Sometimes she seems aware of the glaring discrepancy between her lofty wisdom and the knottier reality. Her mother, a former beauty queen, died alone in her home and was discovered only after neighbors noticed the newspapers piling up outside; Steinke wants to believe that her mother’s compulsive hoarding and end-of-life squalor was a rebellious act of “de-creation.” But the chapter ends with a few stray lines from one of her mother’s notebooks, suggesting that her mother’s pain ran deeper than anyone knew, and was more complicated than Steinke’s exalted theory would allow. “Justice is as inconsistent as the people who create it,” her mother wrote. “Accept this reality and continue to struggle or give up and lose control.”
Too often, though, the insights in “Flash Count Diary” feel forced, the analogies strained. Steinke tries to convey the consuming obsession she developed for a 50-year-old female killer whale named (what else?) Lolita — “a kindred menopausal creature” whose captivity at the Miami Seaquarium began to bother Steinke so much that she flew to Florida from her home in New York to visit her.
“Is it stupid to compare my captivity to Lolita’s? Is it insensitive to actual captives, real prisoners?” Steinke writes, as if trying to convince herself that the analogy will work. “I am restricted, stuck in the box the greater culture uses to enclose and reduce older women.” It’s a fairly meager observation stretched painfully thin.
The unevenness extends to the writing, which reads well enough when Steinke is recalling moments that left an indelible mark on her memory, her perspective widened by the distance of time. Her current perspective, though, can occasionally narrow to a pinpoint.
Catching a bus from Port Authority Terminal to “our little cottage in Sullivan County,” she takes note of the bus station’s “smeared glass, grubby tile, exhausted souls slumped on plastic chairs and waiting on line,” and of the “slack-faced men in ill-fitting suits and women in polyester floral dresses.” It all feels so unnecessarily lugubrious and condescending — not that a jauntier Steinke is always preferable, especially when she’s rolling her eyes at saying something “for the zillionth time” and admiring an orca’s “badassery.”
But the book still left me wanting more: more voices, more works about this transformation. The subject feels truly fresh and transgressive, while nubility is beginning to seem like, well, old hat. Patriarchal culture might deign to make (some) space for the lives of girls and younger women, but older women are being audacious and seditious when they make space for themselves.
While reading Steinke, I kept thinking of “Pause,” an essay about menopause by the poet Mary Ruefle, who steers her way between despair and deliverance: “You must pause first, the way one must always pause before a great endeavor, if only to take a good breath.”