I have been looking into schedules. Even when we read physics, we inquire of each least particle, What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.
On the first of each month,
a guest writer
how he or she spends the day.
February 1, 2019: Tessa Fontaine
This is a woman who eats fire and charms snakes. “What couldn’t I learn in a couple of months?” she wrote in her debut memoir, The Electric Woman: A Memoir in Death-Defying Acts, the prologue of which is called, “The Trick Is There Is No Trick.”
We start by lighting ourselves on fire. Parts that are easier to put out than our faces. Hands, to begin. Arms outstretched, palms toward the darkening sky, I watch as a flaming torch is wiped across my hand from wrist to fingertips. For one, maybe two seconds, I am on fire.
I’d hoped some magic was involved in learning to eat fire. Something that meant you didn’t really have to do the thing it appeared you were doing… But the class is a total disappointment. There is no trick. You eat fire by eating fire.
I thought the only people who performed in sideshows were people who had grown up in sideshows. Closed-minded on my part and also wrong. But in Tessa’s “TNB Self-Interview,” she wrote this,
Years before I began writing The Electric Woman, before I even knew the sideshow I’d eventually join, the World of Wonders, existed, I was obsessed with sideshows. My stepdad told me stories about a very early friendship he had with a retired sideshow performer, a little person, whose mother had been a bearded lady. I had no idea what path would unfold when I started doing my own research, even when I joined the show. But I followed my obsession.
As fascinating as the fire-eating is, there’s another story. In 2010, at the age of sixty-four, Tessa’s mother had a hemorrhagic stroke, “as big and bad a stroke as you can have and still be alive.” Her mother became paralyzed on one side and could not speak.
For my whole life, I have been scared, terrified, of losing my mom.
I am losing my mom.
Although many mother/daughter relationships are complicated, Tessa and her mother’s was on the more-so side. When Tessa was two, her mother left. One of my favorite parts of the memoir is a section where Tessa alternates paragraphs, beginning one with “in my mom’s story” and the next with “in my dad’s story.” Tessa and her mother’s difficult but improving relationship makes the stroke all the more difficult for Tessa, and three years later, she joins the circus.
The memoir is told in fragments. The sideshow bounces off the aftermath of her mother’s stroke which bounces off famous sideshows of the past which bounce off Tessa and her mother’s charged relationship. By taking us from one event to an entirely different one, the story reverberates and gets bigger, and then bigger again. The reader is drawn in, working not to miss a thing.
And not only that, but Tessa’s relationship with her mother was pre-existing as she began her sideshow life. So I imagine that by guiding the reader between sideshow and relationship, we more closely approximate the experience she had.
The Electric Woman received a fantastic review in the New York Times, and readings last year took Tess to over forty places–bookstores and colleges and festivals, theaters and bars and even a high-end travel bag store. Tessa was a fellowship winner at Writing by Writers Tomales Bay, in 2016 I believe. In an Author’s Note in the book, she writes, “If you want some juicy stories that were left out, send me a postcard and I’ll see what I can do.”
Come back on FEBRUARY 1st to read how TESSA FONTAINE spends her days.