Friday, April 06, 2007

Alix Kates Shulman and the Long Thought


A recurring motif in Alix Kates Shulman's memoir, DRINKING THE RAIN, is that of a younger woman paying close attention to an older one. One day on the beach, with her friend Margaret, ten years her senior, Shulman notes: "I study her aging body to see what's coming next for me." And later, Shulman befriends a younger colleague, Clara, "despite the twenty-year gap in our ages (or perhaps because of it: she wants to see what's coming, I want to know what's new)..." My experience reading the memoir falls into the same category, and the book has proven to me that some of life's most enlightening and exciting experiences happen in middle age. If this is what's coming, bring it on. The book is a thoughtful and hopeful meditation on the gifts of aging.

Told in present tense, the memoir has a simple premise and framework, which allows Shulman to ruminate and digress in interesting directions. It starts with a radical, if not original, personal experiment: at age fifty, she lives a summer alone in an island cabin in Maine, an hour's walk of beach from any civilization, without electricity or phone, the only water from the rain collected in a cistern. The idea is to get some focused time on a writing project, a goal all of us can identify with.

But early on, the plan changes course:

...for the first time ever, I allow myself the reckless thought that it might not matter if I write or not: with no one here to judge me, discovering what exactly I will do may be a more interesting project than writing a book.

What follows is a season of trial-and-error lessons involving the stuff of her immediate surroundings. With the help of Euell Gibbons books found in the cabin, she learns to forage vegetables and shellfish. She takes time gathering and preparing (beautifully described) meals for one. She wears what is comfortable and available; she consumes the college readers in the cabin instead of the books she brought along. And this new, improvisational approach to sustenance is nothing short of an awakening. This long period of solitude teaches her to appreciate "long thoughts." And time isn't as limited as she once believed: "...the more lavishly I spend time, the more I seem to have, like the wild leaves I pluck for salad which grow more lushly the more I pick."

Leaving the magic summer behind and returning to New York City proves challenging for Shulman, who has been deeply involved in the women's movement for years. How can she tell her friends she craves solitude now more than solidarity, without triggering anger and worry? She keeps dried seaweed in her home kitchen, and other island mementos, but they don't bring back the feelings she had when she was there. A Buddhist friend gives her a shot of perspective--the island taught her to pay attention to her surroundings. And this can be done in the city too.

Shulman returns to the island many times over the course of this book, but also takes us to the Rocky Mountains, New Mexico, and Europe, and into the cold war of her New York apartment, where she is struggling through a divorce. The cabin on the island becomes a frame for a bigger story, a guiding metaphor for how she chooses to live, which involves plenty of "long thoughts" and healthy self-study.

We readers get to witness a person making peace with who she is, with what she can control and what she can't, and falling in love with the world around her, crags and all. And as the natural resources on her island become tainted with encroaching civilization, her reaction is not despair and panic, but flexibility, and humble inquiry.

Many thanks to Barbara DeMarco-Barrett for introducing me to this exciting voice. I highly recommend her podcast, Writers on Writing.

If you're interested, Alix Kates Shulman will be giving a lecture at NYC's National Arts Club on April 17. The topic is one dear to us writers: how she turns one life into multiple narratives.

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Blogger Anne said...

I went to her lecture. One main takeaway: she says her fiction is meant to challenge readers, but her memoirs are designed to comfort.

Makes sense. I read both her published memoirs, this one about the challenge of solitude, and the second about taking care of aging parents. In both cases, her approach is a kind of self-study that is indeed comforting. The message is, you may think this is awful, but I am learning. Learning is a gift, no matter what.

She's working now on a memoir about taking care of her husband, who has a brain injury. Again, the message is one of comfort. This time, a meditation on love, where the others were meditations on solitude, and family.

Got me thinking about memoir in general. Is memoir in general designed to comfort? As in, here's what I lived through, here's how I coped? An interesting cultural exploration, IMO.

8:44 PM  

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