I have a confession: I love self-help books. It’s the subtitles that pull me in. Of course I want to let go of who I think I’m supposed to be and embrace who I am. I want to dare to live fully right where I am. I want to open my heart and mind so acts of love become habitual. And I’m currently working my way (for the second time) through someone else’s mid-faith crisis to seek consolation for my own restless soul.
Yes, I know. I try to order this type of book online, or I dart in and back out of the bookstore section with lowered eyes and hand the book over to the cashier without making eye contact. I find a tinge of weakness or desperation to the label “self-help.” Maybe this says more about me than the label. (If nothing else, it probably says why I like/need these books.)
I first encountered Lauren Winner at the Festival of Faith and Writing in 2004, when I was a high school junior with no intention of going to Calvin. (Ha.) I did, however, get good grades in English, so several of my classmates and I, along with our Calvin alumna English teacher, flew out to Grand Rapids for the weekend. I don’t remember why I chose to go to Lauren Winner’s session, but she was an engaging speaker, and I bought her memoir Girl Meets God immediately afterward.
Most recently, she penned Still, “notes on a mid-faith crisis,” during a dark period after her divorce. The book is structured loosely and broadly, not with chapters exactly, but more a series of standalone reflections chunked together. I’ve been reading them on my subway commute, and am paranoid that the person sitting or standing next to me will see a word like “God” or “church” or a quote from The Book of Common Prayer and judge me. Again, more about me than the material.
It’s heavy material for the subway, much of it. I only realized this about 33 percent in. It’s a book about the “spiritual middle,” the place that isn’t the eager (even naive) beginning nor the end of a spiritual journey; it’s about hard things, faith- and self-challenging walls we run up against, and how to muddle on around them. That’s not even true—it’s not a how-to. It’s a wrenchingly honest, sometimes bleak, narrative of a daily struggle with grace.
Winner says, “Some days I am not sure if my faith is riddled with doubt or whether, graciously, my doubt is riddled with faith. And yet I continue to live in the world the way a religious person lives in the world; I keep living in a world that I know to be enchanted, and not left alone. I doubt; I am uncertain; I am restless, prone to wander. And yet glimmers of holy keep interrupting my gaze.”
I am not using this book to get myself through a divorce. I don’t live in North Carolina, and I’m not an Episcopalian academic. My spiritual middle is different from the one described in Still. But I am in a middle—most people are, I think—and I need my gaze to be interrupted by holy glimmers. I need to stop. I need to think, or not think. I need to look—to “witness and keep track,” as Thomas Lynch told us. I need to get out of the little, crammed-full world of anxiety that my brain creates if I let it stay in a vacuum. I need to take a break from busyness. I need to breathe. I need help—although it’s not coming from myself.
Twice a day, every day, my subway train rises out of the ground like a behemoth and lumbers across the bridge. Most times, I look up from my Nook and stare down at the rippling East River, out at the window-pocked buildings, the taxis and livery cars zipping or crawling up the FDR. The light never hits the planes of the buildings in the same way.
I like this, this separation between the islands where I live and work, this time of noticing, this time where my mind can blank and I can just look.
One day last week, I hit my transfer well, and so it was still light as we rose up through Chinatown. The Brooklyn-side buildings glowed rosy as we pulled toward them. A little more than halfway, the sky behind lower Manhattan grew more and more neon until—
Low-hanging orange sun, Brooklyn Bridge, Lady Liberty with her torch held high.