For Keeps is not an easy book to read. It is not about pretty women with perfect bodies who find easy acceptance in a beauty-obsessed culture. No. It is an impolite, impertinent, irreverent collection of essays written by twenty-seven much-published and gifted writers who are not afraid to tell the truth about the imperfect bodies they have learned to live in—and learned to love.
These are hard truths. "My Mother's Body Image, My Self" (Sara Nelson), tells us that our obsessions about the size and shape and appearance of our bodies are often taught to us by our mothers—who may have been obsessed with their own bodies. An unhealthy preoccupation with physical image and the desire to use bodies to please men can be passed from mother to daughter.
"Dead Bone" (Aimee Liu) is the story of a young woman who became first an anorexic, then an "exercise zealot" for whom physical suffering was a path to perfection. A series of disabling injuries at least teaches her a necessary lesson. "My body finally, definitively, forced the message over my perverse will: I could no longer afford the fallacy that pain would make me better."
"What I Gave Up" (Ellen Sussman) follows the life of a woman who (pushed by her father) went from being a "killer tennis player" to being a compulsive competitive runner to the practice of yoga—each transition accompanied by the rupture of a spinal disk. Now facing her third spinal fusion, Sussman can say, "What I hope for is this: that I can live in this body without pain; that I can use it as well as I'm able to; and that my mind can accept these changes with the grace of an athlete." It's a prayer that we might all etch on our bathroom mirrors.
Victoria Zackheim, the editor of this splendid and often unsettling anthology, remarks in her introduction that most of us spend our lives "worrying more about taut stomachs than about healthy aging" and care more "about society's expectations than our own personal growth." But the women who contributed to this collection show us that it is possible to face our imperfections and confront the daunting prospect of aging in a culture that places a high premium on youth. "It's a new experience, living in a body that feels old," writes Joy Price in "Making Love and Joy in Seasoned Bodies." "My body surprises me every day: What parts will and won't work today?"
And yes, we are asked to own up to death. One of my favorites, "Death Becomes Her," begins with the Monty Python line, "Cake? or Death?" In it, Louisa Ermelino writes about the nearly simultaneous deaths of her mother and her husband. How does a daughter, a wife, live through something so impossible, so terrible? With grace, with compassion, with humor, with love. At the end, Ermelino writes:
I have a vision. My mother is at the stove; my husband is at the kitchen table. The sun is coming in the window. She is making him something to eat. Cake, please...
Several of the writers had to confront the terrifying prospect of their own deaths. "One of the hardest things about having cancer was leaving the old me at the border, the innocent, healthy me, eater of broccoli and tofu, and facing my own mortality." That's Barbara Abercrombie in "The Best Birthday of All." And then there's Margot Beth Duxler, who learns (in "Impossible Geometry") that she has a tumor on her heart. "No, actually," her doctor corrects her as she wrestles with the news, "it's in your heart."
I wish that every woman could read and take to heart each of the stories in this anthology. It is a rare collection, uncompromisingly honest, ruthlessly real, uncomfortably raw, yet warmed with a very human compassion and brightened by the triumphs, small and large, that make each of these writers a heroine in her own right.
Victoria Zackheim is the author of The Bone Weaver, a novel and editor of The Other Woman (Warner 2007). She teaches creative writing in the UCLA Writers' Program. Visit her website.
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