When Nashville author Mary Laura Philpott was in college, her father regularly sent care packages from home. But instead of the typical homemade-cookies-and-encouraging-notes variety, his packages were filled with canned goods — lots of canned goods. She and her roommate laughingly nicknamed them “bomb shelter” boxes, but it’s hard not to think that the apple fell pretty close to the tree in this case. Anticipating and preparing for the worst is Philpott’s sweet spot. In fact, making sense of the land mines of life is the theme of her new memoir in essays, Bomb Shelter: Love, Time, and Other Explosives.
A wearer of “disaster-colored glasses” from a young age, Philpott was thrilled to be introduced to the concept of foreshadowing as an English major, and she determined to mine reality, as well as literature, for clues to future hazards. (A lifelong lover of sad books, she quips, “Of course, sad books had the most foreshadowing; that’s why it was called foreshadowing and not foresparkling.”)
Decades later, Philpott’s already intense protective instincts go into overdrive when her son suffers a terrifying medical emergency, and she suddenly finds herself confronted — as never before — with some of life’s toughest questions. Her only weapons are her irresistible charm, infectious good humor, and disarming honesty — and she pulls no punches, especially with herself. After taking an online personality test, she exclaims, “Two traits showed up tied in first place for me — anxiety and cheerfulness. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt so validated. Am I here to tell you we’re all going to die? Yes. Am I here to give you a pep talk along the way? Also yes!”
Philpott’s greatest gift as a writer is her ability to tell a story as if she is simply sharing the events of her day with a friend. A master of the timely digression, she is as skilled at handling painful subjects as she is offering hilarious glimpses inside her life and mind, and she often intersperses the two with great effect.
In “Calm Yourself,” Philpott, a practitioner of guided meditation, accurately depicts the problem of “monkey mind,” an inability to focus one’s thoughts that is all too familiar to those who meditate. “I didn’t mean to think about reindeer,” she apologizes to the relentlessly soothing voice on the recording. “I always mean to let my thoughts drift on the breeze.” Pivoting quickly from lighthearted humor to hard-earned insight in the same essay, she advises, “No one knows how anything is going to turn out, which means you can’t get all indignant because it turned out differently. There is no differently. There’s only the way it turns out. There’s only the ending that was always going to happen; you just didn’t know it.”
The list of Philpott’s worries is long, and they range from very common fears to those that are unique to her. Prominent among them is the thought of her teenaged children leaving the nest, about which she declares, “I had a primal urge to swallow them whole, just absorb them back into my body and keep them with me forever.” Yet she’s also heavily invested in the survival of a wild turtle named Frank (pictured on the cover) who lives in and around her yard, and she is determined to overcome her dog’s eating disorder — one successful strategy for which involves playing the soundtrack from Les Misérables as an enticement.
Readers will likely identify with many of her struggles, even as her comical take on reality allows them to temporarily forget their own. And ultimately, though unable to quell her own fears completely, Philpott does manage to find some solace in the midst of the chaos. “The kind of ‘home’ I craved was a feeling, not a place,” she realizes. “A sense of safety and wholeness, of good intentions and predictable outcomes, or, at the very least, the comfort of togetherness when things fall apart.”
In that case, Philpott has provided her readers a very sturdy bomb shelter indeed.
Tina Chambers has worked as a technical editor at an engineering firm and as an editorial assistant at Peachtree Publishers, where she worked on books by Erskine Caldwell, Will Campbell, and Ferrol Sams, to name a few. She lives in Chattanooga.