Thursday, May 31, 2018

Living with a Wild God

Any Good Books
June, 2018

Living with a Wild God: A Non-believer's Search for the Truth about Everything
Barbara Ehrenreich (Twelve, 2014)

When Barbara Ehrenreich was a girl, she was not religious. Her bent, both personally and by family tradition, was toward radical rationalism; this book, a not-quite-memoir, could have been titled "I Was a Teen-Age Solipsist." In Living with a Wild God, Ehrenreich revisits her journals from that time, which she'd kept through four decades and a dozen or so moves, "because," she says, "if I have any core identity, any central theme that has survived all the apparent changes of subject, the secret of it lies with her."

As an adult, Ehrenreich is a writer and an activist, always on the side of the economically down-trodden, and this, she comes by honestly: her family emerged from Butte, Montana, a mining and smelting town in the middle of Big Sky country. Her father got out of the mines by pursuing the study of metallurgy, and then parleyed his good looks and ability to hold his liquor into a series of upwardly mobile management jobs. This entailed repeatedly uprooting his family, through Pittsburgh and various spots in New York and Massachusetts, before their arrival in Southern California.

The family's tradition of hard-headed atheism also sprang from Butte. "I was born to atheism and raised in it, by people who had derived their own atheism from a proud tradition of working-class rejection of authority in all its forms, whether vested in bosses or priests, gods or demons." So when the fourteen-year-olds around her were going through religious training, Barbara was on her own with the Big Questions, like 'why are we here?' and 'why do we die?' She was also wrestling with a secret. Starting about a year before the journal begins, she had begun to have moments of direct experience, unmitigated by words or thoughts. 
The nearest name for this seems to be 'dissociation'; Ehrenreich satisfied herself that it was neither a religious experience nor a sign of insanity. In what was probably a very good decision, she almost never discussed her episodes with others: the more accurate her description, the more it would have made her sound insane. The unpredictability of her episodes was worrisome, and made avoiding the psychedelic drugs of the day the obvious choice: "For some of us, at some times, participation on the dullest, lowest-common-denominator version of 'reality' is not compromise or a defeat; it is an accomplishment." 
Having devoted her college years to the study of chemistry and physics, Ehrenreich went on to graduate school in New York. It was there, in 1965, that the larger world, at last, broke in on her ruminations. The war in Southeast Asia changed everything, as reports trickled back of atrocities in the jungle. " that I had begun to love the protective armor of solipsism, there was less to shield me from accounts of bayonets cutting through the bellies of pregnant Vietnamese women or napalm-dispensing helicopters swooping down over children. Once the imagination learns how to construct an image of another person's subjectivity–however sloppy and improvised that image may be–it's hard to get it to stop." 
She never quite gets to the answers her teenage self was looking for; life got in the way. She got married and had children; she continued to find things out and write things down, producing nearly two dozen books to date. So the answer to sixteen-year-old Barbara's question to her future self, "What have you learned since you wrote this?" is missing some things that girl would have liked to know. Neuroscience would have been very interesting to her, and philosophy as well. What she did learn, though, about engagement with the world, matters a lot: we are members of a species, in a network of life. Other people are real, and their suffering matters.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Slow Medicine

Slow Medicine: The Way to Healing
Victoria Sweet (2017, Riverhead Books)

We last heard from Victoria Sweet, M.D., in her 2012 book God's Hotel, about the charity hospital in San Francisco where she had practiced Slow Medicine for some twenty years. She has continued to meditate on what makes 'the practice of medicine' distinct from 'the delivery of health care'; not surprisingly, the latter suffers in the comparison. She's doing her part to help the pendulum to swing the other way, so that sick people can be healed as well as cured.

That's not to say that she does not give due respect to the modern methods of medicine. She tells one remarkable story of saving a man's life because she had simple surgical instruments with her on a hike through Nepal. Blood tests and imaging systems will always have their place as extensions of the physician's senses. Intensive care units can keep a body ticking over, sometimes longer than makes any sense.

Parts of Slow Medicine put me in mind of Perri Klass, whose memoir of a medical education was memorably titled A Not Entirely Benign Procedure. Sweet's progress through med school, internship, and residency had what seems to me an unusual number of detours, all of them fruitful. Her original intention was to become a Jungian analyst, hoping to meet the most interesting philosophical questions. "Medicine asked the wrong questions –What is causing that ear pain?–practical questions, not deep and interesting questions. But it did have answers, and I preferred answers to questions."

But she's quite open-minded about where she gets answers. Chinese medicine's model of the body bears little relation to what she learned at medical school, but in some circumstances it seemed to work better. She also became interested enough in the teachings of Hildegard of Bingen to acquire a second doctorate, in medical history. But also, always, Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, its 2,600 pages well-thumbed.

And always, first, the physical examination, meeting the patient with sight and sound and touch. Given time to examine a patient and read carefully through his record, the doctor can build a story about what's wrong, run tests to be sure, and make a plan to treat it. Essential to the plan is a judgement about what is urgent to treat, and what can be left to watchful waiting. Sweet's study of Hildegard suggests that the patient has the same drive for life and growth that a plant in a garden has, which the doctor/gardener needs to seek out and make way for. "I found myself practicing a kind of Fast Medicine and Slow Medicine together–at many different levels. At the level of actual time, of course, but even more, at the level of style. Mechanic and gardener. Focused and diffuse. The parts and the whole."

In addition to Klass, this book resonates within the tradition of Oliver Sacks, Jerome Groopman, and Atul Gawande. On some level, Sweet loves her patients. "I liked watching them improve, reconstitute, heal. Day by day, their minds clearing, their limbs strengthening, their wounds reconstituting. Not everyone got well, but almost everyone got better, and it was the same pleasure as watching a film go backward. The pieces of the broken vase coming together, jumping back up on the table, the spilled water collecting and running back inside, the tossed flowers righting themselves and reassembling until the vase of flowers is whole again."

The tools of modern medicine are impressive, and sometimes life-saving, but that doesn't mean that our bodies are machines. It's not too much to hope that our doctors will be craftsmen, or gardeners, and not just mechanics.

May 2018

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Beginner's Grace

Beginner's Grace: Bringing Prayer into Your Life
Kate Braestrup (Free Press, 2010)

    There's something scandalous about prayer. Even for people who go to church, the thought of having a personal prayer life is challenging. We build our own stumbling blocks: imagining that our prayers have to be fresh, original and perfect; or knowing them so well we can't hear their inner life any more. Most seriously, I think, trying to pray means sitting face to face with the fact that we aren't as self-sufficient as we like to imagine. We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can take nothing from it, but in between, we are going to pretend to have this thing covered.

    In her capacity as a chaplain to the Maine Warden Service, Kate Braestrup meets people in need of prayer, even if they have gone years without thinking about it. Or, if they have thought of it, it's been with reluctance, or indeed resistance. "I'm too busy. I'm uncomfortable. All the people I know who pray are real jerks, and I don't want to be one of them. I have bad memories of abusive religious figures. I wouldn't know who I was praying to. I don't know what to say."
    So, if we imagine prayer in our own lives, we may not feel that we know when or how to pray, to whom, or to what end. Braestrup's Beginner's Grace proposes answers to these questions. She gives examples from assorted traditions, along with some simple, direct prayers of her own devising. Like Anne Lamott's Help, Thanks, Wow, which came out two years later, it also points out the places where our hearts lead the way, and we're praying without quite knowing it.

   Some of the 'whens' and 'hows' present themselves in the most ordinary ways. "Offering thanks for a meal is familiar, mannerly, and sensible, so much so that you might overlook the other helpful attribute of mealtime. It occurs with considerable regularity, once, twice, or three times a day, and because even forgetful and preoccupied people generally remember to eat, saying grace before supper doesn't require nearly as much self-discipline as carving out a distinct time for spiritual activity from days that are already overbooked."

    We part from our loved ones on a regular basis, and we could probably remember to say, or think, "God go with you till we meet again," or words to that effect. Like the physical threshold of our household, the passing into the night's sleep represents a change of state worthy to be noticed: "Because we don't know what the night will bring, because we will not necessarily remember what the night has held, bedtime is, as it has always been, a time that lends itself to prayer."

    How to pray? Braestrup has good words, but she sees beyond them. On a night when you can see a thousand stars, words may be superfluous. If the officers of the Warden Service are searching for your child in the woods, "Oh God, Oh God, Oh God" may be all you have, but you'll have it deeply. The God who 'makes me lie down in green pastures' may bring me to my knees, or, like a novice nun, to complete prostration; or he may permit me to hold the hand of a friend in a hospital bed.

    To whom? Braestrup is a Unitarian Universalist, so she is philosophically as well as temperamentally unlikely to try to persuade people of The One Right Way. But she'll take her stand here: "I believe all human souls are called to become as loving as they possibly can be, given the limitations that time and luck will inevitably impose. Love is the point, the purpose, and the ultimate value; it is consciousness and empathy, alpha and omega, beginning and end. God is love."

    And what's it all for? My favorite part of this book may be Braestrup's fitness instructor informing her cheerfully "that the logic of physical fitness is not teleological but tautological. This means that the goal of exercise is to enable you to exercise more." While we live, there is no 'last' workout, no final state of fitness. That's true of prayer, too. "There will be no moment–in this life, anyway–when I will be able to say, 'That's it! I've prayed, and the prayers have paid off: I'm a fully conscious, totally grateful, and unstintingly generous person. I can just start stuffing myself as soon as the plate hits the table.'" That's such a gloriously silly way of reminding us that life is made up of habits and practices, and we are always works in progress.

    That being the case, we always have an option for courage. Prayer feels risky, vulnerable - that's because it is. To pray is to stand, for that moment, in need: grateful for riches you didn't make, incomplete, imperfect, mortal. Like all those squats and crunches, we can expect it to feel like work, at least sometimes. "Doubt, frustration, and plain hard work are inevitable and more or less permanent features of a spiritual life. How could it be otherwise? No word, book, story, scent, or pretty statue can mask for long the essential pathos of the human being struggling to extract transcendent meaning from her merely human life."

Nonetheless, we persist. Alleluia! Amen.

Any Good Books
April 1, 2018

Thursday, March 1, 2018


Still: Notes on a mid-faith crisis
Lauren F. Winner (Harper Collins, 2012)

    In 2003, Lauren Winner published a well-received memoir, Girl Meets God, about becoming a Christian. The conversion narrative is a well-established form, which has a natural narrative shape. What happens afterward may be a little harder to fit into a story line. In Winner's case, the glory road she set out on has headed into a desert; she's wondering what this blank wall is in her path, and whether she should turn back. Still is a memoir, in part, but also a series of meditations on being stuck and being still. The chapters are shorter than traditional essays, in a loose weave that makes poetic connections easier to see.

    In the years after Winner's earlier book, her mother died of cancer, and she entered a marriage that ended after five years. The troubles in her marriage separated her from her previous easy practice of prayer, for reasons she's not proud of. Ending it seemed like a shameful failure, even as it seemed like an utter necessity. Doubting her marriage, she also doubted herself, and her relationship with God. "My faith bristled; it brittled; it snapped, like a bone, like a pot too long in the kiln." 
    With her faith in pieces like so many dry bones, Winner finds some consolation in the poetry of W. S. Merwin, Anne Sexton, and Emily Dickinson, who speak to her about the gaps in the world. Sometimes you can't tell whether God is in those places, or not anywhere at all. Being stuck, being still, means really having to face the latter possibility. 
    Winner sometimes fills the gaps with bouts of anxiety, and sometimes with overthinking, naturally enough. Most pernicious, perhaps, is a feeling of boredom with the whole Christian project. It's a shocking thought, after she's occupied so much of her adult life with religion. "Even to my own ear, my complaint of boredom sounds tinny and childish. The complaint seems to partake of the very banality boredom tries to name. Boredom sounds petulant: a demand to be entertained, to be amused."

    Yet–still–she goes to church. It seems, if nothing else, a good place to contemplate God's absence as the serious matter it is. The Eucharist and the laying on of hands are still real gifts of hospitality and healing. From the soothing dullness of the Psalms, a flash of prayer breaks through: "'Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted,' and the words still me–there at Morning Prayer, those words are my words; they are the most straightforward expression of anything I might ever have to say to God, or to myself." It's only a flash, not repeatable the next morning, but it's a hopeful promise.

    This is a lovely thing about church, the way it admits doubt and desolation as a part of life worth mentioning on a regular basis. Nothing human is alien to the Psalter, or to the church year. Winner marks the path back to trusting in God within the church's path through Lent. In the fullness of time, faithfulness becomes a path to faith. After Winner's struggle with loss, failure, and restlessness, this sounds like a triumph: "On any given morning, I might not be able to list for you the facts I know about God. But I can tell you what I wish to commit myself to, what I want for the foundation of my life, how I want to see."

Amen, and hallelujah.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Tell Me More

Tell Me More: Stories about the 12 Hardest Things I'm Learning to Say
Kelly Corrigan (Random House, 2018)

Kelly Corrigan is a memoirist of exceptional candor. Like her earlier book, The Middle Place (see Tell Me More is full of hangovers, quarrels, and tantrums, narrated in a humane and friendly voice. More important, it's full of family love and deep friendships, and wisdom as a work in progress. We meet her at fifty, having lost her father and a close friend to cancer in the preceding year. It's all too much, some days: " the time it takes to get the mail, I can slide from sanguine and full of purpose to pissed off and fuming."

There's healing magic in the title essay, though. She gets instruction, and practice, in letting conversations happen at the length they need to, rather than leaping in to solve her daughters' problems. It's a great skill at deathbeds, too. The chance to have your regrets heard and absolved may be the ultimate comfort.

Because of her own past as a cancer patient, Corrigan is sensitive to bad comfort. When she had cancer, she says, "Every conversation fell into the same pattern. Cancer was The Enemy, treatment was A Journey, and I was A Hero whose responsibility was to weather the shipwrecks and beat back the sea monsters, returning from the odyssey changed and better." She understands these conversations as defensive, as a striving for meaning where none may be. Life is messier than that, though; bravery may have nothing to do with it. Learning to say 'I don't know' leaves things open, for better and for worse.

The kids at Camp Kesem have seen the worst: they have parents who have had, or died of, cancer. Corrigan visits the Camp to hang out with people who need respite from being That Kid Whose Mom Died. As one of the counselors says, "It's all-consuming because everyone is reacting to it. It's driving everyone's behavior–your coaches, your teachers, your mailman. It's super isolating. But not here." The kids (and counselors) are not Saints, there's not Heroes, but they know something about the times when there's not much more to say than "I know."

The knowledge that other people hold for us is one of the things we really need in life. Corrigan's father was her great cheerleader through false starts, dead ends, mistakes, and misdeeds. Their relationship was a fifty-year skein of compassion and forgiveness. With his bluff encouragement, she kept getting up and trying again every time she messed up. It's like a bar mitzvah, where a kid feels seen and heard in a new way, and expands into the feeling.

"The mentors and rabbis, the grannies on the bema, are certain about things we can't yet believe: that listening is huge, that there's might in the act of committing yourself to a cause, that trying again is both all we can do and our great enabling power. They see clearly that we weren't wrong; our aim was. They knew that we are good enough, as we are, with not much more than our hopeful, honorable intent to keep at it. They tell us, over and over, until we can hear it."

Tell Me More is a book you could read in an evening, but it also might be chewed over for a year, especially if you're having one of those times when events and emotions take up more than the time you have.

Emailed Feb 1, 2018