Drinking the Rain: A Memoir

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9780140255843: Drinking the Rain: A Memoir

At 50, Alix Shulman left a life dense with political activism, family and literary community and went to live alone on an island off the coast of Maine. Without plumbing, power, or a telephone, and foraging for wild greens and shellfish, she faced challenges that helped redefine her notions of independence and courage, confidence and creativity.

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About the Author:

Alix Kates Shulman is the author of eleven books, including Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, and three other novels, two memoirs, two books on the anarchist Emma Goldman, and three children's books. She divides her time between New York City and Maine.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Drinking the Rain
PART ONE The Island ONE  
 
THE tide is low, leaving a swath of damp, hard-packed sand as good as a dirt road for rolling my shopping cart along. Otherwise, the cartwheels would sink into the fine sand above the tide line or catch in the wrack, that dense tangle of seaweed, driftwood, shells, and debris that fringes the beach. The late-May sun is on its way down, spreading a vivid red glow across the sea and empty shore in starkest contrast to the life I've just left at the center of the continent's most worldly city. A city of eight million people speaking a combined total of eighty-nine human languages, of which I have command of one and a smattering of four. In this single day I've taken a journey encompassing subway, bus, jet, taxi, ferryboat, van, and finally shopping cart and my own two feet to wind up on a windswept beach at the tip of an island fifty minutes out to sea. I've told everyone, myself included, I've come here alone for the summer to write. (By now my family understands how a writer needs solitude.) But secretly I already sense my excitement and fear are not about writing. Halfway across the beach I stop at the point, face to the wind, to feel the ocean that circles the world crash at my feet. It seems prodigious, immense, far greater than the social forces that mold generations. As roar of subway yieldsto roar of surf, for a moment I want to hitch on to the ocean's force and coast. But this is hardly a place for coasting. The cabin, perched by itself high on a green, rock-bound promontory known as the nubble, seems more like some piece of giant jetsam tossed up by an errant wave than the "charming vacation cottage" we touted in romantic ads when we occasionally rented it out. There's no plumbing, electricity, or heat in the cabin, no nearby neighbor, not even a road; the mail, picked up and delivered at a box on the other side of a tiny stream that separates this long beach from the nearest dirt road, takes a week to connect, and the island's only pay phone is half an hour's walk away, between the general store and the post office, near the ferry dock. That was fine for the brief family vacations we'd taken in years past, but my solo visit this summer is no vacation: I've come here not to vacate my life but to fill it.  
 
NOT that my world seemed empty--if anything, it was more clogged than ever with busyness--but it had precipitously changed. This was in the early Eighties, years of glut and greed, when we who had come alive in one of the great liberation movements of the century, the liberation of women, watched helplessly as much that we had hoped to accomplish seemed to be arrested, forgotten, on the verge of being lost. The very word feminist, which we had rescued from the dungeon of ridicule where it had languished for decades, had been recaptured, bound, and gagged. Abortion rights had been steadily chipped away, violence spread, and the vision of equality that had inspired masses of us to organize in the Sixties and Seventies had been obscured by the alarming disparities between rich and poor, powerful and abused, that seemed only to increase with the passingyears. All around me I could see a new generation taking over, and history, which my generation had passionately tried to shape, following its own unpredictable course. The faces were new, and in the bookstores I was shocked to find the newest books written by authors whose names I didn't recognize on subjects I'd failed to consider; reading them, I wasn't sure how to understand them. I felt the decline of the women's movement as a personal loss, for my own work had grown in its nourishing soil; in my mind the two were hardly separable. The books I'd written and published in the dozen years since my first story appeared in a feminist journal owed their inspiration, subjects, and audience to the movement; it was my experience as an activist that had inspired the confidence I'd needed to write in the first place and gave me the sense that my work might, in however small a way, have some significance for others. But as the world grew unfamiliar, I began to lose my bearings. I was unnerved when scholars started coming around with their tape recorders to take down my women's movement memories, then write monographs and dissertations about the campaigns, quarrels, and factional splits I'd witnessed, reducing my generation of activists to history--both literally and in the cruel slang of the young. Not that those young historians in their tailored suits weren't respectful, but, despite all the usual signs of time passing, I hadn't expected to become a relic so soon. The facts were, my children were suddenly grown and gone; my husband, their father, who worked in a distant city, was increasingly estranged from me; my parents, though still vigorous in their age, were becoming fragile; friends had begun to die, and acquaintances I hadn't seen in a long time sometimes failed to recognize me. To spare them embarrassment, I rushed to say my name as soon asI saw their puzzlement--or was it my own embarrassment I hoped to avert? I was entering my fifties, that ambiguous decade marking what's commonly considered in this country the beginning of the end for women. And though I had no less energy or vitality than before, every day it became clearer to me that the world which had grown young behind my back had a different view. More and more I found myself playing the number game: calculating how many years and decades had passed since certain events had occurred, noticing people's ages and achievements, comparing mine with theirs, theirs with mine, computing the proportion of my life I'd already lived and how much time might be left, feeling increasingly anachronistic, en route to obsolete, as, gradually, I became infected by the world's insidious opinion of aging women. I shuddered when I heard the names: old hen, biddy, little old lady in tennis shoes. I was dismayed by these feelings, even ashamed, having always presumed that a good feminist would beat this rap. After so rewarding a life how unseemly was my anxiety--and I stubbornly fought it back. For years I'd been noticing how here and there some defiant one embraced fifty not as doom or disaster but as an opportunity, a staging area from which to begin an ascent. Approaching fifty Mother Jones, after losing her entire family to yellow fever, was reborn as a union organizer; at fifty the anarchist Emma Goldman was deported to the new Soviet Union where she hoped to help create the New Society; at fifty my friend Margaret F. left a bullying husband to become a midwife in a birthing commune in Mexico, and at fifty or so the famous Nearings moved from the city to Vermont to begin living the Good Life. Having like most women sensed the dire birthday coming from a long way off, I'd prudently prepared myself by vowing that I too would be reborn. Maybe this was just the compensatory fantasy of a politico whose movementhad come and gone, or of a novelist with the habit of conceiving lives as narratives with turning points, climaxes, epiphanies, each marked by its own chapter. A self-fulfilling prophecy? No doubt my conviction that I would begin a new chapter might help it come true. But whatever my conscious intent, underneath I knew that no conviction or resolve can exempt anyone from what's coming. Even as I battled my fears with frenetic bursts of activity, whenever I slowed down I knew I was unprepared. I had assumed I'd always have work that mattered, would never be alone, but now my complacency gave way to astonishment that this obsolescence was happening to me, alternating with sorrow and, when I lost the confidence to write, dread. More than a year had passed since my last book was published and I was still floundering over the new one. Worst of all, as I felt myself growing superfluous, the world I'd once loved so fiercely started to lose its savor. A flock of sandpipers running at the edge of the waves lures me from the point. I count fourteen of them. I follow them along the beach toward the nubble, a high, two-acre peninsula that protrudes like a thumb from the island at the juncture of two beaches. Every few feet the sandpipers skim forward just beyond my approach, leaving me behind as I hope I have left the world.  
 
BY the time I've lugged the cart through the dry sand across the nubble's neck up to the cabin steps I'm sweating. And apprehensive. Though there's nothing here worth stealing --the furnishings are mainly discards salvaged from the beach, the dump, or St. Joseph the Provider--I can't banish the image of the shambles that greeted us a dozen years before as we walked into the cabin: one of the main posts hacked and the hatchet gone, bloody Kotex smeared aroundthe floor, the fire extinguisher spent, the screen doors slashed, dishes broken, bullet holes through an eye and ear of the deer head mounted over the door. No one ever "claimed credit" for the trashing. Someone suggested the assault had been directed against Mat Burns, who built our cabin in 1965 and had enemies on the island; but I always wondered if it wasn't against us, the island's only Jews. One flight up from the beach I retrieve hammer, crowbar, and wrench from their hiding place under the cabin and begin to open up. First I open the valve on the propane tank and close the one on the rain barrel, then I climb another flight to the deck and pry off the winter boards covering the windows and doors and heave them down below, where tomorrow I'll stack them. Taking a breather, I lean on the railing to survey the double sweep of beach in the fading light and wonder why it has taken me so many years to get here by myself. And why I seldom came alone with just the children either, though they love this beach and we could have spent our summers here, since I'm a writer and, unlike my husband, not bound to an office. Because I was afraid. Afraid not only of assault but afraid that hidden away I would be effaced, forgotten. By whom? By everyone I knew, but especially by my husband, who I was convinced would lose no time finding a replacement for me, temporary or otherwise. Afraid that if I slackened my pace for a moment I would be pushed off the road and left behind while the race went surging by. Having created around me in New York City a little world of which I was naturally the center, I dared not risk going to the periphery, where I might easily slip off the edge--as if the center of my life could somehow be outside myself; as if I needed to be witnessed to be real. So I had come here only for occasional family weekends with a houseful of city guests and,clinging stubbornly to the city, joined my voice to the rest who proclaim that a day away from New York is a day lost. Staring at the empty beach I realize that, except for one month in Europe twenty-five years ago when I left my husband to travel by myself, I've rarely been alone for more than a few days in my entire life. Home, college, marriage, children ... the woman's story of my class and generation. And pretty much of my mother's before me. And during that single month in Europe I panicked, asking myself incessantly: What are you doing here? What will become of you?  
 
INSIDE, everything's just as we left it the summer before --floors swept, hearth clean, dishes stacked on the open shelves, a jar of dried flowers atop the great twelve-sided table that dominates the room, constructed by a proto-hippie carpenter friend from the wooden back of an abandoned truck and set upon four upturned elephantine logs. The pink Victorian piano, retrieved long ago from the island dump where a church had deposited it for recycling, is closed. Shells on the windowsills, Stevie's monster drawings on the wall. All silent, familiar, undisturbed. I crank open the casements, replace the glass with screens in two of the eight storm doors, and go into action--check the radio and flashlight batteries, light the gas lamps and stove, reassemble the creaky pump that draws water into the sink from the rain barrel below the deck, and settle down on the floor with a box of kitchen matches to light the temperamental gas fridge. My husband, Jerry, who always took charge of the equipment, said I'd never manage this by myself. But half a box later the fridge is going, and I grab a bucket and dash down the two flights of outside stairsto collect kindling on the empty beach below while there's still light. Not the long South Beach I just came over but a secret beach hidden from the world unless you come by sea. Singing Sand Beach, it's called on the charts, and kicking off my sneakers I skid along barefoot to make it sing its eerie song, high and faint as the peep of a newly hatched chick, but steady, like a pennywhistle. A mixture of salt and iodine fills my nostrils as I suck in draughts of chilly air and fill my bucket with driftwood faggots. Most are too gorgeous to burn: a knot like an eye, burl like a wave, a forked branch like the bottom of a cowboy wearing chaps. Tentatively I divide them into burners and savers, remembering that until my first winter stay at an artists' colony eight years before I didn't know how to build a fire. And that leads me back to my seventh-grade science teacher, Mr. Armstrong, who officially dismissed the girls in his classes from the lessons on building motors since, he said, a boy could always build one for them. Back in the cabin, watching the waves break on the rocks that a child long ago named Dedgers, I remember how, at other, earlier times, in the first hushed moments inside with everything simple and serene, I'd have an intimation of what might be possible here. But then the chores would begin, the whooping children would change into their swimsuits, guests would bounce on their cots, someone would mention food--and all fragile possibilities would fizzle in the fun. Fifteen years' worth of family visits to this nubble can do nothing to counter my sense that this is my first time--no more than years of reluctant sex can taint the newness of love.  
 
AS soon as I blow out the candle and snuggle down under two sleeping bags the night fears fly in--those fears I'dpooh-poohed when voiced by city guests but can't help heeding now that I'm alone: leaking gas that may explode, embers flying up the chimney to ignite the roof, accidents, illness, lightning, hurricanes, tidal waves, the deadly nightshade surrounding the cabin, beasts, rodents, and worst of all that roaming slasher who, one moonlit night, seeing a humble shack set high on a lonely point, will walk across the beach, climb the stairs, throw open the door, and slash us all to death. I've been expecting him for years. His gruesome crimes are reported daily on the news, and every woman who ever came here from the city to visit inquired if I was not afraid of him. In the city one escapes him in crowded streets and behind bolted doors, but in an isolated cabin with latches like toothpicks there's nothing to hold him back. For comfort I lift the baseball bat Jerry keeps as a weapon beside the bed, though I'll never dare use it. Some slashers, I try to console myself, seem to prefer a mob: dormsful of nurses, extended families of eight or ten, a busload. When I switch on the radio in search of soothing music, the main effect is simply to muffle the outside sounds, so I quickly snap it off and focus my attention on each rattle and creak until I'm unable to tell if the pounding in my ears is the surf, the slasher's footsteps, or my own thumping heart. It's a long time before I fall asleep.  
 
TAP, tap, tap. My lurching heart jolts me awake. Gaudy sun-drenched morning fills my eyes, adrenaline charges th...

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