by Renee Asher Pickup
“If you have ever fucked up in your life, or if the great river of sadness that runs through us all has touched you, this book is for you.” These are the first words you’ll read by Lidia Yuknavitch in her memoir, The Chronology of Water. The acknowledgements come first, quick to tell you who this book is for, and thank you for being that person. It’s the first way this memoir screws with the order of things but it’s far from the last.
Lidia is a powerful writer who knows exactly how to grab you by the guts and hold onto you through an entire book. I’m not a book-cry person. In fact, I hate most books that seem eager to make you cry. I was a teenager with a voracious reading habit when Nicholas Sparks was the biggest guy in Barnes and Noble and I shared books with my mom. I cried over enough books, thanks to all his widows, widowers and terrible tragedies, to last a lifetime. I am not a book-cry person. I don’t mind a lump in the throat or a stinging of tears, and there’s no getting through a book this emotionally raw without those things. But imagine my surprise, when sitting in the middle of my bed with my family in the other room, I finished this book and burst into a full-blown crying jag with zero warning. The book ebbs and flows as the title promises it will, but reading it in two days is like being grabbed by the guts and dragged through an intense and magical experience. The end came like bricks. Only one other book has ever pulled that reaction out of me.
After Lidia’s acknowledgements, the first chapter brings you into the moment that the author’s first child was stillborn. There’s some weight to that sentence, perhaps a load of assumptions carried along with it, but it’s not one of those memoirs. It’s about motherhood and womanhood, sure. It’s also about family, fucking up, swimming, smoking cigarettes, and finding a happiness, even though the Ken Kesey quote Lidia provides at the start reminds us that “Happiness makes crappy stories.”
The book jumps from the tragedy of the first chapter to unconventional advice on grieving: collect rocks. It jumps back to childhood and forward again. Sometimes the book exists in two times and places at once. Like a river, like a shower, like an ocean. It never lies about what it is.
Knowing from the start that this is a book for fuck-ups helps. It unburdens the reader. You’re not here to feel bad about your choices or judge the author for hers. Look, we’re all fuck-ups here. We’re trying to get by and learn some stuff, and if we’re lucky create something meaningful along the way. Opening a book like that feels bold and exciting, but it doesn’t take long to figure it out. An unapologetic look at fucking up and the factors in fucking up and the consequences or lack of consequence is a rare thing. Lidia isn’t asking for pity or even understanding, she’s laying it bare as if to dare the reader to do the same.
I read this book as a new mother, trying to get my creative goals back on track, recovering from trauma it would take years for me to acknowledge, let alone begin healing from. I was confused and new to everything and more than a little lost. I was fucked up. I’m not going to tell you that the book changed my life. No one believes it when someone says that. I will say that it lifted something from me. I was also taking a course with Lidia at the time, and the book combined with her amazing attitude about creativity and approach to teaching; it changed how I write. I went about recommending it to everyone – to mixed results. I laughed at the idea book stores required a half slip cover to obscure the blurry nipple on the cover. Fair warning, if you’re offended by book cover nipples, you’re probably someone who would have taken this recommendation from me and then prayed I didn’t ask what you thought. It happened. The opposite happened, too.
This book didn’t tell me what it means to be a woman. Or what it means to survive trauma. Or what it’s like to be a mother and a wife. Or even what it means to be a writer. It didn’t attempt to deliver on any of the big themes one from a memoir that’s about all of those things. This book exists, like it’s author, in an unapologetic place, firm in what it is, daring you to define it or challenge it outside of what it presents. More than the events laid out in the book, I remember the feeling of the book. The lifting, the dragging, the crying in the middle of my bed in the afternoon. It’s one of a handful of memoirs I keep on the shelf above my desk, at eye-level, where I look up whenever I’m thinking or procrastinating or too tired to do either effectively. I promised I wouldn’t tell you it changed my life, but know that it inserted itself in my life, and lives there comfortably.