Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Still Reading Lauren Winner

My favorite chapter in Lauren Winner’s new book, Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis, comes near the end, a chapter she calls “Middle Tint.” Here she describes the painter’s palette, how according to nineteenth-century art critic John Ruskin, middle tint comprises most of an artist’s painting.

Lauren compares the miles of ordinary colors in a painting to the life of faithfulness, in effect saying that most of our lives are lived in the gray tones, again quoting Ruskin, with only touches of “extreme lights and extreme darks, isolated and sharp, so that the eye goes to them directly, and feels them to be key-notes of the whole composition.”

This comparison reassures her, as well as her readers, that midlife grays are as necessary to a vital and vibrant spiritual life as the early exuberance that she captured so well in Girl Meets God. In other words, one must persevere through the dreary, drab and difficult.

I took a weeklong memoir workshop Lauren taught last summer, and she read this chapter, “Middle Tint,” at an evening session where all participants at The Glen in Santa Fe had gathered to hear her speak. She read like a performer, holding an advance copy of her book, switching hands, pacing and making eye contact with the audience, smiling, pausing, dramatic; she wore a plain black knit dress with cowboy boots, a scarf and dangly earrings—seeking approval while hoping not to need any.

Sitting to Lauren’s left at a table in the classroom each morning from nine to noon, I felt aware of her distraction, the way she seemed both engaged and detached, excited and wary, perhaps a bit self-conscious because this book chronicles a different chapter of her life, not the one she expected to live out as a Christian. She played with her hair, taking it down, twisting it, putting it back in a ponytail holder, again and again as she listened or conversed, trying to encourage and critique. 

She wore sleeveless dresses that exposed her unshaved underarms (something only a person who does shave under her arms would note), adding to her quirkiness, originality, diffidence. Since the first time I had met her at a seminar in Orlando in 2008, she had gone through a divorce, and her mother had died, and she was waiting for this book to come out in January. Both fearful and full of faith, I told myself, aren’t we all?

Lauren Winner was well prepared for the workshop and attentive to each person’s manuscript, guiding class members’ comments with finesse. In a hand-written note at the end of the week, she encouraged me to finish my memoir. I wonder what she said to the other people in the class. That she had taken the time to write each of us, 15 in all, said a lot. Lauren teaches at Duke Divinity School, an author and a speaker whose voice has resonance in a culture where a good girl is hard to find.

Writing this blog led me to a review of her book in Christianity Today, which that writer titled "Girl Meets Grace." Legalists will not like this take, but that article notes that Lauren Winner's continued participation with the body of Christ, i.e. going to church when she doesn't feel like it, "suggest[s] that liturgical churches may provide a stronger antidote for doubting Christians than praise choruses and video sermon illustrations."

I like her. I like reading her books. I like the way she weaves in and out of her doubts, like a car in traffic on the freeway. She knows where she’s going with her arguments and illustrations, accommodating passengers willing to take a ride on the Reading. She struggles with her faith and doubts, the way one might consider which route to take home, but Lauren does this on the page.

“I think on paper.” Don’t all writers?

Most of all, I like knowing that she’s a real person, confronting real problems and not wanting to sound expert at solving other people’s problems when she has learned how hard it is to tackle her own. She said, “It turns out that the Christian story is a good story in which to learn to fail.”

And my favorite quote, “ … I am a small character in a story that is always fundamentally about God.”

Always. Story. God. I think we’re on the same page.