Monday, May 2, 2016

Learning to Walk in the Dark

Learning to Walk in the Dark
Barbara Brown Taylor (2014, HarperOne)

    We don't give darkness much time or space in our lives these days. Electric lighting first appeared fourteen decades ago, television and computers and smart phones within living memory; light follows us everywhere we go, in a way that is historically new. Like quiet, darkness is now something we have to go to some trouble to experience.

    In Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor explores the consequences of this shift for the natural world, and for our spiritual lives within it. After she'd left her job as rector of an Episcopal Church in 1998, she and her husband moved to a farm in the hills of rural Georgia, where the Milky Way is actually visible, and it makes sense to notice the seasons of the moon. That the flood-lit neighbors down the road deny themselves this part of country life is a minor irritation, but not much of a surprise. They very likely have never lived with real nighttime darkness.

    Nor, if they happen to be churchgoers, have they heard anything positive about it. The usual servings of holy writings tend to lead to what Taylor calls the 'full-solar version of Christianity.' (We heard just such a reading in today's lectionary. The twenty-second chapter of Revelation told of a vision that "there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun.") In the fundamentalist youth group where Taylor first experienced Christianity, darkness was regarded as a thing to be avoided at all costs, and the precursor to eternal damnation.

    Yet, she says, "even in the Bible, that is not the whole story about darkness." Abraham met God by starlight, and his grandson Jacob wrestled all night with the angel, in a way that changed the whole story of the world. And when Moses made his covenant with God, in the presence of the people of Israel, a cloud obscured the mountain-top. "While this darkness is dangerous, it is as sure a sign of God's presence as brightness is, which makes the fear of it different from the fear of snakes and robbers."

    Darkness can be mystical, then, and even holy. There are truths to be found there that are unavailable to the bright light of day, like the stars that shine unseen overhead, at noon. Taylor goes into one of the great caves of West Virginia with a guide; they stop several times to sit in the dark. "There is no way to tell time, which means there is no rush. There is no light, which means that I do not have to worry about how I look. There is no one beside me, which means that I do not have to come up with something to say. Above all, there is no threat."

     And what of the darkness that is a threat, when loss, pain, or sorrow makes it seem like God has departed for good? We can pray to be able to pray; we can read Job and the Psalms, with more resonance than before; we can look for trusted guides. "For good or ill, no one can do your work for you while you are in this dark place. It has your name all over it, and the only way out is through."

     Such times come to all of us who live long enough, I think, and they are the crucible of wisdom. Taylor, now in her sixties, is wise about life, in a way I'm grateful for: "To be human is to live by sunlight and moonlight, with anxiety and delight, admitting limits and transcending them, falling down and rising up. To want a life with only half of these things in it is to want half a life."

    May we have grace to want a whole life.

Email, May 1, 2016

My reviews of some earlier books by Taylor:

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Primates of Park Avenue

Primates of Park Avenue: a memoir
Wednesday Martin (Simon and Schuster, 2015)

    What's it like to be a wealthy young wife and mother on the upper East Side of New York? Wednesday Martin's Primates of Park Avenue is not just a memoir, but an anthropological study of a rare and strange way of life. As a child, Martin was fascinated by pioneering anthropologists like Margaret Mead and Jane Goodall. When she grew up and moved to New York, she earned a doctorate in cultural studies and comparative literature. She was well placed to experience, and study, the contrast between the collaborative mothering practices of primitive tribes and the solitary urban mothers around her.

    Those mothers are not merely solitary (armies of nannies notwithstanding), but competitive, verging on cutthroat. The perfect children they are raising require the perfect nannies, tutors, play groups, and schools; the mothers themselves maintain fiendish exercise and makeup routines, and dress to the nines to go out for milk. They also maintain a social hierarchy Martin has to crack, by means that would make a sixth-grader blush: at her son's new school, the other mothers overtly ignore her, and exclude her child from play dates. "It was clear that on the Upper East Side, moms and toddlers had their pecking order worked out and their places set and their dance cards full long before the wee ones were out of their Robeez."

    Why are these women like that? They have everything they could possibly need. (In anthropology-speak, they live in a state of 'extreme ecological release.') They're the richest and least vulnerable people on earth, by most measures. But there is one scarce resource: men. Women of child-bearing age outnumber eligible men by two to one in these precincts, so a woman who lets herself lose status, or look weak, risks getting pushed out of the tree by a younger, more aggressive female. Martin comes close to making us feel sorry for them, or at least see the pathos behind the glossy facade. Keeping up with the neighbors, in a state of self-imposed semi-starvation, is extremely stressful. It's no wonder some women take pills, or become a little too devoted to their afternoon glass of wine.

    Still, the extremity of the circumstances makes the book funny. Witness the observation that very high heels are a declaration that one has a driver at the ready, or the back-of-the-envelope calculation of what it takes to look that good, ("Something like $95,000, on the low end, just to be beautiful enough...") She's not naming names, exactly; the discretion extends to which nursery school she maneuvered her way into, and what her own wealthy, older husband does. But the machinations about acquiring the Birkin bag by Hermes, and worrying about which playgroup can get you into the right kindergarten - if it weren't funny, it would be terrifying.

    Cultural observation often involves the risk of going native, and that's what happened here. It doesn't sound like Martin really minds. "Yes, I found myself wanting smooth blond blond blonder hair, and a Birkin, and a Barbour jacket, and whimsical emerald-green velvet Charlotte Olympia flats with kitten faces on them. And I surrendered." More power to her, say I.

Any Good Books emailed
April, 2016

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Moonlight Sonata at the Mayo Clinic

Moonlight Sonata at the Mayo Clinic
Nora Gallagher (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013; paperback, Vintage, 2014)

   Before that day in the fall of 2009, when she was lighting a fire and her vision blurred, Nora Gallagher's map was her Daytimer. She led a stressful life, coping with the deadlines at her day job (editing copy for Patagonia, the outdoor clothing company); keeping up with family obligations; and jetting around the country giving talks about her books. Driven by 'things not yet happened,' she had no time for prayer or relaxation. "I traveled like this to talk about my spiritual life, but the irony was lost on me."

   But she went to the doctor to see what this new blurring was; you really don't want a doctor looking at your eye to say, "Darn." And with that, Gallagher's crowded schedule was yesterday's news. "It was like falling into Oz. I walked right over the border without knowing I was crossing it. It had no border patrol. I did no planning. I had no map." This book is the map she makes as she goes along, as a coastal mariner might, of shoals and lighthouses.

   The first thing that was hard is that no one could say what was wrong with her. She had an eye doctor for a case of uveitis that she'd had for years, but the extreme fatigue and weight loss pointed to something more complex. On general principles, the doctors started her on steroids, and the tests started to multiply; she was treated like "a thing to test, not a person to heal." The nurses who didn't look at her, the residents who scoffed at her questions, and the world famous specialists who didn't accept follow-up appointments, appear in the book by only their initials.

   The other kind, the doctors who listened, are named. They obviously saw her as a person, and cared about her, but no one knew what her trouble was, so she won the golden ticket to the Mayo Clinic, in Rochester, Minnesota, where the whole place might as well be Oz. The Mayo Clinic has figured out some best practices: the local hotels connect to the clinics by tunnels to avoid the winter weather, there are strange and beautiful things to see everywhere you look, and the staff always tells you what to expect. Eventually, they even figured out what was wrong with her.

   She didn't do all this alone. Her husband, Vincent, was right alongside, though on the other side of the glass wall that separates the healthy from the sick. The priest at her Episcopal church, I'm pleased to say, was another good companion, a veteran of waiting rooms. His advice to stop and consider 'what is real now' resonates: "If you stayed in the present, if you paid attention thoroughly to the now, what it had in it might come to you. And if you did not pay attention to the present, you might miss essential information that might be exactly what you needed."

   This kind of openness to the present posed a challenge to her faith. The triumphalism of the Nicene Creed, the Almighty Father, the Mighty Fortress, came to seem ludicrously at odds with the Jesus who made mud with his spit to heal a poor man's sight. "The man Jesus had had quite a lot to say about losing. He was -- now I understand -- preoccupied with loss: lost sheep, lost coins, lost sons. His own lost life." She can still identify with that Jesus, because now she can hear, and tell, the everyday stories of loss, and of having nothing left to lose. "It is a kind of desecration that we made of this man, a crown, a king, a Lord. Jesus is about as far away from a king as a person can be."

   But he's willing to go where people are lost, hurting, and scared. Jesus is a voluntary citizen of Oz. When the losses mount up, as they inevitably will, that's information I want to hold onto. 


Email edition, March 1, 2016

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

When Breath Becomes Air

When Breath Becomes Air
Paul Kalanithi (Random House, 2016)

    Paul Kalanithi was a brilliant young neurosurgeon near the end of his training at Stanford when he learned he had Stage Four lung cancer. His report of crossing the boundary from doctor to patient is the fulfillment of his youthful ambition to become a writer; his death in the spring of 2015 represents not just a loss to his legion of family and friends, but to medical writing, as well.

    It may not be surprising that someone facing death in his thirties should think deeply about the meaning of life, but Dr. Kalanithi seems to have done so from a very young age. The son of first-generation Americans from India, Paul moved with his family into the Arizona desert at the age of ten, where his father established a cardiology practice. His mother, dismayed by the difference in the educational opportunities out West, set out a course of reading, into which young Paul dove avidly. He read Robinson Crusoe and Billy Budd, Brave New World and Hamlet, his wide-ranging curiosity forming his moral imagination.

    At Stanford, he studied biology and neuroscience alongside literature and philosophy, eventually deciding on medical school, which "would allow me a chance to find answers that are not in books, to forge relationships with the suffering, and to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay." He found that it did so, but also put up some barriers: to dissect a cadaver, you may have to suppress your awareness of its history as a human being. "Seeing the body as matter and mechanism is the flip side to easing the most profound human suffering. By the same token, the most profound human suffering becomes a mere pedagogical tool."

    Becoming a neurosurgeon, studying neuroscience on the side, was the natural outgrowth of his interests, and of his drive to excel. "While all doctors treat diseases, neurosurgeons work in the crucible of identity: every operation on the brain is, by necessity, a manipulation of the substance of our selves, and every conversation with a patient undergoing brain surgery cannot help but confront this fact." He was only a year and half from finishing his residency when backaches, fatigue, and weight loss announced the abrupt shortening of his brilliant career. 
    The question of meaning now arose in a more demanding form. He would not have the luxury of spending twenty years in research and teaching, then twenty more as a writer. Should he and his wife try to have a child he would not live to see grow up? His oncologist refused to predict how long he had to live, beyond assuring him that he could complete his residency. Not only was the span of his life unknowable, as he knew very well from the doctor's side of the desk, it depended on what he valued. 'The tricky part of illness is that, as you go through it, your values are constantly changing. You try to figure out what matters to you, and then you keep figuring it out.... Death may be a one-time event, but living with terminal illness is a process."

    Though he must have had a harder and harder time concentrating, Paul Kalanithi kept writing through his first rounds of cancer treatment. He writes about the last day he performed surgery, and the way his life is already described in the past perfect tense: "Most ambitions are either achieved or abandoned; either way, they belong to the past." Early on, he tried to participate in his own care, suggesting lines of testing and arguing about treatment. He shows us the loss, and the relief, of letting that go.

    His wife, Lucy, had to finish the book, describing the family gathering around. As his energy fades, his baby daughter learns to coo and to sit up. They passed each other on earth for only eight months, of which he must have treasured every second. Lucy writes, "He let himself be open and vulnerable, let himself be comforted. Even while terminally ill, Paul was fully alive; despite physical collapse, he remained vigorous, open, full of hope not for an unlikely cure but for days that were full of purpose and meaning." 
    In that he succeeded resoundingly, and I am grateful.

Any Good Books – February 2016

Friday, January 1, 2016

The Faraway Nearby

The Faraway Nearby
Rebecca Solnit (2013, Penguin Books)

   A friend recently described me a nonfiction snob. My inner ten-year-old lawyer rises to object. On the one hand, of course, it's true that I don't like novels as well as essays, history, biography, or memoirs of travel, illness, and grief; but I don't think I regard that taste as anything to feel superior about, any more than liking choral music better than symphonies, or football better than soccer. My excessively literal turn of mind seems like just one of the coves and inlets that make up the coastline of my personality. So I trust that you take all these musings with due allowances.

   The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit's book of essays, hits all the high spots of the reasons I like non-fiction. It's storytelling based in the real world, seen in lives beginning and ending; in connections across time and space, from Burmese monks to South American lepers to Arctic explorers; in actions as mundane as preserving fruit and as challenging as rafting down the Grand Canyon. They are stories that haven't necessarily ended, yet we can make sense out of how far they have come.

   Some years ago, Solnit had one of those ghastly years: as she watched over the unravelling of her mother's mind in senile dementia, she had her own breast cancer scare, and her boyfriend ended their relationship. By way of recovery and escape, she accepted an opportunity to spend a summer in Iceland, near the Arctic Circle, where she read and contemplated older stories of the frozen North. The environment reminds her of Mary Shelley, who set the framing story of Frankenstein on an ice-bound exploration vessel. In fact, her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, had also written a book about traveling in Scandinavia – the best stories extend into the past as well as the future.

   Solnit spins tales out of abiding and evolving metaphors. One of these is spinning itself, taking short strands of fiber and turning them, by hand, into a long, continuous strand. Is that not what writing is, and indeed reading? Think of all the myths and fairy tales about spinning: it is a task of perseverance, usually under some compulsion. "Scheherazade forestalls her death by telling a story that is like a thread that cannot be cut; she keeps spinning and spinning, incorporating new fragments, characters, incidents, into her unbroken, unbreakable narrative thread." The strand may serve healing, as did the sutures after Solnit's breast biopsy. It may connect, literally, as in the cognate 'sutra', the word for the thread that bound Buddhist wisdom into books of palm leaves; as well as metaphorically, as in the transmission of Buddhist wisdom itself.

   Having spun a thread, you may take it into a labyrinth, which is not a maze; you can't truly get lost, but you can journey into the unknown, and come back to where you started, changed by the journey. Solnit seeks relief from all the light in Iceland by visiting a labyrinth, a piece of art experienced in the dark like a high-concept fun-house. "It was easy to believe that what was dark was solid, what was light was spaciousness into which you could move, but reality as you bumped into it was often the other way around, with open blackness and hard pale surfaces." This recalls what she said of her mother, even before Alzheimers: "It was as though she travelled by a map of the wrong place, hitting walls, driving into ditches, missing her destination, but never stopping or throwing out the map."

   Like light and dark, heat and cold are more complex than we sometimes imagine. In the far North, "Nothing decays, and so time stops for the dead, if not the living. Cold is stability and warmth can be treacherous." This is a thread that connects the ancient Europeans found intact in glaciers to cryogenically preserved people, and to Snow White. On her retreat in Iceland, Solnit looked into the books of a Danish explorer called Peter Freuchen. He told a story from 1905 about a lethally sudden thaw. A party of Inuit travelers had their sleds, which were made of frozen meat and hide, eaten by their dogs when the temperature rose; they made shelters and ate the dogs, and one woman eventually survived by eating the bodies of her companions as well, including her husband. 
   Freuchen recorded the story three times, with varying details; did his memory get better or worse? The survivor, Atagutaluk, went on to marry again, and become a matriarch of her village. Surely her telling of it was altered over time, and different people heard it differently. Solnit says, "Freuchen saw only a corner of the picture. The picture always gets bigger; there is always more to tell; one thread is tangled up with all the others; even when it stops, other threads carry the story onward, beyond the horizon."

   The Faraway Nearby gives us story on story, image on image, laid out in a beautifully labyrinthine structure. Solnit's mother doesn't get better, but she does become happier. "She forgot the stories that fueled her wrath, and when they were gone, everything was different. ...She had achieved something of the state people strive for through spiritual practice: a lack of attachment to the past and future and a wholehearted participation in the present. It had come as part of a catastrophic terminal illness, not a devotional pursuit, but it came."

   What saved Solnit in the darkest times was to face outward, to seek the perspective of oceans, and of centuries. This is advice most grief memoirs could use more of: "To dig deeper into the self, to go underground, is sometimes necessary, but so is the other route of getting out of yourself, into the larger world, into the openness in which you need not clutch your story and your troubles so tightly to your chest."

New Years blessings on all your stories - may they go on and on.
Any Good Books – January 2016