Alicia Cahalane Lewis believes that life is like a wheel; our present is a spoke binding us to our past and holding us up as we tread into our future. As a ninth-generation Quaker from the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia and the daughter of a journalist, she grew up as an observer, recognizing from an early age that faith, people, and fate are fluid. At 60, her own wheel has made a full rotation. After leaving for 25 years to raise a family in Maine, getting her MFA, and becoming a reiki master, Lewis returned to the Valley and founded a publishing house. This limitless belief in herself and running head-on into change is at the center of her new novella, Restless, and its protagonist, Emilie, a young Parisian vagabond at the turn of the 20th century ravenous for a life on her own terms.

“I grew up going to [Quaker] meetings, and there was this idea that you find your God; there’s this balance of a spiritual life within and without. We are our own spiritual identity, and we don't have to always go outside ourselves to find it. We can find our spiritual center, our grounding, or our self-care by looking without but also balancing that with looking within. I think Emilie acts as an example of someone who looks for the potential in herself to find a better life.”

In Paris’ Gilded Age, Emilie is an 18-year-old street urchin reselling stolen flowers, sleeping on a grate, and outgrowing her tattered clothes. She was raised in wealth and luxury but felt a distinct lack of love and agency. When her parents died in a train accident, Emilie renounced her gilded cage, choosing to scrounge on the streets while puzzling out how she wants to live her life. This puts her in the path of multiple men who vie for her companionship but never make the deeper effort to understand her. The novella is broken up into dozens of vignette chapters, many from Emilie’s point of view, but woven throughout with the voices of others, such as her deceased parents, her nursemaid, and Guy, the well-to-do lover she leaves an indelible mark on years later. These additional perspectives illustrate, as Lewis says, how the expectations of others, even those buoyed by love, throw us off our spiritual centers. But like a locomotive, Emilie presses on, rebuilding herself again and again, regardless of how others see her.

Restless draws inspiration from the long prose poems of Beat writers like Ginsburg and Kerouac, less concerned with linear plot than the impact of language and what it draws out of the reader. Emilie’s internal monologue is, fittingly, restless. She does not fear poverty as much as she fears being stuck, recognizing first what she does not want before understanding her true desires. In creating Emilie, Lewis imagined her as a muse for the likes of Coco Chanel, a singular woman who sews her own clothes to push back on the style and norms of her era. Fashion serves as an apt metaphor for Emilie’s ambition and resourcefulness, using a skill from her past and eyeing the present to create an outfit and, by extension, a future that is wholly her design:

It is unrealistic to think that I cannot help myself. After all, I am my maman’s child. I cannot be helped by you. I tried. And failed. I will make my way into the street and use this leverage of a fine new costume to my advantage. I know about the costume. I know how it works. I have seen how women use it, how men use it, and I know more than you do. I know how trivial it all is, but this is the way we have designed ourselves. You, in all your bargaining, will marvel at my fine cloth and you will bow to me.…As I trace the newly made pattern on the aubergine with a piece of charred wood, I begin to recognize my innate ability to create this new self. I am good at this.

This cycle of self-recognition, Lewis admits, bears a resemblance to her own journey. After getting her bachelor’s degree in communications and English, Lewis chose to stay at home and raise her two daughters, satisfying the urge to write in her spare time. She began attending reiki sessions, but only as a client. Then in the 2000s, as she began divorce proceedings, the character of Emilie took shape in her mind when she returned to Virginia. Like Lewis, Emilie leaves her native Paris for a time, but she ultimately relents to her life’s wheel that seeks to bring her home. It would take over a decade of drafts to hone her craft to the form Emilie’s world required. A large part of that growth Lewis attributes to embracing the work of rebuilding her life, such as studying reiki and taking her own clients. Another is the creative writing MFA program she attended at Naropa University, a school founded by a Buddhist teacher that casts off traditional ideas about genre and form.

“Wow, it was messy,” Lewis says, “trying to figure out what my next step was, how I was going to go on my own. This last decade, I got stronger as a person. I took care of myself, and I think I grew up. And in growing up, my writer’s voice grew up. I was able to see both sides much more clearly: my foibles, my insecurities, my strength, my resilience. Going to Naropa and seeing such interesting people not afraid to rewrite the rules about what poetry meant to them, what story meant to them—it was very experimental writing. Restless is experimental. I wouldn’t say [Emilie is] me, exactly, but there’s probably a lot of me in there. And why not?”

Kirkus Reviews agrees. The novella’s strength lies in its confidence in using unconventional form to tell a story that does not feed the reader answers and lessons. It hinges on “many poetic vignettes that come together for a tantalizing whole that still somehow feels incomplete, as if the reader is searching, and failing, to find Emilie.” This vagueness, Lewis says, is by design. Her two previous books, The Intrepid Meditator, a memoir and self-help guide founded on her reiki practice, and the novella Room Service Please, a flapper-era spin on Cinderella, share themes with Restless in their advocacy for self-empowerment. Just as reiki is an energy exchange between practitioner and client, Lewis says, so is writing and reading. She approaches each book intending to “put reiki into language” and let the reader fill the gaps with their own interpretations.

“These stories and these young women reflect that desire to teach self-reliance and respect that we really do have the fortitude and the resilience to take care of ourselves in ways that we might expect someone else to, or we don't think we can,” she says. “That’s a big part of this story, all these expectations.”

Later this year, her novel The Faeries of Fable Island will be published by her own Tattered Script Publishing. She named the press for her desire to flip old scripts and remix tattered, old ideas in order to forge new connections with story. In Faeries,a young woman descended from Peter Pan’s Wendy Darling must contend with her past and navigate a magical realm to pave her path to self-actualization. In other words, Lewis is adding a new spoke to the wheel.


Amelia Williams is a freelance writer in Brooklyn.