Clear Skies, Deep Water, A Chautauqua Memoir by Beth Peyton (Suny Press, USA)

I was tardy when it came to reading this memoir, which I ordered and received back in April. I was busy, there were other things pressing in on my time, and I just didn’t get around to it until last week. 

As the author states in the first line of her Prologue, she lives on Chautauqua Lake, in Western New York State. It’s a case of relocating and finding a new life, a hard-won life at that. As a bit of a map-fiend, I was pleased to note that the memoir contains a beautifully etched map of the actual lake, with all the relevant places that we encounter in the story marked clearly. Then there are the photographs, which are equally interesting once you get to know the people she mentions.

I was very quickly engaged because this is not alone the story of life on the lake, nor a warm-hearted spinning of yarns about good-hearted local characters. There is some of that, of course, but in the hands of Peyton you quickly realise that something else is going on and that she only deals in truth. What she is really speaking of are possibly the central truths of her own life, and using the experience of relocating to this lake to reveal them to her readers. There are no fabricated charming auld characters the like of which have sprung up in some memoirs, nor is there straining for authenticity. As in the best of this genre, it tells a lot about the author’s personality, her experience, about how her life has been and all the knotty roots that she has released from the trap of the past in order to survive and grow. 

Yes – we learn of the attraction of Lake Chautauqua and how she and her partner Jeff came to visit it. Then comes the decision that this was where they actually wanted to live. As in full-time. Away from Delaware. Away from the familiar. As in finding and buying a place. As in – and this is the gnarly, knotty bit – finding a way to square it all with their ‘other’ family segments: the ex-wife/husband, the children, and then the sheer anxieties of money and the lack thereof, and the occasionally thwarted hopes and dreams.

Beth Peyton is a woman who has done the work on herself that seems par for the course for many of my generation. You know the kind of thing I mean – the self-therapies, the reading, the investigation, the thinking and re-thinking, the uprooting of unpleasant aspects of the past for unstinting, merciless scrutiny before reassembling the whole kit and caboodle to see what you’re left with that’s worth keeping. Her revelations never come across in the least bit preachy or sermonising, or over-virtuous. There’s no psychobabble in this memoir. We learn in one particularly interesting chapter, where she diverges slightly from lake shore life, about how she learns to steer and drive and manage the boat she and Jeff eventually buy. It’s essential to have a boat if you’re living on the edge of a lake. But what emerges is a psychological mastering of her own doubts. Naturally, she learns to manage the boat and to eventually back it into their berthing area, by herself, when there are no watching familial eyes.

The chapter called Barf Salad is particularly revealing: this is where the author announces drily “I come from a long line of unexceptional cooks”. This in itself isn’t particularly unusual and the world is littered with poor cooks. What is interesting is the way she links nourishment and the lack thereof to the emotional famine that people often undergo in family life for all kinds of reasons beyond their control, and she doesn’t exempt her own childhood family from this. But Peyton isn’t a member of PoorMe.com. Far from it, her explanation of her childhood lack of abundance gets right to the heart of it. Her own mother, she tells us, “was also an unremarkable cook, not from lack of talent, perhaps, but because of circumstances: too many kids born when she was too young. At twenty-five, she was already burdened with four children, an absurd and cataclysmic failure of both birth- and self-control. We ate poor-people food, sometimes not enough, served with way too little happiness. Even today, you must ask to share my food before you grab it off my plate or risk being stabbed by my fork.” 

So, we discover, being at Chautauqua Lake is partly an odyssey towards nourishment: true nourishment. Much as Peyton likes to cook – like, she really likes to cook and I know this by her food descriptions, which speak of abundance and imagination and pleasure and tongue-and-body delight – she takes a secret pleasure in being the one to do the nourishing. This is no failure of feminist instinct, by the way. It is a fact. She knows that to feed others is both to be a creator and a controller of options. And the lake, it seems, ties in deeply with her own need to be nourished. As it nourishes her spirit, she is busy nourishing the bodies and spirits of those she loves. The experience of the lake people, daily life, or her relationship with her partner Jeff and with her/their children, all emerge from the author’s soul (it appears), as the aspects that offer her nourishment of the true kind, just as she has nourished and cared for many, and made no virtue of it either.

This is a charming, witty, often funny memoir with an authenticity that strikes like a hammer on an anvil. The sparks fly – some beautiful – as in the descriptions of her surrounds, some anxious, sad, angry – as her personal difficulties untold. But largely, this is a joyful story of an important place that nobody knows very much about (on this side of the pond at least), a small place, a place that has its own time and rhythms that might mean very little to the rest of the world. just as the right times and rhythms are to most of us. Deep down, we know that they don’t matter very much to others. By acknowledging this and so more, there result is a compelling, very beautiful memoir, one to read and keep.

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