Two New Memoirs

Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis, Lauren F. Winner (HarperOne) $24.99
The Man in the Empty Boat, Mark Salzman (Open Road) $24.99

So much human energy is expended ameliorating the pain of simply existing in the world. This pain is also the source of a great deal of creativity, as almost every artist will attest. Memoirs give us a beautiful, poignant and sometimes humorous window into the struggle we all face even if we’re not all so adept at expressing it: what to make of the world and our place in it? This is certainly true of two new memoirs – for somewhat different reasons.

Still is a poetic and brutally honest exploration of love and loss from popular author, Lauren Winner. She gives  us a rare window into faith in its mid-life. Not Winner’s mid-life—she’s still a ways from that yet—but faith’s middle stage, where “first love” wears thin, much the way the initial butterflies stop fluttering so frequently in a romantic relationship. Most experienced couples will tell you that love really begins at this point. The same is true of faith. In fact, by definition, faith begins at the point when the evidence and emotion of religious life are against you. Winner speaks frankly about her divorce, loneliness and the crisis of belief in her characteristically lyrical way. For example she tells a story of her friend’s confirmation, at the age of 12.

A few days before the confirmation service, she told her father—the pastor of the church—that she wasn’t sure she could go through with it. She didn’t know that she really believed everything she was supposed to believe, and she didn’t know that she should proclaim in front of the church that she was ready to believe it forever. “What you promise when you are confirmed,” said Julian’s father, “is not that you will believe this forever. What you promise when you are confirmed is that that is the story you will wrestle with forever” (172).

Mark Salzman’s book, The Man in the Empty Boat, begins from a very different place – that of unbelief, or maybe the impossibility of belief. Speaking of his chronic anxiety and the way it “turns the journey of life into a treadmill of worry and wasted effort,”

…if Godless Universe 4.0 is your operating system, your hard drive will reject most faith-based programs, and there are times when that can seem like a major disadvantage.

This struggle to cope with the pain and pressure of life takes shape in humorous stories about the new family dog (he vowed to never own a dog) and the excruciating death of his sister. Through it all, his biggest struggle is with himself. This reader finds this all too easy to relate to, even though faith-based programs do run fairly well in my hard drive. The real payoff in this read comes in the closing pages as he relates his new philosophy of life.

My normal sense of being the author of my life-narrative gave way and was replaced by a sense that I was the audience for it…. From that point of view, I could no longer believe that we determine what happens to us, or choose who to be; we find out what happens to us. We do what we must as we fall through time, which means—this is the feel-good part again—that we are doing the best we can, always.

It’s a liberating thought—a way to be gracious to oneself. For those who feel crushed under the weight of responsibility it is a huge relief to not have to carry the whole load.

So much sadness in the human experience is associated with the fact that life doesn’t turn out the way you had hoped. Both authors help us connect with our own deep disappointments, anxieties and fears. For Salzman, the answer is to expect less, or, as my golfing buddy used to tell me, “You’re not as good as you think you are. Once you accept this you’ll have a lot more fun.” For Winner, the answer is to keep wrestling with the story, recognizing that anyone who takes their life and faith seriously has passed through these dark middles. Her advice: hold on. Rumor is, people get through it.

RB

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