I love when you pick up a book, not knowing what is going to happen, not knowing who you are going to meet, not knowing what kinds of issues will be explored and the next thing you know you're a brand new person, wondering how you got to where you are.
It's a hundred small moments.
That's the answer to how we got here.
Laura McBride begins her book with this quote from Emily Dickinson, jump starting the book with optimism. Optimism tinged with the wonder of the unknown, tinged with our knowledge of the pain of life, tinged with the fear that the rising may be beyond us:
We never know how high we areTill we are called to rise;And then, if we are true to plan,Our statures touch the skies--~Emily Dickinson
It all starts with Avis, a woman wondering how she has gotten to this place. I was immediately there with her. How had the small things, decisions not made, answers not given, choices not taken, moments allowed to melt into nothing, brought Avis, or any of us, to this exact moment in our lives, a life that suddenly feels like we are looking through a glass of water, into a skewed mirror, or through the eyes of another. Laura McBride takes us there in simplified, yet poetic prose, leading us through a series of Avis's life moments, moments that would explain nearly any unexpected turn of events. For we now know that Avis is going to be a lynch pin for events, a lynch pin that is incapable of spinning true, a center of shapes that have no center.
She is a hero.
Then we meet Bashkim, an unlikely protagonist, a shape with no center, for he is likely walking along the street with his head in a book, unawares of the movement, the sound, the tripping curb, the nearby rushing traffic. Bashkim, the 8-year old son of Albanian immigrants, is acting American through and through. He is part of the city. He cannot escape the knowledge that, in his family, he is the only one of them who is not a square peg in the round hole of American culture and living. Bashkim understands that he is ill-equipped when moving his fractured and PPSD family through the city streets of their days, unable to leave Albania behind, unable to embrace the streets of Las Vegas.
He has some inchoate support, building and building, as school and community begin to see what he is carrying through his days, through the days of being American, of being Normal, of being Here, of Fitting In. Bashkim is living from one heartbreaking moment to the next. We must make this work for Bashkim for he, too, is a hero.
Luis. Luis is another shape with no center. In fact, he is struggling to accept the fact that, somehow, he Is. As a young military man seeing action in the Middle East, he is aware that life and chances and odds are all wrapped up in the here and now. He knows that each moment has the same odds of survival as every other moment. He has learned that life is tragic and we cannot escape that. Life is a place where a small boy with a grey bag might be the bringer of death.
When we meet Luis he is in a tragic, dark place thinking Someone is near me. There is pressure on me, somewhere. I think, what is a hand? What is someone? And I slip backward again. Luis has decided to take those odds of surviving life into his own hands. But not before sending a red hot bullet across the sea and into Young Bashkim's hands, destroying Bashkim's heart just a bit more.
Luis is one of our heroes.
And finally Roberta shows us the underbelly of Las Vegas, Las Vegas being the fifth living character in this book, the metaphor for who she will never be. Roberta has been existing in her life like a ghost seeking meaning. After her heart-rendering losses, she wishes to make meaning where ever she can. In spite of the fact that meaning is non-existent and has no center.
Roberta, too, is a hero.
Roberta brings her philosophical choices into the scenarios when she muses The way I see it, nothing in life is a rehearsal. It's not preparation for anything else. There's no getting ready for it. There's no waiting for the real part to begin. Not ever. Not even for the smallest child. This is it. And if you wait too long to figure that out, to figure out that we are the ones making the world, we are the ones to whom all problems -- and all possibilities for grace -- now fall, then you lose everything. Your one shot at this world.
I get that this one small life is all we have for whatever it is that we are going to do. And I want in.
I can relate to Roberta. I want to be like her, somehow knowing that you can just choose to be a hero and then be one. Instead, I often find myself believing one of the other, best quotes from this book, a moment when Luis thinks Sometime it's not that you don't want to help. It's that you can't bear to be offered help that just keeps turning out not to be enough after all.
That's what life seems like to us, yes?
Forgive my airy sound.
I'm still living in this story a bit.
It may have ended too optimistically. Yes. But, perhaps it is simply showing the fact that life goes on. And I'm grateful for that because otherwise, I could not have born it, for Bashkim is still with me. We all need to be there for him.
I love it that the very things that we think of as the weaknesses of each character somehow morph into strength. Perhaps life is really like this too. Furthermore, I love it that my heart recognizes those small choices that brought us here, those silences and questions that brought us to this place, under one roof.
One of my favorite quotations from this book is quite long, quite optimistically pessimistic. I will share it here:
It all matters. That someone turns out the lamp, picks up the windblown wrapper, says hello to the invalid, pays at the unattended lot, listens to the repeated tale, folds the abandoned laundry, plays the game fairly, tells the story honestly, acknowledges help, gives credit, says good night, resists temptation, wipes the counter, waits at the yellow, makes the bed, tips the maid, remembers the illness, congratulates the victor, accepts the consequences, takes a stand, steps up, offers a hand, goes first, goes last, chooses the small portion, teaches the child, tends to the dying, comforts the grieving, removes the splinter, wipes the tear, directs the lost, touches the lonely, is the whole thing.
What is beautiful is the least acknowledged.
What is worth dying for is barely noticed.
Laura McBride is a poet and I hope she writes more!
For moving me in a hundred different ways when I did not think I could be moved and for being a book that I simply picked up at random off of the library shelf, I give this book a solid seven stars.
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