Book Review: Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

 

This best-selling novel begins in heartbreak, sweeps through lyrical descriptions of North Carolina marshes, and ends with a stunning surprise. Each day, I’d look forward to reading it in the evening, and hated to see it end.

The story opens with a six-year old named Kya being abandoned by her mother and siblings who can no longer live with her abusive, alcoholic father. She has no money, no electricity, no running water and no food in a shack miles from the nearest town. The action begins in 1952, slightly more credible that the social services wouldn’t have been all over her case. An effort to get her to school fails miserably when the other kids make fun of “swamp trash.” She never returns, though the food is tempting, choosing instead to make sea gulls her companions. Wistfully, she feeds them and turning seven, confides, “it’s my birthday.” A later comment underscores the tragedy: “loneliness had become a natural appendage to Kya, like an arm.”

Before the plot gets too depressing, a bright light enters: Tate. She’s startled when he knows her name, but he will remain Kya’s true friend for the rest of her life. (Understandably, she has abandonment issues, fears the townsfolk and finds it hard to communicate.) He teaches her to read; a black couple give her donated clothing and a little company. Meanwhile, she grows resilient and becomes a collector of and expert on the surrounding nature. Her maturation is interwoven with the puzzling details of a murder, the son of the town’s wealthiest couple, slightly older than Kya. It’s unclear to the reader how that fits, but one continues, pleased that Kya seems to be the proverbial flower growing through asphalt, the tireless spark of the divine in the human that can flourish in the worst circumstances.

Her life grows slightly more complex, but still revolves around the tides and the rich life of sea and marsh. She becomes a superb naturalist, like the author who has won awards for her wildlife writing. The descriptions of grasses, feathers,  shells, snow geese and stars  are like a psalm to creation. Dialogue sounds stilted, and is clearly not Owens’ strong suit, but the Kya character is too appealing to fault. Rare good times with her father (notably he once calls her “hon”) cease; he vanishes. Despite countless setbacks, she thrives and the reader cheers her success against impossible odds.

By the time the book climaxes in a courtroom scene, the reader’s heart pulses in the throat, tensely rooting for Kya. It emerges then that the townspeople who seemed so distant and bigoted also have that spark of the divine. A small coterie protects her, and the small efforts others made years before to help the lonely child are revealed.

Perhaps we respond with empathy to Kya because there’s a little of her in all of us: isolated, shy and afraid. We cheer her smallest victories and yearn for her happiness because she is such a poignant expression of ourselves. A constant subplot is the devastation wrecked on Kya’s mother and her children by domestic abuse, but a slight twist for justice and glimmer of change comes at the end.

An Ambivalent July 4

I’ve always loved this holiday: the fireworks, the small town parades, the family parties, the watermelon. This year, however, when the Oakland symphony played the national anthem before the fireworks over the bay, we rose hesitantly. Appropriately, the celebration happened on July 3, the Feast of St. Thomas, patron saint of doubt. So much was wrong, but still, we could stand because we have the right to protest. And in the case of the children jailed at the border, a compelling obligation to say, “Stop it!”

As thousands of people did around the country on Tuesday, July 2. In San Francisco, the police cleared and shut down Market St., a major thoroughfare, so an estimated one thousand people could march from Sen. Feinstein’s to Rep. Pelosi’s office, chanting, “Shut down the camps…NOW”  and “Feinstein, do your job, and “Pelosi, do your job.” One eloquent sign said, “Do all lives still matter? Asking for the kids in cages.”

By now, the visiting attorneys’ reports on the Clint, TX facility have been well publicized. Most poignant is the image of hungry, inconsolable children trying to comfort each other. Congressional representatives and media cameras were denied entrance to many detention centers. The secrecy makes it even more compelling to ask: What are they hiding? Even Border Patrol agreed that their facilities weren’t designed for “vulnerable populations.”

That’s the understatement of the century. For specific horrors, read “What a Pediatrician Saw Inside a Border Patrol Warehouse” in the July 3 Atlantic:  www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2019/07/border-patrols-oversight-sick-migrant-children/593224/. Dr. Sevier in Brownsville, TX reported “a baby who’d been fed from the same unwashed bottle for days; children showing signs of malnutrition and dehydration; and several kids who, in her medical opinion, were exhibiting clear evidence of psychological trauma.”

After separating 2600 families, the Trump administration ended the policy, but had no plan to reunite parents and children. Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley from Massachusetts (see  https://twitter.com/hashtag/CloseTheCamps?src=hashtag_click&f=image) reported that asylum seekers have been criminalized for trying to saving their children’s lives, and held for 60 days when they are supposed to be jailed for only 72 hours. CBP (Customs and Border Patrol) seems chaotic and cruel. I sent them a letter of protest https://help.cbp.gov, which said in part, “Donald Trump may well be a sociopath, but surely SOME of you have a conscience?” The immediate answer was so glib and pat, a robot could’ve written it.

Meanwhile, plans were afoot for an extravagant military display in Washington DC, touting the achievements of the President. Does this reek of hypocrisy? Frederick Douglass said in 1852, “There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.” Does anyone else squirm, reluctant to agree? Knowing how deep and long-lasting the effects of trauma on children, how can we let this human rights atrocity continue?

Book Review–Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others

 

Barbara Brown Taylor is a favorite author, an Episcopal priest who sometimes presents with Fr. Richard Rohr. Her latest book began when she taught World Religions for 20 years at a small liberal arts college in Appalachia. She had grown burnt-out and weary in parish ministry, so she opted to learn “about other ways of approaching the divine mystery that were strange enough to upset my parched equilibrium.”

Sometimes an author describes to a T the journey we’ve been on ourselves, so we sit up and take particular notice. Brown speaks of an experience where she declines Communion because the Jewish friend standing beside her refuses. The sentence “I had chosen to abstain with him rather than to participate without him” rang bells, because twenty years ago, I did the same thing.

I was attending a Mass and graduation ceremonies at the Catholic Biblical School for my friend Jo, now deceased, one of the holiest people I knew. Her husband was an Episcopal priest; she too was a reverent Episcopalian. The diocese had issued the dire warning ahead of time—“no Communion for anyone but Catholics.” It was so sanctimonious, so reeking of unfriendliness, so unlike Jesus, that I made the same decision Brown did: “I did not want to celebrate any Communion that did not include” Jo.

When you’ve heard for years that you’re God’s only child, it rocks your boat to hear about other faiths that have sustained millions of people for centuries. The “rude awakening” of many Christians to the world’s pluralism led to Krister Stendahl, a Scandinavian biblical scholar and dean of the Harvard Divinity School, coining the term “holy envy.” Brown translates this to her own “spiritual covetousness”: of  Hindu inclusivity, Buddhist non-violence, Muslim prayer and Jewish sacred debate. Young folk are aware that the Christian path is one among many ways to God, but have we relaxed our staunch truth claims to help guide them?

Since “religious illiteracy is a luxury they can no longer afford,” Brown wisely leads her students to the major mosques, synagogues and temples in nearby Atlanta, and asks their respective guides to introduce the “saints and villains” every tradition has.  Initially, some students worried about “losing their faith” (this was in the south, where Christians made up a large majority), but they, and Brown found it only deepened what they already had, or introduced “the way of sacred unknowing.” She puts it better: “I want to keep leaving my comfort zone on a regular basis in order to visit the neighbors, without expecting them to exemplify their faith any better than I exemplify mine.”

This approach back happy memories of a spirituality group I led in Denver, who made the same kinds of visits. I remember how touched we were to see synagogue furniture that survived the Holocaust, and how hard we tried to keep scarves from slipping off our heads at the mosque. I continue today with monthly meetings of Muslim, Jewish and Christian women who have become fast friends as we try to understand our differences and similarities.

Giving up the hard, fast certainties of the “one true faith” preached in my youth is never easy. Brown encourages: “You will have to leave your bags of spiritual sweets behind….Sooner or later you will have to leave all your soothing props … entrusting yourself to the God who cares more about your transformation than your comfort.” She is unstintingly honest and gracefully humorous about that process: what a blessing to have such a companion.

Justice through a New and Different Path


 

Uplifting most religious traditions is concern for the underdog and care for the poor. We’re enriched by reading and hearing regularly about people who started schools, orphanages and hospitals for the sick and destitute who had nowhere left to go. In the Catholic community, we name them saints, and their lineage is inspiring.

Can we recognize the same thirst for justice when it presents a little differently? Could Mother Teresa wear a suit and speak eloquently into a mic at a congressional hearing? Setting aside superficial differences, the same strong current runs through a video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0QKOLydDfNg) of First-term Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) grilling JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, who made $31 million last year. Chase received billions of bailout money in 2008.

She asks how a full-time, entry level employee at his bank, making $16.50 an hour for a total of $35,070/year can survive financially. Calculating minimal expenses, such as a one-bedroom apartment in Irvine, her district, she arrives at a shortfall of $567/month. This bank teller, the single mom of a six-year old, shares a room with her daughter, and must pay for after-school care, since the bank is open beyond the school’s closing time. The only options seem to be taking out a loan or running up a credit card, both solutions carrying exorbitant interest.

Mr. Dimon, who runs a $2.6 trillion bank, had no answers. He mumbled inadequately about looking at the financial picture, but avoided the obvious: Pay a Living Wage! Interestingly, JPMorgan Chase could give every one of its 250,000 employees a $25,000 raise, and it would cost the bank only about two-thirds of the profit it made just in the first quarter of this year. (See Washington Post article cited below.)

Brilliantly, Porter recorded the numbers on a white board, so any moron could see the impossibility of living on a salary so unjust it reeks. On the YouTube site, “Johnny” commented about Dimon’s squirming: “I knew his life was OVER as soon as i heard the top twist from the dry erase marker.” It may be a different version of the Lives of the Saints than we’re accustomed to, but it’s no less powerful. Porter, by the way, is a law professor with expertise in bankruptcy, author, mother of three and survivor of domestic violence. Her delivery is disarmingly dead-pan. Wouldn’t it spice up (and strengthen) our religious education, church bulletins, and sermons to insert a word from her?

Writing in the Washington Post April 12, Paul Waldman points out that as a result of the recent tax cut, “twice as many of the largest corporations in the United States paid no taxes in 2018 as had the year before, despite making billions of dollars in profit. For example, Chevron made a $4.5 billion profit and got a refund of $181 million.” (www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/04/12/this-exchange-between-democrat-ceo-should-shape-campaigns/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.5af894ea1c92)

St. Vincent de Paul and St. Frances Cabrini would be whistling “When the Saints Go Marching In” and applauding Katie Porter.

Kudos to the Governor of VA

After the shooting of 13 in Virginia Beach, Gov. Ralph Northam called the VA state legislature back to consider enacting basic gun control measures. Notably, he said the devastation should bring “votes and laws, not thoughts and prayers.”

Home to the NRA headquarters, VA has previously smothered such obvious bills as those proposed: a ban on silencers and high-capacity magazines, mandatory, universal background checks before gun purchases, a limit of one handgun purchase per month and prohibition of guns in city buildings. Northam also wants every lawmaker to go on record for or against his proposals during the special session. He’s the same leader who faced a scandal about a photo in blackface which he said wasn’t his, but let’s support any efforts to curb the gun epidemic. His “F” grade from the NRA is a badge of honor.

Even feeble attempts become noteworthy in light of a cover story in Time Magazine 11/29/18 about the parents of shooting victims, and how they try to comfort each other. They don’t necessarily agree on solutions, but they know the vast abyss confronting each new group of victims’ families and turn out to console them. Among the heart-breaking quotes:

“One father tells Time that for weeks after his son was killed, he set his alarm and left the house at 7:30, even though the school drop-off was no longer necessary. Another mom still catches herself reaching for her daughter’s small hand before crossing the street.” It took months for Nicole Hockley to stop calling her six year old son Dylan, killed at Sandy Hook, to dinner. “Pamela Wright-Young, whose 17-year-old son Tyrone Lawson was shot to death outside a high school basketball game in Chicago in 2013, had to consciously break her habit of walking sleepily to his bedroom to wake him up. ‘Something in you stops when your child dies,’ she says.”

Lori Alhadeff, whose 14-year-old daughter Alyssa was killed in Parkland, was elected to the Broward County school board in August after campaigning to improve school security. When 13 people died in a mass shooting in Binghamton, N.Y., “that punched through the fog” of her grief, she says. “I’d always thought that someone was going to do something about this, because we live in America and we’re taxpayers and this is a civilized country. But I realized no one’s stopping this. It’s just going to keep happening and happening. And that’s on us.”

It IS on us. And where oh where is the concerted religious voice of all denominations calling gun violence a life issue and roundly condemning these ceaseless, unnecessary deaths?

The Last Week of School

The jasmine, honeysuckle, other vines and bushes are flowering with dizzying sweetness. That harder-to-identify breeze is a collective sigh of relief heard across the land: “We made it through another school year!”

In November, first or third or fifth grade seemed interminable. Now, children have sprouted another foot or two, and walk confidently into class because they know the routine. (It’s only their addled grammy who dreads confusing Crazy Hair Event with Fancy Dress Day.) Their teachers deserve a brass band marching up the hill to school, serenading them all as the superintendent bestows plentiful raises and prodigious bouquets.

The day-in, day-out work of elementary schools is seldom applauded, but how miraculous it is when a class of varying first languages and ethnic backgrounds enters with chins lifted in anticipation. They can sniff some interesting potential here… And they walk out able to read, divide, draw, sing, write, subtract, and more or less get along with each other. Such formidable achievements from such small people!

Don’t forget their entourage of support staff: the cafeteria cooks, crossing guards, school secretaries who keep track of sick kids and lost lunches, aides, bus drivers, principals, parent-teacher associations and bedraggled dads who every morning, haul the scooter and helmet back home. Kudos too to the grandparents wearing saris, burkas, hijabs or turbans who bring their little ones into an environment which must seem utterly strange, yet do so with high expectations. Maybe they’ve not yet mastered all the American customs or nuances of English, but odds are great and hopes are high this child will. And some fortunate native speakers will leave with some newly acquired fluency in Mandarin or Spanish.

For those who haven’t been part of the school scene recently, it’s worth a stroll down a block or two simply to observe this quiet phenomenon. Not to idealize that all schools work miracles, but many do, and the daily procession in and out is worth watching to gain a wee dose of gratitude or joy. As the academic year winds down, some achievements are surely worth celebrating.

Viva Viriditas!

Depending on geography, spring is finally springing now (perhaps dubiously, perhaps vigorously) for most readers. This annual resurgence of life, warmth and energy prompts me to  reflect on the concept of “viriditas.” The word which combines the Latin for “green” and “truth,”was coined by Hildegard of Bingen (1098 – 1179) to mean the greening power of God, filled with connotations of vigor and freshness.

Hildegard also assumed ground-breaking roles for a woman of her day: artist, author, composer, mystic, pharmacist, poet, preacher, theologian, scientist, doctor, and political critic. Named a saint and doctor of the church in 2012, she believed passionately in God’s presence and activity in creation, as well as being a life force within. While we can observe “viriditas” in gardens and forests, Hildegard believed we could also cultivate it in our souls. Learn more at: https://www.healthyhildegard.com/hildegards-viriditas

Contemporary Dr. Victoria Sweet has utilized the idea in medical treatment, believing that the body isn’t a machine to be fixed, but a plant which will grow and heal, given sufficient time and nurture. “In Dr. Sweet’s TEDx talk at Middlebury College, (‘The Efficiency of Inefficieny’) she describes Hildegard’s belief that human healing resembles the greening power and regenerating capabilities of plant life. In 2014, Dr. Sweet published a book on the subject called God’s Hotel.  More recently, Dr. Sweet published a related book, Slow Medicine, also featuring viriditas as a central theme.”

During her seventies, Hildegard completed two medical texts, which catalogued over 280 plants, cross-referenced with their healing uses. She saw humans as “living sparks” of God’s love, coming from God as daylight comes from the sun. She thought connection with nature brings people a “primordial joy.” More than eight hundred years after her death, her message rings so true that she could well be considered patroness of environmental awareness. Although she would’ve been appalled by the destruction to the planet, she would’ve cheered robustly for efforts to save it.