by Vivian Wagner
I’ve been enamored lately of stories told in pieces. I love the use of flash fragments to tell long-form narratives, and one of my favorite books written in this style is Peggy Shumaker’s Just Breathe Normally (University of Nebraska Press, 2007).
Just Breathe Normally is a beautiful memoir told in fragments, and its form grows organically out of its content. It doesn’t use flash pieces because they’re trendy. It uses them because that’s the only way to tell this story of fragmentation, loss, and healing.
The book tells a story about piecing a life back together after trauma—both the trauma of a cycling accident that gives the book its frame and structure, and also the trauma of a difficult childhood with confused, troubled parents. It’s a book about caring, about seeking care, about giving care. It’s about sometimes finding the care you need, and sometimes not. And it’s about how the fragments created by trauma can eventually be woven together to create a life. The book made me cry at almost every turn. I was moved by Shumaker’s story, by these fragments, by these pieces of a life that, when taken together, create a whole.
The book’s epigraph comes from Pablo Neruda’s “Another One”: “The story of my life repeats itself—as a small child I discovered my corrupted heart, which tumbled me into the sea and accustomed me to life underwater.” These words capture several of the book’s themes, including the inevitable repetition of events and the experience of being underwater, of breathing or not breathing, of living or dying.
As a child, Shumaker found strength and resilience in swimming, and she draws on this experience as an adult who is trying to find her way. Swimming becomes a metaphor, in short, for surviving, for moving forward.
It’s a braided narrative, linking together narratives of healing from the cycling accident, of healing from a difficult childhood, and of finding strength in a late-life marriage. Each fragment could stand alone, and some of them in fact were published individually, but together they create something new and wondrous: a portrait of a life, taken one step at a time, one breath at a time.
Many of the essays feature breath. The opening piece, “Just This Once,” for instance, starts as follows: “Once, in a wild place, I felt myself quiet down. I listened, drew silent breaths.” The essay tells a brief story of camping, of finding a moment to be alone. Shumaker says she knows a mother bear is nearby, but she doesn’t try to scare her away: “Undisturbed and not disturbing, I stood still breathing in sphagnum’s mossy sigh quiet after loon calls, followed unmarked paths left by stars too wild to show themselves anywhere but here, inhaled her nursing musk, the bear I knew was there.” It’s a powerful moment, one that is about much more than a near-bear experience: it launches a tale of a woman who stands, in the face of all kinds of dangers, breathing quietly, surviving.
Undisturbed and not disturbing, I stood still breathing in sphagnum’s mossy sigh quiet after loon calls, followed unmarked paths left by stars too wild to show themselves anywhere but here, inhaled her nursing musk, the bear I knew was there.
This book is a complicated tale about a teenage boy driving a four-wheeler who recklessly hits and severely injures a middle-aged couple, Shumaker and her husband, as they are cycling on a bike path in Fairbanks, Alaska. It’s about recovering from that accident. About Shumaker’s childhood in the Arizona desert with an asthmatic and sometimes abusive mother and a hard-drinking, motorcycle-riding, careless father. About playing in an arroyo in her backyard. About watching a boy who’s killed by a flash flood in that same arroyo. About swimming and finding strength in it. About caring for many younger siblings. About deciding not to have children. About getting married and divorced. About moving to Alaska. About getting married in later life to a loving, caring man. About telling stories. About writing in order to make sense of the world, of a life.
Shumaker masterfully weaves all of these pieces together. The experience of reading Just Breathe Normally is one of getting to know the process by which a life is saved and created through the telling of stories.
This memoir is a story about fragmentation, and about the way fragments can be stitched together to make a whole. And it couldn’t have been told in any other way.