September 7, 2018 § 1 Comment
By Adrian Koesters
If you’re lucky, you’ve had someone to talk with about things—someone to answer, “That’s right, that’s right,” to what you’re trying to get at.
The pleasure of reading these letters/essays between Sydney Lea and Fleda Brown is being able to answer, “That’s right,” as we follow their takes on books, food, music, sex, politics, and writing and teaching poetry. Growing Old in Poetry: Two Poets, Two Lives is, first of all, an exchange of essays on the writing life. It is also, as they tell us, a “record of an important friendship.” In this, Lea and Brown, past poets laureate of Vermont and Delaware, are as transparent with us as they are with each other.
Transparency takes time, as we know. “William Blake saw that we have to pass through innocence into experience in order to arrive, if that’s the right word, at a higher innocence, a place where we bring everything with us…,” says Brown. Yet, Lea answers, “I’ve imagined my mind to have found something that, at least for the fleeting moment, will suffice.” Even a “higher innocence” is no final arrival.
“The universe is slow, really,” Brown says in “Books,” the first of twelve essays. Her description of the tactile experience of reading the printed word transported me to the card catalog at my college library, the slow, insulated suspension so dearly missed, pulling out one drawer that played to another, learning what books to seek out, the titles delicious, fantastic.
Still reading “Books,” I recalled the even slower universe of the grade school library, the wealth inside a pile of library books, the liberty of the card, the stacks, the tables, the quiet. I remembered in second grade, pleading to take out books each week from the “big section,” and when I got permission, reading the same ones over and over, as Brown also did with her childhood favorites.
Then, I remembered an afternoon when Sister So-and-So called me up, pulled out a list of words, and told me to read them. I didn’t know most, but thought I was rattling them off pretty slick, and that she’d be pleased, but she said only, “That will be all,” and tossed the list in her desk drawer as if it were burning her fingers. If I didn’t already know the life-and-death difference a word could make, I knew it then.
This sense, that the world stands on a word, both poets recognize well, and that if you write it’s likely because you figured this out early on. The exchanges in Growing Old compound and deepen this understanding from one section into the next. In “Sports,” Lea tells of a fascinating journey from the high school hockey field, to a struggle with alcohol and substance abuse, and ultimately to writing. He quotes a poem by James Wright wherein the sons of “proud fathers…/grow suicidally beautiful,” whose pain he understands, whose journey can end in “moral idiocy” in those who cannot comprehend it.
“And yet,” he says, “I’m not large, and I know it.” He loves sports, but Brown says, “I’ve written two sports poems…I can pretend.” They are serious, but they have fun. Lea admits, “The feel of improvisation is what juices up my form.” Brown figures, “Poetry is like a large bird, coming in closer and closer until we finally admit we’re stuck with it.” At times reading their serve-and-return feels like listening to a terrific radio program with your favorite hosts, at others sitting down for long conversation with your friends.
But the final, transcending word is for the writer. Poetry feels like “a self-abandonment to something divine…,” Lea says. It comes, says Brown, from “…silence, [it] needs to open itself into silence, not hostage to anything.” That sounds right, and trustworthy, as both poets admit they know a good bit, but still not much completely for sure.
Two poets grown older, still considering, as they do in the introduction, “Are poets’ lives any different in tone or texture from any other sorts of life?” Maybe not. But the particular vocation of the poet, of the writer, I hear them say, is to free words without too much judgment, to judge words without taking them hostage, and to be “eager to continue.” Growing Old in Poetry is an important book and a conversation and a friendship generously recorded.
Adrian Koesters is a poet, novelist, and nonfiction writer. Her most recent essays appear in Oakwood Magazine and 1966: A Journal of Creative Nonfiction. She lives in Omaha, Nebraska.
August 28, 2018 § 4 Comments
by Kelly Kautz
I discovered Natalie Goldberg’s book Writing Down the Bones at a bookstore when I was thirteen years old. I already considered myself a writer. As a child, I filled countless notebooks with stories of princesses and talking kittens. But by middle school, I found those stories meaningless. I didn’t yet have the words for the new narratives taking shape inside me. The book’s cover promised to “Free the Writer Within.” I shelled out my allowance and took it home
Goldberg’s writing rules were a stark contrast to the stuff I’d learned in school. Writing Down the Bones urged me to keep my hand moving, go for the jugular, don’t cross out.
Later I purchased Goldberg’s second writing book, Wild Mind. There I discovered that her writing rules applied to almost everything: tennis, sex, even daily life. Her memoir about Zen Buddhism, Long Quiet Highway, exposed me to a new spiritual practice. Thunder and Lightning taught me about the publishing process. Old Friend from Far Away helped me draft a memoir.
This June, Goldberg released her fourteenth book: Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home. It’s a cancer memoir, though Goldberg writes in the introduction that she never planned it that way. Friends discouraged it, fearing she’d spark a recurrence. But “the things we avoid have energy. If I ignored my suffering, the life of my writing would die.”
After a decade of lingering health issues, Goldberg is diagnosed with a rare and potentially fatal form of blood cancer: chronic lymphocytic leukemia, or CLL. The illness forces her to cancel a writing workshop in Europe. She asks two long-time students to teach in her place, then types a letter to attendees: “This is about practice. You signed up. Be there to sit, walk, and write. I will be there with you.”
While her students study writing and sip herbal tea, Goldberg begins infusion treatments at the Santa Fe Cancer Center. A longtime Zen practitioner, she finds the world of doctors and hospitals strange.
“I trusted acupuncture, homeopathy, naturopathy,” she writes. “These made sense to me, but cancer made no sense. I was out of my league. I had to drop all of my opinions, my likes and dislikes, and fiercely go into the belly of the beast, the white-coated medical world.”
Goldberg brings readers with her, giving a clear-eyed view of not just her own cancer but that of her partner, Yu-kwan, who discovers a lump in her breast the same time Goldberg is receiving infusions. The double diagnosis strains their relationship. Goldberg wonders, “Who’s going to take care of me?” But as Yu-kwan undergoes a mastectomy, Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home grows from a cancer memoir into a love story. With their mortality on the line, Goldberg realizes the true depths of her love: for her partner, for her writing, for the world.
Throughout the book, Goldberg pays homage to the long-deceased writers who inspire her work. She reflects on travels to Paris, where she placed a penny on the grave of Simone de Beauvoir. She visits Rome and the tombstones of Shelley and Keats. She wonders about William Faulkner: “Whatever he wrote, whatever agony he lived, whatever prize he won, he too is gone. Sure we remember him, but where is William Faulkner?”
Goldberg never receives an answer. After rounds of agonizing treatments and a bone marrow biopsy, she tries a new drug, ibrutinib, that sends the cancer into remission. To celebrate, she and Yu-kwan take a hiking trip they cancelled the year before. They visit the home of the Bronte sisters. Of them, only Charlotte Bronte lived to old age. Tuberculosis took the others: Anne at twenty-nine, Emily at thirty.
“The local Haworth public schools did not read their famous authors, the Bronte sisters,” Goldberg writes. “We don’t recognize the greatness in front of us. We all long for another story, another place. I was sixty-seven years old. That’s a lot more years than the Brontes live. Sixty-seven is a long time. How lucky I was.”
It would be easy to call Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home a reflection on mortality. But all of Goldberg’s books are reflections on mortality. We write to preserve fleeting moments. We write to grant our thoughts and experiences a life beyond our lives.
Goldberg’s books have been my constant companions for the past twenty years. They’ve guided me from a confused adolescence to a spiritual awakening, and through the practicalities of publishing and writing memoir. All the while, they reinforced this simple truth: “A writer gets to live twice. First we live, and then we write about what we have lived … Often the second time is the real life for a writer. It is then we get to claim our existence.”
As a longtime student of Goldberg’s work, I hope she has many more lifetimes to share before she joins the ranks of de Beauvoir, the Brontes, Faulkner. But it’s never too early to place a stone or a penny. To pay homage. To let them know, in Goldberg’s words, “in this tough world, that what they did mattered.”
Kelly Kautz is a writer and the manager of content at JPL. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Forbes, Salon, and other publications. She is at work on her first book, a memoir about dark family secrets. Follow her blog, The Skeleton Club, or find her on Twitter @kellykautz.
August 27, 2018 § 4 Comments
by Emily Webber
When my son was born a year and a half ago, I was suddenly a different version of myself, and as he has moved into toddlerhood, I’ve had dueling emotions. On one side there’s a feeling of overwhelming completeness. I’ve finally found the thing that is closest to me—possession in its truest sense. There’s a power in bringing someone into the world and caring for them. But I’m also met with a profound sense of powerlessness. Every day I am faced with the realization that my son has his own personality and agenda. The realization that I won’t be able to protect him from everything. Sometimes it seems with every interaction he is pushing away just a little more, leading up to a larger loss in the future that I will surely face—his leaving home, our own mortality. As I read Sarah Viren’s essay collection, Mine, I thought about this inner conflict.
Originally, I stumbled across this book and immediately started reading because Viren spent part of her life in Florida, the state I call home. I have spent the four decades of my life just a couple of miles from the hospital I was born in, and I know how much the place you inhabit and call home can seep into your being. Viren’s writing in these essays truly comes from a position of observing the world. Viren reports from her lived experiences that bring her to Florida, Iowa, Texas, and Guatemala. She takes a sharp look at our core values, our culture, and our current social problems as she is trying to understand the world. While I found the familiar in her words, I also unexpectedly found a new way to think about what I call my own and my connection to other people. In one essay, Viren speaks of how life unfolds and what we encounter along the way: These things pulse up against each other: life and death, beginning and endings, what we call ours but is never really ours to begin with.
In the first essay, “My Murderer’s Futon,” Viren writes about inheriting the belongings of Robert Durst from his landlord, while Durst is on trial for murder. This essay starts as a fascinating look into how objects come into our lives with their own history, but Viren goes deeper. In a style that is both warm and unassuming, she shows us why we should find the humanity in those who are different from us. In other essays, she writes about a mother who murdered her two children and about her experience reporting on an ex-gay conference. These essays are a lesson in firmly standing your ground, but with respect and empathy for others. We are all outsiders in some way, but Viren’s essays tell us that we are stronger if we try to understand each other and come together.
Each essay in this collection also considers ownership or perceived ownership. Viren writes about her hands, her wife, her name, her children. In her very personal narratives, she weaves in outside lives and voices: I know I have a habit of that: latching on to the lives of strangers and using them to try to understand my own life. I watch people in airports, I read classifieds, I eavesdrop when the opportunity arises.
Viren reminds us that where there is ownership, there is also loss. She tells the reader at the end of the collection: Everything I have owned has since been lost. Even my memories are not the same.
In the essay, “My Story,” Viren is writing about her younger sister, her sister’s daughter, and her own daughter. She presents the essay in an unconventional format and through a series of sections some that are titled: fact, story, quote, confession, and revision. While reading, it feels like a conversation between her and her sister and shows the reader that even our own stories are not truly ours alone.
Viren gives the reader carefully considered and quietly delivered insights into the world and the people in it. These essays are full of humanity, a reminder to try and understand others, and a call to recognize our impermanence and honor our connections with each other. I’m still reflecting on Viren’s writing and transforming my ideas of ownership, especially with my son. This boy is mine, but I will have to watch as he makes his own way in the world.
Emily Webber was born and raised in South Florida where she currently lives with her husband and son. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Writer magazine, Five Points, Maudlin House, Fourth & Sycamore, and elsewhere. She’s the author of a chapbook of flash fiction, Macerated, from Paper Nautilus Press.
August 22, 2018 § 1 Comment
By Hillary Moses Mohaupt
When my niece was about eighteen months old and starting to learn to do things on her own, her mother, my sister, began framing their everyday outings as adventures. A trip to Target was an adventure, as was a visit to a friend’s house or a short walk to the neighborhood park to play on the swings. At that age, my niece took everything in, repeating, as toddlers do, whatever the adults around her said. “We’re going on an adventure!” she’d crow from her car seat. Of course, not every adventure went smoothly and while she was learning new skills she made mistakes, like we all do even when those skills seem like old hat. With patience, however, her mother and grandparents encouraged her to pick herself up, dust herself off, and take another crack at dressing herself, piling up books, or putting together a puzzle. It wasn’t long before my niece was repeating, “Almost! Try again!”
A lot can be said for failure. Like most successful writers, John McNally knows what it means to fail and to have to try again. A few years ago, he wrote a Facebook post chronicling his major professional failures as a writer—not his rejected stories or the stories he never finished, but the books that languished in publishing purgatory or were flat-out refused by agents and publishers. The response from his Facebook friends was overwhelming: other writers thanked him for his frankness and shared his post along with their own lists of failures. That post became The Promise of Failure, a slim volume in which McNally explores what it means to fail, and what it means to succeed in a career that doesn’t have a set professional trajectory and doesn’t promise much—if any—financial reward.
Part memoir, part craft book, The Promise of Failure rests on the premise that every writer will fail; what matters is how each writer chooses to build on those failures without surrendering the craft. For McNally, success is in part about letting enough time pass so that his failed ideas can marinate in his subconscious mind, and about writing in the meantime so that he can remain open to the possibility of, in fact, succeeding. “You never know,” he writes, “when an idea in passing, even one where you’re merely trying to make a buck, will change the course of your life.” While it ruminates on failures, The Promise of Failure is, on balance, about charting an individual course that lets you, as Ray Bradbury once said, “Jump off the cliff and build your wings on the way down.”
This book is full of hard-hitting advice a writer could scribble out on a Post-it and slap above their writing desk for inspiration. “Don’t be the person who never finishes anything,” he says. “There’s no such thing as writer’s block just as there’s no such thing as gym block,” he intones. “Either you go to the gym or you don’t.” For McNally there is no “almost.” There is only “try again.”
McNally’s book is not an instruction manual; it’s a guidebook for interrogating your own motives to write, finding your own pain points, and for measuring your progress against your personal expectations, rather than the perfectly curated successes of your social media connections. “Learn what your own strengths and weaknesses are,” he writes, which is good advice not only for writing but for every endeavor you might ever undertake.
I don’t get to see my niece very often, but the last time we were together she learned how to walk on the balance beam in a playground near her house. I climbed onto the beam in front of her, my own fear of falling flooding through my veins. What if I fell? What if she fell? We held hands, and held the hands of her mother and grandmother, and crossed the beam one step at a time. What matters, John McNally says, is not how we fail but rather how we process that failure, how we cope, and how we move forward from or with it. In the end, The Promise of Failure is about learning to see the writing life as an adventure and learning how to build your own wings so you can try again.
Hillary Moses Mohaupt is a listmaker: she’s a writer, social media editor, museum enthusiast, francophile, pie-baker, and misplaced Midwesterner in the Mid-Atlantic. She’s the social media editor for Hippocampus Magazine, and she’s one half of the Screen Sirens, a podcast about women and social justice in classic Hollywood films. Follow her on Twitter at @_greyseasky_
August 13, 2018 § Leave a comment
By Ryan McDonald
We wish to never find ourselves realizing how far we’ve fallen, how messed up or off-course our lives have somehow come to be, but at one point or another it seems that this moment of sudden awareness inevitably comes. Steven Church confesses to such in the very first sentence of his latest essay collection, I’m Just Getting to the Disturbing Part: On Work, Fear, and Fatherhood, professing “this is what things have come to.” It is a first impression to the reader that shouldn’t be read as sensational, but rather the opposite for it touches on something universal. Church reveals a common truth: things in the past have disturbed us—this is what things have come to—and so will parts of the future—I’m justgetting to the disturbing part.
In this book, Church dives deep into a lifetime of fear, from his emotion-laden twenties—the anxiety-riddled years of trying to figure out adulthood—up to his forties, now a father of two, questioning what and how he should teach his kids to fear. At the heart of Church’s compelling inquiry and intimate storytelling is a confounding but relatable paradox: though fears come and go, change or fester—no matter how common or grand those fears are—fear itself will never disappear from our lives.
In the opening essay, “Deep Down in the Country Boy Mine,” Church unpacks one of the greatest fears he felt as a young adult, that he “might be making some really bad decisions.” It was 1995 and wanting “to be a mountain man, a pioneer of sorts”—an ambition shared by many foolish young men wishing to be the next Hemingway or Kerouac—the twenty-something Church abandons the path his BA in philosophy, scholarship offers for graduate school, and steady relationship with his girlfriend seemed set to put him on. Instead, he took up a job in Breckenridge, Colorado working as a tour guide and general laborer at a tourist trap named the Country Boy Mine. But nobody goes down into a mine with the intent of staying.
Church grapples with this stereotypical masculine pursuit of rugged individualism and grapples as well with how quickly he discovered it to be a hollow myth, made worse by the stress of his long distance relationship. Like a miner digging into and chipping away at the ground, “Deep Down into the Country Boy Mine” takes on a fractured form with Church’s frequent use of footnotes visually representing his deviating, conflicted young self and subheadings that chronicle his journey to and within interiors both physical and metaphorical. In doing so, Church also tries to write back to a whole, reflecting the eventual decision “to return to her, the choice of sweet dependence.”
Fear can turn our minds over and over, get us stuck, but Church’s narrative seamlessly guides readers to each next page, as time keeps moving and we keep getting older. Church became a husband, moved to a college town where drunk students often confused his apartment for their own, and he and his wife welcomed their first-born into the world. In the essay “Bright Orange Fear,” Church’s wife frantically rushes inside from the front yard to tell an unknowing Church that she had seen across the street what looked like someone getting stuffed into the trunk of a brown Honda Accord. (It turned out to be teenagers fooling around.) In this essay, Church takes count of all the fears he’d been accumulating up to that point in life. He attempts to orient himself as a husband and father in a post 9/11 world filled with dangers far and near (“It’s all about fear”), most not yet on his two-year-old son’s radar: “But what about brown Accords? What about the rattle of a doorknob at 3:00 in the morning? What about right outside our doors?”
Oddly, I found myself comforted by this book. When I read it, I was in my second month of unemployment, having just finished graduate school, with student loan payments looming over my head. Like Church in his twenties, I felt an uneasy fear: how even when you know things will work out, the question of what-if provides a pervasive gloom (What if I don’t find a job in time and get buried in debt? What if I had chosen a different path than this? What if I become a burden to those I care about and who care about me?) But I didn’t mind the notion put forth by Church that even as trouble sorts itself out (as it did for me; I got a job), I’d just find new fears. It helped to see this. We’re always learning how to adjust to the fears at hand.
It is fitting then that Church ends I’m Just Getting to the Disturbing Part: On Work, Fear, and Fatherhood with a one-paragraph flash essay, “Overpass Into Fog,” in which he writes in the present tense of an unexpectedly profound car ride to his daughter’s daycare:
I can stay suspended in the present on the overpass into fog, the memory of our conversation on cursing, my daughter’s gambol around goddamnit lingering in the penumbral past, as I sail off blindly into the deep abyss of being a divorced father of two children, catching mere glimpses of clear thoughts through windows in the haze; and perhaps such suspension will help me remember that it’s important not to pass over such moments, to stay in the vehicle of metaphor, moving forward, even if you can’t see the edges or the end, even if the concrete seems to disappear into gray ether, into a terrifying and ecstatic final separation.
Here—pinned to what things had come to, a liminal instant in time, somewhere along the way to the disturbing part—Church leaves the reader with both hands on the steering wheel and a foot on the gas pedal, a controlled forward momentum, suggesting that our fears and the future are at least navigable for as long as we keep driving.
Ryan McDonald is a writer who grew up in Massachusetts and now lives in Northern Virginia. He teaches at George Mason University. His essays have been published in the Normal School Online, the Rumpus, Catapult and forthcoming in 1966. He is currently working on a collection of essays about commodities and the way they affect our lives globally, locally, and personally
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.