Sunday, December 1, 2013

Following Ezra

Following Ezra: What One Father Learned About Gumby, Otters, Autism, and Love from His Extraordinary Son
Tom Fields-Meyer (2011, New American Library)

    Tom Fields-Meyer is a professional writer whose best story landed in his lap. He has written a wonderful memoir about the childhood of his middle son, Ezra, who is autistic. Beginning in 1998, when Ezra was two, Fields-Meyer and his wife, Shawn, have faced the challenge of raising a child who turned away from the social world in favor of various coping mechanisms, enthusiasms, and compulsive habits. Both as a journalist and as a loving father, Fields-Meyer pays close attention to what Ezra does and says; the day-to-day details are more telling than an abstract psychological or neurological theory would be.

    Having had a mostly secure and successful life, Fields-Meyer is inclined to trust the powers of research and expertise, even in such a theoretically natural realm as parenting. For Amiel, the family’s oldest boy, the books had answers that made pretty good sense; but, Field-Meyer realizes, “Ezra has a different kind of mind.... The wisdom we have drawn on to raise our first child so far isn’t going to be effective with this one. All bets are off. We’re on our own.”

    One of the unexpected things about Ezra is the pattern of his fears. He loves swings and merry-go-rounds, and he likes to climb in places that an ordinary child would quail from. At the same time, he finds noisy circumstances very stressful; he is alarmed by the motor of a water fountain; and he refuses to enter his pre-school classroom for the first week because he’s afraid of a drawing on the wall.

    He gains control of himself through extremes of organization. One of the first quirks his parents noticed was his drive to line up toy animals in precise patterns. The same drive extended his habit, a little later, of visiting animals at the zoo in a prescribed order, and later still, to learning everything there is to know about breeds of dogs. This last has the advantage of being something that he can converse about with dog owners, who recognize their shared enthusiasm along with his peculiarities.

    Ezra also makes an extensive mental catalog of various animated characters, starting with Thomas the Tank Engine, and the Sesame Street characters, moving on to the Simpsons and the complete catalogs of Disney and Warner Brothers. Fields-Meyer says, “Each obsession arrives mysteriously and unannounced, like a phantom that sneaks into our home in the night and seizes my son, snatching his focus. Nor can I ever imagine what might catch his attention next.”

    But whatever it is, he will try to use it to engage Ezra, to grab moments of attention and conversation, and to provide him with moments of restful order, some relief from the jangle of his senses. “Over time, though, I come to realize a reward: Ezra understands that another human cares about what he cares about.” With such connection comes a way for his parents to reach Ezra, to guide him, and help him learn to control himself.

    All this goes on in the context of a vibrant family life. Shawn is a rabbi, and Ezra’s brothers Ami and Noam have their own rounds of karate and violin lessons, Hebrew school, and visits with cousins. What do his brothers make of Ezra? They have never not  known him; they know he’s different, and they know he’s their brother. This is not saintliness, but it is compassion and fellow-feeling.

    A small spoiler: Following Ezra ends with his Bar Mitzvah, which is a signal triumph, celebrated by the village of family, friends, and teachers that has helped raise this special young man. It’s a fitting wrap-up to this lovely book, a worthy entrant in the growing literature of autism parenting stories. Beginning by discarding all expectations, and all hope of ready-made answers, Fields-Meyer has found a path for fatherhood in his son’s footsteps. “It wasn’t about finding the right expert for my child; it was about learning to be the right parent.”

Email edition,
December 2013

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Religion for Atheists

Religion for Atheists: a Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion
Alain de Botton (2012, Pantheon)

    Of late, there are plenty of famous books about what may be toxic, or false, about religion. In Religion for Atheists, the philosopher Alain de Botton offers a gentle rejoinder, still from an atheist’s perspective: perhaps there is a baby in with all that bathwater. The book is a beautiful and elaborate thought experiment about the way our social institutions might be reshaped to meet the needs our churches used to meet. People living in a rational, non-theistic society still need ways to live in community, to search out and transmit moral ideas, and to assuage the fears and worries that come with living on earth.

    De Botton’s examples of religion are chosen from Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism - if you care about the differences, you’ll have to fill in those blanks yourself. It’s good to take that step back, though, because it’s the big picture that matters. He’s talking about the qualities a Catholic Mass, a Jewish seder, and a Buddhist tea ceremony have in common. Their ritualized character has a protective effect: “In essence, religions understand that to belong to a community is both very desirable and not very easy.” 
    In communities, we injure and abuse each other in ways large and small. There is, as yet, no secular equivalent to the Jewish Day of Atonement, though de Botton thinks it might be a good thing if there were. It’s not that he believes the religious laws about how to treat each other arise from anything more than human nature and experience. Ascribing them to divine sources, and forgetting we did so, is just what people are apt to do. “But if we can now own up to spiritualizing our ethical laws,” de Botton says, “we have no cause to do away with the laws themselves. We continue to need exhortations to be sympathetic and just, even if we do not believe that there is a God who has a hand in wishing to make us so.”

    Those exhortations could conceivably come from existing cultural stores. We could make inspirational saints of our literary and political heroes, mentally engaging with their examples of courage and selflessness. We could read Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary for instruction in the mysteries of marriage–though, as de Botton admits, the educational system we currently have is very poorly configured for that kind of instruction, being so determinedly value-free. “We have implicitly charged our higher-education system with a dual and possibly contradictory mission: to teach us how to make a living and to teach us how to live. And we have left the second of these two aims recklessly vague and unattended.”

    Architecture comes in for similar contemplation: what could we supply ourselves with that could supply the sense of perspective found in a great cathedral?  “Being put in our place by something larger, older, greater than ourselves is not a humiliation; it should be accepted as a relief from our insanely hopeful ambitions for our lives.” If we had the right point of view, seeing the ocean or the stars could have that effect for us; we should be looking for, or creating, rituals and sacred spaces through which to have that experience.

    As for art, imagine a museum that put Mary Cassatt’s paintings of mothers and children side by side with the great visions of the Madonna and Child, to give us a sensual experience that connects to our longing for nurture and comfort. Atheists, de Botton says, are sometimes inclined to deride that longing as irrational and childish, when in fact it’s profoundly human. “That there is no sympathetic mother or caring father out there who can make everything all right for us is no reason to deny how strongly we wish that there could be.”

    Some of the prescriptions in Religion for Atheists seem as though they might be possible, while others can scarcely be imagined, like the travel agent who would prescribe the right destinations for our spiritual ills. Very few secular organizations have attained the longevity or cultural sway of our major religious institutions, and the book does a good job of explaining why that is. It’s also very beautifully written, and handsomely produced. You wouldn’t have to be an atheist to enjoy it.

November 2013

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Among the Janeites

Among the Janeites: A Journey through the World of Jane Austen Fandom
Deborah Yaffe (2013, Mariner Books)

   The idea that lovers of Jane Austen were a breed apart was already current in the late nineteenth century, when literary critic George Saintsbury coined the term ‘Janeites’. There were already people who read all six novels every year, and gossiped about the characters as though they were real people; and they were already thought a little odd. But this was a phenomenon mainly among the compulsively literate.

    Now, in the internet age, we have a whole range of other ways to love Austen. The conversation has spread to internet discussion groups and fan pages (the Jane Austen Facebook page has 800,000 fans); her novels have been adapted for movies and television; and the bookstores are full of mugs and t-shirts bearing pithy Austen quotes. Deborah Yaffe’s Among the Janeites takes in the full spectrum of Austen’s presence in “the solemn pantheon of classic English literature and the exuberantly commercial realm of pop culture.”

    Austen fanatics, especially the bookish ones, can be marvelously eccentric. Some have elaborate psychological theories: Is Mr. Darcy’s distaste for small talk a symptom of an autism-spectrum disorder? (Never mind that he is fictional, or that autism wouldn’t be named for a century after his appearance.) Did Austen’s mother have a borderline personality, and do the novels’ cast of matronly characters reflect it? More than a few people think so. There’s a fellow in Florida who has even darker notions of the intentions behind it all; he’s been kicked off many of the internet chat boards for contentiousness.

    Austen serves for some people as a focus for travel. The Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) offers tours on which the travelers visit Jane's portable writing desk at the British Museum, and go to Lyme to see the stairs that the foolish Louise Musgrove falls from, in Persuasion. At Chawton, where Austen lived in her last days, the gift shop “seems to crystallize the tensions implicit in the whole project of our tour, which at times seems like a wrestling match between the real Austen and her fabricated everything-for-sale brand.”

    Inspired by visions of Gwyneth Paltrow, others like the fancy-dress aspect: JASNA’s annual meeting features a costumed ball, for which Yaffe commissions a dress, and orders a corset (but who knows how to fasten her into it?) This is more or less the literary equivalent of Civil War reenacting, with a similar competitive urge to be more-authentic-than-thou, though the whole enterprise is delightfully fake. You can’t really light a hotel function room with candlelight nowadays.

    Many of the fancy-dress crowd came to the books by way of filmed adaptations, especially the 1995 Pride and Prejudice miniseries in which Colin Firth goes for a dip in a pond, emerging with a dripping wet shirt – a scene, of course, that was never envisaged by Jane Austen. It was conjured by a screenwriter who felt the need to give the whole thing a bit of sizzle for the modern audience. This was a wildly successful scheme, if the “mugs, coasters, key chains, fridge magnets and notepads” bearing his alluring face are any indication.

    It’s not only filmmakers who feel the urge to revise and extend Austen’s remarks; there’s a sizable cottage industry in fan fiction, published on websites and e-books. Yaffe duly read dozens of these works. “The writing varied from excellent to execrable, the pacing and plotting were frequently amateurish, the temptation to substitute melodrama (war! murder! international drug smuggling!) for Austen’s psychological nuance seemed ever-present, but the exuberant silliness was irresistible.” (My experience: The P.D. James mystery, Death Comes to Pemberley, is disappointing; Shannon Hale’s Austenland is terrible.)*

    I’m not doing justice to the many pleasurable details of Yaffe’s journalistic adventure, but you can trust her conclusion: “Beyond our passion for Austen, what most obviously unites our disparate group is something we have in common with the members of every subculture–of every culture, really: the desire to share with other human beings the things that bring us joy.”

Email edition October 2013

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Evolution of God

The Evolution of God
Robert Wright (2009; Little, Brown and Company)

    “The Evolution of God.” Even with no subtitle, that’s a title of high promise, combining as it does two topics I’d almost always like to know more about. The book falls short on the promise in several ways, but I enjoyed it.

    In the first place, there’s just so much to say. After a quick tour through shamanistic religions, Robert Wright takes up the early histories of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, because they all have to do with the points he is trying to make. Combining all this with a dash of evolutionary psychology in a mere four hundred and eighty pages means that he has to sketch the history with a broad brush. (Of course, the additional sixty-five pages of notes and bibliography should more than satisfy those hungry for details.)

    Another shortcoming is the way Wright’s tone is set at the level of popular economic jargon. At times, he’s flippant, if expressively so: “(Deuteronomy alone celebrates the utter ‘destruction’ and ‘dispossession’ of infidel cities again and again, and the book of Joshua also takes a festive attitude toward urban mayhem.)” But if an expression like ‘non-zero-sumness’ makes your teeth hurt, you’ll have some difficulty here.

    Wright actually means something specific and useful by that expression; he wrote a whole other book about it. That is, people tend to be contentious if one side’s gain has to equal the other side’s loss, but if the sum of gains and losses is greater than zero, there may be advantages available to both sides through cooperation. Thus does self-interest drive altruism; and this, Wright says, is the great evolutionary engine of moral progress.

     Self-interest also drove the Abrahamic religions in the days of their founding. The Hebrew bible, the New Testament, and the Koran exhibit dramatic shifts between peaceful, globally harmonious messages about God, and texts that show his wrathful side. Wright shows how often these turns coincide with the needs of the group at the time of writing (or rewriting.) “This doesn’t mean they were consciously dishonest. It just means that memory is a funny thing – as is the process by which people decide whose memories have the ring of truth.”

    Wright is well aware that what he’s describing is not God’s evolution, as such, but rather the evolution of human ideas and conceptions of God. How, indeed, could it be otherwise? Whether we’re right or wrong about whether God ‘really’ ‘exists’, there are discernible facts about the history of our religions. One of the most important of these is that there’s an arrow of moral development: that it’s meaningful to talk about ‘better’ and ‘worse’ in how we treat each other. Wright says, “Built-in features of history, emanating from the basic logic of cultural evolution, give humankind a choice between progressing morally and paying a price for failing to.”

    This is true both individually and socially. Again, how could it be otherwise? “Social salvation may or may not be at hand, depending on the extent to which individual people, in working out their own salvations, expand their moral imaginations and hence expand the circle of moral consideration.” In a global society, can we see that we’re all in the same boat? We should hope, and work, for religion that abets that process, rather than standing in its way.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Tuning the Rig

Tuning the Rig: a Journey to the Arctic
Harvey Oxenhorn (1990, Harper & Row)

    In the first place, as promised, Tuning the Rig is a journey to the Arctic. The tall ship Regina Maris set out in the summer of 1981 on a nine-week expedition from Boston, sailing down East past Maine, beyond Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, to the waters west of Greenland. The ship’s mission is research on hump-back whales and their habitat. This entails everything from photographing the whale’s flukes to identify individual animals, to seining up the krill and plankton they eat, to measuring the salinity of the water.

    There’s plenty of anthropology to study as well: how Greenland has been affected socially and politically by being part of Denmark; what happens when fishing as a livelihood is disrupted and there’s nothing to do but drink; how many ghost villages dot the shoreline of Newfoundland. Even in summer, the environment is harsh, yet people have come to the arctic for centuries to harvest whales, shipping oil, meat, and bones to Europe and beyond.

    Regina Maris seems a fragile vessel in which to meet ice, fog, and gale force winds. Though grand in scope when seen from the shore, 144 feet long with three seven-story high masts, she is nearly seventy-five years old. She creaks, and she leaks. The three mates, the bosun, and the engineer are constantly renewing her decks, hull, lines and sails. Together with the captain, the cook, and three professional deck hands, they also have charge of sixteen students who double as crew, and four research scientists, who are termed ‘idlers’ because they don’t have sailing duties.

    Harvey Oxenhorn is an odd man out among the crew; a decade older than most of the students, he has gone aboard as a sort of writer in residence, at least in his own mind; but in no time, he is far too busy living the life of a seaman to have much leisure to write about it. He chafes at this, and at all the sundry annoyances of living with 29 strangers in tight, damp quarters. There’s no getting away from the personalities, and the necessary hierarchy feels completely strange to someone who’s been teaching and doing research in literature all his adult life.

    He’s not very good at the sailing, either, especially the parts that take place up in the rigging, sometimes eighty feet off the deck. All this climbing is hard enough at anchor, and in a twenty-knot gale, it scares Oxenhorn stiff, particularly when you need at least one hand to haul in the sail and tie the knots. Throw in a freezing rain, and the dark of night, and the fatigue of never getting to sleep more than four or five hours at a time, and it seems downright impossible.

    Tuning the Rig
is beautiful in many ways, but what made it stick in my mind for two decades is the transformation of Oxenhorn himself, into someone who belongs, who values interdependence and sees connections deeply. The senior crew coach and coax him through episodes of protest and bad temper; they put up with him till he learns to put up with everybody. Here’s how he recognizes that change:

    “When I first came on board, I thought that the whole world owed me. I was ready to make music, damn it. I was disappointed, angry that so little in my life would stay in tune. But tonight, as I barely heard the sounds we made before they were blown astern, I understood such disappointment to be arrogance.

    “It is arrogance to expect that our life always be music. It is false pride to demand to know the score. Harmony, like a following breeze at sea, is the exception. In a world where most things wind up broken or lost, our lot is to tack and tune.”

    Amen, amen.

Email edition, August 1 2013

Monday, July 1, 2013

Take This Bread

Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion
Sara Miles (2007, Ballantine Books)

    I don’t know exactly what makes cooks such good writers. Maybe it’s their well-developed attention to sensory detail; perhaps a facility with sequences, relationships, and balance; maybe just a habit of hard work, staying with something till it’s right, and then sending it out. Sara Miles is that kind of cook, and that kind of writer.

    Take This Bread is a spiritual memoir about how Miles came to run a wildly successful food pantry in a San Francisco church. She had, it turns out, been preparing the ingredients of food and economic justice all her life. Her parents adopted atheism in reaction to their own parents’ lifelong ministry and mission work; they raised Sara and her brother and sister “with boundless love, liberal politics, and secular morals.” It was a model upbringing of its kind, full of books, music, art, and good cooking, and entirely free from religious stories.

    Miles spent part of her young adulthood traveling and studying in Mexico, cutting her teeth as a writer and activist. Because those activities paid poorly, she also acquired restaurant skills in New York restaurants. Hard, hot, sweaty work, but satisfying: “I learned from watching customers that the rituals of even the plainest or most cynically prepared dinner could carry unconscious messages of love and comfort.”

    She had a chance to go back to Latin America, doing research in Nicaragua for a human rights organization. As the U.S. waged covert war on the revolutionary government, she organized trips for American citizens to help on farms in the threatened areas. Living and working together was essential political education, and, potentially, the volunteers could protect the peasants from attack; “Dead Americans were going to be more of a problem for Washington than dead Nicaraguans.”

    Miles was dedicated, fearless, and a little ruthless. She spent six years in various war zones, always looking on the margins for the real consequences of policies and ideologies. “Writing about and living in such war absorbed me totally.... Some of it, I think, was about the simple adrenaline thrill of danger and a guilty but real happiness about coming out alive.” This experience belonged to each person, but also to all of them: “We all had bodies that could suffer and be killed; we all had hearts that could stop beating in an instant.” Everywhere and always, people shared food with her, no matter how little they had.

    In time, Miles fell in love with another journalist; in 1988, she became pregnant, as matters in El Salvador went from bad to worse. The couple moved to San Francisco, where they split up, sharing the care of Katie, and each acquired a same-sex partner. Miles was still writing and militating, now about the AIDS epidemic, but her life became safer and more predictable, even domestic.

    Then one day in 1999, she walked into St. Gregory’s Episcopal church, out of simple curiosity, and was given bread and wine, in a Eucharist open to all. The connection between the smell, taste, and feel of the bread and wine, and the name of Jesus, opened a  door in Miles that she hadn’t even suspected was there. “I was in tears and physically unbalanced: I felt as if I had just stepped off a curb or been knocked over, painlessly, from behind.”

    She didn’t have much context for this experience. In the U.S., she knew practically nobody who went to church; her friends were “cynical, hilarious, and overeducated, with years of therapy and contemporary literature behind them, and I was afraid to mention that I was slipping off to church and singing about Jesus on Sundays insteand of sleeping late, cooking brunch, and reading the New York Times Book Review as I’d been raised to do.”

    She soon discovered that St. Gregory’s was an outlier; both the space and liturgy were designed to make worship as physical, as incarnational, as possible. Chanting, moving, eating, and drinking were offered as better ways of apprehending the Holy than talking or thinking. Not that Miles didn’t read–she spent her first year around St. Gregory’s catching up on the Bible, and on the vexed history of Christianity, Anglicanism, and the Episcopal church. 

    At the heart of it all, because Miles was who she is, was the part of the Bible where Jesus said, ‘Feed my sheep.’ She joined the group of people in robes who helped hand out the Eucharist, facing the hard truth about the fact that it’s meant for everybody: “I was not going to get to sit by myself and think loftily about how much Jesus loved me in particular. I was not going to get to have dinner, eternally, with people just like me. I was going to get communion, whether I wanted it or not, with people I didn’t necessarily like. People I didn’t choose.”

    Miles came up with a way to make the Eucharistic circle even bigger, with groceries from the San Francisco Food Bank instead of bread and wine. Housing was (and is) so expensive in the Bay area that working people and people on pensions kept roofs over their heads at the expense of groceries – while, come to find out, grocery stores and Big Food have an embarrassing surplus of unprofitable food.

    The idea of a regular food pantry made waves inside the parish, naturally. Everybody had reasons why it couldn’t work, or would be too hard: the expense, the likelihood of volunteer burnout, and the mess and danger of inviting the down and out into the beautiful sanctuary space (with its gorgeous custom carved altar.) What would the neighbors say?

    But Miles used the organizing and political skills she’d been honing all her life, taking in all the objections, meeting them with whatever combination of sincerity and manipulation seemed appropriate, carried by her conviction that feeding people was simply the right thing to do. People started coming: a few dozen at first, but pretty soon by the hundred. “The pantry wasn’t hushed and pious; it was loud and holy. As the whores and cripples, widows and foreigners and thieves and little children gathered outside, it took on an almost biblical atmosphere.”

     Some of the people who needed the program turned out to be willing and able to volunteer for it, as a matter of dignity and of gratitude transformed, in God’s familiar alchemy, into generosity. Completing a circle, Miles also rolled up her sleeves and started cooking lunch before each Friday’s food pantry service; the body of Christ sat down to a meal together before opening up to feed the flocks.

    Though Miles didn’t lose all of her cynical resistance, it’s clearly the Gospel that gave her the courage to keep on with all this, even as it convicted her of every temptation to separate herself from Christ’s body: she was every bit as hungry, lonely, angry, and scared as any of them. It’s all there: the impatience with church people who don’t think this is the important thing to be doing; the conflict on the home front when all this church work takes her away from Martha and Katie’s lives; the impossibility of loving people who take groceries away and sell them, or get aggressive when the line is too long.   

    Just as clearly, it’s Divine Providence that brings Miles the volunteers; the wonderful people at the central food pantry; the philanthropist who discovers her work, and helps her plant pantries in other areas; an excellent spiritual director; and the priest who moves from Texas to join the St. Gregory’s staff, and help her cook the lunch.

    Take This Bread puts to shame all the conversation about doctrine and polity we sometimes waste our days with. If Jesus is real, we need to invite him to supper.

Any Good Books
July 2013

Friday, May 31, 2013

The Supper of the Lamb

Any Good Books
June 2013

The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection
Robert Farrar Capon (2002, Modern Library, with introductions by Ruth Reichl and Deborah Madison; originally published 1969)

    The Supper of the Lambs has been back in print for a decade, which makes it a rarity among books from 1969; Ruth Reichl, editor of the Modern Library Food series, dubbed it a classic, and its continuing sales bear her out. I don’t think that information, however, will properly prepare you for just how rare and strange a book it is.

    The ostensible structure is straightforward: on one leg of lamb, feed eight people four meals; but the diversions, divagations, wanderings and meanderings between first and last comprise a distinctive view of the world. Capon works small, inviting us to spend an hour with an onion, meeting its dryness and its pungent wetness, its very creatureliness. (“You must firmly resist the temptation to feel silly.”) And he works large, befitting his status as an Episcopal priest: “Food is the daily sacrament of unnecessary goodness, ordained for a continual remembrance that the world will always be more delicious than it is useful.”

    Beyond recipes, of which there is a rich but idiosyncratic selection, there’s a solid foundation of technique. He knows the secrets of the wok; how to treat butter to make puff pastry come out right; how to make stock, and what to do with it. Beyond technique, in turn, lies philosophy: “The world may or may not need another cookbook, but it needs all the lovers–amateurs–it can get. It is a gorgeous old place, full of clownish graces and beautiful drolleries, and it has enough textures, tastes, and smells to keep us intrigued for more time than we have.”

    Capon waxes prophetic about the proliferation of ‘tin fiddles’, by which he means things that take over the marketplace despite being markedly inferior versions of what they purport to be: electric knives, gravy from a jar, and margarine, to name a few. In this sense, the book has aged remarkably well. We may not skim cream from the top of our milk these days, or set out ashtrays at dinner, but we have more and more low-calorie fake foods all the time.

    His advice, characteristically bracing and sensible, is to leave off worrying about calories, but occasionally to take a break from eating altogether. “Should a true man wish to lose weight, let him fast. Let him sit down to nothing but coffee and conversation, if religion or reason bid him do so; only let him not try to eat his cake without having it.” (That use of ‘man’ is something Capon caught himself at, and let stand on purpose: “We are all true men–or women–here.”)

    Ranging as it does from roasts to broth, from formal dinner parties to cures for hangovers and heartburn, The Supper of the Lamb comes to a theological point: “Because, in fact, it was God who invented dirt, onions and turnip greens; God who invented human beings, with their strange compulsion to cook their food; God who, at the end of each day of creation, pronounced a resounding ‘Good!’ over his own concoctions.”

    Amen, and hallelujah.

Email edition, June 2013

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Poser: My life in twenty-three yoga poses

Poser: My life in twenty-three yoga poses
Claire Dederer (2011, Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

    As a snapshot, or time capsule, of late-twentieth-century perfectionist motherhood, you could hardly do better than Claire Dederer’s memoir, Poser. Women who turned to family life after spending their twenties building careers or exercising wanderlust turned to it with a daunting fervor for everything natural and wholesome. “Nursing, at least where we lived in Seattle, was a strange combination of enthusiast’s hobby and moral mandate.” And it didn’t stop there. You had to use cloth diapers, buy wooden toys from Europe, make baby food from scratch.

    “These were the rules: Get your thousand words written, cook your organic dinner, call your parents, good, good, good all the time.” If you are wondering whether such a mother ever found the whole business a little overwhelming--yes, Dederer did. “Or maybe I was the only one with the terror. Maybe I was the only one who, grinding steamed organic carrots in the baby-food mill, felt as if turning the mill’s little handle was keeping something awful from happening.”

    Yoga was all part of the equation, partly because Claire threw her back out nursing Lucy, her glowingly healthy eleven-month-old baby, and partly because it seemed like something that people did who had it all figured out: “Maybe if I appeared to be serene, I would stop with the existentialist dread, the likes of which I had not felt since my overcoat-wearin’ teenage days.”

    It was consuming, having a baby and going to yoga twice a week, and getting some writing done, while her husband, Bruce, tried to write full-time to support the three of them. Claire went for walks with friends-- ”They were all part-time workers with interesting, creative, exhausting jobs. They all wore cute corduroy pants and hipsterish hoodies covered with spit-up.” And she managed the visits of her parents; she had three, inconveniently enough; her mother and father, who are still married, and her mother’s longtime boyfriend, a tugboat captain.

    This is the book’s introduction to another time capsule, from 1973, when Claire was six, and her mother entered an extended period of hippie exploration, involving (mostly) leaving her husband, and hanging out with woodcarvers and embroiderers. “That was the kind of profession people had in those days, professions that belonged in fairy tales.” It was also the kind of childhood people had in those days, adventurous and unmoored, in a way that made Claire cling to the books she was always reading, where the characters were not always reinventing themselves, and in which a Mom remained just a Mom.

    So Claire worked very hard at being a Mom; she had a second baby, a boy called Willie, by a second C-section; and she kept a cheerful front of denial about her husband’s withdrawal and depression. Her busyness, her perfectionism, and her drive to live, on a writer’s income, like the wealthy Seattleites around them, left Bruce feeling overworked and isolated. One day in a yoga class, with her foot behind her head, she noticed that she was deeply unhappy, and that her cheerful pretense was making it worse. “I was trapped in a misery of expectations, as if in a blizzard. I was afraid that if I stopped, if I said ‘Something is wrong here,’ my family would fall apart. After all, that is what families do.”

    Claire and Bruce, by a stroke of well-deserved good fortune, found a way to run away from home and start over again without splitting up: they moved to Boulder, Colorado, on a journalism fellowship that Bruce won. Boulder turned out to be a great place  for them, with hiking trails, more sunshine than the Pacific Northwest, and a whole new level of yoga classes in the bargain.

    The move was just the push they needed toward putting their own family first, and figuring how to be the kind of grown-ups they really wanted to be. It freed Claire from some of the anxiety that she inhaled in her old neighborhood, and gave her a fresh, inward-looking perspective. “Now my family life was my family life, private, almost secret, a pile of bears in a den, writhing and furry and intimate. I had no public.”

    Poser is beautifully written, both in its prose and in its structure, which in addition to braiding together the stories of Claire’s life as a wife and mother, and her life as a child, actually talks about yoga in a comprehensible way, and shows us what changed in Claire’s understanding and practice. On the mat, and in her life, she was able to give up a whole lot of expectations about how things have to be Good, and see that they really are good already. Or, at least, real, and that’s good enough.

Any Good Books
May 2013 email edition

Monday, April 1, 2013

Speaking of Faith

Speaking of Faith
Krista Tippett (2007, Viking)

    Speaking of Faith is the public radio program which has, for the past decade, brought issues of faith, spirituality and religion to public radio. The host, Krista Tippett, interviews all kinds of people, from all walks of religious life. Her guests include theologians, philosophers, environmentalists, physicists, nuns and monks; they speak from Buddhist, humanist and atheist perspectives, well as from within the Abrahamic faiths in all their variety.

    Tippett’s book Speaking of Faith provides a valuable introduction to those thinkers and those conversations, in the framework of a memoir, the story of what made her the perfect person for such a job. Like most such stories, it would have been quite unpredictable, yet it makes sense in hindsight: the granddaughter of a Baptist minister, Tippett went to Brown University, then spent her twenties in Germany, in the last decade of the Cold War. She was religiously disengaged in those days, but she was fascinated by the rich spiritual life she found in some of her East German friends, at a time when it was not reasonable for them to have much hope for their futures. “Germany’s division was about the world’s brokenness, and my passion–now secularized and recast in political terms–was for salvation.”

    It was a time of high political and diplomatic drama, but Tippett couldn’t help noticing the human element: “...where did the resilience of the human spirit express itself at this level of policy, I wondered, and could this level of policy address the spiritual underpinnings of human experience?” She moved on, to a restorative time on a Mediterranean island, and then to a small village in England, always continuing to contemplate the ironies and paradoxes that arise when finite, mortal humanity tries to confront the infinite and eternal.

    The works of Rilke, Bonhoeffer, and T. S. Eliot were among her guides on the way back to the Bible of her youth, with new questions and a more open attitude. Unable to leave the subject alone, she went on to the Yale Divinity School. “The Bible, as I read it now, ... is an ancient record of an ongoing encounter with God in the darkness as well as the light of human experience. Like all sacred texts, it employs multiple forms of language to convey truth: poetry, narrative, legend, parable, echoing imagery, wordplay, prophecy, metaphor, didactics, wisdom saying.”

    The Bible is too big, and too important, to be read as literal history, or science. Such readings put religion at odds with history, science, and reason; but, read as story and poetry, the Bible has everything in common with science. Tippett says, “Science like religion is about questions more than answers–questions and more questions that meet every new answer as soon as it is hatched.”

    St. John’s Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Minnesota, hosted a center for ecumenical conversation and research called the Collegeville Institute. In 1995, Tippett was engaged to conduct an oral history of the Institute, work which set a pattern for the work in radio that would come next. “I did not invite people of faith to pronounce. I asked them to trace the intersection of religious ideas with time and space and the color and complexity of real lives–not just the trajectory of their lives, but what they knew of the world, the work they did, who and what they loved. This both grounded and exalted what they had to say, and it let me in.”

    The habit of speaking and listening this way permeates Speaking of Faith; Tippett is both grounded and exalted, and she lets us in. The book has that delightful Pandora’s box quality, of leading on to other books; but Tippett’s life doesn’t let her be purely bookish. She says, “If holiness is happening, it is happening in the thick of reality, not replacing the world we know, not banishing death, but defying its terror as the last word. And here is the task that fills my days: how to speak of this together and make it more visible, audible and tangible in the world.”

    Amen, amen.

Email edition, April 1, 2013

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Friday, March 1, 2013

I Thought You Were Dead

I Thought You Were Dead: A Love Story
Pete Nelson (2010, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill)

    It’s 1998. Paul Gustavson is a divorced writer living in Northampton, Massachusetts, quietly drinking his life away. His girlfriend, who lives a couple of hours away in Rhode Island, is deciding between him and another man; his devoted dog, Stella, is fifteen years old and failing; and his father, back in Minnesota, has just had a major stroke.

    Pete Nelson’s I Thought You Were Dead is about what all this pushes Paul to do. Spurred to thoughts of mortality, he cuts back on doughnuts and takes up jogging. He tries yoga: “He liked the mindful breathing part. The poses hurt like hell, but that seemed to be the idea, learning how to get bent out of shape without getting bent out of shape.”

    Because he can’t visit the way his brother and sister can, he takes long-distance care of his father by chatting over the computer; this dates the story, in an agreeable way, because people are still figuring out how to do it. It’s also an effective way of making Paul talk about himself, because his father is not up to much in the way of responses beyond YES and NO.

    He takes care of Stella when it thunders, and carries her into the house when her back legs start failing. Stella has, as it happens a gift for conversation and a fundamentally sweet soul. She’s a little dumb about some things, hence the novel’s title–she lives in the moment. But she observes Paul acutely; she tells him the truth; and she makes the call about when it’s time for him to end her suffering.   

    She’s stoic about it, but Paul’s a mess. “He withdrew, holed up with a bottle of vodka to slow his thoughts. He wasn’t sure when he would be ready to resume his responsibilities in the universe.” He still loves Tamsen, his girlfriend, but he breaks up with her out of depressive inertia.

    At last, he puts down the bottle. “He’d expected to have some sort of unbearable craving for a drink, but he didn’t feel any thirstier than usual, and indeed he felt measurably better, more clearheaded. He slept better, and his skull didn’t hurt when he woke up in the morning.” Another visit to Minnesota rearranges his family constellation for Paul, opening lines of communication that had long atrophied.

    I Thought You Were Dead is a very fine book about people being able to hear each other. I appreciated the way it maintained a comic view of some complicated lives. The electronic chatting is an interesting touch; I think Nelson gets its strengths and drawbacks right. I also enjoyed the epigraphs, excerpts from the book Paul is working on, Nature for Morons. I’m always up for tidbits about evolution and psychology, anyhow, but of course, these are meant as commentary on Paul’s discoveries, things he learns as research before he knows them as life.

    It’s a long time till Spring--treat yourself to a novel.

Any Good Books,  March 2013

Friday, February 1, 2013

Left Neglected

Left Neglected: a novel
Lisa Genova (Gallery Books, 2011)

    How does Sarah Nickerson do it? The heroine and narrator of Lisa Genova’s Left Neglected is a modern-day Superwoman. She combines a home in a nice Boston West suburb, a husband, and three small children, with an overwhelmingly demanding job in human resource management at a global consulting company. Her cell phone, her laptop, a nanny (who worked 55-hour weeks till the older children started school) and a giant mountain of debt are all necessary parts of the answer.

    It’s a normal life for an ambitious Harvard Business School graduate, and it’s more than a little insane. “I go to Europe once every eight weeks, China once a quarter, and New York for one or two overnights a month, but this kind of travel is all predictable, finite, and manageable.” Manageable. Right. But add to that a broken garage door opener, and a meeting with seven-year-old Charlie’s teacher, strongly hinting that he be tested for an attention deficit problem, and it’s All a Bit Much.
    Then Sarah makes the way her life is spinning out of control unexpectedly concrete, by flipping her car in the median of the Mass Pike, and sustaining a traumatic injury to the right side of her brain. She can still talk, because that’s a left-brain function, but she loses all awareness of the left side of anything, including herself. The way the book handles her discovery of this strangeness is marvelously subtle, as is the way that she comes to terms with the fact that her life as an HR VP is not going to be recoverable.

    The lightly fictionalized Baldwin Rehabilitation Hospital captivated me in particular, as I’ve done visitor time there--not just the jail on one side, and the beautiful bridge on the other, but the nightly sounds of confusion and suffering; and what the nurses say when you get out of bed and fall down because you don’t really understand that you can’t walk; and how rehab lasts only as long as insurance will pay for it, under criteria established by the kind of person Sarah used to be.
    Sarah gathers some of what she knows about her situation from the faces of those who come to see her. Her boss and her assistant come over to the hospital: “The incision scars, the bruising, the overall baldness. I’m a horror movie, and she desperately wants to bury her face in someone’s shoulder.” Why is this woman who looks like a train wreck claiming she could work from her hospital bed? Inevitably, mercifully, her boss’s phone rings, and the visit is cut short.

    Having her mother turn up to help is a bit of a shock for Sarah. How can someone who hasn’t driven off of Cape Cod in decades navigate into the darkest heart of Boston traffic, in her son-in-law’s car, after taking the kids to school? “I feel like I missed a meeting,” says Sarah, because she’s had no significant relationship with her mother, Helen, in thirty years. She needs one now, though, and one of Left Neglected’s sweet pleasures is seeing Sarah as both mother and daughter, especially as she has to negotiate both a new connection with her mother, and an new separation. Can Sarah stand her mother’s taste in clothers? Is it cheating if Helen pushes Sarah’s wheelchair down to the gym for therapy? Part of the work is figuring out when to accept help, and when to fight through without it.
    Where is fighting going to get her, anyway? The old, competitive straight-A Sarah can’t control how fast her recovery happens, if it happens at all. Her old wardrobe of professional clothing (“Armani, Donna Karan, Grettacole, Ann Taylor”) has buttons on all the blouses, which makes them highly impractical for someone with only one useable hand. “Accept. Adjust. Those words don’t sing to me at all. In fact, I have a hard time even considering those words without hearing Give up. Lose. Fail.”
    Well, by this point we know that Sarah is not going to give up, or fail, but her life and her family’s are irrevocably changed. In addition to a handful of very interesting neurological conundrums, Left Neglected brings us the kind of Easter story novels can be very good at. We all need to know what Sarah learns: “Maybe success can be something else, and maybe there’s another way to get there. Maybe there’s a different road for me with a more reasonable speed limit.”

Email edition, February 1 2013