Five years ago, when I was working toward a master's degree in creative writing at Antioch University in Los Angeles, my mentor encouraged me to "get messy" on the page. She suggested I render my memories more thoroughly by focusing on objects, atmosphere, and embodied experiences. Doing this, she promised, would break open the narrative and unearth deeper meaning in my work, specifically in the form of subtext—a new concept to me in those first years of crafting literary nonfiction.
My mentor was Christine Hale and what she wanted me to do, I think, was suspend the sense of control so necessary in my personal life at the time. I was newly divorced, the single mother of a precocious preschooler. My daughter and I had just moved 3,000 miles from Maine to California for a fresh start. Our lives required discipline and orderliness just to keep things on an even track.
But in print, I could surrender all that. I could release my death-grip hold on schedules, rules, and expectations, and let the memories take control, let them spin and fold into themselves—over and over, if necessary. I could let the objects and experiences that were significant to me personally dictate the narrative structure of my stories, rather than trying to wrangle them into a certain premeditated form.
Hale's recommendations came flooding back to me as I read her new book, A Piece of Sky, A Grain of Rice: A Memoir in Four Meditations, a collage-style memoir about coming to terms with childhood trauma, natural disaster, shame and guilt, mothering and being mothered—all within the backdrop of introspective Buddhist study. She divides the work into four sections, symbolic perhaps of the Four Noble Truths—the Buddhist path to enlightenment—since the book is largely about the author's spiritual exploration.
Spanning a period of 65 years, from Appalachia to Bermuda and all the way to Tibet, the book links multiple narrative threads using the associative property of memory. It moves back and forth and side to side through time, sometimes switching from past tense to present tense and changing point of view. What Hale does so expertly is hook her memories together like a knitter. You can see her stitches individually up close, but they make a lot more sense when you stand back and look at the whole sweater. Her style is contemplative, but not in the traditional way that memoirists are contemplative. Rather than impart meaning through reflection and hindsight, she allows the reader to discover meaning by using juxtaposition and scene detail.
The piece-y structure of the prose evokes the essence of memory itself; memory is, after all, nonlinear and episodic. And Hale, a single mother herself for some years, practices samsara, a Sanskrit word meaning "wandering." She is wandering the world of her experiences, trying to make sense of her suffering, her attachments, her relationships and her perceived shortcomings.
In a section about a spiritual journey to the Catskills, she writes:
Each step, I thumb another bead, my rosewood mala a circuit of syllables imploring release from the circlings of samsara. All beings circle, trapped in cycles of existing – arising, dissolving, manifesting again in different form. Clinging to any being in any form creates suffering. I aspire, in this solitary retreat, to comprehend this truth clearly.
Hale's wanderings include a childhood with an emotionally dependent mother, a distant father and an institutionalized sister, followed by disappointing marriages, bouts of depression, and the push-pull of mothering young-adult children (whose identities are represented in narrative obscurity by singular initials—J and B). Her path to noble truth depends on whether she can transcend these inherited challenges and accept her myriad ways of parenting, both good and bad, an endless cycle of wins and losses.
Samsara and the biological nature of memory also establish this book's narrative structure. During my studies, Hale and I regularly discussed the fluidity and fragmentation of recollection. Eventually, I wrote my master's thesis on the neuroscience of memory—specifically, what is happening in the brain when we remember and misremember, and how memoirists can use science to effectively render their memories to the page.
Memory is elusive, especially over long periods of time. We forget or make mistakes in how we remember things for a number of reasons: age, illness and trauma are just three examples. But in order for an experience to become an enduring memory, we must associate it or link it with another piece of information. For example, we might remember a new friend's birthday if it is the same day as our mother's birthday. These associations are called triggers, and triggers can be sensory or symbolic. In A Piece of Sky, Hale's memory associations are linked like puzzle pieces and often triggered by everyday objects charged with physical or emotional trauma.
In "What You Do Wrong," the first of the book's four sections, she describes fancy dresses in purple gift boxes from King's Department Store, which her mother handed over as appeasements for cruel behavior. In the same section, she amplifies the emotional force of that early memory by describing the gifts given by her husband after fights to smooth things over:
In the morning, the bell rings. It’s a deliveryman. I open Pandora’s box and find tulips, lavender and out of season. Expensive. Implicit in them, the terms of our marriage. You can say what You want and do what You want, as long as afterwards You show me the money.
Hale often uses second person point of view to directly address the individual connected to her memory, whether it's her controlling mother, her difficult father, or V.T., the object of her late-in-life chance at love. The switch is fairly satisfying, as though the author is finally getting the chance to say what has too long gone unsaid.
In Buddhism, the Four Noble Truths are about suffering, the causes of suffering, the end of suffering, and the path to enduring freedom from suffering—all of which are strong themes in the four sections of Hale's memoir. After "What You Do Wrong" come three additional sections: "Sky," "Lucky," and "Walk Fast, Keep Going." In the latter, the author walks a literal path, along a mountainous trail to an ancient Tibetan burial ground, stumbling upon a funeral ritual in progress. She writes:
Our leader herded us nervously. 'Walk fast,' he said. 'Keep going.' Some mistake had occurred. He’d been told no burial would happen this day. Even with permission to be here, we should not witness this secret ritual, but we also could not turn back; circumambulating in the wrong direction would exponentially compound our offense.
While the trek is physically and mentally strenuous, it also serves an apt metaphor for the transcendence of personal and familial upheaval.
The strongest parts of the book are those written in scene, with chosen details and dialogue that contribute to the book's main questions: Was I a good mother? Was I a good daughter? Was I a good wife? She writes of her daughter and son: "J told me once, in desperation, 'Your big love, it's too much,'" and "More than once B referred to me, maybe affectionately, as his 'titanium mommy.' My children made me a better person. But I wasn't easy to live with. Nor all that easy to love, either, I suspect. Still, they succeeded; I do know that."
At times, Hale is uncomfortably hard on herself (what mother isn't?), and the nonlinear narration and shifts in point of view take some getting used to, but the variations and self-scrutiny create a layered, thorough composite of the author's experiences, from marrying at age 17 to single parenting, from falling in and out of love, to riding out Hurricane Frances, from sharing a tattoo ritual with her grown children, to progressing in the devotional practice of Tibetan Buddhism. The story line is similar to Jeannette Walls' The Glass Castle, with the nontraditional structure of Brenda Miller's Season of the Body or Abigail Thomas' Safekeeping. A Piece of Sky is Hale's second book. Her first, Basil's Dream, is a work of fiction about marital infidelity and civil unrest set in Bermuda.
Now and again, I lose sight of my mentor's early advice about getting messy on the page —particularly when I'm stymied by traditional storytelling or I'm focusing too intensely on the outcome of my own narrative wandering. But I always find my way back to her words: "get messy." When I'm struggling with an essay about not wanting my daughter to grow up or revising a scene that takes place in a pumpkin patch, I let the memories become misshapen. I let them bend and fold and collapse in time. Somehow, it's this misshaping that gives them form. For me, as well as for Hale, samsara eventually leads to the most noble and most sacred version of truth.