APRIL 26, 2014
MY TRAVELS with Lynne Sharon Schwartz began with her 2009 memoir Not Now, Voyager. Against her backdrop of exotic destinations, I enjoyed sharing concerns about an inability to cope with mundane challenges in new surroundings, and liked that she recognizes her own inclination to harbor multiple selves. I wondered with her over the nagging question: when not at home reading and writing in a favorite chair or at a trusted desk, who will I be? Her intellectual inquiries into the condition of self, especially when the unfamiliar roils the surface of a composed identity, were serious, but her compulsive theft of hotel soaps made me laugh — and want to show her a sculpted leaf of palest green in my powder room, pinched from a Seattle Westin. I reveled in our mutual tendencies but found I wanted to know more about what Schwartz loves; I wanted her to show me her heart.
Schwartz literally and figuratively grants my wish with This Is Where We Came In: Intimate Glimpses, a collection of 19 essays that gather as a memoir. The opener, “You Gotta Have Heart,” takes me inside her coat pocket, where two cigarettes wait to be lit after Schwartz has an angiogram to examine her faulty aortic valve, and before a no-nonsense cardiothoracic surgeon (“most definitely the decider, as George Bush used to say”) opens her chest to install a replacement part from a horse donor. Days later, with the mechanics of the procedure complete, Schwartz experiences one of those “little mental orgasms,” a fleeting epiphany: “I was staring out at the Hudson River, wide, placid that day, steel gray in a wan sun, and suddenly I was seized by the glory, the miracle of being alive.” I felt glad to be winding through time with her, participating in the miracle.
But the glory doesn’t last. While recovering at home, having never smoked the cigarettes, Schwartz faces the return of “all the daily irritations,” followed by a siege of anxiety and depression, post-op “collateral damage” attributed to time spent on a heart-lung machine. She feels “less in body and spirit — meaning muscle and mind — less in will and desire and capacity.” With reason and control out of reach, she’s gripped by fear and despair. Lines from Yeats’s “Easter, 1916” loop through her mind as a taunt: “All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.” Except Schwartz finds herself bereft of beauty, and can’t face work or idleness or the company of others, so she rereads War and Peace, watches movies on TV, and waits for evening, when a wave of calm might bring relief. The dread in those uncertain days spurs her to ask, “What exactly went on in the operating room while I was unconscious?” Later, having returned to “real life,” gratitude and resentment mingle, and she has difficulty admitting “that the surgery was a good thing.” Already, her voiceprint reigns, delivered with a recurring wash of beauty, humor, and audacity.
In “Intimacy. Anger” Schwartz confesses to having been a child “famous for storming out of rooms.” She attributes this predilection to an anger-prone father who didn’t seem to suffer consequences, but whose “tantrums left [her] sick with disgust.” Still, a seven-year-old Schwartz fails to heed her peacemaker mother’s warning that playmates will desert her unless she stops the outbursts, and I found myself wanting to rescue the child she was from what’s certain to come. When her friend Brenda steals her B&O Railroad during a Monopoly game, she is overwhelmed by “a passion for justice” and goes off like a bottle rocket: “I called her a thief and grabbed the card back. […] She protested, I persisted and finally I stood up and kicked at the board until everyone’s cards, houses, hotels and tokens were jumbled in a heap. I shoved the whole mess in Brenda’s direction and stormed out.”
Six months of banishment by her friends follows, and the pain of feeling betrayed and broken and remaining silent lingers. She regrets her silence but not the emotion. She wishes she’d been taught as a child to examine and manage her anger, “quick, uncensored, uncontrolled, then gone like smoke.” And she would like to rid herself of the “marking,” the wariness learned when her mother’s prediction came true: “My mother implied, and I guess I agree, that I have something explosive inside, like a grenade, which I must keep close watch on or it will obliterate me.”
This is how Schwartz gets at truth, as if probing with a blade. She reminds us that we enter the lives of others in media res, having to puzzle over contradictions and secrets, having to figure out how, where, when — Ah! This Is Where [I] Came In — much as she and her childhood friends had to piece together the plot of a feature film when they arrived late for a Saturday matinee.
But not all the essays are strictly personal. Schwartz is known for her literary criticism as well. In “Thriving on Hardship,” for example, she explicates some of her friend Hayden Carruth’s poems. She regards Carruth as a truth-teller whose words “revel in raw misery,” and she creates a portrait of a man who loved the world in spite of its “rottenness,” and who was open to late-life romantic love. Carruth, she asserts, “is a poet of contradiction, and a contradiction entirely natural and universal: despair coupled with the will to continue, disgust at what the world offers coupled with curiosity and hope about what it will turn up next.” No wonder they got along so well. She recounts sitting with him at a conference and being approached by a young man who asks “what percentage of human experience could be expressed in language.” She makes a careless estimate of 90 percent, only for Carruth to enlighten her:
Ten percent, said Hayden, grimly. I have always remembered this. When I read his poems I think of the ninety percent submerged — all that ineffability, intractable yet somehow evoked by the fraction on the page, like a scent, a vapor or effluvia rising from a few grains of a potent spice.
Carruth’s poems, then — beauty, suffering, and meaning inseparable — are among the things Schwartz loves. But, as demonstrated, she easily balances delight with the cerebral and the aesthetic with her investigation of character and relationship — not only within essays but also from one piece to the next. In “Ultimate Peek-a-boo” she uses present tense to describe tumbling into carefree love with a new, made-of-perfection granddaughter who “stares right at us,” allowing awestruck grandparents to study her openness. They play peek-a-boo, they laugh, they talk, they sing, and eventually the baby stands and dances — at last, she explains, “we have someone to dance those silly dances with.” Having thought she knew love “inside and out,” Schwartz says she’s discovered “another thing I didn’t know”; loving her granddaughter has a way of rendering her “helpless, stupefied.” With this miracle comes the opportunity to witness “the process of becoming human, embodied in the grandchild, who metamorphoses into a person right before our eyes, a live documentary in slow motion.”
She also remembers, in flashes, her anxiety-laden priorities when her own children were young, “to feed them and clothe them and see that they didn’t choke on buttons or put forks in electrical sockets or run out in the street under the wheels of a car.” And she returns to the interminable challenges of balancing work and family: “Raising children and writing books. Those are the two endeavors we spent our life on. […] And the two strivings were always in conflict.” But parenting their children, the parents learned “what it felt like, here and now, to be the enigmatic, flawed, mortal, relentlessly self-conscious creatures we are, struggling constantly between the world within and the world without, mediating between what we are and what we yearn to become.” As if embodying this mediation, the essay is flanked by one on Carlos Saura’s film Cria! and a critical piece on Anthony Powell, the essay on loving a grandchild nestled quite nicely between ideas set loose by a film and a book.
This collection brims with “intimate glimpses.” Whether strolling the streets of New York with a hotdog in hand, slapping the skin of an African drum, or studying herself through interactions with a cat, Schwartz’s experience yields richness and meaning. In a pre-op conversation with her cardiac surgeon, she asks how he’ll get to the tiny, broken valve inside her heart. He replies, “We reach in.” With characteristic humor she makes light of their exchange: “This man would touch my heart as no man ever had before.” But she also seems to recognize his response as an all-around guide for getting at what’s buried deep, and brings it to bear from beginning to end: Lynne Sharon Schwartz reaches into her heart, examines its intricacies, tinkers with little broken bits, and shows us what she’s learned — daring us to try this risky procedure at home.