A Review of Ona Gritz’s Present Imperfect

December 10, 2021 § 4 Comments

By Ellen Blum Barish

I first came across Ona Gritz’s work when she submitted an essay to my literary publication, Thread, in 2015. The piece was titled “Should I Feel Anything Yet?” and I was in from the first sentence: “It was the eighties but we wanted it to be the sixties, those of us in divided Boulder who claimed Pearl Street, ‘the mall’ as opposed to ‘the hill’ where the University of Colorado students fratted or whatever they did besides look down on us through their Ray-Bans.” 

I was immediately struck by the poetry, details, and contrasts. The eighties versus the sixties, “the mall” and “the hill.” How she othered herself from the University of Colorado students who “looked down on” her through Ray-Bans.

Gritz captured those transitional twenties by nimbly moving from falling for “the classical guitarist with green basset hound eyes” to concerns over her runaway older sister to a square of blotter acid that looked like “the sugary button candy of her youth.” She tells us that she had “guiltily smoked pot twice in high school,” but ultimately decided to take that tab of acid. That between she and her sister, she was “the angel,” and her sister, who was murdered along with her boyfriend and infant child, was an angel of another kind.

“Now that she was the angel of the family,” Gritz writes, “who should I be?”

It was Gritz’s agility in juggling opposite truths at the same time that won me over, and the essay was published in Thread’s Fall 2015 issue.

So earlier this year when I learned that she was releasing a collection of essays, I wanted in again and was delighted to discover this tension of twos is a deep theme in Gritz’s life. The notion that two contrasting things may be simultaneously possible appears in many of the essays in this sensitive and elegantly composed collection.

From the first few lines of the opening essay in Present Imperfect, we learn that Gritz lives with a form of cerebral palsy she describes as dividing her in half. She determines the temperature of water with her left hand. With her eyes closed, she would have to move a coin into her left hand to distinguish it from a paper clip. And there’s a limp.

But it’s not only her body that is divided.

There’s her sister Angie, the runaway, who did heroin and meth and didn’t like school and called Ona “Miss Educated.”

“My two hands are sisters,” Gritz writes. “Left beautiful in her grace. Right, Clumsy-Girl, with lesser jobs.”

There’s a marriage that failed in part because it was with an able-bodied man, which, at first, felt like it meant that she wasn’t truly disabled but she would later come to understand after being in a successful bi-disability one. After her divorce, she writes, “Thankfully, by then I understood that my tie to him wasn’t what made me whole.” Of her second marriage to a man who is blind, she writes, “These days, disability is a mere factor in our daily routines.”

There’s raising an able-bodied son who is learning to drive. He is “almost a man now, testing his power. Carrying both of our lives, the way I once did, but with none of my fear.”

In “Deluge,” she writes, “Love can be the wall of water, the brigade of rain. It can drown the things you felt sure you couldn’t live without, dependable things you thought were just humming along.”

Like her essay that was published in Thread, which I was delighted to see as one of the fourteen  essays in this collection, Gritz investigates a life that feels split. These essays strike me as an exploration of opposites. The book’s title, Present Imperfect, is a grammatical reference to action in the present tense that is continuous. Action implying something in the past. Continuous, suggesting that it is not yet over. It’s as if she is suggesting that we drag the stuff of our life around with us into the present, whatever that may look like.

Ona Gritz on the page is a warm, wise, and concise confidant who deftly turns the craggy rocks of life into touchstones.  

“Maybe it’s not about the body and its limits,” she writes. “Maybe it’s a destination, everyone hobbling there as best we can.”

Ellen Blum Barish’s memoir, Seven Springs (Shanti Arts), was published in May 2021. Her essays have appeared in Tablet, Full Grown People, Literary Mama, and the Brevity blog, and have aired on Chicago Public Radio. She is the founding editor of Thread, which earned four notables in Best American Essays, and the author of the essay collection Views from the Home Office Window: On Motherhood, Family and Life (Adams Street Publishing, 2007). Barish teaches writing and offers private coaching for essayists and memoirists.


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