Okay, Susan Wittig Albert has done it to me. I live in a rented house with no yard on a busy street in the fourth largest city in the United States; and I just bought a fall tomato plant. I've learned that I need to move toward making this place—my place—my home. It's back to the land for me, even if it is only of few square feet of soil I don't own. That's merely part of what this memoir and meditation has done to me and for me. Albert's careful consideration of her marriage, her places, and herself, not using merely memory ("that notoriously unreliable beast") but a judicious culling from years of daily journals, is insightful and enjoyable. As a longtime reader of both Albert's fiction and nonfiction, I expected a lot; I was not disappointed.
More than twenty years ago, a somewhat battered RV rolled to a stop atop a hill just where the dry and arid land of west Texas stretches out leaving the more verdant landscapes to the east. This was a divide in the lives of the two passengers. In their midlives, Susan Wittig and Bill Albert were beginning a huge adventure launching a marriage and a joint writing career, while finding the place to create their new and shared home.
In the pages of Together, Alone: A Memoir of Marriage and Place, Albert offers her reader views and glimpses not only of the marriage, but of the places that became a part of the relationship and a part of her as an individual. She states clearly this is her "public self, the self I like to present to the world." While presenting this public self, she also skillfully recounts the unfolding of her life that bought her to this point.
Here is the story of the marriage from its beginning in 1987. Here are the questions they asked themselves parked on that hilltop. Where should they place this new shared life? Was it even going to work? "...we judged it an iffy proposition at best." Albert traces the conversion of five acres of lonely land owned by Bill Albert into Meadow Knoll, a working, loved home.
Albert brings her reader to the land, from its geography and geology to the people who knew it—whether passing through or calling it home—for the centuries before it became Meadow Knoll. She traces the transformation of "the" place into "their" place. Trees and buildings were no longer anonymous; they received names. Animals were born and crops planted. (Hence, my tomato plant!) This became the place they, both of them, belonged.
As their life together unfolded, Albert discovered yet another Susan, one who needed silence, to be alone, to be apart. This was not to leave the marriage, the place, the growing career, but to enhance. To develop this solitary person required not only introspection but another place. Here, Lebb Shomea, a silent retreat center in South Texas, enters the tale. Albert has found her place to be alone just as Meadow Knoll is her place of community, and, again, she uses the story of the land to enhance the telling of an odyssey of the spirit.
Many of us, for many reasons, are not as deeply attached to a place as Albert is both to Meadow Knoll and to Lebb Shomea, yet her descriptions, not only of these locations but of their importance in her life, certainly will make any reader pause to consider the places that have been and are critical to the living of her own life.
Both as a contemporary of Albert and as the survivor, explorer, and beneficiary of a long marriage (even longer than the Alberts') I read this book with a head often nodding in agreement and from time to time with eyes brimming with tears both from searing memories and laughter. Other long-time marriage veterans will readily identify with this memoir. But that is certainly not the only appeal. Those starting on the journey will find a useful roadmap, while those in mid-journey will find encouragement that much lies ahead.
Albert's many readers will be pleased and perhaps inspired by her account of her writing career. She shares its blossoming from a precarious beginning with writing-for-hire jobs to the full bloom of best sellers.
All readers should receive inspiration to dig out their own journals, sit, reflect, and then begin to record their own life experiences. Tomorrow, borrowing the excellent epigram of this book's prologue from Eudora Welty's One Writer's Beginnings, "As we discover, we remember, remembering we discover," I will dive into the closet, dig through the boxes of my own journals and begin my own discoveries.
Check out our interview with the author of Together, Alone.
Former professor and university administrator Susan Wittig Albert lives and writes at Meadow Knoll near Austin, Texas. The author of popular mysteries, young adult books, and nonfiction books for women on life-writing and work, she is the founder of Story Circle Network, a nonprofit organization for women who write about their lives. Learn more on her website.
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