In these doldrum days between Christmas and New Year’s when not a lot is happening, presents have been opened, champagne has been quaffed and there’s really nothing to do until New Year’s Eve (more champagne to be quaffed) and the world reopening next week, I’ve got the perfect book to get lost in. Mary Laura Philpott’s Bomb Shelter: Love, Time, and Other Explosives. will tug at your heart strings and make you chuckle, often on the same page. This book is packed with wisdom, humor and entertainment. Don’t listen to me. The New York Times, NPR, Washington Post and countless others gave Philpott’s memoir outstanding reviews. The Washington Post called it “a beautifully wrought ode to life.” Philpott is proof that you don’t need to be a celebrity or have tamed ten crocodiles into doing a Broadway dance routine to write a memoir. You just need to be an observant, sensitive and yes, gifted writer.
Philpott woke one morning at 4am to hear a violent banging noise coming from within the house. That noise turned out to be her then teenage son unconscious having a seizure on the bathroom floor. This traumatic event made Philpott wonder, if this could happen, what else could? How would she keep everyone she loved safe, her family, her dog Woodstock who had an eating disorder and that turtle Frank who liked to knock his head on their front door on a regular basis.
In her thought-provoking memoir, we follow Philpott’s imaginative mind as she reflects back in time on how her eye for danger and joy got sparked early on. She also looks forward to those unavoidable losses, like her kids leaving home, her parents getting old, Philpott getting old. “I thought I had more time” is a common refrain.
This book has plenty of joy in it too, I promise. There are lots of funny little anecdotes about everyday occurrences that with Philpott ‘s eye become that “beautifully wrought ode to life.” In a chapter entitled “I Would Like to Report an Attack Upon My Soul” Philpott receives a brochure about preparing for her child to go away to college. She is not ready. She is incensed. She writes:
“What is this leave home situation. I am my child’s home. Just ask my uterus. What’s that? My uterus is not picking up the phone?”
Below is my Q&A with the talented Philpott which took place just before Christmas:
I’m a recovering catastrophist. Just this morning I worried that these recent snowstorms and wet weather might last for a year. I added “recovering” because NY’s Resolutions are around the corner. You call yourself an “anxious optimist.” Can you explain how you can be both, anxious and cheery?
Like many people (most people?), I am made of contradictions! I’m like you — a person who sees a bad weather forecast and thinks, well, this is it, we’re going to be flooded, I better make sure I know where the flashlights are. But once I’ve found the flashlights, I feel like I’ve got things under control, and everything will be okay.
A lot of my optimism is wishful — or maybe “hopeful” is a better word. I tend to believe that most people have good intentions because I need to believe that. In order not to worry endlessly about the people I love walking around in this world, I need to believe the world is a mostly kind place.
You said that if you were a Spice Girl, you’d be “Control Spice.” Has your desire to control events, keep loved ones safe, evolved since writing Bomb Shelter?
In Bomb Shelter, you see me learning and growing in a certain way: I’m coming to terms with the fact that there is so little I can control, and I’m understanding that struggling against that reality will only bring me pain. That’s an ongoing journey for me, and I’m constantly having to remind myself that I can still find peace and happiness in an un-controllable world. To keep running with our weather analogy: I can find the flashlights and towels, but I can’t stop the storm itself, and I can still live joyfully in a world that has storms.
Christmas is around the corner. What are you especially grateful for this year?
I’m learning to set my bar for a good holiday season nice and low and not apply too much pressure. I may not cook a perfect Christmas Eve dinner. It may rain on the day we wanted to go see the holiday lights at the botanical garden. My teenagers may not want to do every single activity I have in mind. But if I can have my little family back home with me in one place for a few days and lay eyes on them all, that is something. As my kids grow up, that’s increasingly all I want: a bit of time together and a chance to be with everyone.
I have to ask about the animals. How’s Frank, the turtle, whose actual photograph graces the cover of your book?
And Woodstock, your mutt with an eating disorder. Is he eating? Is playing Les Miserables still required to coax him into chewing? Tell us about your love of animals.
Ha! Thank you for asking. Woodstock is eating pretty well, and we do still play music for him at mealtime, because it works. Lately he’s been enjoying the new Taylor Swift album. Eleanor Roosevelt, the beagle, is spry as ever. And as far as I know, Frank is hunkered down under the leaves outside for his cold-weather brumation season.
Somehow animals always find their way into my storytelling. That might be because of the nature of my work. I’m sitting at home, at a computer by a window, by myself most of the time, so animals are my companions during the workday. I enjoy the presence of wildlife. Animals don’t have ulterior motives or want to make small talk or require much at all from humans other than basic respect for our shared environment. They’re easier to be around than people in some respects.
You can read the rest of my Q&A here on 26.