2 out of 4 stars
Share This Review
When Chicago business executive Kathleen O’Dwyer left her corporate life for the high desert of Arizona, she had no idea what she’d bargained for. O’Dwyer’s memoir-style book, Breathing Blue: Giving My Life to Spirit and Spirit to My Life, recounts her two years living and working on a remote ranch in southern Arizona. Yearning for more than a corporate cubicle, O’Dwyer knew she was at a crossroads. A healer she had sought after an accident issued her a prescription to breathe in the blue of the sky. The desert offered her that opportunity, and the essays of Breathing Blue were born.
The journey begins when the author takes a job as the caretaker at Aravaipa Ranch, a spiritual retreat center northeast of Tucson. O’Dwyer writes about her deeply felt experiences of nature and spirituality as she navigates the challenges of isolated life. Living in a small trailer, she encounters a wild desert that seems to reject her at first. “This was a war zone. Snakes, scorpions, horses, spiders, tarantulas, gila monsters, mesquite and cholla needles, my legs and arms were crosshatched with scratches, scars and bug bites. Everything was waiting to take a bite out of me, stomp me, or sting me.” While the author starts her journey with questions and fears, we watch as she learns to live alongside the desert creatures she first rejected.
When doubts or fears surface, O’Dwyer draws strength from her writing and her spiritual practice. The beauty and unpredictability of the high desert infuse the author’s prose. “Here in the canyon night is black ink spilled on black paper. And it comes quick. As I sat down to write, I noticed a ghostly cottonwood tree outside the window, its bark luminous in the twilight. I typed a few sentences, looked again and the tree was gone, swallowed by the night.” O’Dwyer writes daily, capturing the complexity of her new life, as she begins to accept the loneliness that has descended.
Breathing Blue is divided into fifty-nine short essays with some of the author’s poetry interspersed. The poetry and prose shine in places, but much of the book reads like an unedited journal – rambling and stream-of-consciousness, at times. I recently read Book Blueprint by Jacqui Pretty. This book-writing manual drives home the importance of defining the needs of the audience when considering writing a memoir. Like many readers, I am looking for compelling stories and elegant writing. In order to appeal to a memoir audience, O’Dwyer’s storytelling needed to be tighter and more interesting. She does forge a hard-fought new beginning toward the end of the book, but it is a rare moving moment. While there are fragments of engaging storytelling, many of the essays recount tolerating inconsiderate ranch guests and eradicating unwelcome insects and rodents. There is a compelling scene that tells of rising floodwaters, for which I was on the edge of my seat. But ultimately the impact of Breathing Blue is thin because both the writing and the stories are often flat.
Breathing Blue is not professionally edited. There are ten punctuation errors in the first seventy-nine pages. Many times I had to reread a sentence to glean the meaning because it was missing at least one comma. I tried to adjust to the complex sentences with little punctuation, but there were cases where the sentence just didn’t make sense as written. Following is one example. “A medium Jenn served as a channel for a group of entities called the Council.” I didn’t know what a “medium Jenn” was. It wasn’t until a couple of sentences later when I understood the author was referring to a woman named Jenn who was the spiritual medium working with the guests. O’Dwyer also assumes here that her readers are well versed in the jargon of certain spiritual traditions. For example, in the above context, the author should have helped the reader with the terms “medium” and “entity.”
O’Dwyer presents this book in a style similar to Cheryl Strayed’s Wild or Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. In these and other good adventure memoirs, the authors’ challenges and transformations are palpable and profound. Breathing Blue doesn’t quite get there. For that reason and the editing problems, I rate the book 2 out of 4 stars. It is worthy of two stars because I think some who enjoy nature or inspirational essays may appreciate it. I liked the idea of a life changed by stepping outside of the box, and I wanted to like this book for that reason. I grew to appreciate Kathleen O’Dwyer’s path as I read, and I understood her impulse to share her experiences with others. She vows to keep following her bliss and breathing in the blue of the sky, and I believe she will.
View: on Bookshelves
Like Eva Darrington's review? Post a comment saying so!