New Life, No Instructions: A Memoir
“Most of all I told this story because I wanted to say something about hope and the absence of it, and how we keep going anyway.”
We usually think about “coming of age” stories as those written by adolescents or young adults who are moving into a new and unfamiliar stage of life. However, in her latest book, NEW LIFE, NO INSTRUCTIONS, Gail Caldwell deftly demonstrates that, not only can a new season of life begin at any age, it can happen again and again.
While many of us may have a potentially powerful memoir deep within the recesses of our hearts and minds, only a few will take the time to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) in order to share it with others. For some, it may be too painful to revisit the past that led to the present, even though the journey might be well worth it. For others, it may be more work than they are willing to put in. Therefore, we are grateful for those who, like Gail, overcome whatever obstacles stand in the way and create a book that exudes pain, joy, sorrow and relief --- in other words, that inspires and encourages everyone who reads it.
"Gail Caldwell tells her story in a paradoxically light-hearted way, with both humor and pathos, that is sure to touch the innermost parts of each soul that shares in any part of her experience."
Having grown up with the effects of childhood polio, Gail was a girl who was shaped by her limitations. However, while there were many things that she could not do, such as ride a bike, jump rope or run, she learned to compensate in ways that only those with limitations can. She became strong in other areas of her life, and, eventually, that strength enabled her to start a “new life without instructions.”
Imagine what it would be like, in mid-life, to fulfill a childhood fantasy. Would I be a famous crime-fighter or an award-winning journalist? Would I still be the same person, or would I be changed through and through? Surprisingly, the fantasy that Gail harbored was to have a white dog, who grew larger as she got older. Her fantasy became reality through her Samoyed, Clementine. Unfortunately, the eventual loss of Clementine actually added to the distress in her life, and “for the next two years my heart felt like a bombed-out village.”
NEW LIFE, NO INSTRUCTIONS goes way beyond a simple tale of a weak-legged girl and her faithful dog. The struggles that Gail overcame are the same ones that many deal with --- struggles that may or may not end in victory. Through the years of chaos and upheavals that included wild living, found and lost loves, career shifts and bouts with addiction, she did not realize that she was heading toward a life-changing event. It came amazingly and unexpectedly at a time when the physical pain caused by her life-long condition promised to hold nothing but more of the same.
Gail Caldwell tells her story in a paradoxically light-hearted way, with both humor and pathos, that is sure to touch the innermost parts of each soul that shares in any part of her experience.
Reviewed by Maggie Harding on April 10, 2014