Drinking the Rain
by Alix Kates Shulman

North Point Press/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995. ISBN 0865476977.
Reviewed by Duffie Bart
Posted on 11/29/2004

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Relationships; Nonfiction: Nature/Place/Environment

Drinking the Rain, as one might guess from its beautiful title, can be described as a novel-length prose poem. I think of it as an ode to nature and to a particular time in the life journey of its author. It is a time when Shulman's children are grown; her husband, Jerry, and she have become estranged; the feminist movement to which she had been devoted seems dormant and a thing of the past. In short, a time when the author loses the passions that had driven her and, sadly, loses sight of the significance of her life. Having recently turned fifty, she feels a new urgency. Then something happens to bring about her firm determination to "begin a new chapter."

While exercising one morning, Shulman is seized by an intense and frightening vertigo. Her vertigo continues in the days and weeks ahead, but the doctors can find no explanation. Certain that this is the beginning of the end of her life, she seizes the day and listens to her heart, which urges her to remove herself from obligations and pressures that have filled her life. She wants only solitude and silence.

In the past, she has been afraid to spend time alone at her family's isolated cabin on a promontory in Maine--not even with her children during summer vacations. The cabin has no plumbing, heat or electricity, no neighbors, no phone, not even a road should she need help for some reason. She wonders if she can get the fridge started and imagines disasters such as lightning striking the tinderbox cabin or a slasher steeling his way into her bedroom in the dead of night. But her need to slow her life down, to get away from her mailbox stuffed with announcements and invitations, and to escape the incessant ringing of the telephone takes her to this cabin. Her fears go with her.

Shulman learns to begin her days without an agenda. Her many fears loom large. I confess to identifying with all of them. Where we part company is in her ingenuity to find sustenance on this "nubble," as she calls the promontory. I would see the nubble as a beautiful place to visit for an afternoon before going in search of a cozy restaurant for a warm dinner. Not so for Shulman. She remains at the cabin for months on end, unearthing a daily fare for herself that is nothing less than delicious and healthy. She scours the shoreline and coves for mussels, clams, periwinkles, even the occasional scallop and lobster. She recognizes every herb, every edible berry, and knows just how to cook them.

Drinking the Rain is the author's honest account of surviving on this isolated stretch of beach and, in time, transforming herself. Eventually, her fears diminish. She begins to feel safe and even protected in the ever-changing vastness of her simple ocean dwelling.

But this is not an account of an easygoing change of lifestyle. The challenges are intimidating... such as a warning she hears on the radio about a red tide--a deadly organism that attacks the nervous system and paralyzes the vital organs. That bit of news certainly would send me scurrying back to my city habitat. Yet Shulman does not flee when unexpected difficulties overwhelm her. Among other things, she seeks out a native dweller to learn more.

When an old friend and free spirit, Margaret, comes to visit, they take long walks and enjoy meaningful conversations Shulman has been craving. They explore the beauty of nature and the complexities of their own inner natures. When it is time for Margaret to leave, the author is "... both relieved and sorry to see her go: relieved to resume my experiment in solitude, but sorry to lose the company of the one person I know whose sympathy for my chosen life is incontestable, though she'd never choose it for herself."

Soon after the departure of her friend, Shulman is served with divorce papers. The shock is great. It is one thing to choose a solitary life, another to have it thrust upon you. Her first fear is that she may lose the cabin which she has come to love as she never did in all her years of marriage. What happens now to our brave protagonist? A great deal. Her new life requires earning money, achieving an understanding with her embittered children, her continued determination to avoid the materialism that consumes those around her, and the challenge of a love affair.

Drinking the Rain is an illuminating memoir. It reminds me of the importance of taking risks, of trying new things, of following my heart. But most of all, it piques my curiosity about and sustains my interest in this fascinating author who is willing to share herself with such honesty in this eloquently crafted work. Shulman's book is an excellent choice for those women who wish explore their potential and travel new ground.

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