Sunday, March 18, 2018

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle

Since the movie has come out, I decided to re-read A Wrinkle in Time. It's been so many years since I read it, I honestly did not remember the details.

Did you remember (or know) that the first sentence is "It was a dark and stormy night."? I did not, and, of course, it reminded me of Snoopy.

According to Wikipedia, "L'Engle biographer Leonard Marcus notes that 'With a wink to the reader, she chose for the opening line of A Wrinkle in Time, her most audaciously original work of fiction, that hoariest of cliches ... L'Engle herself was certainly aware of old warhorse's literary provenance as ... Edward Bulwer-Lytton's much maligned much parodied repository of Victorian purple prose, Paul Clifford. While discussing the importance of establishing the tone of voice at the beginning of fiction, Judy Morris notes that L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time opens with 'Snoopy's signature phrase.'"

Good beginning. And, unlike Snoopy, L'Engle did have a good second sentence -- and all the sentences thereafter. I like it that she started her book with a "wink" to Snoopy."

When the children tesseract to the planet (I assume it's a planet) Camazotz, as they walk through the town, it reminds of "Stepford Wives" -- people doing all the same thing at the same time, mindlessly controlled by one mind.

I like the characters and the story. When they find Meg and Charles' father, what a fateful sentence it is when it says, "She had found her father, and he had not made everything all right." That is a blow -- when we realize that grown-ups don't have all the answers, that they can't always keep you safe.

I found the discussion of freedom within rules interesting. Mrs. Whatsit talks about the sonnet, 14 lines in iambic pentameter, but within that form, "the poet has complete freedom to say whatever he wants." I've heard this before. I'm still not sure what to think of it. What is the "strict form" of our lives? Being born, living, and dying? Or is it all the things that happen to us over which we have no control? Maybe it's like my Dad used to emphasize - you can only control what you do. I guess that's how we "say" what we want -- by how we respond to what happens to us.

And love wins.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Of Mess & Moxie by Jen Hatmaker

I'm kind of late to the party with Jen Hatmaker. She's written 12 books and many people have known and loved her for years. I knew the name but had never read anything of hers until now. I had heard a little bit about the "fall from grace" that Jen experienced a couple years ago but did not know any particulars. (Jen said in an interview that she supported same-sex marriage and believed LGBT relationships could be holy. The Christian publishing company she worked with dropped her, and she was vilified by many of her previous fans.)
Anyway, I enjoyed Of Mess and Moxie. It reminded me a bit of Anne Lamott's writing, in that she is often hilarious. Three times before even getting halfway through the book, I had to run to the bathroom because otherwise I'd have peed my pants! (I've grown to accept that there are times I will be sitting on the toilet laughing my fool head off.)

Here is one of the stories that caused one of my fits of hilarity, I think because it strongly reminds me of myself:
Anyway, when Sydney was in fourth grade, she had a field trip to . . . something somewhere. Listen, I am good at other things. I knew driving parents had to follow the buses pulling out at 8:30 a.m. Great. I showed up to the school parking lot with all the other moms ... 
Two buses pulled out, and I got in line behind the other cars and put my mind on autopilot as we headed south down I-35. ... later, I started thinking, Good night! Where are we going? What was this field trip? Something about government? Or maybe astronomy? I pulled alongside the buses just to make sure I hadn’t lost the caravan, but sure enough, our school name was emblazoned on the side. 
After an hour and a half, we pulled into the San Antonio Zoo, which I surely didn’t remember as a pertinent detail. I parked, sauntered over to the buses, and watched the entire fifth grade contingency pile out. Which was delightful. For fifth graders. But my kid was in fourth, and I had inadvertently followed the wrong bus—not to the correct destination ten minutes from school, but to another city.
That is SO something I would do!

Jen is a very "regular" person, too. People call her "relateable." That's another way she is like Anne Lamott. She writes about Sandi Patty, a Christian singer, requesting prayer for a procedure on her vocal chords. Jen writes:
I hollered: "Not her voice, Lord! Anything but her voice! Take her legs!"
One should rethink asking me to pray for a person's needs.
She writes about how life can be hard, even for children, and says:
We can have it all in place, all in check, all under our thumb, and they are still not exempted from Jesus's statement: "In this world you will have trouble" (John 16:33). It is the most awful situation. What a horrible system.
We can relate, right?

I really appreciated what Jen wrote about forgiveness. 
Oh, it is so terrible, isn’t it? Just awful. It is the one thing we don’t want to give. Maybe it helps to discuss what forgiveness is not first. Let it be said: forgiveness is not condoning evil, not forgetting, not brushing something under the carpet, not a free pass. It does not mean minimizing the injury and, consequently, your pain. It doesn’t shrink an offense down, making it smaller in memory, in impact. It doesn’t shrug off loss with a “no real harm, no real foul” response. It does not mean conceding, surrendering to a different version, or yielding your right to dignity. It never communicates that this didn’t happen, it didn’t matter, or it didn’t harm. 
Furthermore, it might not mean reconciliation. Some breaches are restored and relationships mended, but some are not safe. They may never be safe. The other person may be entirely unsorry, and there is no path to harmony. Forgiving chronic abusers does not include jumping back into the fire while it is still burning; that is not grace but foolishness. Forgiveness operates in an entirely different lane than reconciliation; sometimes those roads converge and sometimes they never meet. 
Forgiveness is a one-man show. 
One last thing: forgiveness rarely equals a one-and-done decision. Very few decide one day to forgive and never have to revisit that release. In most cases, it is a process that takes months and sometimes years of work, and just when you think you have laid an offense down, it creeps back up in memory and you have to battle it anew. Just because this work is stubborn does not mean you are failing or will never be free. Forgiveness is a long road in the same direction.
I especially like that line, "Forgiveness is a one-man show." It's been free-ing for me to realize that. Like Hatmaker says, the person you forgive may not be sorry, and may not even think they need to be forgiven. I've had cases where it's not just that they aren't sorry, they don't even realize I'm hurt or upset with them -- I forgive them before they even know. And I don't mean to brag (in case that sounded like bragging), I just mean that the other person can be totally uninvolved in the act of forgiveness.

Another good line, which she quotes from Anne Lamott, "Earth is Forgiveness School." This also speaks to what Jen says about forgiveness not bring a "one-and-done decision." That is another thing I've discovered. Often, I feel greatly relieved that I've forgiven someone but, disappointingly, I find I have to keep making the decision over and over.

I like Jen Hatmaker and plan to read more of her books. I admit I like Anne Lamott more. I admire many of the female theologians and writers. I love it that they have become a kind of band of sisters. Anne Lamott, Jen Hatmaker, Nadia Bolz-Weber (the Sarcastic Lutheran), Sarah Bessey, Shana Niequist, Brene Brown, and more. It's great!

Love Big, Be Well: Letters to a Small-Town Church

I read this book because our denominational magazine, The Banner, reviewed and recommended it as a useful book about "the church in the world today." Our church has gotten quite small, and I have been praying, thinking, and reading about ways that I can possibly serve our church family and help to keep and make it a vital part of God's kingdom on earth.

This book is a fictional collection of letters between a pastor of a small-town church and its members. I did find parts of it meaningful to me and my own faith, but I don't quite see much helpful as far as building community and revitalizing a church like ours. All our members are spread throughout the Bay Area, miles from the church, many members travel a lot for business, it's very common for people to move in and out through the years, and nearly all our members either work full-time or are elderly. Mainly I felt like it did not speak well to a church like ours in a large city. Of course, that's to be expected when the title itself says it's about a "small-town church."

I liked many parts of the book, though. One was this:
As the church, we are the people (whenever we live true to ourselves) who will welcome you in to this world, who will join you in marriage and in friendship, who will bless your coming and your going. We will pray for you to prosper and know love's depths even if you think our prayers are foolish or offered in vain, and we will mourn you when you leave us. We will bless the land and the nations we share, and we will grieve together through tragedy and heartache. We will celebrate, with you, everything beautiful and good, everything that comes from the hand of mercy. And then, when your days conclude, we will bury you. We will return you to the earth and pray God's kindness over you.
That is who we are. This is who I hope we will be.
That is the hope for our church, too. Even with people traveling a lot, moving in and out, and so on, my church has been this for me and my family, and I know that's true for many others. I thank God for the people of my church who are all this to me and mine. That's a big reason I want to try to serve it and keep it vital.

In another part of the book, the letter-writing pastor talks about "making something beautiful" out of the church.
We're not trying to manufacture an idyllic life or an idyllic church. We're trying to be friends with one another, to speak to one another as people who have actual names. ...Whenever someone asked what vision our church follows, what we're making of our vocations and our loves and our friendships and our families, we could say, "We're making something beautiful, to the best of our ability."
I like this for mentioning friendships. I think that's what makes our church beautiful -- friendships with each other and with Jesus. I'd like us to nurture those friendships.

I also like its mention of visions. I'm a little cynical about vision statements right now. It seems like whenever we come up with them, they're true, but I don't really see them as very valuable. They kind of remind me of the horoscopes you can read based on your Zodiac sign. I once suggested a friend read some other sign's horoscopes for a while and see if those weren't true as well. Lo and behold, they were! We can make a lot of statements about our church's vision, but they're usually true of many churches besides ours. That's not bad, but I'd rather see us expending our energy, prayers, and thoughts on building our relationships, our friendships.

The pastor in the book talks about this, too.
In all my years attending the church..., I had never before heard anyone say, Hey, you know what we're about? Friendship. This is remarkable since Jesus himself gave us the model of his own friendship with us to function as our guide: "My command is this: love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends." The next time I find myself among a group of pastors debating the atonement and the precise rationale for Jesus' death, I'm going to say, "Jesus died because he's our friend." ...
It's the current rage to talk about creating community and being missional and pursuing incarnational ministry, but these well-intentioned notions somehow morph into lofty ideals or complicated strategies that inhibit us from simply being friends, being neighbors. ... We seek friendship. We desire and pray for friendship. We become a friend, and then we hope the other will become a friend to us as well....
What if we thought of ourselves in simpler terms: friends together in the Kingdom of God. We'd have much more patience with one another. We'd give each other a break. We'd follow Jesus' words in his sermon on the mount: Be easy on people. We'd laugh more often. ...
My brother has been talking a lot about friendship lately. I've been reading more about it, thinking and praying about it. Friendship is beautiful. A church full of friends is beautiful.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Dorothy Day - The World Will Be Saved by Beauty - An Intimate Portrait of my Grandmother by Kate Hennessy

I read this book because my brother Joel mentioned he had read it, and I was curious about Dorothy Day. I'd heard of her but did not really know who she was or what she did, other than she'd helped the poor with some kind of house for them.

Kate Hennessy, the author, and as you can see by the subtitle, granddaughter of Dorothy, wrote the book with her unique perspective of having grown up with Dorothy Day as her "granny" and Dorothy's daughter Tamar her mom.

The book explores the relationship and lives of both these remarkable women. They were very different. Dorothy Day loved to talk and she participated fully in the world. She was arrested several times for participating in walks and marches. She gave and gave and gave -- her time and her money and her care. Tamar, her daughter, had what I would call a rather rough childhood. Dorothy loved her, but Tamar was in and out of schools and also lived in various homes at different times, as Dorothy went on speaking tours. Day was sometimes quite critical of Tamar. And Tamar was resentful that her mother did not encourage or help her to get a degree. Day felt that degrees were "bunk," and even though she encouraged others to pursue education, she did not encourage Tamar in that way.

Tamar had some resentment towards Day but a huge, steady love. Tamar married early and had seven children. Day stayed with Tamar and her family for many long visits, becoming a vital part of the children's growing up, as well as of Tamar's life.

I found this book engaging. When I was a kid and my mom would take us to the library, as I chose books I would often open several spots and see if the book had lots of quote marks -- conversations. It was a good sign if it did that it would be interesting. This book has lots of conversations. It's not just narration of what happened, but a story of the lives of Dorothy, Tamar, and Kate, the author, herself.

Day started the Catholic Worker, a newspaper. She reported on strikes, lynchings, the life of sharecroppers, Hitler's persecution of the Jews, and more. "She wanted a paper not only for blacks and whites but written by both, to impress on her readers that the paper was for all workers."

The first house, in New York, inspired many more. It was a home for people who were on the fringes - homeless, poor, sometimes mentally ill. The house (this and its other iterations throughout the years) was called the Catholic Worker, like the paper, and it was a kind of by-product of the paper. Once people started reading the Catholic Worker, people who were inspired by her ideas came and took on various jobs for the paper. Others in need showed up and Day could not not help them. The houses were ramshackle and often beyond poor - commonly infested with rats and bedbugs. But it was a community. Tamar said she grew up in the Worker. Although her life was hard, she said, "It was the world that taught me that people weren't always so kind and hospitable. Growing up at the Worker, I thought everyone was good and kind."

One of the things that kept coming to my mind while I was reading this book was the fact that there is a movement to make Dorothy Day a saint. Having grown up a pastor's daughter, I knew that people called by God were truly "ordinary" people like me (although I did think of my dad as rather saintly, too). This book made that clear again. Dorothy Day made mistakes, she lived a rather rough and ready life, her daughter both loved and resented her, she was not some kind of superhuman saint, in the way the stories of saints can sometimes make you feel they were. Recently, having learned of MotherTeresa's struggles of faith, it brought that fact home again. The saints are people. I guess it is their dedication to God's work that makes them saints.

As I wrote this, I thought of the parallel truth of Jesus as fully human and fully God. Those statements can't really be facts in the way we think of facts. Yet they are true. One of the things that makes Jesus the central figure in my life, my Savior, is the fact that he was human. I can turn to him with anything and he understands, because he was human, too. Yet, he must be God, too.

For Day, her faith was vital. She went to mass every day. "The church was the community, she felt, and Mass became a time to stop and take note of the sunlight and of her fellow humans, to take a breath and feel God touching the heart and the mind. In such moments of peace and stillness, all her fears and questions would fall away, the path would rise up to meet her, and the calling would feel so clear it was as if it had all been taken out of her hands."

Dorothy Day came to the end of her life surrounded by her family and friends. She spent some years in a simple cottage by the beach, which she loved. Her final days were in an apartment in the city. Throughout her last days, she still tried to answer correspondence but was often confused. She told stories to her loved ones and read.

The subtitle of the book is "The World Will be Saved by Beauty," a quote from Dostoevsky's book, The Idiot, that Day often quoted. I purchased the book but have not read it yet. I've read some online articles about the quote and the book. I feel like there's a lot to these words, and I need to think, read, and meditate on them. I like this quote from one article, by Michael D. O'Brien:
The beauty that will save the world is the love of God. This love is both human and supernatural in character, but it germinates, flowers, and comes to fruition only in a crucified heart. Only the heart united with Christ on the Cross is able to love another as himself, and as God loves him. Only such a heart can pass through the narrow gate of the Cross and live in the light of Resurrection. The good news is that this resurrection begins here and now.
Some of what I read reminds me of what people say of Flannery O'Connor, who is a greatly revered writer with a strong faith. In her stories, there is a seemingly broken person (like the "idiot" in Dostoevsky) who is actually like Christ. In turn, this reminds me of the Biblical verse that says, "For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength." (I Corinthians 1:25). Maybe these all get at what Dorothy Day was saying when she quoted, "The world will be saved by beauty."

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Reminders of the futility of worrying - Poems by Mary Oliver

Here are two more poems from Devotions by Mary Oliver, that remind me of the futility and uselessness of worrying.

This first one I had read before. It reminds me of God's response to Job.
I Go Down to the Shore
I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall--
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.
This one makes me smile.
I Worried
I worried a lot. Will the garden grow, will the rivers
flow in the right direction, will the earth turn
as it was taught, and if not, how shall
I correct it?
Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven,
can I do better?
Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows
can do it and I am, well,
Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,
am I going to get rheumatism,
lockjaw, dementia?
Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing.
And gave it up. And took my old body
and went out into the morning,
and sang.
I'm thinking I'll take my old body and sing "Let All Things Now Living."

Dogs - Poems by Mary Oliver

These are two sweet poems about dogs. I am reading Devotions by Mary Oliver. My friends and family who love dogs will like these, I think. And I do, too.

Little Dog's Rhapsody in the Night (Percy Three)
He puts his cheek against mine
and makes small, expressive sounds.
And when I am awake, or awake enough
he turns upside down, his four paws
    in the air
and his eyes dark and fervent.
Tell me you love me, he says.
Tell me again.
Could there be a sweeter arrangement? Over and over
he gets to ask it.
I get to tell.

Percy (Nine)
Your friend is coming I say
to Percy, and name a name
and he comes to the door, his
wide mouth in its laugh shape,
and waves, since he has one, his tail.
But there are days I wish
there was less in my head to examine,
not to speak of the busy heart. How
would it be to be Percy, I wonder, not
thinking, not weighing anything, just running forward.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Hobbit by C.S. Lewis

It's been years now since I've re-read The Hobbit. When I was growing up, every couple years or so I'd think, "I'd like a visit to Middle Earth," and I'd re-read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Back when someone told me that someone was going to make a movie of The Lord of the Rings, I went into a kind of rant, saying that Hollywood would ruin it and no one would know how great the books were, etc., etc. But they proved me wrong. Peter Jackson and the others actually did seem to catch the spirit of the books, and I like the movies.

I've just started my re-reading of The Hobbit and I'm struck by the friendliness of the author's writing. I'm curious to see whether he writes this way in The Lord of the Rings.
The wind was howling and the thunder still growling, and they had a business getting themselves and their ponies along.
"They had a business." Can't you just hear a British accent in that? Sometimes I like to use the phrase "to-doing," which I hear in British movie conversations. "Oh, what a to-doing!" I also like "argle-bargle." I'd say that to my kids sometimes. "Time to go to bed, and no argle-bargle."

Tolkien also speaks directly to the reader -- a lot. You feel like he's telling the story to you the entire time.
He lit up his wand--as he did that day in Bilbo's dining-room that seemed so long ago, if you remember--, and by its light they explored the cave from end to end.
I can just see Tolkien looking at me as he says "if you remember." And he calls Bilbo "little Bilbo" a lot. It's endearing.

Somewhere in this mess of a library I have a hard cover copy of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings but I happened to find this paperback first. I like that it's old and worn (copyright 1973). The picture on the front was painted by J.R.R. Tolkien himself. And don't you love the map? He was a pretty amazing man.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

In the Shelter by Pádraig Ó Tuama

I heard of Pádraig Ó Tuama (pronounced Pah-drick O Two-ma) listening to his interview with Krista Tippett on “On Being.” In that interview, he spoke of saying “Hello” as a prayer.

In In the Shelter, I learned more about that. Ó Tuama tells about going to a Taizé retreat and the Taizé monk has several people read the story of Jesus’ appearance to the disciples in the upper room (in John) in several different languages. The monk noted that Jesus greeted his disciples by saying, “Peace be with you.” 
The Taizé brother suggested that we pause for a moment and consider the words “Peace be with you” that the resurrected Jesus says to his locked-in followers. The Taizé brother said that, in a real sense, we can read that as “Hello.” After all, it’s the standard greeting in Hebrew, Arabic, and Aramaic.  
The disciples were there, in fear, in an upper room, locked away, and suddenly the one they had abandoned and perhaps the one they most feared to be with them was with them, and he said hello. 
Hello to you in this locked room. (p. 10)

Throughout the book, Ó Tuama does that – he tells a story or writes about something, and then ends it with “Hello to … something.” I find that use of “hello” very helpful. A while ago I wrote to my family about the fact that, ever since my brother died 11 years ago, Nov. 4, 2006, the Fall season brings on a kind of melancholy for me. I love the Fall so the first time it happened to me I had said to a friend that I didn’t know what was wrong with me, I felt sad for no known reason, and I was crying easily. She said, “Didn’t your brother die in the Fall?” and went on to say that sometimes our bodies somehow hold that memory. I think she was right. And this year, with the death of both my parents, it seems more acute – even though they died in winter at the beginning of the year. I find it somehow helpful to think to myself, “Hello grief. Hello sadness. Hello melancholy.” I’m not sure why it helps, but it does.

In another story kind of about saying hello (p. 14), Ó Tuama writes about a National Geographic story he read where a photojournalist wrote about a tribal group she’d lived with who “had no word for hello. Instead upon seeing someone, one simply said, ‘You are here’.” Then he writes, “The answer, as I recall it, was equally straightforward: ‘Yes I am.’ Whether by fact or fiction, it remains that for decades I have thought of the words ‘You are here’ and ‘Yes I am’ as good places to begin something that might be called prayer.

These phrases – “You are here” and “Yes I am” – made me think of hinani, the Hebrew word for “Here I am” that I have written about and thought of often. Things keep attracting me to that concept, of saying “Here I am” to God, ready for the mission you will give me.

One of the things I loved about In the Shelter and Pádraig Ó Tuama is that he loves The Lord of the Rings. He quotes from those books quite a few times. I love those books, too, so it gives me a lot of joy to see the words and stories from them used as ways to discuss deep things such as faith and prayer.

Ó Tuama writes some interesting things about religion. In one place (p. 24), he writes, “Religion had rarely been something that gave me hope for happiness. Effort certainly…” That made me sad. I hear that so often, where people obviously think that being religious is a matter of effort, of following rules.

It reminded me of a time with my grandma (Grace Kok, my dad’s mom). For the year my dad was in Vietnam we lived next door to my grandma, in Lynden, WA. This was a time when CRC churches pretty much all had “night church,” an evening service. Sometimes my grandma wouldn’t feel up to going to church in the evening, and instead she’d listen to the service as it was broadcast over the radio. I sat with her and listened to the service this night. Afterward, Grandma said that she was always disappointed when ministers gave sermons that did not talk about the joy of Christianity. She said something like, “Why don’t they talk about how happy it makes you?”

Don’t you love that? I didn’t think that much about it back then, but I think about it often now. Just the other day I was talking to a friend who has left the faith she grew up with. I forget exactly what my friend said, but like my Grandma I responded with something like, “It’s too bad the way people think religion is a bunch of rules. It’s all about Jesus’ love, so much love. It gives me so much joy.” As Pádraig Ó Tuama would say, hello to joy.

Pádraig Ó Tuama also writes about religion needing to know that it may not always be right (p. 193). He recalls a Peanuts cartoon where Snoopy is writing a book of theology.
Charlie Brown comes along and says, “…I hope you have a good title.” Snoopy looks up, in a superior fashion, and indicates that he has the perfect title. He resumes typing and the title of his theological oeuvre appears in typeface in the sky. “Have you ever considered that you might be wrong?”
…It is evidence of religious integrity to be fluent in living well with the questions underneath our hope. “Let us cling to you,” we say to our Jesus, and he answers, “Have you ever considered that you might be wrong?” He says, “No, do not cling to me.” He says, “Live well” and “Change” and “Learn.” He asks, “What are you doing with your power?” and he answers, “Do not miss the mark again.” He praises those who act and criticizes those who focus only on their words. He tells stories that do not end and ends stories that do not start.

Hello to the gift of being wrong.

Hello to the need for change.
In another part of the book (p. 74) he tells a story that pierced my heart. He says, as far as he can remember it, it’s a “transcript of something a twelve-year-old girl said one day.” The girl talks about a story told by a woman at a church event who “said that she was going to tell a story about God that the children would love” (p. 73).
She told us this story about the station master of a train station. The station master saw that a train was coming along and saw that the line was broken. If he didn’t change the line that the train was on, then the train would go off a cliff and everyone would die. So he needed to change the line, but he saw that his son was playing on the other line, the safe one. So he had to decide if he’d save the people or save his son. He saved the people.

The woman ended the story and said: “That’s what God’s love is like. He saved us instead of his son.” She said, “That’s a story I know the young people will love.”

I thought it was a stupid story because it just made me worry that my daddy is going to murder me.
Ó Tuama goes on to say:
The clarity of this girl’s analysis of the story was compelling…It was clear that she was, as we’d say in Cork [Note from Mavis: Pádraig Ó Tuama is Irish.], not backwards about being forwards – she said what she thought when she thought it. I thought she was marvelous. I asked her if she sometimes got into trouble in school for saying what she thought. She looked at me, as if amazed that I might have perceived this about her character, and said, “All. The. Time.” I said, “Well, take it from me, you’ve got good things to say, keep saying them,” and she looked puzzled but pleased.

Hello to being right. It’s not always easy.
This whole passage makes me happy “on many levels,” as people are wont to say. First, as I said earlier, that train story is heart-piercing, don’t you think? It’s like a cruel trick question. And for that woman to think it would be a story “the children would love.” Seriously? Ha!

Then the twelve-year-old girl’s conclusion – “It just made me worry that my daddy is going to murder me” – cracks me up.

And Pádraig Ó Tuama’s admiration for her forthrightness, I love that. I myself often get in trouble for saying what I think when I think of it. It’s so great when someone finds that to be a positive trait! Hello to being “not backwards about being forwards.”

I could go on and on about this book, but already I’ve written quite a long blog entry here. I feel like this book is “an embarrassment of riches.” There’s so much in it, so much to soak in, so much to enjoy, to savor, to tuck into your heart. I recommend it wholeheartedly.

As you can see, I used my post-it note method again.
Testimony to it being an embarrassment of riches!!

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

I don't know why I didn't do this long ago, but I just looked up the definition of "Bardo".
(in Tibetan Buddhism) a state of existence between death and rebirth, varying in length according to a person's conduct in life and manner of, or age at, death.
Interesting. Maybe if I'd looked that up first, I would not have been so surprised at this book. We chose it for our book club. In a way, I felt kind of freaked out about it, but in another way it was really good, with lots to think about.

As I'd read in short blurbs about the book, the entire book is about one night, the night after Willie Lincoln's death when Abraham Lincoln, his father, visited him in the cemetery where he (Willie) was buried. (I think I thought "Bardo" must have something to do with graveyards.)

It's strangely written, with little separate paragraphs, with tiny names and sources typed after. At first I thought this must be some kind of thing the author was doing before each chapter, or at the beginning of the book. But it went on so long I finally looked further, and this style of little paragraphs (although a few went on for a page or so) went on for the whole book.

The rest of this blog entry is a spoiler. I want to write about the book and remember it.

Most of the paragraphs are what the dead people in the cemetery are saying. The two who "speak" the most are Hans Vollman and Roger Bevins, III (always written in small letters, "hans vollman" and "roger bevins iii"). The definition of "Bardo" makes sense as I realized that these people were dead but calling themselves sick. They were, I believe, around and, in a limited way, still interacting with the world, hoping that they would return to the world, somehow, someday. Hence, they were "sick," not dead, and their coffins were "sick boxes."

Not to put too fine a point on it, they were ghosts. They did not call themselves that but they certainly fit my definition of ghosts. Willie, too, is a ghost, but he does not realize it. When his father comes, he expects his father to hug him and talk to him. He is agitated as he realizes his father cannot hear, see, or feel him.

You get a very real sense of Abraham Lincoln. Many of the small paragraphs are from records of people who knew Lincoln, often people who worked closely with him, even servants who lived with him and the family.

A few times during the course of the story, Willie, or Hans or Roger, and once a whole bunch of the ghosts, inhabit Abraham Lincoln. They attempt, by all thinking concentratedly of the same thing together, to persuade Lincoln to do something they want him to do.

When he is inhabiting his father, Willie does not try to get his father to do something, though; he just feels much of what his father feels, and hears his father's thoughts. This is how he realizes he is not sick, he is dead. His father, Abraham Lincoln, says (thinks) it, and therefore it must be true. Willie becomes joyous when he realizes he is dead. He jumps around, "hopping with joy now, like a toddler too full of water." He says,
I was good. Or tried to be. I want to do good now. And go where I should. Where I should have gone in the first place. Father will not return here. And none of us will ever be allowed back to that previous place. (p. 298)
So accepting death is good. Lots to think about there. Like Roger Bevins says, "It gave me pause."

When he shares that they are dead with all the other ghosts, many of them believe/realize it, too. When they accept that they are dead, they actually, somehow, really die. They leave this state of being a ghost. When they go, there's an explosion of some kind. The author calls it a "matterlightblooming phenomenon." What an interesting word. Reflecting on that word is one of the many areas of further thought in this book.

Of course, now I wish I had underlined and flagged pages when something especially struck me. I've been doing that in my non-fiction reading. But I was lazy, basically, and wanted to keep getting on with the story.

There's much about Lincoln's suffering as he grieves. In his thoughts (which the ghosts hear as they inhabit him), he questions whether he should have let Willie ride the pony he loved. Willie rode that pony all the time, including once when he was exposed to cold for a long time, became sick with a cold and then typhoid, resulting ultimately in his death. Lincoln also thinks about the criticism from others regarding a big celebratory party he and his wife held, while Willie was lying deathly ill in a room above the party.

Lincoln thinks about how many others are experiencing this same loss -- of their sons -- because their sons are dying on the battlefield. It seems like he realizes he has to make their death worthwhile, by making the war worthwhile. He begins to think that he must take a "bloody path" and perhaps cause even more suffering, but the bloodiest way may be the best way.
He must (we must, we felt) do all we could, in light of the many soldiers lying dead and wounded, in open fields, all across the land, weeds violating their torsos, eyeballs pecked out or dissolving, lips hideously retracted, rain-soaked/blood-soaked/snow-crusted letters scattered about them to ensure that we did not, as we took that difficult path we were now well upon, blunder, blunder further (we had blundered so badly already) and, in so blundering, ruin more, more of these boys, each of whom was once dear to someone. 
Ruinmore, ruinmore, we felt, must endeavor not to ruinmore....

We must, to do the maximum good, bring the thing to its swiftest halt and--


Kill more efficiently.

Hold nothing back.

Make the blood flow.

Bleed and bleed the enemy until his good sense be reborn.

The swiftest halt to the thing (therefore the greatest mercy) might be the bloodiest.

Must end the suffering by causing more suffering. (pp. 306-7)
More to think about. It reminded me of those who say the atom bombs at the end of the war with Japan were the best way to end the war, even though they killed so many, because more would have been killed if we had not dropped the bombs.

Another ghost character, the Reverend Everly Thomas, has a long passage about a memory of what appears to be the judgement after death. One fellow dead person is sentenced to a beautiful place; the next one to a horrible place full of demons. When Thomas is judged, he, too, is sentenced to the horrible place. He escapes and does not go, but now he is in this ghost state (although he knows he is dead), and "is ignorant of what sin [he] committed." (p. 194) Again, food for thought. How can you be unaware of your own sin and the reason you would be sent to hell? That doesn't fit in with what I believe about the assurance of God's grace.

Near the end, once Willie has truly left (with the "matterlightblooming phenomenon"), Abraham Lincoln seems to have resolved his grief, and made it so he could resume life again.
There in his seat, Mr. Lincoln startled.

Like a schoolboy jolting suddenly awake in class.

Looked around.

Momentarily unsure, it seemed, of where he was.

Then got to his feet and made for the door.

The lad's departure having set him free. (p. 302)
He accepts his sorrow, realizes many others have sorrow, and he "must do what he could to lighten the load of those with whom he came into contact..." (p. 303)

One of the book club members sent a link to a page where it talks about the book receiving the Man Booker Prize. One of the judges has a video and says that Lincoln in the Bardo may seem a bit disconcerting at first, and it certainly was for me. As I went on, though, I was caught up in it, and discovered how rich it was, how it told many stories, and how it gave me so many things to think about.