this is not a review: ‘to love what is’, by alix kates shulman


I received this book as a gift from someone who knows that I’ve been a fan of the author’s work since reading her memoir Drinking the Rain some many, many years ago. One of the few books I re-read on a regular (used to be annual) basis. Go ahead. Ask me anything…

To Love What Is is her latest gem, an account of what happened after Shulman’s husband suffered brain damage from a fall—it will appeal to anyone who enjoyed Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking.

Only this is better.

Much better.

Heresy, I know. But there you are.

What I felt about Didion’s book [just to clear this up] was that rather a lot was missing. Here is what happened, she tells us, here is how mad I was with it, and we empathize, we’re with her, but after a while I wanted not just to read lists and repetitions of her [understandable] mania but for her to offer something deeper, how she felt and how she was changed by this extraordinary period in her life.

I thought its honesty was bordering on superficial and maybe she held back because she simply wasn’t ready or able to give more. Her prerogative of course, but then why write a memoir? I actually read Year of Magical Thinking  twice because I couldn’t believe I was the only person on the planet who didn’t wholly embrace it. And then I stopped trying, and I began to wonder how it would rate or be discussed or ignored had it been written by an unknown. In other words, was the buzz created by the magic of Didion’s words… or was it our interest, and faith, in a beloved literary icon?

Shulman’s book, for whatever reason, didn’t elicit the same widespread reaction. At least I don’t recall it being discussed and applauded ‘everywhere’. Too bad. It’s an excellent piece of writing on a subject that has broad interest.9780374532055

As in Didion’s book, things begin with a moment between husband and wife… after which everything changes.

“On a moonless summer night my husband fell nine feet from a sleeping loft to the floor and did not die…. though X-rays taken several hours later showed that he had broken most of his ribs and both feet; punctured both lungs, causing perilous internal bleeding; and suffered so many blood clots in his brain that each CAT scan of that precious organ resembled an elaborate filigree.”

Shulman dips into the past only enough so that we understand who her husband was [a sculptor, among other things], what their marriage was made of and how his limited recovery affects every aspect of life.

“Never again will we be able to mull over a problem together, negotiate a decision, chew over the news, arrange to meet on a street corner, discuss the meaning of a remark, consult each other for advice, dispute the wisdom of an action, confide our secret anxieties, appreciate each other’s wit, plan a trip, weigh our options, fantasize about the future…”

In the course of years—from event to completion of the book—she meets with countless doctors, reads tons of material and manages to condense it in a way that we begin to understand the mechanics of brain function, the various effects of brain injury, impact on memory, and how her husband Scott, while able to recover to the degree that he resembles, outwardly at least, an intelligent, charming, normally functioning man of his age, no longer has any concept of how a coat is buttoned.

“How can you think or reason without remembering the facts to reflect upon? How do you know which way to turn when you’ve forgotten where you’re trying to go? With no recall of time passing or of what has transpired, you are bound to be in a state of perpetual confusion or apprehension. And along with confusion, agitation and upset. No matter how eagerly you may wish to cooperate, you can’t respond to others’ expectations if you can’t remember what they are. If a minute is the same as an hour, when your wife goes to the bathroom, how do you know she hasn’t ‘evaporated’—and, without her, how you will survive?”

She writes of the time it has taken to arrive at this point, the dedication on both their parts, but doesn’t play the victim card, not even once. Though she admits to exhaustion, frustration, fear, doubt, cowardice, she does all this without ‘drama’. Shulman doesn’t do drama.

“Facing squarely for the first time the bleak prospect of spending the rest of my days as caretaker of a well-meaning, loving, but helpless and clueless man, I find myself succumbing in odd moments to unexpected bouts of grief, as if a life as ended. Not his life, but mine.”

She tries to make things as normal as possible; she mounts a show of his work. He mingles, chats, appears almost himself… “But once the show has been taken down, he has no memory of it, not even that it occurred. None. And again I face the recurring question: was it—is it—worth the effort? If so, for whom? I had thought it was for him, but if he remembers nothing?”

Aside from all else, the book broadens our understanding of brain injury and aspects of memory loss.

“… since memories of different kinds of things (colors, numbers, music, places, faces, names, among many others) are ‘stored’ in different, specific areas of the brain and can be altered over time with subsequent recollections, the generalized concepts of long-term and short-term memory are no more than theoretical constructs…. Cognitive scientists disagree as to how many  kinds of memory systems there are, and they often divide memory into ever finer categories, including sensory memory (input from the senses), procedural memory (of skills and habits, such as tying your shoes or playing the violin), semantic memory (of the facts that make up or general knowledge of the world, as opposed to our personal experience of it…) episodic memory (of events that occurred to us…), associative memory (which can connect the taste of a madeleine, for example, with a flood of feelings from the past)…”

Initially devoted to ‘curing’ Scott, she finally accepts the reality of the situation and requires only “minimal conditions” to keep her spirit alive: “to be able to cook a meal without steady interference; to be free to read without constant interruption; to work on my writing every day.”

Shulman takes us to the brink of hard decision-making, not in a dithering way, but clearly thought out. She reads each passage of the book she’s writing [the one we’re reading] to Scott, and for as long as he can remember it, mere moments, he is able to comment honestly and intelligently. And this means everything to her.

They return to the Nubble, the cottage off the coast of Maine where the accident happened. This is also the setting for Drinking the Rain and a place on earth that is almost sacred to Shulman. She can’t bear the idea of giving it up. Or giving in.

“How little it takes to lift my spirits and restore my equanimity! Someone to spell me with Scott whom he accepts and I trust, a walk along the shore, a meal I can cook with imagination and freedom, and I am myself again.”

The title refers to many aspects of her situation, including the future, whatever it may bring—and I close the book hating the inevitability of what that future may hold for Shulman, but by then I’ve been assured, too, by her courage and straight up love of life, that whatever is thrown her way, she’ll manage to find the joy.

And all without a trace of saccharine.

Or self-indulgence.

And there it is, the challenge of memoir: how to write without myopia [or sticky sweetness in the case of love and loss… or to over-compensate and become one dimensional— self-protection disguised as aloofness, or vice versa]. Easy enough to circle the area but to venture anywhere close to that precarious edge without losing balance is the trick. And this, I suspect, has less to do with the brilliance of the writer than an ability to manoeuvre through the fearful territory of honesty without constantly looking in the mirror… or, worse, over one’s shoulder.

To Love What Is, is available online at Blue Heron Books. Support indies!

11 thoughts on “this is not a review: ‘to love what is’, by alix kates shulman

  1. That sounds well-done. I enjoyed One Hundred Names for Love: A Memoir by Diane Ackerman but she glosses over in a line here and there the harder times, focussing on progress but his prognosis ended up playing out better.

    1. Sounds interesting, Pearl, thank you! I think it must be very hard to keep emotions balanced in writing this kind of thing. I’ll definitely look for the book. Cheers!

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