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This is How We Leave

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We all run from something, but do we have to leave?

Against a background of family runaways, award-winning memoirist Joanne Nelson explores what it takes to stay when the going begins to dazzle and the staying seems way too ordinary. With a great grandfather who disappears, a grandfather who strays, and a father who walks away, she’s lived a life liable to give way at any time. In unflinching prose that is by turns intimate and humorous, she dives deep into her own role (and even culpability) in a childhood marked by disruption, emotional abuse, and parental alcoholism.

Nelson’s working-class roots and catholic schoolgirl upbringing, experimentation with all things negative, and hopeful creation of a new family life all serve a passionate story that examines the many ways we leave our communities, our families, and even ourselves. It will surprise no one that she became a psychotherapist—working with families, children, and in schools to help others on a similar journey. Her innovative observations and careful attention to detail create an engaging narrative of just how quickly our pasts become the now—and just what we’re going to do about it!

178 pages, Paperback

Published August 11, 2020

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About the author

Joanne Nelson

2 books8 followers
Joanne Nelson is the author of the forthcoming My Neglected Gods and the memoir, This Is How We Leave. Her writing appears in numerous journals and anthologies. She won the Hal Prize in nonfiction, as well as other literary awards, and has contributed to Lake Effect on Milwaukee’s NPR station. Nelson lives in Hartland, Wisconsin, where she teaches at the university level and leads community programs. She gives presentations on mindfulness and writing, creativity, and the second half of life. Nelson holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars, an MSSW from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and is a certified meditation instructor. You can contact her at wakeupthewriterwithin.com

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Displaying 1 - 19 of 19 reviews
Profile Image for Martha.
Author 8 books81 followers
July 6, 2020
Author and therapist Joanne Nelson proves through her tender new memoir, This is How We Leave, that writing is indeed the best therapy.

Through a series of essays, the author shows us her youth growing up in dysfunctional working-class family in Milwaukee. Through detailed, sensory-packed prose, we see, listen and feel the violent slaps; the cursing and criticism; and the drunkenness. When the father abandons the family, the two teen sons go off to their lives, leaving Joanne with her alcoholic mother.

“In the working-class neighborhood the indoor swells of our parents’ dissatisfactions and angers were the most dangerous. The problems — broken appliances, disobedient children, and unexpected bills — often played out during supper with raised voices and smacks to the head.”

Such honesty, combined with the many insights the author imparts, are what make this memoir so touching. She’s neither bitter nor forgiving. Instead, she tells of her anger, despair, fear and disappointment. Ultimately, however, she comes to understand that her parents came from an uneducated background and lived during an era where no one was encouraged to share their feelings. Nor did they have the advantage of parenting classes or counseling. The result were people like her parents, who lived with inner demons from which they never escaped.

Most satisfying of all, Nelson shows that though she had a rough start in life — one made easier by her loving grandparents — she went to college, married and created a loving family. Through her training as a therapist and passion for writing, she processed the pain, and while unable to forget, she moved forward, to a place of acceptance and happiness.
Profile Image for Kim.
Author 6 books7 followers
July 12, 2020
Raw and honest, insightful and smart, this essay collection/memoir hybrid takes us inside the mind and heart of a sensitive girl buffeted by a family stressed with alcohol, abandonment, and the tyranny of that “They” might think. Nelson takes us on a journey that explores leavings and stayings and coming out whole. This is a marvelous read.
Profile Image for Story Circle Book Reviews.
636 reviews62 followers
September 12, 2020
“In my basement office I keep a framed picture of my brothers and me, circa 1967,” writes Joanne Nelson at the opening of her memoir, This is How We Leave: “The three of us stand behind a kitchen table that features a three-tiered birthday cake and Currier & Ives coffee cups centered on matching saucers—enough to indicate the presence of grandparents. The coffee looks freshly poured, an equal amount in each cup and no lipstick smudges on the rims.”

This kind of careful observation of detail and its significance is the hallmark of Nelson’s thoughtfully written memoir, which examines the patterns of her family in which three generations of men left or at least checked out: “Grandpa Eli’s father, Andrew, headed off on a sales trip one day around 1932 and never came back. Some forty years later, shortly before I turned twelve, my father called in sick to work one morning and then ran away. He, at least, left a note.”

Nelson’s linked stories look at those men and her memories of them, as well as her own fears about whether she could form a family of her own and stick with them. When she spends a few days at a retreat center (“a break from family and phones and to-do lists”) she writes: “It surprised me, even frightened me a bit, to realize how much I liked the time alone.” Frightened her, because of course, staying wasn’t the norm in her family.

This is How We Leave unfolds quietly, laying down the details of a childhood with an alcoholic mother, a perfectionist father, grandparents with their daily routines, brothers who struggle with the tension in the family and with their growing need to escape. The picture of people searching for love and happiness without the tools they need to find it is quietly tragic, and also poignant. There is her father trying to reconnect:

During my freshman year in high school, before my mother remarried and we moved away, my dad occasionally parked down the block from the house on 54th Street, waiting in his shiny red car to drive me to school. I remember feeling a stomach-achy rush of fear when I spotted his car. Not because of anything untoward in his relationship with me, but because of how my mother would handle the knowledge of our seeing each other.

As Nelson looks at her memories with an adult’s eyes, what shines through the faults and frailties, the silences and betrayals, is also the magic of ordinary, everyday love. The kind of love that sends her north to visit her alcoholic brother Stephen in his remote cabin as he dies, where she boils the filthy silverware and also pours out corn for the deer he loves to watch. The kind of love that has an exasperated Nelson laughing with her husband as their younger daughter turns from angsty teen to goofy toddler when her first period comes, the love that keeps Nelson attached to her family, imperfect as they all are.

If there’s a message in this quietly honest memoir, it’s that love is possible even in the hardest times, and it may just be what holds us together.

This book was reviewed for Story Circle Book Reviews by Susan J Tweit.
Profile Image for Phill Provance.
Author 3 books5 followers
September 29, 2020
In her new memoir This is How We Leave, Joanne Nelson invites us into a family history of running away and the struggle to avoid being someone others run from. The closest, safest man in the author's family is her Grandfather Eli, whose father, Nelson's great-grandfather, fled and was never heard from again and whose son, her own father, eventually up and left as well. And yet, while Eli remains, he is hardly a rock stabilizing Nelson's often troubled family: “Now here he [sits], the one who stayed, the one having to answer all the questions.”

Like any great memoir, however, This is How We Leave isn't as much about loss as about who remains. Nelson invites us so intimately deep into her past it’s hard not to mistake having stumbled upon a secret confessional of sorts, leaving us feeling a little guilty for having shared so much of her beautifully expressed life. At once we witness a family’s pains and healing, confusion and clarity, humor and anger.

This is How We Leave isn’t as much about leaving, then, as it is about the power of remaining in the hurt and reaching for a restorative life. Experiences Nelson so uniquely searches out in her life and dares to share feel so intimate we are forced to consider parallel moments in our own lives and wonder if Nelson's path to healing can't somehow work for us too.
Profile Image for Lori.
168 reviews3 followers
August 18, 2020
I've been looking forward to this since I heard it would be published, and I'm not disappointed at all. Reading this book has made me think of so many stories and events from my own family, and I'm guessing it will do that for many.

As I read, I was reminded of the way anthropologists doing a dig create a grid. Then they carefully scrape up dirt, about an inch or so at a time, and put it through a sieve so any fragments of artifacts can be found, cataloged, preserved, and finally displayed. I imagined that this work must be like that for Joanne - thinking of an event, or a person, carefully considering different parts and sifting through memories and mementoes, and choosing how to present it on the page.

There is much here: Childhood memories of steady love from grandparents - and random smacks from parents for annoying behavior. A first kiss - and the later, lasting love of a spouse. A child's bewilderment - and an adult's understanding. I highly recommend this book.
Profile Image for Gina Troisi.
Author 3 books52 followers
January 24, 2021
I read Joanne Nelson’s This is How We Leave in one blissful day. It is a lovely illustration of growing up in a working-class Milwaukee neighborhood in the 1960s and 1970s. Nelson’s controlled, grounding narrative voice carries us through a harsh landscape of familial abuse and alcoholism with grace and precision. I greatly admire the way her wise, poetic prose displays such authentic self-reflection and self-examination. This book is an unflinching example of honesty in its purest form.

The author skillfully articulates stark contrasts—the warm and cruel moments between family members, the human desire to leave or to stay, to ignore or to show up. There is beauty on every page—the vivid details of days spent with her beloved grandparents, the way she nurtures and cooks for her older brother, who is dying from alcoholism, the way she tends to the needs of her teenage daughters as they experience their own challenges. Nelson explores the way, even as adults, we can repeat childhood patterns created by trauma and suffering—struggle with our self esteem, contemplate our desire to fit in, and the way we can remake ourselves, finding our own places in the world. This is a relatable, stunning memoir about the complexities and angles of family. This book is a gift I could open again and again.

Profile Image for Ann Epstein.
Author 33 books13 followers
December 27, 2020
Learning When, and Why, to Stay – Joanne Nelson’s memoir This is How We Leave, is about saying goodbye to a past that was far from good and accepting that the present doesn’t have to be perfect to be good enough. Nelson reveals the ghosts of her childhood with refreshing, and sometimes uncomfortable, honesty. As a writer (see my Goodreads author page https://www.goodreads.com/author/show...), I appreciated the authenticity of her prose as she invites readers to accompany her on this searching journey. Generations of people in Nelson’s family left: the men physically; the women, including the author, emotionally; and her mother absenting herself in alcoholism. Although her home was plagued by physical abuse and drinking, readers from a variety of dysfunctional families will recognize elements of theirs in Nelson’s childhood struggle to understand why hers differed from that of her peers, and her adult need to belong. Without sugar coating or sentimentality, Nelson’s journey arrives at a satisfying place that doesn’t entail denial, withdrawal, or running away.
Profile Image for Sonia.
1 review1 follower
August 20, 2020
Reading “This is How We Leave”, by Joanne Nelson, is like going on a journey with a good friend. It’s as if the author reaches off the page and invites you to join her as she explores the ordinary and the extraordinary moments of family life. With empathy, humor and raw authenticity, Joanne Nelson takes you inside the mind and heart of a young, insecure girl from a working class family riddled with “leavings” - both literal and through addiction and abuse. She explores the complexities and uncertainties of family life and lays bare the imperfections and failures of her own, while also demonstrating the resilience of the human spirit and the value in choosing to stay.
Profile Image for Linda.
14 reviews
September 8, 2020
"This is How We Leave" is raw and unapologetic without being sentimental. The author exposes her vulnerability with careful and measured courage, which can only be accomplished in retrospect after having walked through the fire of a tumultuous family life. Despite the trials and challenges, we see the author accept and cherish her life. Additionally, the simple prose adds to the memoir's starkness and beauty, leaving the reader to savor and ruminate over each carefully selected word. While this book is brief, it is a tiny sparkling treasure in the the world of memoirs.
2 reviews
August 15, 2020
After drying my tears of joy for the woman this girl has become, I took the opportunity to reflect upon my own life. As a clinical psychologist, I recognize that we all leave others or are left behind by some. This book helped me realize even more that good can come from those possibly devastating, yet uplifting experiences. An extremely well written book, you feel all the sensations described by this talented author as you read about her victorious life, giving hope to all who read it.
Profile Image for Anne Wondra.
Author 2 books1 follower
August 16, 2020
Just finished your book last night. As I read, it felt like watching an artist paint, as pieces of a life story are layered and revealed. So proud of you and your work and your resilience in becoming all that you are. Beautiful job and a moving read. Thank you. (P.S. I don't do stars or ratings, especially something so personal to one's life, as this is. Our lives are not a competition and not to be judged.)
Profile Image for Bruce Campbell.
Author 5 books16 followers
September 16, 2020
Ms. Nelson offers us a charming, wrenching journey through some of the relationships and departures that have shaped her as a writer and person. Tolstoy oversimplified things when he said, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This book shows that both conditions intermingle in important and indelible ways.

Well written, self-revelatory, honest, and engaging. I look forward to the next collection.
239 reviews2 followers
July 20, 2021
A masterful hybrid of memoir told with essay-like chapters, most centered around a particular objective correlative, and all focused around the theme of leaving. A great-grandfather, a straying grandfather, her father, a brother to alcohol, her alcoholic mother to death, and her daughters to adolescence and college. We might wish our lives and people to be different, but our experiences shape and grow us. A gem of a book.
January 26, 2023
"this is how we leave" is a must read for every baby boomer who attended a private catholic school and grew up in the '70's. This book is mega-nostaligic; it flooded my mind with memories--good and bad--and peeled away the layers of pretending to be that 'perfect' middle classs family while growing up with an alcholic parent/parents.

Thank you for the memories Joanne--bad and good; good memories I had almost forgotten.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
88 reviews18 followers
August 30, 2020
Read this! Beautifully written with a combination of emotion and wry, subtle humor that pulls you in and makes you question, appreciate, and ponder your own instances of "leaving."
Profile Image for Valerie Biel.
Author 8 books66 followers
August 17, 2021
The author reviews achingly painful chapters of her life in a honest and gripping manner that makes this memoir a unique read in the world of memoirs. Perhaps it is because the author has not only survived but is a thriving writer, educator, and mentor. She's clearly made peace with her upbringing, which offers hope to others that they too can create space in their lives to acknowledge painful episodes and move forward in a healthy way. Lovely story -- yes, heartbreaking at times but also beautiful and generously told.
Profile Image for Melanie Faith.
Author 13 books68 followers
July 29, 2022
Joanne Nelson has a smooth, direct style that recreates times both stressful and joyful with graceful prose. I admire the candor of this beautiful memoir. From shoveling snow in the alley as a family during Wisconsin winters to tucking her alcoholic mother in at night and going with her recently single mother and an aunt to dances, this resonant memoir explores endurance. It includes reflections on many kinds of parenting: being parented by two struggling adults, parenting the next generation, and also about parenting oneself into a productive, healthy adult.

The book is divided into chapters that have meaningful, thematic titles. The first two-thirds of the memoir focuses on the author’s growing-up years, with tender passages about days spent with her grandparents, Grandpa Eli and Grandma Dora, and harrowing memories of her father’s abusive anger and his affair. With her elder brothers gone to college, her father leaves their home shortly after she hears him softly whispering into the phone while her mother is at her once-a-week evening job. Several chapters follow the aftermath of her parents’ divorce and milestones in her teenage life, from first kisses and a high-school breakup to waiting anxiously late at night for her mother to stumble home from the tavern.

The author flashes forward in time with ease and takes the reader through the challenging final days of her mother’s life and the many emotions that arise as she—as the only daughter in the family who also lives closest to their mother—becomes de facto caregiver and medical contact.

Nelson does not shy away from her frustrations that she cannot keep separate her mother’s messy decline from her much more calm family life that she’s built with her husband and young daughters. Nor does she turn away from meeting her mother’s needs, cleaning up and cleaning out her mother’s house, and detailing multiple visits to her mother in the hospital and (later) care facility. One of my favorite chapters in the book about the mother-daughter relationship is “I’m Sorry.” Nelson also reflects on a warm memory from early childhood when she and her mother cozied up and snacked and read before bed (in “Just a Hum in the Background”). I was also very moved by the chapter where she visits her alcoholic, reclusive brother for the last time before his death and cooks for him (“Things That Won’t Happen Again”). Ultimately, this is a story of familial boundaries and familial love.

Much of the book is serious and reflective, which I enjoy; I also very much savored the author’s wry humor. The second third of the book includes essays about the author’s parenting of teen daughters and includes many humorous reflections. “The Hallway in My House” focuses on picking her teen daughter up from a friend’s 14th birthday party held at a McMansion with a braggart host and explores social class/ fitting-in themes that resound, while “On Coming Home from the Conference” finds the author discovering a new body wash in the family shower that inadvertently raises suspicions. There’s also a final chapter on the bittersweet years when the daughters no longer want to decorate the tree as a family that perfectly ties together the poignant and the funny.

I loved the motifs of both keys and the cars on the highway that border her property’s yard that are skillfully woven throughout the book. I look greatly forward to Nelson’s next book!
Displaying 1 - 19 of 19 reviews

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