A Review of Christine Hale’s A Piece of Sky, A Grain of Rice
October 3, 2016 § Leave a comment
by Melissa Greenwood
A few Friday nights ago, I drove to a Burbank-area urgent care center after a week long crying jag left me reeling and in search of help. Call it what you will—emotional break, anxiety attack—but I found myself filling out my patient intake forms and thinking, of all things, of Christine Hale’s new memoir, A Piece of Sky, A Grain of Rice: A Memoir in Four Meditations. As it happens, Hale and I have a lot in common, from a history of depression to a bottomless, “stinging” need that she calls “choking.”
Of course, I didn’t pick up this book expecting Hale to be my mirror or to tell me “who I was and had always been,” but part of the power of memoir lies in its ability to reflect our lives. In this, A Piece of Sky more than succeeds. I connected with the narrator’s story in spite of her being a country girl from southwest Virginia, born in the ’50s, and my being an LA city girl, young enough to be her daughter. This shows this author’s writing chops.
Hale was born into a difficult, abusive family and then finds herself marrying (a second time) and having children with a man prone to outbursts. “We’d been married just a few months, and already I feared his temper,” she writes. Even so, she stays with him until her children are five and nine. She’s reminded of her mother who would unleash “those rage-fits the family called ‘tears’…like the rending of cloth.” There’s undeniable dependency on and attachment to those who hurt her. Even in nonviolent relationships, Hale finds herself hopelessly entangled, whether it’s with her children (with whom she has a tradition of “together tattoos”) or her Tibetan Buddhist teacher or stray cats. “I have to have something to hold onto. That’s my nature,” she reflects.
We can all relate to digging ourselves out of a dark place. For Hale, that dark place includes “assessing whether and how to kill [her]self,” finding her “one and only” and clinging to him “like a barnacle” with her “big love,” and ruining everything with her “self-destructive urge.” This is an urge I understand.
Where do you fit into your life? The urgent care doctor asked me over the hum of the CA-134 freeway as I relayed stories of multiple jobs and sleepless nights. Don’t you matter here, too? I just stared at the nurses clearing off their stations and the receptionist tidying up her desk. These questions stayed with me, and I found myself thinking of Hale. Wouldn’t she have had these same thoughts when trying to extricate herself from an “irrational, vituperative” mother, and when dragging her family through the ugly divorce that left her “flattened…to a futon” and “just short of destitute,” and when stumbling at last into the Tampa Dzogchen Buddhist Center in search of solace? My aha moment came when I saw Hale’s recovery meant putting herself first:
I made a shrine room in my house and sat there on my cushion for two hours or more every day without fail. Sometimes while I did all this my heart raced and tears coursed down my face. Once in a while I felt the dawning of a measure of acceptance about the disaster I was caught in.
Like any recovery, Hale’s isn’t instantaneous. There is no quick-fix for depression or dependency—just hours of doing the work, chanting the prayers, accepting her “solitary state,” and sitting with discomfort until it yields some perspective: “My children had softened me, my miserable marriage[s] had wised me up.” The other take-away is that life is in a constant state of flux. One day, you’ve been divorced from the father of your children for ten-plus years, and the next you’re “begin[ing] love again late in mid-life” with husband number three, “not knowing what [you] have found and when [you] will lose it.”
This beautiful redemption story reminds us, there’s hope in the flux.
Melissa Greenwood has an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. She formerly freelanced for entertainment magazines and local papers, and taught middle school English. She works now as the marketing and communications manager at a local LA private school.