having begun…

Today I want to finish my thoughts on Patricia O’Donnell’s Waiting to Begin: A Memoir. She is director of creative writing at UMF.

Next week I hope to blog about a book on the Maine hermit. And I’ve blogged about Patricia’s novel, Necessary Places, elsewhere:

another of Patricia’s books

Anna will meet the necessary place in all its refreshed physicality, its familiar and friendly relations. But she is caring for her father—seven years stricken with Parkinson’s disease—as they travel. Yet there’s much more than a caregiving journey in this book. Here are relations with disconcerting surprises, and surprising resolutions to apparent betrayals. I find in this novel the ways we are all taken off guard, amazed, and caught red-handed—the clichés coming alive as we live them. . .   and vicariously experience them here anew as our own. Necessary Places is the book for it. And it is an extended often funny showing of what suffering, pain, and other unpleasant trials are for.


O’Donnell’s Waiting to Begin moves me, not because I have known the author briefly, but for its evocative writing. Its images dip in and out of metaphor and deep feeling; it relies on traditions that are ever fresh in her pen. It’s deep, yet light. We feel and think because the language is full, brim-full of what language is meant to hold. She describes a shared memory for us: of boys being boys, of drag-racing on “the razor-straight roads” in Iowa. “I didn’t know how dangerous it was. ‘Your mother,’ he said, ‘waved her arms to start the race.’ Now I saw the road, the night sky above us, the sense of limitless space, of endless time, of eternal, effortless life, and something hurtling through it.” (138)

One can only write so in the aftermath of violence. Patricia called herself a gawker of such aftermath—when the community she grew up in suffered deep violence of tornado and flood decades later. But in truth—and she knew also—she was where she belonged. She was a witness of both its aftermath and the life of the community she had known and loved as a child. Known and left when its love no longer held life waiting to begin. That life had to be elsewhere.

I felt it when we came at last to this Maine community, after brief homelessness, when we could begin to work, begin to study, begin our own familial creativity. Here we learned to know life better.

Her daughter’s father turned out to be something of a neurotic narcissist who did not want to know her. He had counseled Patricia to have an abortion. But this did not dissuade Emma: She wanted to know him and also about their antecedents. She wanted to know of the humanity through which she came to life. Oh, these generations born of émigrés! There were reasons for her father’s neurotic disposition, familial, historic. Along with shallow reasons why he did not want to remember the future, there were deep reasons for his wanting to forget the past. O’Donnell writes of these things with her daughter’s permission, disguising her father’s name.

Having drawn personal  parallels in previous entries on this book, one thing I learned is something that O’Donnell also learned. The beloved is to be relied upon—but more—the beloved is to rely upon me. It was not always easy. Either for her or for me.

Pat’s spouse, Michael, became father to her children despite the spoken assumption of Emma’s genetic father to convince Patricia to abort—that stepfathers cannot love children not their own. Michael loved. Then, together, Michael and Patricia became parents of another, Harper. Such mutual reliance is something. Something. In another context she wrote of feeling a “sense of openness, of possibility, where to fly seemed as possible as to walk, but to live an ordered and normal life on the earth was the one thing that was out of the realm of possibility.” (Page 29)

Something, yes—for Who is like God? I think it best put, as she put it: “Happiness, like art, seems always elsewhere, just beyond; it’s what we are reaching for, always dreaming of. But it touches down sometimes, like a butterfly upon a tongue.” (162)

I quote Patricia O’Donnell here because she is far better at invoking the personal then I will ever be.

4 responses

  1. Lovely. Sounds like a good one! Lots of rich themes to explore. I like these kinds of books, that draw us into another’s world, and which, in the end, gives us new eyes to see our own.

    Liked by 1 person

    • thanks, friend. Yes! I like this!

      Sometimes looking at images can give us some of this. My favorite scripture passage is the opening of the Gospel of John. Today I saw an image on wiki’s front page of St. Cuthbert’s “undecorated” text in Latin–opening text? Anyway, something so wonderfully touching in seeing this, though i know no Latin. You may have seen this text in person?


  2. Pingback: Waiting to Begin: A Memoir « The Green and Blue House

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