Top 10 Books I Read in 2011: What the Living Do (#3)

What the Living Do.

#3: WHAT THE LIVING DO, Marie Howe.

Continuing my annual tradition of ranking the best books I read this past year, I am writing a series of posts about these 10 great books. You can find the 2011 list and previous lists here.

I also don’t have any links for you today, so here’s this instead. This book of poems is way better than any links I could dredge up anyway…

This is the first time in my reading history that one of my favorite books from the past year was a book of poetry. Blame it on my brilliant husband, who introduced me to the incandescent and life-altering poet Marie Howe.

I hesitate to even write a review of this collection of poems, because my words will undoubtedly fail me. I don’t have the right things to say about how deeply these poems affected me, but I will try.

Howe published What the Living Do in 1998. In many ways, it figures as an elegy for her beloved brother John, who died of AIDS complications in 1989. In several poems, John is her comforter and hero, amid a ghastly childhood in a large Catholic family. In subtle, terrifying lines, Howe reveals that she was repeatedly raped by her father as a child. Between her powerless mother, who does nothing to stop her husband’s attacks against their daughter, and her abusive and frankly evil father, Howe only has John to turn to. “The Attic” is the utterly gut-wrenching poem of sorrow and devotion that recounts her brother’s offer of simultaneously brave and inactive protection.

I don’t think I’ve ever read anything so heartbreaking.

But Howe never paints herself as a victim. She does not take pity on herself and she does not ask you to, either. These are strong, honest poems about the difficulties of everyday life and the horrors of our own memories. These poems are freely and breathlessly genuine in their accounts of daily living. The title poem is one that I’ve included here before, and it’s worth the weight of its lines in gold. These lines from “Watching Television” were so humbling to me, to think about the silly and yet heavy things we do to each other in relationships:

I have argued bitterly with the man I love, and for two days
we haven’t spoken.

We argued about one thing, but really it was another.
I keep finding myself standing by the front windows looking out at the street

and the walk that leads to the front door of this building,
white, unbroken by footprints.

Anything I’ve ever tried to keep by force I’ve lost.

Howe writes without flowery words or obscure allusions. She is not trying to hide anything from you, to keep you guessing, as so many other poets do. She writes about miscommunication and dogs, about dropping a bag of groceries, about finding your face in the mirror. It’s our daily bread. It is life, gently and thoroughly rendered. And you will see it differently after having read this book.

Treasure hidden in a field

On Sunday, our rector talked about the passage in Matthew in which Jesus provides a litany of parables to explain the kingdom of heaven. It’s a mysterious series of similes and they don’t exactly line up at first glance. Even if you do know what the “kingdom of heaven” actually means (I’m not sure I do), it’s still mystifying as to how it could be a mustard seed AND a fishing net AND a pearl of great price AND a treasure buried in a field.

The kingdom of heaven can be many things at once, I suppose. It can be deceptively small. It can have a wide reach. It can be what you sell everything for. And it can be hidden.

The hiddenness of God and the kingdom of heaven particularly struck me. Why would God hide? When I feel far away from God, is it because the kingdom of heaven is hidden or because I’m not looking hard enough? I don’t know. I wish I did.

One of the main lines that I remember from Paul’s sermon was about our interaction with the divine. “Trust is often the most difficult thing,” he said. “It is often more difficult than faith and belief.”

Maybe that’s what I’ve been missing lately. I’ve been trying to amp up faith and belief, but maybe it’s the trust that’s really absent.

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Matthew 13:44

I knew I was not magnificent

Source: Flickr user lovebrowne

Part I. On Not Writing about Jesus

When I was a young blogger, I wrote more freely about my faith. At that time, I assumed that all of my readers were also like-minded Christians. This was a fair assumption, since I think my mom, my grandparents, and my sisters were my only readers. But over the past two years or so, I’ve more or less stopped writing about my faith and I regret that. The gospel is important to me, but you’d never get that impression by reading this blog. I write about all of the other things that are important to me–Guion, friends, family, books, dogs–but not about Jesus.

Why not?

Here’s my best guess as to why I stopped doing this. I have followed the tendency of many bloggers to whitewash my life. The one thing you learn about blogging for a few years is that you can’t express an opinion about anything without offending someone. Because of this, I have tried to avoid topics that are inherently personal and offensive, like religion and politics. While most casual readers could probably divine my political leanings (it is evident that I am not a Sarah Palin or FOX news fan), it would be trickier to actually figure out what I believe about God.

Lately, I’ve tended to keep my thoughts about God closer to my chest. I have many friends who are not Christians. I am hesitant to write about my many religiously oriented thoughts and concerns for fear of alienating people. Even I don’t like to read long-winded and highly emotional posts about religion. It’s not often enjoyable and it is often hard to relate to; faith is, by definition, such an intensely personal thing. Even more than puppies and books. It’s generally more enjoyable to read a post about someone’s kitchen makeover than it is to read a post about their internal turmoil over transubstantiation. Intensely personal things are not always blog (aka, The Entire Internet Can Read This) material.

However. All of this to say: I think there are appropriate and considerate ways to write about one’s faith on the Interwebs. I am going to try to do this with more frequency, but I think I’ll also spend some time studying good examples. Mrs. Pinckney and Betsey come to mind as people I know who blog gracefully and fluidly about the intersection between Jesus and life. I hold them up as valuable examples.

So, here’s a short attempt:

Part II. I Knew I Was Not Magnificent

No one enjoys receiving criticism. But when you don’t hear it for a while, you start to think that you’re pretty awesome. Boy, there’s nothing wrong with me! I am the best.

If we’re lucky, however, we have people in our lives who are able and willing to tell us that this is not the case. After a few months of believing that I was super, I’ve received a lot of criticism from important people in my life over the past few weeks. As these people pointed out, I am grumpy, judgmental, and anxious. I am an energetic young curmudgeon most of the time. I am fundamentally cynical about most things. I am an obsessive planner because I tend to expect worst possible outcomes and because I thrive on a high degree of responsibility.

As these people kindly pointed out, these aren’t the best personality traits. I had more or less forgotten about these unfortunate aspects of myself until I heard these reminders. To be pushed back to God, to a place of humility–it is a necessary chore. I think God speaks to us through other people sometimes. Often, through our closest friends and loved family–and sometimes, through a much-lauded hipster musician.

We were listening to Bon Iver’s new album on our drive to North Carolina this weekend. The gorgeous song “Holocene” came on and we talked briefly about the chorus.

we smoked the screen to make it what it was to be
now to know it in my memory:

… and at once I knew I was not magnificent
high above the highway aisle
(jagged vacancy, thick with ice)
I could see for miles, miles, miles…

“I knew I was not magnificent.” What a simple and perfect expression. It’s that place of humility that we all have to reach with ourselves at some point or another. Acknowledging that I am not magnificent was a surprisingly difficult thing to do. Difficult, but essential.