David pointed to this on Facebook. The story, friendship, loss, and tone of Laura’s words are very much worth keeping in front of us.
We make vows to our partners, but we make vows to our friends, too. We think, forever. We think, best friend. Life turns out differently, because people disappoint each other or because we aren’t honest with ourselves or because we just don’t know how to go forward, even with the best intentions. We go in with our eyes wide open and don’t realize they might open wider in five years. So I mourned the end of my friendship…
Read the full post from Laura here.
This summer I’m starting a practice of quoting or reviewing most of the books I read. I want to keep more of the materials with me, remember words, and appreciate what I’m learning, so I’m putting in a bit of effort to capture things in a few hundred words.
I just finished John Shea’s Stories of God. I was introduced to John Shea (in thought and writing, not in person) by my first clinical supervisor, Sister Barbara Sheehan at Urban CPE. She told us that according to John Shea, “Our feelings are the word of God to us.” I heard that and immediately liked John Shea.
This is the first of his books I’ve read. It develops the idea that when Christian people get together, we tell stories and that our stories are our ways of making sense of the world that God has created. Stories are “inevitable companions of people bounded by birth and death.” They are not incidental to life, but essential. Stories are the inescapable ways we talk about the Mystery that is itself inescapable.
Shea says that we relate to five relational environments as human beings, the first and most baffling of which is ourselves. The second environment is family and friends, those who are continually near us and with whom we have sustained interaction. The third and fourth are institutions in society and the nonhuman universe. The last environment is the relation with God or the Transcendent (or commonly Mystery in this book), which is known by diverse “acknowledgements of its presence.”
We are made for these environments, made by them. When it comes to Mystery Shea says that there is an immediate, intense desire for communion in us. “We perceive the dimension of Mystery” through feeling, and we perceive feeling through dialogue and communion. He says on p. 25,
The human person comes to be through dialogue with others. Out of this ongoing dialogue, people develop a sense of who they are and where they are going. People speak to each other words of acceptance and love, but they also speak painful words that call for conversion and new lifestyles.
Communion means love and acceptance; it implies freedom. But human communion goes beyond humanity. It facilitates our awareness of Mystery. In other words, being in relationships of love and acceptance open us to the One who accepts and loves us into freedom. At times this is not a delightful path but a dark one, filled with disenchantment.
But “Disenchantment is an experience of Mystery reasserting itself.” In darkness God comes. In pain we are freed from an idol’s hold upon us and we reach into Mystery. Shea does a lot to describe relationships with Mystery, gives it qualities that anyone “walking with God” can meaningfully relate to.
He writes the second part of the book into three types of stories: 1) Story of Hope and Justice; 2) Story of Trust and Freedom; and 3) Story of Invitation and Decision. When he speaks of stories and, I’d suggest, language broadly, he says:
Although the only way to the unknown is through the familiar, there is a danger. Titles and stories are not the reality. They only serve the reality. They are the way into the Mystery revealed in Jesus Christ, but they are not the Mystery.
For the first story, he discusses two ways of reading the stories of Mystery regarding justice and hope: an interventionist interpretation and an intentional interpretation. The first views historical activity as chaotic and separate from the mythical activity of God. An interventionist view sees all of life from the future, the eschaton, the moment when all things will be redeemed. Justice or hope look ahead to a future which frames life now. “It is this future, always-impending moment which shapes consciousness and directs activity.” Though it leads to a privatized eschatology and, perhaps, a privatized ethic, everything hinges on an invading God who comes after we’ve waited.
Waiting happens in lament, through provocation of the reluctant God to act, and by engaging in “presumptuous activity” that looking upon our works, “Christ will recognize as his own when at last he comes.” This interpretative view of God’s story is characterized by increasing anticipation, purposive waiting, patience, and practice that’s framed by a future vision. I see a lot of this view in practice in the church of my upbringing and the church I currently serve by the way.
The second way of seeing the story of Mystery is an intentional interpretation. This approach is about God’s reasons for interacting rather than God’s ways of interacting with the world. God’s values are present and experienced.
Rather than coming from “a future act of God,” this approach is from “God’s present nature.” God moves toward justice out of a heart of love and compassion for creation. Justice is “an act of respect” and, while its demands are absolute, its forms vary.
In the chapter “The Story of Trust and Freedom,” Shea works with the “combination of stories which attempts to uncover the meaning of Mystery which was revealed in Jesus,” particularly “Creation, Fall, Incarnation, Crucifixion, Spirit, and Church.” He discusses common renderings of those moments and then offers a compelling alternative of relating the symbolic elements of the events in terms of an “inner theological logic.”
He talks about dignity, friendship, and the common aims of Christian events which intend to underline the presence and indwelling of God in the world. He does considerable biblical and theological work in the chapter, touching upon the strong above-mentioned events, quoting folks like Walter Brueggamann, Leonard Bernstein, and biblical authors. Here’s a quote that may capture a chunk of the chapter’s themes, and I love that I hear echoes of James Cone:
The cross is the grounding of the Christian community, its symbol of realism, and its ongoing principle of critique. It is often noted that ecclesiology has its roots in Christology, but it is often overlooked that Christology brings us back to theology. The foundation of the Church is the experience of God symbolized in the crucified Christ. The cross reveals God’s self-giving love which frees us from our self-serving apathy. Out of God’s total acceptance comes the freedom and power to form community, to belong to each other in a life-giving way.
God has taken into divine reality all that is worst about us and turned it toward good. The law of the cross is not that evil has been eliminated but that it has been transformed into possibility…
The last chapter is about a story of Invitation and Decision. In this chapter Shea focuses his vision on the parables of Jesus.
Underlining what it means to proclaim and live the kingdom of God, the parables (and the scriptures as Shea writes) keep God as the plot of the stories. They press forward “invitations into the life of God” and don’t stop at allegorical interpretation where we have examples or particular paths to live. ” A vision of God active in human life is the home of the parables” (pg. 142).
Shea goes through interpretative methods relative to these central teachings of Jesus and leaves us hungry for participation in life with God. We are met with an invitation from and by Mystery to make decisions to neglect or jump into life with God.
He says that the parables focus on immediacy of action, rather than contemplation or morality. Response is critical. Decision is integral. A final quote to capture the sustained thought of this chapter will close my review well (pgs. 152-153):
Put in another way, every person has a faith, a set of presuppositions which are tested out in everyday life. If this foundational structure is too conscripted or self-centered, a crippling lifestyle develops. Attitudes and behaviors become destructive of both self and community. The depth of sin, therefore, is not in the destructive activity itself but in the consciousness which encourages and validates that activity…Parables take aim at these presuppositions and dominant directions. Their goal is subversion. They are meant to penetrate to the core of what we unquestionably hold and question it. In the realm of parable, nothing is safe.
Elders often go unnoticed. In your book, the elders of Kidron (and around the world if the clippings and news items within the novel come to mind) are central. How did you come to write a story underlining people who are generally so unrecognized? I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by elders for most of my life. One of the reasons I wrote this particular book is that none of the fiction families I read about had many of their grandparents, or great grandparents around and yet my experience growing up was one of being surrounded by people who not only had a few years on them, but were delightfully funny and interesting. Not that I’ve got anything against grandmothers who bake cookies or knit, but that wasn’t my experience.
Tell us about your research process, particularly how you developed multiple characters of varying ages. Again, your characters weren’t exactly typical for contemporary fiction. I was fortunate to have my own great-grandmother in my life until a few months after the book was published. She was 104 when she passed away and although in the book, Anna is a few years older, she is modeled very much on my own great-grandmother. The other women, who are older are also based on people in my family. If I needed to know what particular phrase an almost ninety year old woman would use, I just started a conversation with one of my relatives, or read their journals.
The more difficult characters where those who were closer in age to my own mother. There’s always a barrier between mothers and daughters and the frankness that my grandmother’s talked to me isn’t the same. I also have an extraordinary group of women who I’ve come to know through my church community who were very valuable in that respect. Are there elders, living or dead, who you believe we should remember? Any notables for you? I am fascinated by Jean Calment, who makes a brief appearance in the book and was in fact the oldest woman to have ever lived. But mostly when I visit with bookclubs and talk about this book, what I encourage people to do is to ask the elders in their lives to share their stories. Some people are lucky enough to still have grandparents and great grandparents living, but if that isn’t the case, look to your neighbors or your work community and start asking questions about their lives. I am particularly interested in stories beyond the typical where were you during a war, or a historical event. One question I find that always gets great (and sad stories) is who do you know who drowned. I believe that people live on through their stories. It is the way we echo through generations. Storytelling is vital to our identities.
You dealt with many things in your work, one of which was the way stories of our forebears are kept hidden, shared, remembered, rehearsed, or, in some cases, lost. Choose one of the Keller women and give us a sense of something she’d want us to know. What an amazing question! I always wanted Bets and her daughter Callie to have a conversation where they allowed themselves to be honest with each other. Bets in particular kept so much from her children—especially about their father and the type of relationship she had with him and that damaged Callie in ways I don’t think she understands. I always thought that those two in particular would have benefitted from an airing of grievances and secrets. I think that if Callie understood her parents and the secrets they had to keep that she’d have found love much sooner in her life and that might have changed what happened with Deb.
You acknowledge the community of writers around you. How did that community support you as you worked on your novel? My writer’s group has to be some of the most insightful and encouraging people in the entire world. Throughout finishing this novel, we met monthly and each time I read a bit of the work, they found ways to push me to make it better. I also was lucky enough to have a fantastic mentor in Cary Holladay, whose own work I deeply admire. I always wanted to write so-called Southern fiction, which Cary does so well, but the rub of it is that because of my Western pedigree, all I could do was write bad imitations of southern stories. Cary helped me to find my own authentic voice. I also want to say that I have so many poets in my life who have helped me to learn the value of a single word among 100,000—in particular Heather Dobbins has been an incredible support to me.
What did you learn while writing? What did you find out about families, aging, death, and life as you developed the book? One of the biggest revelations that happened while I was writing this book is that I began to see my own mother as an individual. The more I spoke to my grandmother and great grandmother about their lives, the more I was able to see my mother as somebody other than my mother. I also have learned buckets about olive trees. They are incredible trees. I only wish I could figure out how to keep one alive. I’ve killed at least three. The other startling connection I made while researching this book is how many of mankind’s myths deal explicitly with aging and the idea of immortality. Every community has an idea of how to get past mortality—and yet scientifically we’ve sort of reached an end road of sorts.
Did you come across any notable remedies for aging? There are more wives tales than remedies. Everybody ages, what you hope for is those genes that make you physically less old than your actual age. My great-grandmother could touch her toes until the day she died and yet for the last twenty years of her life, she had M&Ms and Mountain Dew for breakfast. That tells me it was mostly genetics that kept her flexible and the science backs that up. However there’s common sense nobody wants to hear it, but it’s true stuff that helps you if you don’t have extra long telomeres—basically keeping active and eating well.
What are you reading these days? I’ve just started Rebecca Makkai’s The Hundred Year House, which I adore and since I just wrapped up vacation, I recently finished Wolf Hall, a fabulous nonfiction book that tells the history of Paris through biographical vignettes, called The Parisians, and I devoured my daughter’s copy of Divergent on the plane ride home. I’ll be going to my twentieth high school reunion in a few weeks and have bought the Hurricane Sisters for the plane ride there.
How can readers support you and are you working on words you can tell us about briefly? My second novel, THREE STORY HOUSE, comes out on August 19 and I’d love for anyone who enjoyed THE ROOTS OF THE OLIVE TREE to check it out (Anna makes a special cameo in the book). Set in Memphis, the book delves into the relationship between cousins who find their lives coming apart as they work to renovate a spite house. There’s going to be a fun contest starting August 28 where readers are invited to post their own versions of my cover on my facebook page at www.facebook.com/courtneymsanto There will be prizes! I’d love to hear reader’s stories of their local spite houses.
When history is collapsed into myth, responsibilities become diffused, and repentance and reconciliation become impossible. In the inflated realm of mythical oppression, villains are so villainous that no one sees themselves reflected on the image. Few can trace accrued privileges to specific and intentional evil acts. Similarly, victims become so quintessentially and epically victimized that all escape routes from the condition are sealed off by a maze of self-doubt, blaming, and low self-esteem. The antidote to this phenomenon is to attend to the details, to understand the specific events, ancestors, life stories, causes of oppression, and avenues of social change. Historical and spiritual specificity is salvific. Then and only then can the movement toward moral flourishing begin.
There was a good deal of work done in the novel—building, journeying, selling, making, cooking and so forth. Is it fair to say that work was a central character, a natural character? In what ways were some of the people deepened (or even made) by their work?
I love this question, in part because I did so much research about work and some did not make it into the novel! I learned about shoeing a horse and had an entire chapter in which Henry and Jacob shoe Caesar (Henry’s horse) but I cut it—a digression. People in the nineteenth century, especially an adventurer like Henry, enslaved people such as Uncle Eli and Mittie Ann, and even Emma, who was tutored in how to keep house—did a great deal of work, whether it was making a new dress or picking cotton or carving out a canoe or preparing for market, as the Iyalode (the female governor) does when Emma meets her in West Africa. Not all of these forms of work were equally difficult or equally rewarded. But there was a lot of what might be called “hand” work—not typing on keys as we do at computers, but making, growing, mending, clearing land, building houses, thatching roofs (in Africa). There is so little for Emma and Henry to purchase. Most of what they have they must manage to make. Yoruba people (the clan in the area where my characters travel) were “makers” of cloth, art, metal works, jewelry, hair weaving!
Your insight is absolutely apropos. Henry already is who he is (by the time he and Emma marry) because of what he has made, built, written, battled. Enslaved Uncle Eli maintains his spirituality and some selfness because he can still create out of his own imagination. Emma becomes who she is in her three African years because she learns African forms of work, including mixing mud for her house by kneading it with her feet. In this way, Africa enters her and begins to reshape her imagination and her heart.
The Bowmans were driven people. The same can probably be said of many people in the novel. For the couple, what pushed them? What pulled them?
There are shorter and longer answers. Henry is pushed by guilt and longing. He feels guilty about his mother’s death (not because he caused it but because children internalize their parents’ pain). He is guilty of killing Native Americans and Mexicans. He was a womanizer as a young man. He “wants to be shed of all that,” as a character in Huckleberry Finn might say. He experiences a salvific moment on the road back to Georgia when a man brings him fish and water. That scene was written so that the reader might imagine it as an angelic visitation. Henry sees it that way. He is “convicted,” in the language of Southern Baptists. Going to Africa to “witness” about Jesus is his way of working through guilt. It takes him a good while, as you know.
Emma is pulled and pushed by desire and by outrage. Uncle Eli, the old African, plants a seed in her imagination from the time she is very young. He “initiates” her into Yoruba numerology and Ifa divination in his use of the number 4. He tells her stories that shape her mind and when she sees the globe on her father’s desk, she is drawn to Africa. She doesn’t understand the connection, of course, but I hope readers begin to discern it. Her African epiphany originates in Uncle Eli, who sends her on a mission that happens to be Christian (it is a mission of love) though his purposes are born out of his remembrance of African traditional religion. She is pushed, of course, out of horror at what her father allows to happen to Uncle Eli. She cannot stay in “bent” Georgia. Its violence toward enslaved people is a fire she runs from.
Emma laments trading places with Uncle Eli. How does her relationship with the elder slave tutor her in her life in Eli’s homeland?
As I’ve said, his influence is a driving force in her going to West Africa. Once she arrives, and little by little, she opens herself to the mysteries and beauties of Yorubaland. At first, of course, she is a bit horrified: by women whose clothing doesn’t cover their breasts, or men eating with their fingers. But her mind is fertile. She is curious. I molded her as a girl to prefer the outdoors, to take risks (horseback riding, for example) and added to this her relation to the old man. She wants to know things, in part because Uncle Eli was always doing things she wanted to understand. He was her mystery and her guru. So while she is not consciously aware of it, all through her African journeys, she is able to make the next leap (whether it’s eating fufu or wearing a more airy, African-like dress, or even entertaining the idea of an African diviner being of some use to her) because of her closeness to the old man. She is multi-cultural before multi-cultural was in! But this is American history. Take Huckleberry Finn again as an example. As much as Huck thinks he is superior to Jim, he is actually being tutored by Jim, in love especially, but in other practical matters of survival as well. The way they eat and live on the raft and hide in the day and move at night, the stories Huck learns from Jim: all of that is Huck becoming “black”—or multi-cultural.
At any early point in the story the preacher tells his wife that she is a guest in Africa. Does she believe him? Does she begin to see things that way as she follows Eli’s counsel to “find a place”? Does she see things differently as the story is told?
No and yes. At first she cannot comprehend her own foreignness. She thinks Africans are strange; they are the strangers. She is “normal,” and her expectations are “normal.” In her view, these folks should know better than to meddle with her laundry. But she is, of course, meddling in their culture! She is trying to change their religious views. She is taking their handicrafts and decorating her house with them. She is tutoring their children in English. I do admire her (and her historical counter-part) for learning Yoruba and for recording the language. Later missionaries did not always take such pains to learn the local language. As we know, language is a primary way by which we learn to see the world. The more she learns Yoruba, the more she comprehends what her neighbors know, what the Iyalode knows, for example. So through this learning, she begins to comprehend differently. There’s a scene with the Iya in which Emma thinks she is giving the woman a lesson in geography. But as it turns out, the Iya is the one who understands Emma’s situation better than Emma does. The Iyalode comprehends Emma’s pregnancy! And Emma begins to see how she is seen. This is a major moment in Emma’s development: beginning to see herself from an African’s point of view. This seeing-herself-as-stranger culminates with Jacob. She dallies a little with him and entertains romantic notions. But she doesn’t really SEE him or herself-in-relation-to-him, from HIS point of view, until he rebuffs her. Then she sees. And then, of course, she sees her entire history, all the way back to Uncle Eli’s toes.
Your book is sweeping in its delivery of several characters whose pasts and lives are so different on the surface. And they come together in the novel, often, to form or re-form one another’s faith. Can you speak to that?
My vision is trans-Atlantic because I was born in Nigeria and grew up there, visiting the U.S. on occasion, until I came here to live permanently as a young adult. Everything for me is about the cross-fertilization between the American South and West Africa. This is the story I want to tell over and over, whether in a short memoir about hair (Nigerian girl’s hair, my hair) or crimes of history or personal redemption. This novel is an orchestra composed out of the melodies and stories and tragedies of my life, my mother’s life, my people’s lives (whether those people are my Yoruba countrymen, my slave-owning ancestors, my missionary “family”). The trans-Atlantic South is my homeland.
You have personal history so that your story and your life in Africa undoubtedly helped you frame some things. Did your work on the novel enrich or change your views of missionary work?
Actually writing this novel constitutes “Stage 3” in my perspective on missionary life. As a girl (Stage 1), I simply thought it was normal: all white people were missionaries and there were only a few of them and the world itself was black people. I thought my parents were good people (they were good people; my mother an educator, my father a business man; my mother wrote a history of the Nigerian Baptist Convention—not the American Baptist Convention). And yet as a graduate student and young professor studying post-colonialism and feminism, I became deeply skeptical about missions. This was Stage 2. I was embarrassed by my history. Writing this novel, I came to see missionaries as human beings who struggle just as anyone struggles: with conscience, longing, desire, hope, guilt, despair. Mission work in Africa is a mixed bag. Perhaps it has been primarily negative. I haven’t done enough research to be an authority on the entire continent. But look here: Nelson Mandela is Methodist. Am I going to tell him he has false consciousness because he doesn’t practice traditional African religion? Perhaps he does in his own way. All religions migrate just as cultures do. There is good and bad in all of it. The great crime of slavery was sometimes “covered” in the U.S. by appeal to the Bible! My characters go to Africa trying to do something else. They may be wrong-headed, but they are trying. I think my mother and father did the same. I won’t judge their lives. How can I?
Can you comment on the connections between your life as a writer and as a teacher? Do the two areas naturally feed one another? Do you experience the roles in any particular way?
I joke that teaching keeps me young. I look out at the classroom and see myself in my students and think I’m still 23. Ha! But teaching does keep me young. I try to stay abreast of what much younger folks are thinking about and talking about. At least I get half way across the divide, which is farther than I would get if I weren’t teaching. I keep being challenged and pushed when I teach, graduate students and undergraduates. Teaching offers me an opportunity to pass-it-forward. I can’t possibly repay all the teachers and mentors I have had in my life, including the Yoruba folks who took care of me when I was a girl. Sometimes I would like to teach less (I carry a 2/2 load). But N.C. State University offers great support for my writing. Though I was hired to teach literature, I am given travel money and research support to go to Nigeria and spend a summer month at a writing residency and compose a novel over a six-year span. University teaching is one of the greatest privileges a person can have in my view.
I wonder if you can talk a little about the writing box or about remembering. There is a powerful thread in the story when the characters, particularly Emma Bowman, return to the question of what will be taken with them and what will be left behind.
It’s interesting to me that you link these two: remembering and the writing box. I love the way a reader can show a writer what she did! Of course, Uncle Eli’s gift of the letter opener (his effigy) is linked with his admonition “remember; you find a place.” This admonition haunts Emma even as the letter opener comforts her. I intended that the reader understand that even as Emma is doing just what Uncle Eli asked, she doesn’t fully understand HOW she is following his instruction until the end of the novel when she understands his remembrance. He was remembering his homeland, teaching her about it; she travels to his homeland, unaware, and finally comes to see–“as if face to face”–that the old man was from this very place. So Uncle Eli’s memory is a force in the novel. I believe that memory is essential to practicing peace and justice. If we do not remember the past and honor it, how can we begin to establish a more just society in the present? We must remember slavery, Jim Crow, the genocide of Native Americans. I hope readers find a poetic irony in Emma’s bearing this memory; she is a daughter of white privilege. But when she steps outside of her known world and becomes the foreigner, she is able to see the light she thought she was bearing. And she was bearing it; she just didn’t fully comprehend it. The box is Emma’s heart, of course: the vault of memory and desire.
What are you reading these days?
I just read White Dog Fell from the Sky by Eleanor Morse, a wonderful novel about apartheid South Africa, and next on my list is Wash by Margaret Wrinkle, a novel about an enslaved man in Tennessee in the early 1800s who survives through a spiritual connection to his shamanic mother. Margaret and I are going to be on a panel together at the Atlanta Journal Constitution/Decatur Book Fair over Labor Day. You can see what I’m in to.
How can readers stay in touch with you and support what you’re putting in your own “writing box”?
My website is elaineneilorr.net
I love for readers to “friend” me either on my personal Facebook page or my author page; I like to see what they are doing. I’m happy to Skype in to book clubs. My email is on my website; it’s firstname.lastname@example.org
I sat with my mother, and looking and listening to her was like hearing a favorite splendid song. Her smile, in her eyes and her mouth, was an invitation to laugh as she told me stories from when I was my son’s age, when I said things I heard from Ms. Goodlett, our one-time babysitter. She mirrored the expressions in my face, the same ones I chuckle at with the boy these days, the ones I tell Bryce that I gave him. Mama told me stories like they happened just yesterday morning, like she had been remembering them so she could tell them to me, remembering them again for me.
Take some time to watch this video. It’s about 27 minutes long. Any video with Toni Morrison is worth the time. She’s always the writer, the architect of language, always the teacher of history. I hope you enjoy her depth, her voice, and her articulation how her work is a work of love. She’s discussing Love, one of her novels, but is just as much discussing love in general and how it relates to writing and telling story.
Here’s the truth about telling stories with your life. It’s going to sound like a great idea, and you are going to get excited about it, and then when it comes time to do the work, you’re not going to want to do it. It’s like that with writing books, and it’s like that with life. People love to have lived a great story, but few people like the work it takes to make it happen. But joy costs pain.