My husband and I are visiting family in Rhode Island now, and I finished my fourth book of the challenge here. I read Given Up For You: A Memoir of Love, Belonging, and Belief, by Erin O. White. Erin is a friend and classmate from my MFA program. We were in our first workshop together in the fall of 2000. I bought her book soon after it came out this spring, but hadn’t read it.
Erin’s memoir begins in Philadelphia, where she lived in her early twenties, but the bulk of the book takes place during the years she lived in Western Massachusetts–something like 18 years. We both attended UMass Amherst’s MFA program and she and her wife stayed in the area. They started a family and (I learned only recently) will soon be moving to Minnesota for her wife’s job.
Erin’s book is about falling in love with and converting to Catholicism at the same time she met her now-wife—and trying to make sense of her faith in a religion that did not accept her relationship. Ultimately, she chooses her love for Chris, her wife. But the book is an exploration of religion and love, when they are incompatible. I was invited to Erin’s wedding (but couldn’t make it), and enjoyed hearing about the details such as finding her dress and what Chris chose to wear. And then about the struggles of becoming a stay-at-home parent, something Erin wanted to do, but how that affected her sense of herself and career. Chris continued to work a demanding job as a lawyer.
The language in the memoir is beautiful, and some descriptions in her book reminded me of an essay of hers I’ve taught over the years: “East Wind” in Creative Nonfiction. If you are interested in reading it, I can see if I can get ahold of a PDF.
Here is the scene in Erin’s memoir when she meets her future wife:
“I’m Chris,” she said as she pulled away from Jen and turned toward me. She put out her hand and smiled at me in a way that seemed to turn her eyes into small suns, the skin around them folding into thin rays. She was taller than me and her hand was strong; I could see the muscles in her tan arms, in her shoulders. She wore a red string around her wrist, and when I looked down I saw that she wasn’t wearing any shoes. I didn’t understand how it was possible for someone who looked like her to be a lawyer.
I just love that description of Chris’ eyes as small suns.
It would be interesting to go back and chart the movement of faith and love in each chapter. Ultimately, I do think the book focuses on the life Erin made—and what it meant to fall in love with a woman, when before she had only dated men. And how that changed or didn’t change her sense of identity—she mentions still having makeup and heels; long hair; wanting to be the mother who bore the children and in her wedding, to be a bride and wife. Chris had not been interested in any of those things, though she wanted to be married to Erin. I found myself (maybe thinking back to my own marriage ceremony, three years ago) drawn to the parts of the memoir that described Erin’s change in identity throughout the book. To go from single to coupled, to married, to being a wife, to being a mother. And being a lesbian, while before I think she called herself bisexual. In the end, her book found its home at the University of Wisconsin Press in a series called Living Out: Gay and Lesbian Autobiographies.
I’ve watched Erin’s path as someone who had a wonderful blog, now defunct, which was about raising two daughters with her wife in the hills of Western Massachusetts. Then she wrote a column for the website, Literary Mama. In her final post for her blog, “Hatched by Two Chicks,” Erin said that she realized the only way she was going to write a book, was by not writing the blog. And she did it. She focused. She had regular hours at an office she rented; saw friends rarely, except a writer-friend who also wrote at a neighboring office. She went to Pilates and picked up her daughters from school. And she wrote a few essays including one in The New York Times and several in anthologies. And she wrote this book. She took, from the raw material of her life, two questions and explored them in this lovely memoir.