Review: A Certain Loneliness by Sandra Gail Lambert

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cover of a certain lonliness by sandra gail lambert; photo of author at young age using pair of crutchesSandra Gail Lambert’s A Certain Loneliness (University of Nebraska Press, 2018), part of the American Lives Series edited by Tobias Wolff, is a memoir that circles queerness, disability, independence, and the human struggle to connect.

In 1956, after contracting polio, three-year-old Lambert spent months in a Norway hospital in two full body casts after two separate surgeries with a single hourly visit from her mother once a day. After leaving the hospital, growing up as a child with crutches made Lambert noticeably different from her peers. To cope, she fostered a fierce sense of individuality and an emphasis on self-reliance. Lambert pulled herself (and her crutches) through giant snow banks, took swim lessons with an ex-Olympian, and got rides to town to drink with boys.

In the 1960s, Lambert’s family moved back to the states. As she hit puberty, Lambert realized she was drawn to women’s bodies in a new and intriguing way. By the time she was an adult,she had immersed herself in a community of book loving, adventurous lesbians like her. She attended dinner parties, went kayaking in the Florida Everglades, and managed a local independent book store. At the same time, she was constantly managing her life, from the amount of physical activity she could handle in one day, to how long before she needed to go to the laundromat. Lambert even measured how much physical touch she needed: “If a hello hug from a friend lasts five seconds, and I get four hugs a day, which mostly I don’t, that’s a daily touch total of twenty seconds. This is meager compared with sleeping beside someone—60  seconds times 60 minutes times 8 hours, which equals 28,000 seconds.”  Each aspect of her life was meticulously counted out and planned.

Once Lambert realized she could no longer negotiate her life with crutches, she transitioned to a wheel chair. A wheelchair and weakening arms made her daily life different from before—and it required different math: “So I start a calculation of physical energy with percentages listed for each activity—bathhouse trip (30 percent), launching kayak (20 percent), actual kayaking (60 percent), getting back in my wheelchair afterward (30 percent of my remaining energy) ….”

A Certain Loneliness is full of outrageous adventures and feats that seem simultaneously super-human and exactly human. Beyond the story, Lambert’s prose and structure is incredible. A memoir of essays, some are longer than ten pages, some less than a single page. The essays are not in a direct chronological order, but through Lambert’s deliberate organization, each essay arrives when it is needed. Lambert’s writing is beautiful; the prose has a physicality to it—not just the sections about the disabled body, but the sections about Floridan swamps, descriptions of birds, and the logistics of long-distance travel. In an essay about a solo kayaking trip, Lambert writes: “The sun’s lowest curve is still attached to the horizon. It pulls taut and pours orange light over the ocean too bright to look at straight on. Dawn has been wished to for all the years anyone has existed to wish. ‘Love,’ I say. The sun will know what to do with that. I put the paddle back in the water and turn north again.”

Sandra Gail Lambert’s A Certain Loneliness is a beautiful series of essays that explores what it means to live a life of meaning within the constructs of reality and is recommended for all lovers of words, especially those who are interested in elegant and physical prose, unique craft decisions, and memoirs of bad-ass women.

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