Mary Laura Philpott confronts life’s questions with humor and heart in a bomb shelter | Books

OWhen Nashville author Mary Laura Philpott was in college, her father regularly sent care packages from home. But instead of the typical variety of homemade cookies and uplifting notes, its wrappers were filled with preserves — lots of preserves. She and her roommate laughingly dubbed them “bomb shelter” boxes, but it’s hard not to think the apple fell pretty close to the tree in this case. Anticipating and preparing for the worst is Philpott’s forte. In fact, making sense of life’s landmines is the theme of his new essay memoir, Bomb Shelter: Love, Time, and Other Explosives.

Wearing “disaster-colored glasses” from a young age, Philpott was thrilled to be introduced to the concept of foreshadowing as an English major, and she decided she would tap into reality, as well as literature, to find clues to future dangers. (A lifelong lover of sad books, she jokes, “Of course, sad books had the most foreshadowing; that’s why it was called foreshadowing and not foreshadowing.)

Decades later, Philpott’s already intense protective instincts kick in when her son suffers a terrifying medical emergency, and she suddenly finds herself confronted – like never before – with some of life’s toughest questions. Her only weapons are her irresistible charm, contagious good humor and disarming honesty – and she doesn’t hurt, especially with herself. After taking an online personality test, she exclaims, “Two traits turned out to be linked in the first place for me – anxiety and cheerfulness. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt so validated. Am I here to tell you that we are all going to die? Yes. Am I here to give you a pep talk along the way? Yes too !”

Philpott’s greatest gift as a writer is her ability to tell a story as if she were simply sharing the events of her day with a friend. A master of timely digression, she’s as adept at dealing with sore subject matter as she offers hilarious glimpses into her life and mind, and she often weaves the two together to great effect.

In “Calm Yourself,” Philpott, a practitioner of guided meditation, accurately describes 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 of the reindeer,” she apologizes to the relentlessly soothing voice of the recording. “I always want to let my thoughts drift on the breeze.” Moving quickly from light-hearted humor to hard-earned insight in the same essay, she advises, “No one knows how something is going to turn out, which means you can’t be outraged because it turned out differently. There is no difference. There’s only the way it happens. Only the end always had to happen; you just didn’t know it.

Philpott’s list of worries is long and ranges from the most common fears to those that are unique to him. Among them is the thought of her teenagers leaving the nest, of which she says, “I had a primal need to swallow them whole, reabsorb them 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’s determined to overcome her dog’s eating disorder – a strategy success for which consists in playing the soundtrack of Wretched as seduction.

Readers will likely identify with many of his struggles, even if his comedic take on reality allows them to temporarily forget their own. And ultimately, though unable to completely quell his own fears, Philpott manages to find some solace amidst the chaos. “The kind of ‘home’ I wanted was a feeling, not a place,” she realizes. “A sense of security and integrity, good intentions and predictable results, or at the very least the comfort of togetherness when things fall apart.”

In this case, Philpott has provided his readers with a very solid bomb shelter.

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