01 December 2010

The Spiral Staircase by Karen Armstrong

I hope you've all had a wonderful Thanksgiving.  Mine included seeing a dear long-distance friend and her brother last minute and a snowy cabin retreat with two other couples in Big Bear.  It was one of those weekends that restore you and by Monday when you have to be back at work, you feel like a new person and you wonder what happened and how and when you try and trace it back, the line gets quickly lost in the beautiful friendships and books that steeped your weekend.  And somehow it doesn't matter how it happened.  It just did.  And you're grateful.

For Thanksgiving, we had dinner at my parents' house as usual and I made a couple of dishes that were a first for me--bourbon pecan pie and butternut squash and cranberry farro salad.  I've been curious about farro for over a year now because I kept seeing it pop up in food blogs but had no idea what the raw form looked like and where to buy it.  I was able to guess correctly at my amazing local Persian supermarket, Wholesome Choice, that packages of Unspelted Wheat were indeed farro.  Farro is chewy and moist and makes a subtle pop in your mouth when you bite down on the grains.

It's also been a pleasure to get feedback on the Chickpea Tomato Stew post and to hear that it has given my readers rapturous kitchen pleasure.  Getting that kind of feedback almost makes me want to be a dedicated food blogger. I can see how bringing pleasure into people's lives with your recipes can really be gratifying and delightful.

But back to the title at hand: Karen Armstrong's memoir, The Spiral Staircase.  Last week, a jazz musician that I play with mentioned that he was reading the book, and I became immediately intrigued.  An ex-nun losing God, discovering she has epilepsy, finding a career as a writer, and writing about religion?  Come to mama.

I checked out the book at my local library and took it with me to Big Bear where it wasn't until the second day that I cracked it open and several pages later, I knew this book would change my life.  I was trying to tell J. why I was astonished by this book, and I kept saying things like, "It's as if she can describe my thought processes.  Her ability to articulate her loss of faith, her traumatic experiences with religion, the mental toll, the psychological aftermath--I feel as if I have found a kindred spirit, someone who understands what I've gone through and can find the exact words to describe it spot on."  J. nodded and said, "She's your interlocutor."

I won't go into all the details of the book and will leave that for you to experience if you choose.  But I wanted to share, really for my own sake, what this book gave me.

Courage:  I have been very well aware that for the last couple of months I have been living in the grips of fear and terror alternating with despair.  It sounds so dramatic I know but I was finding it very hard to have hope about my future and as my spiritual director would say, "You've been experiencing a lot of desolation."  My director said that intense desolation comes when you're trying to move forward in your life to something good and undergoing a transitional point.  My dear friend Andrea put it another way, "It gets really hard before it gets really good."  As I read The Spiral Staircase, I found my fears replaced with courage and strength, and I received the will to live and move forward. 

The conviction to make my own path: Karen Armstrong ascertains through not fitting in at the convent and not fitting in with secular life that really, she's not going to fit in anywhere and had better stop trying to conform her life to one path.  She decides that the only way is forward and it's going to be a completely different path from anyone else, and she might as well accept that.  I hadn't quite gotten to that point.  I was still mourning not having a normal predictable life.  And now I'm not.  Every morning, I think, I must make my own path, and this fills me with deep gratitude and courage.  It is liberating.

Self-acceptance and love: Self-acceptance is an ongoing process and it was incredibly refreshing to read Karen's no-nonsense British style of accepting what is and what isn't.  She accepted her weaknesses, her dashed dreams, her likes and dislikes, and her intolerance of authoritarian control.  She accepted that as horrible as her experience in the convent had been, it had changed her and shaped her and she needed to accept that it had made her who she was at the present.  I feel invited to accept all of my quirks and strong feelings and weaknesses instead of wondering if I should change or if something is wrong with me.  The wisdom of age is that you have the perspective to see that in all due time, grace and the needed changes do come but it will never be through coercion or because you're supposed to.

It's been a long time since a book has given something back to me, and I'm looking forward to plunging into more reading, finding more interlocutors, and living a more courageous life.


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