Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Merry Recluse

The Merry Recluse: A Life in Essays
Caroline Knapp (Counterpoint, 2004)

Gail Caldwell’s book about her friend Caroline Knapp, which I reviewed last month, has led me The Merry Recluse, a collection of Knapp’s columns and articles put together by her friends after her untimely death in 2002. I was curious to meet Knapp in her own words. Not surprisingly, I found her much as Caldwell describes her: bright, and a great writer; fragile, and a loner; self-absorbed, and deeply wise about the world.

Still, this doesn’t sound promising, does it? Like trying to read Anna Quindlen’s or Ellen Goodman’s old books; hasn’t the world moved on? Perhaps. But on the public side, her concerns are as real as ever. There’s a sexual harassment piece from the second anniversary of the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearing, and an early reaction to 9/11: “The people I talk to feel an odd, almost adolescent yearning for leadership, craving and mistrusting it in the same breath. Some of us feel compelled to reach out–give blood, light candles, sign petitions, anything!–and simultaneously compelled to retreat, edges of paranoia leaking in, talk of terrorists in the backyard.”

And on the private side, there are fascinating paradoxes, like the public nature of her privacy itself. Of her own sexual harassment experiences as a recent college graduate: “I went out to lunch with him and got drunk with him and let him kiss and paw me. It’s disgusting to me in retrospect, and shameful, but I honestly didn’t know what else to do.” It takes considerable charm to complain about feeling unsophisticated without sounding phony; it takes plenty of courage to confess to fear.

Knapp’s resolute honesty is what saves all this from preciousness, for me. She quit drinking in February of 1994, in her early thirties, so she had, she says, a lot of growing up to do. There’s a lifetime of emotional work in the seven years covered by this collection: her parents’ death, her history of anorexia, her affair with alcohol, and her acceptance of her solitary state as a way of life, which grew to include friends, a boyfriend, and a dog.

Fortunately, Knapp is also funny, mining the rich lode of her own insecurities: “Last week, I had an I-suddenly-sense-my-lips-are-too-thin day. I also had a since-when-have-my-pores-been-so-cavernous? day, but not at exactly the same time as the bad-lip day. Whew! Can you imagine what that would have been like? It would have turned into an I-have-to-stay-home-and-hide-under-the-bed day, no question.”

I’m struck by how lucky it is that Gail Caldwell and Caroline Knapp became friends when they did. Here’s Knapp, shortly after they began taking their dogs for walks together: “I’ve tended to be the sort of person who believes that walking doesn’t really ‘count’ as a form of exercise, that you’re not really working out unless you hurt. But it occurs to me now, perhaps for the first time, that the heart is a muscle in many respects, and needs attending to beyond the gym.” This is hard-won wisdom, and I’m grateful for it.

Email, October 2011

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Let’s Take the Long Way Home

Let’s Take the Long Way Home: a memoir of friendship.
Gail Caldwell (2010, Random House)

The grief memoir can be a tricky matter, as Gail Caldwell acknowledges. On the one hand, she says, “Like most memories tinged with the final chapter, mine carry a physical weight of sadness.” At the same time, “...writing about a friendship that flourished within the realm of connection and routine has all the components of trying to capture air.” I think that’s all true, and that she has made a masterful job of it.
Caldwell met Caroline Knapp when she was in her early forties, and Knapp in her early thirties. Both were single, and both had active writing careers: Caldwell was a book reviewer for the Boston Globe, and Knapp was a columnist for the Boston Phoenix who had recently published a memoir about her struggles with alcoholism and anorexia. Caldwell, who had forsaken the glow of the bourbon bottle a dozen years earlier, felt she’d met a kindred spirit. “Finding Caroline was like placing a personal ad for an imaginary friend, then having her show up at your door funnier and better than you had conceived. Apart, we had each been frightened drunks and aspiring writers and dog lovers; together, we became a small corporation.”
They were commended to each other by a woman who was helping them each with training a new dog. This meant hours of walking and talking around the Fresh Pond reservoir in Cambridge, and in wooded sanctuaries and on beaches all over eastern Massachusetts. As their friendship deepened, they vacationed together, and took up one another’s recreations: Knapp introduced Caldwell to rowing, and Caldwell taught Knapp to swim.
Let’s Take the Long Way Home encompasses several familiar kinds of memoir. Caldwell recapitulates her own history of drinking, which had been her shield against loneliness and boredom, certain though these were to be the long-term result of her continuing to drink. “I used to think this was an awful story–shameful and dramatic and sad. I don’t think that anymore. Now I just think it’s human, which is why I decided to tell it.”
It’s a wonderful dog story, too. Caldwell’s Samoyed, Clementine, and Knapp’s shepherd mix, Lucille, make demands for life’s real necessities that are a salutary check on their people’s tendency to hide out alone. Caldwell has no choice but to get outdoors in all weather, with Knapp and with other neighbors she might otherwise never get to talk to. She gets hooked on dog training, “reveling in the clarity of communication that training an independent sled dog entailed. Bullying revealed itself immediately for what it was; equally useless were mixed signals, irony, or indecision. Dogs craved and responded to straightforward instruction, recognition, and praise, all of it in the direct-arrow language of the heart.”
Rich as they are, these matters are just the context for the grief memoir at the heart of the book. In 2002 Caroline Knapp was diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer. She was forty-two. Caldwell captures the bad news:“ ...the obscene euphemism that telegraphs the end: ‘We can make her more comfortable.’“ She shows us the hospital room with a view of the river, which after a certain time Knapp doesn’t want to see; and the village that forms: “We were all circling her like heartbroken hens, while Caroline was simply trying to swallow a bagel or get through a phone call.” And she gets the way that life goes on–the dogs still have to be walked and fed. Knapp had reunited with a faithful old boyfriend, and they were married during an intermission in the cancer treatment.
Stage four, of course, is as bad as it gets, and within two months Knapp was gone. Caldwell writes, “The ravages of early grief are such a shock: wild, erratic, disconsolate. If only I could get to sorrow, I thought, I could do sorrow.” Some days she could hold it together in a way that was itself surprising; other days she was blindsided by some fresh loss, finding a habitation in the empty place that was left. “I lived in that house of absence, took solace in it, until sorrow became a stand-in for what was gone.”
In the years since then, Clementine has passed on, too, and so Caldwell has endured another season of pain, of talking to the departed to feel the bond alive. “I know now that we never get over great losses; we absorb them, and they carve us into different, often kinder, creatures.” I’d say that Caldwell has been made wiser, as well, to write so movingly without being sentimental. The pain of loss is the price of love, she reminds us, and it’s a price well worth paying.

Email edition, 9/1/11