Ordinary Losses: Naming the Graces That Shape Us
In a series of 12 short autobiographical essays, Shaw Books editor Elisa Fryling Stanford takes a reflective look at "the losses we never bury and rarely mourn --- the absences that grow so slowly we barely notice the void they leave." These are not the life-changing losses --- the death of a parent, the unraveling of a marriage, the razing of the generations-old family homestead. Instead, these are the losses we experience in the ordinary, day-to-dayness of our lives: the slow erosion of a friendship due to a change in geography or the simple passage of time; the disappearance of a comfortable routine such as the "coming-home hours and staying-home evenings of childhood"; the evaporation of "the voice I was learning in my private prayers," the voice of God that would not survive a public airing.
Stanford writes exquisitely of these and other losses from the perspective of a single and, later, newly married woman in her twenties. Appropriately, Lauren Winner, an author and essayist who writes in a similar vein, provided the foreword. Among Winner's "ordinary losses" are those that accompanied her recent marriage: "I find dying to my fantasies of being a spinster in some cold New England clime a particularly hard loss," she writes.
In truth, Stanford has gained extraordinary insight from a fairly ordinary life. The product of a loving, stable family --- parents, sibling, grandparents, assorted other extended family members --- she writes from a refreshing, angst-free perspective, thus putting to rest the notion that insight can best be obtained through tragedy and trauma. Stanford had neither, and yet her insights provide a glimpse into the deepest of human emotions.
The essays follow a thematic structure: "All I Can Remember: Home," for example, and "First Words: Voice." My personal favorite is "Between the Mysteries: Wonder," but I confess it was a tough call. Maybe it's because I had not known that someone else could, like me, so vividly recall how she thought about numbers when she was just learning them: "1, the proud, bold number in the left corner of my mind. 2, weak but gentle; 3, cocky but alone; 4, strong and kind…" And then the threat of losing that sense of wonder, as weary teachers "moved us through alphabets and recesses and told us how to write our names in the right places on our math worksheets and did not look for the mystery in-between the letters and the numbers floating towards us." But in third grade, an astonishing restoration of mystery and wonder! The snow outside the classroom seemed "white and bizarre, just because Mrs. Pearl thought it was. She had created space for the astonishing to arrive."
ORDINARY LOSSES is a book to be savored and Stanford an author to be treasured. Let's hope we hear more from her in the years to come.
Review II by Lisa Ann Cockrel
Anyone who has ever sat at a dinner table surrounded by friends and sparkling eyes and laughter --- and yet has looked up for a moment and gazed off into the horizon and felt a bit melancholy --- will understand the kinds of "ordinary losses" that Elisa Stanford talks about in her recently published memoir.
"I have always been tender toward what never was or never will be. I experience mornings, conversations, prayers in the space of what is missing, often feeling what is absent more than what is present. Yet the incompleteness offers hope, offers a longing that shapes itself into what might still be."
Absent here are the tales of dysfunctional families or abuse or physical impediment to overcome that form the substance of so many memoirs. Instead, Stanford talks about the searing experiences of the everyday --- leaving your childhood home, catching lightning bugs in a jar, losing your best friend, watching Aspens go silver in the crisp, fall Colorado air.
She organizes her memories and hopes in essays with themes including home, peace, wonder, relationship, voice, and identity. And in it all, you see loss that is both mundane and profound coupled with sincere hope for the future.
"Perhaps people are prone to diminish when we turn to remember them because they, in unnamed stretchings, are prone to expands us. How could the soul not grow in knowing that a room exists that will comfort you, hold your secrets in its corners, that one person will save a place for you at the table and look for you to arrive there?
I'll never again see my husband for the first time open the door with a mug of tea in his hand, our second date. But this loss made room for me to know more of him, allowed us to move in the space God leaves between us. For though we clamber to be closer to each other, God never lets us know what it is like to live another's life. Very nearly we get to the abyss that keeps us from another's soul, but even there God will have us reach across an absolute separation, feel our own soul grow as it moves unceasing toward another."
Rarely does a book come along that so beautifully explores the everyday heartache that shape us into people capable of joy. In our haste to pretend everything is "all right" we can be too quick to dismiss the weight of leaving friends behind, how catching a whiff of your mother's perfume in a crowded room has the power to incapacitate, the unexpected wondering about God's true intentions.
In her introduction Stanford writes that there are loses we never bury and rarely mourn. We remember them out of order, if at all, and when we piece them together, we see ourselves. I would add that in doing so, in taking the time to remember and, as the book's subtitle suggests, name the grace that shapes us, we help others to do the same.
Reviewed by Marcia Ford on November 13, 2011