Thursday, October 24, 2013

Pastrix: the Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint

Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & SaintPastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint, by Nadia Bolz-Weber

Wow. This book brought me to tears so many times. Nadia Bolz-Weber is a recovering alcoholic and fundamentalist (she was raised in the ultraconservative Church of Christ), and she is now an ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) pastor, wife, and mother. She founded and leads a church called the House for All Sinners and Saints, or HFASS (pronounced Half-Ass) for short. In this book, Bolz-Weber shares deeply and honestly about her own personal trials and how she found her way to the Lutheran church: in one word, grace.

I had forgotten this, but when we were at Holden Village several years ago, Bolz-Weber was also there. A few in our group found her to be standoffish and not very warm. She admits this herself and calls herself a "misanthrope." Her grumpiness comes out full bore in her memoir, but that's what I like so much about it: her deep honesty. She's like Anne Lamott as an ELCA pastor.

I heavily dog-eared my copy of this book, and this is what spoke most clearly to me:

  • God's aunt: When she spent some time with Wiccan friends (before finding a home in the ELCA), she said "the goddess we spoke of never felt to me like a substitute for God, but simply another aspect of the divine. Just like God's aunt." She goes on..."I can't imagine that the God of the universe is limited to our ideas of God. I can't imagine that God doesn't reveal God's self in countless ways outside of the symbol system of Christianity. In a way, I need a God who is bigger and more nimble and mysterious than what I could understand and contrive. Otherwise it can feel like I am worshipping nothing more than my own ability to understand the divine."
  • What you were called to be: When she hesitantly shared with her pastor dad and mom about her decision to become a pastor (after being raised in a church where women could not even teach Sunday school to boys over 12, much less preach), her father responded in a way she didn't expect: "At that moment, my father silently stood up, walked to the bookshelf and took down his worn, leather-bound Bible. Here we go, I thought, he's going to beat me with the scripture stick...He opened it up and read. I could tell from where he was turning that it wasn't one of Paul's letters at the end of the book, but something closer to the middle. My father did not read the 1st Timothy passage about women being silent in church. He read from Esther.

    From my father I heard only these words: "But you were born for such a day as this." He closed the book and my mother joined him in embracing me. They prayed over me and they gave me a blessing. And some blessings, like the one my conservative Christian parents gave to their soon-to-be Lutheran pastor daughter who had put them through hell, are the kind of blessings that stay with you for the rest of your life. The kind you can't speak of without crying all over again." Oh, did I ever cry when I read this story!
  • I am baptized, so fuck off: Apparently Martin Luther had a bit of an anger issue. "Luther was known to not only throw the occasional inkpot at whatever was tormenting him and causing him to doubt God's promises, but also while doing so he could be heard throughout the castle grounds shouting, 'I am baptized!'" And this is what baptism means to a Lutheran--to be claimed by God and touched by God's grace, no matter what we do or who we are. It's not up to us; it's up to God. This is what she shared with a young transgender man named Asher, who was also raised in a conservative Christian church and who she blessed in a name changing ceremony. She met him a few years later after he returned home from seminary. He said, "I never told you about the dream I had the night after my naming rite"..."It was like so many other nights--a voice accusing me, damning me, scaring me. But this time I talked back," he said proudly. "I said, 'I am baptized, so fuck off,' and when I woke up I was giddy. I called a friend, and we went to City Park and made snow angels." I plan to use this next time my own personal demons threaten my spirit.
  • No fakery: Bolz-Weber is not a fan of praise music or liturgical dance and can barely keep herself from showing her dislike on her face. "Pretending to feel a way other than how I actually feel is not a gift God gave me. I can pull it off for short periods of time when needed, but the effort is exhausting." I can relate! This is why it would be very difficult for me to be a pastor!
  • Radical hospitality does not sell: She addresses the fact that "churches that try to live into the beauty of radical hospitality and the destabilizing idea that Jesus is experienced in welcoming strangers don't tend to be described as 'sprawling.' Jesus wants you to be rich and beautiful is doing great as a message, though. There are shiny millionaire preachers and full attended parking lots every Sunday morning in America to prove it."
  • Strangers sometimes look like our parents: But she also struggled big time with the growing attention her church has received. When they started attracting a lot of white, middle-class suburbanites, she didn't like it. "I wanted the 'us' to be bigger. What I wasn't prepared for was the 'us' to be different." She found it increasingly difficult, as the numbers grew, to maintain a welcoming attitude to some of these newcomers...those who didn't fit her definition of "all sinners and saints" (alcoholics, tattoo-wearers, drug addicts, hippies). "My precious little indie boutique of a church was being treated like a 7-Eleven, and I was terrified that the edgy, marginalized people whom we had always attracted would now come and see a bunch of people who looked like their parents and think, 'This isn't for me.' And if that started to happen, I would basically lose my shit." Then a friend of hers pointed out that her church was really good at welcoming young transgendered people..."but sometimes the stranger looks like your mom and dad." And then young Asher, the transgendered young person, expressed gratitude for those who didn't look like him. "I just want to say that I'm really glad there are people at church now who look like my mom and dad. Because I have a relationship with them that I just can't with my own mom and dad." More tears.
  • What would Jesus do? When a con man becomes a member of her church, her first instinct was to "try to get rid of him. You know, like Jesus would do...Ugh, Jesus. He always seems to be showing up when I want him to politely just keep out of my business." And when this con man, Rick, becomes part of her community and works at a food distribution center at the Occupy Denver outpost, he enthusiastically shares, "Distributing food at Occupy Denver is awesome!"..."Everyone is fed. It doesn't matter if you are a homeless guy who is scamming and doesn't even care about Occupy or a lawyer on a lunch break."..."The only place I've ever really seen that is at communion." Then she hangs up, trying to pretend she wasn't crying. And again, I dropped tears. That's what communion means to me as a Lutheran--everyone is welcome and everyone gets fed.

This book, while it might not appeal to everyone (especially if you are sensitive to salty language), made me glad to be an ELCA Lutheran. I'm so glad that we have tattooed, alcoholic pastors like Bolz-Weber, and that she is spreading the word about God's grace to everyone. I encourage you to watch this long interview with Bolz-Weber by Krista Tippett. It's worth it.

The Invisible Girls: A Memoir

The Invisible Girls: A MemoirThe Invisible Girls: A Memoir, by Sarah Thebarge

Sarah Thebarge survived grueling breast cancer, and a recurrence within a year, before moving west to Portland, Oregon, my hometown. While on the MAX light rail train, she meets a Somali immigrant and her five young daughters, and a friendship begins.

Thebarge alternates her story between getting to know and helping Hadhi and the girls and her travails enduring breast cancer treatment. She was raised in a strict evangelical religion, but went onto earn a degree at Yale and was in the middle of earning a journalism degree at Columbia when cancer struck. She also had a serious boyfriend and was close to becoming engaged. Ian, the boyfriend, was too weak to stick it out and abandoned her. Her church community apparently also abandoned her. She felt alone and bereft, her faith severely tested, when she picked up stakes to move to the west coast. Given the fact that I've had several friends endure and survive Stage 3 breast cancer similar to Thebarge's, I most appreciated reading about her experience and her feelings about having cancer. I also always like reading books set in my hometown!

When she got to know and began to help Hadhi, who didn't speak much English, she seemed to relate to the "invisible girls" because of what she had endured. She too felt like a stranger in a strange land.

This book has been accused of the "white savior complex." At times I wondered whether she could teach Hadhi how to fend for herself and survive rather than just rescuing her (do they have a sustainable life in the U.S.?). I was touched that Thebarge went out of her way to make this family feel welcome in the United States...a feeling they had not experienced before they met her. So much of their lives was difficult, but Thebarge brought joy to their poor, struggling family.

I felt that she could have delved a bit more into how she broke away from her traditional religious upbringing, and her feelings of betrayal when very few were there for her through cancer. And during one of the last chapters of the book she mentions some kind of identity theft or fraud but never explains what happened. (It felt like a big loose end was not tied up...perhaps an editorial oversight?)

The final chapter made me squirm a bit, as Thebarge and her friend reach out to a prostitute and do some proselytizing...mostly because, as a Christian, I'd rather that people learn about Christianity through the way we live our lives and not because we hit them over their heads with it. So even though she felt completely oppressed growing up in such a strict Christian denomination--in which women were not allowed to hold any leadership roles in the church whatsoever--she seems to move back to it at the end. That was a bit confusing. 

But Thebarge did help this family in dire straits. She brought delight into their lives and she helped them muddle through, and she too was enriched by the experience. She decided to write this book so she could raise money for the girls to go to college. I hope she is successful in her goal. 

I love this tidbit I found on Thebarge's blog, which is the ultimate takeaway from this book:

"And I realized this morning that solving the problem of invisibility doesn’t require legislation or institutional intervention.  It’s simple, and it’s easy, and it’s free.  It just takes all of us walking through life with open eyes and softened hearts, taking the risk and the time to tell someone else, 'You’re not invisible any more.  I care that you exist.  I see that you’re suffering.  It matters that you’re here.' 
How would our world change if every day, each of us told one person — just one —'I see you.  So you’re not invisible any more.'”
I participated in a campaign on behalf of Mom Central Consulting for Jericho Books. I received a product sample to facilitate my review.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The House I Loved

12122542The House I Loved, by Tatiana De Rosnay

My book group chose this book for October, mostly based on the fact that two members had read De Rosnay's earlier bestselling book, Sarah's Key.

It's the story of Rose Bazelet, a widow who lives in an old house in Paris in the 1860s, an era when hundreds of houses are being demolished to rebuild Paris. She refuses to leave her home, and the book consists of her reminiscences of her life in the house.

I found Rose to be a bit difficult to like, especially because of her neglect and dislike of her daughter, who clearly needed more love. She poured all of her love and affection into her son instead. And to stay in a house and put others' lives at risk all for the sake of principle? I found her to be reckless at best.

It was somewhat interesting to learn about this era in Paris' history, but I'm not sure I would recommend this book to anyone.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Cinnamon and Gunpowder

Cinnamon and Gunpowder, by Eli Brown

I loved this book, and it was especially delightful to finish such a fun, well-written, and entertaining book on the evening of a wonderful birthday. 

One reviewer calls this book "Babette's Feast meets Pirates of the Caribbean." If you like historical fiction, cooking, eating, or pirates, you'll enjoy it too.

England, 1819...after pirate captain "Mad Hannah Mabbott" kills Lord Ramsey (big wig of the Pendleton Trading Company, new name for the East India Trading Company), she kidnaps Owen Wedgwood, Ramsey's talented chef. She informs him that he can stay alive if he cooks a sumptuous dinner for her every Sunday evening. 
“Dear Mr. Wedgwood,
Welcome to the Flying Rose. I hope you have settled to sea comfortably. Your lot may improve in direct proportion to your willingness. I do look forward to more of your fare. Let me lay out my proposal: You will, of a Sunday, cook for me, and me alone, the finest supper. You will neither repeat a dish nor serve foods that are in the slightest degree mundane. In return I will continue to keep you alive and well, and we may discuss an improvement of your quarters after a time. Should you balk in any fashion you will find yourself swimming home, whole or in pieces, depending upon the severity of my disappointment. How does this strike you?
In anticipation,
Capt. Hannah Mabbot” 
Wedgwood, a widower, is a bit of a milksop at first...but he makes delectable food out of the crudest ingredients. Meanwhile, Abbot is on the hunt for the elusive Brass Fox, while she's on the run from the British Navy and a Frenchman named Larouche and trying to rout out the saboteur on her ship. Wedgwood makes a few escape attempts but eventually he comes to appreciate the enormous Mr. Apples, fierce Chinese twins, and deaf-mute Joshua, who he teaches to cook and read. Author Eli Brown will make you want to cook and eat, and you will appreciate the fresh and plentiful ingredients in your kitchen and wish you could cook like Wedgwood.
“Some foods are so comforting, so nourishing of body and soul, that to eat them is to be home again after a long journey. To eat such a meal is to remember that, though the world is full of knives and storms, the body is built for kindness. The angels, who know no hunger, have never been as satisfied.” 
He discovers the root of Abbot's passions for justice and becomes taken with her love for fine food, quick wit, and extreme bravery. This book sent me to the Internet to look up the opium trade. It also brought back memories of our two visits to Macau, as I read about the pirate era on that island. A wild pirate adventure, love story, and culinary tale all rolled into one!

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Midwife

The Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard TimesThe Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times, by Jennifer Worth

I'm completely hooked on the BBC show "Call the Midwife"--in fact, I like it even better than "Downton Abbey." The Midwife is the first in the trilogy that inspired the series. It's much grittier and full of hard details than the show. In reality, the conditions were much starker and poorer than what is shown onscreen. For those unfamiliar with the show, The Midwife is about a young nurse-midwife working in Poplar (the East End of London) during the 1950s in Nonnatus House with Anglican nuns (who are also nurse-midwives). Before watching the show, I was not aware there were Anglican nuns!

"Call the Midwife" main cast
The characters I've come to love--the posh and clumsy Chummy (my favorite), sharp-tongued and beautiful Trixie, kind Cynthia, amazing Sister Julienne, aging and memory-lapsing Sister Monica Joan, ever-enterprising Fred, humble Jane, kind and compassionate doctor, and salty, down-to-earth Sister Evangelina--are all in the book in full color. Similar to another of my favorite shows inspired by a book (Orange Is the New Black), the best part about these stories is not the protagonist--it's all the fascinating people around her.

Two stories in particular make me especially grateful for the many advancements in medical care since the 1950s:

  • In her initial training, Worth saw a young woman and baby die from eclampsia, and later at the Nonnatus Houe, she assists a woman suffering from pre-eclampsia. Even in this day and age, women die from full-blown eclampsia and toxemia. If pre-eclampsia is not halted before progressing into eclampsia, the mom dies and nothing can be done about it.
  • Conchita Warren is the Spanish wife and mother of 25 children. Her 25th is born at around 24 weeks (the same gestation as my oldest son), and against all advice, Conchita insists on keeping the baby with her instead of allowing him to go to the hospital, even if he dies. She cradles him between her breasts for the first several months and feeds him expressed milk every 1/2 hour. Later Worth ponders whether a mother's instinct and ability to care for own child might have been even more effective than high-tech hospital care, in which the baby would have been left alone all day and night in an isolette. She also is convinced that if the baby had died, Conchita wouldn't have been far behind. Her desire to protect her baby made her fight for her own life. Of course now, keeping a baby that tiny at home would never be allowed. In my son's case, he definitely would have died if he was not in the NICU--he was very sick and needed that medical care.

Worth tells three stories of mixed-race in which the mom is terrified that her baby will be born black, another in which the baby is born black and the husband pitches a fit, and finally the one we saw in the show, in which the husband embraces the baby as his own and seems completely color blind.
Jennifer Worth as a young nurse-midwife

We learn about Irish Mary, who fled sexual abuse in Dublin to arrive in London penniless and end up working as a prostitute in filthy, horrible Cable Street. (Her tale is far grittier and more tragic than portrayed in the show. Cable Street was notorious for its horrific living conditions, opium dens, sex trafficking, and prostitution, and Mary was an easy victim.) She becomes pregnant and has to flee the brothel, and she ends up meeting Jenny, who tries to help her. Her story finishes tragically.

Think that children were separated from their parents only in concentration camps ala "Sophie's Choice" or when Native American children were sent away from their parents off to boarding schools? It also happened in London through the 1940s, as destitute people were sent to live in workhouses with horrible living and working conditions. We learn the story of Mrs. Jenkins, who entered the workhouse with several young children. They were immediately separated, and she never saw her children again...they all died in the workhouse. She was never the same. When Worth first encounters Mrs. Jenkins, who always stands outside the building where a baby is born and pesters the midwives for news of the baby's and mother's health, she is disgusted by her. When she begins taking care of her and learns her story, her compassion and understanding increase.

At times, Worth's youth, impatience, and British snobbery are on full display, even though she is giving of herself to work in one of the poorest parts of London. One thing she wrote really aggravated me, but it's a reflection of her generation and upbringing, I suppose. In a chapter about how some women have affairs (discovered when they bear babies of a different color), she writes:

"I have often felt that the situation is loaded against men. Until recently, when genetic blood tests became possible, how could any man know that his wife was carrying his child? The poor man had no other assurance of paternity than his wife's word. Unless she is virtually locked up, he can have no control over her activities during the day while he is at work."
Jennifer Worth before her death in 2011
"Loaded against men"???? For a nurse who saw exactly what 1950s-era poor women had to bear (no way to maintain a family unless they get married or resort to prostitution, no birth control resulting in way too many births, no help in the house from their husbands who often ruled with an iron hand, no laws against domestic violence, etc., etc.), this is incomprehensible. "Unless she is virtually locked up?" It sounds like she is recommending such a recourse! As another reviewer wrote, "It wasn't just life circumstances keeping women down in this time; it was powerful social control, such as happens when women of higher, more influential classes, make casual comments about locking wives up." The Guardian's obituary of Jennifer Worth (who died of cancer in 2011) describes her as "A strong personality, Jennifer was dynamic and determined, and her lively imagination is apparent in the books."

For that sexist commentary, I'm giving the book four stars. Otherwise, I loved it and will continue reading the rest of the series (and of course, waiting for Season 3 of "Call the Midwife"!).