This last week I read Maximilian Werner’s Gravity Hill (University of Utah Press, 2013). I’m glad I did.
Although there are plenty of stories in the book about a young man growing up in Salt Lake City with other young people hungry for drugs and sex and courting dangers that are chilling and sometimes deadly, the book impressed me and will continue to engage me with its wisdom. At the time of writing the author/narrator is married and raising two children with all the care he failed to experience as a child. He knows what a family should not look like. He knows all parents are flawed and that many or even most still do what they can. He is clear about his own failings, determined to make good lives for his children.
Here an exemplary passage:
I cannot resist the presence of the past. But I try not to hang on to it, because if I did, it would be the end of me. I just let it flow over me like wind or something that cannot be held or kept.
The opposite is true with respect to my children. As much as I would sometimes like to do otherwise, I cannot let go. And maybe this will be enough to save us.
Another paragraph follows a description of advice his own mother gave him about things not to do before going to bed:
To my own list of things not to do before bed, which includes drinking a lot of water and eating a big meal, I would have to add deciding to put down my thirteen-year-old cat the next day. This last item has a corollary, which is how, in addition to dealing with my own feelings of loss, I am going to explain to my children the cat’s sudden and perpetual absence even as I hope they don’t realize that if the cat can disappear without notice, so can Kim and I.
He is going to lie, and he knows the lie better be good. For the good of the children.
A combination of the wild stories and the thoughtful parenting and perceptive descriptions of nature and language throughout that approaches poetry — all in the context of majority Mormon Salt Lake — made this a good book for me.
The thoughts about parents and parenting are troubling and comforting in ways that heighten my own hopes and worries as I think about my own roles in that regard.
In my own book, published three years later by the same press and the same good people as Werner’s, I describe parents who were present where Werner’s were absent, who gave us stability his did not. At our end of that spectrum, however, I experienced an orthodoxy and certainty and inflexibility that may have worked well for me, the first child, but that didn’t work so well for my gay brother.
And so when I lie awake at night, my worries are also about my children, about my abilities and disabilities as a parent, characteristics learned in part from my own parents. I am distant from my children in ways I don’t like, distance heightened by my decision to end the marriage while three of the children were still at home. That was a good decision and a bad decision, and in the night I mostly focus on the ways it was bad. Maximillian Werner’s book gives me comfort even as it unsettles me.
I’m grateful I read it.