For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘memoir

The Stage is on Fire: A Memoir by Katie Steedly, self-published, 204 pp.

I know Katie Steedly by way of her parents, who are members of my church. I met Katie when she moved back home to work on the 2008 presidential campaign for Barack Obama. We discovered immediately that we were easy conversation partners, and never had enough time to cover all the topics we began. So reading Katie’s memoir felt like continuing the conversation, hearing her take on the world and the unfolding of her journey to become herself.

The Stage is on Fire is a series of reflections on the defining moments, decisions and awakenings that made her the person that she is. The book felt conversational, and the author’s style is frank, direct and revealing. Reading this book is like having a chat with a good girlfriend—laughing loud and long at life’s oddities, conferring over little choices, leaning in close when the sharing gets intimate. Except this girlfriend speaks (writes) in beautiful, considered prose, with a honed wit and eloquent syntax. It is one woman’s story of coming to terms with dating in her 30s, wrestling with health and body, owning her own debt, and navigating her own spirituality.

There were two particular chapters of the book that resonated deeply with me. “Cats on Ice” is the hilarious story of driving across country with two cats and no air conditioning—a journey that, like the author, I have made myself. What drew me in, however, was not my personal parallel story of panting felines, but the shared sense of wanderlust. The chapter begins:

I have always been a traveler, and moving is like traveling on steroids. It bespeaks a lack of comfort in being comfortable. It denotes a need for movement for fear of stagnation. It screams that life is about the rolling stone rather than the moss. (47)

I share this restlessness, and often refer to my “gypsy heart” that keeps me moving every few years. Steedly captures the freedom and flexibility of this lifestyle, but also the deep questions about the meaning of home. In each of her moves, she is accompanied by family members who support her. Even among strangers, she discovers her roots are strong. She concludes:

I will always be a person who moves, but will create home wherever I live. Home will be a fluid concept comprised of the family I have and the family I create. Staying will be about more than geography. It will encompass lifelong support from loved ones, regardless of my address. (59)

Each chapter follows a similar design—recalling a particular incident or triumph or tragedy and how it formed her on the journey. She covers dating, running a marathon, living with a genetic disorder, teaching high school theater, and overcoming debt. Each one comes with a sense of humor and irony, depth and introspection, and always hope.

I was also drawn (for obvious professional reasons) to the chapters about spirituality. Steedly is a child of the church, but takes a long journey to find her own path to the Spirit. She finds her way through yoga and through writing, among other things, but she always stays connected to the community of the church. She understands something I have always believed: “Miracles happen in the basement of churches.” Amen! Way to make a pastor’s heart swoon.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Stage is on Fire, and I think you will too. You can get a copy for yourself at www.katiesteedly.com.

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Naked by David Sedaris, Little Brown and Company, 1997, 291 pp.

I realize I’m way behind on the David Sedaris bandwagon. I’ve been listening to him on This American Life for years. I’ve read Holidays on Ice, but that was as far as it went. Finally I took the plunge into Naked.

To be honest, it took me awhile to sink into his style in print. Sedaris’ style is to tell a story with huge exaggeration and over-the-top imagery, yet with a dry, matter-of-factness that makes you wonder if it isn’t the truth. As a reader, I felt constantly unsettled. How much of this is accurate, and how much is he pulling my leg? Is this supposed to be funny, or just dark and pathetic? Did this really happen at all? Does it matter?

Naked is written as a series of shorter pieces, loosely connected as segments of a memoir, but not chronological or cohesive except in their exaggerated style. After I had read a few of them, I began to appreciate him more and more. There is a darkness to all his writing, in spite of its humor. His brokenness, loneliness and aimlessness are front and center in every story he recounts.

If there is a theme in the entire collection, it is the gap between his high opinion of himself and the reality of his life and accomplishments. That gap begins in the opening paragraphs of Naked, which are a fantasy of wealth and status in sharp contrast to his awkward and humble reality. All through his journeys as a migrant worker, a hitchhiker, and a drifter, the gap between his internal fantasy and brutal reality slowly begins to close. Finally, in the last section (from which the book takes its title), Sedaris recounts his trip to a nudist camp, literally and figuratively stripping down to nothing, becoming naked with himself as he truly is, and even finding a sense of acceptance with himself at last.

While Naked is humorous at times, it is never light. The themes are dark and sometimes disturbing, but there is hope and even healing at work.

The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls, Scribner, 2005, 288 pp.

This book unfolds the simultaneous story of an unraveling and a piecing together, a coming apart and a unification. Walls’ memoir tells the story of her childhood, which is the unraveling of her parents’ mental health, the piecing together of her perception of what is really going on, the coming apart of any sense of stability or care, and the coming together of Walls’ own strength and fortitude and identity to escape and make a life for herself.

The account begins on Park Avenue in New York, as Walls rides in a taxi on her way to a party. She sees her mother digging through a dumpster. The story unfolds how her parents ended up there, and she didn’t. It’s the story of how she discovered her childhood experience was not normal, and how she and her siblings survived and eventually thrived.

What’s striking about the earliest chapters of the book is the matter-of-fact tone Walls takes while recounting horrific stories of pain and neglect. She describes injuries, hunger and inattention in her own life with a sense of distance, almost like a third-person narrator. It is impossible to tell if her distance equates to a necessary emotional distance from the pain or a healing and forgiveness from the dysfunction. I found myself getting angry and outraged on Walls’ behalf, because she did not express those things herself.

Some outrage does emerge as she matures in the story. It is this anger and indignation that eventually propels Walls and her siblings to leave home. It is the development of anger and separation from her parents, especially her father, that saves her.

This separation is never easy and never complete. It feels crushing for her to leave home because it is a rejection of all her father, whom she loves in spite of it all. Walls’ writing somehow manages to shield us from the heat of her emotions while connecting us to them, so that we can empathize both with her love and her need to leave. She does not write her book to punish her parents, or to work out her issues with them, or to offer moralization, or to tell a story of heroic overcoming. She just tells the story because it is her story, and it is compelling.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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