She tells you straight-up: “The decision when to begin a family story is arbitrary.”
And she lays out the doubts and uncertainties: “Who am I to claim the official version?”
And, so, Alison Pick is our seemingly uncertain and unsanctioned guide.
But, she also writes about the dynamic between certainty and reluctance in a relationship.
And this is true not only in an intimate and romantic partnership, as she describes, but in the relationship between reader and writer.
The more uncertain the writer, the more she is willing to explore and unearth difficult truths, the more she bares her humanity and confronts her doubts and fragility, the more we, readers, develop a certain trust in Alison Pick’s voice.
The story of her “own small life” in the context of her family mythology has long inspired her work. In her poetry collection, Question & Answer, she also considers the arbitrary nature of beginning a query into one’s ancestral heritage.
Consider these lines, from a poem written for her grandparents, “What They Left Me”:
“Her son: my father.
My own small life.
The first light snow of winter, their ashes at my back.”
For years, these stories have haunted her, even before the desire could be clearly articulated (a process she describes at length, in an authentic voice, which strikes a balance between peculiarly personal and universal human experiences), even before she understood the dimensions of their experience of the Holocaust.
“But I felt a growing unease. The clues were beginning to add up. Something wasn’t right in our family. Something was lurking, biding its time. It seemed to be pulling at me, a persistent tugging. I wasn’t sure I could resist much longer.”
It is more than a simple unease, however. With time, it becomes “…an oppressive, relentless psychic weight; a nagging voice that I have to somehow override each time I set pen to paper”.
This lurking and tugging, oppressive and relentless, settles into a diagnosis, but this is not a medical memoir; by nature a contemplative and reflective person, Alison Pick records and evaluates, reels and careens.
“There are things I used to care about: That the bills were paid on time. That we ate the kale in the crisper before buying more. I once nagged Degan about ironing his shirt before work. I remember this through a fog of comprehension, stunned that I would have noticed such a thing, let alone felt compelled to do anything about it.”
Her quest, unsurprisingly (given the title), focuses on matters of faith.
“At a time of spiritual crisis it is best to do nothing. To float. To rest. To ask for guidance. But when I finally make it home and collapse into bed, I find myself unable to pray. I am between Gods, as others are between relationships or careers.”
But the role of her creative work, her use of dance and music and language to form order from chaos: this, too, is vitally important in both questioning and answering.
“And a story, any story, has to start somewhere.”
In some ways, it starts when you get out of bed in the morning (or do not).
In other ways, it starts when you put pen to paper. While “between Gods”, the author is also composing her novel, Far to Go. (Her first novel, The Sweet Edge, is what drew me to this volume.)
“Maybe writing fiction serves a dual function: letting the author excavate her psyche while at the same time functioning as a kind of psychic shield.”
The links between her ancestral history and her personal life are explored through a swath of experiences as varied as a traumatic hospital visit and an unexpectedly strong attraction (to another writer who has published a memoir about his experience growing up in the Orthodox Jewish tradition) to a tour of a concentration camp and a speech given by a Holocaust survivor. And, throughout, there is a persistent awareness that hers is “just one of many possible stories”.
Many scenes are rooted in religious traditions, both Christian and Jewish. From Passover to synagogue services, from Christmas carols to Communion wafers: many readers will likely be drawn to the detailed exploration and consideration of specific memberships. (There is a lot of detail about Toronto worship in particular, from community centres to Judaica retail locations.)
While I am sure that many readers will find these elements of the memoir central, for me the pull of Between Gods is its sense that each of us travels our own spiritual road, with or without formal affiliation (both states are considered at length in Between Gods). This journey of a lifetime (and across lifetimes) is a road much travelled, shaped by us as individuals and as members of communities (whether rooted in blood or in choice: Alison Pick finds travelling companions in both groups). And all readers can find something to relate to in this kind of travelogue.
“Narrative begs an ending. The desire to wrap up loose-ends, to make meaning, is human, and ancient. But things do not end. There is only progression, shape-shifting, the flow of a current that crashes and tumbles, diminishes, almost dries up, only to give birth to itself again a little farther downstream.”
Alison Pick begins her quest reluctantly, but her journey is punctuated by moments of certainty.
“The flip side of grief is a blazing, blistering gratitude for being alive.”
Thanks to TLC and the publisher for the invitation to participate in this tour.
Other participants’ thoughts appear here: Back Porchervations, From L.A. to LA. Yet to come: Not in Jersey, BooknAround, Life By Kristen, Worth Getting in Bed For, The many thoughts of a reader, 5 Minutes For Books, Book Hooked Blog, Sharon’s Garden of Book Reviews, Svetlana’s Reads and Views, Ms. Nose in a Book, and Book by Book.