Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Reading: It's all Kathleen Norris's fault

There I was cruising along with only the usual complaints --- sore shoulders after all that shredding and lifting, mild depression (or so I thought) brought on by up close and personal encounters with the results of 30-plus accumulative years in north Iowa. Then I started reading Kathleen Norris's latest and found out I was under assault by the demon acedia.

It's been a little like spending time with "The Handy Home Guide to What Ails You." Read about a disease and you start to develop it.

I'm not even going to try to define acedia. Read the book or Google the word, obscure until quite recently. No more. As of 6 a.m. today "acedia" typed into the search slot generated 253,000 hits.

Down home we used to call it "becalmed," a seafaring reference in this land of prairie schooners. The wind goes out of your sails in sight of land and you're out of drinking water. But instead of grabbing the oars and propelling youself to shore to get a drink, you discover you don't care. So you just lay there in the sun, dehydrating --- reading a paperback to divert yourself maybe, daydreaming about what you'll pick up at Wal-Mart to amuse yourself, providing someone comes along to save you or the wind kicks up again (or the economy reignites).

Norris argues in "Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks and a Writer's Life" (Riverhead Books, 2008) that this demon detected and detailed more than a thousand years ago by Christian monastics, and distinct from although related to depression, is responsible for many of our personal and societal ills of the spirit.


I've been a fan of Norris, who defines herself principally as a poet, since publication in 1993 of the book that brought her bigtime into the public eye: "Dakota: A Spiritual Geography." It's still my favorite --- a lyrical, graceful love letter to the high and arid plains of the Dakotas, a perceptive accounting of factors that shape the people who live there (insights that can be extended to most of us who live and think rural route) and a moving tribute to the Benedictine traditions she incorporated into the life of her backslidden Protestant self to force it into spiritual flower.

"The Cloister Walk" followed, as did "The Virgin of Bennington," "Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith" and others.

This is by far her darkest and densest book and some, expecting what she's best known for --- detecting and illumininating the sacred in the everyday --- have been nonplussed by it. She is quite frank here about the devils that have plagued her everyday life and that of her late husband, poet David Dwyer, and the story of his death is woven into the narrative.

Some have not liked it at all --- The New York Times reviewer, for example, a literary nonentity who wasted many words demonstrating how clever she was while giving a fairly clear picture of her aspirations but offering very few insights into the book she was reviewing.

I liked "Acedia & Me" and continue to think Norris is one of the most useful and masterful souls out there addressing matters of the spirit --- in spite of the spiritual hypochondria her words sometimes can lead to. I'll come back to it and read it again, more carefully and more thoughtfully this time. That's the highest praise I can give a book.

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