Reviewed by Darby Laine
The core of Liz Scheid’s The Shape of Blue is finely combed and polished shrapnel of what remains for the living after the loss of a loved one. In this collection of essays, Liz Scheid’s writing holds a unique angle to its focus: she doesn’t observe from too close, or too far, from the misery and the happy in her common human experience, yet the essays are intimate without embellishment. We do not read about the more immediate stages of the grieving process, the mind state that is closer to shock, we read of the internalized, well-known loss that has ending. For such subject matter, the traumatic loss of a sibling, motherhood, snowflakes, and EKG’s, Liz’s straight-forward, matter-of-fact writing is refreshing.
Scheid’s style does not belittle the impetus of this loving eulogy-story, but marks it distinctly with a voice in full possession of its experience. The unexpected death of a loved one; it happens, Liz Scheid lives with it, along with her two children and husband. The author is not overly sentimental on death and birth as she moves from the overtly personable to drawing in the more distant ephemera that revolves around a life. Only occasionally does the text get a little close to indulgent in its slightly repetitious nature, but this is easily forgiven, more palatable, due to the precise story writing:
“I have a scar on my mouth. The tissue runs thick inside, making it hard to pull that skin. I don’t remember the incident. I remember the stories passed on to me by my parents and siblings. I’ve heard so many different versions that I imagine the truth to be a collision of them all- somewhere within the gray territory. I do know this: I bit an electrical cord.”
The Shape of Blue is ten chapters and an end chapter of notes; each one can stand alone and covers a distinct piece of memory, of death, birth, childhood, or motherhood, of the author’s, or her sisters, her daughter. Early on and somewhat unexpectedly in “The End of the World as we Know It,” Scheid describes her preoccupation with Pluto after its demotion from planet status in 2006. On one hand, her simplicity is relatable to her six-year old: “It was the boho planet, the way it collapsed categories. Its elusiveness was appealing. I could relate to its quirkiness, having never really fit in myself.” Yet this is followed by a detailed recitation of Pluto’s history with man. Scheid makes the story of Pluto feel intimate, like a friend’s, or as though she is describing the loved details of a home, a place where the emotions of so many memories are readily transposed into a more manageable story:
“…His fixation shifted to capturing an image of this mysterious planet that he knew was there. He photographed the wide sky week after week, night after night, studying each image. But he always came up empty-handed. However, years later, after his death, it was found Lowell did actually discover an image of Pluto on film, but its presence eluded his assistants. That is heartbreaking.”
Scheid explains her love for the specialized languages found in various studies, something that is equally expressed through the subjects of her essays: Copernicus, “inventor of the solar system”, Schiaparelli, Italian astronomer, anthropologist Meredith Smalls, “snowflake-obsessed photographer” Wilson Bentley, dutch physiologist William Einthoven, German astronomer Johannes Kepler, modern art professor Christina Kubisch, all make the their way into the very personal essays on loss and motherhood and language. Obviously not typical details used to augment such stories; these are not the flowers you bring to your grandmother’s grave.
“I walk away from you, back into my car where it’s warm. I turn the radio back on. You would be thirty-five now. You were twenty-five when you died. I’ve passed you in age which is odd because you’re my older sister.”
This the loss of a sister, who is similar in age and generation, at an unexpected time when you are both still young, she with a newborn, but then there is also that archaic grave in the cemetery where she ended up too early. Scheid does not get overly exploratory in the existential theories her experiences have undoubtedly provided, choosing instead to write from the place where internal and external meet. During grief there is the gain of a daughter, and later a son:
“I remember thinking I could only have one child after I had my daughter because she was an accident. She caught me off guard, altered my world, rocked it, brought glints of laughter and love during grief. But with this overwhelming love came overwhelming anxiety.”
The outer world comes and goes in a clean pattern through the pages: her young family riding out the housing market collapse of recent memory, yearly EKG tests, visiting her sister’s grave with a candy cane, the time her infant son had to be rushed into the hospital:
“We called our house a starter house, a fixer upper. We knew there were many projects to be done, but we didn’t plan on staying for longer than ten years. We adopted a dog first. We refinished the hardwood floors. Bret dug trenches to install a new sprinkler system in the front and backyard. We planted four red Japanese Maples in the front.”
From the author’s heart murmur we get the history of the EKG machine, the process involved in listening to a heart, and then there’s that which seems innocuous, but is not: Pluto, a preoccupation with missing children headlines, door collecting, and a jellyfish at the aquarium are all implements.
“These miniature worlds formed early in the history of our solar system. They offer some of the best evidence of the origins of our solar system. Or of us. Imagine our histories folding in, folding out. This is language.”
There are the photo-perfect memories that can be told like a story and there is the invisible, internal piece of memory, the meaning, made more visible by applying the metaphor, the mask, some healthy obfuscation. Piecing together a gestalt of one’s entire, detailed experience is all too human. These ten notes are not necessarily geared toward a cohesive biography of any type, yet we learn an impressive amount about the author’s life. Liz shows us how the experience of the loss of her sister was as unexpected for her as motherhood, contriving a method to use the sharp points of her strongest joy and grief to create this package of personal litany. These collection of notes are of living with the dead, creating the living, of a well-played, tasteful sentimentality all laid open in a little box; the book itself is small and thick, a dark blue box that opens comfortably in one hand.
There is much more grief than motherhood, and more unexpected scientific fact above all. Scheid, with her firm, detailed grip on the facts of reality, placing them alongside the sparser facts of internal occurrence, and she doesn’t stop to ponder the how or why, just what is; no silver thread is present binding a linear story line. A lot is almost understated, but we as readers are never lost because our author does not flail or panic. In the end, the somewhat conclusive, permeating feeling found in The Shape of Blue is the author’s understanding and acceptance expressed throughout the book: “There is no completion in grief, no matter how many doors I slip through, what’s on the other side is always the same.”
Excuse me if that spoils the book, or life, for you.
Darby Laine is a poet living in Burlington, Vermont.