The packing list for my son’s church-sponsored trip to build houses in Appalachia includes obvious stuff like toiletries and work boots, but also “devotional materials” and a Bible.
I was raised by atheists, and we are not religious. At this point, I’d guess his devotional materials are his phone and a charger for access to Pokemon Go. The trip is organized by a fabulous reverend at a Methodist church here who teaches peace and social justice, and she’s completely OK with non-Christian kids taking part in her programs. But I don’t know what to expect in Tennessee.
So on our way to basketball camp this morning I asked him if he believed in God. He said “I don’t know, I don’t think so.” I pressed him a little, asked if he considered himself a spiritual person. That was a clunker: “A what?” he asked. I was not sufficiently caffeinated to explain what the hell that meant. I don’t think I could right now, in fact, without sounding like a shitty Facebook post from your friend who keeps blaming things on Mercury being in retrograde. Then I tried asking if he thought everyone had a soul—whether he believed in something bigger than all of us. Again, he was vaguely unsure, and hesitant to commit one way or the other. Truth is, at his age, this in and of itself felt a little like success for me.
So I pivoted again. Largely in an effort to prevent any truly socially awkward moments in Tennessee, I asked if he believed in Jesus. I’d like him to get ready with a good non-offensive answer to this question before he is possibly the only Jewishy Black kid in Appalachia.
“Oh. Jesus is different,” he said. “Sure, I mean, that’s true.” I nearly drove off the road. “Wait. So you believe in the Resurrection?”
We’re back to confuzzlement. “Huh?”
“Easter, Julius, where they celebrate Jesus rising from the grave?” He equivocated. “Well, I mean, I’m not sure about that, but they have historical evidence of all the other stuff. (Now it’s my turn to “Huh?”)
“Basically,” he said, “I think everyone back then were bums, and Jesus came along and he wasn’t a bum.”
This is hard to argue with.
He also volunteered that he doesn’t believe Mary was a virgin. “I think maybe she just hadn’t slept with Joseph.” (Yes, he’s turned the Immaculate Conception into a soap opera plot.)
So if you sort of believe all this, I asked, maybe you do believe in God? “Well if there’s a God, he’s a jerk, I mean look at the world.”
I tried to explain that God gave humans the faculties to solve all the problems that plague us so the awfulness is really on us, not God. But he was unpersuaded and we had arrived at the gym. And so endeth the lesson.
My faith in Faith really solidified in adulthood. Prior to that it was all magical thinking. I first started to understand it when I became a married person. I don’t know how to do this without having an almost irrational belief that we’re building something bigger than both of us individually.
Then the people I love started dying, and faith changed form. Love doesn’t die, as anyone who has read a greeting card knows, but how do you continue to feel joy after sinking in grief? To even believe that you will one day even want to feel joy again takes faith in the future, I think.
My friend lost her husband suddenly, a year ago this week. She has been a consummate example of grace and strength throughout this devastation. To mark this awful anniversary on social media she wrote, “At first you live in grief, then the grief lives in you,” and that simple line is so true. Grief changes you forever.
And (here comes the segue), the best books are usually about it.
The Friend by Sigrid Nunez
This slim book is explicitly about the death of a friend. So I avoided it. I have to be in the mood to read about grief.
Even though it won a National Book Award, I didn’t have high hopes. Books about dogs have never enticed me; I figured it would be sentimental and dopey. Boy was I wrong.
Her friend dies and bequeaths her his giant Great Dane. So she’s dealing with her grief, and with this big giant dog in her small apartment that does not allow dogs. That’s the big conflict of the book, yet I was not at all bored. The writing is so sharp and lovely.
It’s very internal, for sure. It’s about a woman who leads a solitary writer’s life in NYC. And it’s very inside baseball about the literary world. But the truth is, that’s all just setting. Although I maybe didn’t realize that at first. This book is really about grief and friendship.
The dog thing is so moving, and sometimes funny. And she makes a few twists and turns with the plot toward the end that really took it all to another level for me. It’s not long, but it’s very deep.
Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, by Lori Gottlieb
This book is the latest evidence that the author, Lori Gottlieb, is an exhausting overachiever. If you can get past the sense that this woman is the Tracy Flick of therapists/writers, it’s a fun book. It’s a peek inside the confidential world of therapizing. For anyone who has been in therapy, it’s like porn. The inner thoughts of therapists about their patients? Bring it on!
It’s also a memoir and in it she recounts her circuitous path to becoming a successful therapist/writer—you might’ve have read her viral article in The Atlantic, “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy”. She was a successful TV executive, and—inspired by her show, ER, she then went through Stanford med school and successfully became a doctor. Just when I was starting to dislike her simply because I’m small and mean-spirited, she reveals some of her own flaws (besides the ones I’d ascribed to her simply by being small and mean-spirited).
The book itself was really a fun read/listen. She fictionalizes a few patients as a way to discuss some of the major issues we flawed humans present to therapists, and best of all—some of the methods therapists use to dig deeper, to cue the end of a session, and to deal with patients they can’t stand.
Her Hollywood bona fides are evident in how she unspools the stories within the book, giving you little hooks that keep you going. It all ties up a little too neatly at the end, but I still think this was a fun alternative to my usual escapist fiction. It’s like a mix between a light novel and an Oprah Super Soul Conversation with Brené Brown.
My one caveat is that I did not love the narrator of this book. Her voice was fine, but there was a sameness to the delivery that started to feel canned. It’s sort of ideal fare for a dog walk, but you might want to read it with your eyeballs.
And here endeth the blog! Happy 4th of July everyone. May you and yours never again need to immigrate to the USA.