Monday, May 9, 2011

The Chronology of Water, a memoir by Lidia Yuknavitch

I initially was interested in this because my friend Cheryl Strayed was talking it up on Facebook. Though I just checked and it turns out Lidia and I have six mutual friends.

Anyway. So I put it on hold at the library, and I just picked it up last week, and I had another book I had to read first because someone else had a hold on it, and it made me crazy to have to wait. So I read the other book quickly and then read this one in two days.

This is definitely a more pomo book than what I'd usually turn to, but it's beautiful. I started reading it, and cried a lot, and thought oh shit I'm going to have to read this all at home and have another book I'm reading at school when my students are doing silent reading. But then I finished it, so not an issue. But I did cry a lot.

It's one of those books that's hard to summarize, because it manages to be about a lot. Lidia's early life, and her love of swimming, which helps her make it through a lousy childhood and get the hell out. All the sex and drugs, starting in high school. (In the intro, Chelsea Cain says that "some really famous edgy writer--I didn't recognize her name, but I pretended that I did--had given a talk at a conference about the State of Sex Scenes in Literature and she'd said that all sex scenes were shit, except for the sex written by Lidia Luknavitch." It's odd to have that be one of the few things you know about a book before reading it, but there is a lot of sex in this book, and it is well-written.) It's also hugely about writing, being a writer, and how writing can help save you. In what is right now my favorite segment, "Dreaming in Women," Yuknavitch talks about a bunch of the writers who've been important to her, and ends with, "I am not alone. Whatever else there was or it, writing is with me."

She opens the book with the story of the daughter she gives birth to in her 20's--stillborn.
After the stillbirth, the words "born dead" lived in me for months and months. To the people around me I just looked... more sad than anyone could bear. People don't know how to be when grief enters a house. She came with me everywhere, like a daughter. No one was any good at being near us. They'd accidentally say stupid things to me, like "I'm sure you'll have another soon," or they would talk to me looking slightly over my head. Anything to avoid the sadness of my skin.
So true. I haven't known that kind of grief, but people's response to grief--she nails it.

She talks about how she thought about opening the book with her childhood, but "Your life doesn't happen in any kind of order. Events don't have cause and effect relationships in the way you wish they did. It's all a series of fragments and repetitions and pattern formations. Language and water have this in common." This is an idea she returns to again and again, and it was especially interesting encountering it as I'm reading The Things They Carried with my students, and realizing this time around that the non-linearity of it is so hard for them. They're used to beginning, middle, end. But it's a book about memory and living with memories, and that doesn't happen beginning, middle, end. I'm doing a much better job teaching it this year. It's still a hard book--it will always be a hard book, one of those amazing hard books that I love watching them experience and take something away from--but hopefully it's slightly less frustrating for them this go-round, or at least they understand why they're frustrated, which makes a big difference.

In an interview at the end of The Chronology of Water, Yuknavitch is asked about forgiveness, specifically forgiving her abusive father and her alcoholic mother who didn't get her and her sister away from the dad. She says,
When my daughter died I broke. Open. Into stories. For the first time in my life, I wanted to know what my mother's story was. Badly. So I asked her. When I explored what my mother's story had been all I felt was compassion for the girl of her. Someone should have done something to save her. No one did. It's a wonder she was alive at all.

Maybe forgiveness is just that. The ability to admit someone else's story. To give it to them. To let it be enunciated in your presence. It's your job not to flinch.
She has a lot to say about forgiving her father, including this:
...forgiveness isn't the best I have to give him. Even as a dead man, the best I have to give him is an acknowledgement that I came from him. And I did not kill myself. I am living beyond his life, his end and pulse. I am trying to put things into the world that alchemize the dark and turn it to something beautiful and smooth you can carry in your hand. A small mighty blue stone.
I'm glad I read this book. It's not the kind of book I'd usually pick up--I'm not such a memoir person, and I like me a more conventional narrative, usually--but I'm glad to have this inside me. I could say so much more but I think that's enough. Read it, and I think that what will jump out at you will be other lines, other pieces. There's so much here.

Also from "Dreaming in Women":

"Make quiet for Emily Dickinson. Sing gently a hymn in between the heaves of storm. Let the top of your head lift. See? There are spaces between things. What you thought was nothingness carries the life of it."

"I am not Virginia Woolf. But there is a line of hers that keeps me well: Arrange whatever pieces come your way."

That chapter might ultimately be why I'll need to buy myself a copy of the book.

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