Thursday, December 06, 2007

In Which I Am On A Roll and Finish Yet Another Book
After rereading with much disappointment The Chronicles of Narnia, I came to Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quartet with some hesitancy. Not that I had ever read all of the books. The first, A Wrinkle in Time, was published when I was born. The second was printed eleven years later and eleven years after that the fourth book was released. I prefer not to read books that are a part of a series until the series is actually finished being written and published. I’ve been burned in the past with waiting endlessly for the next book’s release. Worse, I’ve read the first of a series which, because of poor sales, was never published in its entirety! I reread A Wrinkle in Time. I had read it as a young girl and never read any of the sequels. I had thought about it. Perhaps I had even intended to do so. But other books (like Harry Potter) got in my way. And given my discouraged response to Lewis’ books I was thrilled to finish rereading it knowing I had also enjoyed it. Huge relief. Still, I resisted reading the second book. Now not because I thought revisiting an old friend would be a let down but because I had really enjoyed the first book and didn’t want any disappointment whatsoever. I am not disappointed in A Wind in the Door although the story was not as compelling to me as the previous book’s was. Nevertheless, I was immersed and interested enough to read through the book quickly. I love how L’Engle weaves her spiritual beliefs into her story. She does it, in my opinion, better than Lewis ever could or would. Perhaps mostly because that is her intention. I don’t think Lewis ever meant his Narnia or Space books to be anything but heavy handed allegory. L’Engle, however, infuses her story with imagery and teaching that is clearly Christian but would not offend most non-Christian readers. (However, let me point out that they have offended Christian readers who have attempted to have these books banned because they feel she is promoting non-Christian values.) What struck me most about this book was not the story so much as its context. I had read a book by L’Engle a long time ago in which she writes about her own name and naming. I wish I could find the book, refer to it, but I can’t and I read what I am about to share over 10 years ago so I am probably not going to be accurate. If I remember correctly, I read about L’Engle’s childhood in A Stone for a Pillow. In it she describes being raised in an orphanage where she was raised without a name. At some point she herself chose a name and became Madeleine. She explained that the power of having a name, of being able to define yourself by a name, was very important. Her name identified her. And in this second book of The Time Quartet the importance of naming things plays a significant role. As I was reading through the book I kept thinking about this remembered story of L’Engle’s own childhood, guessing that this experience from her past helped ground the novel in meaning for her on a deeper level than perhaps most readers. What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Or, as Anne of Green Gables says, "I've never been able to believe it. I don't believe a rose WOULD be as nice if it was called a thistle or a skunk cabbage." But I digress. I have in front of me the four books bound in a single volume. I approached reading it with caution, with trepidation. I did not want my childhood delight in the first book to be spoiled. It wasn’t. I did not want to be disappointed by the second book. I’m not. And now, rather than being cautious, I am eagerly anticipating the next book, to see what happens to the family and how L’Engle will continue flavoring her stories with her spirituality in such a manner that I have no choice but to savor every word. I’ll surely be updating with a review in the next week or two.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

In Which I Finish Another Book
At a time when I am feeling betrayed by my body, when I am frustrated with how it is not healing and now has something new to deal with, I needed to look at the idea of acceptance more fully. Naturally, I was drawn to read Tara Brach’s Radical Acceptance. It is a nice book full of lovely quotes and stories. Her experiences, both personal and professional, add a layer of relevance to what she is teaching. I did find some interesting quotes but mostly I found myself zipping through. When I was reading a lot of Christian books, I would often put them into two categories—milk and meat. Some books were inspirational but never very deep. There was insight but not a great deal of enlightenment. These were the milk books, the teachings meant more for the younger Christian. Then there were the meat books, the ones that were so dense with truth that no matter how short the teaching was it was heavy, rich, and profound. While I occasionally read the milk books, I loved the meaty ones, the ones that made me stop and question, argue, debate. I still prefer a book that will make me look to my beliefs with some questioning, that will push me beyond my comfort zone while holding my hand and reassuring me that I can always fall back if I need to. This book kept me safely within my comfort zone. I did not feel compelled to grow or dig, to look or turn away. Instead, I read and enjoyed. Maybe I even appreciated what I was reading. But I never felt any awe or anything even touching awareness. Instead, I felt as though I were going through familiar territory. That is not to say that this is not a good book. On the contrary. It is good. I suppose I was hoping for great. However, let me commend this book for something I keep saying should be made available with all books like this. So many times I will read a book and each chapter will have a lovely guided meditation. All well and good but it is hard to meditate with paragraphs of visualization that you need to read to fully immerse yourself in the meditation itself. Brach has cds available with the meditations! Too bad I didn’t buy the book with the cds. Too bad I didn’t even know that was an option at the time. But hooray! Finally someone with a little sense realized that this is a good idea. And they are available through Sounds True which always produces high quality material. Thank you thank you thank you!

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

In Which I Finish a Book on Tarot
I suppose that I don’t take tarot as seriously as some. If I needed proof of this, P D Ouspensky’s The Symbolism of the Tarot: Philosophy of Occultism in Pictures and Numbers would be all the evidence I need. A slender book, the author explores the esoteric symbolism of each of the major arcana, pairing them up according to some symbolic significance of an Egyptian temple. So that The Magician is paired with The Fool (I/0) and The High Priestess with The World (II/XXI) etc. Each card has a meditation in which the author describes first what is seen in the card, interpreting the symbolism, and occasionally explaining what a voice (the voice of God presumably) says about the meaning of the card. I found most of Ouspensky’s interpretations to disagree with my own understanding of what I see and perhaps that made it difficult for me to appreciate what I was reading. For example, when describing the dog on The Fool, Ouspensky writes “a wild lynx with glowing eyes sprang upon him from behind a rock and buried her teeth in his flesh” (28). This is so far removed from what I see that I can’t even fully address it. Where I see a playful dog happily following its master, tail and ears up, leaping joyously, the author sees a fearsome animal attacking. And that is how the entire book went for me. There were few interpretations with which I agreed and usually the symbolism was either conservative or so far removed from the visual that I learned nothing of interest. I’m only glad I bought this on a bargain table and can now freely remove it from my book collection.

Monday, December 03, 2007

In Which I Finish A Book

It is said that there are three things one does not discuss in polite company: sex, religion, and politics. If this is true then Anne Lamott, in her book Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith, is delightfully impolite. If you want to know where she stands on various subjects, sit back and enjoy the ride because she is going to tell you. You’ll know whether or not she is pro-life or pro-choice, her feelings about President Bush and the war in Iraq, but mostly you’ll learn about Lamott herself. This book may be about everything and anything but in the end it is about one woman and her relationships. Her relationships with others. Her relationships with her community. Her relationship with her God. And most significantly her relationship with herself. Lamott, best known for Bird by Bird, writes in a manner that is self-deprecating and sometimes brutal. However, her tone is so gentle and often sardonic and instead of feeling battered by someone’s narcissistic need to rape themselves on the page the reader walks away feeling an intimacy with her. Lamott manages to strip herself naked and still feel her blush more than your own. Because of this, the reader not only feels gentle towards her but also towards him/herself. Such a delicate balance is rare to find in essay collections. On the day that I determined to no longer clutter my life with shelves and shelves of books, a package from my mother arrived in which there was this copy of Lamott’s book. I had to laugh at my mother’s coincidentally sadistic timing. When I was two thirds through the book I called her to say I was reading it and loving it. She said that she had enjoyed it very much too because Lamott writes the way my mother speaks. I had to laugh again because it is very true. I found myself chuckling over the way Lamott would say something because it did sound familiar and funny to me. So perhaps I am biased. I may not be able to read Lamott’s writing objectively because it is so much like how my mother and I think and speak. I have set the book aside to give to one of two friends—a sort of first come first served basis of reducing my book clutter. Nice try on my mother’s part, her attempt at thwarting my plans about which she knew nothing! But she’s not winning this time. Now I just need to read the other books she sent to me . . . and the nearly 2000 others if I hope to get my collection down to a manageable size. The following is copied from Questions for Anne Lamott This is your third book on faith. How has your perspective changed since you wrote your first one? Lamott: I wrote my first book on faith when Bill Clinton was president, and I was in a much better mood. I wrote Plan B during the run-up to war in Iraq, and the ensuing catastrophe, so I was very angry, but trying to reconcile that pain and hostility to Jesus's insistence that we are made of love, to love, and be loved, to forgive and be forgiven. Some days went better than others. Also, my son Sam was in his early teens, and that was a LOT easier than when he turned 16 and 17, his ages when I was writing the pieces in Grace (Eventually). In general, I think Grace (Eventually) is a less angry book. I like how I'm aging, except that my back hurts more often, my knees crack like twigs when I squat, and my memory fails more frequently, in more public and therefore humiliating ways. But I think I complain less. As my best friend said when she was dying, and I was obsessing about my butt, "You just don't have that kind of time." What does grace mean for you? How can we better communicate it to each other? Lamott: Grace is that extra bit of help when you think you are really doomed; also, not coincidentally, when you have finally run out of good ideas on how to proceed, and on how better to control the people or circumstances that are frustrating or defeating you. I experience Grace as a cool ribbon of fresh air when I feel spiritually claustrophobic. Sometimes I experience it as water-wings, something holding me up when I am afraid that I'm going down, or the tide is carrying me away. I know that Grace meets us whereever we are, but does not leave us where it found us. Sometimes it is so small--a couple of seconds relief here, several extra inches there. I wish it were big and obvious, like sky-writing. Oh, well. Grace is not something I DO, or can chase down; but it is something I can receive, when I stop trying to be in charge. We communicate grace to one another by holding space for people when they are hurt or terrified, instead of trying to fix them, or manage their emotions for them. We offer ourselves as silent companionship, or gentle listening when someone feels very alone. We get people glasses of water when they are thirsty. Many of the essays in Grace (Eventually) first appeared in Salon, the online magazine, and that's the way that many readers first found you. How do you see the Internet changing the way people read and write? Lamott: The Internet makes everything so immediate and spontaneous, which I totally love--UNLESS it has to do with the immediacy of people's negative response to me. Several of the Salon pieces in Grace--for instance, the story about the horrible fight with my son, and the piece about turning the other cheek while being ripped off by The Carpet Guy--generated a couple hundred letters, many of them extremely hostile. Perhaps "spewy" would be a better description. I also sometimes get knee-jerk responses to my mentions of Jesus in my Salon pieces that seem to lump me in the same tradition as Jerry Falwell. But for the most part, I love the populism and egalitarian nature of the Internet: everyone counts the same. What stories do people tell you, when they've read your books or know you are a writer? Lamott: People tell me how relieved they are that I try to tell the truth about how hard it can be to be a mother, or a daughter, or an American in these times. They tell me stories about how awful their own teenagers can be, or how awful they themselves behaved towards their kids or parents; how hard it was to finally be able to adore their mothers, or to forgive their fathers. They tell me their sobriety dates. They whisper to me that they are Christians, too. Also, they ask if I am able to read their manuscripts, and the name of my agent, and my e-mail address. They ask if we are going to survive the current political difficulties--and I promise them we are. They ask how old my son is now--17 and a half--and how he is doing, which is fantastically, after some of the hard months I wrote about in Grace. lessons do you think you can pass on to others: to your readers, to your son? What lessons does it seem like people have to learn for themselves? Lamott: All I have to offer is my own truth, my own experience, strength and hope. I can pass on the tool of a God Box, and how for 20 years I have been putting tiny notes in mine and promising God I will keep my sticky fingers off the controls until I hear God's wisdom: sometimes I get an answer because the phone rings, or the mail comes, but at any rate, during every single terrible problem and tragedy, I have been given enough guidance and stamina and even humor to bear up, and be transformed, for the good. I always tell Sam that if you want to make God laugh, tell Her your plans. I tell Sam that if he listens to his best thinking, he will suffer: and to listen to his heart instead, to listen in the silence, and to seek wise counsel. You've written nearly a dozen books (including an incredibly popular guide to writing): does writing get any easier? Does it get harder? Lamott: In a very important way, writing gets easier, because I've been doing it full time now for thirty-plus years, and just as you would get better and better if you practiced your scales on a piano, I've gotten better, and can try harder and harder pieces. But writing is always hard. It does not come naturally to me at all. I sit down at the same time every day, which lets my subconscious realize it's time to get to work. I give myself very short assignments, and let myself write really terrible first drafts. But I grapple with the exact same problems every writer does, which is having equal proportions of self-loathing and grandiosity. I sort of live by the Nike ads: Just Do It. So I sit down. I show up. I do it by pre-arrangement with myself, because I know I'll feel sad and terrible if I shirk on that days writing. I do it as a debt of honor, to myself, and to whatever it is that has given me this gift of being able to tell stories, and to make people laugh. Laughter is carbonated holiness. Other people's good writing is medicine for me, and I hope mine is too, for my readers.