Spring stayed underground through all of April. This was a long Vermont record-breaking cold winter. Then the spring bulbs exploded in a sudden mid-May heat wave. They danced up the driveway and over to the neighbors and down the road. Our eight-month old puppy had never seen spring, was startled by the grass. He and our older dog raced each other through the flowers. I left the dogs and the daffodils to go to town.
In town, we settled in at our favorite bookstore to listen to Abigail Thomas read from her latest memoir, What Comes Next and How to Like It. I had inhaled the book, as one does when the language is captivating, something quirky is being explained, the life of the author offers bits of your own, and you are pretty sure you better pay attention because other bits may be yours one day in the not so distant future. I’d pulled Thomas’ two other memoirs, Safekeeping: Some True Stories From a Life and A Three Dog Life: A Memoir from my bookcase. Thomas’ Thinking About Memoir, which is full of writing challenges — I mean, two-page writing exercises –was on my desk. Her sister Eliza Thomas’ memoir, The Road Home was also in the pile. I read that one to get a grip on being an adoptive parent when my toddlers were napping.
I pull out Thomas’ Safekeeping every time I want to write but just can’t, or don’t. That’s about five times so far. Maybe I’ll start it again tonight. I rarely stand in line for autographs, but I waited at the end of the line for Thomas to sign my copy of What Comes Next and How to Like it.
What is it? What’s so darn compelling about this author’s writing?
Take these opening lines. They are the dresses Abigail wears as she makes her entrances:
“Before I met you I played my music on a child’s Victrola.”
“This is the one thing that stays the same: my husband got hurt.”
A Three Dog Life
“I have time to kill while waiting for the sun to dry, and I’m mulling over the story I spent years writing and failed to turn into anything, trying not to be depressed.”
What Comes Next and How to Like It.
These books are all about the messiness of living. The children are caught up in spinach and scrambled eggs, a divorce, or the loss of a father. With each edition we glean the benefit of Thomas’ artful reflections, making sense of a life, rather than divvying tidbits up in the free form of fiction. We see life as complex and so often confounding with betrayals and cancer and grandchildren, and Oh, the dogs! Thomas’ sisters offer clarity. Doctors, nurses, and friends help her through. She is that whole constellation of wife, sister, mother, grandmother, friend, and woman alone dealing with the stark skies of reality.
As we all are. Yet these are not linear texts. The dogs are loud, restless, and destructive—just as are the people and events of her life. Utterly unpredictable, too, which is why wondering What Comes Next is followed by and How to Like It. We must, we always must find the way to get through the day, the years, the consequences.
How does Thomas manage to leap in the essence and stay in the crucial details too? Safekeeping and What Comes Next offer the reader a page or two at a time, a scene or reflection that advances the history, the locations, the honest truth of the moment. Each page is a clue, a piece of the puzzle stripped down to the bones. This is Haiku prose. Layers of images start to build and the portrait appears. But it isn’t still life, there is so much living going on. As we learn in that first page of What Comes Next, the sun dries and only then can she add the paint for the clouds around it.
At Bear Pond Books, after Thomas’ reads, I wait patiently in the line, watching the audience thin, wonder what is taking so long with the guy at the podium with her. I have no idea what to say to her. Let him take his time. Finally I am face to face with the writer whose honesty thrills me, who is just a little older, so I know of but didn’t live her references, and her musical taste is before mine. Our lives have similarities: smoking, drinking, Woodstock, NY (I lived there some twenty years prior to her residence and missed all that 1969 sex), roasting chickens, baking cookies for kids, her painting, my photography, love of language, love of students finding voice through writing. I’ve only two dogs to her three. I write about the life and death issues too, just different ones.
It is my turn and my mind is blank.
“I love you!” I exclaim to my surprise.
She beamed as she autographed my book. “Come to Woodstock,” she wrote.
Safekeeping: Some True Stories From A Life. Anchor Books: NY. 2000.
A Three Dog Life: A Memoir. Harcourt, Inc.: NY. 2006.
Thinking About Memoir. AARP Sterling: NY. 2009.
What Comes Next and How to Like It: A Memoir. Scribner: NY. 2015
The Road Home. Delta, New York, 1997.
This memoir is like reading chocolate mousse or whatever you adore consuming, while at the same time, being forced to realize the utter fragility of life. Language and love combine in every sentence. A dictionary is helpful because Diane Ackerman and her husband Paul West’s vocabulary is so extensive one must keep up. Their knowledge and use of words is dazzling, essentially out of the realm of a computer’s dictionary. Both are well-established writers in love with writing and one another, and they are truly witty wordsmiths.
Memoir is a genre of non-fiction that offers a slice of the author’s life, a theme or a thread vs. an autobiography of their whole existence. If we consider memoir’s lineage, Gertrude Stein wrote the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas in 1933 when really it was Gertrude’s own story she told. Toklas was a front (indeed, she always took care of Gertrude). I mention Stein because she set a precedent. She told her story through her interpretation of Alice’s eyes. In One Hundred Names for Love: A Memoir, Ackerman does the same.
That is, she writes as witness. She writes of her husband’s stroke and the devastation of the man she once knew, and of his heroic resurrection and recreation. His story is her story as she too is recreated. She is forced to shift from playful mate and writer, to caregiver-mate and writer. Many women become caregivers as soon as children arrive. Ackerman and West produced volumes of prose and poetry rather than bundles of baby. The care giving was not parental but that of adoring partners, creative colleagues and muse.
The wonder here is how Ackerman realized that traditional therapies to coach and coerce West’s brain to language were not sufficient. She besieged West, a British Oxford don, with incessant conversation and relevant fill-in-the-blank exercises, thus bombarding his global aphasia with words and stimulation that would arouse his curiosity. She encouraged him to write about his experience, and he accepted the challenge. That, and a swimming pool and patience were the healing combination. Ackerman learned to listen, knew her husband well enough to decipher his meaning, listened and loved him enough to laugh with him as his words danced with a new twist. He could remember language learned as an adult –words so obscure even Ackerman had to look them up — but not the immediate ones most of us use daily.
West’s memoir of his early aphasic months, The Shadow Factory, was published just two years after his massive stroke. He describes the indescribable—suddenly being globally aphasic. “Mem, mem, mem” (the only thing he could utter at first) is an excerpt available in The American Scholar (Summer 2007) (http://theamericanscholar.org/mem-mem-mem/). I have to suspend my inherent demands for logic while reading his essay, just go with his existential, poetic free-reign, and I’m rewarded with insight into an otherwise unfathomable realm.
Ackerman’s memoir is divine linguistic artistry, word combinations as beautiful as any rainbow, any recipe for a dish that melts in your mouth (oh mousse). But the story is as astounding as the prose. The brain damage is so severe a doctor reading CAT scan years later is in awe West wasn’t in a vegetative state. Having listened to Ackerman’s descriptions of West’s accomplishments, that doctor said “I’m so glad you told me this about him. It’s important to know what’s possible” (p. 294).
Diane Ackerman writes as a guide to the intimate universe of a stroke. Her husband is speechless, a wordsmith without words, who utters only “mem” with a variety of tone and inflection. The relearning of language and physical skill is tedious, repetitive, ceaseless and also joyous and funny. The word mistakes heard with loving ears, sheer poetry. For instance, “No, a tiny zephyr roamed through the yard for about a minute and a half and it felt good,” meant the breeze was nice (p. 141). But the poet in Ackerman is delighted, which sustains her commitment to his recovery and their life together. The woman West calls, “Lovely Ampersand of the Morning” has written the ultimate love story of her husband’s recovery. It was only with her intimate knowledge of brains (she was on tour with The Alchemy of Mind when a health crisis prior to the stroke brought her home), her insight into language and her dedication to finding creative therapy for West that kept her spirits and self intact for the long recovery.
“Life is a thing that mutates without warning, not always in enviable ways. All part of the improbable adventure of being alive, of being a brainy biped with giant dreams on a crazy blue planet” (90).
Life is an improbable adventure. Ackerman, and West, provide intimate insight into the fierce world of caregivers, global aphasia and poetic passion, the latter illustrated by a terrific list of one hundred endearments so generously offered at the end of the book. I’ll try one here, then I think I’ll send it to my own sweetheart: Hi Honey, my “Baby Angel with the Human Antecede Within,” how’s your day been?