Saturday, January 22, 2011

Remembering the Bone House

Nancy Mairs isn't the most prolific writer, and it would be easy for me to lose sight of her. It helps that a few of her books sit on my shelves near the door at about eye level, so I notice them now and then. She doesn't write bestsellers, so I am less likely to find her latest books prominently displayed in the bookstores. And as I get older, time goes by quickly, so it only recently occurred to me that I should check to see if she had published anything lately -- or even if she's still alive, since she's in her late 60s now. Even if she didn't have multiple sclerosis, that's an age where people start falling by the wayside if you don't watch them closely.

In fact Mairs has published two books in the past decade: A Troubled Guest: Life and Death Stories (Beacon, 2001) and A Dynamic God: Living an Unconventional Catholic Faith (Beacon, 2007). That's not bad for someone who's clinically depressed and needs a powered wheelchair to get around. I doubt I'd be as productive in Mairs' seat. But she's one of the writers I turn to, ambivalently, for a truthful account of what it's like to be waist-high in the world (the title of another one of her books), to be dependent on others, to be confined.
Oh I hate the limitations. There are specific parts of limitations that I especially hate. I was always a walker, and I just miss being able to get up and take off and walk somewhere. Probably the greatest source of pain has been that I can't be with my grandchildren the way I want to be. You know, I can sit and look at them, but I can't pick them up, I can't cuddle them, I can't run around after them, I can't take care of them.
May Sarton was another writer I looked to for the same kind of reporting. In her later years and especially after her first stroke, Sarton had to learn to accept help from other people; she wrote about her experiences with considerable honesty. Some young, able-bodied people prefer not to think about what they will face as they get older. Forewarned is forearmed: I at least wanted to hear from people who'd been there before me. Sarton was one of the first I discovered; Mairs has stayed with me longer. Her body may be failing, but her mind is still vigorous, and she writes a stark prose that I admire and envy. You can get a taste of it just from the title of her memoir, Remembering the Bone House, "bone house" (from the Anglo-Saxon banhus, Mairs says) being a metaphor for the human body.

A Troubled Guest turns out to be essays on death and the experience of mortality -- knowing, with varying degrees of certainty, that one's body is not going to last forever, and especially beginning to feel (as opposed to mere intellectual knowing) that its days are numbered. Thankfully, Mairs's Catholicism (she converted as an adult) isn't too intrusive, and she's a heterodox Catholic indeed: in bygone days she'd have been severely punished and possibly excommunicated for the kinds of opinions she expresses here. It appears from what she writes in A Troubled Guest that she was drawn to Catholicism by the liturgy and by the fellowship she found in the particular assembly she joined and still belongs to. She has little respect for hierarchical authority and considers it her duty as a Christian to work through important issues herself, rather than let the Church or anyone else tell her what to think about them. Of course, she is pretty sure that God agrees with her. I think that's why I'm not likely ever to become a religious believer: I don't want that kind of egoistic certainty.

As I say, though, her religion mostly isn't intrusive. I'm bothered more by some wild generalizations she makes in A Troubled Guest about "modern" times. For example, on page 70 she writes that she likes living in a house that shows signs of having been lived in by others before her. I agree, but:
One of the consequences of the modern habit of constructing the cosmos in relation to the personal self is that we too readily believe that entities spring into being for our use, exist as long as we need them, and vanish at our departure. The [sketch of an] owl [tacked to a bulletin board by her back door] reminds me that my house is indifferent to my occupancy, having harbored one tenant after another for sixty-five years.
I don't see anything "modern" in "constructing the cosmos in relation to the personal self" -- what would Mairs call the ancient (but still current) habit of seeing the earth as the center of the universe, with all celestial bodies revolving around it, and the first human beings just coincidentally being the ancestors of one's own tribe? How about the New Testament belief that the universe was created and all history directed to achieve its climax in the death and resurrection of Jesus, so that his followers could be glorified and judge the angels? What would arguably qualify as "modern" is the modern scientific view of a universe vaster and older than we can grasp, with no special status attached to our planet and us. But many people (including many scientists) still believe in a developmental timeline culminating in themselves.

On the very first page, she writes:
Although suffering is a state often considered scandalous in modern society, a mark of illness to be cured or a moral deviance to be cured or a moral deviance to be corrected, from a spiritual perspective it is simply an element in the human condition, to be neither courted nor combated.
I simply won't let Mairs have this, even if she distinguishes between "spiritual" and "religious." From the spiritual perspective of the New Testament, suffering is a consequence of sin, which will end when sin is conquered or purged. (At the same time, the New Testament also views suffering as a mark of special distinction: God has chosen you to suffer, for whom the Lord loveth he chastiseth. I don't believe that Mairs is unaware of this theme.) What Paul called "this body of death" was a husk to be shed like a snakeskin so that the pure body of spirit could be set free. The people who flocked to Jesus to be healed weren't "modern", and they knew better than to think that suffering was "a neutral element in the human condition," any more than death was. And Jesus healed them, going so far as to tell the paralytic he healed in Mark 2 that his sins were forgiven. Later Christians "courted" suffering, as Jesus himself did according to the gospels, from martyrdom to mortification of the corruptible flesh; whether they were spiritual or not isn't for me to say. The Bible doesn't have a single answer to the question of suffering, any more than "modern society" does. The Buddha, for whom the problem of suffering was central (six centuries or so before Jesus), saw it as a lamentable element in the human condition, a consequence of craving, to be "combated" by the cessation of craving. I don't think atheism has a single account of suffering either, but my own is closer to Mairs's: it's an element of the human condition, not to be either celebrated or derided, probably ineradicable but certainly to be combated.

I feel the same way about death. Some people have talked of achieving a well-rounded life, as though it were a story with a beginning, middle, and end, with suspense and foreshadowing. But like any other story, you only can construct a narrative arc after you know how it ended. There's a tension between the reality that everybody dies and the the reality that we mostly can't know when or how we will die. We only die once, as Stephen Vizinczey wrote, but we are mortal all the time. Different people react to these realities in different ways, but whether we deal with them well or badly, the "story" always ends with death.

When she writes about mourning and grieving, the same difficulty arises. Supposedly in olden times people knew how to mourn, but nowadays we go to grief counselors -- though she describes present-day memorial services involving modern people who seem to be able to grieve and mourn without professional guidance, and I don't believe that people in the past or in 'traditional' societies were any more uniform in their responses to loss than we are now. Prescribed forms -- wailing by the corpse for days, trying to crawl into the coffin or the grave (click on CC for English subtitles) with the deceased, wearing deep mourning for a year, etc. -- work for many people, but probably constrain others and make them feel worse.

Despite these lapses, which don't really have much importance in what she has to say, A Troubled Guest gave me a lot, as all of Mairs's writing has done. (I think it's time for me to begin rereading her previous books.) It's not "spirituality" but materiality that she writes about best: the bodies of human beings and our animal companions in strength and weakness, the bone house and the wooden frame house with the sketch of an owl left there by a previous tenant. This is what we need to come to terms with: ourselves as bodies, living and dying, thriving and failing, generous and selfish, vulnerable and inevitably mortal. Nancy Mairs has helped me engage that enterprise as well as any writer has.