Today, Lift arrived. I pulled it out of its Amazon cardboard eagerly, turning the slender volume over in my hands. As soon as I had wrestled my children to bed (Whit, despite having been up last night throwing up, despite complaining of being exhausted all day, still went to sleep with the calm and peace of a motorized robot without an off switch). And then I opened the book. And I read it, falling into Kelly’s world for 45 minutes, emerging blinking as though I’d come out of a soothing room with a friend into a bright and cacophonous city street. Lift is a lovely letter to her daughters, Claire and Georgia, a book whose slightness belies the weight of its message.
Kelly’s voice is the same as in The Middle Place: both humorous and serious, somehow light while talking about the heaviest of subjects. She writes clearly, without extravagance or fanfare but with memorable imagery (hair that looked burnt on the ends, razory screams). The book is, ultimately, a meditation on that topic closest to my heart: the way that every moment of life, and motherhood in particular, is shot through with the awareness of the transience of time. Early on she cites a favorite Rilke quote that captures this gorgeously:
“the knowledge of the impermanence of that haunts our days is their very fragrance.”
Sigh. Yes. Kelly uses three stories to talk about the way that risk and loss are woven inextricably through the very fabric of parenthood. She talks about the scare of her second daughter’s infant meningitis, the death in a car accident of her favorite cousin’s teenage son, and her best friend’s decision, at 40, to pursue single motherhood. These narratives, while different, are all animated by the human longing to commit deeply to parenthood in spite of the fact that danger hovers around every corner. They all circle around the same central, unavoidable truth: even knowing how much pain we will cause ourselves, we feel powerfully compelled to take this risk. We can’t help ourselves.
The book’s title and central metaphor is taken from a story Kelly tells about hang gliding. Talking to a friend’s husband about his passion for hang gliding, she asks “what keeps you up?” The friend goes on to explain that the glider is kept aloft by going from “thermal to thermal,” which entails going straight into the turbulence. Kelly expresses confusion, and her assumption that a tiny human being hanging in the sky would want to avoid turbulence. No, says her friend, “Turbulence is the only way to get altitude, to get lift. Without turbulence, the sky is just a big blue hole. Without turbulence you sink.”
And we do, don’t we? We dive into the turbulence. We hurl ourselves into the heart of life, into being parents, despite all of the logical and rational reasons we know we ought to take care. Kelly’s stories illustrate the risks of this. But the rewards, of course, are commensurately (or more) enormous. It’s glitteringly clear that Kelly’s daughters are the most important people in her life. “Mothering you is the first thing of consequence that I have ever done,” she says, and then, later, tells them simply, “You are sacred to me.” Her fierce devotion to her girls, despite her self-confessed weaknesses and propensity to “detonate,” comes through in every line of this book.
My favorite passage in the book is towards the end, as Kelly talks about her dear friend Meg’s decision to pursue pregnancy and motherhood by herself. She muses: “I want her to have this thing I have that’s so ordinary and tedious and aggravating, and then, so divine.” Kelly’s slim letter to her daughters, 82 pages, manages to touch on the grand themes of life: forgiveness, acceptance, risk, faith, passionate adoration. She very humanly describes her own mistakes and with humor she paints a familiar picture of a woman recommitting, over and over again, to being a better, more present, more patient mother. Hers is a profoundly human voice, in awe of the task of mothering even as she acknowledges its immense challenges. Lift‘s words, which speak of both my heart’s tenderest fears and of its profoundest truths, will continue to echo with me for a long time.