Halfway From Home is a lyrical and precise cartography of what it means to belong—to a place, to poverty, to a family where abundance never visits, to a life shaped by restlessness as an escape from pain. Montgomery sings language like the poet she is, and charts the connections between her life and life in general with the care of a scientist explicating data. The result is a riveting mapping of her search for home and self in a life propelled by the tightly braided love and trauma of her upbringing, the pain of losing siblings to addiction and violence, and the tearing grief of her beloved father’s death from cancer.
Excavating her past like an archeologist sifting through layers, Montgomery carefully examines what she finds like so many artifacts, from the treasure holes in a childhood backyard that her fence-building father salted for her with bits he found as he dug post-holes, to her fear of clocks ticking the passing of time, and spiraling outward, to gun violence, the pandemic, and the great anguish of loss from climate change.
Along the way she writes a brilliant lesson on maps and the way we draw lines to tell the story that reinforces our view of the world, examines the trauma of drug abuse in her siblings and her students, and reckons as best she can with her grief at moving to a place she cannot feel at home, a whole continent away from the California coast where she grew up and where her father is dying.
Montgomery’s reflections come in chunks like artifacts sifted out of soil, and she turns each over with such precise language that the reader catches her breath at the contrast between personal revelation and the dispassionate observations of contemporary culture and knowledge. Listen to this passage from the essay “Chronostasis”:
The invention of the pendulum clock in 1656 erased time.
Until then, clock accuracy averaged a deviation of fifteen minutes a day, as though it were possible to live across memory and history.
Fifteen minutes a day is a significant portion of the mayfly’s 24-hour lifespan after they emerge from water nymphs to fly to the sky. Fifteen minutes a day of meditation can recruit new neural networks in the brain. Fifteen minutes of sunshine is enough to maintain the Vitamin D levels that keep you happy. In 1968, Andy Warhol predicted, ‘In the future, everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes.’ In fifteen minutes, you can walk a mile or sleep with your lover….
With the clock’s invention however—a swinging weight around its neck—the accuracy of clocks improved. The deviation shrunk to a mere fifteen seconds a day.
And then her musing turns personal: “As a child, I lie in bed, worrying about time. It is running out, meaning I am already dying, am a fearful ghost haunting my own room, my chance at sleep slipping through my fingers like sand, the next day destined to be a blur, dreamlike without the watercolor and whimsy. I do not like clocks that make sounds.”
Montgomery’s ability to explicate grief and pain is breathtaking, the very essence of memoir. The meaning she makes from her life is harsh and at the same time, poignantly beautiful, a kind of grace rising from the sifted ashes, like the Phoenix itself. Halfway From Home is a song of seeking, a restless journey that spans miles, years, and hearts, a careful mapping of the route one soul has traced in order to survive and even thrive through the darkest of times.