Reviewed by Michael Northen
“I do not wish to expiate but to live. My life is not an apology but a life.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self Reliance”
“And finally I remember that I am here, in this morning light, on this bay where no direction is second best or less than.”
Sandra Gail Lambert, A Certain Loneliness
In these times of spreading pandemic, when remaining at home and practicing “social distancing” are the socially responsible thing to do, the title of Sandra Gail Lambert’s latest book A Certain Loneliness should have a special appeal for many potential readers. Lambert’s memoir on a life with disability certainly does illustrate the way that health and the precariousness of the body reinforce the need to separate oneself from others. At the same time, Lambert might also have called her book Self-Reliance. It is a fascinating tug-of-war between an inherent admiration for Emersonian ideals and the adjustments that the practical limitations of the body dictate in order to be able to pursue an independent life.
A Certain Loneliness follows a rough hewn chronology beginning with Lambert’s childhood in Norway and ending over 50 years later. However, this linear narration is frequently broken. Part of it is simply the unavoidable result of much of the book being composed of previous essays that have been fitted together to form a larger story and overlap. At other times, it is because of the insertion of chapters that relate scenes later in life or themes that the author is trying to juxtapose. For example, between the first and third chapters describing events in her Norwegian childhood, Lambert inserts a piece called “The Laundromat.” This chapter is meant to establish for the reader her antipathy to being viewed as an inspiration and to preview the kinds of attitudes to which she will be subjected as a disabled adult.
Thus, while A Certain Loneliness can be read as a progression from braces and crutches to manual wheelchair to scooter to power chair and all of the surrounding issues and adjustments that attend it, it is also a book that can be dipped into at many different points to read themed essays as pieces in and of themselves.
One of the fascinating and rewarding aspects of Lambert’s memoir is the extent to which her writing style seems to be inextricably bound to her own ethic of independence. While her belief in self-reliance may be Emersonian, her prose style is not. Her commitment is not to transcendentalism but to the life as a manifestation of a physical and material world—not devoted to meditation, but to action. In this respect, her writing in very much what one might expect of a female Hemingway brought into the twenty-first century. She is not big game hunting or fighting bulls, but again and again she returns to swamps of Florida and Georgia to prove her metal. With a few notable exceptions, her writing is shorn of ornamentation and works to move the story along. Venturing out to watch an incoming storm at a Florida Park called The Prairie, Lambert writes:
It’s only when lightning strikes close that I can turn away. Full speed, leaning forward over the controls as if that will make the chair go faster, heedless of hips and back, I bounce over the trail to my van. If I’ve timed it right, I’m closing the doors before the first fat raindrops turn into a voice-drowning rush against the metal roof (465).
Clearly, she is out for adventure. In this respect, as a writer with a disability, she is much more akin to writers like Lucia Perillo and John Hockenberry than many of the disabled memoirists one is likely to encounter in more recent publications. One of the reasons for this, and another driver of her style, is that Lambert is not an academic. It is refreshing to read the work of a skilled and self-confident writer who does not feel compelled to pepper her narrative with academic jargon. This isn’t to say that Lambert is not deeply concerned about or incensed by social issues; instead, her writing is born of experience—it grows from the bottom up, rather than raining down from scholarly theory.
From the beginning, one of the basic tenets of disability literature has been that it forefronts our status as physical being in a material world. It is writing that is derived from and cannot be separated from the body. Lambert’s contribution to disability literature is less about her point of view than her ability to actualize this philosophy in her own writing. In the later chapters of the book, Lambert illustrates how her body and health on a given day affect the very act of writing.
While the enjoyment of a narrative that focuses primarily on action and adventure can be rewarding in and of itself, in her chapter “Pride Goeth” Lambert relates a more substantial reason for writing the book. She feels that having lived with a disability has actually prepared her for growing older by allowing her to more easily let go of images of herself that she might once have aspired to:
I think of how, what with the braces and crutches or now the wheelchair, my body has often been an emptiness in the eye of the beholder. I think the good thing about having been left on my own to fill this void is that set of beauty, of health of sexiness, and what a man or woman should look like have taken less of a hold on me (1941).
As a result she is able to say:
As friends who have never experienced disability in their own bodies become older, I have words to offer. I give advice about learning the paradoxical limitations that led to new horizons and unexpected joys. I give examples from my life. I offer solutions to theirs. I chirp with an unrelenting cheer about how my life has turned out (1941).
While one could argue that “unrelenting cheer” is not the major mood of the book, the ways in which Lambert has worked out obstacles in her life do serve as sufficient reason for reading A Certain Loneliness.
Throughout the book, Lambert’s relationship to autonomy is an interesting one. Perhaps spending the early part of her life in Norway had a lasting influence on her, but from the beginning, she makes a point of demonstrating how little she asks for help in situations that others might. On a number of occasions, she highlights for readers how she scoots around on her butt to get from one place to another rather than accepting some kind of accommodation. This stance is the focus of at least two subsidiary themes in the book, the first with a happier resolution than the second. As implied in the previous quote, Lambert eventually admits to the increasing physical limitations she is experiencing and after much resistance concedes that her old mode of transportation—whether a crutch, a manual chair, or a scooter—was actually restricting her ability to be independent, not adding to it. When she finally accedes to using a power wheelchair, Lambert comes to the following realization:
The half measure of using a manual wheelchair with a scooter has stopped being sufficient. This is the change that has been needed for a long while. The special backrest, the butt cradling cushion, and the gig batteries that go forever mean everything is easier, and everywhere hurts less. My world expands. [Italics mine] (1425)
Not only does this new device provide her with more autonomy, but she is in considerably less pain pursuing it.
The second instance is one that gives rise to the book’s title. Throughout her life, Lambert has resented and rebuffed unsolicited offers of help yet expected the accommodations that she needed to be there for her. As a result, she finds herself in a quandary when her body changes and functioning becomes more difficult. Her need to be seen as independent makes her reluctant to ask friends to give her extra help or accommodation, so rather than ask for it, she begins to distance herself from social gatherings, declining invitations and finding herself alone most of the time. While there is no doubt that the loneliness Lambert feels can be traced to the constraints she experiences in trying to fully take part in ordinary social relationships, there is a certain sense in which her constant concerns about “being sufficient” will appeal to feelings that many readers may have about themselves in general. One could even argue that what Lambert is tapping into here is not merely the result of social circumstances, but a sort of existential loneliness that all of us as human beings experience.
As mentioned above, many of the episodes in this book were originally published as independent essays and can be enjoyed as such. I’d like to mention just a few that seem to me to be the most successful, all situated in swamps or parks. “Looking for the V, ” which takes place on the Withlacoochee River in North Florida, has the feel of a lesbian version of Deliverance—but with a comedic touch and happier ending. Two couples and Lambert head off on a kayak trip down the river. It is as close to a piece of fiction as the book offers and highlights the author’s ability to try to delineate individual characters and hint at the complex threads that build a sense of camaraderie. At the same time, it surfaces the author’s difficulty in feeling truly part of a group and her consequent need to use her physical prowess as a kayaker to isolate herself from others.
A much different essay is “The Last Period,” which takes place on a solo boat trip in the Okefenokee Swamp. As the title suggests, Lambert describes the experiencing of her last menstrual period among pitcher plants and owls. She is unsparingly vivid and at her best in hugging close to situating human experience as physical and a part of the natural world. At the same time, it gives her the opportunity to look back at her own experience as a disabled girl developing into a woman and reveal the many often unthought-about difficulties that menstrual cycles present.
A final stand alone piece likely to stick in a reader’s memory is simply called “Mosquitoes.” It is an over-the-top slapstick account of her first experience camping in a mosquito-saturated swamp, calculated to insure that no one with or without a disability attempt a similar outing.
It is a truism that memoirists are by definition the heroines of their own narratives and, as such, make the decisions about how to present themselves. One of the challenges in reading memoirs is to look behind the curtain and try to view the author as an onlooker might. Recognizing that this is the case, Lambert drops crumbs along the way to let readers know that there are other points of view that might reveal her in a different light if she had not chosen to avoid them. Among these are references to alcoholism during her teen years and early adulthood and the numerous personal relationships she was unable to sustain. Even as she writes, she feels compelled to include an occasional line saying that she thought she heard friends commenting behind her back that she was “persnickity” or “a drama queen.”
This may also be the place to mention one characteristic of Lambert’s writing that I personally found challenging. As an incorrigible weed and seed collector, I’m fascinated to learn the names of new flora and fauna that I may not know about. Lambert, however, approaches Levitical proportions in pointing out the various plants and birds she recognizes, so that rather than being informative, she comes across as peacocking. It is the one place where rather than sticking to the style that makes her work so readable, Lambert unnecessarily indulges herself.
None of the above, however, should discourage readers from discovering what A Certain Loneliness has to offer. Quite the contrary. Like any work worth reading, it offers ideas and views that need discussing. While demonstrating just how it is possible to accommodate a muscular prose style to disability narrative, Lambert offers an alternative to the more orthodox views of disability literature that emerge from the pens of writers in academic institutions and, thus, keeps us from becoming a Legion of Decency. Moreover, Lambert is a skilled writer who has led an interesting life and engages in compelling topics. Especially during these times when unasked for isolation is a subject that literally hits close to home, A Certain Loneliness should find a place on many people’s “must read” list.
Title: A Certain Loneliness
Author: Sandra Gail Lambert
Publisher: University of Nebraska Press
About the Reviewer
Michael Northen served as Wordgathering Editor-in-Chief from 2007 to 2019. He is an editor, with Jennifer Bartlett and Sheila Black, of the anthology Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability. He is also an editor, with Sheila Black and Annabelle Hayes, of the recent anthology of disability short fiction, The Right Way to Be Crippled and Naked (both from Cinco Puntos Press).