Mary Laura Philpott as Portable Therapist
Author: Mary Laura Philpott
In her outstanding sophomore collection of essays, Mary Laura Philpott has established herself as a relatable, wise, and exceedingly empathetic voice of Generation X.
In fact, I would like to shrink Philpott down to pocket-size so I can pull her out whenever I feel the pressing need to consult with someone who gets it. “It” referring to the angst we feel over not being able to protect our loved ones. “It” referring to the act of raising little kids who turn into teenagers and then (sob) college students. “It” referring to the existential dread that rears its ugly head by dint of gun violence, materialism, and all the jerks out there who seem to ruin things for everybody.
Bomb Shelter: Love, Time, and Other Explosives feels urgent and relevant to me—which isn’t a huge surprise, considering Philpott and I are the same age. What is surprising is how much stronger and more compelling Bomb Shelter is than her first memoir. Since the publication of I Miss You When I Blink in 2019, Philpott has honed her powers of observation along with her writing skills. She digs deeper this time, pushing headfirst into matters of sorrow and discomfort—like when her son falls ill with epilepsy, when her father undergoes major heart surgery, and when she loses a friend to suicide.
I relate to Philpott in many ways, but particularly because we both love to strap our anxieties to ourselves as if they were backpacks. My therapist would tell me that doing so is “unproductive,” which I intuitively understand but rail against anyway. I continue to hold the (false) conviction that to worry about my family and friends will magically keep them out of harm’s way.
Philpott, too, enjoys worrying herself sick about things that are decidedly out of her control, but she’s able to acknowledge the absurdity of it: “Getting ready for the bomb to fall doesn’t even predict or influence whether the bomb will fall or not. It’s all pretend, just busywork, isn’t it? What is a bomb shelter but either practice for something that will never happen or a postponement of the inevitable?”
You’re right, Mary Laura, you’re right. (Remember that part about me wanting to shrink you down and pull you out on the rough days?)
Not everything in Bomb Shelter is heavy. Philpott is wickedly funny when discussing her shapeless sack of a wool sweater, her changing face with the “crumbly edges,” and Frank the turtle who visits her yard (and stars as the adorable centerpiece of Bomb Shelter’s front cover).
But I can’t lie: the distinct thread linking her thirty-one essays is one of resignation—of accepting that to love is to lose, that everything changes, and that we can’t freeze time, even when there’s nothing we want more. She concludes, “I want to take care of everyone and tuck them all up under my wing, but it turns out that it’s impossible—that there is no such thing as keeping them all safe, that no one can ever get everyone they love under their wing because nobody can be everywhere at one time, no wing is big enough.”
For this mom of three teens who just sent her oldest two (identical twins) off to college, Philpott’s words couldn’t be more aptly timed.
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