That our boss was pervy. He informed me after that fact that when I stood outside the glass door, leaning against it, he mimed licking at the glass where I could not see. Peter loved to shock me into silence. This was sexuality, how this shock wakened my slack, starved body. How he pulled something from me, something slimy as afterbirth. He wanted inside me. I wanted to let him in. But God had put a rock in the middle of me that could not be budged.
I was also dating K. at that time. K. had a rock in the middle of him that could not be budged. His rock was sturdier than mine, and it felt safe to be near it.
392 Customs of life cycle & domestic life
K. thought we were going too fast. K. did not put his mouth on my ear. “You think marriage is death,” K. observed. How could I get married? But to be marriageable is to pass as sane. K. wanted a normal life. What a relief to my mother who, at this time, was taking a strong antianxiety medication and not sleeping much at all.
393 Death customs
I had fallen in love with a man in the psych ward named James, who was ten years too old for me, and whom I never saw again after we both got out. In January 2000, my mother handed me a newspaper obituary with his name on it. How quickly you could lose a life. Mere months had passed. My mother kept referring to James as a gentleman who hadn’t “tried anything.”
A person can, with words, seduce you. Peter, for instance, outside the Little Caesar’s in the morning, told me a story to shock me. He went to Amsterdam where a stripper put a banana up her—I don’t remember the word he used—and told him to take a bite.
A person can diagnose you with words. Words like that can make you.
A person can thrill you with wordplay. A person can write a poem. I, for instance, wrote James a poem in the hospital. He was going low. I was labile, the doctors said, tearful. All this responsibility makes him ill, I wrote in the poem. I called it “Crossing Guard.”
A person can divine things with words. God can conjure a world. A person can devote herself to language. There are some benefits to being so sensitive. How delicious is the word delicious. The word zealous. Voracious.
508 Natural history
Oh, it had been lovely, much of the time, how the history of the world was there in every scrap of matter. In every trace the story of some star exploding. I could feel a caveman there in the moving atoms of my hand.
527 Celestial navigation
Peter drove us from parking lot to parking lot. One was behind the Ebenezer church where the father of someone I knew was the minister. Another was behind the FedEx warehouse near the highways. He wanted to fuck me and he wanted to see where the aliens were in the sky. Did you see that? He took me to a parking lot and gave me weed that was much stronger than the joints I smoked with E. The weed frightened me more than his desire did. The weed made me see his sneer.
I sat in the car as he bought cigarettes at a gas station, and he shared a look with the cashier and they both stared at me through several panes of glass. “Are you kidnapping me?” I asked when he returned.
He grinned and slammed the car door.
“Are you taking me to Mexico?” This was out of a movie. We lived in Canada and there was an elephantine country between us and Mexico. He laughed as I cried, desperate and scared.
It has been twenty years. He was angry when I chose K. I didn’t know Peter’s last name. When I tell people about all this they say I’m lucky not to have gone with Peter, whose body buzzed with an electric charge. I stationed him in a novel where the romance of searching for aliens in the night sky has none of this danger. I turned it into something that could console me.
I don’t want to spoil the ending by telling you I did not have sex with Peter. But sometimes I came to with his hands in my pants. Sometimes I could hardly hold up my head. He laughed. E. laughed. My mother was in pain and everyone in my family was starting to blame me for its problems. My mother was worried about me but this, too, came out of her oddly. Why don’t you ever think of taking care of yourself, Liz? But my soul, mother, I would think, I could not convey, because no one else had been with me when I went to the place of perfection and light. Did she know that when I smelled the strawberries that day I could smell them from a mile’s distance, as I could hear the low thrum of her voice as a womb-resonant note? That all my senses had awakened completely? Did she understand that God had spoken to me but also that there might be no God at all because what kind of God hands you prophecies and then leaves you to pick at them, leaves you without insight, without that holy wind, that holy fire, and I was supposed to be a woman, now?
“You’re irritable, Liz,” my mother said, and I wanted to scream. I wanted to slap the pettiness out of her. I was supposed to have a body, now?
534 Sound & related vibrations
Once I was in Peter’s car in the drive-thru of Tim Hortons and the server asked, “Is she okay?” My head lolled. My tongue gone thick. Once I was in a bar with Peter and a bunch of men told us to get a room. My face was slick with his trails. Once I drove with him to my orthodontist’s office and his mouth was on me at every stop light, his mouth was on me in the waiting room, my eyes were glazed and no one noticed. Once around this time I was on my way out on a date with K. and my father expressed pleasure at how pretty I looked. They did not notice what was happening with Peter because they did not know he existed. I never told them. I would not let him near my house, Peter, who had turned me into a single throbbing organ of want, a single throbbing ear made solely for his frequency. Even when he drugged me, mocked me, laughed that I was afraid of being kidnapped, grabbed the little bit of flab growing back on my starved belly and squeezed and said, “Are you afraid that I’m going to see this, see you?” I had so rarely been without thoughts. The lithium obliterated them. Where was the child who had come before this rupture? Who was taking care of that child?
Animal magnetism once referred to what was also called mesmerism, after eighteenth-century Austrian physician Friedrich Anton Mesmer. You could put your hands on people and produce heat and trances, put them in hypnotic states, you could mystify and seize them. Animal magnetism is supposed to be a force or emanation which by now has come to describe, as the OED has it, “a natural charm or personal appeal; sexual attractiveness.”
Mesmerism has been debunked but I have sometimes found myself in trances, in a state of heated near-hypnosis, merely by being close to another body. I have been magnetized at an animal level. I have been lured by the bodies of others. The bodies of others have a real effect.
For years my interest would pique whenever I heard of an alternative explanation of the brain or behavior. Chemistry was not enough. Genes were boring. No one could understand God. I didn’t have to go far. My father compared me to the prophet Elijah. The man I would marry told me of shamans who had induced certain mind-states through starvation and extreme cold or exhaustion. I had unlocked something to do with perception, something to do with intuition. I would always be fascinated by cults and by fevers and by lovesickness. I would experience sleep paralysis and wonder what it meant until the mundane explanation pulled the air out of that, too.
541 Physical & theoretical chemistry
My mother asked if I’d considered taking omega-3 oils. Fatty fish oils, she’d heard, can have an effect on brain chemistry. The limp naivety of this suggestion made my lip curl. You’re irritable again, Liz. Irritability was a symptom. Me being irritated did not mean that I was manic, I insisted, and she looked like a woman who’d been slapped. Don’t go on the pill, she said. Are you premenstrual? Are you getting enough sleep?
The lithium was clouding, clotting. The antidepressants pretended they could lift me when my mood grew to the weight of two tons, three tons, until my mood grew to a weight not even God could lift. I had liked having a mind. James had told me what they were giving me: antipsychotics, anticonvulsants, sedatives, and in some people the imagination is so strong it takes many, many chemicals to dampen it. Damp as a storm-heavy cloud.
Mother, I seethed. I was always seething but this was not a fucking symptom, goddamn fuck.
I was the same girl who had, in the middle of my dream of unreality, lunged at her with a hand on her throat, torn her earring out of her head. She was that brave, good woman who had received that girl’s attack and driven her in one piece to the hospital. My mother wanted some credit. My mother wanted love, and I wanted love, and neither of us could give it.
569 Fossil mammalia
I thought that by starving myself I would find something new there, near my bones.
597 Cold-blooded vertebrates
I wanted my parents not to have become ghosts. I wanted them to do something other than to stand, stricken, in doorframes and at counters.
614 Incidence & prevention of disease
I wanted to believe I was an anomaly. It would turn out that I was. This manic episode would not be the first of many, but the only ever. I would go off the meds and claim that I had been a prophet, exactly as God had said, but if you hid behind metaphors you could get away with this kind of stuff. A professor later suggested that maybe by becoming an artist I had given myself permission to be odd and eccentric, to be a little mad. I believed it was the good and constant love of the philosopher I married that had saved me. I believed, at times, that the farther and further away I was from my faith and my family the saner I was. I tried to be careful around drugs and sleep. I would never casually do hallucinogens or uppers. People would for the rest of my life remark on the size of my feelings, so much larger than anyone else’s.
I often wish that I’d had sex with Peter, for the sake of my desire, my good erotic desire that ought to have been treasured and indulged. But something was wrong there. Something was wrong with everyone I knew.
634 Orchards, fruit, forestry
In Stoney Creek, where I smelled of dough and tomato sauce, where I shelved books and smoked cigarettes, where I kept things from my parents and wandered the streets with E., where Peter and I drove from lot to lot, the soil was perfect for certain fruit trees and vines. In 1952 my infant father had traveled to this place with his Dutch parents, who became laborers on a fruit farm, the farm whose hundred-some years of grape production ended when the farm was sold and paved over to make room for a strip mall like the one where my Little Caesar’s lived.
757 Human figures & their parts
Drawing and painting made me notice. A person’s forearm and its small curved creek when it bent at the elbow. A knob of bone. The distance between the eyes on a person’s face. That nook below the ear.
And so maybe Peter was keeping it alive, the part of me that wanted to be alive. He who has ears let him hear. None of this is only one thing, to be placed in one category.
904 Collected accounts of events
Someday I would write all this down.
908 With respect to kinds of persons
I had gotten the job at the library when I was still a sweet, pudgy, normal-sized girl who wanted to be in among the books and artworks and to understand God.
I loved these jobs, though they were ill-paid and menial. For a while after going mad I thought there might be a way to live that was not like the paths already given. Living on a few grapefruits a week in a basement apartment, maybe. Living on what I used to call my “wits.” Who needed wealth, or things? There was a quiet in my mind when I was in those shelves, one that I wish I could dig back into these years later, now that my life has become cluttered with relationships and email and projects and social media. I did not know that I would finish degrees and write novels and marry a man I loved and have children. This rich life. Then, I had only to put the book on the shelf where it belonged.
Season after season, dark outside or brightening to summer, from my carpool ride or the bus, I arrived and hung my belongings on a hook, and then went to the carts filled with books and arranged them. My imagination bore fruit in the low buzz of the presence of others. My mind was aware of the item in my hand and its label, discovering that it needed repair or was missing a part or merely placing it where it needed to be, and my mind was wandering away into some fantasy about the future, some hope, some longing for some crush on some boy I hardly remember now, some plan for a book or a story, a line arriving here or there, the composition of a painting I’d start when I got home.
I was tiresome and I did not want to be, so I tired myself out until I had no more questions, only answers glittering in the mind the way a night sky will reveal star after star, the way an artwork reveals its brushstrokes and hidden figures if you only sit to look.
And at Little Caesar’s, someone far away at some headquartered location had worked out the correct measures of cheese and dough. The oven’s belt chugged a pizza along for eight minutes precisely. The crazy bread went in a little window halfway along the oven’s belt and took exactly four. A script for when you answered the phone. You yourself could be a precisely portioned pie moved by some engine other than your own.
After the hospital, with its evenly portioned routine, I hoped to get stuck in that life: morning at the pizza place where I started the dough machine, made a deposit at the bank, and opened for lunch. In the afternoons, my mind clear as always, heading to the library to shelve. At night Peter would arrive to pick me up in his parents’ car, already thick with the stench of weed, and I would think that this was love and this was care. The way L., locking up, would say, Who’s that? and how I’d say, That’s just Peter, one of the guys I’m dating. Often my antics could make her burble with laughter, but now she was watchful as I moved to the darkness of the parking lot. Okay, L. said. Good night.
LIZ HARMER’s first novel, The Amateurs, was a finalist for the Amazon Canada First Novel Award, and her second is forthcoming with Knopf Canada in 2022. She has been awarded fellowships at the Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences, and her essays, stories, and poems have been published widely. She is at work on a memoir.
Featured image by kropekk_pl courtesy of Pixabay