Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Read to Me with Guest Blogger: Ann Putnam

The Book Boost Welcomes guest author Ann Putnam who is here to discuss her first live reading!

Here's what she had to say...

I’m sitting in Canyons Restaurant trying to eat a salad and wondering why in the world I’d ordered a meal that required so much chewing. My reading’s in an hour downtown, at Elliott Bay Books, the best bookstore in Seattle. This morning a half-page review of my book appeared in the Seattle Times. I cried when I opened the paper. So it’s for real, then, I thought. I’ve already sent out book cards to everybody I can think of and am hoping I’ll be reading to more than a handful of family and friends. But I’m not really worried about that. It’s an honor just to be reading in that storied, venerated space. I’m a college professor and used to standing in front of a classroom of students. I’m used to giving papers at conferences. But this will be much harder and I’m not sure why.

When I get there I see about thirty chairs set up and my heart catches. How will thirty people ever find their way on a Friday night to this place? I imagine all the empty seats. The bookstore manager takes me aside and buys me a latte. She sits with me to calm me down. When I go back to the room, there are over seventy chairs set up and every one of them is filled. There are a few people standing in the back. I go up to the little stage and adjust the microphone so it’s not right in my face. I check to see that I can read the pages, and I can’t quite find the sweet spot in the reading glasses. I tilt the book up and down. It will be quite a trick juggling the book, turning the pages, dodging the microphone which I seem to want to swallow, and making occasional eye contact with the audience.

But this isn’t hard.

I’ve marked up my book with paper clips, arrows and cross-outs to take the reader chronologically from the beginning to the end. I hope I can follow my penciled-in directions and not get lost along the way.

But nothing is hard.

I tell the audience about the cover, how it’s my father’s photograph of the sun {or moon} coming from behind a cloud and laying itself across the ocean. A piece of driftwood in the foreground is captured in light and shadow. And here it is: my title, Full Moon at Noontide, materialized before my very eyes and come to me across the years. My knees are trembling but cannot be seen from behind the podium.

I begin:

“This is the story of my mother and father and my dashing, bachelor uncle, my father’s identical twin, and how they lived together with their courage and their stumblings, as they made their way into old age and then into death. And it’s the story of the journey from one twin’s death to the other, of what happened along the way, of what it means to lose the other who is also oneself. Finally it asks: what consolation is there in growing old, in such loss? What abides beyond the telling of my own tale? Wisdom carried from the end of the journey to readers who are perhaps only beginning theirs. Still, what interest can there be in reading of this inevitable journey taken by such ordinary people? Turned to the light just so, the beauty and laughter of the telling transcend the darkness of the tale.”

My stomach turns over. I feel a rush of warmth up my neck, across my face. My heart catches. I cannot do this after all. I take a drink of water. I go on. Thirty five minutes later by my watch, I come to the last page. I know I will make it now.

“Writing this now in a rainy light after loss upon loss, a memory comes to me. When I was a teenager, I took voice lessons from Ruth Havstad Almandinger, who gave me exercises and songs I hardly ever practiced. I have wondered why this memory has so suddenly come to me now, and why this, the only song I remember, comes back to me whole and complete:

Oh! my lover is a fisherman/ and sails on the bright blue river
In his little boat with the crimson sail/ sets he out on the dawn each morning
With his net so strong/ he fishes all the day long
And many are the fish he gathers
Oh! My lover is a fisherman
And he’ll come for me very soon!

If only I’d known then that my true love would be a fisherman, I might have practiced that song harder and sung it with more feeling, which was what Ruth Havstad Almandinger was always trying to get me to do. If only I’d had a grown up glimpse of my true love when I was sixteen, I would have sung that song so well.

If only I’d known he would have cancer and go to the lake for healing the summer after the radiation treatments were done. If only I’d known that I would be his fishing partner that miracle summer of the sockeye come into the lake from the sea. If only I’d known that the cancer would return and that I would do everything I could to save him, knowing all along that he could not be saved, and that my heart would break beyond breaking, then break again. If only

I’d seen the sun coming up over the mountains and the sky shift from gray to purple and the pale smudge of light against the mountains turn gold just above the crest. If only I’d seen the sun glinting off those sunslept waters as my love lets down the fishing lines, and off in the distance a salmon leaps—a silver flashing in the sky as if to split the heart of the sun—before it disappears into a soundless splash, in this all too brief and luminous season, to spawn and to die—oh, how I would have sung that song.”

The audience applauds and applauds. They ask intelligent, wrenching questions. “Did writing this book help to heal you?” several want to know. I say that I don’t really know. People want this to be true. But the book recounts so many losses, I’m not sure yet. The writing of it came at such great cost. People queue up to buy the book and have it signed. After the last person has gone, I sit for a minute and look over at the podium and see myself standing there truly inside the words I’m reading, no longer giving a performance, but living it. And it’s then and only then that I realize I can answer that question:

Has writing this book helped to heal you? Yes. The answer is yes.

A Note from the Book Boost: Thanks Ann for the emotional, heart wrenching recounting of your first reading. It sounds like an incredible experience and I know it must hold a special place in your heart. Please share with us a little more about your book.

Review and Author Bio:

“Old age, death, and impermanence—it seems at first glance impossible to make a reader see these timeless and universal experiences with fresh eyes, but Ann Putnam’s luminous prose achieves that miracle and more, transforming pain, suffering, and loss into a literary gift of beauty and redemption.”

Charles Johnson, author of Middle Passage, winner of the National Book Award

Ann Putnam holds a PhD in literature from the University of Washington. She teaches creative writing and gender studies at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington. She has published short fiction, personal essays, literary criticism and book reviews in various anthologies including Hemingway and Women: Female Critics and the Female Voice, and in journals, including the Hemingway Review, Western American Literature, and the South Dakota Review. Her latest work is a memoir, Full Moon at Noontide: A Daughter’s Last Goodbye.


“Where do you hurt, Henry?” Susan croons to him like a love song. She’s the night ICU nurse who is an angel on this earth.

“Everywhere,” he says. “I hurt everywhere.” And in a choreography of such lightness and air, she shifts his pillow, smoothes out the blankets, adjust his meds, and he can breathe again.

Then she tucks him in for the long night, and he find his way back to the comfort of sleep.
But his feet don’t hurt. They don’t feel a thing.

“They treat animals better than this,” my mother says. She can’t stand to visit him, see my uncle like this. She spends all her time sitting by my father, who’s on the16th floor, having collapsed when his brother, his identical twin brother was moved into ICU.

“This can’t go on,” she says.

“I know. I’ll make it stop. I’ll make this come to an end. The nurse already talked to me about it.”

“Your father needs to say goodbye.”

“Are you sure he’d want me to do this?”

“Oh, yes. He couldn’t say it, though.”

It’s the next night and we’re all assembled around my uncle’s bed like a family portrait. We could be any family at the end of things, except for this strange, fierce current running between the man in the bed and the man in the wheelchair who looks exactly like him. It’s our visit to say goodbye and we all know it. My father knows it and I believe my uncle does too.

My father’s as close to the bed as his wheelchair will allow. He’s sitting there with a white blanket over his thin white legs, another blanket over his shoulders. “I love you, Henry,” my father says, taking his hand. Henry shakes his head, pulls at his oxygen mask. My husband lifts it carefully off Henry’s face. My uncle tries to speak but cannot. He twists his head from side to side. Then he wails, for all that was, all that cannot be, for the end of things, the very end. But the cry makes no sound. Tears stream down his face. The pulse on the monitor jumps. My husband puts the mask back on Henry’s face. We pat his arm, touch his forehead, his hands, touch his leg through the sheet. We do not go near the end of the bed. My father is crying. His shoulders slump. He can’t take anymore. He needs to go back to his room, lie down, shut his eyes. We leave the room with tears running unabashedly down our faces.

Nobody says goodbye, but that’s what it is.

Then my daughter and I slip back into the room and put three rose quartz crystals on my uncle’s chest for the long night ahead. I knew then that I would lose them both. That my father would not survive my uncle’s death, and I would enter that dark river of grief whose name I did not know.

As we leave I ask her. “Tell me again about rose quartz.”

“It’s for healing the heart chakra.”

Ah, for his syncopating, rushing heart. “Oh, good,” I say. “His heart needs to stop racing.”

“It’s also for self love.”

“I hope so,” I say. “He never had that.” Maybe now he will. Maybe he’d have looked around the room last night and seen us gathered around his bed and known for sure how much he was loved, and finally love himself back.

The next morning when I come into my uncle’s room he knows exactly who I am, though he has to come back from a far, far place to meet me. I kiss him and tell him I love him, and he falls back into sleep or wherever it is he is going. I sit for a little while, watching his chest rise and fall as he pulls oxygen into his lungs with the help of everything they can give him short of intubation. I walk to the end of the bed and lift the sheet an inch or two and for the first time take a good hard look. For what’s coming next I have to see for myself. His feet are charred.

They have walked through the fire. Every impurity, every affront, insult, bitterness, regret, purified by this fire spreading even now up his legs. But no pain. No pain at all. That’s why I know this is the necessary fire.

Then I leave him without looking back and go down the hall into the family conference room to meet with his doctors and nurses and the social worker, to decide what should be done, but there is only one thing to be done, and right now I’m the only one who can do it, for I am the only family member here.

They call him a “sundowner” now, a word that distances him already, and tells exactly where he’s going. The doctor counts the ways Uncle Henry’s life is, for all practical purposes, over. Back broken in two places. Months of rehab ahead. Aspiration pneumonia. Blood clots. Gangrene. The doctor goes on, but I can only think of his blackened, charred feet, and that the only thing that will save him now, though he can’t be saved, is the double amputation they’re recommending, which is too obscene to even think about.

Sitting around this conference table I think of him right there with us, and wonder what his vote would be, but he can’t tell us now, so the four of us vote to remove the oxygen mask, stop pushing the blood pressure meds, and see what happens, though I’m the only one with the real vote. It may not even happen right away. It could take hours or even days, though I can’t imagine it.

But it takes only minutes before he starts to go. All they have done is remove his oxygen mask. I’m in the hall talking to Father Bill, the ICU priest who had come by yesterday. “Why do you work here? How can you stand it?”

And he says, “Oh, but this is a luminous place. It shimmers, if only you can see it. There’s a thin membrane separating the physical and the spiritual. We should walk with one foot in each place always. This place reminds me to do that. It’s a thin place.”
I look up and there is Susan rushing down the hall to me. “He’s going.”

Now that the oxygen mask is gone, I can see my uncle’s face. His eyes are open. I tell him how much I love him, kiss his forehead, stroke his arm. He doesn’t mind it now. Yesterday, he had edged his arm away from me. I did not understand this avoidance of touch. He’s going to another place now and doesn’t want to be called back. But I didn’t know it then and so I kept touching him anyway. Finally I said, “Do want me to touch you?” No, my uncle had told me.


Now his breathing changes. Two little puffs of breath, then a long, breathless silence that stretches out between one world and another until he catches it up again and pulls himself back into this life. He’s emptying the body of air. But there is no gasping, no death agony, as I’d been warned, just little puffs of air, little commas of breath, the sweet, soft sound of the spirit going someplace else. His eyes are open. The light has not gone out. All the times I had left him, and gone home to eat or sleep, to take up the threads of my life as best I could, and I thought please let go, please let this all be over, please just slip away softly into the night. Now I am grateful to be here and think how easily I might not have been.

“What’s happening to him?” I ask Susan. She explains how systems are shutting down, one after the other.

“What is happening to his spirit?” I ask Father Bill.

“He’s becoming pure spirit now, what he was and always will be. He’s going to it now. Everything else is falling away.”

His chest is quiet now, and the light has gone from his eyes though they are still open. “We can give him something to close them,” Susan says. Tears run down her face. I am grateful for her tears because right then she is everybody who loves him who is not here. And then as if on cue, his eyes close slowly, sweetly as in a dream, because that’s exactly where he is now.

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1 comment:

thewriterslife said...

I again got goosebumps reading that guest post. I don't know how she does it. Thanks Kerri for hosting her today!