Sunday, April 15, 2012

Book Review: Still (Lauren Winner)

Still is the most Southern thing I've read in a long time.

I do not mean that it is about the South or about Southern issues or even has a Southern voice. It has a Southern speed. 

The book reads like a long day with a friend you know so well that you don't rehash details. Lauren Winner reflects on the middle of her faith journey- what comes between the fiery beginning and the slow burn of the end. The book feels like a conversation she has with you, over a day or a weekend. 

Over eggs and grits with me, she confesses, "The enthusiasms of my conversion have worn off. For whole stretches since the dream, since the baptism, my belief has faltered, my sense of God's closeness has grown strained, my efforts at living in accord with what I take to be the call of the gospel have come undone." (p. xiii)

In my mind, I walk with Winner to pick peas in the garden, after breakfast, and she shares about her struggle to sit with her loneliness, "I tell the loneliness to pull up a seat. I notice she does not look so very threatening after all- she has a touch of the dowager about her, actually. She is clutching a handbag made of fat white beads, and she smells of rose water. We sit next to each other on my screen-porch sofa... I lean back. I breathe." (59) 

As we shell peas, on the same porch, Winner recounts, "I told my spiritual director I was praying (I doubt she was fooled). I told myself that I should be praying, that it would be good for me to pray; I said to myself, Of course you feel far away from God, how could you feel otherwise when you will not pray? But still, I persisted in not praying. My chastisements about my own lack of prayer became private jokes. When I nosed up against prayer, I felt angry..." (64) 

Winner walks me several miles to get a cold drink and we talk about how boredom masks other emotions, other experiences, our resistance. She says, "Boredom is, indeed, a restless state. I am, I hope, inching toward stillness." (126) 

When I try to recall an earlier comment, something she said about prayer, Winner tells me, "I am not a saint. I am, however, beginning to learn that I am a small character in a story that is always fundamentally about God." (194) 

Usually when I read a book for review, it's marked up, full of marginalia, little paper flags poke out beyond the page edges for attention and remembrance. I never touched a pen while reading this book. It felt like I would have interrupted the conversation. I needed to be present in the moment of the reading. The very personal, unwinding confessional, sipping whiskey nature of this book did not lend itself to notes on the first go around. 

When I go back, and I will go back, I will make notes. I will remember to mark the page where she talks about prayer as a marker of Christian life... not necessarily your own prayers, but perhaps the prayers of other people for you. When I read this again, I will be less interested in what happened in her divorce and more able to recognize the map of grief she is drawing for after a death and a divorce. When I read this again, what I appreciated about the tone of Winner's writing voice will have deepened. 

This is the first book of Winner's that I have truly liked, possibly because she always writes with an appeal to her reader to relate to her and her theological viewpoint. This time I do. I understand what it's like to be in the middle, to realize that there is a lot of sailing to do before hitting the other shore (God willing). And, as it turns out, you cannot always predict the weather, the pirates, the flora and fauna. All you can count on is the persistent presence of the sea, which can become so ubiquitous as to be forgotten. But is it still there? Is it still keeping you afloat? 

Still meanders and moseys, without clear plot or direction, but with clarity of voice and purpose. For the first time, Winner seems to be living the questions instead of providing answers with a questionable surety. You cannot solve Winner's problems or bring solutions to her, so you just listen. In the listening comes your own pondering of the middle, of your middle, of the middle of faith, of the middle of God. 

I received a copy of Still from Lauren Winner through a giveaway on RevGalBlogPals. No requests were attached to receiving the book and no promises were made upon receipt. All page numbers are from the hardback edition of the book, published 2012 by HarperOne. 

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