Memoirs occupy a rather special place in a writer's world, not least because they are an attempt to understand the series of events which have composed a life. Often chaotic, these fragments are gathered into a coherent story unique to the author alone, yet with a timbre that resonates with the reader's own personal experience. In Together Alone Susan Wittig Albert reviews twenty years worth of her personal journal entries, memories and reflections, presenting them as the nuanced story of one woman's attempt to combine commitment to her marriage with her growing desire for silence and solitude.
The book opens with the author's recent marriage to Bill, and tells how they settled into a simple, almost idyllic existence, growing their own food, raising chickens and learning to live self-sufficiently. They left their former lives and successful careers behind in the city, moving out and setting up home on a parcel of rural land named Meadow Knoll, about sixty miles northwest of Austin, in Texas Hill Country. Both were acutely aware of all they consumed, from household supplies and clothing to gasoline and electricity, and were determined to grow and supply as much of their needs as possible. Albert's constant mantra was to ask of anything they used: "what is its true cost (in fossil fuels...environmental impact, as well as dollars)?" [p. 64]
Life at Meadow Knoll afforded the author many hours of dedicated writing time, and over the years she became a successful writer, penning both fiction and non-fiction works. She also set up the non-profit organization, Story Circle Network, whose aim remains that of encouraging women to tell and share their stories. Yet, while enjoying the freedom of being able to write for a living, her days were not without the usual disruptive forces of marriage and homesteading life.
Eventually her need for something more than "the sweet dailiness of home" [p.91] led her on a journey which ended at the gates to a contemplative retreat community, Lebh Shomea, set in a remote and desolate terrain in the rugged brush wilderness of southern Texas:
a desert, a landscape of nothing but sky and land, a wasteland of stark simplicity and sparse comfort that reduces our human pretensions to blown dust and forces us to our knees in the presence of its transcendent mystery. [p.103]
Here the author discovered something long yearned for but previously unknown, the space and time to experience fully a place where "the silence, like a prayer shawl, settles across [her] shoulders." [p.99] Here was a landscape to which she returned again and again and which required nothing more from her than the conscious act of being present to it. Far away from the familiar comforts of home, in the time and space afforded by the silence and solitude of this desert landscape, Albert was able to reflect upon what it was that she really wanted:
I wanted the intimacy and companionship of marriage but not at the expense of solitude...What I need is to be whole and wholly myself, complete, authentic, and real. Being alone gives me back myself...I can listen to myself...And listening—whether I'm listening through journaling, serious reading, silent meditation, or simply renewing my wonderment at the world—has become my most important spiritual practice. [p.87]
But Albert's book is about more than a marriage navigated and recalled. In telling the story of a self experienced in close relationship and proximity to another being, she simultaneously tells the tale of the land upon which she finds herself standing. The story of her marriage is inextricably intertwined with the story of the places she has lived, one the landscape she shares with her husband at Meadow Knoll, the other the landscape of her soul at Lebh Shomea. Hence her story is as much a memoir of the landscapes she has inhabited as it is about her personal life.
In both she spends time unearthing, uncovering, and discovering the hidden and almost forgotten histories of the places she inhabits. She learns the horrors of colonization, the tales of displaced peoples, murdered, rendered invisible, their lands invaded and destroyed.
I need a clearer language to describe where I am, so I can know who I am. I need to know the boundaries of my place, need to know the plants and animals and people who share it with me. Without that knowing, I might as well be anyplace. Without it, I am placeless. [Journal Entry, August 1, 2001]
Albert understands that personal memories are always nestled deeply within larger, more all-encompassing and universal narratives: "For it is with story that our relationship to place is established, through story that we connect the interior and exterior landscapes." [p.167]
People and places are understood to be rooted in stories that began long before their arrival. Place is more than geography, nature, or science. It is the canvas upon which acts of political and ecological import are enacted.
Seeking a sense of freedom in an open landscape, whose timelessness she notes as she looks back to a past when nomadic Indians roamed free upon ground they considered to be sacred, Albert reflects upon how all land can be read as a moment in time if we can only decipher the contours and shapes which have been formed by aeons of movement and colliding forces, both physical and cultural. Together, Alone is a book suffused by a rich and interesting combination of geography, natural history, cultural memories, and personal stories. It is also the story of a woman with the courage to be true to her own deepest desires, to live a rich and satisfying life of her own making.
Read an excerpt from this book.
Susan Wittig Albert is the author of An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days, recently released by the University of Texas Press, and Together, Alone: A Memoir of Marriage and Place.
Her fiction, which has appeared on the New York Times bestseller list, includes mysteries in the China Bayles series, the Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter, and a series of Victorian-Edwardian mysteries she has written with her husband, Bill Albert, under the pseudonym of Robin Paige. Previous nonfiction includes What Wildness is This: Women Write About the Southwest (winner of the 2009 Willa Award for Creative Nonfiction); With Courage and Common Sense; Writing from Life: Telling the Soul's Story; and Work of Her Own: A Woman's Guide to Success Off the Career Track.
She is founder and past president of the Story Circle Network and a member of the Texas Institute of Letters.
(Information taken from the author's web site)
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Check out our interview with the author of Together Alone.
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