Not Strictly A Memoir: Jill Strachan’s Honest Look Back

The Literary Hill

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In “Waterfalls, The Moon and Sensible Shoes,” Jill P. Strachan offers an intimate reflection on her life.

Jill P. Strachan offers this caveat to readers in the preface to her new book: “It is not strictly a memoir.” But the rich vignettes and insightful portraits she provides in “Waterfalls, The Moon and Sensible Shoes: One Lesbian Life,” while not necessarily chronological, add up to as complete and compelling a picture of a life as you’re likely to find.

Strachan’s father was a diplomat, so she grew up all over the world—Greece, Pakistan, Egypt, Sri Lanka—with several sojourns home to attend boarding school in Virginia. Bolstering her memory with a trove of diaries and letters, she evokes a palette of vivid experiences: riding a hot bus in Cairo that often got stuck in traffic near piles of rotten onions; being surrounded by “lone men with guns slung on their shoulders” while crossing the Khyber Pass with her family; and, at St. Agnes School, avoiding a formidable housemother by peeing in a trash can rather than visiting the communal bathroom in the middle of the night.

She is equally eloquent when describing the people in her life, including the gay man she fell in love with in the 70s and the younger woman who became her first lesbian relationship. But she is most perceptive in the chapters devoted to her mother and father. It took her years to come out to her parents—and the result was not good. As she writes, “we had no common tools with which to engage in a discussion of this importance.” Her mother wanted to “fix” her through therapy, and her farther became so infuriated that he ordered her out of the house.

She nevertheless writes a heartfelt and forgiving appreciation of her mother, in which she also forgives herself. “I did not honor her for who she was,” she admits. And she is able to rise above her father’s ire to recognize not only his “irresistible” charm but also the obstacles he overcame to become the “successful, self-made man” she idolized as a child. “He had not always been the angry man sitting on the couch yelling at me to ‘Get out!’,” she writes.

Told with intimate honesty, “Waterfalls, The Moon and Sensible Shoes” is a powerful account of one woman’s ongoing struggle to find her place in the world and to understand the people with whom she has shared her life.

A Hill resident since 1977, Jill Strachan was the executive director of the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop (CHAW), a singer and general manager for the Lesbian & Gay Chorus of Washington, DC, and is currently a singer in the a cappella group Not What You Think. She is also a poet whose haiku has appeared in the Poetic Hill.

The Soul of a Dog

As a foreign service offer, Christopher J. Datta served in some of the most volatile hotspots in the world: Israel, Lebanon, Liberia, South Sudan. “My career took me into situations no one would ever want to experience,” he writes. “What saved me in those hardest of times was my friends, of which I am fortunate to have many. But even more than them, what saved me was Scout.”

“Run Scout Run” is a loving tribute to the dog he adopted as a puppy in Sudan and brought to his home on Capitol Hill. For 13 years, they enjoyed the strongest of bonds. “When I was happy, we played,” he writes. “When I was depressed, he put his head on my lap. When I was sick, he lay in bed with me. He was my constant friend, my companion and my protector.” Friendships don’t get much better than that.

Retired diplomat Christopher Datta offers a personal meditation on the human-animal bond in “Run Scout Run.”

Interspersed with the story of Scout are nuggets of animal research Datta has unearthed and his astute and unvarnished observations on a variety of related topics. He ruminates on “the alpha male fallacy,” takes issue with Rene Descartes’ contention that animals have no souls, and bemoans the arrogance of the human race. “We think we are so damn unique,” he writes. “Uniquely short-sighted, perhaps. Uniquely blind to the beauty and intelligence of the world around us, absolutely.”

Written with warmth, humor, and a big dose of humility, “Run Scout Run” offers abundant proof—if any were needed—of why Datta was such a successful diplomat. His passion for equality and his caring philosophy of exercising “patience, consistency and love” to the whole “family tribe” of people and animals is a model we would all do well to emulate.

Christopher Datta is the author of two American Civil War novels, “Touched with Fire” and “Fire and Dust”; a supernatural thriller, “The Demon Stone”; a detective novel, “A Perfect Disguise,” cowritten with his wife, Debra Datta; and a memoir, “Guardians of the Grail,” which recounts experiences from his long career as a civil conflict specialist with the U.S. State Department. Find him on Twitter @dattacj