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

Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Wine Lover's Daughter

The Wine Lover's Daughter: a memoir
Anne Fadiman (2017, Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

    Throughout the middle third of the twentieth century, Clifton Fadiman was a name to conjure with: publisher, critic, anthologist, appearing frequently on radio and television, he was the very model of a public intellectual. The Wine Lover's Daughter is his daughter Anne's memoir of his life, and her life in his orbit. It's a brief cultural history of the times he lived and worked in, and a loving rumination on influence and memory. He lived long enough to trim down his literary estate, so that her task as executrix wouldn't swallow up her own life, but she still has plenty to work with with. 
    Anne traces the arc of his journey from the crowded, impoverished streets of Jewish Brooklyn, to Columbia University, to a career that would have fully occupied three or four lesser men. His original goal was to remain at Columbia as an English professor, but the department had a Jewish quota of one, and his friend Lionel Trilling got the job.

     You could say he was overcompensating on many fronts: his mother picked his fancy first name out of the phone book; his older –and taller– brother preceded him through Boys' High and Columbia, and helped him acquire the plummy elocution that became his hallmark in broadcasting. He was famously witty, and he practiced self-deprecation as a style of 'English manners', but also as a way of staying ahead of anyone who might consider him lower-class. 
    He cared about that: he had a deep commitment to hierarchies of quality. "My father was partial to all things fabricated with skill and effort: boots, books, bridges, cathedrals, and, especially, food. He preferred cheese to milk, pâté to liver, braised endive to salad." Between his bookworm childhood and the Great Books at Columbia, he had as much knowledge as any man about what was classically considered great in literature. On a fateful trip to Paris, he discovered the pleasures of wine. A couple of years after the end of Prohibition made it possible, he began investing in a similarly curated library of the best vintages he could afford. 
    Anne was the younger child of his second marriage (he'd been divorced, and her mother, widowed.) She grew up in ease and comfort, marinated in culture, language, and English manners; after Harvard, she became a journalist, like her mother. Later, like her father, she began writing essays; the age gap of nearly fifty years made it possible to get out of his considerable shadow. (Though he still gets more hits on Google – she checked.)

    She grew up expecting to inherit his taste in wine, as well. It seemed natural, since she'd grown up speaking the language, at the table of the man who later compiled a giant book called The Joys of Wine. "My father wrote in Joys that 'to take wine into our mouths is to savor a droplet of the river of human history,' a pronouncement I found a tad grandiloquent but whose sincerity I did not doubt." He loved wine, and felt at home with it. He knew its quality first-hand.

    Alas, these things are genetic, and Anne inherited her taste buds from her mother. To her, everything bitter tastes too strong. At the end of the book, she makes a fascinating detour through the laboratories of scientists who study and measure the senses of taste and smell. (At least, I found it fascinating, but then, I would.) Fadiman says, "My researches made me feel different from my father not only in matters of gustation and olfaction but also in character. He liked to leave some things a mystery. I'd rather find everything out."

Any Good Books
January, 2018

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Almost Sisters

The Almost Sisters - a novel
Joshilyn Jackson (2017, William Morrow)

Leia Birch Briggs had the nerdy childhood betokened by her first name, though her father had died before finding out which Star Wars baby his wife was bearing. She spent her childhood summers in Birchville, a small town in Alabama which her father's family had founded, named, and still largely owned. Her grandmother still lives, with a companion, in the family's stately home, overlooking the comings and goings in the town square.

Leia's childhood reading comic books and running around Birchville dressed as Wonder Woman led to a career in drawing comics, including a well-received graphic novel called Violence in Violet. The super-heroic Violence is Violet's protector; but is she also her lover, her sister, or her alter ego? Leia has contracted to write a prequel volume, so it might be high time to figure that out. 

She has a nice life, and makes a decent living. She's also a significant enough celebrity on the Fan Convention circuit to drink with an admirer dressed as Batman, and sleep with him. When she turns up pregnant, she's forgotten his name and lost his number, recalling only that he was tall, Black, and handsome. While she's deciding how to tell her mother, step-father, and step-sister, she's called down to Birchville. Her grandmother's dementia has suddenly announced itself at the church fish-fry with some unexpected truth-telling. Lewy's body dementia has made Miss Birchie unduly frank about sexual matters, since she sees imaginary rabbits in the background busily making more rabbits.

Her bosom friend, Miss Wattie, has kept this under wraps by being constantly at Birchie's side, nursing her and whispering calm into her ear. Wattie and Birchie go back almost ninety years; they were raised together in the Birch household by Wattie's mother, the housekeeper, after Birchie's mother died in childbirth. They are the only people in town who cross the color line to go to church together, whether at Wattie's Black Baptist church or the White one in the center of town.

Leia starts making plans to move the two of them closer to her in Virginia. Her step-sister Rachel pitches in with research and overbearing advice, as is her practice. "As an adult, she'd helped me choose everything from cars to Christmas trees to lip gloss. ...Her genuinely good intentions coupled with her self-assured rightness made the helping both exasperating and impossible to turn down." She lends Leia her adolescent daughter, Lavender, as a travel companion. Ostensibly, Lavender is there to help organize the situation in Alabama, but she's also being sent out of the way of the cracks that have suddenly appeared in Rachel's perfect life.

Joshilyn Jackson makes neat use of the generational divides she has set up. The old ladies came up in a town recognizable from To Kill a Mockingbird, where you know people based on what their families are like. In the present, the dominant grapevine for adults is the church phone tree, while Lavender lives on the Internet, scheming with her new friends who live down the street in Birchville.
Jackson also has a wonderfully tender way with the step-sisters' relationship. Leia and Rachel are different in many ways, down to their differing memories of their shared childhood. We hear about Rachel's perfectionism and meddling from Leia's point of view, but when she gets a glimpse of what it's like to think she can solve everybody's problems, she rather likes it, too. 

Wattie and Birchie, for all their fragility, are fierce and strong, especially on each other's behalf. Jackson knows the rhythm and the logic of dementia; Birchie makes perfect sense, sometimes, but you can't always tell when those times are, or what she might still be concealing. Their essential kinship gives Leia reason to hope that her biracial baby represents a new world, as well as a very old one. 

The Almost Sisters is full of the joy of sisterhood, step-, foster-, and otherwise; the rich tastes and sustaining nature of Southern food; and the power of rage, in its own good time.

Any Good Books email
December, 2017