Tool Guy Seeks Martha Stewart
I’ll admit it: I love walking around in someone else’s skin for awhile. An autobiography addict, a personal journal junkie, a memoir maniac, I even prefer my fiction written in the first person—not the outside looking in, give me the inside looking out.
I’m also one of those few people who will actually listen to someone else’s life story when they volunteer to tell it while standing in the checkout line of the local supermarket or on a coast-to-coast flight or while stuck in gridlock traffic on a NYC crosstown bus.
Some stories are funny, some heartbreaking, and some frankly annoying, but one thing is true, all the same: you learn a lot by listening to others.
Listening to Kate Maloy, the author of A Stone Bridge North, one hears the intelligent, forthright voice of a 21st century woman as she sifts through the jumble of contemporary American life and seeks ways to live more sanely and meaningfully. The memoir, subtitled Reflections on a New Life, chronicles a year marked by major upheavals - a divorce, a remarriage, a 180-degree lifestyle change, a major relocation, and the onset of a new personal “season,” that of middle age. On a stress rating chart, you’d think Maloy would top out at massive nervous breakdown level. Instead, she thrives on the challenges her radical choices bring her and delights in sharing the exhilarating experience of reinventing yourself.
On a deeper level, A Stone Bridge North offers the reader a map of “the road less traveled” and its surrounding landscape. Socrates wrote, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” With a history every bit as untidy and troubled as any of us, Maloy demonstrates how to revisit the dark places in the past and emerge with a new-found understanding and mercy for the frailties of one’s own self and others. This woman has made peace with life with all its ambiguities and uncertainties, and her book quietly reassures us that we can do it, too - without preachers with pat answers or Prozac or the unpleasant necessity of a frontal lobotomy.
Maloy is a modern-day “Everyperson” that most readers can empathize with in one way or another - an unhappy childhood with well-meaning but emotionally stunted middle-class parents, an abusive early marriage and a second marriage that “kept up appearances” so effectively that it even fooled her, trapping her in a quietly miserable relationship for years. She lived out the perfect yuppie scenario, complete with the big suburban house, the lively social life with other affluent couples, the enviable job, the much-wanted-and-planned-for wunderkind, all the badges and trophies of American success and prosperity. Looking back on that time and her inability to identify the numbing effects of a meaningless, driven life:
“I failed to recognize the real hazards in my life because I had dressed them up in garments of responsibility, necessity, and caring. . . . I feared divorce when I should have feared the spiritual and emotional void of a marriage beyond saving. I feared financial insecurity when I should have feared the dehumanizing atmosphere of the job I endured for a decade. I feared . . . disapproval.”
As she drifts discontentedly into middle years, Maloy has an epiphany of sorts and begins the process of reconstructing a life that is fulfilling and emotionally honest. Within a year, she is divorced and remarried to a quiet, reflective Oregon backwoods survivalist-type widower whom she met over the internet. In their early email correspondence, he jokes that he is “a tool guy” looking for “a Martha Stewart” to soften the hard edges of his world. Maloy admits that her well-honed nesting instincts certainly qualify her for that position. Their highly complementary skills serve them well when they decide to move to a remote, half-finished, unheated farmhouse in the backwoods of Vermont.
Maloy embodies the perfect counterculture ideal that was forged in the 1960s and ‘70s - to escape the clutches of a war-mongering, money-worshiping, status-seeking, consumer-crazed, corporate ass-kissing, vapid and mindless society and find a simpler, better way. However, this down-to-earth author never glamorizes the realities involved with the kind of radical choices she has made. This isn’t Utopia she’s opted for, but a crucible in which her character and commitment are constantly tried and tested.
Rural life is relentlessly back-breaking and full of discomforts. Remarriages - even to someone you consider a true “soul mate” - are damned hard. The process of blending families is dicey and often disappointing. “Marching to the beat of a different drummer” is likely to make you a pariah to relatives and friends. The cost of “doing your own thing” is high. Living simply is complicated. Accomplishing the family-of-origin work necessary to exorcise the ghosts of the past is painful to the max. Being honest with yourself and others forces you to think, and thinking is a dangerous activity - which is precisely why our society wars against it so ferociously by offering so many mind-numbing distractions to keep us from ever doing it.
The appeal of this book is Maloy’s unwavering honesty. While remaining a perennial optimist, she nonetheless successfully sidesteps the classic memoir pitfalls of self-canonization, sentimentality and the dreaded “soft focus” view of events that blur the hard realities. This is a voice you can trust, a voice that is charming and positive but doesn’t b.s. you about anything.
Maloy shares whatever is on her mind at that moment - from cranky mates to the creative process, motherhood to alternative medicine, gardening to getting through the infamous New England mud season when the snowpack suddenly melts and the May flies and mosquitos descend like a Biblical plague. Her style is rambling and conversational, which definitely works to the reader’s advantage here. If her occasional forays into politics (liberal) and religion (Quaker) don’t appeal, just skip a couple of pages and she’ll be on to discussing friendships, family dysfunction, the flip side of the American dream or something else of greater interest.
A Stone Bridge North is both entertaining and enlightening. The daily struggles of rural existence make for fascinating reading, especially for us urbanites/suburbanites whose idea of roughing it is to take our loaf of foccacia, bottle of pinot grigio and our thou-of-the-moment for a picnic in the park. Maloy’s quiet, candid description a life lived with simplicity, dignity and honesty is a welcome antidote to the contrived grotesqueries of “reality TV” and the relentless depression of 24/7 news updates on the ominous national and global scene. It is also a timely reminder and gentle encouragement for a troubled era to live each day wisely and well and with eyes wide open.