October Read of the Month: “Second Blooming,” edited by Susan Cushman

Susan Cushman

Reviewed by Robert Kostuck

“I was given a second chance, as were others in this anthology. Some of their lives were changed by trauma, some by incarceration, some by the loss of a loved one, some by marriages gone wrong or by new careers gone right.” —Susan Cushman

“The explorer who will not come back or send back his ships to tell his tale is not an explorer, only an adventurer.”—Ursula K. LeGuin

Change is inevitable and omnipresent; how we respond is unique and idiosyncratic. In the anthology, A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We are Meant to Be (Mercer University Press), edited by Susan Cushman, twenty authors respond to the concept of a “second blooming” in life, a blooming unconstrained by age, economics, or relationships. The interface between the private and the public is porous and shifting. The difficulty in confessional memoir writing is what to put in, and more so, what to leave out. Responses can range from sympathy and empathy to criticism and disdain. How personal does the author want to be? How much of herself is she willing to expose? Who, exactly, is her audience? Is she writing for herself?

These essays reach far beyond the merely autobiographical, becoming Everywoman stories in the tradition of heroine mythology. That is, the heroine goes on a quest—sometimes inner, sometimes outer, sometimes both—and returns to tell her tale. While even a life of ennui can be subject matter for personal writing, these essays go far beyond the day-to-day flow of what is still, in American culture, acceptable and non-confrontational. Therefore, traditionally confrontational writing is the theme percolating through these essays.

Following the loss of her first husband, Kathy Rhodes in “Pushing Up The Sun” states that she resisted change:

The loss brought a feeling of being under water—everything murky and garbled. . . . I didn’t want to start over. I was not in the building phase of life.

The expression lost at sea comes to mind. When we enter the unknown, we tap into powers never used before because they were never needed. Unaware of their existence, we experience a series of psychic and emotional shocks. This is where the subconscious kicks in and the feeling is one of surprise. It can seem as if solutions are coming from outside of us when in truth they come from inside. Not a learning process, it is more akin to a realization process. Answers come from putting together knowledge in new and untried ways:

And then spring came. There was new life all around me that seemed to come out of nowhere, but I knew it had been latent and turbulent under the surface, waiting for the right time to come forth.

The key word is latent. In this essay Rhodes illustrates how circumstance forces us to open ourselves to our untapped potential.

That latent power is also very evident in Nina Gaby’s “A Couple Bad Nights in Brindisi,” a story of attempted assault, rape, and possibly death. The body of the essay covers the events of one night in the Italian city, with an addendum bringing her story up to the present. Gaby leaves an emotionally bare relationship and takes her artistic dreams and alcoholism with her. A pleasant trek through Mediterranean Europe still has its drawbacks:

I was offered coffees and drinks wherever I went, which I refused politely. . . . Men followed me through Venice and Florence as I tried to find quiet places to sketch and write and look at art.

Through a series of quirky events, she ends up holding a pension door shut with her own body while two men pound, plead, and protest. Chair jammed under a doorknob, Swiss Army knife in hand, she passes a horrible night. The unwanted attention continues with other men—a soul-sapping experience when half the population is a potential attacker. The latent power is evident in her ability to stave off unwanted propositions and outright full attacks on her person and autonomy.

Gaby’s second blooming begins that night, and in retrospect she records how she has become the woman she is:

I sometimes long for the me that existed before that shift. There was a wildness, a rawness. The woman I have become has cultivated a compulsive seriousness. An unrelenting need to achieve.

In “A Second Chance at Empty-Nesting,” Susan Marquez experiences the responsibility and honor of taking care of her now-adult daughter a second time, before entering the empty-nesting of the title. Marquez’ daughter Nicole suffers a near fatal accident and moves back in with her parents at the age of twenty-five: “It was like having a newborn all over again, but this one weighed 100 pounds and could talk. I still had to bathe her, brush her teeth, fix her hair and help her get dressed.” Daunted but not dismayed, Marquez helps her daughter on the road to recovery and self-sufficiency. Along the way she taps into her reservoir of latent strength and talent:

While I didn’t fall off the building, I did go through a trauma. I had to live through the fear, learn to let go and handle what happens on any given day. I am certainly stronger now.

How one aches to have their life returned when the children are able to care for themselves. How one accepts the task of caring, a prerequisite for becoming one’s self again. When Nicole was finally able to leave home again, her mother rediscovers her love of writing. She chronicles the story she and her daughter share and becomes involved with a “writing tribe.” She gains confidence and develops a life that did not exist before.

The twenty essays in this collection could not be possible without the requisite trials by fire. Some of the fires are relatively benign; some are infernos. All result in ashes and a phoenix rising from those ashes. The impetus is usually unexpected, the challenge difficult to understand, yet the outcome is always redemptive, if not refreshing. Contributors include Anne Lamott, Mary Karr, Cassandra King, Natasha Trethewey, Beth Ann Fennelly, Julie Cantrell, Jennifer Horne, Wendy Reed, River Jordan, Jessica Handler, Kathy Rhodes, Kim Michele Richardson, Sally Palmer Thomason, Ellen Morris Prewitt, Emma French Connolly, Nina Gaby, Alexis Paige, NancyKay Sullivan Wessman, Suzanne Henley, Susan Marquez, and Jennifer Bradner.

Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön compared awareness to having the rug pulled out from under your feet—every moment of the day. Second bloomings seem to work in a similar way.

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