A Balanced Life, by Patricia Schultheis

balanced life

I teach a lot of memoir classes and, as a freelance editor, help memoirists shape their stories. However, often people will tell me, “There’s nothing remarkable about my life. No one would want to read about it.”

I disagree. Sure, celebrities and politicians have a built-in audience for their memoirs. Some memoirists introduce us to cultures we know little about or let us experience extraordinary events with them. But those of us with even the most ordinary of lives have wrestled with the great questions of life and experienced a range of powerful human emotions. Each of us has lived in a unique constellation of cultures: family, community, world events.

This compelling memoir is of such a life. Looking back over seventy years, Schultheis invites us to experience moments both large and small with her: picnicking at the beach as a child, taking the hand of the man she will marry, caring for her sister in her last days. In vivid scenes she conjures not just the events, but the emotions swirling in them. In a few deft strokes she adds the context of the times.

Sometimes she frames a scene with a bit of scientific knowledge or philosophy, perhaps a legend or a description of some event. For example, near the end, as she grieves for the loss of her husband, she describes the origin of the Hale-Bopp comet and how she and Bill would watch for its return.

Before any of us ever were, we were held by ice. Scientists once thought that life sprang from Earth’s fiery core . . . But now some scientists believe that the midwife of life is ice. That as microscopic stardust-buds we were carried by comets and delivered to our earthen mother. Like interstellar storks, comets hurtled past the sucking gravity of the solar system’s giants and skirted the glowering, stony asteroids to reach this middling planet with a warm, green bosom.

No wonder Hale-Bopp twinkled with almost parental beneficence, as if locked in its frozen core it held some prior knowledge, some reassuring certainty about ourselves that we had yet to discover.

Much of this memoir is about ice. Schultheis uses figure skating as the line upon which she pins her scenes, giving a consistency and narrative arc to the diverse events of a lifetime. Despite decades of lessons and practice, she never attains more than a moderate competency on the ice, but she learns enough to admire the grace and power of the true athletes she encounters.

Moving easily across the years, she finds countless different ways to use the metaphor of ice skating to illuminate events. From the first life-changing gift of a pair of second-hand skates, to sharing the ice with Dorothy Hamill, to fulfilling the dream of skating at Rockefeller Plaza, Schultheis shares what skating has meant to her over the years. Each time she returns to the metaphor, she adds a new layer of meaning.

As an amateur figure skater myself, I love this aspect of the book. Although I am acquainted with the author via the Baltimore writing community we share, I had not realised before reading her book that we both skated at the same rink, though I think not at the same time, and knew some of the same skaters there. Someone who is not interested in skating might find the constant refrain tedious, though the author’s brief descriptions of the technical aspects of turns or edges or the skates themselves always pertain to and enhance her story off the ice.

I do think that everyone has a story to tell. Whether people will want to read it depends largely on the writer’s skill in crafting an engaging story. Here, Schultheis excels. Her writing—sometimes lyrical, always accessible—welcomes you in and carries you through the story, introducing you to new ideas, inviting you to examine your own life. This is a story to savor and remember and reread.

Have you read a story—fiction or memoir—with a particular metaphor running through it?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book free from the author. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula Le Guin

left hand

If you haven’t read this classic, stop right now and go read it. Came out in 1969? No problem: it couldn’t be more relevant to today. Don’t like science fiction? Won’t matter; there aren’t any space battles or robots; just beings you will recognise going about their lives. And any initial questions you might have about the culture you’re reading about are exactly the point.

Genly Ai, who is from Terra, has been sent as an envoy to the far-away planet of Gethen. He is there to invite the inhabitants to join the federation of planets, one that makes trade possible and mediates disputes but does not rule its members. Gethen has no space travel capability, so its people initially cannot believe that Genly comes from another planet, despite his vehicle and slightly different appearance. The federation has sent only one person as an envoy to reassure the people that it is not an invading force.

Gethen’s climate is so harsh that the planet is known as Winter. It is divided into two major nations: Karhide and Orgota. It is to Karhide that Genly goes first.

What is most baffling to Genly is that Gethen’s inhabitants are androgynous. They only take on gender characteristics for a few days once a month, a time they call kemmer, when sexual interactions are taken for granted. They could be female one month, male the next. The rest of the time, they have no gender. Genly keeps trying to overlay his gender preconceptions on the people he meets, for example, distrusting what he sees as the feminine side of Estraven, the prime minister of Karhide who has done the most to validate Genly’s story and promote his work.

As the story opens, Genly is at last about to have an audience with the king of Karhide, said to be mad. However, the night before the audience, Estraven invites Genly to dinner and afterwards tells him he can no longer assist Genly and has not recommended his cause to the king. Feeling betrayed and angry, Genly leaves, but at his audience the next day he learns something that makes him see the evening in a new light.

It is this that is most fascinating to me in this story. Confronted with a foreign culture and despite all of his diplomatic training, Genly constantly misunderstands or guesses blindly at meaning, distracted and misled by his own cultural frameworks.

What could be more relevant to today’s fractured and polarised world? How do we learn to set aside our preconceptions and see each other?

And on top of this is what Genly perceives as gender confusion. Having taken the power politics inherent in gender roles out of the equation, the difference in the resulting cultures is fascinating. And promising for the world many of us would like to see.

For one thing, there have been no wars. Disagreements, skirmishes, certainly. But that’s all. However, now a border dispute between Karhide and Orgota threatens to change that, as power-hungry politicians try to cultivate a previously-unknown sense of nationalism. Brexit, anyone?

With all these fascinating themes, you’d think this would be a dense story, a slow read. It is anything but! Le Guin spins the tension so tightly you barely have time to catch your breath, culminating in a thrilling escape that touches some of our own near-mythical stories.

All I can say is: Read it now! Let’s talk about it.

Dusk and Ember, by Robert Jacoby

Dusk and Ember

Jacoby’s latest novel is a deep dive into the tumultuous and incandescent mind of nineteen-year-old Richard Issych. Though set in Cleveland in 1980 and 1981, Richard could be any young man today, spat out from the ugly and boring, but known, world of high school into a baffling world of choices he’s not prepared to make.

College doesn’t seem to be one of those choices, despite his grades. For a working class boy, college was not an automatic possibility in 1980 and isn’t today. His parents, a fireman and homemaker, had never been to college and didn’t push it, but they are quick to inform Richard the day after graduation that he has to get a job and pay rent. He has no idea how to look for a job or what he might want to do.

The store where he bags groceries has no full-time work for him, so he quits. At his mother’s suggestion, he drives around to factories and fills out applications. Eventually he gets hired to work third shift at a tool and die factory. It is there that he meets and comes to know the men who fill this story, a heterogeneous collection of men drawn to work through the night. Some are cocky and brash, while others are damaged or careful, yet all are independent, the way you can be in the darkness.

As the story opens, Richard is about to go to the funeral of Melvin, the man he worked with most closely, shot by Dale, another co-worker. His mind is in turmoil as he struggles to grasp the reality of the death, of his role in it, and the motives of the two men he thought he knew. So much of our lives is hidden from each other, something Richard is well aware of.

In school he mostly kept to himself, with two friends who drift away after graduation. Inside, though, he boiled with questions and still does. He cannot see his life. On graduation day, “Richard woke with despair and dread, with the sensation of being disemboweled, reckoning the day.” He knows he doesn’t want a life with his parents. He sees other boys with girlfriends, but has no idea how to have that for himself.

Thoughts of suicide, escape from the pain of a life without meaning, curl around his brain, as they have for years. Death to him is a rest. Except that now he must look it in the face, in Melvin’s face.

We have many stories of the plight of young men of color who see few opportunities before them, armed only with the shreds of a poor education, surrounded by drugs and the crime they bring, burying their young friends. Recently, though, in the wake of school shootings, we have begun to probe the minds of young white men, often working class like Richard, with even fewer opportunities than he had in 1980, now that most of the factories have closed or automated or moved overseas.

In the memoir Hillbilly Elegy, Vance rails against some of his contemporaries for being violent and unwilling to work, and instead embracing welfare dependency and drug addiction. The young men in this book—Melvin is only 26 when killed—do show up for work, but most rely on drugs of one kind or another to make it through the night. With his job, Richard has stepped into another world, one where he envies the self-assurance of his new friends, but is disgusted and scared by the violence of their lives and the shabbiness of their relationships.

While there are lyrical moments, sometimes the stream-of-consciousness of Richard’s fractured and repetitive thoughts is hard to read and allows the tension that keeps us reading to leak away. I enjoyed most the scenes that make up the bulk of the book, either Richard alone or with others. The characters are well-drawn, and there is just enough of the settings—the factory, Richard’s bedroom, party houses, etc.—to create effective atmospheres.

I met the author years ago at a writing conference and have followed his career ever since. I reviewed Jacoby’s first two books. Here, he has done what writers are encouraged to do: “to peel our own layers back until we reach that tender, raw, voiceless place” where the strongest stories come from. This powerful story of a young man wrestling with the most essential and existential questions will touch anyone who remembers that terrible time when the world opens up in front of you and—paralyzed—you have no idea what to do.

What story have you read that brought back long-buried memories of your youth?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book free from the author. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.