Young Widower: A Memoir, John W Evans

I first heard about Katie Evans’ death in a nail salon. It was a Wednesday morning in November. I know this because my friend’s children are both at preschool on Wednesdays, and every few months, we  treat ourselves to the early bird special at Capri Spa. We’d been talking about Halloween, and about how last year her sons, who I have known since birth, knocked so timidly on the door. On a normal day, they would have bounded into our house and immediately climbed the stairs to compare how similar, and different, our mirror-image homes were.

On Halloween though, they hid behind their mother, and their father took pictures of them shyly accepting the gluten-free candy I had specifically picked to meet their family’s needs. This year though, they brought friends. They knocked loudly, and before I’d even reached the door, they were already shouting their trick-or-treats. They were firemen, bold and laughing and hungry. The boys’ grandparents stood by, and the father of their friends helped his youngest tuck a Fun size bag of M&Ms into a plastic jack-o-lantern.

I’d never met their little friends before, not officially. During the summer, I’d talked to the four of them while standing on a bench looking over the fence into their yard. I would keep an eye on the grill while they held up boats and trucks, and tried to make their splashes in the water table reach me.  Halloween was the first time I’d actually met John Evans though, and in the rush of holiday excitement, it was a passing hello. I had the impression later that he was tall, and that his kids were cute, and knew that he and his wife lived only a few blocks away. My friend confirmed all this, and we laughed about how this year, I’d forgotten to buy any Halloween candy at all, so she’d snuck some to me while the boys were distracted.

Then we went back to reading our magazines, and a few minutes passed before she mentioned that John was a writer, and that he had a book coming out in the winter. I suspect my response was non-committal.  People often talk to me about their writer friends. Some of them are published and some aren’t. Occasionally, I’ll read a friend’s, or a friend of a friend’s work; it depends on the book, the availability, my schedule. She mentioned that he was a poet, but that this new book was a memoir. “It’s about his wife,” she said, “and how she was killed by a bear in the Carpathian mountains.”

So there it was. Out in the open, this intimate detail about a man I only knew as “tall.” Fortunately, one of my friend’s great gifts is to project both sympathy and optimism in the same breath. There was nothing sordid or gossipy about her tone; his history was conveyed in a way I’ve come to think of as uniquely Utah. She was born and raised there, and although I’ve never been, I imagine it as a place where people wander around comfortably wearing their hearts on their sleeves, offering to all a blend of midwestern frankness and a more western laissez-faire attitude. Live and let live. I’m from New England though, and even after all these years on the left coast, I haven’t completely adjusted to such openness. I’m used to half-whispered conversations accompanied by guilt for letting slip anything tenuously labelled “private.”

Of course, this story isn’t private, in that he’s written a book detailing both the event itself and the first year of grief following it, but it felt that way, that first time I heard about it. The sun was shining, and we had coffee and issues of Real Simple and People on hand. The story felt somehow separate from the book, and when it came time to read it, my friend’s voice was often in the back of my mind. It was a comfort to have her there. This wasn’t just a stranger’s reflection about violent death and being widowed at thirty – that would be painful enough – no, this was a man I’d met, however briefly, who had witnessed and recovered (such that one can recover) from a terrible sadness. Whatever grief is his to carry, he has a family, and friends, and children whose names I’ve often heard mentioned with great affection.

When I opened the book for the first time, I wasn’t fully prepared for John’s eloquence or how the story would be magnified when related in his own words. I was with my husband in a doctor’s office. It was the day after my birthday, and he was waiting to have a sprained ankle looked at. We were very early for his appointment, because I have a hard time not being very early, and he loves me enough to go with it. Surrounded by strangers, I tried to cry discreetly. I tried to ignore the combination of raw, poetic story-telling, and my friend’s voice in my ear, Halloween, and my husband’s arm brushing mine. I didn’t want John’s story to seem at all familiar, because if it did, it would mean the anxieties that sometimes overwhelm me might not just be figments of an overactive imagination but potentialities.

In the weeks that followed, as I tried to absorb as best I could the grief and shame and regret and healing he had written about, I began to notice how many jokes people told about bears. Every off-handed comment had me on edge. Years removed from his initial grief, I found myself wondering if it had bothered him, if he’d found a way to accept such things the way I’ve seen survivors of fatal car crashes accept the sound of screeching tires. I found myself wanting to say something, to somehow put a stop to casual jests, but of course, I didn’t. I couldn’t, not without sounding like a lunatic.

Instead, I funneled all of my energy into the character I’ve been writing for Ten to One, a young widow whose closest friends have dangerous ties to Romania. What were the odds, I wondered, that things I’d barely considered before the past year – the death of a spouse, a country I’ve never visited – what was the likelihood they would appear here, in this book, written by a nice man from down the street? Maybe certain books cross our paths when we need them, or maybe it’s a coincidence. I don’t know. All I can say for sure is that as I struggled to write fictitious death and survival so far removed from the reality of such circumstances, I read this one sentence over and over again:

In order to participate in the world, it must be tamed and made reasonable, and when it is not tame and reasonable, the world still requires participation. (p 77)

I copied that sentence at the top of every page so that as I was writing, and stripping things away, and trying to convince a paper girl to not just live in the face of death, but to re-engage with the world around her, I would remember that such a thing was not just possible but paramount. That the weeping and gnashing of teeth and pretending to be fine, the nostalgia and forgetting, the sleeping too much or not enough, with friends or alone – it was all at least partially true. Having a life after terrible loss was possible – as possible as disappearing under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or retreating from it all. The world still requires participation though, even when it cannot be tamed, and yet for those times when life is bitter and unreasonable, there are stories like John’s – books that accept the ugliness of both death and survival and remind us to be grateful and angry and preciously alive.

For more about John Evans, go here.

The Keeping Quilt, Patricia Polacco

This is the third week in a row I’m posting about a book related to my family, but if you’d like to hear the other excuses for why I’m posting about a children’s book instead of the stunning memoir I’ll be talking about next week…? Of course you would.

Reason 1. Books are my first love. Quilting is my second. The quilt below is maybe the fourteenth quilt I’ve finished. Most of them have been baby quilts; a few have been for friends. This is a picture of the one I was working on when I read The Keeping Quilt for the first time in January. It’s for our friends’ baby, due next month.

Photographing quilts is not one of my hobbies. I’m not good at it, and I apologize.

When I first started hand quilting, I learned mostly from my mother and my best friend’s mother, and we did a lot of the work in community. I don’t even remember the names of some of the women who helped me tie my first quilt, but I do remember the experience of sitting together in someone’s kitchen working and talking together. Years later, I do about half of my sewing on my own while watching television and about half at project nights (organized by the couple who will receive the quilt pictured above). I love having a quilt to work on anytime (especially in the winter…or when I want to watch a season of some show without feeling profoundly guilty about it), but when I get to bring one over to their house and sit around with friends, it recaptures the experience I had when I first took up the hobby. This beautiful little book captures that feeling for me perfectly.

Reason 2. The Olympics. I know – everyone hates the winter Olympics. Everyone who doesn’t hate the winter Olympics is boycotting them. I realize that most people consider the summer Olympics to be a big deal and the winter Olympics to be a nuisance that bumps their favorite shows for a month, but I like them. I’m actually an Olympics fanatic, and although a part of me really wanted to boycott Sochi as well, I just couldn’t do it (I decided to donate some money to Lambda Legal instead). Conscience somewhat appeased, I hunkered down and watched a brain numbing amount of sport. It didn’t leave a lot of time for reading…or my own workouts come to think of it. Oh well. Two more years until I can justify eating this much popcorn while watching super-fit people compete again.

It did allow for plenty of quilting though, and I even invented my own sport – speed binding! Turns out, I won first place, but instead of a medal, I got incredibly sore thumbs and wrists, and a pain in my back that has not yet receded. The most exciting speed binding related injury was accidentally jabbing a straight pin all the way into my shin. It hurt a lot more coming out than going in, let me tell you. (Surprisingly, this book doesn’t mention anything about bleeding onto the fabric or having to purchase wrists braces; this is how I know it’s at least partially fiction!)

Reason 3. The book I’m reading right now is excellent, but it’s also exceptionally sad. I can’t speed through it, I can’t read it late at night, I can’t even read it when I’m alone in the house. It requires a particular mindset that just isn’t conducive to my usual style of reading. It’s worth it, but yeah. It means this week, you’re forced to accept a smaller offering in its place.

The Keeping Quilt makes me tear up too, but in a less “I’m devastated forever” sort of way. It’s a simple story about several generations of women in one family and how this quilt ties them all together (if you appreciated that inadvertent quilting joke, A+ for you this week). The illustrations are just glorious as well, and reading the book makes me excited about quilting every time I pick it up. I think it would be impossible for me not to love a book that manages to do that…


For more about Patricia Polacco, go here.

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, Alan Bradley

When I was visiting my family in January, I gave my brother (as a belated Christmas gift) a kindle loaded up with books from my Amazon library. After flipping through the titles, he noticed that I had the Flavia DeLuce series, and he got excited because the newest one was due to be released the following Tuesday. He asked if I thought I would buy it, and I told him not to fear – it was pre-ordered and would be waiting for him come 12:01am. What I was thinking then though, and what I haven’t been able to stop thinking about since is that I can never remember, in all my life, reading the same book as my brother.

I’m sure there has been overlap that I’m not aware of. If I looked back through books we both had to read in school for instance, or considered books our parents purchased which we pulled off the shelves for our own enjoyment, I’m sure there would be a few. Also, I could count the books we read aloud as a family at dinner, but I don’t because that was an entirely unique experience (not “unique” as in no one else has ever done it, but rather, a unique opportunity  for our parents to share books mainly of their choosing with us).

The thing is, I can’t recall a single instance of us discussing a book that we both read, loved, and were a little giddy over. It just hasn’t happened before, which is a little weird considering how much we both like to read. The thing is, this was an awesome discovery. I loved how his face lit up when he realized he could read the rest of the series, and for me, it felt like Christmas morning to be able to talk to him about the books without having to explain the premise or justify exactly why they were fantastic.

It was a little surreal, actually, and the end result was that I really savored this latest installment. I wanted to prolong that feeling of kinship, and in doing so, I was drawn into the struggle, in this book especially, between Flavia and her sisters. The tension, the pull between them, and the love that exists just beneath a troubled surface becomes increasingly more central to the Flavia’s story.

Bradley has managed a remarkable feat. He has transitioned his series from a couple of excellent one-off murder mysteries into an even more compelling long game. He’s set it up for a change of scene perfectly in the upcoming book without wasting this gem of a novel meant to bridge Flavia’s youthful adventures and her increasingly high stakes education abroad. And he’s managed to do so while writing books that two people with almost zero literary overlap both love. Now that I think about, I suspect witchcraft might be involved…

“What are we going to do, Dogger?”

It seemed a reasonable question. After all he had been through, surely Dogger knew something of hopeless situations.

“We shall wait upon tomorrow,” he said.

“But— what if tomorrow is worse than today?”

“Then we shall wait upon the day after tomorrow.”

“And so forth?” I asked.

“And so forth,” Dogger said.

It was comforting to have an answer, even one I didn’t understand. (loc 3515)

For more about Alan Bradley, head here.

Homebody Yoga, Jay Fields

During the two weeks of January that weren’t a polar apocalypse, I was on the east coast visiting some friends and family. (It turns out I really don’t miss winter, although the one snow day I got was nice.) While I was with my brother and sister-in-law, they (but mostly she) gave me a slim volume called Homebody Yoga: 28 Days to Bring You Home to Your Body & To a Life Led with Purpose for my birthday. It was the only book I got while I was there (I may have purchased five novels at the great secondhand bookshop that’s also a wine bar) that I didn’t have my parents ship back to me. Instead, I tucked it in my carry-on and read it on and off for the rest of the trip.

Now, Julia is the person, years ago now, who first introduced me to yoga. She badgered me to try it enough times that I actually learned to love it (oh, how I loathed it at the start!). She’s been a constant source of knowledge and encouragement to me and has managed to spread her love of yoga to my whole family.

If you had told me a decade ago that such a thing could happen, I wouldn’t have believed you, but sure enough, yoga has inextricably become a part of our lives. I think my favorite class was the one where my parents, my brother’s in-laws, and my sixth grade teacher were all practicing under Julia’s patient tutelage. It was surreal and excellent at the same time.

At any rate, when she recommends a book to me, I trust her. She understands what I’m looking for uncannily well; she has never once recommended one (on yoga or any other subject) that I haven’t loved. Homebody Yoga was no exception. This book, which essentially began with a reference to the poem by Derek Walcott below, was an absolute perfect find for my birthday month.

Love After Love

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life. 

During February, I like to spend time reflecting on my year and considering what I can do over the next eleven months to improve my life from the inside out. I enjoy unlocking little pieces of myself that have been undernourished or ignored, and this book offered the perfect opportunity for a month of reflection.

Fields’ book is so much more than a “how-to” for home practice though. As a writer, she’s insightful (without being smarmy), as well as warm and funny and thought-provoking. Her guidance is intuitive for both the novice and the expert, and every page had me ready to jump up and get on my mat.

Part of me wanted to wait until February 1st to crack the cover, but ultimately, I couldn’t wait. I had to do a full read-through before I officially “started” my twenty-eight days. I’m glad I did. This is a book that bears rereading. Like a good poem (or yoga pose), her advice resonates a little differently with me each day. The time I’m spending with this book and my mat has become a refuge, and Fields, my companion on a very strange, and necessary, journey.


For more about Jay Fields, head here.