Cuyahoga River

Cuyahoga River
Cuyahoga River in the Valley

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Pulitzer Achievement

Anna Quindlen is known for her essay columns in The New York Times and Newsweek. Her novel Every Last One is a moving story of the death of a family, the consequences of misjudgment, and the quest for forgiveness. Mary Beth Latham is married to a doctor and has three children, all different, two almost perfect, one not so perfect, but all loved and cared for as well as a mother could care for her family in upper middle-class America. Quindlen is honest about the life they lead and she describes their suburban realties and how the kids and their parents act like she sees it every day: “Her period is late. He got suspended. Like a broadcast in another room, we mothers hear about some of this after the fact—in overhead calls or conversations at the kitchen table. The kids know we will keep quiet, not out of tact but out of shame. We know that our children are having sex, smoking pot, drinking beer, but it is easier to say nothing.” It’s a life I always felt apart from, because I worked hard.

There’s a lot about the family, but like many middle-aged women, Mary Beth has given up part of her dreams even as she found happiness in landscaping other people’s yards. “Ruby knows that I majored in English, and she once asked why I had not decided to be a writer myself. “I just found it way too hard,’ I’d said. She looked away.” She pays her migrant workers less than Americans would be paid, but she rationalizes that she’s helping out families in Mexico who are a lot better off having money flow to them from the US.

The kids expected to be overachievers, and in a way, that was their downfall. A boy who loves the daughter and is jilted by her and feels let down by the family moves into their garage, knows their habits, papers walls with their pictures over which he writes “Perfect Family” in red, and then murders them all, every last one. But he doesn’t fully succeed because Mary Beth and her son Alex survive, she because she’s knocked out and left for dead and him because he’s on a skiing vacation. After the deaths, we witness misery and grief and lives interrupted. Neighbors and family are giving and selfless, but they’re suffering. Mary Beth remembers a neighbor who lost a child and how she and her friends wondered how they survived. Now she muses, “One of the worst aspects of living now on the far shore is that across the chasm I can see my glib unknowing former self. I despise that woman, her foolish worries and her cheap sympathies.” Our suburban housewife is becoming wiser for her loss.

We begin to learn about Mary Beth’s grave mistake and how she somehow feels she failed them by having an affair and failed them by not recognizing the murderous mental state of Kiernen. One of the most painful scenes is her attendance at her daughter’s graduation, but her daughter is dead; the audience applauses loudly, a display of love and sympathy and respect in the wake of feeling like a piranha. She wonders about boxes and mementos and where they lie within her mother’s house in Florida or in the trash or at Goodwill and thinks she could ask her, but what difference would it make? “Whatever she did was fine. That’s what I’ve learned. It’s fine. Whatever you manage to do.” Expectations of life are now gone.

Both mother and son manage to get through the ordeal and create new lives for themselves in the same town in which they have always lived. At the end of the book, outside her new home, because she can and no one else is there to “think it strange, I call their names, one b one, into the silence. The silence is as big as the sky, and as I call to each of them it is as though the name is a bird, flying out over the trees and into the lowering afternoon.” She’s trying. “It’s all I know how to do now. This is my live. I am trying.” As the jacket cover says, “Ultimately, as rendered in Anna Quindlen’s mesmerizing prose, Every Last One is a novel about facing every last one of the things we fear the most, about finding ways to navigate a road we never intended to travel, and about living a life we never dreamed we’d have to live, but find ourselves brave enough to try.” This well-wrought book is Quindlen’s sixth novel, and she also wrote seven non-fiction books. She continues to be careful with her craft, as a Pulitzer Prize writer would.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Eat Pray Love -- It's all we need besides sleep

I admit that I was a bit put off by Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love at first. Her meandering writing style was not well crafted and that irritated me, as it does every time I read a New York Times bestseller and discover a writer can’t write. But she was a National Book Award Finalist for her book The Last American Man and received a New York Times notable book designation for Pilgrims, for her compelling voice, comic touch, and amazing ear fro dialogue. Harper’s Bazaar said “The heroes of Pilgrims . . . are everyday seekers.” Anne Lamott is quoted as saying it’s “A wonderful book, brilliant and personal, rich in spiritual insight.” And I love Anne so I started liking Gilbert. The New York Times said “If a more likable writer than Gilbert is currently in print, I haven’t found him or her . . . Gilbert’s prose is fueled by a mix of intelligence, wit, and colloquial exuberance that is close to irresistible.” The Los Angeles Times called the book “A mediation on love in its many forms—love of food, language, humanity, God, and most meaningful for Gilbert, love of self . . . Gilbert’s wry, unfettered account of her extraordinary journey lets even the most cynical reader dare to dream of someday finding God deep in a mediation cave in India, or, perhaps, over a transcendent piece of pizza.”

By the time she got to the Ashram in India, the writing was no longer a problem. I was so interested in her journey that I decided to structure a retreat around it, even though I hadn’t finished the book. I’m defending her here because last night I received an e-mail from someone who had a hard time with me using her book for a retreat, especially in the Methodist church, and he wanted me to stop. I wrote back with my honest experience of the book, and I woke this morning confident that what I’m doing is fine because the District Superintendent said it almost doesn’t matter what you offer the church membership if you get them in the door. The decline of Christianity in America is a fact, and churches need to learn how to deal with that.

The book inspired me to do a retreat based on Gilbert’s year of journeying. February 19, 2011, it came to be.

Interesting: People think your soul make is your perfect fit, and that’s what everyone wants. But a true soul mate is a mirror, the person who shows you everything that’s holding you back, the person who brings you to your own attention so you can change your life. You can’t live with a soul mate forever because it’s too painful. One thing I do know about intimacy is that there are certain natural laws which govern the sexual experience of two people, and that these laws cannot be budged any more than gravity can be negotiated with. To feel physically comfortable with someone else’s body is not a decision you can make It has very little to do with how two people think or act or talk or even look. The mysterious magnet is either there, buried somewhere deep behind the sternum, or it is not.”

Friday, December 2, 2011

Processing the Silence

On my second day at the monastery, I attended morning prayers and listened to the voices of the community of women. Thomas Merton wrote, “Life is not accomplishing some special work but attaining to a degree of consciousness and inner freedom which is beyond all works and attainments. That is my real goal. It implies ‘becoming unknown and as nothing.’” Later he wrote "only save me from myself. Save me from my own, private, poisonous urge to change everything, to act without reason, to move for movement’s sake, to unsettle everything You have ordained. Let me rest in Your will and be silent. Then the light of Your joy will warm my life. Its fire will burn in my heart and shine for Your glory. This is what I live for. Amen, amen.”

I met with one of the sisters for spiritual direction. She talked about how people get to the point at midlife where it’s important to explore their passion, because time’s running out. We talked about praying for guidance and looking for signs from God. She told me a story about her life in which she was waiting after I told her about reading Sue Monk Kidd’s book, and sometimes we just know a change is coming but we don’t know what it is. And then it’s there and we need to know it when we see it. The waiting period can be a time of growth. My takeaways were to remember I’m not alone, to make time to experience the silence and wait, to never give up my passion, to wait patiently for God to give me direction, and to trust that all will turn out well.