A Certain Loneliness
By Sandra Gail Lambert
University of Nebraska Press, 2018
As Sandra Gail Lambert illustrates in her memoir-in-essays, she can be described as many things: writer, kayaker, former bookstore keeper, swimmer, queer, woman, artist, wheelchair user, Floridian, nature lover, and the list goes on.
A Certain Loneliness was published as part of the University of Nebraska Press American Lives Series, and for an excerpt of her memoir, Lambert was awarded an NEA fellowship. The book is made up of short essays, some only a few pages long. As the book progresses we see Lambert, who had polio as a child, go from leg braces to crutches, to wheel chair, to power chair. At one point she writes,
If you were in less pain, you smiled more. And when you smiled at people, they smiled back. Smiling might be just the beginning. If I used the wheelchair more, if I was in less pain, maybe I would be smart again, maybe I could think past making it through the next few hours, maybe I would dream again of a future—a future I couldn’t yet imagine. It was 1987. I was thirty-five.
Often when we see stories about a person with a disability, they’re what the disability community has labeled “inspiration porn”— where the portrayal of the person is inspirational simply because of their disability. Lambert confronts this attitude early in the book when she describes an incident at a laundromat where a fellow patron says, “You are so inspiring.” Lambert writes, “There’s a mute button in my head for these moments…”
The tone of the work is straightforward and honest and I found that Lambert’s depiction of her life invites the reader to think about their own struggles as a human being. After all, one of the things that unites us is that in merely living we all experience challenges. When Lambert expresses her struggles, they are not compared to others; they simply are.
In addition to being a memoir of the body, A Certain Loneliness captures other aspects of Lambert’s life. Subjects range from childhood swimming lessons to dinner parties; from vacationing in Santa Fe to driving by, and eventually visiting, lesbian bars.
In “Complex Math” she writes about writing: “It was odd to pull words out of a wordless place and to be honest about something, anything. It seemed that if I was going to write, this was how it had to be.” In “Well-nourished White Child” she writes about intimacy: “I don’t know how to stop this hardening… I am a person. I say this out loud in my empty bedroom and hear how defensive it sounds, how lacking in any pride. I try again. It is my right to be engaged in the messy human condition of love.”
As the title suggests, Lambert examines different kinds of loneliness she feels throughout her life, often complicated by the need for independence. She imagines the loneliness of the hospital room after childhood surgeries when her mother can only visit for an hour a day. She goes camping with two couples and tells herself, “Happy, happy.” And after a breakup she writes,
the new order will seem right. Not good—but right, as if I’ve always been physically alone. Each morning I’ll wake and stretch my arms over into the far, cool, unwrinkled expanse of sheet until all I know is that his is how the world is, how I am, how it was, always was, and ever will be.
Lambert’s writing absolutely shines when she writes about nature. When reading “Mosquitoes,” about one of the author’s many solo camping trips, the writing was so evocative I had to stop myself from swatting at my own skin. In another essay she describes kayaking this way: “I paddle through a salt marsh that smells like the origin of life itself, and the glory of it is not yet an illusion, a memory. It’s still real in the moment, and I’ve learned that in the moment and forever are the same thing.”
While A Certain Loneliness is composed of sincere language and contains beautiful moments, there is also humor woven throughout. Lambert is a skillful writer who wields her powers with wisdom and grace.–Amanda Kelley Corbin