Lit by Mary Karr
Sometimes truth comes at you from the most unexpected places.
Let’s say, for example, that you’re reading the third memoir in a row about substance abuse -- and all of the really really awful choices people make when they feel unloved -- and you’re wondering to yourself why people can’t write about beautiful things for a change. You know you’re not the only one who needs a pick me up, whose spiritual life has bottomed out, whose hope for that light at the end of the tunnel has dwindled to a pinprick of pixels if that. Your misery loves company, and yet, there’s something innately disturbing about dwelling in someone else’s quagmire such that you feel more sucked down than comforted.
But this book is so long. You tend to be verbose in your own writing, so you understand the need for Karr to go on at length, but you just wish she could have capped it somewhere under 300 pages, or at least not included so many swear words and trashy metaphors that are dragging your mind into the gutter and stirring up feelings of frustration and anger and agony and --
And then you see it. In the middle of page 217. Sacred truths you know but have lost sight of in your inability to let go of despair:
Faith is not a feeling...It’s a set of actions. By taking the actions, you demonstrate more faith than somebody who actually has experienced the rewards of prayer and so feels hope. Fake it till you make it.
And on page 218:
You were saved for something...Don’t die before you find out what. What’s your dream for your life?
And on pages 368-9:
[What’s] God’s dream for you?
God has a dream for me?...I love that idea. It sounds like a Disney movie.
You know from the beginning that this is a self-reported conversion story -- a sinner’s fall to faith and subsequent redemption -- and yet the way Karr tells it absolutely blindsides you.
People in my writing group have asked me to dig deep when describing what it feels like to hear God’s voice. When they ask me next time, I will ask if they have read Mary Karr. Her writing makes it clear that God speaks to us through our own idiosyncrasies, reaching us in as many unique ways as we are uniquely different from each other. You read her descriptions of what it meant for her to find faith and you don’t doubt her discovery. It may not spur the reader on her own spiritual journey if the seeds for it aren’t already planted, but no doubt the reader will be glad that Karr has begun hers and will wish her well.
But for me, I sat there for a full minute befuddled by the page. A page that had been recommended to me by someone who had rejected me. A page in a book by a writer highly acclaimed in the writing circles who approached my own ideas with more scrutiny than a health inspector in a restaurant. Two realizations slowly dawned:
It’s possible to write about religion in a way non-religious readers will devour.
And it is possible to find God in a scathing book about an abused drunk on the road to recovery. Well, maybe I knew that. But I didn’t know it was possible to find God in a book recommended to me by a community that, on the whole, is disinclined to believe he exists.
In one of the final chapters, Karr asks her mentor to recall how she felt she could never repay him for his kindness. She reminds him of his teaching that kindness isn’t meant to be repaid, it’s meant to be passed along. Karr lets him know that she’s had the chance to do that, to help the next person in line. And by this point in the story, it’s clear to me that I’m probably not the only person whom Karr is unaware of helping.
Anne Lamott knew full well the invisible train of thanks, the untracked links in the chain, when she wrote in her writing guide Bird by Bird:
“Even if only the people in your writing group read your memoirs or stories or novel, even if you only wrote your story so that one day your children would know what life was like when you were a child and you knew the name of every dog in town -- still, to have written your version is an honorable thing to have done. Against all odds, you have put it down on paper, so that it won’t be lost. And who knows? Maybe what you’ve written will help others, will be a small part of the solution. You don’t even have to know how or in what way, but if you are writing the clearest, truest words you can find and doing the best you can to understand and communicate, this will shine on paper like its own little lighthouse. Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.” (235-6)
I sit here now wondering about the mystery -- how we can never know from where the light will shine next. Tentatively, we step ahead.
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.