After recently re-reading The Rope Swing by Candace Kearns Read, in my Facebook memories from 5 years ago, I noticed photos of friends around the country posing with copies of the book to celebrate its 2016 launch. Perfect timing to post
Happy 5th birthday to The Rope Swing!
Candace Kearns Read is my friend. We met in 1999 at the MFA program at Antioch Los Angeles. My focus was fiction. Back then, I was mystified by those who wrote creative nonfiction and especially memoir. How could a person handle the vulnerability of writing personal stuff without the protective veil of fiction? I was intimidated, and in awe of these humans. Although I have kept a journal most of my life, but this writing of personal stories for others to read was another continent.
As The Rope Swing evolved toward publication, I had the pleasure of reading various iterations, and was so happy to cheer this book on. It was deeply gratifying to revisit it again recently, with a fuller understanding of what memoir is and can do, and what it takes (for the writer/human) to survive the doing. Brava to Candace for making this beautiful book!
In pondering the memoir this time, a notion took root…in the form of subtitle, or how I might articulate some of the generous humanity contained in the narrative:
—How To Survive Loving Someone Who Is Broken and Complicated*—
(*Here I need to say that I consider many humans, myself included, broken and complicated. Some are more broken and complicated than others, but/and/so I am not judging anyone! May we all do our best as we navigate the messy endeavor of loving each other.)
This memoir makes me feel my own humanity, and it gives me some hope that despite how messy things can be, we humans tend toward mutual survival…and I find this a comfort.
Some thoughts on craft:
The book is skillfully woven of child and adult narration. The impact of the story accumulates via these dual voices. (That inner sense of still feeling like a kid, despite the mileage of adulthood…so rich and poignant.)
In particular, Candace has an uncanny ability to write in the voice of childhood. Experiencing that thread of the narrative—that close lens and naïve curiosity—reading the child’s experience is both grounding and unsettling. We have each been children in the past, and a reader accessing this strata of memory is reminded of what it was like…that vulnerability, the lack of full understanding of adult ways…this layer loops me back again, somehow, toward how children survive the challenge of childhood.
For instance, on p. 25 (when the narrator is age five, attending an adult party):
“I stay close to Irene all night. She sparkles, wearing her pink and orange party dress that shows off the tops of her boobs. She has freckled brown skin and thick brown hair and wears lots of Mexican jewelry. She is always so happy that it makes you happy just to be around her.
She is very friendly with all the men at the party, but doesn’t seem as friendly with their wives. When Sammy goes into a corner to tell a joke to a bunch of men, she goes with him. When I try to follow her, Sammy waves his hand for me to stop. ‘It’s not for little girls to hear,’ He says. I go a little ways away so I can’t hear a thing, but I watch them all the see what they do. After Sammy tells his story, everybody laughs real hard, especially Irene, who laughed so hard she has to wipe tears off her cheeks.”
While later, on p. 106, we see another shade of vulnerability from the adult narrator (helping her mother, whose cognition is wobbly) in this sweet/bitter moment:
“She squints down at her feet, then looks up and smiles kindly at me.
‘Where are you from?’ she asks, like she’s making polite conversation with a stranger. She is mistaking me for a nurse. I know how she loves to engage strangers in conversation, find out where they’re from, what’s their politics are, and if they don’t have any, to make suggestions. This is what is happening now— my mother thinks she is meeting someone new.
Where am I from?
‘I’m from your womb.’
She chuckles, and then I can see a wave of remembering cross her face. She knows, not exactly who I am, but that whoever I am, I might just be from her womb. In all my life, this is the first time my own mother hasn’t recognized me. It’s like the core of me has just been carved out, and I’m left hollow.”
And please revel in the emergence of a young witch in these pages! The child narrator holds powerful magic, and thusly strives to order often her chaotic corner of the world:
On p. 183:
“One morning I am in my room with the door closed and I see Tiger outside my sliding glass door, moving back and forth and meowing like she wants to get in. Before I can go over and let her in, she has somehow magically come inside. I look for a hole in the wall, a vent or something, but I can’t figure out how she got in. She looks at me with those big green eyes and I can hear her saying, ‘I have magical powers.’” (And later, the child’s friend says, “She must be your familiar….all witches have one.”)
Not only the cat has magical powers:
On p. 97 (when the narrator is six, and she and her mother are staying in a motel—having fled home to escape the mother’s abusive boyfriend):
“I dream that our house is burning down, in a bad fire. All my toys and clothes are being swallowed up in the flames. The fire gets bigger and bigger until it burns up our whole house.
I wake up to the sound of a phone ringing. It’s early in the morning, not really dark but not really light out either. I can tell it’s before the time when people are supposed to wake up. The phone is on the floor between our two beds and my mother picks it up finally. She says hello in a sleepy voice, and then she doesn’t say anything for a long time. Then she asks, in a scared voice, ‘Down to the ground?’ And that’s when I know our house burnt down, just like in my dream.”
I’m so grateful that Candace has crafted this book, used her alchemy, produced this “truth, artfully arranged” (as Dinty W. Moore has defined creative nonfiction).
Please read this book. You can learn more about her writing and coaching here: https://candacekearnsread.com/