February 9, 2018 § 4 Comments
by Melissa Matthewson
There are moments in my small rural life that make everything else fall away. These moments make for a good life—sitting around the dining room table with my children and friends, drinking wine or cider, telling stories about Edward Abbey or anarchy or the dissent of the western environmental activist, all while the fire burns in the stove and candles shaped like hippos, turtles, and butterflies drip wax onto the table. Or when I walk up into the woods with my daughter where she finds warped river teeth and turkey tail mushrooms and ferns as big as her head and she whispers to me that Gargamel must live nearby, but maybe just some bears and deer. Probably raccoons. Or when I chop wood with my son, the day cold and clear, and we squabble over the acuity of the axe and he insists on splitting the wood himself, and as I let go of the worry and control, I watch the boy who will grow into a man here, shaped by the land we live on. These are the moments I cherish, and whatever version of these moments are yours to value as well, these are the occasions which Brian Doyle writes with grace, beauty, and polish in Eight Whopping Lies and Other Stories of Bruised Grace.
In Eight Whopping Lies, one of Brian Doyle’s last books before his death early in 2017, Doyle, a frequent Brevity contributor, offers fifty-eight short essays on a variety of subjects, some barely more than a page. These essays orbit around such topics as brotherhood, family, murder, rosaries, lies, pants, birds, guilt, love, but together, the essays create something akin to a book of prayers, a celebration of life in all of its forms. Doyle writes these pieces in simple, but profound short prose with a voice that is distinctly and entirely Brian Doyle. Each essay is like a private note to the reader. It’s as if, as I read, Doyle is telling me stories by the woodstove with wine and Edward Abbey in the corner laughing it all off. I found myself reading many of the essays aloud to my husband both of us shaking our heads, smiling, “Yes, Yes, Yes. That’s right. He’s so right.”
To read a Brian Doyle essay is to understand story. To feel something, anything. I’m a better human after reading a Brian Doyle essay. I’m a better writer after reading a Brian Doyle essay. And he does all this through brilliant mechanisms that only Brian Doyle can employ. For instance, lists. Doyle’s sentences are epic and rambling, but always, moving toward a finish line that is unexpected and beautiful. In “Illuminos” he writes about his son (he writes very tenderly about his family in this entire collection), “The third child held hands happily all the time, either hand, any hand, my hands, his mother’s hands, his brother’s hands, his sister’s hands, his friends, aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents and teachers, dogs and trees, neighbors and bushes…” and on. A lesser writer than Doyle would not be able to accomplish the precision of the rhythm and repetition as he does. Doyle stretches the sentence, uses language in unusual ways, answers questions I didn’t ask in the first place, but for which I need an answer anyway. The essays in this book ask you to pause, reflect for a moment on the themes: what did he just say of God, of faith, of all of us who thirst—oh yes, that’s right, and then the clarity of meaning and purpose washes over you. Often, the titles of the essays are prompts as Doyle jumps right in to offer some profound human insight or gesture. In “On the Bus” he begins, “Here’s a story for you. Here’s a story that you will think about the rest of the day” and you do. The story endured as I picked up my son from school and boiled water for pasta.
Doyle surprises the reader in ways you don’t expect. He’s dogmatic, without being dogmatic, or perhaps I’m mistaking it for confidence. He believes and he believes deeply. In one of my favorite essays in the book “A Tangle of Bearberry,” Doyle writes of driving with his mother to a summer job interview. He writes, “My mother is driving me through the rain to the beach…The rain is thorough and silvery. We do not speak. The trees along the road are scrubby and gnarled and assaulted by reeds. I am huddled in my jacket. No one else is on the road. You never thank your mother enough. The road is so wet…” Here, he interjects in the middle of the sentence—you can never thank your mother enough—with an unexpected truism and we nod our head in agreement, accepting the interruption. In fact, loving the outburst. Doyle’s endings are also seamless. In the same essay, “…we drove home through the ranks of the bent twisted little trees. There were pitch pines and salt cedars, and here and there beach plums, and thickets of sumac, and I thought I saw a tangle of bearberry but I could not be sure.” A perfect rhythm, an ordinary list, but a calm moment to end a simple essay about the ways we love and appreciate our mothers.
This book is a gift. After a year of uncertainty and turmoil, we can all find a little grace in Doyle’s words, and even more so now that Doyle is gone. We can savor these small memoirs, return to them for the Doyle wisdom as we need them, especially as we circumnavigate the difficulties of humanity, but also the beauty of people and the goodness we have to offer. And that’s the contribution that Doyle imparts in his beautiful book: splendor. When I witness some tiny thing on my farm, whether the light has just warmed the icy grass or my daughter comes running toward me from the barn with a dead bird in her hands, I’ll think of Doyle and his wisdom: “The things that we remember the best, the things that matter the most to us when we remember them, are the slightest things, by the measurement of the world; but they are not slight at all. They are so huge and crucial and holy that we do not yet have words big enough to fit them.”
Melissa Matthewson lives and writes in the Applegate Valley of southwestern Oregon. Her essays have appeared in Guernica, Mid-American Review, River Teeth, Bellingham Review, and Sweet among others. She teaches writing and literature at Southern Oregon University and runs an organic vegetable farm.
January 12, 2018 § 4 Comments
By Rita Juster
Ideally, a memoir’s title suggests the author’s tone as well as his or her overall vision for the work. Stephanie Dickinson’s Girl Behind the Door: A Memoir of Delirium and Dementia brings to mind Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. As with Stein, who isn’t Toklas, Dickinson isn’t Girl. But whereas Stein actively “pretends” to be Toklas, Dickinson’s mother Florence (Girl) serves as a prism through which Dickinson both overtly and covertly reveals her own life in addition to Florence’s.
We meet Florence in her ninety-ninth year gripped by sudden mental illness, mushrooming beyond any non-medical person’s comprehension, and in hospice care. With Dickinson at her side, we learn that to Florence, Dickinson is a “failed daughter” for never marrying or producing children and for partnering with someone who eats more than he earns. Florence considers Dickinson a “financial disaster” who can’t provide a home for her in her old age. So, when Dickinson refers to herself as a “typist” rather than a writer and criticizes her dead-end job, one she’s held for years, we begin to intuit that Florence has so overwhelmed Dickinson’s sense of self that Dickinson, despite decades of adulthood, continues to absorb Florence’s disparaging pronouncements.
From Dickinson’s earliest memories, she felt dismissed, writing, “Growing up it felt as if my brothers were given more weight, and I was invisible.” Florence, too, felt dispensable. As a child, she was sent away from her family’s Iowa farm to help with an only slightly younger, pampered cousin. It’s then she became “the girl behind the door,” unseen and irrelevant.
Dickinson’s efforts to achieve an identity separate from Florence is fueled by coming of age in the 1970s. At this same time, I was a teenager with a single mother who was active in her church, economically strapped, older than her husband, raising three children alone, beholden to family, and wielding high expectations. Embarrassingly, Dickinson’s cocksure invincibility, drug use, solo hitchhiking, and straining to break free ring true to me. But my recklessness pales beside the author’s. Her personal accounts of rape, stealing from Florence, vehicular recklessness, and getting shot point blank (knocking out her teeth and causing injuries that inflict lifelong pain) are not only frightening, but make my misadventures appear safe. Dickinson’s rebellion knows no bounds. She refuses to adhere to behaviors and values cherished by Florence. Not one suggestion offered by Florence warrants following. “Not one.”
Dickinson renders the violence of dying a “natural death” in hospice care with the same poet’s eye she portrays her miscreant early years. Each word lights up the page as if it were a much-observed, beloved Iowa firefly: “stars shivering,” “an opera of breeze.” With a talent for language, Dickinson creates an unflinching portrait of Florence, granddaughter of Bohemian Czechs who immigrated to Iowa during the American Civil War. In Dickinson’s hands, generations come to life on their prominent Iowa farms. As the inheritor of their sultry auburn hair, blue eyes, and lean voluptuousness, Florence receives eight marriage proposals before marrying Chicagoan Phil Dickinson in 1946. They’d met in Nevada after Florence’s WWII Red Cross service in Arizona and California. Phil’s love of poetry and Bible quotes “elevated” him in Florence’s eyes. Newly married, they returned out West on Phil’s Harley-Davidson.
When Phil dies young from a heart condition, Florence’s stoicism shifts from dutiful wife to sole provider. She learns Braille for a teaching job and tends to her children’s souls with nightly family Bible readings. The pressure she applies to high schooler Dickinson to play the organ for church services typifies what eventually sets Dickinson off for New York City in her mid-thirties.
Despite the masterful prose, at times I found Dickinson’s narration unreliable. She and brother Brett played dolls together as children and wrestled as adolescents in their off-limits living room, but Dickinson claims to have grown up “lonely as a weed.” Reconciling such contradictions would have intensified the interiority and unified the work on a deeper level. Confessed personal failings embellish the action, but also supplant greater reflection.
The most significant shift belongs to Florence. After decades of belittling, she, “dementia mom,” uncharacteristically forgets her daughter’s renegade past long enough to offer the empathy Dickinson craves. Amidst this forgetting, Dickinson assumes her position in the dwindling rank of family members uniquely qualified to remember.
Rita Juster earned an MFA in fiction from Queens University of Charlotte and serves as senior fiction editor for Carve Magazine, an online and print literary journal that publishes fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. After meeting her husband and raising three children in Dallas, Texas, the empty nesters currently live in midtown Manhattan where Rita is completing a memoir.
January 5, 2018 § 2 Comments
By Sarah Cheshire
In the midst of the recent #MeToo campaign, I turned to Facebook to ask the women in my life a question that burns in my bones every time another story of power abuse or systemic injustice violence bursts open on social media: what do you do with unfettered rage? I was soon inundated with a polarity of responses. Some asserted that maintaining sanity in this crazy, overstimulating world necessitates being able to selectively disengage: turning off the TV; disabling Twitter; learning to meditate; and exercising self-care. Other friends spoke about learning to find power in rage: getting mad; marching in protests; demanding accountability; and finding ways to resist.
A scream is the body’s most primal mode of resistance. To scream is to inhabit rage rather than attempting to tame it or channel it. The act of screaming also often emerges from a state of paralysis; we scream when we have exhausted all other efforts to assert ourselves against repressive environments, as a means lashing out against the experience of powerlessness. And yet often, in order to function socially, we learn to swallow the desire to scream, to detach from rage and other visceral experiences. In Scream: Or, Never Minding, Lia Purpura prods into this space of paralysis, the space from which the desire to scream stems.
“There are things I am supposed to never mind…,” the book begins. “…subjects one might avoid: ruined land, ruined animals. Because the issues of the day can begin to feel old, and people get tired of feeling bad.” Purpura revisits the concept of never minding continuously throughout her brief narrative, challenging readers to examine our own myopic ways of being; all that we constantly overlook in order to move through our days and feel okay with ourselves. She uses the metaphor of a tidal wave to illustrate this tension between acquiescence and resistance:
…think of riding a tide: a force absorbs you, purpose transports, and a shared mind washes over. At the, edge though—near jetties and inlets, in dips and depressions – little tide pools settle and still, and that’s where the interesting stuff lies.
Like riding a wave, success is so often defined as a linear motion; a progression up a ladder, perhaps, or a movement down a path which might meander a bit, but always has a clear end point. Personally, as a graduate student and a relatively new participant in the world of adulthood, I feel a constant pressure to always think towards the future. At least ten times a day, I receive emails reminding me about deadlines for fellowships or summer internship applications or opportunities for “building my resume.” As I read Purpura’s words, I often found myself pausing and wondering: In my own efforts to chase distant ambitions, what small important things might I be overlooking? What would happen if I stopped, stood still, and let myself feel emotions, such as rage, in their rawness?
As her prose unravels, Purpura’s narrative crescendos between personal anecdote and commentary more existential in tone. “When I was a child, I was not daunted,” Purpura writes near the beginning of Scream, “I let myself get completely exhausted.” She goes on, through fragments of memory, to reminisce upon the profundity of her childhood connections to toys, animals, and other seemingly mundane objects; things as small, yet sentimentally invaluable as the tin bees her mother used to make for her and her sister out of old tuna cans, or the long-dark eyelashes of a certain cow grazing a verdant pasture in the corners of her memory. As she grew older and her world expanded, however, it became harder and harder to see the extraordinary with ordinary objects. Tin cans no were no longer potential bees, but waste headed towards landfills. This particular cow became reduced to a generic number, existing only to serve a utilitarian purpose, being slowly fattened in preparation for the slaughterhouse. “A tool [becomes], through long use, a hand’s extension, no hint of its shape responding to a body—of such a fit being intimate,” Purpura observes. The process Purpura describes is a one we all go through in varying degrees, as we grow, gain knowledge and perspective, and accumulate possessions: the process of becoming desensitized.
“I’ll get to work on another word, too: something for the loss of relationship to a singular object to due an overabundance of them,” Purpura writes. In many respects, Scream reads as a meditation on the psychological landscapes of consumer capitalism; the commodification of human experiences and relationships, and the loneliness created through systems of mindless consumption. Alongside personal reflection, Purpura also comments on larger-scale systems mass-production, environmental destruction, and waste (such as factory farms) and the ways in which these systems thrive off of practices of never-minding. What happens when there is no connection between consumer and consumed? What happens when we stop feeling personally responsible for the animals and objects we own and use?
Though the book is only nineteen pages long, each page of Scream is packed with wit, wisdom, evocative shards of memory, beautiful aphorisms, and subtle and not-so-subtle calls to action. Through masterfully crafted sentences and loose, associative language, Purpura leads the reader through a visceral experience, an experience that stirs the gut much like the build-up of a scream itself.
Sarah Cheshire is an MFA candidate in creative writing at the University of Alabama. She is the author of the award-winning chapbook Unravelings (Etchings Press), and her writing has appeared in Creative Nonfiction‘s 2014 anthology Southern Sin: True Stories of the Sultry South and Women Behaving Badly, Scalawag magazine, and was recently shortlisted for the American Shorter Fiction prize.
December 15, 2017 § 3 Comments
By Kevin Kotur
At some point as I was dancing to 50 Cent on top of a red vinyl booth at Angel’s Rock Bar, Thursday night slid into Friday morning, and someone shouted “Happy birthday, Kevin! How’s it feel to be twenty-five?”
“Shit,” I thought. “Twenty-five.” It’d never crossed my mind. By that age Mary Shelley had written her magnum opus, Rimbaud had retired, and Keats was dead. A quarter of a century, and what did I have to show for it? I looked over at my friends: two soon-to-be lawyers and a candle-making entrepreneur (the youngest millionaire in Kansas City) who was receiving a complimentary lap dance from an off-duty stripper.
And then there was me—a would-be writer with pitifully disconnected facial hair, slowly squandering the privilege afforded by his white, middle-class upbringing. For some reason, a bidding war had not yet erupted between the major publishing houses desperate to acquire my essays on nature and travel and girls and stuff. The successes achieved by historical geniuses (is it too much to ask?) had heretofore eluded me.
In that moment, as my friend and the stripper laughed simultaneously at the discovery that they were both gay, I realized that the stories I’d been telling myself were delusions.
In his memoir Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches, John Hodgman finds himself in a similar situation—albeit with double the years, privilege, and facial hair. After his first two New York Times–bestselling humor books, a correspondent gig at The Daily Show, and his PC personification in Apple’s “Get a Mac” ads, something shifted for Hodgman:
. . . I had just realized that I was not going to live forever. The thought had never occurred to me before. I am a straight white man, the hero of almost every story I had ever encountered. What’s more, I am an only child. The idea that the world could continue without me was not only unimaginable, it was insulting.
So began Hodgman’s middle-aged turmoil, which Vacationland explores through his two homes away from home: the rural western Massachusetts of his youth and the jagged Maine coast of his adulthood. In creating a portrait of both locales—the landscape and its people, the charms and contradictions—Hodgman also depicts a precocious boy turned rule-loving, self-doubting C-list celebrity.
Vacationland is funny—not “stock praise in a book review” funny, but “people in Starbucks asking what you keep laughing about” funny. Although no longer cataloging satirical facts, Hodgman retains the wit and eccentricity of his previous books while covering topics such as the pranks of George R. R. Martin, accidental boat purchases, and the nefarious dealings of small New England mammals. “Raccoons” he claims, “are beyond fear, and they are assholes. I tried to chase a raccoon off our porch as it was casually emptying our bird feeder into its fat mouth. As I yelled, it turned its head and eyed me with such casual contempt that I apologized to it.”
The description of nerdy foibles and adulthood misadventures is reason enough to read Vacationland, but as the book progresses, humor yields to consideration of deeper issues. Hodgman is acutely aware of his privileges (skin, wealth, opportunity), and searches for the proper response to them. These reflections are timely. America has seen all too clearly the backlash from an inability of white men to accept the slightest challenge to—or even the acknowledgment of—their cultural centrality and privilege. “Whiteness,” Hodgman writes of the responses to police shootings and Black Lives Matter, “was going through a desperate midlife crisis.” But he spares us the self-flagellation, acknowledging that those with privilege can’t change who they are. But they can be aware of the world around them, contribute without fanfare, listen when others speak, and get out of the way when their work is done. “All places and experience,” he concludes, “deserve writing about.”
Between inventories of all of the reasons Maine is a terrible place to vacation, and amid scathing indictments of fudge and fresh-water lakes, the stories of Vacationland smuggle in questions of mortality, loss, and identity. Hodgman’s self-interrogation is at the very center, providing an example to all readers. “There are times,” he writes, “when all the lies you have told about yourself to yourself just fall away.”
That night, as the beginning of my life came to a swift and unceremonious close, I stopped telling myself that I was unprecedented, inherently interesting, and destined for success. There were younger, more talented, more dedicated writers out there, and I needed to get to work.
Kevin Kotur is an MFA candidate and Durwood fellow at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. His nonfiction can be found in The Kansas City Star, Number One, and Chariton Review.
December 15, 2017 § Leave a comment
by Vivian Wagner
Diagnosis—and its constant cousin, misdiagnosis—form the intertwining narrative strands of The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide, which explores the storytelling and guesswork that often surround mental and physical illness. It’s a memoir about Gayle Brandeis coming to terms with her mother’s suicide, as well as a detective narrative that follows her as she pieces together the puzzle of her mother’s life and death. But, ultimately, it’s also about how perhaps everything can’t be figured out. Perhaps the best we can do is learn to live at the intersection of uncertainty and love.
I have a personal stake in this memoir, since my father committed suicide several years ago. I understand viscerally how suicide survivors can be left with a heady mix of guilt and confusion, and I sympathize with the drive to find answers to the multitude of questions posed by this deeply traumatic event.
I, too, have been trying to write about my father’s suicide, so I’m grateful for the emotional and literary guidance that Brandeis provides with her narrative. She maps out the territory, with its many pitfalls, its blind alleys and dead-end streets. Certainly, every suicide is different, but there are some shared features to the experience of many suicide survivors, and this memoir—perhaps ironically in its very specificity—explores those commonalities. She takes the reader’s hand in this narrative and assures us that yes, with courage and creativity, stories of suicide can, and maybe must, be told.
Brandeis starts the book with a bluntness about her mother’s death that we later learn took her a long time to achieve: “After my mom hangs herself, I become Nancy Drew.” She explains that in the days following the death, she was looking for clues, evidence, answers. As she says, “I put on a detective hat so I won’t have to wear my daughter hat, so I can bear combing through her house.”
That emphasis on her attempts to solve a puzzle—to diagnosis what happened, based on the fragmented evidence left behind—is a theme that’s carried through the book. And, it turns out, that kind of effort to make sense of the world, the people one cares for, and one’s own mind and body, is something that Brandeis shares with her mother.
The book’s shadow narrative, the story behind the story, involves a film her mother was making near the end of her life called The Art of Misdiagnosis, about her own and her daughters’ experiences with a miscellany of physical and mental maladies that are, by turns, diagnosed, misdiagnosed, ignored, or fabricated entirely. Her mother’s obsession with the illnesses of her daughters obscures her own developing and mostly undiagnosed ecosystem of mental illness, which involves, among other symptoms, severe paranoia.
This book is a moving tribute to the ways Brandeis has inherited her mother’s relentless curiosity about the world and the people in it. As readers, we hear her mother’s voice—sometimes literally, in the form of quotes from the film’s script—woven with the voice of Brandeis. And it’s impossible not to recognize the similarities between mother and daughter, and the ways that Brandeis, in searching for the reasons for her mother’s suicide, replicates many of her mother’s patterns of truth-seeking and exploration. The primary difference is that the daughter’s narrative is firmly grounded in actual evidence, analysis, and clear-headed honesty. And for that reason, Brandeis is a trusted guide through the mysteries of her mother’s life, as well as her own.
Ultimately, the book ends in a place of compassion, resolution, and acceptance. Brandeis visits the place where her mother killed herself—a garage at an apartment building called Golden Oaks. On the way, she buys a rosebush called “Sun Flare,” and she takes it to the apartment complex. A woman at the front desk tells Brandeis everything she knows about the day her mother died, and she assures her that she’ll see to it that the rose is planted in the courtyard.
It’s a touching moment, one that the memoir earns by detailing the years-long, complex journey that Brandeis takes to get there. The sweet open-endedness of this visit offers a reconciliation that’s more vital and life-giving than any certainty ever could. As she says, “I had thought visiting Golden Oaks would bring me to my knees. I thought I would be wrecked by it; I thought I would be weeping so hard, I wouldn’t be able to see the road as I drove away. I never imagined I would leave feeling so light, so clear, rain delicious on my skin.”
Vivian Wagner is an associate professor of English at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio. She’s the author of a memoir, Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music (Citadel-Kensington), and a poetry collection, The Village (Kelsay Books). Visit her website at http://www.vivianwagner.net.
December 8, 2017 § 2 Comments
By Lizzie Klaesges
“What was I doing!?” I shrieked, shielding my face with my hands. I was flipping through old photo albums with my mom and stumbled upon a particularly embarrassing photo of my preteen self.
In the photo, I was wearing a sweatshirt that said Genuine Girl, only I put masking tape over Girl and wrote Alien in black marker. Genuine Alien. I wore this to a Mardi Gras themed fundraiser at my middle school. I was also wearing butterfly face paint.
Of course, I knew what I was doing in the picture. I didn’t have to ask. It was the time in my life when I was obsessed with aliens. Not pictured were my little alien dolls, each with full life stories of my own invention. I was a strange child.
I thought of that picture while reading Chelsea Martin’s recent collection of essays, Caca Dolce: Essays from a Lowbrow Life. The collection contains the essential stories of her childhood into young adulthood, in which she describes her younger self as a delightful concoction of strangeness. In one essay, “The Meaning of Life,” Martin reveals how she too was preoccupied by aliens. She describes her attempts to summon aliens, believing they had special knowledge far beyond human understanding. She hoped they would reward her belief in their existence and share secrets with her, most importantly the meaning of life.
The strangeness of a child normally doesn’t make sense to anyone else, but Martin finds a way to present her childhood curiosities logically and with deadpan delivery. She is honest and self-deprecating while maintaining a certain aloofness to her humor that keeps readers unflinchingly by her side. Better still, she captures not only the absurdities of the young mind but also the discomfort. A large part of growing up is the discomfort of an evolving mind, a mind which eventually recognizes former childhood notions for what they are. In the essay, “A Year Without Spoons,” Martin describes choosing to give up spoons for seemingly no reason at all, even though a part of her realizes this is an unusual choice:
I stopped using spoons one day. I was becoming weird, I knew. And it didn’t seem like the good kind of weird, like the eccentric arty weird that could be appreciated by other people. It seemed like the bad, dark kind that could unravel a person if it got out of hand.
Many of Martin’s essays unfold to reveal more tender and complex undertones. The spoons, for example, become a coping mechanism for the lack of control Martin had over her life during a time when she switched schools a lot and had no real friends. Her choice of utensil became a way to practice control and restraint and, in a way, it felt like an achievement.
Some of the many topics of Martin’s “Lowbrow Life” include her sheltered small town, troubled relationship with her stepfather, living with mild Tourette’s syndrome or OCD, meeting her biological father for the first time, attending art school, and various romantic endeavors. Martin often manages to capture the essence of her quirky former selves in just a few words. As I breezed through the pages, I was often left thinking, how did she do that?
In the essay, “Ceramic Busts,” we observe teen-Martin’s attempts at flirting with a boy named Sandy at driving school:
“My favorite Beck song is ‘Thunder Peel,’” I said. ‘The one that’s like, Now I’m rolling in sweat with a loaf of cold bread and a taco in my jeans.
I had practiced the lyrics over the weekend, perfecting my falsetto delivery. I’d hoped that it would make him smile.
“Oh,” Sandy said.
After finishing driving school and leaving that town behind, having had no meaningful interactions with Sandy, Martin goes on to create many artistic renderings of him, mostly ceramic busts. She eventually submits these for her application to art school and gets accepted.
In an essay titled, “Goth Ryan,” Martin attempts to communicate through facial expression:
Before he disappeared, I tried to give him a look that said I don’t care what you do, and Like at all, and Anyway Zach is here and we are in love, we are going to tell each other how in love we are and soon you will be merely a distant foggy memory that rarely occurs to me, and when I’m older I will conflate you with someone else I knew around this time and you will become a half-person, so unimportant on your own that I couldn’t be bothered to remember you as one being, so utterly useless in my memory that you barely exist, and But in all seriousness, I really don’t care.
Martin’s subject matter becomes more serious towards the middle of the book as she describes meeting her father for the first time at age sixteen, which she says is “an age that is known for being awkward and unbearable and confusing.” It’s already clear to readers that Martin has a difficult relationship with her stepfather, Seth, and it’s apparent early on that Martin’s relationship with her father will also be flawed to say the least. Martin strikes the perfect balance between funny and fraught while talking about her father’s relentless disapproval of her. He criticized her for everything from how much sour cream she eats with dinner to her acne.
I tried to understand what the problem was. My dad wanted to change what I did and said, and also the ways in which I did and said them, implying that possibly everything about me was, if not outright wrong, somehow off, in need of correction.
As writers, we are naturally wondering about the potential repercussions that can come from writing about people we know, especially those related to us. This, Martin addresses in her final essay, “The Man Who Famously Inspired This Essay,” in which she expresses her decision to take a break from her relationship with her dad and eventually choosing to write about him:
“You’re going to thank me one day for giving you all this material for your writing,” [My dad] said when I stopped crying.
I avoided eye contact and silently promised to never write a damned thing about him.
I love the irony here, how Martin writes about never writing about her father. She concludes the essay, and thus her collection, with: “And though I’m comforted by the fact that this past self seemed to know that it was always her story to tell or not tell, I have to admit that what she didn’t yet know is I never keep promises to myself.” I can’t help but think that this was Martin’s pre-emptive response to our pressing question: it was always her story.
Although I love Martin’s detailing of her poorer, less cultured hometown and lifestyle, this collection gives us more than simply “Essays from a Lowbrow Life,” as the subtitle suggests. These essays are also about the common rites of passage that face most of today’s young people. This book is about leaving home and coming to terms with flawed relationships. It’s about being friendless and making weird fashion choices. It’s about learning to bullshit. It’s about becoming be self-reliant and making countless mistakes along the way.
Like looking at childhood photos, this book is as uncomfortable as it is humorous. It reads like a memory we might have been a part of in another life and reminds us of our shared humanity through even the most painful times of self-discovery.
Lizzie Klaesges is a Minneapolis-based writer and marketer with recent publications in Rain Taxi, The Critical Flame, and Allegory Ridge. She definitely does not still think about aliens.
December 4, 2017 § 2 Comments
By Phillip Russell
The first time I met Thomas Mira y Lopez was at a local bar early on in my first semester of graduate school. We sat and talked about death and cemeteries—how strange it was to own a plot of land for eternity. Little did I know that Tommy had been finishing up revisions for his first collection of essays The Book of Resting Places, a beautiful, quiet, collection that grapples with anxieties surrounding the death of a loved one and the baggage associated with the places we end up leaving them. The book was recently released, and I had the opportunity to talk with Tommy once again:
Phillip: In The Book of Resting Places a key theme revolves around how we place our memories of the deceased into the physical world whether it be a house, tree, grave, or something else. However, the Thomas Mira y Lopez that exists in the book seems conflicted about these yearnings even though this collection, in many ways, is an artifact of that very inclination. What do you make of that paradox?
Thomas: That’s spot on about the paradox. I envisioned the book as not just being about resting places, but also as a resting place itself. The ability to apply both prepositions to book is crucial, I hope. Because where do we memorialize or elegize the lost if not in books? No resting place is eternal—each one has its half-life—and so the knowledge that this book too is a temporary object informed much of what I wrote. As soon as I granted these memories a physical space I was also, in some ways, changing them.
P: The collection deals with a lot of complicated ideas—ideas that don’t have concrete answers to find. What was your initial motive for writing these essays and how did that change once you started putting the pieces together?
T: This book started because I went for a walk in a cemetery one day in New York. I couldn’t say exactly why I was interested in writing about it, but once I started to think about the spaces I have granted the dead in my own life and what type of memories I started to preserve, the ideas kept coming. One decision I had to make was whether the book would be a tour of literal resting places or a thinking through of the death of my father through those spaces, some physical and some metaphorical. I opted for the latter, as it felt like there lied the questions I could resolve the least, so I needed to try and answer them.
P: One of the most interesting aspects of the essays is the mixing of personal experience and rumination about death with research and journalism. In the second essay, “Monument Valley,” you offer an unexpected parallel between an iPhone game of the same name and post-mortem photography to talk about the subjective perspective we have on our loved one’s lives. How did you approach weaving in these researched topics with your personal experience? For instance, did you play Monument Valley and know right away that you’d be talking about it in your book or did those connections come later?
T: Oh man, “Monument Valley” happened because I had to turn my thesis in and my partner, Sarah, told me about the game right before the manuscript was due. I couldn’t stop playing it when I should have been working and I ended up writing about the game for my aesthetic statement. My thesis advisor, Ander Monson, who champions as he puts it “the bad idea essay” suggested turning it into something. As far as the other essays, I’m not always sure how they came about. Part of it was through reading a lot in an attempt to be receptive and part of it was a mania for parallels. I like playing detective: I would come back to some little statement I had taken for granted in the past—my mom’s stated desire to be buried in a storage unit alongside her possessions like the Egyptian pharaohs—and see what leads I could follow.
P: So much of this collection is about how we remember the dead, it makes me wonder, how do you want to be remembered when it’s all said and done?
T: Part of me wants to quote Diogenes, the Greek philosopher, and say throw me to the dogs, who cares, I’ll be dead. But that seems a bit grumpy—Diogenes was a cynic, after all—and so I’ll say that I aim to end up in somewhere that allows whoever is close to me a space to acknowledge the loss and then move on.
P: This project is about endings and what we do with them. Now that it is out in the world, what’s been your biggest take away?
T: It’s a wonderful, thrilling process to publish a book and I’m lucky to work with excellent people who have guided me through it. But it’s also a really conflicted process—”you run the gamut of emotions,” someone just told me, and it’s true. With this particular book, I realized late in the game that it was a way of creating a second life for my father, and so having it out there also requires acknowledging another loss I never expected to occur. I thought publishing a book would mean keeping someone with you, but really it means letting him go. That’s been hard to reckon with.
Thomas Mira y Lopez has an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Arizona. His essays have been published in Alaska Quarterly Review, The Georgia Review, Kenyon Review Online, and The Normal School, among others, and listed as Notables in the Best American Essay series twice. He’s received a fellowship from The MacDowell Colony and a scholarship from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. He was 2015-2016 Olive B. O’Connor Fellow at Colgate University and is currently the Kenan Visiting Writer at UNC-Chapel Hill. He’s an editor of Territory, a literary project about maps, and an assistant fiction editor at DIAGRAM.
Phillip Russell is a second year Masters student at Ohio University where he studies Creative Nonfiction. His work has appeared in New River Journal, HyperText Magazine, Burrow Press, Writer’s Digest, and more.