(Pittsburgh, PA: Autumn House Press, 2019)
The desert: a place of strange, spiked plants and long, sandy distances. Even today in the age of air conditioners and running water, it’s not exactly a place that welcomes human life. It is here, in the borderlands of Arizona, and later, in the high desert of Oregon, that Beth Alvarado’s essays take place. As I read, I came to find that her voice defies both drought and opposition in more ways than one. From her first essay to the last, Alvarado uses down-to-earth story-telling to explore human vulnerability, as well as the mysterious relationship between body and spirit.
Anxious Attachments, a collection of 14 essays, is Beth Alvarado’s third book, and was a finalist for the Oregon Book Awards. It was also long-listed for the PEN/ Diamonstein- Spievogel Award for the Art of the Essay. The essays lead us through four decades of Alvarado’s life, beginning around the time she met her husband, Fernando, and ending just a few years after his death. She explores many topics, including addiction; motherhood and the births of her son, Micheal, and daughter, Cathryn; her time spent working in a shelter for children and teens; old age and her mother’s death; wild fires; ancestry; grandchildren; and school shootings. In her book, Alvarado brings together the personal and the political, the safe and the dangerous, the beautiful and the ugly, producing effects that range from humor to anxiety.
It all begins “In a Town Ringed By Missals.” Beth Alvarado was a spindly girl of 16 with long blond hair (which she hoped looked bohemian) when she first tried heroin. She says that anyone who has been addicted doesn’t need to ask “why” because the answer is laughably clear. Yet, she explains why anyway: “Imagine you no longer feel like an ordinary girl, bland and vulnerable” she says, “but like a girl who is daring, an outsider, one of the guys. This is why I tried it in the first place…I loved the liquid lightning that filled my veins and blossomed in my head. I loved the dreams, more brilliant with color than anything I’d seen in life” Finding the reason why is all too easy, finding the reason why not, on the other hand, is much more difficult. “In a Town Ringed by Missals” is an essay about addiction, yet it is also a story about overcoming it. Alvarado explicitly tells us that her first “turning point,” her first move away from addiction, happened one night with Fernando, the man who would become her husband shortly after. That night, Val, a friend, overdosed and fell unconscious. The entire time that Beth and Fernando were trying to revive her, Val’s husband, Franklin, was oblivious, searching for a vein on his arm. This experience shook Beth because she realized that addiction had the power to do the same to her as it had done to Franklin. She writes: “After she came out of it, I watched them climb on their motorcycle…What if she nodded off on the highway? She would slip like a rag doll beneath the traffic behind them. He wouldn’t notice. He wouldn’t care. Could this happen to me? Where nothing would matter?” Alvarado uses extreme candor like this to grab hold of her reader; she is straight forward, but not overly emotional.
Beth married Fernando when she was 19 years old, three months sober. In the time after their marriage, Beth and Fernando lived together with Fernando’s family. Throughout, Fernando is a spiritual presence in Beth’s life, and his family, a part of him in a way, is too . Alvarado writes that, “This was when his mother began to initiate me into the family, when I began to believe that dreams did mean something, they could tell the future, for instance…This was when I began to see that there was another world beneath this one, a world of spirits, a world where you made sense of the disparate pieces of reality by weaving them together into a story…” Alvarado describes the way that being near Fernando’s family began to help her recover from her addiction.
It wasn’t until she became pregnant with her son Michael that she gave up heroin for good. While Fernando’s family brought her attention to the spiritual part of herself, when she became pregnant, she says, “…pregnancy, even morning sickness, made me aware of my physical presence, my skin, my veins, my breathing, my heartbeat. I had become essential. It took me a long time to realize that the spirit isn’t separate from the body: the spirit is of the body.” This is the first moment when Alvarado begins to draw attention to the interplay of body and spirit which recurs again and again in her stories. The new awareness allows her to reconnect with the world and the people around her. Maybe most importantly, to see how her son depended on her life for his own. She found all she needed to slip free from her addiction.
Though Beth’s triumph over addiction certainly seems to be at the heart of this story, it is not the way she ends the essay. Instead, she turns back to addiction itself. She writes about her friends who didn’t recover, usually people who, unlike her, spent time in jail. She writes about Fernando’s brother, Marty, who went to jail as a teen, and was later diagnosed with schizophrenia. She ends the essay with Marty, leaving the reader hovering over him in his small studio apartment: “He hears voices,” she writes. He rarely leaves. “It took years for him to qualify for disability. Before that, he was homeless or we paid his rent…” . It is important that Alvarado chose to end her story in this place of cold reality. The delicate description of her son just pages earlier— “a not-yet-child was swimming inside, his eyes bulging, his heart beating, the veins in his delicate pink brain pulsing with the red veins on the insides of my eyelids”— making her description of Marty’s situation appear all the more brutal. Through this contrast, Alvarado also brings attention to her child’s vulnerability. He will live in the same world that treated Marty so unkindly. Though Beth and Fernando were both able to overcome their addiction, Alvarado moves forward, into the following essays, with this reminder that the stories unfold in a world built on unsteady ground.
“Thirteen Ways of Looking at Grief” is the last essay in the collection, and takes place nearly 40 years after the first. In this story, Beth is living in Oregon, far from the old Arizona home she shared with Fernando, and feeling homesick. She is struggling with grief, also a kind of homesickness, as she nears the fifth anniversary of Fernando’s death. In a way, this last story mirrors Beth’s journey in the first. After all, she says, she became addicted to heroin to escape pain. After Fernando’s death of liver cancer at just 60, she worried that her “fear of pain”, as she put it, would cause her to forget him. Now, instead of fighting the urge of an addiction, she fights not to forget. The essay is divided into 13 sections; each section a vivid flash of memory, many of which focus on the idea that Fernando was her home; wherever he was, she belonged. After reading a journal entry in which she described a trip she and Fernando took to Spain, she writes, “…Memory is a feeling of what happened; in this case, the feeling that I belonged anywhere as long as Fernando and I were together.”
“Thirteen Ways of Looking at Grief” returns to the theme of vulnerability. In one of the flashes Alvarado tells how Fernando used to bring home tarantulas from his work at construction sites. He would show them to the kids and to their neighborhood friends and teach them how to hold them. That dropping them, even from a child’s hands, could be fatal for the delicate spiders. Sometimes, Beth and her husband would go out into the desert and release them, singing “Born Free” as they watched the spiders scamper away. Alvarado writes, “Tarantulas are fragile creatures, as are all creatures, I guess, when their habitats are disrupted and they are sent into exile.”
Here, it’s hard not to compare the writer to the spider; she seems to be admitting how fragile she is, now exiled from her home, Fernando. This story also returns to the interplay between body and spirit. While in the first essay, Beth discovered the importance of both body and spirit, now she must live without Fernando’s body, catching only glimpses of his spirit. She ends with one of these glimpses, describing a dream where Fernando comes to visit her: “Sitting next to me, although he was invisible and had no body, Fernando pointed to the line of light and said, ‘That is what eternity looks like’.” Beth looks at the body-spirit relationship from a very different place in this essay than she did in the first, but the relationship still feels just as important.
In her essays, Beth Alvarado lingers over moments of birth and death, moments where vulnerability is impossible to ignore. She describes the interdependence of the body and the spirit, and the way her understanding of it shifted at different times in her life. She tells of the way she holds onto her family, the way we all hold onto the ones we love, passionately and imperfectly. Through her essays, Alvarado bravely offers chunks of her life that are shaped by careful introspection and pulsing with emotion.
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Averi Long is a fiction writer and a student at Fairleigh Dickinson University, where she was given the Beverly Saul Award for Creative Writing. She studies both psychology and creative writing, and, in 2019, she enjoyed the opportunity to intern at The Literary Review. Most importantly, she is a lover of the feel, smell, (taste?), and all around experience of books.