A Review of Tarn Wilson’s In Praise of Inadequate Gifts
May 19, 2022 § 5 Comments
By Renée E. D’Aoust
One summer when I was about seven years old, I decided I wanted to set up a little stand to sell things. (I had probably seen a Charlie Brown cartoon where Lucy sets up her lemonade stand.) The problem was twofold: no one ever came by the dirt road at our island cabin, and I didn’t know what to sell. I didn’t have any lemons to make lemonade, and we were on a rural island with no stores. My mum and I brainstormed what to sell: fresh-caught fish, bouquets of fir boughs, funky driftwood. “How about salt crystals?” I spent two days drying salt water to make salt, and I spent a further two days sitting at my little stand on the dirt road with three little baggies of homemade salt. I made a price list. A sign. Mum brought me a chair from the cabin. I was a patient, persistent kid.
Though I’ve never met Tarn Wilson, I was drawn to her because she spent part of her childhood in British Columbia on an island, which she writes about in her first memoir Slow Farm, and I spent summers as a kid in the same Canadian province on a different island. I first heard Tarn Wilson speak on an AWP panel many years ago and became absolutely hooked.
Wilson doesn’t shy away from hard questions, nor does she hit you over the head with wise answers. One of the most wonderful characteristics of her writing is her capacity for compassion. She has suffered hardship, but her ability to love has not suffered. So it’s no surprise that compassion features prominently among the many salient qualities of her most recent essay collection In Praise of Inadequate Gifts: A Memoir in Essays.
Wilson welcomes us into the many challenges she has faced in her life: a traumatic childhood, a savior complex, a divorce, even teeth that grow wonky and have to be fixed again and again. But not once do we feel sorry for her. Such is her craft and humanity that we journey together toward a better tomorrow.
That tomorrow is today. In each of these twelve essays, Wilson draws the reader into how she discovers that the process of writing is “a disclosing eye, revealing some of what has been invisible.” Wilson is able to write herself into a new way of living: “Obsession imprisons us in repetitive thinking; after my obsession eased its grip, I was able to take action.” In this quiet and lovely book, Wilson frequently breaks the veneer of distance between reader and writer: “I break the unwritten rules of essay writing. I’m not supposed to show you the movie camera at the edge of the scene. But I have no other way to tell you the whole story.”
The “whole story” includes trying to figure out how to be a better human in our broken world. Her hippie family is broken through divorce, assault, and undiagnosed mental illness, yet Wilson tries to have a “perfect little life.” After all, if everything is perfect, particularly if she is perfect, she can control her environment and bad things won’t happen.
But it’s impossible to maintain control as a kid; things are by definition outside a kid’s control. She experiences “flat grief” and loneliness; Wilson doesn’t know how life can ebb and flow and be made whole because her home life has always been turbulent. The perspective of a writer makes healing possible; Wilson writes: “When my story is assembled, always imperfectly, always with a few under or overfilled joints, I look down from the top, as from an airplane.” And yet, even when assembled, ever conscious to be honest, she’s not sure her story “is true”:
How can I know if the story I’ve told is true? I can’t. But I can tell I’m getting close to truth when I’ve found the right pattern, made the right connections, and feel an electricity I don’t understand that pulses through the sentences and makes the story live.
Sitting at my little stand that summer long ago in Canada, I finally sold some of my hard work. I sold my homemade salt on credit, because when the island hippie Richard chanced by our cabin, he ambled down to my stand, delighted to find me patiently waiting for someone, anyone. Of course, he didn’t have any actual money with him. (He said he would pay me later, and he did. A quarter.) He listened to me explain the process of making salt crystals; he was compassionate as I spoke and clapped when I did a little salt dance jig. This is the kind of compassion Wilson leans into, “Love that touches down, moves through a particular person at a particular time, then lifts. Love that might follow [us] anywhere.”