Sunday, September 19, 2010

I Just Lately Started Buying Wings, Kim Dana Kupperman, memoir

Disaster and loss happens to everyone at some point in their life.  But in the case of Kim Dana Kupperman, it seems like she's had several lifetimes worth of grief in just a few years.  This is a collection of essays she's written in response to the various sorrows she's endured-the loss of a brother to AIDS, a mother to suicide, and a father to old age.  Mix in a vicious custody battle and a drug-addicted half-brother who complicates everything, and you get just a snapshot of her life.  She's had it rough, but none of the essays solicit pity.  Instead, she speaks in a no-nonsense voice with no embellishment, just her take on 'who' and 'what' happened to her.  She leaves the 'why' up to the reader.

In one essay, she talks about the 'arrangements' that must be made after a death-the practical aspects that are attended to in a haze of grief.  Specifically, what do you do with all that stuff?  Do you keep it?  What makes something an heirloom?  What defines a memory?  In all the loss she endured, she realizes:

"Later you touch and sort, discard or keep for another time all the artifacts that testify to a life that has passed...Eventually all these objects are not only handled more than once, they are packed into containers, some resurfacing on shelves or in drawers years later, others given to friends...So many things we once thought were useful and beautiful dissipate or are buried, as if there was no point in having them in the first place.  But in the act of letting go of them, there is a relief that they no longer have to be carried, cared for, or worried about."

How many people are willing to admit that carrying the momentos of life can be a burden?  It's this unflinching honesty that draws you in, and makes her writing more touching than if she simply summarized her losses.  Her unique voice is apparent early on, as she describes being the trophy in a bitter custody battle between her controlling but hypocritical father and her drug-addicted mother.  She tried to please both sides, eventually creating a sense of isolation in herself.  Regarding childhood, she states, "The miniature versions of who we become as adults are always available, if we pay attention.  As soon as I could write, I made lists and stories. And before understanding the power of words, I drew messages."  What she drew were subtle indications of her frightened isolation, and yet only one person realized her plight.

One of the most moving essays was of her life in France when the Chernobyl disaster occurred.  Her first reaction was to notice the wind blowing outside the window, and the implications of the poison heading her way was horrifying.  The thought of it consumes much of her concentration, yet five years later she travelled to Kiev, in search of the history of her grandmother.  There, she gathered stories of people who were there when the implications of the catastrophe were realized:

"I visited with a journalist who told me that in May of 1986, Ukrainian radio broadcasts recommended taking showers after outdoor excursions.  He walked his Afghan hound in the park, wiped off his shoes with a wet rag by the door when he came home, and showered in his clothes with the dog.  He never let on if he cried through any of this.  Or what he did with the towels after those showers.  Or if the dog lived."

It's in the course of her interviews that she realizes that while much is said, something is missing from their narratives:  "Perhaps we participate in acts of omission to shape memory into something manageable and safe.  Who has the room inside their psyche to remember everything, carry the weight of how things felt, and still get out of bed each morning?"

In all, this is a collection that begs for discussion.  Her matter-of-fact tone in dealing with dividing the ashes of a loved one, identifying a body, or reading old letters from her parents, is one that makes it easier to grasp just what sadness is faces all of us.  It'd be an ideal and unusual selection for a book group because the difficulties are universal.  Most meaningful, she ends this on a reflective note, a word of advice for others:  "My mother reminded me to care for memory as if it were my child."

Special thanks to Graywolf Press for the Advanced Review Copy.

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