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Posts Tagged ‘kinship’

I first became familiar with Pádraig Ó Tuama and his work through an episode of On Being. The only word I can think of to describe how I felt listening to him was enchanted, in the sense of delight, not magic. Here was someone whose sense of faith and God and reconciliation and love is thoroughly grounded in the messy realities of this world but is also poetic and hope-filled. I heard him at a time when I needed to. I made a note to read his books.

Fast forward a number of months and he came along again, this time when I viewed the Trinity Institute at my church. I listened to him read during the Friday Eucharist and felt a kinship; we’re siblings alright, if we’re children of God, but here was someone who clearly feels as I feel reading in church. He felt the words, loved them, and shared that, which is how I try to read.

Enough already, I thought. Read his books! I got myself In the Shelter and intended it as my Lent reading; then my church had other offerings so I set it aside for Easter, and here I am. I’ve been reading it for a couple of weeks. I finished it this morning and sadly, I accidentally gathered it up with my sheets and washed it. Fortunately it’s a pretty sturdy paperback, and I’m trying to let it dry out. It will want re-reading.

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I’m taking a class called Notes from a Seeker at church, about spiritual writing, and one of our assignments is to read spiritual memoirs. This is that — Pádraig (if he’s my brother, I’m calling him by name) shares in his writing his deep connection to God, a connection he’s had from an early age, one that he hung onto even when he was made to feel  less-than, even to the extreme of undergoing exorcisms and other un-caring treatment by fellow Christians, simply because he is gay.

Yet he also shares his delight in other humans (even when they’re not delightful, even when he’s not delighted with himself) and his love of language. He has a playful way with words (he’s also a poet), and an intellectual way, examining their meaning and exploring their nuances. I love this.

But his meaning is not playful, it’s serious, and he gets to the heart of some of the most challenging things around — otherness, fear, pain, self-loathing, uncertainty. I love this section, where he describes the dilemma of testimony — “the telling of the story of conversion, or re-conversion, of enlightenment or change.” In other words, so much of spiritual writing and talk. People hear this testimony and are impacted, for better or worse, as Pádraig explains:

“Upon whom is the burden of words? I don’t know. I don’t think there is an answer. I cannot dampen gladness because it will burden the unglad. But I cannot proclaim gladness as a promise that will only shackle the already bound. Faith shelters some, and it shadows others. It loosens some, and it binds others. Is this the judgement of the message or the messenger, the one praying or the prayer prayed? I don’t know.

Hello to what we do not know.

What I do know is that it can help to find the words to tell the truth of where you are now. If you can find the courage to name ‘here’ — especially in the place where you do not wish to be — it can help you be there. Instead of resenting another’s words of gladness or pain, it may be possible to hear it as simply another location. They are there and I am here.”

That is how I’ve prayed these last couple of weeks, “I am here.” It’s a contemplative practice anyone, or any faith or none at all can try. Name where you are. Even if you do not wish to be in that place. I can’t explain why, but it’s peaceful.

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I bought Tattoos on the Heart: the Power of Boundless Compassion by Jesuit priest Gregory Boyle in summer of 2015, because it was on the reading list for Teen the Younger’s mandatory “Catholic Moral Theology” class. Over the summer the instructor who’d selected this book decided not to come back to her school, and the new theology teacher chose to teach from an very old and uninspiring textbook, and from a series of impenetrable and frankly uninteresting essays.

Which is a shame, because Tattoos on the Heart is a book that can, as Seamus Heaney wrote, “catch the heart off guard and blow it open.” It’s not really a story so much as a series of stories about Father Gregory Boyle’s work with “homies” in Los Angeles. He was pastor of a church in one of the poorest areas of the city, and over the past thirty years has worked to help gang members find jobs and turn their lives around. His work grew into the nonprofit Homeboy Industries.

What’s most heart-expanding about this book is what Father Greg has to say about how he and his companions have done this work: “Here is what we seek: a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgement at how they carry it.” And,”We seek to create loving communities of kinship precisely to counteract mounting lovelessness, racism, and the cultural disparagement that keeps us apart.”

In between such cracking insights, Father Greg peppers his writing with “dog,” (sort of like dude) “cabrón” (jackass), ‘spensa (sorry), “homie,” “mijo” (my son) and other  English and Spanish slang that gives this book a down-to-earth feel. It’s thought provoking, too, as Father Greg writes about the stereotypes and bias people feel towards gang members and poor young men in general, and also about the endless pain of burying so many victims of gun violence. He also notes his own mistakes or moments of frustration and impatience.

It sounds silly to say this book made me laugh and cry but it’s true; Father Greg cites his own laughter and tears and it’s easy to join him. I found this book’s wisdom profound and also obvious — we have to stop thinking some people are more valuable than other people, and the only way to do that is to practice caring for each other with radical “no matter whatness.” Is that easy? Nope? Will be make mistakes? Yes. But as a society we could follow even an iota of Father Greg’s example, the world would be a far better place.

 

 

 

 

 

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My column ran in the Concord Monitor today; I’ve pasted it below. Before I get to that, a few words about the book I most recently finished, The Pure Gold Baby by Margaret Drabble.

I got into a discussion a few days ago with a fellow avid reader about the fact that there are books you have to read slowly and thoughtfully (frequently called literary, but that word is freighted with snobbery for some folks), and those you can tear through quickly. Drabble writes the kind one reads deliberately and carefully — and the kind that leaves you thinking for days. Bookconscious regulars may recall after I read The Peppered Moth I declared my intent to read all of Drabble’s work.

I found The Pure Gold Baby very beautiful and also very thought-provoking. The child of the title is Anna, a “special needs” girl, and the book is about her and her mother Jess and their friends and family in North London. Drabble makes their world deeply interesting even in its ordinary every-dayness, and through her narrator, Eleanor, a lawyer for a nonprofit social justice organization in London and longtime friend of Jess and Anna, she explores mental difference (both that which is evident from birth and that which develops later in life) and the care of the mentally ill or disabled. And even of the “regularly-abled” if you will — much of Eleanor’s reflection touches on the way parenting and childhood as well as mental healthcare has changed over the decades.

This of course opens the book up to related subjects – the old nature versus nurture debate, responsibility and accountability, whether inclusion and mainstreaming or institutionalizing and providing group care works better, etc. It’s a challenging read because Eleanor tells the story through her recollections, which are not always linear and chronological, and sometimes ramble or repeat, as memories do. But it’s a good read.

I’d say like much of the best literature, The Pure Gold Baby is about love — the highest value in most human transactions, the thing that makes us heroes or cowards, that causes our best intentions to go astray, and that sometimes makes us grow beyond our perceived potential. It’s a lovely meditation on friendship — between women but also between the sexes — and family, and how little our human constructs really matter when true affinity exists. And it’s a story, fitting for Jess, who is an anthropologist, of kinship, and the way our connections to each other shape our lives beyond anything else.

In this month’s Mindful Reader, three reviews:

The Mindful Reader: A wonderful read about Jonathan Edwards and the Great Awakening

By DEB BAKER

For the Monitor

Sunday, November 10, 2013
(Published in print: Sunday, November 10, 2013) 

Massachusetts author Susan Stinson’s Spider in a Tree: a Novel of the First Great Awakeningsurprised me. I knew the basic history of the period, including a bit about Jonathan Edwards, and frankly, thought it dull. But Stinson takes readers into Edwards’s home, into the lives of his family, their slaves, neighbors, relatives, and yes, even the spiders and insects of colonial Northampton, Mass. Suffering and joy, religious ecstasy and secular sorrow, the conflict between formal theology and individual conscience all make vivid fodder for Stinson’s story, which follows Edwards’s trajectory from 1731, during the religious revival that gripped New England, to 1750, when his congregation dismissed him.

She opens with Edwards sitting in “the big elm in front of his house. . . . People peered up at him through leaves that sifted light, which, he had taught them, was akin to sifting God. . . . Jonathan Edwards ate from pewter plates, not wooden trenchers, which did not go unnoticed in the town. He was useless with an auger, and his wife was better than he was on one end of a two-man saw, but most people who passed by the house on King Street had felt his sermons hammering at their souls.”

Stinson’s writing is clear, dynamic and full of vivid details that evoke early American life. Supporting characters add richness and depth to the story. Through them, we see Jonathan Edwards not only as a minister, but a man. Joseph and Elisha, Edwards’s young cousins, grow up in the shadow of their father’s suicide, which their mother believes Edwards caused with his fervent preaching. Sarah, Edwards’s wife, is a skilled herbalist, has ecstatic spiritual visions, bears 11 children and tries to smooth townspeople’s feelings when her husband stirs them up. Leah, the Edwards’s slave, experiences a personal religious awakening and wonders how people of faith can justify owning other people.

As these stories and others weave through Jonathan Edwards’s accomplishments and setbacks, readers explore the ideas and ideals, conflicts and controversies the characters face. And the big questions Edwards’s preaching raised in a world both very different and very similar to our own, where people’s emotions, resentments, secrets and aspirations color their actions. A fascinating trip back in time and through the human spirit, a story of longing, seeking, loving and struggling that seemed to me as engaging and fresh as anything you might read about a contemporary small town.

For fans of true crime

“The lies you wanted to hear were the easiest ones to tell,” says Lucy to Matt in Lies You Wanted to Hear, Massachusetts author James Whitfield Thomson’s debut novel. In this scene, Lucy and Matt are seeing each other again for the first time 17 years after Matt disappeared with their children. The novel opens with Lucy reflecting on nearly seven years without her family, and then explains what happened. Matt and Lucy are not terribly likeable characters, but Thomson makes them very real. It’s interesting to consider how far people will go in the name of love, and what an enormous claim parenthood makes on the human psyche. Inspired by a newspaper article about a Boston man whose daughters were glad he’d kidnapped them 20 years earlier, this novel should appeal to fans of true crime as well as fiction.

A non-adult book for adults

Monitor Board of Contributors writer Justine “Mel” Graykin wrote her novel Archimedes Nesselrode “for adults who are weary of adult books.” When working at the Philbrick-James Library in Deerfield, Graykin notes, patrons ask her for “something uplifting, in between all the heavy, literary, adult fare.” Her playful title character is an artist whose “creations” appear to be alive, and who shares his home with a basilisk guard, a matronly heron, mischievous marmosets, a bishop who lives in a teapot and many other whimsical creatures. When Nesselrode’s manager, Frank Shekle, interviews housekeepers, he warns them about his client’s eccentricity. Ms. Vivian Mare is undaunted. The household runs smoothly in her capable hands until the full moon, when Nesselrode’s behavior prompts a change in their relationship. By the end of the book, readers learn why Archimedes Nesselrode hasn’t left his house in 10 years, how he creates, what the downsides of his mysterious talents are, and what the future holds for Ms. Mare and her employer.

 

 

 

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