Saturday, April 27, 2013

A Private History of Awe: Review

A Private History of Awe by Scott Russell Sanders is a beautiful testament to the power and fragility of this thing we call life--and the language we use to describe it.  In his memoir, this gentle man holds in balance the wonder of the beginnings of life and the terrible waning of life as it ends.  And he uses this balance to frame the story of his search for communion with the source of power that runs through all living things, all of nature, all of the universe. He guides us through stories of his youth in Tennessee and Ohio, his years in college, and his courtship and early married life with his wife.  These memories are shared in parallel with recent interactions with his new granddaughter and his aging mother. 

It would be easy to read the book as a memoir of American boyhood and what it was like to grow up in the 1950s and 60s--and Sanders does give us that.  We see him growing up on a farm in Tennessee and moving to a military installation in Ohio where his father worked on bombs.  He faces the taunts of Yankee boys for the way he talks until he tames his Southern speech patterns and learns what death is when he helps his father with a staged deer shoot for visiting generals.  He falls for his first girl and loses her when her military family moves again three weeks later.  He becomes aware of the color barrier and watches as the country responds violently to matters of civil rights.  He spends most of young life dreaming of being a physicist and building rockets for space travel until he becomes dismayed with the uses to which governments put scientific discoveries.

But throughout his life Sanders is searching for moments of insight--"openings" as the Quakers refer to them.  Moments of  awe-inspiring connection with the current of power that runs through all things. Increasingly uncomfortable with religion that claims to be connected with a loving God while tacitly approving the destruction of enemies and ignoring the needs of the youngest, weakest, and eldest of society, he wants a connection with something more, something better, something that will allow for the awe that he has experienced repeatedly in his life--in the power of the rainstorm, in the opening of new leaves in spring, and the new life of children.  As he says, he "wanted a larger view of life, a view more tender, more curious, more open to awe. [He] longed for a religion grand enough to hold the universe revealed by science. [He] wanted a religion generous enough to embrace all the world's young, not merely the Christ child, not merely our own children, and not merely the offspring of our species, a religion that would keep a man from worshiping in the White House chapel and then going downstairs to order bombing raids on cities filled with strangers."

Sanders' memoir resonates especially with me when he writes of his mother and her steady loss of vitality and language.  He compares her losses with his granddaughter's gains--her loss of verbal skills with Elizabeth's slow mastery; her unsteady baby steps with the baby's growing confidence in walking.  My father is head-injured and as a result suffers from aphasia and some emotional distress.  His accident was in 1999 and for a good ten years after his initial recovery he held his own.  Not always able to come up with the exact words he wanted, especially if stressed or excited, it still wasn't obvious that there were verbal barriers that had to be crossed before speaking and he did well in small gatherings and when given time to think.  But that's changed in the last few years--and I see Dad's decline foreshadowed in Sanders' descriptions of his mother.  His memoir is a personal call to me to be open to the awe-inspiring moments of my life and the fleeting time I have to share them with my parents and loved ones.

An absolutely lovely book--and absolutely a five-star read.

Saints and bodhisattvas may achieve what Christians call mystical union or Buddhists call satori--a perpetual awareness of the force at the heart of the heart of things. For these enlightened few, the world is always lit. For the rest of us, such clarity comes only fitfully, in sudden glimpses or slow revelations. Quakers refer to these insights as openings. When I first heard the term from a Friend who was counseling me about my resistance to the Vietnam War, I though of how on an overcast day, sunlight pours through a break in the clouds. After the clouds drift on, eclipsing the sun, the sun keeps shining behind the veil, and the memory of its light shines on in the mind. (p. 4)

Even the disciples, who at times could be dense as bricks, realized that the true neighbor was the one who showed mercy to a stranger. (p. 56)

I understand Mother's need, whatever she might say on the phone, what she really wants is to hear, before she closes her eyes, the voice of someone who loves her. Love is at last, our only rejoinder to darkness. (p. 91)

That was what it meant to be loved--there were people who would never give up looking and longing for you, no matter how far you wandered lost. (p. 92)

...nothing from the summer carries more lasting allure for me than the memory of sitting with Ruth on the bank of a stream on campus, taking turns reading aloud from the books we held on our laps, while the wind wet leaves gossiping in the old trees above us and the creek rustled in its stony bed. (p. 153)

Striving to convey to this beloved audience of one what was going on around me during those five years, I learned the power of language to map a life, to overcome a distance, to focus attention on what matters most.  (p. 161)

What's remarkable about old age is not that we wear out but that we last so long in the grip of gravity. (p. 164)

I sometimes wonder if all other animals, all plants, maybe even stars and rivers and rocks, dwell in steady awareness of God, while humans alone, afflicted with self-consciousness, imagine ourselves apart. (p. 166)

Although "making love" may serve as a polite name for an act that has many rude ones, it's misleading. For lovers do not so much make love as they are remade by love--dipped into the fire, melted down, reshaped. If they are devoted to one another, love will transform them, dissolving the shells of their old separate selves and making them anew. (p. 228)

What laid me low was no mystical vision, no message from God, but a blow of compassion. In a wakeful mind, no force is more terrible, or precious. (p. 229)

Life is precarious and improbable, a flame in matter, easily snuffed out. Nature shows no regard for the individual spark, in this creature or that, but only for the spreading of the fire, like an ember passed from cell to cell. (p.292)

No longer an innocent newborn, Elizabeth can tease, joke, and play make-believe because a gap has opened between what she knows to be so and what she pretends or imagines. More than any other quality, this gap is what distinguishes our species, enabling us to deceive one another and ourselves, but also enabling us to see beyond the way things happen to be, to envision alternatives, to make art and science and revolution, to invent things new under the sun. (p. 293)

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