The Death of Fred Astaire and Other Essays from a Life Outside the Lines
by Leslie Lawrence
Excelsior Editions (an imprint of SUNY Press), 2016, $18.95 [paper]
I met Leslie Lawrence at the AWP conference this past February, and I was struck right away by her genuine warmth. I hate to use the cliché that she sparkled with a zest for life, but, well, she did. This was a woman who was soaking up every minute of life and asking for more. Compared to so many people who move zombie-like through day-to-day life glued to their cell phones (and I have to admit that I often fall into this camp) it was refreshing to meet someone so engaged and present. That alone would have been enough for me to read her memoir, but when I learned that she was also a lesbian mother, I got even more excited. As a queerspawn myself, it’s rare to find books written by people whose families look like mine.
What I loved about this book:
It reads like an intimate conversation with a friend—filled with foibles, joy, and frustrations, but always with an upward tilt in appreciation of this experience we call life. The essays are a blend of the common experience with the rumination on greater truth. As I read her work, I kept thinking that my mother would love to have coffee with this writer. I’d love to have coffee with her, too. I’d like to introduce her to my friends and all have coffee together. In that spirit, I thought instead of writing a traditional book review, I’d try to introduce my readers to Leslie Lawrence in a conversation.
Q: The words that kept coming up for me as I read The Death of Fred Astaire were reluctance and acceptance. The narrator was reluctant to be labelled, reluctant to become a dog owner…yet it is also a journey of acceptance and satisfaction. Would you say that’s a fair assessment?
A. It’s true I’m reluctant to use labels—especially when it comes to my sexuality. Walt Whitman proclaims, “I Contain Multitudes” in his poem, “Song of Myself,” which I like to think of as “Song our OURselves.” Love and attraction—don’t they often surprise us! And wouldn’t it be boring if they didn’t?
As for the journey from reluctance to acceptance … well… I do have a deliberative, ruminative side to me, but many of the essays show another side as well. Sometimes I just dive in. We see that gameness when I accept a job teaching English in a vocational high school; when I jump at the chance to participate in a Cross-dressing workshop, when I rent a cabin in foreign territory, or attempt the flying trapeze, or head to Morocco all by my lonesome. I may have highlighted that reluctance-acceptance pattern because I enjoy experiences that teach me that I don’t know myself as well as I thought I did. Like who would have thunk I’d fall in love with that drippy-eyed cocker spaniel! I like these surprises because (according to my son who’s recently earned a degree in Social Work) I have a “growth mindset.” I used to think a person stopped growing at around aged 21. Now I’m happy to report the beat goes on.
Q: One thing that I noticed is that you were always striving to expand your world. You wrote about many unusual classes you took, from a cross-dressing class in King for a Day, to creating collages, found art, and interpretive dance in the section, Wonderlust: Excursions through an Aesthetic Education. While this may have come off as flighty in someone else’s narrative, here it seemed more in keeping with your subtitle: A Life Outside the Lines. I felt as if you continually push yourself to try new experiences. Of all of these classes, if you had to pick just one, which was your favorite?
A: Ah, good—you saw expansiveness as well as reluctance. I’m glad. Of all those courses… oh that’s like being asked who your favorite child is! And some of them went on for years and some for just an evening. Some were so long ago, others more recent. I couldn’t pick a favorite, but maybe I can mention of few that seemed to have the biggest impact:
That teachers’ course with Ken Maue called “Break the Lecture Habit” not so much because it influenced my teaching but because Maue’s ways of expanding consciousness have put me on a path I’m still on.
Also, a course I didn’t even mention: as a freshman at Oberlin, I studied Buddhist mediation. I only recently (ten—fifteen years ago now qualify as recent) realized just how important that was in my development as a writer. During the mediations I realized just how ego-driven almost all my thoughts were, how vain and petty and… It seemed I had two choices: Despise myself or accept myself? I chose the latter—though of course I have to relearn this again and again. Furthermore, over time I’ve learned that I’m not alone in having such ego-driven parts of myself. That, I think, is what allows me to be honest on the page. We read, in part, to feel less alone. When I recognize myself on the page, I’m grateful to know I’m not the only one. I hope that when people see my shortcomings, they feel less alone as well.
Finally, I want to mention: “Dancing Outside the Lines.” Yes, it gave my book its subtitle, but also gave me my body back—helped me navigate through fear and grief in a healthy way—and it helped me see how I could incorporate the knowledge I gained from lots of other courses I’d taken—music courses, sculpture courses. Yes, they all connect in some way.
Q: One essay that really stuck with me was Enough Tupperware, about the physical mountain of plastic containers you received when Sandy was diagnosed with cancer. I think what I liked about this essay was a theme in many of them—your willingness to show your own shortcomings. Driving around with someone else’s toilet plunger in the back of my car is something I could see myself doing for months! But also, it’s a balance between the tangible and the intangible that makes the essay work—for such an interior essay collection, it is also very visual as well. Little moments or objects rise to the surface. When you start an essay, do you start with a picture in your head that you want to explain, or does it start with a feeling, and the images rise to meet the words?
A: What an interesting question! Can I dodge it and say BOTH—the feeling and the image find each other? Early in Sandy’s illness, I was deeply moved by people’s generosity. I realized how spiritually nourishing it was—and I was ashamed of my own previous stinginess. But not until I saw that mountain of Tupperware did I envision an essay. It provided a quirky, light-hearted entrée into a subject that could otherwise seem generic or saccharine.
As for revealing my shortcomings—let me add that if I write about a short-coming, I’m already on my way toward overcoming it—or at least trying to. I’m still not as generous as I’d like to be, not by a long shot, but I also understand people have different ways of being generous, and we’re all juggling a lot. I try not to be any harsher on myself than I would be to my friends. (And visa versa too.)
Q: Lastly, all the mother-writers I know, myself included, struggle with the balance of writing about our own lives while protecting our children’s privacy or their illusions about the past. I thought you managed this particularly well—you mention your son, but always carefully, and with the attention kept on you. How does he feel about your writing in general, and this book specifically? In other words, is there hope for us other mother-memoirists?
A: Thank you for saying that. It’s true, that only when I became a mother did I become absolutely dedicated to remembering that he might someday read what I was writing. The first essay about his conception originally came out in a small literary journal when he was still very young. I figured he never had to see it at all (nor would anyone he knew). Many years later when Astaire was accepted for publication, I let my son vet the whole thing. Now in his late twenties, he’s one of my most vocal fans. Every time I give a reading, he posts it on Facebook and his friends come out to support me. He’s deeply committed to social justice in many areas and is happy to do his part in support of unusual families
For more information about Leslie Lawrence, including links to buy her book in other formats, course adoption, and a longer interview, visit her website at LeslieLawrenceWriter.com
Copyright © 2020 Lara Lillibridge
Public domain imagery courtesy of Snappygoat.com