July 13, 2018 § 2 Comments
By Tucker Coombe
Winter on Overland Mountain––some 3,000 feet above Boulder, Colorado––could be exhausting, writes Karen Auvinen. Snow fell “a foot at a time” and temperatures could plummet to twenty-five-degrees-below zero. Winds “howled and clawed at the cabin, rattling the gass panes like a live thing.”
Surviving winter, however, was by no means her greatest challenge.
Auvinen’s intimate and unforgettable debut memoir, Rough Beauty: Forty Seasons of Mountain Living, tells of the decade or so she spent on the outskirts of civilization. Like Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, Rough Beauty offers a glimpse into a life that’s pared down to its essentials, open to unexpected, even profound, change.
Auvinen was nearly forty when she began living in a rustic cabin about four miles outside the tiny town of Jamestown, Colorado. She supported herself by running a rural postal route, teaching writing at a nearby community college, and cooking once a week at the Mercantile Cafe––the town’s only business establishment.
Auvinen depicts her younger self as awkward and a bit prickly, “[p]roud to be called ‘fearless’ and ‘tough,’” she writes. When her first rented cabin burned down––leaving nothing but her truck, her beloved dog (a semi-feral husky named Elvis) and the clothes on her back––the Jamestown community “arrived like the cavalry.” One friend took her shopping for clothing essentials, another bought new supplies for Elvis, and customers on her postal route left her envelopes of cash. The town even held a benefit in her honor. But she couldn’t abide the attention or the goodwill. “I roasted on the twin spits of chagrin and embarrassment,” Auvinen writes, “…more uneasy with condolences and well wishes than I would have been with condemnation and blame.” She loaded up Elvis and headed to Utah for a few days of solitary camping.
Who among us hasn’t at least considered a life of solitude? My own attempt, decades ago, was short-lived and humiliating. One autumn, shortly after college, I decided to stay in a somewhat isolated, bare-bones house on Cape Cod. I’d envisioned long, peaceful days spent reading and writing, but instead found myself becoming unmoored without the comforting noises of summer. At night I’d wrap myself in a blanket, listen to the tick of an old shelf clock and recall in vivid detail every horror story I’d ever been told. I didn’t last a week.
Auvinen’s memoir purports to focus on her years of relative isolation on the mountain. But it’s the stories she tells of her childhood and her teenage years that are most affecting; without seeming melodramatic, they have a real sense of poignancy and immediacy.
An irreverent, headstrong kid, “I licked the sidewalk because I liked the taste of dirt,” says Auvinen, who grew up in a family where women were “parsley on the plate––accessories or helpmates.” Her father, an Air Force career man, ruled the family with tyranny and occasional violence.
Auvinen writes of her father’s decision, during her middle-school years, to relocate the family to Hawaii, and to euthanize the family dog rather than bringing her along. Before the dog’s final trip to the vet, he carried the struggling animal outside and tried to fit her into a wooden box he’d chosen for her burial. Karen watched in horror: “I couldn’t control the sound coming from my chest––the guttural, animal wail of grief.”
Karen began marshalling considerable will against her father’s bullying and “forged a dark armor to protect me and keep others at bay.” Before entering graduate school––in a symbolic rejection of her father––she changed her last name. He threatened to track her down. She eluded him by quitting her job and moving into a tent in the woods. She and her father would not speak for another decade.
Living alone, in relatively rough conditions, seemed to suit her. “My preference was for the earth, with its rough beauty, its inscrutability, its mixture of shit and muck,” she writes.
Gradually, Auvinen began to feel grounded by the rhythm of the seasons and to sense a slow “unraveling” inside herself. Perhaps most importantly, she was both buoyed and steadied by the stubborn companionship of Elvis. For years, even as she avoided friends and family during the holidays, she relished cooking dinners––roast chicken, perhaps, or rosemary lamb––to share with her dog. Opening her heart to Elvis, she later realized, was life-changing.
When Auvinen first set out to live on Overland Mountain, she believed that her “commitment was not to a person but to a place: “…I placed my bet on landscape, putting all my chips on wildness.” But for all its focus on mountain living, what this memoir really seems to be about is the difficult terrain of human love and connection.
Tucker Coombe writes about nature, education and dogs, and lives in Cincinnati.
July 3, 2018 § 1 Comment
By Debbie Hagan
In 1992, my husband and I, grabbed the opportunity to live in southern Germany for two years. To prepare, we hired a Berlitz instructor, who laughed at our feeble attempts to make the German “r” sound—a scratchy, back-of-the-throat growl. She shook her head and said, “It doesn’t matter. All Germans speak English.”
Unfortunately, we discovered upon our arrival, this was not true. In our cute Bavarian town of Ingolstadt, we could not understand a word the locals said. They spoke bayerisch, a medieval dialect spoken with dark guttural vowels, a loopy drawl, and words that one needed a bayerisch dictionary to understand. A few shopkeepers acted as if they understood our butchered-up hochdeutsch. They spoke back, but between the accent and the local dialect, we were lost.
We had so much to do: find an apartment and buy a kitchen (cabinets, sink, stove, refrigerator, faucet) and lights. In Bavaria, the kitchen and lights are part of one’s own personal furniture. The lights ran on 220 volts, so we also had to be careful not to electrocute ourselves when wiring them up. We were strangers in a strange land—and not always welcomed. It’s a feeling that has stuck with me, especially when I meet foreign visitors or immigrants struggles with language. I worry if they feel lost too?
I thought of this while reading When We Were Ghouls, by Amy E. Wallen. She’s a lot like I was—an outsider, facing strange customs with a bit of fright and awe. Though she’s just a child, she moves from one chaotic, unstable country to another.
It begins with one of the compelling openings I’ve read in a long time. Wallen, just eight years old, is perched atop a pre-Inca graveyard in Peru, digging with her parents for pots, fabrics, and wrapped corpses. She unearths a skull that’s not only intact but has a silver band wrapped around it. Her father tells her, he was a prince, and the silver band is what’s left of his crown. He tells her, they’ll keep it. Maybe they’ll turn it into a lamp.
“We were ghouls. We had no respect,” admits Wallen’s mother when the author, while writing this book, asks, were they really grave robbers?
They did remove ancient objects from a burial mound, the mother admits. However, she didn’t think the objects had any real value. Bones and pottery were everywhere.
“Her denial is vexing,” Wallen writes. “Denial, the finest form of forgetfulness.”
Yet, this book isn’t so much about her crazy family’s mistakes. It’s more about being a child survivor, adapting to situations uncomfortable and bizarre. “Something about me likes having a family made up of looters, grave robbers, and ghouls. The Munsters incarnate,” she writes.
Her parents are mercurial, Bohemian-types, reminiscent of Jeanette Walls’ in The Glass Castle (albeit, Wallen’s seem a bit more enterprising and mentally stable).
The family ends up in far-flung, semi-dangerous places, such as Nigeria, Peru, and Bolivia.
Wallen’s father, employed by Phillips Petroleum, explores oil drilling sites. Their first move sends them to Nigeria, where seven-year-old Wallen suddenly realizes, “We had a new way of life, and it didn’t include the Piggly Wiggly anymore.”
The father is gone most of the time. The sister and brother attend school in Switzerland. Even Wallen’s mother leaves, returns to the United States to attend her mother’s funeral. So Wallen is home alone, under the supervision of the housekeeper and driver.
An active, inquisitive child, Wallen dodges her caretakers and wanders out of the family’s compound, On the streets of Lagos, curious Nigerian children flock around her. “They took turns touching my arms, rubbing their hands down my forearm, back and forth, then giggling and trading places with another kid in the back of the crowd,” she writes.
The driver panics when he realizes the girl is missing and runs to the street calling, “Little Sister.” Eventually he finds her, coaxes her home. There, Wallen asks, What were the children doing?
He replies, “They just want see if it rubs off.” It was the white of her skin.
At Christmas, the family reunites, but no one is able to find a real Christmas tree. Pine trees don’t grow in Nigeria. Thus, they borrow a silvery tinsel tree from a Norwegian family. It comes with a rotating disk that throws colored disco lights.
On Christmas day, Lagos has scheduled an execution. It seems like a fun thing to do, Wallen and her brother think. So they sneak out of the house, but there’s such a mob scene in the streets, they can’t get close enough to see anything. The next morning, Wallen opens up the newspaper to find a photo of the execution: a man hanging from a rope, his eyes wide open.
“What did the horrific violence signify?” wonders the writer looking back at her young self. “How did it relate to me?” What she remembers is a sense of dread: “anything could happen at any moment, and I had no way of knowing when or who or how.”
In When We Were Ghouls, the reader lives with Wallen through her precarious childhood as she faces odd customs, random violence, death, and a somewhat uncertain future. It’s a view that’s unsettling, but a reminder of how vulnerable it is to be an outsider.
Debbie Hagan is book reviews editor for Brevity and author of Against the Tide (Hamilton Books, 2004). Her writing has appeared in Harvard Review, Hyperallergic, Pleiades, Superstition Review, Brain, Child, Boston Globe Magazine, and elsewhere. She’s a visiting lecturer at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design.
June 22, 2018 § 2 Comments
By Logan Scott Wells
I am sitting on the starboard aft of a Carnival Cruise Ship in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. It is a cool summer night in 2011, and the ocean breeze carves goosebumps into my skin. My arm is draped over the thick metal railing on the side of the ship, and I am staring down at the churning waters below. They are dark and bubbling, like a steady boil on a stove. The ship’s fluorescent lights bob up and down like luminescent sea creatures cresting through a wave. Their sloshing movement beckons me forward, and there is only one thought that consumes my brain.
I want to jump.
There’s no particular reason for this—I am a healthy 18-year old about to start his college career, and I have nothing even resembling a suicidal ideation. Yet the longer I stand there, watching the sea foam form and dissipate, the more I am overcome with a sudden, inexplicable yearning to step away from the deck, steady myself for just a moment, and then leap with reckless abandon into the bottomless depths of the ocean.
It is this very compulsion to “leap into an enormous force beyond our control, perhaps even beyond our comprehension,” that fascinates author Steven Church in his newest book, One With the Tiger: Sublime and Violent Encounters Between Humans and Animals.
Really, more than the leap itself, Church’s essayistic style seeks to unearth an essence of feeling that comes from encounters with the violent and the sublime. The book begins with the story of David Villabos—a New York man who willingly leapt from a monorail into a tiger cage at the Bronx Zoo in 2012. This story inspired Church to “understand the thinking of such savage and unruly minds…to get close to the subjectivity of people who push the boundaries between human and animal.”
One With the Tiger, then, draws from encounters with apex predators—everything from tigers and grizzly bears to boxing legend “Iron” Mike Tyson—to blur the distinction between man and beast. “It is not the grisly reality of the attack that most interest me,” Church writes about a 2003 grizzly bear attack that took the lives of Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend Aime, “but the ecstatic and imagined reality.”
This “ecstatic truth,” as Church calls it, is the same one that saw me yearning to leap into a vast and endless sea that night in 2011. It is not burdened by logic or self-preservation, but rather, a more wild and vibrant rationality—one “more dangerous and seductive than a truth shaped only by facts.”
Church taps into this unconscious, subliminal state throughout the book by creating a kind of liminal space for these ideas and conversations to exist. He seamlessly transitions from harrowing tales of young boys being mauled to death by polar bears to an examination of the 1983 television series Manimal which featured a shape shifting private detective who fought crime by morphing into various predators. At one point, he even shares an anecdote of his high school sporting days when he matched up against a highly-ranked Division I opponent and bullied the young man both physically and emotionally.
Far from being erratic, however, this style of narration allows Church to explore the invisible link between the physical and spiritual. It leads him ultimately to the question of what it means to bond intimately with an apex predator and why human beings are so fascinated by the “compelling minority” of thrill-seekers who are willing to push the boundaries of what is safe and acceptable.
I often think about what would have happened to me if I did jump off the ship back in 2011. Likely, I would have drowned—been swept away by the hard crashing waves and my body never recovered. Even if this didn’t happen, there was no one around to see me, and it would have been hours before anyone even noticed I was gone. Death was a near inevitability I knew, but even so, I still wanted to make that jump.
Church’s essays are a little like that feeling. They bring you closer to a force “beyond rationality, beyond understanding, and beyond God.” They ask that you leap into the tiger pit, and once you are there, it is surprising to find the encounter more familiar than you thought.
Logan Scott Wells holds an MA in creative writing from Ohio University. His work has recently appeared in Flash Fiction Magazine, Quail Bell Magazine, and others.
June 15, 2018 § 6 Comments
By Arielle Silver
In my twenties, I spent summers in a Thoreau-like lakeside cabin in the woods, not far from Walden Pond. Even now, when it rains here in Los Angeles, and especially at night, even happily married as I am, I imagine I’m there in my cabin bed listening to the patter-ping of raindrops on Long Pond. I’d fall asleep to that music, or to the pulse of crickets and critters scampering along the mulchy path, and wake in the strange quiet before sunrise to mix bread dough for the retreaters who stayed in their own cabins down other paths. One summer there on the pond, a city friend accused me of having fallen in love. I had: with the pine-needled forest, the moonlight that draped like fabric to the sandy pond floor, the sunrise through the kitchen windows, the rain, and my cabin. Even so, every winter I returned to the city. And one summer, regretfully, inevitably, like Wendy grown up, I stopped returning to the woods.
Ana Maria Spagna immigrated in the opposite direction, from the urban sprawl of her southern California childhood to the Pacific Northwest woods. Her descriptions of her adopted home in Stehekin conjure feelings of sparseness, far-off neighbors, evergreen-scented air, crackling autumn leaves, whispers of snow. Though Long Pond is on the other coast and I’ve never been to Washington, Spagna’s accounts of Stehekin in her newest book, Uplake: Restless Essays of Coming and Going, echo of my old home, the one I pine for when it rains or in the noise of daily living.
However, if my memory of Long Pond has blurred into a sepia-toned former romance, Spagna knows her Stehekin like a time-tested marriage. Under her frank pen, the paradisaical forest is denied neither its beauty nor the choke-hold of fire season, racket of chainsaws, and slide of valley walls that are washing away in changing-climate floods. She fell in love with a place that is “pristine, spectacular, majestic, maybe even sublime,” but tied the knot with all its off-the-beaten-path pleasures and pains.
Thinking of my own cabin in the woods, I wonder if it was fear of my ability to sustain fascination with quietude that drove me back to the city. From the porch of her Stehekin home, Spagna, too, hankers for faster internet, multiculturalism, book readings, concerts, subways, restaurants, and museums. Winnowed with levelheaded contemplations, in “Where You’d Rather Be” and “Slow Connection,” Spagna examines the timeless tension between wonder and stasis. “‘You’re so lucky to live there’ people say,” and though she agrees, she ponders how, or when, to engage or assuage her desires for novelty in the stillness of a quiet place.
Spagna drops a plumb line deep into questions about what comprises the sinews of commitment. Perhaps Stehekin, where Spagna moved years ago with her wife, Laurie, is a stand-in for her monogamous, longtime commitment to a romantic partnership. She muses that marriage “is a word without movement…. [it is not] a relationship or friendship, with a ‘ship’ on the end ready to set sail.” And yet, she knows that marriage and Stehekin belong, like her, to the temporal world: they are mutable. And that, too, must be untangled.
Uplake’s self-probing questions are woven through a broad array of subjects—civil rights, mortality, elk steaks, wildfires, Cheryl Strayed, fear of flying, John Denver, bears. In “Post-Strayed,” Pacific Crest Trail hikers gather malodorously at the local post office for their replenishment boxes, ignorant in their steadfast forward movement to that essential passion of Spagna’s: the particularities of place. “I used to find this troubling,” she writes, “the way people waltz into the woods and act as though they’re right at home in a place they’ve never been….” She worked for years maintaining area trails and is attuned to Stehekin on an almost cellular level. This is how, perhaps, she answers her own questions of commitment and wonder:
[the through-hikers] know nothing of the hardships—the endless drizzle in spring or the inversion in winter or the wildfire smoke in summer—or the tiny miracles either—the first wild currant blooming pink, the shimmer of moonlight on hoarfrost, the cold sweat elation of bucking the last log off the trail and watching it somersault down to the creek.
That sentence could easily turn into a meditation on marriage: What hardships do passersby know nothing of? What tiny miracles? For the lyricism, self-inquiry, and nature setting, Uplake: Restless Essays of Coming and Going sits on my shelf beside Annie Dillard, Kathleen Dean Moore, and Mary Oliver. It seems more than appropriate that Stehekin, whose name means “the way through,” is where Spagna would hang her hat. Like her stories of swimming, hiking, flying, running, and driving, this collection is a moving—in more than one sense of the word—meditation. It her exploration, and ours, of how to find the way through. On how, in the long days but short years of living, to have a life of wonder.
Arielle Silver daylights in the music industry and twilights as adjunct faculty at Antioch University Los Angeles, where she earned her MFA and served as editor-in-chief of Lunch Ticket. Her work has appeared in Literary Hub, Jet Fuel Review, Moment, Lilith, and Under The Gum Tree. Her songs have been licensed internationally for film and television. She’s at work on a memoir about (step)mother/ing and other top-secret projects. @relsilver
June 11, 2018 § 1 Comment
By Emilio Carrero
On a soccer field I met my childhood best friend. Our elementary school was mostly white, and we were the only Spanish kids standing on the field that day. We were the last two picked.
As a kid I never realized this fact: the two of us were oddities, a brown Puerto Rican and a white Mexican roaming the hallways. We were familiar to each other—the both of us quiet, hardworking, and stumbling to navigate between our Spanish cultures and American culture. But we were also different. I was better than Pepe at soccer and I spoke better English. I knew this, as a kid, because the white kids were nicer to me. They eventually picked me regularly to be on their team.
I remember resenting Pepe for not speaking better English, for embarrassing me around the other kids to the point that I distanced myself from him. Before and after school, as we all sat on the red school benches, I pretended I didn’t know him. We’d make fun of his paprika-colored hair and joke about how his parents couldn’t speak English. But he’d never get upset; he’d just smile at me, as if happy for me. Through luck or talent or some insight, I’d managed to blend in, adapt, assimilate. For Pepe, he was stuck where he was.
I couldn’t have understood our friendship back then, and even now it’s hard to explain how we felt both divided from each other and together. But as I read Francisco Cantú’s The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border, I thought about my friendship with Pepe, its porousness and its boundaries.
In the book, Cantú recounts his experiences working in the border patrol. The narrative tracks his psychological deterioration as a border patrol agent and his subsequent departure into civilian life.
From early on, it’s clear what Cantú is in for. His training officer shows him an “image of a cattle truck with twelve dead bodies stacked in the back, all of them blindfolded and shot execution-style.” A few moments later, he warns him: “This is what you’re up against…this is what’s coming.”
By the time Cantú is out in the field however, much of the violence comes at the hands of the border patrol agents. His fellow officers slice water bottles and ransack immigrants’ belongings. He recounts watching them as they “ripped and tore at the clothing” and “pissed on a pile of ransacked belongings.”
In moments like these, Cantú is hauntingly quiet about what’s happening. Reminiscent of Michael Herr’s Dispatches, the book reads almost as an extended dream—fragmented, nightmarish, and unable to explain itself.
But there is an acute attention paid to the body throughout, specifically his own body and what’s happening to it. He remembers wondering, early on, if his fellow agent “thought of [their] body as a tool for destruction or as one of safekeeping.” Then he moves to himself: “I wondered, too, about my body, about what sort of tool it was becoming.” This type of interior thinking is spare, and it is mostly in Cantú’s nightmares that we see how his service is destroying him.
He dreams at night that he is “grinding [his] teeth out, spitting the crumbled pieces into my palms and holding them in my cupped hands” and wishes that there is “someone to show them to, someone who can see what is happening.”
But while his dreams show his deterioration, it’s in the things he reads that we see him in search for answers to this deterioration. Searching for explanations, one of the books he reads is Dolerse, by Cristina Rivera Garza, who’s quoted as saying “[p]ain not only destroys, but produces reality.” A reality, Rivera Garza argues, that is infused in the languages we speak, socially and politically. And these are the “languages in which bodies decipher their power relationships with other bodies.”
Juxtaposed against these violent realities of the border are detailed and lyrical descriptions of the border as a place. Memories of violence are intermixed with memories of “watching storms roll across the moonlit desert” and “lightning appeared like a line of hot neon, illuminating the desert in a shuddering white light.”
We follow Cantú as he moves through different perspectives and landscapes. He traverses the southern border and also navigates the borders within himself—as a son to a Mexican immigrant, and an American citizen; an authority figure and a civilian; an officer of the Border Patrol; and a friend and guardian to illegal immigrants.
The book’s epigraph refers to the border as an unnatural divide. And it’s true that divisions like the politics of the border and Cantú’s personal feelings about the border are often left unsaid. And it’s true I do wonder about these things unsaid as I’m reading, during and after. But if there is something, rhetorically, that I walk away with, it is that although the people who inhabit and enforce this land are divided in many ways, they are also, often, as porous as the Rio Grande River that dissolves this unnatural divide. The book offers no answers or arguments about the border; instead it offers the porousness of a body that didn’t merely work at the border but was a part of it.
Emilio Carrero is a writer from Orlando, FL. He is an MFA candidate in creative writing at the University of Arizona and is the editor in chief for Sonora Review. He is currently working on a memoir.
June 8, 2018 § 2 Comments
By Vivian Wagner
David Lazar’s new collection of essays and aphorisms, I’ll Be Your Mirror is, in fact, all about mirroring. Mirroring each other. Mirroring parents. Mirroring loved ones. Mirroring readers. Mirroring writers. Mirroring ourselves.
It has a kind of Lacanian mirror-stage complex, this book, concerned as it is with how we find our identity in the eyes and desire of another. And at the same time, it’s about how utterly, completely alone we are—and the solace to be found in that aloneness.
As someone whose only real social life is reading books, like Lazar’s, I loved spending time with him while reading this collection. It felt like hanging out with a dear friend—a friend who hums to himself, often digresses, and occasionally shouts frenetic revelations into the early-morning insomniac darkness, but dear nonetheless.
The collection’s first essay, “Ann; Death and the Maiden,” is about an ex-girlfriend’s suicide, and the ways that the essayist-narrator Lazar—who, as these essays demonstrate, might or might not be the “real” Lazar—is learning to come to terms with it. This suicide is threaded throughout the book, and it could arguably be seen as the book’s primary, though not always explicit, focus.
The essay starts with a story about Lazar telling his brother about his new girlfriend:
I was a young professor, thirty-seven, and she was an older doctoral student, thirty-four, and we had fallen for each other, and I thought it was going to be a big deal, in the way you know that someone is going to come into your life and the tectonics are going to change.
We learn, quickly, that she commits suicide a year and a half before this essay’s writing, so we know this is not going to be a story with anything like a happy ending. It doesn’t even have a particularly happy beginning or middle, what with the wild drinking and parties and cruelty rivaling Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf that we hear about in this essay and others. The maiden, we learn, is bipolar and only sometimes medicated. We also learn that there is a hopeless, desperate love between her and our essayist—a love that’s long unraveled but is still there, in some way, even after her death.
It’s a fitting way to begin this collection, since it’s an essay, at least in part, about the ways relationships serve as a mirror for both our best and worst selves, our capacity for infinite compassion and our endlessly strangling neuroses. And as the essayist Lazar delves into questions surrounding this particular relationship, he uncovers similar questions about our relationships with all manner of others—mothers and friends, celebrities and fans, texts and readers.
Here’s the thing: Lazar is flirtatious in these essays. Flirtation, after all, is one of the ways we engage with others, simultaneously offering connection and protecting ourselves. In “To the Reader, Sincerely,” for instance, he begins with the line, “Come here often?” He continues by saying that “I want something from you, and you want something from me, and I’m not just trying to be chivalrous when I say I know I owe you a good time, in the broadest sense.”
It’s a sweet Montaigne-esque moment of direct address, and it draws the reader into a kind of startling intimacy with the essayist. Near the end of the essay, the voice grows increasingly solicitous, with the essayist arguing that the reader has a central role to play in the essay’s creation:
So, reader. Reader. Darling reader. There’s something I want to tell you. It’s a story, but it’s more than a story. It’s what I think about what’s happened to me. To us. And where I might be headed. We might be headed. It involves movies, books, walking around if it’s not miserably cold, and your occasional willingness to laugh at my jokes. Together, we might be able to cobble together an essay.
It’s an essay about assaying, about trying to make a connection with a reader, and about the way that an essay is only complete when someone reads it.
From a defense of bowling alone to an analysis of going through Pandora’s boxes full of old photos, from a dialectical essay in the form of an interview between Lazar and Mary Cappello to a collection of aphorisms about mythical mothers accompanied by eerie, haunting illustrations by Heather Frise, I’ll Be Your Mirror is a wild and strangely endearing ride through Lazar’s life, mind, and relationships. Endearing, perhaps, because we understand that the theoretical bravado and accounts of emotional pyrotechnics are, in the end, engaging but necessarily imperfect reflections of a caring son, a kind father, and a brilliant introvert who likes to walk through cities making up songs.
Vivian Wagner lives in New Concord, Ohio, where she teaches English at Muskingum University. She’s the author of a memoir, Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music; a poetry collection, The Village; and a micro-chapbook, Making.
May 25, 2018 § 7 Comments
By Magin LaSov Gregg
I read Lisa Romeo’s Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love after Loss while I taught Hamlet and could not stop comparing these texts, which share a few striking similarities, including father loss, a fatherly spirit who converses with the living, and head-on interruptions of cultural silences imposed on the bereaved. The first rule broken, of course, is the ban on speaking openly about the existential crisis that ensues when one confronts mortality.
Most famously, the grave-digging scene in Hamlet forefronts the image of a skull (poor Yorick!), a famous Renaissance momento mori, to remind audiences that finite borders mark life as precious. It is because we will die that life calls us to attention.
In Starting with Goodbye, Romeo includes a chapter titled “Momento Mori” in which she describes the brutal act of cleaning out possessions in her late father’s den. Each object encountered thrusts Romeo back into the moments when an object illuminated her father’s love and care. A painful realization dawns when she finds a canceled check her father wrote to cover one of her horses. She recalls “having a sense” at the time the check was written “that no matter what terrible thing might happen or threaten to happen, it was okay, because my father would be able to fix it, smooth things over, make it right.”
Therein lies the rub. After her father’s death, Romeo’s once cherished parental safety net disappears, even if this safety net had grown tenuous and complicated by geographic and emotional distance, as well as Romeo’s responsibilities for her own family. Much of Starting with Goodbye compels me, but this rumination undid me. And I suspect other children who’ve lost parents will relate.
The aftermath, the life one must live without a parent to offer guidance or protection, stings more than the initial shock of death precisely because of its relentlessness. As Eula Biss has written, “The suffering of Hell is terrifying not because of any specific torture, but because it is eternal.”
In the interest of full disclosure, I should share that I have a few things in common with Romeo, including sharing an alma mater (Syracuse University’s S. I. Newhouse School of Public Communications), parent loss (although I was twenty-one when my mother died) and producing writing that is also invested in candid, public conversations about grief.
What I find most valuable about Starting with Goodbye is how this book shatters grief myths to expose bereavement experiences that often go unacknowledged within American life. For example, there’s the quiet relief a child might feel, and that Romeo confronts, when a parent dies after a long or deteriorating illness.
There’s the truth that our absent loved ones are ever-present. They are dead and never truly gone. A corpse might become a ghost, as in Hamlet, a memory, or a lingering and difficult-to-name presence who shows up to chat, as is Romeo’s experience.
Her narrator never defines these unexpected fatherly apparitions, nor does she label them as paranormal but simply notes, “We talk, my dead father and I.” And her chapter “What Happens in Vegas” contends with these unexpected father-daughter conversations, funeral ephemera, and the deaths of celebrities who remind Romeo of her father.
In turn, Romeo’s ruminations amplify the emotional complexities of early mourning, when there is no rulebook or how-to manual for how to get this right, despite American culture’s insistence on five tidy consecutive stages of grief.
At the chapter’s conclusion, Romeo remarks on the deaths of celebrity icons who remind her of her father, and whose losses trigger new experiences of grief. Her point? Grief is not a straight line with a fixed beginning or end. It’s more like a wave or a ripple, more like a surprise.
“As each one of these old men dies or fades from public life, I designate others to take their place, men slightly older than my father was at his death, older than he ever got to be,” she writes.
For me, these musings were most welcome and powerful. My mother resembled Mary Tyler Moore, and they both lived with type 1 diabetes. When the actress died last year, I felt, for a moment, like I’d lost my mother again. Romeo’s candor normalized my own reaction, and gave me a model for a grief experience where I’ve rarely found appropriate models.
Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking was published following my mother’s death—and Romeo references this book, which has become a seminal grief-text of our time, comparable to C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed in the twentieth century. But I find Starting with Goodbye more helpful because of Romeo’s wry wit, which offers a much needed cultural critique.
In her chapter “Leaving Las Vegas,” she examines then discards hollow platitudes that, at the level of language, illuminate a cultural tendency to erase or project positivity onto experiences of grief and loss. Platitudes appear in italics, followed with Romeo’s plain text critiques.
“Let me know if there’s anything I can do,” she writes. “There’s a lot you can do, but I can’t let you know. I can’t think straight, figure out whom or what to ask and risk a no.”
“You are in my thoughts and prayers,” she adds. “Great. Now, when I get home, talk to me, let me talk. Don’t be shocked.”
As I read these lines, I thought once more of ghosts—of grief as a kind of haunting where language fails to adequately capture or categorize experience. In Romeo’s story, ghosts are more symbolic, more speculative than literal. And yet, as in Hamlet, the possibility of a ghost speaks to a child’s longing. Even in adulthood, we need our parents.
Grief, from the old French grever, means “to burden.” And for children who lose their parents, grief can feel like a burden, like an intractable weight that changes in shape or size, and shifts unexpectedly. It was Carl Jung who popularized this notion when he wrote, “The greatest burden a child must bear is the unlived life of its parents.”
However, I worry that “burden” has negative connotations that contribute to our cultural tendency to avoid and deny death. I prefer thinking about grief as a relationship like any relationship, a commitment borne out of love. For seventeen years, I have mourned my mother in direct proportion to my love for her. Grief keeps us connected. Death is not the end of a relationship, but a turning point, as evidenced by Romeo’s title: Starting with Goodbye.
Perhaps this is why I’ve already planned to give copies of her memoir to friends, family, and students beginning their own grief journeys.
In American culture, where talk of death is still taboo, we need more stories about the aftermath of loss, about what it means to live with candor in the face of grief. We need stories that speak with frankness about parental death. We need writers like Romeo to start a new conversation, to keep it going.
Magin LaSov Gregg lives, writes, and teaches in Frederick, Md. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Washington Post, Manifest Station, Literary Mama, Rumpus, Bellingham Review, Under the Gum Tree, and elsewhere. She blogs about life after loss on her personal website, and she swears she will finish her memoir in 2018.