Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Swimming Away: The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch

The Chronology of Water
by Lidia Yuknavitch
Hawthorne Books
Guest Review by Sara Habein

I had a dream about this review.  Not the actual writing of it ¾ watching myself with a notebook or laptop would be too dull to note ¾ but rather the thematic turmoil involved.  I stood against the front door at a house party while three men in their early 20s tried to gain entry.  They yelled through the window that there was no point in fighting.  They would find a way inside.  The party had stopped ¾ we had been playing records and dancing ¾ as the women in the house scrambled to keep them out.  I awoke before either group could claim victory.  I don’t know what exactly would have had happened had the men reached us, but I do know that they believed that in whatever it was, it was their right.  “Getting away” with misbehavior didn’t enter into it; they decided to take what was “theirs.”

I awoke thinking of Lidia Yuknavitch's memoir The Chronology of Water and how she couldn’t protect herself by staying inside the house.  She had to swim away.
      Sometimes I think my voice arrived on paper. I had a journal I hid under my bed. I didn’t know what a journal was. It was just a red notebook that I wrote pictures and true things and lies in. Interchangeably. It made me feel like someone else. I wrote about my father’s angry loud voice. How I hated it. How I wished I could kill it. I wrote about swimming. How I loved it. About how girls made my skin hot. About boys and how being around them made my head hurt. About radio songs and movies and my best friends Christy and how I was jealous of Katie but also wanted to lick her and how much I loved my swim coach Ron Koch.
      I wrote about my mother…the back of her head driving me to and from swim practice. Her limp and leg. Her hair. How gone she was, selling houses, winning awards into the night. I wrote letters to my gone away sister that I never sent.
      And I wrote a little girl dream. I wanted to go to the Olympics, like my teammates.

It is interesting how our own experiences become what we perceive as “normal,” and that deviations from that are an anomaly.  In elementary school, I was familiar with an “angry loud voice,” but when we learned about physical and sexual abuse, my young mind thought, “Well, that’s horrible, but don’t people know that?  Who would do that to another person, on purpose?  Who thinks that’s okay, except the very, very bad?”
How much I didn’t understand where the danger lived.

The slap of a father’s hand against my friend’s fourteen-year-old head.

The distant cousins whose abuse we’d gone so long without knowing.

The sobs of a nineteen-year-old friend whose mother has finally admitted that her father used to touch her and her sister.

The confessions of so many who Did Not Report.

Spouses, parents, relatives, boyfriends, girlfriends, supposed “friends.”  The stories are not new, but they are numerous.  Gut-punchingly numerous.

Lidia Yuknavitch grew up with a distant, alcoholic mother and a father who beat and molested her and her sister.  What she had was the water.  Beginning in Washington state, then moving to Florida, she would swim competitively all through her childhood, all the way until the college scholarship offers started arriving.  “Did I think I was special?”  Again and again, her father informed her that she would not be leaving for these “snob” schools.  When a letter arrived from Lubbock, Texas, her father was at work.  Her mother signed the paperwork.  With a big black suitcase, Lidia swam away.
      When I say we partied, I mean an epic poem.
      I lost my scholarship the second year. I flunked out the third.

Still, this isn’t a story only about abuse or about addiction.  It isn’t even necessarily about fleeing one family for another.  Yuknavitch writes about how she learned to carry herself, to not feel shame over surviving in her own way.  She finds her power in her sexuality ¾ her own, not the domain of anyone else ¾ and in her body.  A body can be a miracle, but a body is like the rest of life, with birth and death all wrapped up into one.

The book opens with the stillborn arrival of her daughter.  “Events don’t have cause and effect relationships the way you wish they did,” she writes.  “It’s all a series of fragments and repetitions and pattern formations.  Language and water have this in common.”

The birth-death of her daughter is a nasty, debilitating wound that takes years from which to marginally recover.  I don’t know that anyone ever fully recovers from the death of a child.  One just learns to live with the ache.

Yuknavitch returns to school though, this time in Oregon, and even stumbles into writing a book with Ken Kesey and twelve graduate students.  She is not a grad student yet, but Kesey, having lost his son and knowing her story, has her stay.  If every Oregon writer within a certain time frame has a Ken Kesey story, fine, but that didn’t make Yuknavitch’s experience any less valuable.  It is in this environment, among these artists and writers, that she begins to heal.  At one point, she listens to a lecture by an unnamed “big-time academic” and photographer.  She melts at the sight of the woman.  She needs to know her, to shake her hand.
      I saw stars as I let go. Her hair smelled like rain.
      I remember leaving the campus feeling like I was exactly like anyone.
      But it would not be the last time I touched her.
      I didn’t know yet that desire comes and goes whenever it wants.
      I didn’t know yet that sexuality is an entire continent.
      I didn’t know yet how many times a person can be born.

The woman holds a place in her heart for a long time, but lovers (and husbands) come and go while Yuknavitch figures out how she would like to live her life and how she might find happiness.  “I’m just saying healing looks different on women like me.”

I have already given away much of the book, though the fluid nature of the narrative does not mean I’ve spoiled anything.  The thought that most often occurred to me while reading was that The Chronology of Water is perhaps the truest thing I’ve ever read.  Even if I have not personally experienced the same things, I know many who have, and in the parts where Yuknavitch and I overlap, her words feel so true that they hurt in the same way a massaged, sore muscle does.  I wince for a moment, then think, Please keep going.  And within all the turmoil, I find a certain amount of peace.

We become our environments.  People raised in violence believe violence to be normal until realizing otherwise.  People raised with lots of money confuse luxury with personal necessity.  A culture that tells women who are raped that they somehow brought it upon themselves produces men and women who punish the victim and not the perpetrator.

Yet, art begets art.  Love begets love.  Hope begets hope.
      Whatever it was or not, there were words. Not just my own. I wrote stories. I wrote books, but the more I wrote the more I saw a door opening behind me, and I saw that if I jammed my motherfucking foot in it, more of us could get through. And that we could make things. Together. What we could make was art. How that mattered.
      Because I believe in art the way other people believe in god.

I know I will read The Chronology of Water again.  Its honesty and strength is sustaining, and it is a reminder that healing comes from our own hands.  Every bit of hype you may have heard about this book is true.  Cheryl Strayed has called it a “brutal beauty bomb” and I couldn’t agree more. Let yourself be enamored, encompassed and engrossed by Lidia Yuknavitch’s words.  Now, tell me what you know.

Sara Habein is the author of Infinite Disposable, a collection of microfiction, and her work has appeared on The Rumpus and Persephone Magazine, among others.  Her book reviews and other commentary appear at Glorified Love Letters, and she is the editor of Electric CityCreative.


  1. This book has been on my to-read list for a while. Thanks for a great review!

  2. Magnificent, life changing book. Beautiful review.