Present Imperfect: Essays (Ona Gritz)

Reviewed by Laura Anne Spencer

Ona Gritz’s 2021 collection, Present Imperfect: Essays, shares with readers quintessential themes in her life. These powerful topics include some of the early times during which her “shame meters so often [were] off kilter.” She was and remains unwavering in her hope of being loved—even when in the past she did not receive the affection she deserved. In these collected stories from along Gritz’s journey, she expresses vivid emotions associated with dependency and caregiving, describes feeling different or “apart,” and addresses her complicated path toward steadiness and security through eventual self-acceptance and love.

From my very first encounter with the book, I knew that I was going to find these essays meaningful and enjoyable to read. Gritz’s approaches to storytelling are subtle and detailed, while always attentive to large-scale issues and patterns. She describes the slight of being ignored and recalls her mother’s passive aggressive response to Gritz’s young questioning, as offered from the back seat of the car. I took particular notice of the possible as well as definitive rejections she endured, her questions as unanswered by others, her word tenses.

I especially liked Gritz’s use of the elements of water and fire as idioms or metaphors. “The Body Divided,” when she is young and seeking, includes rain that blocks the car view, as well as a calmness found when walking. In this essay she tells us, “soon I’m adrift in the feel of my heart pounding, muscles working, how sunlight studs the slow-moving water at my side,” to describe that point where self-conscious perceptions of other’s judgments turn into internal bodily focus. Also in “The Body Divided,” Gritz says the heart “rests on the diaphragm, so that as we breathe it moves like a buoy on a quiet bay.” “Deluge” includes a storm that occurs in a time of change, and her sister’s “smoky hair,” as mentioned in “The Spider Tattoo;” are among other vibrant examples of water and fire. As Gritz notes, “Am I The Burning House?” (which appeared originally in Wordgathering) is an introspection on bravery as well as shame.

As young Ona pondered, aloud, her experience of disability, her mother did not turn her head to check on her daughter before leveling the remark, “Because your heart’s on the left, like everyone’s” (“The Body Divided”). Examples of the search to fit in and find acceptance are present throughout the essays. For example, in “Troll Pox,” when “telltale spots” marked a “connect-the-dots” on her skin that encased her in her room when she was four, Ona was excited to get chicken “box”-ed, recognizing it as a “rite of passage.”

In “It’s Time,” Gritz shares about her “brief and difficult marriage” with her son’s father, an “able-bodied man” who “wasn’t exactly hands-on in the beginning” of their parenting experience. Distinctively, as she describes in “Present Imperfect,” after her own childhood, Gritz “knew I would be a Sears mom and practice attachment parenting.” Her first marriage “lacked recognition” of her disability. However, it was also at the start of her first marriage that she met Hope, her first friend with cerebral palsy, who could “finish the sentences I’d never before said aloud, the ones about how it felt to live in a non-normative body.” This time period was also when Gritz started learning to love herself. Having found Hope, and, later, Gritz’s husband, Dan, Gritz discovered ways to communicate about disability and mutuality. Ona’s marriage to Dan is one of “bi-disability” and shared devotion; she writes of how, with Dan, she flows, as if, oftentimes, their togetherness is one body—although they have loving boundaries. Or, as her son Ethan described (as mentioned in “Love Eventually”), “It’s like you guys are the same person.”

For much of her childhood, many of the questions Gritz asked her “Clumsy-girl”-self remained unanswered. Many of these questions then floated across time, their details “disassembled” (as Dan put it), reassembled, and explored with Gritz’s incredible introspection. Some of the questions are answered in “Love, Eventually.” Throughout her life, it seems that Gritz has found grace in the “present imperfect”; “Grace” is also her aptly named left hand. (“The Body Divided”).

Content Warning: Murder.

The questions asked and answered throughout the essays are varied in style, focus, and scale, as in, “Am I the Burning House?” and “Should I Feel Anything Yet”? The latter question—as to “why I feel less on the right side of my body” (“The Body Divided”) than the left—is an important one for a person with right hemiplegia cerebral palsy. Gritz worried about fitting in, and asks during the summer before college, “What if I can’t keep up?” (“Persuasion”). The essays and their attendant questions contain rich textures, with many moments of humor in the midst of hope, pain, and insight. How ironic, in a way, that the friend from whom Gritz bought some acid told her that the drugs would be great for Gritz’s poetry, while Ona was holding onto some seriously heavy shit—including the murder of her sister and her sister’s family, a decidedly burning topic in her brain.

At an author event, “Celebrating CripLit: An Evening with Ona Gritz,” Gritz shared that one of the essays—“Persuasion”—is her #MeToo story. She noted, “when I sat down to write this piece…the question I asked myself [was]: ‘What stories am I carrying that I’ve never spoken aloud and what does that do when you’re just holding them?’” During the accessible, online event, Gritz shared these and other aspects of her writing process and read selections from Present Imperfect.*

As readers, we are asked to join with Gritz in her descriptions of her disability experiences: her hemispheres, in myriad respects. I was reminded of how the well-worn question, “why can’t I be like everyone else?” becomes “why should I?” Gritz’s striking, relatable essays affected me deeply.

*Editor’s Note: The late June 2021 event was hosted by Wordgathering and the Office of Interdisciplinary Programs and Outreach at the Burton Blatt Institute at Syracuse University, with support from Poets & Writers. Details—including the accessible event video—can be found here.

*Post-Publication Editorial Corrections (Note from Diane R. Wiener, Editor-in-Chief): It has been brought to my attention that “able-bodied man” and “wasn’t exactly hands-on in the beginning” are quotes from the essay, “Love, Eventually.” Additionally, “lacked recognition” is not a direct quote, but a paraphrase; however, this concept, and the quotations that follow this passage, are cited from “Love, Eventually.” We apologize to Ms. Gritz and the publisher (Poets Wear Prada) for these and any other errors.

Title: Present Imperfect: Essays
Author: Ona Gritz
Publisher: Poets Wear Prada
Date: 2021

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About the Reviewer

Laura Anne Spencer is a mostly-happy, artsy, brave person, who is filled with the spirit of volunteering and community activism. She lives and serves in upstate New York, in the Village of Owego. There’s no place like home, and Laura invites you to visit, to share in experiencing the vibrancy of the area. Always smiling, Laura is a lover of puns, plants, and funny-shaped stones; she is a feather collector, an outdoors-seeker, and a food lover (as well as a fan of competitive eating). A second-generation independent bookshop owner, Laura builds book sculptures and paper craft displays to captivate book lovers and wanderers alike.