Never Stop Walking: A Memoir of Finding Home Across the World by Christina Rickardsson tr. Tara F. Chace

Living in Sweden and remembering nothing of her native language Portugese that she spoke until she was adopted at the age of eight, Christina Rickardsson, now 32-years-old is about to embark on her first trip back to the country of her birth to reconnect with elements of that initial period in her life, vividly recalled.

Recurring nightmares of her childhood awaken something in her sub-conscious, creating an emotional/ spiritual crisis that she addresses by revisiting .

I watched my eyes fill with tears as I realized that the little girl who had run for her life had just kept on running. I needed to stop running and once and for all, for my own sake, process what had happened.

A dual narrative flips between the present as she returns to Sao Paulo with her friend Rivia, who will act as her translator and the past where she shares the vivid memories and equally strong emotions of her early childhood years.

She reviews the adoption papers that have been locked in a safe for the past 24 years.

I’ve never felt the need to find out who I am, where I come from, or why I was abandoned. I know who I am, where I come from; most of all I know that I wasn’t abandoned. Kidnapping might be too strong a word to use for how our adoption transpired, but sometimes that’s what it felt like.

Some of the things she reads disturb her because they don’t ring true, she retains strong and tender feelings of love towards her biological mother and recalls the trauma of their separation but has never understood why. Her story is written in a desire to restore her mother’s name and tell their truth as she remembers it, to fill in the gaps in her knowledge and find out if her mother is still alive.

She recalls details of living in a forest cave in the Brazilian wilderness with her mother, of surviving on the streets of Sao Paulo and her time in an orphanage before she and her almost 2-year-old brother are adopted by a Swedish couple and begin a new life there.

Map from traditional symbols of culture and the nature of Brazil

She recalls her friendships with other children when they live in the streets, special moments, terrifying incidents and the strong emotions they evoke are equally remembered, her instinct for self-preservation is strong and her reactions to things spill over into her new life in Sweden, where they are often deemed inappropriate.

On some level, I began to understand that people, especially grown-ups, weren’t interested in the truth but rather in a truth that suited them. They only wanted to know about things that made stuff easier for them. It didn’t matter that I was walling off part of myself, that I was turning into someone else.

The relationship she remembers with her mother from childhood is tender, the bond strong, she defends it, and holds tight to the memories. There is a respectful appreciation for her Swedish family and clearly a difference between her feelings and those of her brother, who recalls little of his life in Brazil before their adoption.

There’s an undercurrent of sadness in this accomplished memoir, of a woman who is neither one thing nor the other, who can never let got of who she is, but must continue to live as that whom she has become.

She repeats often a kind of mantra, that life for her is not about finding herself, but about creating herself. And yet the two go hand in hand, as her story so adeptly shows, though she was separated from her mother, her country and culture, she lived in it long enough for something of it to have sunk deep into her psyche, which is not the case for children adopted at birth, or as toddlers. Many search to find out what she already knew, before they can freely go on to ‘create’ themselves anew, or to realise that they can be who they are, because they can make peace with the mystery of their unknown heritage.

I felt so much rage growing up that it frightened me. It filled me and destroyed me. I felt it, but I didn’t know how to handle it, so I smiled and laughed even more and did well in school…I had walled off my true self.

Eventually she finds a way to navigate the two selves by turning the focus outward, towards helping others, addressing the ache of having had to suppress her true self for so long.

She shares one of the more troubling stories of her childhood in a 15 minute TED Talk below and the inspiration behind the words in the title, Never Stop Walking.

Further Reading/Listening

Christina’s TEDTalk : The Lottery of Life

Article, 25 Oct 2018 Humaniam.org : Children, the main victims of violence and crime in Brazil

Buy a Copy of Never Stop Stop Walking via Book Depository

Becoming by Michelle Obama

I recently was invited to join a bookclub and this was the first gathering I was able to attend. Around half the members are native French speakers and the rest of us are English speakers from various different countries of origin. The first book they read was Jean-Claude Izzo’s Total Kheops (Total Chaos) in English (which I’d already read and reviewed here), it’s crime fiction set in the nearby town of Marseille. We choose books that are available in both English and French. The second read was going to be a bestseller and Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming was chosen.

A book that needs no introduction, a woman unanimously loved from where I sit and yet one who was exposed to the full spectrum of opinions about her, requiring an inordinate amount of resilience. Interestingly, there had not been universal admiration for her by some prior to reading the book, a reflection of how much influence the media has on our perceptions of people, both positive and negative.

Divided into three sections, Becoming Me, Becoming Us and Becoming More, I actually found the first two sections of the book the most engaging. Here she shares the influences of her early life and development of her character prior to meeting Barack Obama, followed by the early years of their lives together. These sections are the most insightful and endearing, probably because they are the most real.

“My parents talked to us like we were adults. They didn’t lecture, but rather indulged every question we asked, no matter how juvenile. They never hurried a discussion for the sake of convenience.”

They also corrected their speech, causing an awkward moment when a cousin asked why she talked like a white girl.

“The question was pointed, meant as an insult or at least a challenge, but it also came from an earnest place.  It held a kernel of something that was confusing for both of us. We seemed to be related but of two different worlds.”

A consequence of parents and close family being attentive to pronunciation, encouraged to enunciate correctly, having had drilled into them the importance of correct diction.

“The idea was we were to transcend, to get ourselves further. They’d planned for it.  They encouraged it. We were expected not just to be smart but to own our smartness – to inhabit it with pride – and this filtered down to how we spoke.”

She refers to her younger self as a box checker, at all times focused on the agenda, on achievement.

“My to-do list lived in my head and went with me everywhere. I assessed my goals, , analyzed my outcomes, counted my wins. If there was a challenge to vault,  I’d vault it. One proving ground only opened on to the next. Such is the life of a girl who can’t stop wondering, Am I good enough? and is still trying to show herself the answer.”

It is at this time that she observes a boyfriend who swerved. Did something unexpected, didn’t follow the straight and narrow path, something she didn’t understand at the time, being a devout follower of the established path, someone conscious of what other people think. That observation would stay with her and later she would see the merit in it, and the stiflement of the established path – and make her own swerve.

In the second section she meets Barack and the self awareness increases, life gets interesting and challenging in different ways. She observes him going to community meetings, showing up and talking to people who appeared skeptical of him. He was trying to build trust in communities where it was seriously lacking. She observed his differences, how he made them work for him. For me, this is where it becomes unputdownable.

“But skepticism didn’t bother him, the same way long odds didn’t seem to bother him. Barack was a unicorn after all –  shaped by his unusual name,  his odd heritage, his hard-to-pin-down ethnicity, his missing Dad, his unique mind. He was used to having to prove himself, pretty much anywhere he went.”

I particularly enjoyed their paths as young adults and how they were able to overcome their differences in upbringing and character, bringing tolerance first to their own lives as a couple, before going on to use it in their respective careers and ultimately as parents and as America’s role model couple in the White House.  He trusted things would work out, she worried, ‘We’ll figure it out’ he’d say. And they would.

Though the words are never mentioned in the text, in spiritual terms it’s clear they are soul mates, not so much because of a great love, but due to what they appear to have come into each others lives to learn. I loved that this comes across so clearly, that she developed the awareness to look at the expectations she had put upon herself as a result of her upbringing and her character and found another way.

But what a sacrifice really, despite the perception of it being glamorous and of course privileged. What a relief to get some semblance of a life back, I hope so anyway. Their celebrity status will likely never change, but as she shares in the opening pages, she is at least able to do some things unobserved, to open a window, listen to birdsong and dogs barking, feel more like a human being again.

She has done a wonderful job of demonstrating how she was formed by her upbringing, of how dependent she was almost without realising it initially – on being near and around her extended family, and while she grew up in a working class part of Chicago, South Side, her privilege was to have had that foundation of a strong, supportive, self-sacrificing family.

And though she attained great heights in her education and career, she too would have to draw on those self-sacrificing roots of her parents and ancestors, ironically, while slipping into the shoes of one of the most self-sacrificing unpaid jobs in America, that of the First Lady of the United States FLOTUS.

Shaman Healer Sage, How to Heal Yourself and Others with the Energy Medicine of The Americas by Alberto Villoldo

Following on from yesterday’s review of Alberto Villoldo’s The Four Insights: Wisdom, Power and Grace of the Earthkeepers, here are my thoughts on the book I followed up with.

Shaman, Healer, Sage begins in the first chapter with an extract from the Journals of the author, from his travels and training with the Inka shamans. He was apprenticed to an old Inka named Antonio Morales, who guided him and gave him the opportunity to both observe others at work – engaging in ancient healing practices – and to pursue his own personal healing.

Inka shamans practiced energy medicine for more than five thousand years, transmitting this knowledge from one generation to the next through an oral tradition.

From the practices he observed and learned, he developed his own contemporary reinterpretation, which he describes in this book, interspersed with more extracts from his journals, sharing some of the original experiences he had in the early days, when he was ignorant of what was occurring.

In the first part he talks about the belief system upon which these practices are based.

“We are luminous beings on a journey to the stars,” Don Antonio once said to me. “But you have to experience infinity to understand this.” I remember smiling when the medicine man first told me how we were star travellers who have existed since the beginning of time. Quaint folklore, I thought, the ruminations of an old man hesitant to face the certainty of his death. I believed that Don Antonio’s musings were akin to the archetypal structures of the psyche as described by Carl Jung. Antonio interpreted his myths literally, not symbolically as I did. But I didn’t challenge him then…

The mythologist Joseph Campbell used to say that reality is made up of those myths that we can’t quite see through. That’s why it’s so easy to be an anthropologist in another culture – everything is transparent to the outsider, like the emperor’s new clothes. At times I attempted to show Antonio that the emperor was naked, that he was confusing mythology for fact. That is, until I sat with him while he helped a missionary to die.”

He introduces us to the Luminous Healers, significant teachers and mentors he had during his time with the Native American shamans and puts historical references into a modern context. It is incredible that any of these beliefs and practices have survived after the destruction of the Indians by early settlers, which obliterated the spiritual traditions of most native groups. Native American shamans were reluctant to share their heritage with white people.

The Spanish conquistadors, and the missionaries who accompanied them, destroyed the healing schools in Cusco. The temples were demolished, and the churches were built on the same grounds using the original temple stones…

We imagine that the inquisition is a thing of the past, that this brutal organisation ended with the arrival of the Age of Enlightenment, and this is largely true. The Inquisition shut down its offices many years ago except in one country, Peru, the land of the Inka.

He introduces the universal concept of the Luminous Energy Field, something we each possess, surrounding the physical body, informing it.

When the vital reserves of the Luminous Energy Field are depleted through illness, environmental pollutants, or stress, we suffer disease. We can ensure our health and vitality and extend our active, healthy years by replenishing this essential fuel.

Part two provides techniques for learning the shaman’s way of seeing, for creating sacred space and practices to try out for your own personal healing. Part three continues this, describing for information purposes only, how a practitioner works with others (however he cautions against using this healing with others, something that should only be performed by a master practitioner who has undergone appropriate and comprehensive training, apprenticed to a skilled teacher. He also shares some of the dangers, which are fascinating insights in themselves.

Some of the things I found fascinating were:

  • the ‘rivers of light’, points stimulated by the healer, which Alberto discovered coincided exactly to the Chinese Acupuncture meridians.

For Maximo and other shamans in the Americas the rivers of light in the body are tributaries that flow into and draw their substances from the great luminous rivers that course along the surface of the Earth.

  • That pain and emotional trauma can leave imprints in the luminous energy field, that require extraction and illumination to be freed.
  • That imprints can be positive as well as negative, that they are active and cause us to gravitate towards situations in which they will be played out.
  • That there are generational imprints, that the energetic process of healing them often only requires only one or two sessions compared to months or years of ‘talk therapy’.
  • Intrusive energies and entities can exist in the luminous energy field.

Overall, it was an insightful read and one that definitely requires rereading, especially if the subject is new to you. I will certainly be reading it again to increase my awareness of my personal energy field, perceiving it and learning how to heal it.

Buy a Copy of Shaman, Sage Healer

via Book Depository

The Blue Satin Nightgown by Karin Crilly #memoir

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? Mary Oliver, Poet

Outdoor MassageA few years ago a lady who had recently moved here to Aix-en-Provence contacted me in relation to Flairesse, my aromatherapy therapeutic massage business. She became a regular client and over time I got to know her well, discovering a mutual interest in culture, books and writing. She had a strong passion for travel, the lives of others and the excitement of discovery, which was the name of a blog she’d set up to keep a record of her adventures while living in France.

I learned that she was writing a book, which had initially been planned to be a collection of a dozen or so stories she had related to her clients over the years, (she had been a Marriage and Family Counsellor for 30 years in Southern California) these stories had been her way to illustrate a particular teaching, something she had found that people absorbed more easily through storytelling than being given the lesson directly.

However, and given her adventurous spirit, it came as no surprise to me, once she sat down to write it, she realised that looking back and recounting the past, the stories she had spent 30 years narrating, no longer excited her, so she decided to change direction and push her focus forward, towards the unknown lifescape before her and share this grand adventure she had embarked on, three years after her retirement, at the unstoppable age of seventy-eight.

Every month, I would hear how the book was progressing and I’d also hear about Karin’s latest travels, culinary adventures, her move to a quieter apartment, her daily five Tibetans rites of rejuvenation ritual, and always that infectious laugh and sense of fun she had about life. I lent her a few writing books and then suggested she might like to enter The Good Life France writing competition, 1,000 words about France – about memories, a favourite place, or something you love about France.

good lifeExcited about the opportunity to put her writing skills to the test, Karin took the first chapter of her book, moulded it as much as she could to meet the criteria, sent it to me to look over and to make recommendations on how to whittle it down further without losing any of the content and then sent it off! We came up with the title ‘Scattered Dreams’ and a few weeks later heard the fantastic news, a confirmation if ever any was needed of how realistic this dream was in coming to fruition, that she had won first prize! She was now published and on her way to fulfilling that goal of becoming an inspirational author.

And so, today I am delighted to be able to introduce you now to published author Karin Crilly, and the book that made its first chapter appearance in The Good Life France where it was so fabulously awarded the recognition it deserved – The Blue Satin Nightgown, My French Makeover at Age 78.

I had to share this photo which Karin sent me one night as I was scribbling notes over one of her chapters in the book, (after that first success, I read all her manuscript and tried to concentrate on making notes for feedback, which was difficult, as her stories were so entertaining and often had me open-mouthed in surprise).

She’d told me she was going to an Elton John concert earlier in the evening and then later this picture arrived, showing her accepting a lift home from Xavier – the husband of her friend Marie-Paule, a couple who became like family to her –  it so depicts the excitement and sense of adventure Karin was always up for and no wonder her book is so full of laughs and the pure delight of living life to the full.

The Blue Satin Nightgown is an enchanting, easy reading memoir of Karin’s two years based here in the small town of Aix-en-Provence, taking us through both the trials and delights of her attempt to integrate into French culture, finding an apartment, discovering the markets, learning French cuisine – though she is already an excellent cook, and shares some new and favourite recipes throughout the book.

She attracts men without trying and there are many entertaining chapters of close encounters and demonstrations of what we might refer to as, the French culture’s ‘art of seduction‘, a term that doesn’t have the same meaning in English, more of a natural charm that often surpasses the boundaries of the Anglo-American experience and is practised by young and old.

One of the endearing aspects of Karin’s writing and of her character is her ability to look at herself and see how she reacts in certain situations, to talk to herself as if she were one of her own clients. She brings a natural and gracious wisdom to the page and often thought back to wonder how her late husband Bill, to whom she dedicated the book, would have responded to what she had experienced and often asked herself what lesson she needed to learn. She finds wisdom not just in her own encounters, but by maintaining a strong and positive link to her loved one, a memory that never held her back, one she found a way to help push her forward and kept at her side, without ever succumbing to grief or self-pity.

Karin is not just an inspiration to those in their seventies or those who have lost a life partner, she is an inspiration to all of us, who have ever thought about doing something a little adventurous or extraordinary.

When my husband died from complications of Parkinson’s disease, I wondered if I could still be extraordinary. I had expended so much energy being his caregiver for eighteen years, the last five years of which demanded my entire being. After grieving for several years, I retired from thirty years of counselling. I needed to reinvent my life. I believed what I have always known: that the true self is presented  with ideas that it is capable of fulfilling.

When I received the call at age seventy-eight, I remembered my clients and my advice to them.  And I said YES!

Karin Crilly, Introduction, The Blue Satin Nightgown

Buy a copy of Karin’s The Blue Satin Nightgown via Book Depository here (affiliate link)

or Buy a Kindle E- book version here

*****

Aix

Brother, I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat

Brother Im DyingI first read Haitian author, Edwidge Danticat last summer, her novel Breath, Eyes, Memory (review linked below) about a young girl living with her Aunt in Haiti, while her mother lived in New York, a little like the life of the author herself, much of which is revealed in this non-fiction title, Brother, I’m Dying where we learn more about her life, though the primary focus is on her father Mira and in particular, her Uncle Joseph.

After having read a number of books in the Caribbean tradition recently, it is both unique and a gesture of deep reverence to read about the special connection between a daughter and her two fathers, for she sees both these men, and rightfully so, as her fathers.

The novel opens on the day of two discoveries, the author learns she is pregnant with her first child and hears that her father has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. The pulmonary disorder had required him to take medicine (containing codeine) resulting in his taxi licence being revoked. The medicine did nothing to alleviate his symptoms, worse it lost him his job and his dignity.

The chapters alternate between their present life in America and the author’s early life in Haiti, recounting the lives of the two brothers. We come to understand the lives they create from the choices they made, how they reinvent themselves, the obstacles they face, whether it’s family, work, the establishment, or navigating the political and legal demands of the countries they inhabit.

Mira leaves Haiti to create a better life in America for his family, a departure the author has no memory of, though her Uncle Joseph’s adopted daughter Marie Micheline shared stories with her, in a tradition common to people like her, anecdotes of poignant memories for those that have been left, to serve as reassurance that they were and are loved.

“Unfortunately I wasn’t told many stories like that. What I did often hear about was the future, an undetermined time when my father would send for my mother, Bob and me.”

Life was difficult for her mother and she often left the children with her brother-in-law to ensure the children had a decent meal. Then two years after her father left, when she was four and Bob was two, her mother’s visa was approved and she too departed, alone.

The two children became very attached to their Aunt and Uncle, while they waited out the nine long years before they too could make their eventual transition to join their parents in New York. Finally happening when Edwidge was twelve years old, it would be an even greater emotional challenge, not least because they had two younger brothers born in the US, one of whom believed he was the rightful, elder child of the family.

Back in Haiti, Joseph’s voice had begun to quiver, it worried him so he travelled to a hospital where US doctors were visiting, learning of a suspected tumour that would block his airways and suffocate him if not removed. It could be extracted in the US, but so too with it, would be his voice, reduced to a bare whisper, a death-knell for a pastor.

Almost like a miracle, on a subsequent visit for a check-up, he is shown a contraption he can use to amplify his whispers and allow people to hear him.

“My father took my uncle’s hand and led him to a lamp in a corner of the room, so he could better see the machine and its interaction with my uncle’s neck. This was their first two-sided conversation in many years and they both seemed to want to move it past the technicalities to a point of near normalcy.”

Edwidge Danticat

Edwidge Danticat

The one thing that remains constant throughout their long separation, is their love and respect for each other, as witnessed and shared through the eyes of their daughter and niece.

Edwidge Danticat writes in such an honest and compassionate way, you can’t help but become drawn into their story and feel concern at the various dramatic points that arise, willing things to turn out for the best – except that’s not what happens in real life – in reality, not everything will turn out as we will it to, but the memories will remain and the experiences contribute to forming the characters that we become.

It is a credit to the author to have chosen to share something of her life, her early childhood, without elevating herself as the main character of interest, it is both a story and a tribute to the extended family and the men who tried to lead them to live in safety.

The brothers chose different paths, one deciding to leave, the other to stay and though they were separated for 30 years their relationship remained strong, seeing each other as often as they could and keeping this strong connection between all the extended members of the family and their birth country.

As Cristina García, author of Dreaming in Cuba (one of my Top 5 Fiction Reads of 2015) put it:

“Edwidge Danticat’s moving tale of two remarkable brothers – her own father  and her beloved Uncle Joseph, separated for thirty years – is as compelling and richly told as her fiction. Politically charged and sadly unforgettable, their stories will lodge themselves in your heart.”

Breath Eyes Memory

A wonderful book, an honest portrayal of lives, where joy and struggle go hand in hand, where fear is never far from the front gate and sadness its companion, yet full of hope and spiritedness as an eighty-one-year old man refuses to let thugs take all that he has, and even though he risks his life, he will continue to pursue with righteousness, what is necessary in his own country to ensure justice. Which only serves to make what follows so immensely tragic.

A 5 star must read for me.

Further Links:

Edwidge Danticat, my review of Breath, Eyes, Memory

Cristina García, my review of Dreaming in Cuban

To the River: A Journey Beneath the Surface by Olivia Laing

A relationship ends, prompting the author to plan a journey that follows the course of the River Ouse in Southern England, a river that has changed over time, through man’s battles, interventions and industrial/agricultural practices.

To The RiverAs she walks the river, Olivia Laing narrates a number of those historic events, occurrences that the river today bears little trace of, including the last immersion of Virginia Woolf, her pockets laden with heavy rocks as she strode with purpose into the river, her corpse emerging downstream three weeks later.

“Let me then, like a child advancing with bare feet into a cold river, descend again into that stream.” Virgina Woolf

The narrative meanders like the river might have done, had it not had its more interesting aspects and life-filled curves, sliced and straightened long ago, making it in parts more like a dredged canal. By bringing disparate events together in one narrative, Laing attempts to connect history to the landscape, reviving ghosts of the past, on a route where no markers inform the casual walker of its gruesome days gone by.

It is an attractive premise, to walk the length of a river as a form of therapy, writing and researching its length, though rather than submerge as Virginia Woolf was so drawn towards doing and did in this same river, Olivia Laing’s journey is more one of, walk, pause, reflect on great battles and digs, other lives lived, move swiftly on.

She spends little time reflecting on her own troubled narrative, the barely mentioned Matthew, a ghost-like figure never fully formed, their dilemma not shared on the page, instead it is the river we begin to grieve for, her character sliced and cut and reformed to meet the purpose of man, ignorant of the smaller life forms dependent on it for survival.

Deflecting attention away from her own purpose, Laing has written a tribute to a little known river, a metaphor of life, with all the events that chip away at and form its character, though its true essence remains.

She recalls the brutal Barons’ War of the 13th century, the dinosaur hunters of the 19th century at a time when that word had not yet been invented and the many writers whose lives and works were inspired or touched by rivers.

“I’d been thinking that morning of  The Wind and the Willows, and it struck me that if it had nurtured my love of rivers,  might also be responsible for this faint mistrust of woods…”

As she recalls listening with her sister to tapes of Kenneth Grahame’s stories of Rat, Mole, Toad and Badger, she tells the tragic tale of the author’s son Alistair, aspects of whose nature were immortalised in the character of Toad, his difficulty adjusting to the expectations of public school and university life and his premature death. This event segues into the question of whether A.S. Byatt in her novel The Children’s Book, who casts a character who writes children’s stories and uses her children as inspiration, has created an epitaph for Kenneth Grahame.

Of particular interest to those familiar with the landscape and interested in its history and of Virginia Woolf, it provides a brief introduction to many subjects, meandering off course at times. The book may have held my attention more, if the author had reached deeper into her own inner journey, though perhaps these lessons are realised long after the physical journey has taken place.

“Water,in Woolf’s personal lexicon, represented a way of slipping the superficial self … and ducking down into a deeper, nameless realm.  When Virginia writes about writing, the images she employs are liquid. She is flooded or floated; she breaks the current. When the books are going well she plunges off, happy as a swimmer, into the marine element of private thought.  When the work is going poorly, however, when headaches prevail,  or sleeplessness sets in, her descriptions begin to acquire a nightmarish dryness.”

Trip to Echo SpringOlivia Laing combines a present day physical journey with threads of the past, as she does with The Trip to Echo Spring, a journey across America via a topographical map of alcoholism that examines the link between creativity and alcohol apparent in the books of John Cheever, John Berryman, Raymond Carver, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Tennessee Williams.

Signed, Sealed, Delivered – Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing by Nina Sankovitch

Signed SealedHow could I not pick this book up, a non-fiction tribute to the dying art of letter writing. A pastime that makes the young at heart feel like they have entered old age, because so few people do it any more, it has become old-fashioned!

I am a letter writer from so far back that I didn’t realise how early it began until reacquainting with people from the past via Facebook resulted in some reminding me of letters I had written when I was younger than 10-years-old.

I know I wrote letters when I was at boarding school (from 13), we all did, it was a matter of survival and a tactic to avoid that dreadful feeling at midday as we lined up the staircase waiting to retrieve our lunch to take outdoors, listening to the boarding school mistress read aloud the names of those who had received a letter today, and when your name wasn’t read out – inevitable really – it invoked a sense of disconnect, reminding you that you didn’t live at home, that you couldn’t just visit a friend, a neighbour, your family whenever you wanted, you had to wait for them to write a letter to be in contact.  Four years of listening to names being read out is enough of a sentence to instill a habit of letter writing into anyone surely.

LettersNina Sankovitch has a more romantic view of letters and letter writing and the word joy in the title is a clue. She doesn’t speak of the suffering of not receiving letters, she speaks of the joys of connection.

She gives her son a table and pen and he pens his first postcard letter at thirteen months old, fast forward to the present when he is eighteen and off to Harvard, now she is hankering for more than the brief text messages, tweets and occasional telephone calls, this more disposable form of communication that dominate life today but do not endure. She wants a letter and that desire makes her wonder what it is about a letter that means so much.

Will she convince her son to write to her, the kind of letters she has appreciated herself? Whether she does or not, that desire and the discovery of an old trunk containing letters dating back to the 1800’s that she inherits when she and her husband buy a new house, the seller wanting nothing to do with an old rotting trunk or its contents, send her on a quest of her own through the history of letters and her own personal correspondence, to discover and celebrate what is special about the handwritten letter.

“There have been times when I have needed the reassurance that I am not floating out there alone in the universe, that I am tethered to people who will keep me secure. The letters offer that reassurance. Even if those people are gone, the bond endures through the tokens of connection we passed back and forth, the written manifestation of our relationship.”

The author lost her oldest sister to a fast and brutal bile duct cancer, she has photos and memories of the times they shared, but it is the letters, postcards and birthday cards that keep her most alive within, just as the hundreds of letters written by James Bernheimer Seligman that she inherited in that trunk, a young man she never knew, but came to know through his correspondence created in her imagination, a vision of a person that almost seemed real.

From the ancient Egyptians to the medieval lovers Abelard and Heloise, from the letters received by President Lincoln after his son’s death to the correspondence of Edith Wharton and Henry James, Nina Sankovitch attempts to divine the allure of the letter. She takes us on journey through a stack of published letters that have been preserved and published, introducing those interested in letters and the epistolary form, to a long list of references that speak of great love, erotic fantasy, a mother’s love, a son’s last words from the front and much more.

I enjoyed the book and its introduction to some of the great literary correspondences, including the one found in her own backyard. I did find it overly sentimental in parts and despite the great introduction to those letter writers in history, there were too many examples of short encounters with little depth that had the effect of being easily forgotten.

It may have been better to highlight fewer, more memorable examples than some of the less engaging examples that pad out the book. On the other hand, readers have varied interests. I know I could easily have been swept away by a more in-depth discovery of fewer pairs of letter writers.

Samuel Steward 1957 Source: Wikipedia

Samuel Steward 1957
Source: Wikipedia

The relationship between Gertrude Stein, Alice B.Toklas and Samuel Steward (a poet and novelist I had never heard of) was one of the sets of correspondence that stood out for me. Steward wrote a letter to Gertrude Stein that was to become the beginning of a lifelong friendship, (interspersed with trips to Paris to see the two women), much of it conducted through letters and when Gertrude died he and Alice continued to write for another 20 years until her death.

Steward also wrote a journal, religiously writing notes every evening of all that had happened during the day, from which he penned his memoir Dear Sammy. A character in his own right, Steward left the world of academia to become a tattooist and pornographer remaining committed to the lifelong friendship he developed with Gertrude and Alice.

Ultimately, by referring to so many pairs of correspondence, we find something here for everyone, whether it hails from the present, our more recent history, or medieval characters like Heloise, the cloistered nun writing to her lover Abelard in the early 1100’s.

Madame Sévigné3I have moved Madame De Sévigné’s Selected Letters to within reach and feel inspired to become acquainted with one of the world’s greatest correspondents, a prominent figure in French society and literary circles in the 17th century, her letters continuing to enchant readers 300 years after they were written.

And do I still write letters? Absolutely, I just wrote one last week to an Irish poet!

So when did you last write a letter?

A timely and nostalgic reference to a dying form of communication and literary art form.

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Note: This book was an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.