open country of a woman’s heart

"a map of the open country of a woman's heart" by d.w. kellogg, c. 1833-1842, via americanantiquarian.org

I’ve just finished Claire Bidwell Smith’s The Rules of Inheritance, which I wrote about briefly upon reading its excerpt.

I finished it several hours ago, yet I still feel a bit breathless.

This is writing exquisitely crafted, yet simple in a way that allows the words to disappear, leaving the emotions behind them free to slip in an out of the reader’s own lives lived, own experience with loss and love, with despair and joy. The story, while uniquely the author’s, is offered generously to the reader, who picks and sifts and no doubt finds mirrored shards hidden within.

This is not simply a story of death, of grieving. While there are certainly moments of levity it is a tremendously sad book, yet not depressing or dark, perhaps in part because the book’s mere existence tells us that the author found purchase in her grief and a way to survive it. She tucks us under her arm and takes us with her on her journey rather than let us view it from the outside where it would be far more stark and one-dimensional.

While indeed it is a book I would recommend to anyone who has lost a loved one or is suffering loss, its intent does not seem to me to be that of offering solace or solution. It is, instead, the very personal story of its author’s living, a tale of struggle and flaws and of a woman audaciously courageous even in moments of intense fragility, a memoir in the truest sense, brave and devastating in its honesty, moving and ultimately full of hope.

Perhaps the author describes the book best in one of her final paragraphs:

“It breaks my heart to see myself at age twenty-two in New York. How lonely I felt. How afraid I was of myself and the world around me. Of course I was lost in my relationship with Colin. Of course I drank too much. Of course I cried myself to sleep on a regular basis.

If I’d had someone, anyone, to guide me through those years, to tell me that what I felt was normal, that I wasn’t alone, maybe it would have been different. But if you haven’t been through a major loss, then the truth is that you just don’t know what to say to someone who has.”

It too broke my heart to see what the author had to endure at such a young age. She is like a cartographer, having traveled already the rugged wildness of loss—who is indeed perfectly suited to map it out, if only to mark with brave humility where her own bridges were built and recount how she was able to ford its rivers. By describing her own experience she makes it clear that in grief, as in life, there is no normal, no formula, no right or wrong way of finding our way through it, and that in the end life is always, always, worth the living.

======

Alas….

My winter of memoir is ending (although I might make an exception for Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild“). Whether or not I will pick an unread book from my shelves (despite the fact that I’ve culled them to a mere shadow of their former selves there still remain some jewels) or choose a new one I’ve yet to decide… I want something meaty yet light enough to go along with the season. I need a taste of fiction, to let reality sit and rest a bit. Any suggestions?

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