The best piety is to enjoy

Garden in June
Bee enjoying a daylily in my front yard.

For the past seven years, I have been in a serious book club with some delightful people at my church. I am the youngest member by a few decades. Once a month, we sit politely around a large table in the church library and discuss classic literature (mostly fiction). We conclude our comments in precisely one hour. We do not eat or drink anything (water in paper cups is sometimes proffered), and we do not talk much about our personal lives. The book is what matters. It is the most pleasant, no-nonsense book club I can imagine.

We grouse at each other about our literary likes and dislikes. We’re not afraid to speak strongly about our feelings. By this point, we know each others’ preferences quite well. They make fun of me for my absurd love of Woolf and Nabokov, neither of whom they enjoy much, and my strong distaste for Dickens; they’re always trying to put him on the ballot. I make fun of them for casting moral judgments on characters or writing off a novel because some heroine had a bad attitude.

I inherited administrative control of the book club after it was started by a young teacher (or perhaps a lawyer) who eventually moved away. Following his original intent, we aim to only read “classics” (although the meaning of that term vacillates), and we vote on books we want to read and plan our reading calendar about two years in advance. When we take recommendations for the next slate of books, I create a ballot that has an equal number of male and female authors. I learned somewhat early that if I didn’t do this, we would read books by men 90% of the time.

The idea of a classics book club is very appealing to people. Church folk come up to me all the time and say they want to join, that they’ve seen the list and want to read all those books they “should” have read but never got around to. I maintain the email list, and people frequently email me and ask to be added to the list. The list now has almost 100 names on it. But, month after month, there are only six of us who show up on a regular basis. The Core Group. It used to make me feel a little disenchanted, this contrast between aspirational and actual readers, but I have come to depend on The Core Group. I am deeply content. I am, of course, always happy to have new members, but I am also happy with the solid six.

For a recent book club discussion, I bought a copy of The Tempest at a used bookstore downtown. The kindly shop owner asked me if I was in school. I told him that I wasn’t and that I was buying a paperback copy of the play for a book club I was in.

“Oh, my,” he said. “A serious book club. You don’t hear about many of those these days. So many people read such drivel.”

I nodded. I find it so pleasant, to take such a small thing as reading so seriously, and to have six other people in my life who feel similarly.

“’The best piety is to enjoy—when you can. You are doing the most then to save the earth’s character as an agreeable planet. And enjoyment radiates.’”

— Will Ladislaw in Middlemarch, George Eliot

I can’t read too many articles about climate change because I get too paranoid and sad. (I start feeling like John B. McLemore, I really do.) I am inspired to keep planting native plants and do my small part where I can, walking to work and being less trash-y, but I do feel a profound sense of sadness when I think about Earth. We have such a beautiful planet. We are so fortunate in so many ways. Guion and I were sitting on the back deck in the evening, being slowly devoured by mosquitoes and watching the blush-pink clouds sweep past, and I said, “I don’t want to watch the Earth die.” And he replied, “We probably won’t have to. That’s the lot of the next generation.”

That’s the rub, isn’t? It’s like having to deal with two facts of mortality: your own and the planet’s. Facing one death is enough of an existential challenge. I think this is why it is so easy for us, the people living now, to be complacent about our dying planet (dying, at least, in the way that we know it). It’s too much to process, on top of our own death.

And so for now, the best piety is to enjoy. And be considerate of what we have and what the future may not have. We’re all going to be dead soon anyway.

Happy Tuesday!

The way of nature, the way of grace

Last night, Guion and I went on a date and saw Terrence Malick’s highly anticipated and highly regarded new film, “The Tree of Life.” It’s been a long time since I saw a film in the theater, and whoa. What an experience. Jonathan and I have been talking about it since before it came out and we’d been exchanging reviews and our own thoughts and guesses about what the film might be like. “The Tree of Life” stretched patience and attention, but it exceeded my expectations.

I’m not even going to attempt to write about the film as a whole, because I do not think I am capable of such a task, but I’ll share a few lasting impressions.

Early in the film, a voiceover from Jessica Chastain, who plays the mother, explains that in life we must choose between “the way of nature or the way of grace.” Her character clearly chooses the way of grace, living in compassion and kindness toward all people and living things. She is ethereal, charming swallowtail butterflies in the yard, and she is generous with love, cradling her sons in the aftermath of their father’s vengeance.

It is tempting, therefore, to characterize Brad Pitt, who plays the strict father, as embodying “the way of nature.” He lives by a harsh code of perfectionism and demands such high standards from his sons. But Guion and I agreed that Malick didn’t cave to such an easy dichotomy. Pitt’s character grows in complexity over the course of the film. He is not purely the villain. Though it is not his first instinct, Father is also capable of choosing the way of grace.

Overall, “The Tree of Life” struck me as a visually rich epic poem: A series of meaningful images strung together to create a deep, moving whole. Those who need linear plots in art will be immensely frustrated by this movie. Malick isn’t trying to tell you a story; he’s trying to show you the creation of the universe.

Malick, who previously taught philosophy at Ivy League universities, asks all the big questions. Is God watching us? Does God care what we do? Why are we here? The questions are asked directly, often by the protagonist, the son Jack, who grows up to be Sean Penn. Jack and his mother weave their prayers throughout their lives. It is a film, simply, about God. And God’s involvement (or lack of involvement) in the creation and sustenance of Earth and all its inhabitants.

We left the theater hushed, speechless. I was hesitant to speak. I saw the moon disfigured by the clouds and thought about the glory of God in a way that I had not done in a long time. I could be wrong, but I think that’s what Malick was hoping I would do.