Reviewed by Chuck Fager
Living out a faith is the substance of narrative theology, and memoir is one of the best forms through which we can glimpse this theology taking shape, with all the accompanying struggle and exaltation.
Two recent memoirs by Quaker women name and present this process superbly, and, as might be expected, very differently. They also, by the accident of timing, show the impact of history on faith and life.
The earlier of the two, A Stone Bridge North, by Kate Maloy is a pre-9-11 narrative. Unconsciously so, of course, though a note in the acknowledgments shows that Maloy finished her writing on the cusp of the attacks, and then decided, rightly I think, not to revise it to attempt to take in their impact. Her life, her story and the theology it is creating–these are not done, of course, and the shock of the attacks and their aftermath was sure to add important chapters. But her book and its story were finished, and she let them stand.
Kate Maloy’s story here, when put in a nutshell, sounds too good to be true:
A disenchanted, spiritually impoverished, professionally burned-out middle-aged Quaker woman kicks over the traces and sets out to make a new life. She escapes her arid marriage, quits a soul-deadening job, prepares to leave the big city and starts looking for a soulmate.
And damn if she doesn’t find him, via the internet no less, and on practically the first try. Soon she’s moving with him and her adloescent son Adam to a charmingly bucolic Vermont fixer-upper homestead, determined to garden, walk in the woods, write, knit, quilt, and generally live happily ever after. And as if all this weren’t enough, in the bargain she recovers her Quaker faith and settles gratefully into a rustic new Meeting, then proceeds to tell the whole tale in this handsome and often elegantly written memoir.
But this all has to be true, and not simply because no fiction editor would buy the plotline of A Stone Bridge North as a novel. I speak with a certain degree of knowledge here, because after reading the book, it wasn’t enough simply to review it; I had to check. So off and on ever since, I’ve been asking nosey email questions of her, the sum and substance of which are: You’re not kidding, right?? and How’s it going – really?
The result: no she wasn’t kidding. Sure, there were glitches, some minor, some major – among the minor were that the fixer-upper process took more time, labor and money than expected (surprise, surprise); paid writing gigs have sometimes been tough to come by; life in the new Friends Meeting occasionally turned out to be, well, a pain; there’s teenage angst to cope with – and did I mention Vermont’s ol’ Debbil Winter?
But the bulletins from the north had the ring of truth, which I suppose is what I was looking to hear, and part of what kept me putting more pressing business aside to go on reading this book. That and her writing, which was often eloquent, but more often personal, and serious about her surprising spiritual renewal.
As ballast, there are occasional slips into predictable rhetoric – when she looks beyond the Green Mountains at the outside world, the standard National Public Radio Quaker cliches and commonplaces leap from her pen. But these were almost comforting in their familiarity, and she wisely keeps them short.
So this is a book for the bedsides of most of us, I think. For many, it can strengthen hope. I even bought an extra copy of A Stone Bridge North (almost unheard of among us cheapskate book reviewers who get most of our tomes for free) to send to a dear midlife F/friend who was also carving out a creative life in the North Woods, complete with everything except the soulmate: See, was the clumsy message; hang in there– it’ll happen. And indeed, it has since done so; though this woman opted to do her prospecting not on the internet but in the more familiar confines of Quaker summer gatherings.
Yet the book should be just as interesting to those whose lives are finally coming together: Amazing grace, how sweet is still the sound.
All that was the minor part. At last report, in the autumn of 2003, life had intervened in a major way: health problems had forced Kate and her husband to let go of their labor-intensive Vermont home and head west to his old haunts, in hopes of a friendlier climate – repeating, by the way, one of the oldest stories in Vermont history.
“I knew this book would be about miracles,” Maloy writes, “but I did not know that writing it would enrich my knowledge and experience of faith.” (ix)
But it is also valuable raw material for those who strive to make sense of this peculiar faith community. Memoir is a bearing witness, and Kate Maloy is often at her most eloquent when she speaks of her journey with (and against) Friends:
Conversing with God is difficult. Everything else must drop away. The voice within is faint and small and sometimes speaks in a language we don’t recognize. Our disbelief, our personal will, and our habits of literal mind are powerful. Distraction insists, intrudes–grabs us by the face the way Adam did at two if I tried to talk to someone else while holding him on my hip. Sometimes that distraction can lead us to exactly what we seek; sometimes it impedes. How to know?
These puzzles are why a reliance on the light in ourselves and others is not an invitation to invent our own religion but a strenuous discipline forged in the midst of human uncertainty, pettiness, and judgments. It is tempting to resist the truth when it is delivered by someone whose personality rankles or opinions offend. It is difficult to know when a prompting is from God and not an expression of ego, denial, selfishness, or sanctimony, in the self or other people. The ministry of Friends ranges widely in content and quality. It can be self-serving, shallow, and annoying, or it can be wise and moving. The same ministry that changes one listener’s whole world view can seem tedious or self-evident to another.
I did not understand any of this when I first began attending Friends Meetings, which I did sporadically in the years after I learned about Friends . . . . I went to Meetings in Toronto, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and in Berkeley and San Francisco before landing in Pittsburgh for two decades. Now and then I would see the oddest behavior. . . .
In various Meetings I attended, I knew there were half-mad people, homeless people, angry people, lonely people, childish people. I came to see that because Quakers were known for tolerance, simplicity, social action, and caring, they attracted waifs and refugees from the fringes of American culture and a few others. This was the obvious difficulty–dealing compassionately with disruptive or deeply needy people without also disturbing the foundation of a Meeting, its silences, its testimonies, its processes.
Less obvious to me, before I joined Pittsburgh Meeting and came to know it over many years, was how hard it could be to deal with stable, responsible. well-established Friends. Often, in Pittsburgh and elsewhere. I have heard Friends use Meeting for Worship as their soapboxes and sounding boards. I have beard longtime Quakers defiantly ramble on with self-indulgent complaints just because they wanted to create a disturbance. I have seen one or two people hold up a decision in Meeting for Business just because they felt resentment or needed to exert their influence, knowing no action could be taken without the necessary unity.
In other words, I have seen Friends be just as selfish and cantankerous as any other group of human beings.
I have also seen tenderness and compassionate action carried out quietly and competently, without calling attention to itself. I have seen wounds healed, have heard inspired ministry delivered by some of the half-mad and injured, have been moved to tears by simple naked truths spoken by a woman in her eighties, afraid to die. I have learned that a danced, ranted, sung, or babbled message can be true and profound even if I can’t understand it. I know I have heard messages from God, some straightforward and others in code. I know I have felt the presence of God when the silence has descended and have found in my own spirit a calm intensity that is not of this world.
Hearing what other Friends are led to say, and seeing the examples set by them–both good and bad–is a kind of spiritual apprenticeship through which the powers of discernment can grow. Above all, group worship draws upon the light of everyone present, illuminating more truth, love, and wisdom than one person’s share of the light can ever do. Time and again I experience directly and with poignant power the fact that we are all part of the same larger, timeless whole. Together we embody the truth. (141-43)
Kate Maloy was greatly favored, in the old Quaker term, to be able to write this in a time of what was called peace. A Stone Bridge North would have been utterly different, I suspect, if she had started it after Ninth Month of 2001 – if, indeed, she could have written it at all. This fact does not lessen its value, but urges the reader forward to the second, newer book, Driving By Moonlight to turn that corner and see where it can lead.
Kristin Henderson begins with the image of the Twin Towers blasted on her brain, and the smoke of the damaged Pentagon literally in her nostrils.
And where Maloy had the luxury of tranquility in which to write, for Henderson the traumas of that awful day are not just crushing background, but embody a direct threat to all that she holds most dear: as the book opens, her husband Frank, a Marine chaplain, leaves for Afghanistan, sailing into harm’s way.
This tension, in her skillful hands, produces a book that ought to come with a warning label: Do NOT start reading it when you have a lot of urgent work to do. It was very hard to put down, and I stayed up way too late (even for me) over several nights to finish it.
While Driving By Moonlight can be called a memoir, and is, as she says, “a true story – both true and a story,” it’s also a quintessential “road book,” built around an 8000-mile trip she made across the country and back in a Corvette with her dog Rosie, right after 9/11.
But of course, any such journey is also an archetypal Quest, and a Spiritual Pilgrimage, and so here. Interwoven in its pages are three major themes, each richly and achingly detailed:
Her marriage, which is a good one, but with very serious strains–among them:
Her consuming lust to have a child, which only intensifies through eight years of excruciating struggles with infertility.
Her Quakerism, which is of what could be called an uncomfortably liberal variety. It encompasses devotion to and questions about the Society. The questions swirl around the peace testimony after the Twin Towers, but extend to the “whole Christian thing.” On the one hand, Henderson abhors war; but she is now unsure if it can or should be avoided.
Driving the Corvette through Washington on the first leg of her trip, the issue takes the shape of a remembered conversation with her seven year-old niece Annali about the attacks:
“In between telling me which card to play, Annali asked, “Did you hear about the big traffic jam up there?”
“Where?” I asked, frowning at my inscrutable hand of cards.
“In Washington and New York. They had really big traffic jams. People had to walk home. They even had to walk across the bridges, I saw pictures. They had to walk for miles.”
I put down my hand. I said carefully, “You know what caused those traffic jams, don’t you, Annali?”
“Oh yeah, the bad people crashed planes into the buildings. But then there was a traffic jam, a really big one.
She’s had firsthand experience with traffic jams; she’s sat in them herself. So have I. Traffic jams we can understand.
But this. I stare at that smoking gash as I go by.
Ten years ago, when I came back from protesting the Gulf War before it happened, I said to Frank, “All wars can be prevented.”
“Well, what do you do once bad guys are out of control?” Prank had asked. “Saddam’s over there killing innocent Kuwaitis, right now.”
“Because we were short-sighted and self-serving.”
“So you’re saying we just have to roll over and take the consequences?”
I gave a philosophical shrug. “Maybe if we had to take the consequences of our mistakes more often we’d work harder to avoid them.”
Easy for me to say. I wasn’t a Kuwaiti, watching invaders kill my children.
I still believe all wars can be prevented, but now, staring at those consequences so much closer to home, a philosophical shrug eludes me. The black hole in the Pentagon sucks me in as I drive by, and I stare at it as if it’s a question that demands an answer. I cannot stop staring till the concrete embankment rises and it’s gone. Then I fly out onto the bridge above the sparkling Potomac River and into the city. The Pentagon and its demanding, confusing black hole are behind me. (29)
On the other side, she’s worn Christian orthodoxy “as long as she canst,” but even before the war intrudes, has found belief in it slipping away from her, no matter how hard she tries to hold on, and even as she becomes more firmly settled as a Quaker. The result is theology as intense personal drama.
From Lutheran doctrine she’s moving steadily in what some would call a “universalist” direction:
All the great religions come layered with doctrines that make intellectual conjectures about why we’re here. Directly or indirectly they all claim they’re right and everyone else is wrong. The newer they are the more strenuously they make the claim. That smacks of human nature to me. Seeing the world as us versus them is a human weakness.
But underneath the conflicting layers of doctrinal debate there’s another layer. When I peer closely, I see the same things underlying all of them–simple, generalized Truths about love, and compassion, and doing unto others. Those Truths have the whiff of God about them.
It’s a vague, mushy faith I’ve settled into. But it is a faith. . . .
For me, Christianity is a way, not a doctrine. Christian monks and nuns who model their lives most closely on Jesus’ humility, charity, generosity, gentleness, and integrity look pretty much like the monk and nun equivalents of other mainstream religious ways. They’re all on different roads leading to the same mystical center, because mystical experience is very much the same across religions, from the singing in tongues of born-again Christians, to the trancelike dancing of Muslim dervishes, to the intense stillness of Zen Buddhists, to the gentle stillness of Quakers.
I happen to be most comfortable with the Christian way of seeking, but that’s an accident of birth. If I’d been born in a Hindu or Muslim land, I doubt the Christian Gospel would appeal to me. That means my salvation would have depended on the random event of my birth, or worse, the preordination of a hard-ass God I’m not interested in getting close to. Heaven by lottery is not something I care to believe in. That would be a waste of faith. (199-200)
All this circles back to her marriage, because her husband came to the Marines from a career as a devoutly believing Lutheran minister. They met and courted in church. He has accepted her Quaker connection, but has counted on their always having a devotion to Jesus Christ as divine savior in common. But, Henderson writes,
I had long ago decided I couldn’t believe God would condemn people to eternal separation from God just because they believed in the wrong religion. If I were God, I could never do such an intolerant thing, and God’s love had to be exponentially bigger than mine. What had drawn me to Frank’s Lutheranism was its built-in ambiguity–the idea that we were all saved by the unconditional love of Jesus, who was God, and that only if people actively rejected Jesus would they be separated from God. Even if people appeared to reject Jesus, only God knew what was really in their hearts, so who were we to say who was saved and who was not?
But now I had to ask myself, why would God come up with an exclusive system for getting to heaven, like faith in Jesus, if that meant God then had to go to all the trouble of making exceptions for most of the rest of the world? And another thing: Why would God play favorites if God was the perfect parent?
I felt a little unnerved just thinking like that, as if I might be struck by lightning. Working beside Frank as we installed an organizer in our bedroom closet, a complete system of tidy racks and shelves, all straight lines and square corners, I longed to reach out to him for comfort . . . .
I’d seen him patiently work through the big questions with other doubters, but I wasn’t just any doubter. I handed him the drill. I was his life partner, and just as I had joined with him expecting one day to share our children, he had joined with me expecting to share our faith for all our days. Frank believed in a God who loved him enough to die for him. That faith was his reason for being. It had given him hope back when bad luck left him sick and without the military career he’d expected. It had guided every choice he’d made in his life, including his choice to marry me.
#No matter how much I wanted to talk about it with him, I didn’t dare. (174-76)
And when she finally does confess, her apprehensions prove well-founded:
His voice shot raw and hard across the kitchen. “The idea that God Almighty loved me enough that God would humble God’s self to become a human being named Jesus and suffer and die for me, out of love for me, who is so unworthy. . . that’s, like you know, the foundation of everything for me–my career, my spiritual life and, I thought, my marriage.”
Rosie dropped the toy and clicked quickly away again.
“If we don’t share that, we share nothing.”
. . . He turned his face away. I tried to soften my voice. “Look, all I know is, even as I struggle with the divinity of Jesus, even as I lean away from that teaching, my spiritual life has become richer, more meaning- ful, more reflective of who I am. Truer.”
. . . “How long have you felt this way?”
I didn’t look up. “Years.”
“It makes me feel like you’re not the person I thought you were. It’s as if you told me you’re having an affair.” He walked past me to the front door, picked up his keys, and went out. (200-201)
They get through this, at least for the moment, and Frank heads for Afghanistan on a troopship as his wife heads west in the Corvette. She is left to agonize across the miles both about his personal fate and about how his acting on his faith connects with her efforts to understand and act on hers.
This could be soap opera material, but there’s not a hint of bathos here: Henderson can write, sentences and paragraphs that are sharp and often mordantly funny, and sentimentality does not seem a part of her vocabulary.
While most Friends will have some personal issues that differ from hers, there will be parallels and overlaps for most of us, too. Few liberal Friends may have close relatives in combat (her husband has since done a tour in Iraq as well, and may again), but have any of us not agonized over whatever commitment we felt to the peace testimony in the past two years?
And, of course, what about Jesus?
But while the specifics of making sense of life come to each of us in their own way, the project is a common task, and here Henderson can be both hilarious and astringently insightful.
“When we started out,” she writes, “both Frank and I believed God had a plan for us. Since then nothing has gone according to plan.”(10)
Driving By Moonlight really ought to be an Oprah bestseller; but I suspect it won’t make the cut: it’s too real and painful in too many places. That’s not a criticism in my book, but a truth of marketing. Famine relief groups know they can’t raise money using pictures of children who are actually starving; American readers recoil from such realistic images, turn away in denial.
Driving By Moonlight is real Quaker truth-speaking, something all-too rare among Friends (as everywhere else), and would deserve to be cherished for that witness alone. Fortunately there is more here to make it memorable reading. Much more.
Both these books, in fact, are memorable examples of how salvation is being worked out, more calmly at the time for Kate Maloy, and “in fear and trembling,” Philippians 2:12 for Henderson. When formally trained theologians undertake to make sense of American liberal Quakerism in these hinge years, these books will be among their prime sources — or will be if they are serious about the work.
*A Stone Bridge North, Kate Maloy. Counterpoint,
Washington DC: 336 pages.
Driving By Moonlight, Kristin Henderson. Seal Press, New York: 302 pages.