‘Everything Rustles: Memoirs’ by Jane Silcott

Book Reviews

Everything Rustles coverReviewed by Jess Woolford

The cover of Jane Silcott’s debut collection of personal essays features a photograph of pale bare feet dancing across a carpet of fallen yellow, orange and green leaves, an indigo skirt belling out above them. Below that is an image of dark trees rooted in shadows and reaching up into a muddy sky. One imagines the wind stirring those trees, the rustling of their leaves and branches perhaps discomfiting while the noise of busy feet stirring dry leaves is most often joyous. These contrasting yet connected images hint at what readers will find inside: thirty-one essays inspired by the author’s transition from youth to age and from innocence to experience (and perhaps back to innocence again as Blake thought good), from the excitement of rustling to the dread of it.  To underline this alteration, Silcott begins by quoting Sophocles who said, “To him who is in fear everything rustles. “

In her fifties and experiencing menopause, Silcott is attuned to the near-constant rustling of “the change.” Noting that scientists refer to this point as a “threshold,” Silcott writes that, “You imagine stepping over this threshold and moving from one state of biological being into another. And this sounds fine. Anyone can step. The body does it of its own accord…” And yet it proves to be anything but fine.

To illustrate, Silcott describes “an academic conversation” with “an attractive man”:

We were talking about aging and then gender, and so for me, the obvious topic of menopause came up. And because this was one of those conversations where minds seem to spark one against the other in a higher, rarer air, I thought it was safe to mention something personal so I said I was menopausal. It’s not as if he jumped back or anything. He didn’t run. But there was something. A squinching, if you can call it that. A momentary tightening in his pupil… and I felt suddenly and overwhelmingly ashamed. Why was that? Why be ashamed over a completely common experience? This man is a man’s kind of man, all burly and hearty, but also sensitive and intelligent and so I admit I felt attracted. Or, more particularly, I felt a need to be attractive. But in that moment when his pupil squinched, I understood—perhaps for the first time—what the meaning of menopause really is.

To drive the point home, Silcott quotes Germaine Greer who wrote that menopause is “the beginning of the third age. The age when we are aware (finally) of our mortality, when time becomes precious and moves too quickly, when our looks change and we realize how much we’d relied on them most of our lives, when we lose power and identity (in Western cultures particularly), when we grieve for the loss of our fertility, and maybe for the loss of libido. Our bodies are changing out from under us. It is the change that ends changes. It is the beginning of the long gradual change from body into soul.”

As Silcott observes, Greer’s description “is beautiful.  Safe at my desk, no mirror anywhere near, I imagine this graceful slide towards purity.” And yet, “I know I’m failing on this passage. This journey towards soul. I’m stuck, not just groping for words, but stumbling around in endless circles of thought, and then into grief over looks…” Menopause, then, is a fearful threshold for Silcott to cross, a passage that remakes her into “a woman seeing the end of the road of her desirability,” a loss that is significant in North American culture with its slavish devotion to the beauty of youth. Whatever emerges from women’s changed bodies will never be valued the way firm, unwrinkled flesh is, and that knowledge rankles and pushes the question, Who am I, truly?, to the top of the author’s mind.

In addition to her work as a writer, the Vancouverite is a clinical teaching associate at BC Women’s Hospital, an experience she relates in “The Goddess of Light & Dark”In this role, Silcott is “model and guide to nurses, midwives and naturopaths as they learn how to do pelvic exams.” In the course of an exam, Silcott views her “cervix shining pale pink, in its centre a small black hole that looks like a star imploding” and this brings “a new sense of myself.  I am walking in the world, but I am the world too.”

Yet this is not the final word for Silcott as she continues to wrestle with “a feeling that the edges are closing in” and to place herself as mother, wife, lover, daughter, sister, writer, self and body. “I think” is a phrase she recurs to often and her essays reveal the workings of her inquisitive and lively mind. Silcott reads widely and enthusiastically and gives much consideration to the words and thoughts of others as she navigates new passages in her life, whether they be menopause or fledging teenage children from the nest, as well as old ones: the pain of a years-past knee injury which is never quite resolved and resurrects other pains, and remembered interactions with a father who spoke in “a whip of words.”

Mixed in with the bewilderment and the anger and “the vistas of grief that open at unexpected moments,” Silcott is dryly funny, as when she describes the myriad menopause books with their

cheering words about the benefits of giving up caffeine and red meat… Inside, they talk of menopause as if it’s something we can manage, like a stock portfolio or a new diet. If we eat enough yams, take enough vitamins, begin each day with sun salutations and affirmations… As I head off to exercise class, drinking a glass of soy milk before I go, I think of girdles, cigarettes and gin. Why was I born into this relentlessly earnest time of herbal remedies and yoga classes? Why can’t I take advantage of stimulants and supportive underwear?

Moving from cityscape to wilderness, from the vastness of a starry night sky to the confines of a cave, from standard-length essays to one that is a mere page, Everything Rustles intrigues and inspires. At one point Silcott writes, “Sometimes this getting older feels like joining a new club. I see fellow members everywhere, and I appreciate them for their lines, their greyness. There’s a kind of ease in it, familiarity, and also relief. What’s been barring me from this club all these years has just been youth, and now I’m here, careening toward age, hurtling on a downward slope, and when I see my fellow careeners, I feel reassured. I look at them and nod, and think, ‘Here we are.  We might as well make the most of this little moment,” and reading and savoring Silcott’s work, whatever your age, is a good way to do just that.

Anvil | 160 pages |  $18.00 | paper | ISBN # 978-1927380413


Post a Comment

Your email address is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>


Jess Woolford

Jess Woolford reads and writes memoir in Winnipeg.