Friday, November 7, 2014

New Life, No Instructions by Gail Caldwell

 (But) it's no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.
-Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
( epigraph of New Life, No Instructions)

Gail Caldwell is the former chief book critic of The Boston Globe as well as winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism. New Life, No Instructions is her third memoir and it continues where Let's Take the Long Way Home left off.

It is now 2011, and the author is reflecting on events leading up to the summer of 2008 - the deaths of her adored father, her beloved mother, her best friend, Carolyn Knapp (Drinking, a Love Story, B KNAPP), and finally, her thirteen-year old Samoyed, Clementine. The loss of her faithful companion, Clementine, who had helped her with the other losses, was the blow that seemed to fell her.

After she was gone, Caldwell reflects, I wanted to lie down amid  the rubble and stay thereAnd yet, she continues, I sensed that I had not just been pummeled by death but reshaped by it, poised now at some crucial junction between darkness and endurance, which is the realist's version of hope. It seemed obvious that every gesture we make to way-lay loss - a walk taken, a symphony heard or composed, was either a trick on death or a transient reprieve, and I felt so saddened from this insight that I didn't think I had much fight left in me...I needed the rambunctious miracle that would prove the lie." (pp. 25-26)

This miracle comes in the form of a Samoyed puppy - a mixed blessing indeed. Tula, a dog bred to pull a thousand pounds - a sled dog--was quite a challenge for a woman in her late fifties. But the author welcomed challenges. Having had polio at the age of six months, she never let a limp slow her down. She hiked tough trails and was a strong swimmer and recreational rower. As with everything, Caldwell believed she was up for the task of raising this puppy.

New Life, No Instructions is much more than the story of this human-animal bond. The vigor of the puppy is contrasted with Caldwell's increasing frailty. During Tula's first year, the author's limp becomes more apparent, she is in increasing pain, and she falls repeatedly. After months of misdiagnoses, she finally sees a surgeon who orders an MRI. All the others attributed her decline to post-polio syndrome. Instead, the cause is revealed to be a disintegration in the scaffolding of her hip. She needs a full hip replacement. The surgeon also suggests lengthening the leg that was affected by polio and effectively erasing her limp.

The six months of healing - enduring the physical pain and weakness, re-learning to walk, using muscles in her lengthened leg that had never been used - is a testament to the determination and  strength of the author. It is also exploration of the single life and a testament to deep friendships  - without which Caldwell could not have managed her long recovery. And although Caldwell's recovery is a focal point in the book, it serves as a metaphor for the many hurdles we all face in life. As she observes:

One of the quiet profundities of aging is when you realize this is an ordinary and very un-profound moment. Inside every aging person is the ageless, blinking mind, asking, "How did I get here?" There may be a former linebacker inside the elderly man being helped across the street; the eighty-five-year-old woman selecting two oranges at the grocery store used to be a dancer, or a lawyer, or hoisted her children up over her head when they were small. It helps to know this, I think, because it widens the future, humbles you before the sovereignty of time...You can see all the corners of the map in your fifties, probably for the first time in life. You still get to shape some of it, and finally have the sense to know how. (p. 30)

New Life, No Instructions is a lyrical self-examination that brims with humanity and salutes all who have the courage to live with vigor and optimism.

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