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.
After graduating with an English degree, Amy (Allen) Frieson (’10) moved to New York City and spent several exhilarating years working in children’s book publishing. Now, she works as a career consultant and has much more time for writing, reading, wandering the city, cooking non-vegetarian meals (a new thing), dreaming about apartment renovations, and leading worship along with her husband at their NYC CRC.