What would happen if a golem and a jinni (genie) found their way to turn-of-the-20th-century New York City? That’s the question at the heart of Helen Wecker’s lovely novel, The Golem and the Jinni.
I came across this book thanks to Glen Weldon of the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast–a personal favorite. Like him, I like that Wecker doesn’t make an allegory out of these mythical characters, nor does she lapse into the haziness of magical realism (not that I object to that genre). The golem and the jinni just exist in this world, without a lot of dreary explanations as to how.
The book is lush and slow. I don’t mean that it’s boring. I mean that it’s quiet–it’s not one I want to take in large gulps. I want to skim it quickly because I’m curious what happens to these two creatures, but the world Wecker describes is so rich, I can’t bring myself to do it. I’m in my first renewal cycle at the library and hope to finish it before I’m forced to turn it in.
Golems are beings formed from clay, created to be slaves, but the master of the golem in this story dies early on, so she finds herself trying to find her way on her own, aware that if her identity is discovered, she will be in great danger. Meanwhile, she hears the desires of everyone around her, and in the absence of a master, these yearnings claw at her constantly.
As for the jinni, he is sprung from a lamp early in the story, but has no recollection of how he got there or who bested him and imprisoned him in the first place.
It’s not a heavy handed book, but I did appreciate the wisdom in this exchange. Here the jinni is talking to the golem about the tinsmith who took him in and gave him a job:
The jinni sighed. “I’m less grateful to him than I should be. He’s a good and generous man, but I’m not accustomed to relying on someone else. It makes me feel weak.
“How is relying on others a weakness?”
“How can it be anything else? If for some reason Arbeely died tomorrow, I’d be forced to find another occupation. The event would be outside my control, yet I’d be at its mercy. Is that not weakness?”
“I suppose. But then, going by your standard, everyone is weak. So why call it a weakness, instead of just the way things are?”
We are not in control. And we are bound to one another, no?
What are you reading right now?
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Brené Brown certainly doesn’t need me to hawk her books–she is dizzyingly popular right now. But her latest book has been my favorite by far. It is Rising Strong and deals with how people come back from failure in a creative and healthy way.
In some ways, the book covers similar territory as her previous ones, especially Daring Greatly. There are a few basic themes that come up again and again in her research and writing:
Wholehearted people are able to face their dark places in their lives, because they know deep down that they are worthy of love and belonging.
Our power comes from living authentically, not from hiding our faults and flaws and hoping nobody notices.
We can’t numb the negative emotions without also numbing the positive ones.
Chapter Six, Sewer Rats and Scofflaws, is funny and profound and is worth the price of the book in itself. In it Brown talks about her own tendency to judge others and stew in her own self-righteousness. She describes an encounter with a boorish roommate at a conference–a conference she didn’t even want to speak at in the first place, but felt guilted into saying yes to. (This is an important detail; more later.)
I’ve said many times that Brené Brown is the older sister I never had. I suspect a lot of us feel that way. Given how much this roommate raised MY hackles, and how cringingly funny Brené’s subsequent reactions were, it was clear this chapter could have been written for me. How dare she trash the couch in the hotel! And smoke in the non-smoking section! She might as well have titled the chapter “Sewer Rats and Scofflaws: Listen Up, MaryAnn.”
The roommate experience lands her in her therapist’s office, who asks her to consider a simple question: Are people basically doing the best they can? And her therapist admits that for her, the answer is yes: while we can always grow and improve as people, and we should, it’s possible that the boorish roommate is using the tools and resources she has to try and make her way in the world.
Brown is disgusted with the thought: how can wiping Cinnabon icing on a hotel couch be one’s best? (Preach it, sis!) And then she starts asking around, hoping to bolster her own view: Do you think everyone is doing the best they can? She begins to notice that everyone who thinks people aren’t doing their best are hard, unequivocal and judgy in their responses. By contrast, here’s what she says about the people who believe people are doing their best:
They were slow to answer and seemed almost apologetic, as if they had tried to persuade themselves otherwise, but just couldn’t give up on humanity. They were also careful to explain that it didn’t mean that people can’t grow or change. Still, at any given time, they figured, people are normally doing the best they can with the tools they have.
…Every participant who answered “yes” was in the [research] group of people who I had identified as wholehearted— people who are willing to be vulnerable and who believe in their self-worth. They offered examples of situations where they made mistakes or didn’t show up as their best selves, but rather than pointing out how they could and should have done better, they explained that, while falling short, their intentions were good and they were trying.
In short, Brown realized that the people who were willing to extend grace (my language) to their fellow human beings–and to themselves–seemed happier, better adjusted and wholehearted. It almost didn’t matter whether people really were doing their best–treating them as if they were, deciding to view life that way, led to better outcomes. By contrast:
Self-righteousness starts with the belief that I’m better than other people, and it always ends with me being my very worst self and thinking, I’m not good enough.
Now, Brown is clear that just because people may be doing their best doesn’t mean you must let them walk all over you. You need a combination of boundaries, integrity and generosity (what she calls living BIG) in order to deal with people whose “best” is in some way harmful to you. Remember when I said she was feeling resentful about having been guilted into doing this conference in the first place? She set herself up for the self-righteous loop she got stuck in by not practicing self-care, by not setting good boundaries.
This chapter spoke to me because like Brené Brown I’m a recovering perfectionist, and perfectionists are all about the Not Good Enough that then gets projected onto everyone else. But I’ve also been struck by how much this dynamic is reflected in how we treat one another these days, particularly online. Since reading this chapter, I’ve realized that virtually every snarky, vicious, graceless comment can be traced to this same self-righteousness. I refuse to give the negativity a signal boost, but look for yourself.
It makes me wonder, are these Judgy Judgersons as pinched and self-righteous in real life, with their spouses and children and coworkers and aging parents, or have they found a convenient outlet for their negativity? After all, if all you have is a name and a thumbnail, you can project all kinds of evil intent on them.
The good news is, if self-righteousness can get you into a death spiral of “I’m not good enough, nobody’s good enough,” then whole-heartedness can get you into a “life spiral.” (I just made that term up.) But making a conscious decision to give people the benefit of the doubt helps us treat ourselves more graciously, which then extends back to others, and on and on in a positive way.
I’ve been excited for a while about Jennifer Garrison Brownell’s book Swim Bike Run Breathe: How I Lost a Triathlon and Caught My Breath. Jennifer is a member of that strange tribe many of us have: people we’ve known for years, but only online. As pastor/bloggers, we were both charter members of RevGalBlogPals, and she also was kind enough to visit some friends of mine who found themselves in the hospital out in Portland. I can always count on her for wit and wisdom wrapped up in a beautiful turn of phrase, and she provided abundantly in her book.
Triathlons have interested and scared me for years. As a recreational runner I have 33% of the puzzle, but the other two hurdles always seemed insurmountable. I get seasick in the pool–the POOL–without the right food in my stomach. And cycling? I have a heavy hybrid bike and a mental block about the intricacies of shifting. (Growing up in flat-as-a-pancake Houston, gears were for recreational purposes only.) I admired my tri friends but never seriously considered joining their ranks.
Then I got injured, and biking and swimming became my only options. I am learning to make friends with my gear shift. And I can swim more than a mile without dizziness if I scarf down some good protein beforehand.
Meanwhile, Jennifer kindly sent me her book when it came out. I’d intended to contact her and beg for an advanced review copy and never got around to it. But of course, it came at the right time, when I’d just begun to think “Maybe I could do a triathlon.” But you don’t need to be interested in that event, or even any of the three sub-sports, to be drawn to this book. Because the book is about love and family; it’s about our beautiful finite bodies in all their strength and limitation; it’s about where we feel alive and where we feel fear, and the intersections between them.
Jennifer’s book has three interconnected threads:
a memoir of growing up, marrying a “seriously disabled man” (her words–Jeff has a form of muscular dystrophy), caring for him, and raising a son with him
a reflection on training for her first sprint triathlon–moving from someone who was never an athlete to taking on the training and mental conditioning required to prepare for a race
the experience of the triathlon itself.
Part of what’s neat about a triathlon is how different the three sports are. Jennifer exploits these differences by dividing her book into Swim, Ride and Run, weaving in pieces of her story that are connected to the skills required for each. Swim touches on the grace required to move with fluidity and let the water carry you. Ride explores the effort involved in keeping the up and down motion going no matter what–and what it means to coast sometimes. And Run is a practice of pure endurance–but also joy, because the finish line is in sight!
I dog-eared a lot of this book, which is a high compliment. I will often underline and star passages in books, but sometimes when a book feels especially precious to me, I can’t bring myself to sully it with a pen. This is one of those books.
Thank you for your words, Jennifer! And thanks in part to your story, I’m doing this on Mother’s Day.
I was skeptical when news first broke that Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s long-shelved novel, would be published. Lee has famously refused to let her manuscript, written before To Kill a Mockingbird, ever see the light of day.
Why did she change her mind? Did she change her mind? Given her advanced age and failing health, people are concerned she’s being taken advantage of. While I know people who can’t get past those concerns, I’m willing to proceed as a reader; an independent investigation involving two Alabama agencies has found her competent to make decisions about her work.
Now as the book is being released and reviews begin to surface, people are nervous for a new reason: apparently this novel does not measure up to the near-perfection of Mockingbird. And perhaps more heartbreakingly, neither does Atticus. It seems unthinkable that a man who would single-handedly take on the Alabama justice system on behalf of an innocent black man would attend a Klan meeting, or denounce the Supreme Court who decided Brown v. Board of Education.
But I say: bring it on.
Don’t get me wrong. I condemn the sin of racism, collectively, individually and in my own heart. I don’t relish an Atticus Finch who harbored paternalistic attitudes toward African-Americans in the South, or fretted that white schools would decline in quality once they were integrated.
I don’t delight in such a portrayal of Atticus, and will likely read the book with a sick feeling. But I suspect 2015 America needs this Atticus. I’ll be reading the book, not as a novel, but as an historical document. Go Set a Watchman gives us a peek into the mind of a young, inexperienced writer who would go on to write the Great American Novel. But more importantly, it will give us a glimpse into our own soul as a nation.
We’re struggling with a legacy of racism in this country. Condoleezza Rice, no bleeding-heart liberal herself, has called racism our country’s “birth defect.” The last several months have revealed to many of us what others have known their whole lives. So now what? We need to be talking to one another about this legacy. It’s painful and important.
But how? We can start by being honest about our history, ourselves, and yes, our heroes. The problem is, we like our heroes untouchable. We want Atticus to have “cute” flaws, like exasperation over Scout’s mischief, or a nervous fumbling with his eyeglasses as he shoots a rabid dog. But Atticus, at least as Harper Lee envisioned him, was a complicated, deeply conflicted man. How do his (considerable) blind spots in Watchman influence how we understand the whole character?
In my tradition, and many other Christian traditions, we recite the Apostles’ Creed, including the line, “I believe in the communion of saints.” What do we mean by that? Presbyterians don’t have an elaborate process of canonization like the Catholic Church. Rather we believe in a “great cloud of witnesses,” people who’ve gone before us who have shown us what it means to live faithfully and well. We call them saints, even though not a single one was perfect—indeed, many of them were deeply flawed indeed. And yet occasionally, they got it right. Beautifully, shiningly right.
Atticus may still be that kind of saint for us—not because of his racist tendencies in Watchman, but despite them. If it were not so, would there be hope for any of us? Our ability to succeed and thrive as a nation depends on imperfect people coming together around a painful conversation and movement: warts, flaws, biases and all. I have them; apparently Atticus had them too.
As Dorothy Day has said, “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.” An Atticus as preserved in Mockingbird is so perfect as to be unreachable. An Atticus whose story straddles the two novels is like us. And in aspiring to be our best selves, we can be like his best self. When the heavy machinery of upbringing and personal comfort and culture grinds against what’s right, we can stand up. We must.
Ten years ago this summer, RevGalBlogPals was born. It began as a loose collection of pastor-bloggers, mostly women, mostly pseudonymous (as was the custom at the time). We began, as all good things begin, with a T-shirt.
One of the nagging regrets of the last year is letting the deadline for submitting essays to this collection pass me by. Given my life at the time, it couldn’t be avoided, but after getting to know so many of these women over the past decade, I’m sad not to be a part of this project.
But having their words on my shelf is a gracious plenty.
This book is stuffed full of 50 essays on life, death, the unique gifts and challenges of being women in ministry, and the things they don’t teach in seminary. The essays are the perfect length for picking up the book and putting it down in the midst of a busy life, or reading one selection a week for an entire year, or revisiting them again and again, which I’m sure I’ll do.
I’m still making my way through the book, but there are so many favorites. Kathryn Johnston writes an incisive piece about double standards between men and women in leadership in the sharply-titled “Balls.” Later in the book, Stephanie Anthony’s essay provides a good companion to Kathryn’s as she describes the feeling of not being “one of the guys,” but realizing it’s important to be present for the little girls who are watching us step into leadership.
Deborah Lewis considers “The Weight of Ash” and the full depth of what is many pastors’ favorite church observances, Ash Wednesday. Rachel Hackenberg offers a couple different selections, but “A Prayer for the Plunger” was a personal favorite: “As you eavesdrop on the church council’s argument over new carpet, do you remember your debate with the Pleiades over the color of grass?”
Robin Craig’s essay on how she learned to preach the gospel following her son’s death by suicide is worth the price of the book. Patricia Raube’s glorious meditation about coming out to her congregation brought tears to my eyes. Love wins, people.
And editor Martha’s essays and section headings provide a gracious glue for the book. (I now “see” the RevGals logo in a whole new way!)
You know what though… those are my favorites right now. The beauty of a book like this is that favorites will change as life changes.
I hope you’ll check out this wonderful book. Congratulations to everyone who was a part of it.
The title refers to a catchphrase during that first miraculous Big Event, where many RevGals met for the first time: We made a thing and it’s awesome.