Reviewed by Susan Minsavage
Have you ever been caught in a hailstorm while showering in an outdoor tub in rural Oregon? How about stalked by a cougar while searching for your pet cat, who, unlike you, is safely nestled indoors on a rocking chair? If so, were you as buck naked then as you were in the tub? If you’re Laurie Easter, you answered yes to all three questions.
Easter’s debut essay collection, All the Leavings (Oregon State University Press, 2021), offers her perspective on literal and metaphorical partings, “leavings” that signify both absence and its lingering effects. Against the backdrop of the Pacific Northwest, where she lived off the grid with her husband and two daughters, Easter explores transition points in her life through the lenses of motherhood and friendship, moments when one identity is left behind and a new one emerges. These are the demarcations that, for better or worse, often organize a life, with clear “before” and “after” points: the deaths of friends and family, the life-threatening illness of a child, a deep depression and near collapse of a marriage.
In this collection, the natural world exists as a place of much-needed solace (cougars notwithstanding) where the beauty and the daily grind of off-grid living provide a focus that soothes a troubled mind, and where lessons can be learned from natural cycles: The spring brings a proliferation of tree frogs, the autumn, a proliferation of pine needles, regardless of the human dramas unfolding around them. Easter wisely paces the collection with moments of “Reprieve,” in which the rhythms of seasonal change provide a steadying, almost meditative pulse for the reader, who may appreciate the break from the inherent chaos of loss that characterizes many of the other essays.
Using a combination of traditional and experimental structures—fans of hermit crab essays will appreciate Easter’s inclusion of Word Search and Crossword Puzzle forms—Easter reflects on the difficulty of being an empathic person in a world where friends go missing after falling prey to addiction or suffer the ravages of illnesses such as AIDS and cancer. Particularly moving are the descriptions of her daughter’s near-fatal medical condition and a suicide in her community that frames a discussion of Easter’s own struggles with depression. The human drive to control nature, whether in terms of wildfire management or medical intervention, is both necessary and a folly, a contradiction that Easter wrestles with throughout the collection.
So, too, does she wrestle with the goodbye that inherently exists alongside every hello. Her prose is clear and lovely, like the view through leafless trees in autumn: “For this ability to let go of their attachments, make ready to shed and leave their trees unclothed, bare, exposed. The thing is when a deciduous tree has lost its leaves, it makes way for more light, a more expansive view. You can see what normally is shaded.”
Easter has a talent for an associative style of writing, smoothly binding separate events through thematic elements and shared imagery, as she does in her essay, “Bad Blood.” Here, she connects three loved ones and their medical stories, allowing the essay to become more than the sum of its parts: Everything from the nature of parenthood to the problem of moralizing illness is supported by this narrative scaffolding, whose levels overlap even as they remain internally consistent. You don’t have to notice the architecture of such pieces to feel their effects, but if you do, you’ll admire Easter’s work all the more.
Easter’s internal world is one of deep feeling, expressed in straightforward language that is nevertheless evocative. Occasionally, she misses an opportunity to fully explore the effects of her own partings on others, even though she recognizes the behavior, as when she flees from overwhelming situations or suggests a false equivalency between a dying friend’s hairlessness with her own self-imposed baldness: “We were the bald sisters, you and I, stripped down to the bare minimum, exposed, nothing left but pure essentials.” As they stand, moments such as these do not always ring true from a narrator who presents herself as empathic, sidestepping as they sometimes do the consequences, not for Easter, but for those around her. Given her considerable skill, I would look forward to her contemplation of this emotional complexity and next-level introspection: When does empathy become over-identification? What internal forces drive the impulse to adopt other people’s tragedies as our own? What are the ramifications of our own “leavings” for those we love?
In her hands, I have no doubt this exploration would prove fruitful, since Easter clearly has the capacity to engage in self-reflection of a stark nature, as when she writes: “There is something I don’t want to tell you. I can’t stand it, witnessing this pain, feeling it penetrate my skin. I feel as though I am underwater, and the pressure of the depths is pushing in on me, threatening to burst my lungs. So I escape. I go back outside to wait where I can breathe.” Easter shines in such passages, in which her emotional vulnerability mirrors the physical nakedness that appears elsewhere in the collection.
You’ll appreciate the big-heartedness with which Easter considers the stories of her life, as well as the obvious tenderness she feels toward her loved ones and the unique environment in which she makes her home. Those who, like me, enjoy a variety of essay forms will also appreciate the care with which thematic coherence, imagery and emotional pacing are balanced in the collection as a whole.
The book’s afterword is a sharp reminder that natural cycles will continue unabated—I’ll leave that moment of discovery between you and Easter. Still, the reader is left feeling that solace can be found, perhaps in the wilderness, or in the wild embrace and sloppy kiss of a grandson, or even in the result of human effort, as when “the wood is dry in that seasoned way where when stacked, the split logs clang together, making a solid hollow sound that feels like peace, like warmth, a pleading knock of wood that echoes.”
All the Leavings is a strong debut collection by an author well-acquainted with grief, whose worldview nevertheless remains expansive enough for hope and wonder. Let Laurie Easter’s prose echo in your mind for a while and be comforted that such words exist.