Savage Park: A Meditation on Play, Space and Risk for Americans Who Are Nervous, Distracted and Afraid to Die
by Amy Fusselman
Houghton Mifflin. 2015.
Amy Fusselman is a writer and editor, a former figure skater, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, and a mother raising three children in Manhattan. Guided by curiosity and compassion, she creates some of the strangest, most interesting memoirs I have ever read.
Savage Park is her third book. Like the other two, The Pharmacist’s Mate and 8, it is a slim memoir composed in short sections ranging from a few sentences to a few pages in length. I don’t need to tell you what it is about because it’s so clearly spelled out in the title. Part meditation, part manifesto, Savage Park considers the hot topics of risk and play in childhood and beyond, and the fresh path Fusselman blazes through this familiar territory will surprise you.
It begins with an email from a friend, Yelena, who is living in Tokyo. Come to my house, bring the family, and stay for a least a month is what she tells the author. “I do not believe the English language contains a word that expresses all that this gesture was,” Fusselman writes. “Her invitation to us was a feat. She inhabited her space with such generosity that she enlarged it. And then, from that expanse, she called to us: Come in.”
Right from the start, we are asked to stretch our imagination and look at the world in a different—some might say whimsical—way. It is made easier because Fusselman often plays the role of the American Who is Nervous, Distracted and Afraid to Die. She frets about the cross-country airplane journey to Japan with her two young sons; she questions her ability to withstand being a guest in her friend’s living room for a month. She is not calm all of the time, nor does she have all the answers. This approach endears her to us.
Savage Park, by the way, is a nickname for a place Fusselman and her family stumble upon during that initial visit to Tokyo. During one of their jet-lagged adventures throughout the city, they follow Yelena to Hanegi Playpark, which looks nothing like the parks and playgrounds found in the United States. Small fires dot the landscape and dozens of children climb trees and hang from rope bridges high above the ground. Rickety structures are assembled and dissembled, with or without the materials – nails, wood scraps, hole punchers, etc.—that are free and available for the children’s use. In place of a long list of rules is a small sign that states “Play Freely At Your Own Risk.” Fusselman sits on a log with her son, roasts a marshmallow over one of the fires, and looks around. “The children were in the trees, in the smoke, in the air around us. The children were hanging out; the children were flying in the air around us. We stayed there as long as we could.”
A critical part of Fusselman’s genius is how she builds her story. The short sections pile up and eventually patterns emerge. Her dissection of the common perceptions about space (space here on Earth, not outer space) are interspersed with closely observed events, like the military precision of the lifeguards during her oldest child’s swim class, or the transfixing experience of walking across a tightrope behind Philippe Petit, the master wirewalker. Her research into play and the history of playgrounds in the United States bleeds into a memory of the rising panic she once felt playing paper, rock, scissors; and again, later, in a description of a game her younger son invented which requires him to jump up in the air the instant someone passes him on the sidewalk. (He calls the game War.) In Savage Park, theory and practice are always churning side by side like pistons in an engine. This structure allows us to follow Fusselman as her intellect rubs against the complexity of her lived experience. I like to think of the book as a performance in which she plays freely at her own risk. It is in many ways her own private Savage Park, where writing about what it means to be alive is an ongoing experiment.
A few years after the first Tokyo trip, Fusselman manages to go back to Hanegi Playpark, alone, for a full week. During this return visit, she shadows Noriko, the head play worker at the park, and sleeps next to her on the floor of Noriko’s tiny one-room apartment. Though once again cranky and exhausted, her lengthy submersion in Noriko’s routine and in the rhythm of the park helps her capture its essence. She writes, “The playpark has everything in it, including nature in its beauty and treachery; including man-made spaces in their youthful heroism and then inevitable shabby disorder; including people – old people, adults, teenagers, children, and babies; including fire; including lunch on the fire; and including the possibility of death. And it takes a particular person to hold all that and to say it is here, and we are here with it, and there is no cleaning it up; there is no point in that. There is only time with it, and what we choose to do in that time, and how we do what we choose to do.”
You certainly don’t have to be a parent to appreciate what a wise and radical approach this is to life.
Spinning several subjects at once is a hallmark of this author. In the Pharmacist’s Mate, her first book, Fusselman mourns her father’s death and struggles to conceive a child with her husband, Frank; among these passages are excerpts from the diary her father kept during World War II, when he dropped out of a pre-med program at Virginia Military Institute and joined the Merchant Marine. In 8, raising two young children is the backdrop for explorations into a variety of past and present events in her life, including learning to ride a motorcycle, craniosacral therapy, and repeated molestation by a childhood babysitter. All of her memoirs have an improvisational quality to them, though I would argue that Savage Park is the most focused and methodical of the three. If you like the memoirs of Sarah Manguso or Nick Flynn, or even Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book, you should try Amy Fusselman.
An additional Fusselman trademark: little interest in linear chronology or tidy endings. As we move from section to section, what’s coming next can be hard to predict, and summarizing What It All Means is nearly impossible. But her voice, both sincere and confident, always keeps me reading. It commands the kind of attention that she argues for repeatedly in Savage Park. “Be Here Now was a mantra of the 1960s,” she writes. “These days, I think we might, realistically, need to simplify the goal a bit: Be Here. And with that goal, we may finally begin to ask ourselves the question: Where are we?”
If this book has had any effect on you, you may find that you can sit still with that question for a long time.
BETH CRANWELL APLIN grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and currently lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her family. She has an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. Her work has appeared in The Missouri Review, The Morning News, Poets & Writers Magazine and Kirkus Indie.