Monday, July 28, 2008

Proud Parents: Two Friends, Two New Books

Last month saw the birth of two new books, one each by two different friends. Both books are fall broadly in the category of memoir, both are by women, both take place at least in part in southern New Mexico, where Richard, Molly, and I lived for many years.

The first (I'm mentioning them in the order the books came to me, with no prejudice or preference implied) is Katherine Durack's Unmentionables: A Woman's Journey, Body to Soul, a deceptively slim volume that packs a punch as Durack explores how she began to lose her voice as a young girl, and how many years later on the cusp of middle-age she found that voice again--along with a powerful new sense of self. It's a courageous look at the perils of not speaking up or out, and trying to fit ourselves into a mold that is not our own. It's also a wise and witty look at our bodies, our lives, and their relationship to who we really are. Here's how Unmentionables opens:
While the lessons life teaches are not of our choosing, they are nevertheless indelibly inscribed in our flesh. Keeping silent about some wounds extracts a high price: when we don't speak, we lose the ability to do so.

I began the essays in this volume to recover my voice after losing it, both literally and figuratively. I had spent years trying to conform myself to the expectations of others: to teach how others thought I should teach, to write what others thought I should write, to be who others thought I should be. The result was predictable. I developed a stubborn case of laryngitis that threatened my ability to teach my classes, to talk with my students during office hours, to talk with my husband and my friends after work.

Worse, for the first time in my life, I developed writer's block. This was devastating and potentially career-ending, as failing to publish either the right kind of book or the prescribed number of approved types of articles in the accepted academic journals would mean the end of my academic career. While I was accustomed to feeling somewhat awkward when speaking, I had always felt at home home the page, yet I couldn't bear to write another word or another essay that only a handful of people would ever read.

The second book, Standing in the Light: My Life as a Pantheist, by Sharman Apt Russell, is a thoughtful and awe-full (as in full of awe) examination of our relationship with nature by a writer who is known for the breadth of the subjects she tackles (butterflies, hunger, archeology, the cowboy myth, the inner lives of flowers, pre-historic matrilineal culture, for a few examples) and her clear-eyed explication, but not for getting personal very often. In Standing in the Light though, Russell traces two journeys: the development of the philosophy of pantheism (the belief that all of life is sacred, and that which is holy is in every living thing) and her struggle to redeem her faith in life and in herself. This is a haunting book, the kind that eases its way under your skin and gradually becomes part of you, until you find yourself looking at the world in new ways. That's a good thing.

I can't help but love a book that opens with this quote from the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius: "Everything is interwoven, and the web is holy."

Russell begins the first chapter this way:
In the summer of 1996, I sat on my porch steps in the small town of Silver City, New Mexico, trying to decide if I should become a Quaker. I had attended my local Meeting off and on for twelve years but had not yet written my official letter asking for membership. Should I write that letter now? I was forty-two years old, a wife and mother. I felt anchored in my life. I felt the sun on my face. I felt the rough concrete against my legs. I watched an ant move across the sidewalk. Was I ready, for the first time, to join an organized religion? Did I have in fact any religious belief, or was I mainly attracted to Quaker culture and history?

The Quakers in my Meeting are also known as unprogrammed Quakers and Universalists. Following the earliest tradition of Friends, we have no scripture, no preacher, no creed. Instead, we practice silence, the act of sitting in a circle, saying nothing, and waiting--waiting for the Light. The Light is a deliberately broad concept. Among Universalist Friends, the Light can take the shape of Christ, the son of a heavenly Father, or the shape of Buddha, a human prince who enlightened himself and preached the Middle Way. Or the Light can take no shape at all and serve only as metaphor, a substitute for the ineffable. In my Meeting, how each friend defines the Light is a personal choice. We conform to Quakerly ways of opening and closing silence. We share similar ideas about social justice and nonviolence. We wait for the Light. We do not ask much of our members. We do ask this.


In front of me, on my porch step, was a sidewalk, a patch of grass, a broad strip of asphalt, more sidewalk, a stone wall, a pine tree, and, higher above, electrical wires. Cars drove by. A raven gurgled, liquid and insistent. In the blue sky, white clouds floated above brown hills. "Well," I said to myself, "the Light is all this, I suppose, these steps, this concrete, this ant, that raven. The weft and warp. It is," I gestured, "the street."


On Thursday, I'll be hosting novelist and writer of creative non-fiction Velda Brotherton on her blog book tour. We'll look at what inspires her stories, and how she goes about conveying the essence of very different landscapes and lives. Join me for that interview

2 comments:

Susan GT said...

Susan,
Wonderful descriptions of both books, and especially love the quote about the interconnection of all things. The 'web' is indeed 'holy' and so important that we remember that...that everyday, every little thing can be a holy connection to all.
Susan Gallacher-Turner

©Hotbutton Press said...

Must go post this link to my Story Circle Network sisters at their Yahoo! Group. Thank you for letting us know about these two books - they sound marvelous!

http://www.storycircle.org