Like most women, Jennifer Rieger confronts life’s unexpected events with apprehension. As a nineteen-year-old college student she becomes pregnant, disrupting her plans for a writing career. She falls in love with her infant son, even more deeply than expected, and she learns to be a wife and mother. Soon, she finds herself in a high school classroom, making a living and teaching English to teenagers, but thinking she is destined for another life someday. At the same time, she pursues an MFA in creative writing, intrigued by the life and work of Sylvia Plath—her spirit mentor. After several years in the classroom, she’s surprised to discover that teaching adolescents is her calling. Nevertheless, she continues to refresh herself by doing literary research, immersing herself in writing retreats and sabbatical study, completing her thesis . . . filling the creative well. Meanwhile, she pours her thoughts into creative essays that express, with raw honesty, how she reconciles expectations with experiences. Then unexpectedly, her memoir, Burning Sage, is published, and the writing career she’d always planned for becomes reality.
There’s a cost to Rieger’s strategy of balancing a career she’s come to love with preparing for the career she’d always hoped for, however. Both require energy and time—and both of those are finite resources. That she’d had to vow not to have more children to get the teaching job she wanted proves ironic. Like many women—whether feminist or not—Rieger is compelled by a desire for both family and career. “My mind races over the past few years. Should I, or shouldn’t I? To baby, or not to baby? Waiting for the right moment. Waiting for the perfect time in my career. Waiting.” In the end, an unexpected uterine tumor and the consequent hysterectomy slam her reproductive window shut.
Ultimately, Rieger finds fulfillment in the bonds she creates with students, bonds that are deep and sustaining. Students come into her class; they graduate and leave her. She misses each one, but the students she says goodbye to become friends. She celebrates their successes, grieves their failures, and mourns their deaths as deeply as a mother would. The connection is strong, but, “I’m not a mom to this girl,” she says of one student. “I’m not a teacher anymore either. I’m a something-else; she’s a something-else … What I do know is that extra room in my house—the one that was supposed to be a nursery—doesn’t feel so haunting anymore.”
Rieger’s memoir in essays is eloquently told and organized around observation of the ancient ritual of burning sage for healing. Book sections are titled “Plant,” “Sprout,” “Grow,” “Bloom,” and “Burn.” The author correlates phases in her own life with the life cycle of the sage burned in purification rites. She uses the analogy to tell a story of joy in welcoming new “kids” into her life each year and the sadness of letting them go. Rieger has learned to make peace with the unexpected; Burning Sage encourages readers to do the same.