Review: On Immunity

On Immunity–An Inoculation, Eula Biss. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2014.

Summary: A collection of essays about vaccines, immunity, fears, risks, and related concerns about environmental pollutants and other dangers faced by the human community.

A few caveats at the beginning of this review. One is that this book was published in 2014. So it was not written in the context of our current polemics about vaccines to combat COVID-19. Also, the author is not a scientist but a talented writer who has won a number of literary awards and is currently an Artist in Residence at Northwestern University. She is the daughter of an oncolgist. She is also the mother of a child suffering many allergies.

The essays in this work reflect her background as an academic, writer, child of a doctor, and a mother. It is evident that she extensively researched this work. She explores the history of vaccination from which we learn that the term comes from the Latin name for the cowpox virus, from which the vaccinated developed immunity to smallpox. She explores how the understanding of immunity developed over the years, earlier issues with the safety of vaccination, and contemporary research and reporting systems that confirm the high level of safety and rarity of risks.

She makes an important point that the effectiveness of vaccines isn’t simply for individuals but for the communities within which they live and travel. Vaccines limit or eliminate infections when a large portion of the population is vaccinated. At one point she challenges the flawed reasoning that one doesn’t need to get vaccinated because others are. This only works when very few think that way, and an ethic that you can’t commend universally runs afoul of Kant’s categorical imperative. She observes, “Immunity is a shared space—a garden we tend together.”

But she is also a mom who wants to do the right thing for her child. Her personal concerns lead her to a sympathetic examination of the fears of others, the sources of reports about autism, and various contaminants in vaccines. She both acknowledge the continuing influence of these reports and how extensive research studies have refuted all of them. She explores the question of risk, and how highly unlikely risks, like a rare side effect that may be attributed to a vaccine, and the much more prevalent and often more serious risks of the disease vaccines are meant to prevent. In the end, she comes down on the side of vaccination–but hardly in an unthinking, “sheeple” fashion. She gently challenges being more afraid of inoculation than disease, and the luxury of entertaining fears that most of the world can’t afford.

She considers other chemicals in our environment from triclosan in our liquid soaps to plastics in our foods, drink bottles, and mattresses. She comes to recognize that there is no absolute immunity we can confer on ourselves or our children from all that could render harm. She experiences this herself when she required transfusion after nearly dying from an inverted uterus during childbirth, and has to trust the safety of the blood she is given. She balances this sense of our vulnerability with our amazing immune system, that can handle multiple vaccines at once because it responds to thousands of threats every day. She asks hard questions, reviews research and doesn’t simply accept authority, but also acts on the best evidence of the science.

The book wanders a bit. It is a collection of essays, not strictly a scientific or history piece. But it is also a human piece, rather than a clinical account or research paper. Biss does what we all need to do–listen, ask questions, be the parent, and learn to discern between flawed and reliable information, and make the best decisions one can. In many ways, this may be a helpful read for those with concerns about vaccines. It challenges us to make decisions not from a place of narcissism but enlightened self interest that also considers the common good. It is written from outside the current polemics, but reflects the concerns so many of us have.

Review: The Hidden Wound

The Hidden Wound, Wendell Berry. Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2010 (Original edition 1968, with Afterword 1988).

Summary: An extended essay on racism in America, our collective attempts to conceal this wound upon American life, and its connections to our deformed ideas of work.

Wendell Berry wrote words that would be exceptional for most whites today. These were written in 1968 by a white man of the South, making them all the more exceptional:

“If white people have suffered less obviously from racism than black people, they have nevertheless suffered greatly; the cost has been greater perhaps than we can yet know. If the white man has inflicted the wound of racism upon black men, the cost has been that he would receive the mirror image of the wound into himself. As the master, or as a member of the dominant race, he has felt little compulsion to acknowledge it or speak of it; the more painful it has grown the more deeply he has hidden it within himself. But the wound is there, and it is a profound disorder, as great a damage in his mind as it is in his society.

This wound is in me….I want to know, as fully and exactly as I can, what the wound is and how much I am suffering from it….

Berry begins by acknowledging the story of his family as a slaveholding family, one that sold as well as acquired slaves. He acknowledges a family that went to church with its slaves but inured itself to the teachings about moral obligations that would have unraveled slavery.

He then turns to a childhood memory of Nick, a Black man who worked for his grandfather. He spoke of the racist structures that assigned Nick a place of being a worker and tenant and the dignity with which Nick accepted these but also the dignity of Nick’s work–his careful study of saddle horses, of the requirements of the land. Nick took Berry under his wing and taught him about the work of the farm. But the wound was there, evident in Nick not being able to accept the invitation to Berry’s birthday party, and Berry deciding that the only decent thing to do was to sit with Nick outside.

Berry recognizes in both what he learned from Nick in all his dignity and the underlying social divisions between them a picture of the deformities of our American society that defined success as distancing oneself from the physical labor of the farm and that used knowledge and status to make money off of the labors of others. So we have diminished ourselves, even as we had to diminish the personhood of Blacks to enslave them, something we have done since 1619. In doing so, we have alienated ourselves from good work and from the land upon which our lives depend. We have considered that work to be “n***** work” (Berry’s terminology, objectionable today but reflecting the demeaning character of its historical usage). By this we have not only demeaned persons but also lost our connection to the pleasures of good physical work and the land where this work is done.

Berry’s argument isn’t for legislation or structural change (and I believe this may be a weakness in ignoring the goods that can be done by addressing unjust structures). He argues that we need one another to heal the wounds racism has inflicted. Just as Nick taught Berry the wisdom of the farm and good work while Berry bridged the divide by sitting with Nick rather than staying with the white folks during his birthday, Berry argues that the task is not so much for whites to “free” Blacks but rather to “recognize the full strength and grace of their distinctive humanity” and that “they possess a knowledge for the lack of which we are incomplete and in pain.”

In his Afterword, written twenty years later, Berry addresses the displacement of racism from rural to urban settings and the decline of family farms, including Black farms. What has happened is simply a shift of the deformed ideas of work from the farm to the city with high paid executives and others who do “menial” work. Overcoming racism means no longer perpetuating these destructive ideas of work but paying just wages for all good and necessary work. Berry, drawing on his deep values of community also argues that integration without the restoration of the fabric of community is inadequate.

Perhaps the most significant thing in this extended essay, which I felt stands well on its own without the Afterword, is Berry’s courageous acknowledgement of the wound of racism on our national body. It is a wound caused by whites, but one from which whites suffer as well as Blacks. A strength of this work is that he owns his own complicity and his own learning with no “yes, buts.” It is vintage Berry, utterly consistent with other works of his on the dignity of manual work, of knowledge of the land, of caring for place, and of membership in community. What is striking is that Berry here offers a generous vision of community and membership that includes Black and white and the value in the humanity of each person. While Berry downplays systemic issues and may be faulted for this, his integration of issues of race into the larger themes of his work makes this more than merely a writing of place by a rural agriculturalist. It is an essay that discerns the fabric of society we are weaving, the rents in that fabric, and the crucial threads needed for a durable and useful garment.

Review: Breaking Bread with the Dead

Breaking Bread with the Dead, Alan Jacobs. New York: Penguin Press, 2020.

Summary: A case for reading old books as a means of increasing our “personal density” to expand our temporal bandwidth.

Alan Jacobs teaches students to read old books and contends, contrary to many critics, that this reading is essential in a day when we are bombarded by an avalanche of information, and all matter of questions about the future. Drawing upon Thomas Pynchon in Gravity’s Rainbow, he argues that old books increase our “personal density” through expanding our temporal bandwidth.

What does this mean? Jacobs is not arguing for learning from the lessons of the past or that old books help us recognize universal truths. Rather, he suggests that the great works of the past startle us with their difference. They help us see the choices of our own age in light of those of the past. They are the “other,” the “generative oddkin.” Jacobs believes that understanding how people of other ages met the challenges of life equip us to better face challenges of the future than if we draw only upon the resources of the present.

The greatest challenge to Jacobs’ proposal is the invidious aspects of many of these works–racist, chauvinist, colonialist, and more. Jacobs does not deny any of that. What he observes is that those in the past often enunciated ideas, the implications they failed to fully grasp in their own lives. He points to the American founders who laid the groundwork for our own ideals of equality, yet held slaves and failed until 100 years ago to enfranchise women. Reading them forces us to ask how future generations will evaluate us. Drawing upon Ursula LeGuin’s novel Lavinia, an adaptation of the Aeneid, giving voice to the woman Aeneas loved, Jacobs argues both that we read with double vision, recognizing both the work and the flawed character of work, and that our reading from our time can bring new insight that perhaps even an author like Virgil had not grasped.

Jacobs develops these themes through nine essays in which we consider works like The Iliad, The Doll’s House, and Jane Eyre, and authors from Virgil to Italo Calvino. He contends that the presence and tranquility of mind enabling us to meet the challenges of the day comes from a perspective that goes beyond “the latest thing.” If we read only sources from the present, as diverse as they may be, we may still be caught in “echo chambers.” Sometimes, the voices of the past will give voice and words that make sense of our own reality. At other times they will startle and challenge us. Rather than lulling us to sleep with placid verities, they challenge and shake us up, nurturing the kind of resistance fostering “unfragile” and resilient thought.

Jacobs does all this in elegant prose evoking the voices he would have us give more careful attention–an engaging read and a warm invitation.

Review: The Seamless Life

the seamless life

The Seamless LifeSteven Garber. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020.

Summary: A collection of short reflections around the integral relationship between our daily life and work and the love of God, accompanied by the author’s photography.

Steven Garber has written thoughtfully on the integration of faith and learning for students in The Fabric of Faithfulnessand of loving a broken word, joining with God’s love for his creation in living out our callings in Visions of Vocation. This is a very different book that rings the changes on the themes of these previous books. Garber writes:

   This is a book about vocation, but a different book, a collection of essays and photos. An unusual effort for the publisher, it is new for me too. Rather than making an argument that is developed over scores of pages and many chapters, this one is a deeper and deeper reflection on one question: What does it mean to see seamlessly? To see the whole of life as important to God, to us, and to the world–the deepest and truest meaning of vocation–is to understand that our longing for coherence is born of our truest humanity, a calling into the reality that being human and being holy are one and the same life.

The book is a collection of short (2-3 pages each) essays that follow Garber across the country and through his personal history. We begin with a Madison Avenue company that consults with social entrepreneur non-profits seeking to do good work for the common good, later with one of the companies that are a client of the firm, situated in the Catskills, and then with faith leaders from different sectors of Pittsburgh committed to seeking the flourishing of their city. The journey continues across the country. These reflections are woven into ones on Garber’s own history, from restoring order to a house he and his son are renovating to a visit to a New Mexico livestock auction, bringing back memories of his cowboy grandfather who worked out his belief in God in the way he worked with competence and character.

He reflects on movies, and on words like vocation and occupation; the common root of cult, cultivate, and culture; and proximate. He writes beautifully of the growing friendship he has shared with his wife, Meg and thoughtfully about how joy and sorrow are linked in our lives.

All of this is accompanied by the photography of the author at the beginning of each essay. Many of these could be hung in a gallery. One I love, because it is a view etched in my own memories, is the skyline of Pittsburgh at night from Mount Washington.

This is a wonderful book to be read slowly, perhaps as it has been written over the course of many journeys. It speaks to our longing not only that our lives would matter but cohere. This is a good book to give as a graduation gift, but perhaps a better book for one in the middle of life wondering if the endeavors of every day connect to the deep and transcendent longings of us all. It is far better than the waste of a mid-life crisis. It is a book for those who both love and grieve the world and wonder how this might be held together–seamlessly.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Upstream

upstream.jpg

UpstreamMary Oliver. New York: Penguin, 2016.

Summary: A collection of essays on nature and literary figures and how we might both lose and understand ourselves as we interact with them.

One of my reading goals of 2020 is to read some of the work of Mary Oliver, who I only learned of upon her death in 2019. One of the facts that made her even more interesting to me was that she was born in Maple Heights, Ohio, a small suburb on the southeast side of Cleveland. The fact that she was an Ohio-born author makes her of interest to me. The fact that I lived for nine years in Maple Heights makes her doubly interesting.

What I discovered in these essays was a writer not unlike Annie Dillard in her reflections on nature, but one who could do just as much in far fewer words. Perhaps that is the discipline of being a poet. Every word matters. She writes of trees, and wild flowers, connects them to her writing life, and to life itself. The first, and title essay ends with this striking aphorism that I will probably chew on the rest of 2020: “Attention is the beginning of devotion.”

She writes as well about literary figures, particularly in moving terms about Walt Whitman who was a model to her as she began writing poetry. The others are Emerson, Poe, and Wordsworth–romantics and transcendentalists–those who (Emerson and Wordsworth at least) connected goodness in nature and humanity, and access to the ultimate through our intuitions of the world. For Poe, it is the wild argument of everyone of us against the universe.

In “Staying Alive” we learn about her perspective that moved from nature and walks with a succession of dogs in the course of life to her interior world (and back again):

I learned to build bookshelves and brought books to my room, gathering them around me thickly. I read by day and into the night. I thought about perfectibility, and deism, and adjectives, and clouds, and the foxes. I locked my door, from the inside, and leaped from the roof and went to the woods, by day or darkness.

“Power and Time” explores the creative and intellectual work of a writer, and the loyalty to the work required of the writer. At other times, she arrests our attention with the things she has seen in her meanderings–the beauty of a bluefish, the wonders of a pond, or a ponderous turtle, from which she takes some but not all eggs, enough for a meal. One essay, “Swoon,” describes the life of a household spider, laying eggs, feeding on a trapped cricket, and the “billowing forth” of tiny spiders.

“Building the House” seems a metaphor for the passages of one’s life. Oliver describes building a small house by herself out of salvaged materials, writing a few poems there, and then being done with it. She remarks on her transition from the “busyness of the body” to “the tricks of the mind” perhaps tracing the journey we all take from the vitality of youth to the ponderings of later years that might be mistaken for wisdom.

Nature, the life of writing poetry and communing with the works of others, the physical business of living, all reflect Oliver’s own quest for the transcendent. In “Winter Hours” she concludes:

I could not be a poet without the natural world. Someone else could. But not me. For me the door to the woods is the door to the temple.

The arc of Mary Oliver’s life, which began in Maple Heights, Ohio, was mostly lived out with her partner of over 40 years, M (Molly Malone Cook) in Provincetown, Massachusetts, until her final years in Florida. The collection concludes with a description of the glory and decline of this fishing town into a tourist attraction and her gratitude for life in this place:

I don’t know if I am heading toward heaven or that other, dark place, but I know I have already lived in heaven for fifty years. Thank you, Provincetown.

Review: Our Only World

Our Only World

Our Only World, Wendell Berry. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2015.

Summary: Eleven essays on various subjects related to our care for our world and its people emphasizing the local and the sustainable.

In reading this collection of essays by Wendell Berry, some transcriptions of addresses, written between 2010 and 2014, I felt like I had read much of this material before. In some sense, I have. Berry continues to ring the changes of themes that recur in his works: local membership, sustainable land practices, the character of good work, our violent relationship with our world.

There was the sense of someone who has been saying these things for a long time, and perhaps coming toward the end of his work. As I write this, Berry has recently celebrated his eighty-fifth birthday. Both his earlier essay collections and earlier novels are longer. For all that, it seems to me that we have both a summing up and a carrying forward into our current context of the things Wendell Berry has been saying to us for fifty years.

The essays range widely covering everything from our tendency to dissect life into parts rather than see wholes (his “Paragraphs from a Notebook”), our violent treatment both of the creation and our fellow human beings (“The Commerce of Violence” and “On Receiving One of the Dayton Literary Peace Prizes”), and sustainable practices centered around right-sized land management and appropriate technology (“A Forest Conversation,” “Local Economies to Save the Land and the People,” “Less Energy, More Life,” “Our Deserted Country,” and “For the 50-Year Farm Bill”). Two address wider concerns in our society (“Caught in the Middle” in which Berry sets forth his views on abortion and gay marriage and “On Being Asked for a ‘Narrative for the Future”).

There were several that stood out for me. One was “A Forest Conversation.” Much of this essay describes the practices of forest owner Troy Firth, who owns a maple sugar operation and also logs his forest with sustainable practices in his choices of trees to cut, and in how he removes them to minimize damage to the forest floor (horses!). “Our Deserted Country” chronicles the movement of people from country to city and the use of industrial technology as a substitute for an appropriate ratio of “eyes to acres” that human-scaled land care involved. He ranges widely in this essay, discussing impacts on the land, the disappearance of a country culture of fishing, hunting, and foraging, and the decline of local streams, including the loss of his favorite willows that no one can explain or had noticed.

In “Caught in the Middle,” Berry voices what many of us feel, that neither of the major political parties represent his views. He ventures into the contentious space of abortion and gay marriage. He opposes abortion as the taking of life, and yet concedes there are circumstances he would help someone obtain an abortion. He acknowledges the conflict in these statements but also contends there should be no laws for or against abortion. He argues this is a personal matter that should not be subject to law, and argues similarly with regard to gay marriage. He questions whether “rights” are bestowed by government, including the “right” to marry. He would go further in saying that neither does the church, but that a “marriage” is made by two individuals who vow and live those vows until death. I suspect this is one of those essays that has subjected him to fire from all sides, the danger of being “caught in the middle.” But Wendell Berry has never shrunk from controversy!

His concluding essay speaks a good word to all our prognostications about the future. He writes:

In this essay and elsewhere, I have advocated for the 50-Year Farm Bill, another big solution I am doing my best to promote, but not because it will be good in or for the future. I am for it because it is good now, according to present understanding of present needs. I know that it is good now because its principles are now satisfactorily practiced by many (though not nearly enough) farmers. Only the present good is good. It is the presence of good–good work, good thoughts, good acts, good places–by which we know that the present does not have to be a nightmare of the future.

It may well be that this is the theme that under-girds all these essays. His urging that we turn away from our energy-intensive economy is not first for the environment, but because it is not a good way to live. His arguments limiting the power of big government and reliance on national politics is centered in the goodness of the local community, and the ability of local people to best care for their land. Good work, rather than jobs, is what people were made for, but is also good for the world.

Agree with Berry or not (and probably no one will on all he writes), his contrarian voice comes from a different place from much of our public discourse. It comes from a place that is close to land from a life of tending a farm and the surrounding land, and to local people, a “membership.” He offers us the chance to examine the way of living and the way of governing a society that we have assumed. In the end, his concern is not to change the world, or Washington, but to invite each of us to consider what it means to pursue the good in the place we are. Perhaps at the end of the day, that is the best we can do in “our only world.”

Review: The Givenness of Things

The givenness of things

The Givenness of ThingsMarilynne Robinson. New York: Picador, 2016.

Summary: A collection of essays drawn from various lectures questioning our prevailing ideas through the lens of John Calvin, and others in the Reformed and Humanist tradition.

If you have read Marilynne Robinson’s fiction, you have the sense that there is a world of theological thought undergirding her narratives, particularly reflected in her lead character, Reverend John Ames. To read her essays is to enter into that rich theological world, and the extent to which this woman reads.

It is also to experience a voice that seems from another time, questioning our prevailing ways of thought. Like C. S. Lewis, Robinson is a reader of old books, particularly old theologians like John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards, and she allows these voices of another time to question our accepted ways of looking at things.

One example is the essay from which the title of this collection is drawn, “Givenness.” The essay focuses around the ideas of Jonathan Edwards’ Religious Affections and the intrinsic character of the affections of love, joy, hope, desire, and others in our experience of faith. Here, and in other essays, she argues against the scientific reductionism that reduces the affections to the firing of neurons. Similarly, the opening essay on “Humanism” describes the glories of the works of the mind that came out of the Renaissance, and challenges the reductionism that would explain all of this through evolutionary mechanisms and physical processes. It is not that she is anti-science. It is obvious that her reading includes and delights in a great deal of science writing. It is the scientism that asserts hegemony over all domains of human experience to which she objects.

The book consists of seventeen essays, most with one word titles like “Reformation,” Servanthood,” or “Limitation.” Perhaps the most striking for me was her essay on  “Fear.” These statements were particularly arresting:

“First, contemporary America is full of fear. And second, fear is not a Christian habit of mind….As Christians we are to believe that we are to fear not the death of our bodies but the loss of our souls” (p. 125).

She explores how this drives the fearful nationalism evident even when she was writing these essays, and the stress on preserving and extending the Second Amendment in the acquisition and proposed “right” to concealed carry. She also wonders about the financial interests exploiting this culture of fear.

Her essay on “Theology” explores not only theologians like Jonathan Edwards, but the theological content of the plays of William Shakespeare (whetting my appetite to read some Shakespeare). She explores particularly the ways Shakespeare handles reconciliation and matters of mercy, grace, and forgiveness.

These are simply tastes of what you will find in this rich collection representing Robinson’s thought. Prepare to read rigorously, and to explore the intellectual by-paths Robinson will take in exploring an idea. One must pay close attention to follow the thread of her arguments. Again, like Lewis, one has the sense that she brings everything she has read to anything that she says.

Finally, the book concludes with a two-part conversation with Barack Obama while he was president. As much as anything, he is interviewing her and what a delight to listen in on this wide-ranging conversation between two literate persons. One of the moments that reflected one of the president’s deep regrets was his struggle to close the gap between Washington and Main Street, the ways we engage with each other in everyday life, and the distance between that and our political discourse–our compassion toward the needy near us and our fears of “them” — a comment evoked by Robinson’s essay on fear.

One might critique her essays as reflecting a very Euro-American focus and a lack of engagement with writers outside the Western theological, philosophical and literary canon. There may well be some validity in that critique, but perhaps she is doing something very similar to those calling for other voices, in drawing on voices no longer a part of our cultural discourse, and who speak to our contemporary ideas from another perspective, and from another time.

 

Review: On the Brink of Everything

On the Brink of Everything

On the Brink of EverythingParker J. Palmer. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2018.

Summary: A series of reflections on aging, living with grace and vitality as we age, and facing our deaths.

Perhaps one of the greatest unknowns that shape our lives either by denial, or conscious reflection is our own deaths. Like so much else, we have no clue what to expect until we get there. For some of us, our religious beliefs offer the hope of life beyond taking our last breath, or perhaps a return in another incarnation, or a oneness with the universe. We believe, perhaps with good reasons, but none of us knows. We wonder if death is going over the brink of nothingness. For Parker J. Palmer, at the end of his eighth decade, death is the “brink of everything.” This work consists of collected reflections around the question both of “how shall we die?” and how consequently we live, particularly in the autumn years of our lives, a season he believes has its own beauty.

Palmer had me from the “Prelude” where he writes: “Age brings diminishments, but more than a few come with benefits. I’ve lost the capacity for multitasking, but I’ve discovered the joy of doing one thing at a time.” In seven chapters, Palmer organizes his reflections and poetry around several topics. In “The View from the Brink: What I Can See From Here” he proposes that instead of asking “What do I want to let go of, and what do I want to hang on to?” that we ask “What do I want to let go of, and what do I want to give myself to?” Like Erikson, he sees that living generatively and giving ourselves to rising generations is essential to our vitality. That leads into a chapter on “Young and Old” A highlight in this chapter was a letter to a collaborator in the “On Being” program, Courtney Martin, and his observations about gender relationships. The chapter also includes one of the pithier and substantive commencement addresses I’ve heard or read.

“Getting Real” recounts the influence of Thomas Merton on his life and the journey from illusion to reality in his own life, from false self to true self. He describes an epiphany when a therapist observed about his perception of his struggle with depression (qualifying this as applying only to his own experience):

“You seem to image what’s happening to you as the hand of an enemy trying to crush you. Would it be possible to image it instead as a hand of a friend pressing you down to ground on which it is safe to stand?”

The chapter concludes with journal reflections from a winter retreat week, which includes more Merton.

His chapter on “Work and Vocation” centers on his life as a writer. He confesses, “I became a writer because I was born baffled.” It was helpful to find someone else who thinks this. I often find myself writing to find words to express an “inchoate something” that is rumbling around inside. “Keep Reaching Out” speaks to the necessity of remaining engaged with our world, which he models in how he wrestles what that means in a country led by a president whose character and values are at utter odds with his. As a Quaker, he wrestles through the question of how to be angry and yet live one’s commitments to non-violence. A short essay in this section on “The Soul of a Patriot” included a succinct statement from William Sloan Coffin that expressed with precision something I’ve been groping for:

“There are three kinds of patriots, two bad and one good. The bad ones are the uncritical lovers, and the loveless critics. Good patriots carry on a lover’s quarrel with their country, a reflection of God’s lover’s quarrel with the world.”

We also need to “Keep Reaching In,” His insights on the connection between pain and violence were thought-provoking to me, reminding me of Henri Nouwen and how wounds can become toxic or sacred to us, depending on the inner work we do:

“What can we do with our pain? How might we hold it and work with it? How do we turn the power of suffering toward new life? The way we answer those questions is critical because violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering.” 

This relates to his final chapter “Over the Edge,” in which he calls out the great challenge of wholeness, which is to live with and embrace all the contradictions of our lives–our noble and petty qualities–saying “I am all of the above.” He reminds us that we are never other than beautiful and broken persons and to face the truth about ourselves allows us both to live and die well. As for what is “beyond,” the most he will cautiously advance is that he believes that somehow body and spirit are intertwined and indivisible, whether in simply making new life possible or something more.

In this last, it is clear that this is not a book that presents an orthodox Christian view of death and future hope (although the resurrection is a marvelous expression, I think, of his intuitions of the indivisibility of body and spirit). Rather his reflections, the questions he explores in his writing, as well as the bonus downloadable music by retreat collaborator and musician Carrie Newcomer, explore how we might grow old with grace and generativity, rather than crankiness and frustration and sadness. His insights about anger and pain, and the temptations to violence seem very relevant whether we are old or young in this angry and violent culture.

I live in a place of seasons and I love the approach of each one and think each has its own beauty. Palmer helps me to see this in life, that the approach of autumn, and the winter to follow have their own beauty. Contrary to Dylan Thomas, Palmer suggests that we can go gently into the good night. He proposes that this is a season that has its own richness, that he invites us to join with him in exploring as we all approach the brink of everything.

Review: What Are We Doing Here?

What are we doing here

What Are We Doing Here?Marilynne Robinson. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018.

Summary: A collection of essays based on talks given, mostly at universities, between 2015 and 2017, questioning what she sees as a surrender of thought to ideology.

“I know it is conventional to say we Americans are radically divided, polarized. But this is not more true than its opposite–in essential ways we share false assumptions and flawed conclusions that are never effectively examined because they are indeed shared” (Preface, p. ix).

The thread that connects these essays, mostly transcriptions of talks given at universities (I was present for and blogged about one of these, here presented as “The Beautiful Changes”) is that in much of our intellectual discourse, we have “surrendered thought to ideology.” We unthinkingly tout maxims from Marxism or Darwinism, often without real acquaintance with Marx or Darwin. We speak critically about Puritans, Oliver Cromwell, John Calvin, and Jonathan Edwards without a real appreciation of what they thought and wrote (apart from a brief excerpt of one sermon of Edwards), and the culture they helped shape. She introduces this theme in her opening essay, on freedom of conscience, maintaining that we have Cromwell and the much-maligned New England Puritans to thank for the idea of freedom of conscience, in contrast to the Anglican controlled South that enforced uniformity of worship and upheld slavery.

In the second and title essay, she pushes back against the much touted demise of the humanities, asking “what are we doing here, we professors of English?” She argues for the recovery of a discourse about the beautiful in an economy that tries to monetize everything, and that we do so with depth and eloquence. In the next essay, on theology, she contends for a recovery of a concept of Being, recognizing both the greatness of God and the greatness of human beings. She goes on to challenge the modern assumption that we are simply thinking animals with Edwards conception of us as capable moral agents. She questions the eclipse of the terminology of the divine and what is lost in our discourse in consequence. She explores Emerson’s idea of the “American scholar” and the very different idea of university education’s end–monetized and measured by its ability to propel a new generation into a cultural elite.

The next three essays explore further the ideas of beauty. Both “Grace and Beauty” and “The Beautiful Changes” argue for a kind of divine freedom that precedes reality and that the ordered grandeur and elegance seen by both scientists and theologians bespeak the grace of God. Between these two essays is a tribute to a different kind of beauty and comes out of the personal friendship Robinson enjoyed with Barack Obama. She writes,

“There is a beauty at the center of American culture which, when it is understood, is expressed in a characteristic eloquence. Every new articulation renews the present life of the country and enriches historic memory to the benefit of future generations. Barack Obama speaks this language, a rare gift. He is ours, in the deep sense that Lincoln is ours, a proof, a test, and an instruction. We see ourselves in him, and in him we embrace or reject what we are” (p. 125).

The longest essay, “Our Public Conversation” is a sprawling reflection on America’s conversation about itself, and particularly its history, which in Robinson’s estimation, it often gets wrong. Here again, her example is the Puritans, and how in fact the rights we so cherish arose out of Puritan culture, rather than in spite of it.

The latter part of the work focuses on questions of character–our conceptions of mind, conscience and soul; the theological virtues of faith, hope and love; integrity in our modern intellectual tradition, the richness of intellectual and moral life of the New England Puritans (yes, those Puritans again!), and finally a challenging and convicting essay on slander and the scriptural warnings against every careless word. If everyone engaged in public discourse could read and take this to heart, it would turn out public discourse upside down!

Robinson is one of those you need to read closely and more than once as her mind ranges widely with rich use of allusion and metaphor while exploring a chosen theme. When I didn’t, I lost the thread of her argument. It is also true that in this collection, Robinson belabors her defense of the Puritans (although essay collections often recur to their author’s favorite themes). At the same time, one finds a forthrightness in challenging unthinking assumptions, including those of her fellow Christians, who wonder if she is fearful about her open portrayal of religious themes in her novels and other works. Her response is that she has always written what she is interested in, and simply is glad there is an audience that has also found it of interest.

Perhaps Robinson’s love of the Puritans and the intellectual rigor she finds in Calvinism offers her a unique point of view in her critique of American intellectual culture. As C. S. Lewis has argued in his case for reading old books, two sides may be “as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united — united with each other and against earlier and later ages — by a great mass of common assumptions.” Reading books from a different age, in this case the Puritans, and other great theologians of the church, may give Robinson that ability to spot those common assumptions–the ideologies we unthinkingly embrace that substitute for thought, that foster our disagreements and stifle our public discourse and intellectual life. We may delight in pointing out the flaws in the Puritans but do we let them speak to ours? This is what I believe is implied as Robinson asks, “what are we doing here?”

Review: Voices from the Rust Belt

Voices from the Rust Belt

Voices from the Rust BeltAnne Trubek ed. New York: Picador, (forthcoming April 3) 2018.

Summary: A collection of essays from those living, or who have lived, in Rust Belt cities from Buffalo to Chicago, and Flint, Michigan to Moundsville, West Virginia.

I grew up in the archetypal Rust Belt town of Youngstown and write about that experience (you can find all my posts in the “On Youngstown” category on my blog). I left before it acquired the Rust Belt name, in 1976. Back then, it was the “industrial heartland” until the industrial part was gutted in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. I witnessed the effects in three of the cities I’ve lived in, Toledo, Cleveland, and Youngstown, and so was naturally interested in reviewing this collection of essays from those with connections to the Rust Belt cities of the Midwest, from Chicago to Buffalo.

The book is organized into four sections, the first of which was “Growing Up,” which coincidentally opens with an essay from a fellow Youngstown native, Jacqueline Marino. She writes of childhood visits to her grandmother on South Pearl St, covering her mouth as she crossed the Market Street Bridge near the steel mills, and then the changes she saw in her grandmother’s neighborhood and the city as the mills closed, the influence of organized crime in the city (everyone played “the bug”), and the rich memories that she carries to this day of her Italian grandparents kitchen and the oasis it provided in a gritty city. The essay is followed by a Detroit native talking about white flight and the ‘kidnapped children’ who disappeared as families fled the city, a white Clevelander talking about the positive impact of busing on her life, of ethnic hatreds in a Jewish neighborhood in Buffalo, growing up on an Ohio River town home to the West Virginia Penitentiary, and the theft and recovery of a bicycle in Flint.

The second group of essays traces “Day to Day in the Rust Belt” and makes it clear there is no single Rust Belt story. There is the middle-aged social worker in Pittsburgh trying to help a down and out alcoholic when his agency cannot. There is the young life lost to street violence in Flint, the separated couple, both coming out of substance abuse, one more successfully than the other, trying to care for a daughter, remain civil with each other, and pull their lives together. There is an essay on the contrast between Buffalo “boosterism” and the black communities that are more or less left out, the odd phenomenon of a white arts culture thinking they will find salvation, as well as low rent, in Detroit. Finally, we learn about a thriving Iraqi community in Cleveland, one of many such ethnic communities aborning in the Midwest.

The third section explores “The Geography of the Heartland” beginning with a legendary gay bar in the Clifton neighborhood of Cincinnati, a visit to an old family home in Indiana (how many of us have gone back to old homesteads to find them derelict, or in my own case, vanished?), the “fauxtopia” of Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village and the contrast between the exurban dream Ford’s automobiles made possible, and the remnants of the city that was abandoned. Another essay attacks the artists who supplanted industrial workers in Cleveland for their pretensions when what has drawn them is the low cost of living (what is this thing against artists?). A descendent of the West Virginia McCoys reflects on the history of coal mining in the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum, a couple essays reflect on urban ecologies in Chicago and Cleveland.

“Leaving or Staying”–a dilemma faced by many Rust Belt natives is the subject of the last section. A young woman describes finding a delightful neighborhood in Lakewood only to flee it due to a failed love affair. A long-time Buffalo resident talks about the toleration of ex-pats only to become one. An Akron native describes staying in the former Rubber Capital. The collection closes with a poignant narrative of a father bathing his daughter in the lead-polluted water of Flint, Michigan, and the panic when she tries to drink some and what it is like when a basic necessity like water is so dangerous.

Nearly all the essays focused on personal narrative. One stood out as taking a larger look at the challenges of renewal faced by Rust Belt cities, titled “That Better Place; or the Problem with Mobility.” Written by a Cleveland Heights native, it describes the impacts of mobility and the consequences: too much retail space, housing, stressed tax bases, persistent segregation, how school ratings become real estate marketing tools (a particular problem in Ohio) and five proposals to address these challenges.

I noted earlier that there is no single Rust Belt story. While this is true, it was also striking that all these essays describe the problems and the struggle of displacement, of “making it” for those who live in Rust Belt cities. Perhaps the most hopeful story in the collection was of “Little Iraq” in Cleveland and the white woman who was positively impacted by busing. One thing such a collection makes clear is that “turnaround” stories often can be selective with whole populations left behind due to inferior schools and persisting patterns of racialization. Yet I also wonder where are the narratives of those who have overcome the challenges of the Rust Belt, who remember the past but are not trapped in it, and are rolling up their sleeves to make the most of the new economy. The essay by Jason Segedy on loving Akron comes closest to this with his refusal to look for the Next Big Thing (a temptation in all of these cities) and instead begin with “little plans” that might be scaled up with success. I just would have liked one or two essays by those who have done what he proposes. Where are these Rust Belt stories?

The Rust Belt is in my blood, probably literally. I’ve lived in some of these places, visited most of them, and the stories in this book give a cross-section of life as it was and is that is recognizable. Yet I also wish the collection would have captured more of the dynamism of those working to reclaim neighborhoods and mixed use zoning, to start new businesses, and to build a new civic life while sustaining the rich ethnic and cultural heritages of these cities, from cuisine to high culture.

When we lived in Cleveland, I used to joke that Clevelanders actually made up the jokes about Cleveland to keep everybody else away. I wonder if it is time for narratives that are honest about the challenges, but instead of keeping people away, or resenting those like artists who come, propose how our Rust Belt cities might be good places for those up for the challenge, be they artists, activists, businesses, inventors, entrepreneurs, crafts and tradespeople–or even writers!

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary advance review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.