Sherry Sidoti’s new memoir is a joy. I read “A Smoke and a Song” once for the story, and a second time to savor her language — the engrossing way she uses words, ideas, and images to draw us into a life well-lived. And a life well-lived doesn’t always mean hearts and roses. Although well-recognized on the Island for sharing yoga and helping others develop, we discover that there was plenty of drama and trauma in Sidoti’s own life. Still, as she carries us along, there is never a sense of victimhood, but rather of a person whose life unfolds with bumps and bruises in exactly the right way.
Sidoti creates a sense of exquisite immediacy by using the present tense throughout.
“I need to show that as a human on the planet, we are all learning as we go, and healing might happen in that present moment, even though we don’t always realize it at the time,” Sidoti shares. “I also wanted to permit myself to make art and to be raw and real; to do that, I had to stop being a teacher.”
There are several threads that weave throughout the book. One is the complex relationship between daughters, mothers, and grandmothers. She nails the nuances in these relationships many times. Early on, she writes about her single-parent, working-to-support-the-family mother:
“Most nights when I check up on Mom, she cries to me. I say things to cheer her up. I move my facial expression to match the storyline she shares, to make it look like I care. But inside, I am seething. My organs cramp, and I go numb. I want to jump out of my skin and shout, ‘You’re the therapist, not me!’ But my tongue gets caught on the roof of my mouth, too thick to work, and limp like a fish. And words, a million of them, just bounce around inside my skull, like pinballs popping from lobe to lobe.”
Sidoti’s mother and grandmother’s relationship is complex as well. Still, Sidoti finds refuge with her grandmother, a serious artist and fiercely independent spirit: “Grandma is certainly not the chocolate chip cookie–baking type. She is eccentric, a dreamer, and she has lived lives … She is the person who sees me, likes me, and treats me like a grown-up. To me, she is much better than chocolate chip cookies!”
Along the way, we meet significant men in Sidoti’s life — her absent father, whom she rarely saw, a married man in Mexico with whom she was involved from age 15 to 20, and her first husband. While there is consequential turmoil in these relationships, far from villainizing them, Sidoti writes with great honesty about herself within their dynamic. She is intent never to seem at any point in the book to set herself up as having it all together.
Sidoti’s love for her son shines through as we watch him age and their relationship mature. She writes insightfully, shortly after he’s born: “Perhaps, through mothering him, this boy, our son, Miles Asher, my teacher, I can rewrite our family herstory. Or better yet, I can let my son write his own. He can craft his own assessment of the characters he was born to, based on his own experience, not mine. Perhaps all the unconditional love that I have for this tiny being, a love that is so much larger than any chapters in my little story, can heal the scars of our family’s past … I will not make my child hold my emotional pain. I will not confuse him with adoration and then withdrawal … I am not Elise’s granddaughter or my mother’s daughter. I am Miles Asher’s mother.”
Sidoti writes movingly of her profound physical, spiritual, and emotional healing journey with yoga and other practices: “My yoga practice becomes a life jacket, my Styrofoam bubble … It’s a place to inhale and exhale and be me. A place for me to feel instead of judging, numbing, or bypassing feeling … Lifetimes lived and lost are squeezed into yoga shapes … With each pose, I oscillate through different moods. If I keep breathing through them, I feel OK.”
Sidoti comes to recognize the role she has taken on in the chaos of the family relationship among her mother, sisters, and grandmother when healing from a seriously debilitating back injury as an adult, seeing it as a metaphor for how she had been living her life: “Be the strong one, the rock, the tree trunk for others to climb to get to the fresh air from the top limb. Without a father to keep the peace, keep Mom stable, or keep my sisters in check, I took on the role of the man of the house. I was both buoyed and burdened by it … My subconscious motto: If everyone needs me, then no one will leave me.”
In “Smoke and Song,” Sidoti gifts us with the honest, imperfect unfolding of her journey, which is a model for self-compassion — and a beautiful, thought-provoking read. At the end, she shares:
“Yes, my childhood shoes had holes in them, and the soles were worn out. But I would not be who I am today had I not walked all those years in my sisters’ hand-me-down shoes. My shoes were holed, but I am not. I’m not the sum of my brokenness. None of us are. We are all whole and holy. Whole and holy worn souls.”
“A Smoke and A Song: A Memoir,” by Sherry Sidoti. Available at Edgartown Books, Bunch of Grapes, and online. Sidoti will visit Edgartown Books on August 5, 11 am to 1 pm; Salte MV on August 15, 4 to 6 pm; and the Edgartown library from 10:30 am to noon on August 19. She will lead the workshop “Take Five: Meditation as Muse for Inspired Writing” on August 21 at Islanders Write at Featherstone.