Squinting Through This Latent, Bleak Obscurity with Scott Cairns

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photo by Christopher Campbell via Unsplash

“Just now, we squint to see the Image through

this latent, bleak obscurity.  One day, we’ll see the Image—

as Himself—gleaming from each face.

Just now, I puzzle through a range

of incoherencies; but on that day,

the scattered fragments will cohere.”

If you don’t recognize 1 Corinthians 13 in this translation, perhaps that good.  Our hearing of that passage in the context of many a moony marriage ceremony has ruined our ears.  Eros has something to do with God, but Paul was after so much more.

51m8Rds-bhL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_The poet Scott Cairns gets that.  He has spent a career exploring the mystical dimensions of love in its human and divine expressions, sometimes in the hideaway Orthodox monasteries that lure adventurous pilgrims and usually in the company of dusty Greek texts.  When he translates the ancients, as he does in the collection Love’s Immensity: Mystics on the Endless Life [Paraclete Press, 2007], he is dipping his hand into an deep current of faith and prayer.  The result is verse, poetry at its best, that takes texts from Christian history that many consider impenetrable and renders them luminous.

Take this body- and life-affirming fragment from Irenaeus:

“The tender flesh itself

will be found one day

—quite surprisingly—

to be capable of receiving,

and yes, full

capable of embracing

the searing energies of God.

Go figure.  Fear not.” (5)

Or a meditation on ‘His Image Recovered’ by Athanasius:

“Here, belovéd numbskulls, is a little picture: You gather,

one presumes, what must be done when a portrait on a panel

becomes obscured—maybe even lost—to external stain.

The artist does not discard the panel, though the subject must return

to sit for it again, whereupon the likeness is etched once more upon

the same material.  As He tells us in the Gospel, I came

to seek and to save that which was lost—our faces, say.” (15)

But don’t expect all roads to lead to clarity or enlightenment.  Cairns invites us to pause with words as well.  One word he leaves untranslated when it arises—nous.  He explains in the introduction that “it is the center of the human person, where mind and matter meet most profoundly, and where the human person is mystically united to others and to God.” (xiii-xiv)

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Scott Cairns

The nous is the place from which Cairns has been seeking to live and he finds good companions in this volume.  You would expect the passionate, hot-blooded saints like Gregory of Nyssa, Catherine of Siena, Richard Rolle of Hampole, Julian of Norwich, and Thérèse of Lisieux.  But Cairns mines the works of the more cool-headed and detached as well — Basil the Great, Meister Eckhart, and Gertrude of Helfta.  Besides learning some great names, the reader is likely to be seduced into seeking out more from the wealth of Christian tradition.

Love’s Immensity has been sitting with my morning reading for a couple of years now.  I’m returning it to the shelf, but I expect it to be back.  Beauty never really fades from memory.  Nor does true love as Paul would have it:

“In all of this, both now and ever,

faith and hope and love abide, these

sacred three, but the greatest of these (you surely

must have guessed) is love.” (4)

How to Part Ways With Gadites: A Review of Olu Brown’s New Book

imgaeprofileWhen Olu Brown imagines the conversation between Moses and the leaders of the tribes of Reuben and Gad, it’s a poignant scene.  These two tribes, who had traveled through the wilderness on the promise of a new land, were stopping short of the goal, requesting to remain behind as Israel moved on across the Jordan.

“Moses looked at the two tribal leaders with tear-filled eyes and a scratchy throat and said, ‘Goodbye.’  In all the years of his leadership, this was one of the most trying farewells for him despite it being a simple combination of two words, good and bye.  The more he thought about these words individually, the more conflicted he became on the inside.  How can a ‘bye’ be good?” (40)

Leadership Directions from Moses: On the Way to a Promised Land [Abingdon, 2017] is the rare leadership book that deals with the pain of loss.  Olu Brown is, by all accounts, a transformational pastor, leading the fast-growing, multi-cultural, multi-campus Impact Church in Atlanta.  But Brown knows that every journey, even toward fantastic church growth, has its grief.

Numbers 32 is not well-trodden turf for leadership lessons.  Moses’s decision to let the Gadites and Reubenites go their own way seems like a minor chapter in the story of the Israelites.  But Brown discovered it in his devotional reading and builds a case for its usefulness to leaders.

thumbLeaders will face times when their focus will be tested by those who hear different dreams and promises.  They will have to choose to confront these competing visions and make tough decisions.  They will have to have difficult conversations, more and more as they get closer to the goal.  When others choose a different promise, leaders will have to let them leave.  And they will have to face the consequent void as a space with the potential for new life.

“For most of my vocational life,” Brown says, “I have described these places and spaces as being empty and powerless.  However, I now know that what I was actually experiencing was the divine transformative dynamic of being available.” (66)

Every seasoned leader knows that sometimes subtraction is addition.  Olu Brown plumbs the depth of this truism with new eyes and a creative appropriation of an old story.  This slim book is not a compendium of lists and ‘to do’s for anxious pastors seeking a promised land.   It is an honest reflection on what you lose and gain along the way.

Shmoop on Huck Finn: Guest Blogger Jeanne Torrence Finley

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photo by Aaron Burden via Unsplash

My colleague Jeanne Torrence Finley has been writing about art and justice on her new blog Tell It Slant, (which you should definitely check out).  Today she joins my defense of Huck Finn by discovering an oddly-named defender of satire in literature:

When Alex wrote on February 18  (“In Praise of Uncomfortable Books:  Huck and Harper Revisited”) about the decision by the Duluth, Minnesota school district to remove Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird from required reading lists, I knew I couldn’t keep quiet.   As a writer and former English teacher, I don’t understand censorship of two of the most clearly anti-racists books in American literature.  Expanding the curricula of schools toward diversity is essential, but it doesn’t require banning books like Huckleberry Finn, which is all the more remarkable in its denunciation of racism because it was first published in the U.S. in 1885.

Earlier this month I had written an essay for the publication FaithLink* called “Religious Satire” and included Mark Twain as arguably the greatest American satirist.    In the research for my essay I couldn’t resist going to my favorite literature website, Shmoop, and watching the short videos on satire on their ShmoopTube (a.k.a. Where Monty Python Meets Your 10th Grade Teacher).  I found three videos about Huck Finn that I wish school board members in Duluth would watch:

“The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”  (2:33) informs viewers that Huck Finn has 220px-Huckleberry_Finn_bookbeen on the top 100 banned books in the U.S. for several decades and frequently makes the top 10.  The main reason for the novel’s notoriety among censors is that Mark Twain wrote in the vernacular and used offensive language–specifically the N-word–219 times.  Yes, bad boy Huck started out a racist.  He learned it from his culture but he changed.  His spiritual journey with the slave Jim parallels their journey down the Mississippi.  If racist readers commit to that journey with Jim and Huck, there’s a good chance they will change too.

“American Literature: Finn: Racism”  (5:44) makes the points that anti-racism is the point of this novel and that the novel takes on systemic racism.  It’s pretty amazing that a white man born in 1835 in Missouri understood that racism is systemic and had the ability to put readers inside a racist society so that they could feel the offense.  The video mentions that a publication of a version in 2011 replaced the N-word with the word “slave” and comments about that attempt to be less offensive:  “It’s supposed to be an ugly word. It’s supposed to make you uncomfortable.  Hiding it just waters down what Twain was trying to say.”

“American Literature: Huck Finn: Satire”  (5:38) explains satire in general, and the satire in Huck Finn in particular, as a way of exposing human foolishness and sin.  It’s a way of learning ethical thinking from a poor, pint-sized, foul-mouthed runaway whose heart and mind are open to change.

It’s a way of learning ethical thinking from a poor, pint-sized, foul-mouthed runaway whose heart and mind are open to change.

Shmoop Tube videos are designed for 10th graders by grad students in literature who know how to “speak” High School Student and their humor is commensurate with their audience’s level of maturity.  Nonetheless, I think adults who want to ban books, particularly Huck Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird could learn a thing or two here.

 *Though FaithLink is a curriculum available by subscription from Cokesbury, the essay portion of an issue is sometimes picked up and posted on the Ministry Matters site.

–Jeanne Torrence Finley

Observing Carson McCullers Day

og-carson-mccullers-3704February 19 – the 101st birthday of Carson McCullers, author of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and other Southern Gothic masterpieces.  Followers of this blog will know of my fascination with McCullers, one of the great writers about longing.  Or what the poet Nick Norwood has called “spiritual isolation.”  But there are moments when her characters break into a momentary sense of connection as in this passage of a man sharing his thoughts on love in a diner with a boy who has wandered in.  From McCullers’s short story, ‘A Tree.  A Rock.  A Cloud.’:

“When I laid myself down on a bed and tried to think about her my mind became a blank.  I couldn’t see her.  I would take out her pictures and look.  No good.  Nothing doing.  A blank.  Can you imagine it?”

…”But a sudden piece of glass on a sidewalk.  Or a nickel tune in a music box.  A shadow on a wall at night.  And I would remember.  It might happen in a street and I would cry or bang my head against a lamppost.  You follow me?”

“A piece of glass…” the boy said.

For a moment this day when our essential connection comes clear, O Lord, we pray.

In Praise of Uncomfortable Books: Huck & Harper Revisited

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photo by Chris Lawton via Unsplash

Huck and Harper are on the block again and I’m not comfortable with that.  Then again, I think it’s high time we all got uncomfortable.

In late 2016, as I was beginning Heartlands, I reflected on the controversy that was roiling Accomack County, Virginia where I live.  Only that’s not strictly accurate.  The decision by the local School Board to temporarily remove The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird for offensive, racialized language did lead to some protests here (and the eventual return of the books), but the headlines were largely elsewhere.  Accomack County was one more piece of evidence for blue America (and places far beyond) that red America was regressing into ignorance and intolerance.

Now I think that maybe the greater danger is that the country as a whole is regressing into head-in-the-sand comfort.

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The courthouse in Monroeville, Alabama

This week news came that the same two classics of American literature were being removed from the required reading lists in the schools of Duluth, Minnesota.  The decision was not the result of a particular complaint but from ongoing conversations that included the local NAACP chapter.

“We felt that we could still teach the same standards and expectations through other novels that didn’t require students to feel humiliated or marginalized by the use of racial slurs,” Michael Cary, the school district’s director of curriculum and instruction, told the Duluth News Tribune.

Stephan Witherspoon, president of the local NAACP said, “There are a lot more authors out there with better literature that can do the same thing that does not degrade our people.”

I don’t want to argue the case for Mark Twain’s Huck and Harper Lee’s Mockingbird, even though they stand among the best and most important books American culture has produced.  The de facto canon that American public schools have been using is too limited and could surely be strengthened by adding more diversity.  But to set aside Huck and Harper in favor of literature whose primary requirement is that it does not offend is a travesty.

Good literature is offensive precisely because, if it is authentic to experience, it goes directly to those places where humanity is exposed and revealed in all its flaws and triumphs.  Sure, let’s add Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave to the mix of required reading, but what they describe is degradation and it’s going to be no less offensive.  Put James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time on the list and there will still be squirming in the seats.

I get the distinction.  Twain and Lee are white authors who may be using the racialized language satirically but who certainly don’t bring the same lived history or context to it that African-American writers would.  But the characters they create—Huck, Jim, Scout, and Atticus—are the kind of people I want my children to meet in literature.  They are limited by their times and their prejudices, just like their authors, but they contain the beating heart of humanity and of the possibilities of expressing that humanity in this land.  They can’t be what they are, fully fleshed out, without the jarring reminders of what racism and the legacy of slavery has done to them and their language.

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Alex hanging out with Scout & Jem

Removing the books may seem like a good move to save children from the disturbance of knowing how such hurtful language has been used against people who look like them.  But isn’t empowerment, in part, helping students of every race deal with the world they live in everyday that includes such language and its history?  Is it better to let them struggle with such language in its cartoonish version in alt-right chat rooms and casual daily racism or to deal with it in books that give them other resources for understanding what’s going on?

Another danger of the move is that it threatens to remove another voice from our contemporary world that we still need—our ancestors.  Because they do not conform to our current standards of appropriate terminology and ethical behavior, they make us uneasy and we are tempted to hide them away as an inconvenient embarrassment.  But the dead do not stop speaking for all our attempts to silence them.  What motivated them and stirred them to both moral horrors and triumphs is still within us and we have much to learn from them, even as we expand the canon with voices that were suppressed in their own time.

So here’s a plea for some holy discomfort that should welcome the challenge of Huck and Harper.  Perhaps it’s a longing for schools to be a space where wise books and wise people can lead us out of our struggles to live into a common story.  Or maybe it’s just because I believe that we are already uncomfortable and will be despite such changes, so why discard some companions who would try to help?

Lay Minister Expels Ghosts, Sees Two Rural Churches Turnaround

IMG_5424“I look around my church and all I see are ghosts.”  It was time for a pastoral change and I was meeting with the Pastor-Parish Relations Committee in my role as the District Superintendent, preparing the church and myself as we looked toward the appointment of a new pastor.  The woman speaking was a longtime member and she was having a hard time being hopeful about the future.  Too many good memories in the past.  Too many people she had known lost to death and moves.  Too many ghosts.

The small churches of Calhoun and Drake’s Chapel in rural Missouri were feeling haunted, too, when their District Superintendent (DS) asked a lay speaker named Margie Briggs to step in for a time.  The beloved pastor of the church, facing who knows what demons in his own life, had committed suicide at his home on a Sunday morning.  Margie stepped in for a few months to serve the two small churches, whose average combined worship attendance was about 14.

When another local pastor was assigned, he served a few months but then left under a cloud after absconding with the Salvation Army kettle and a consequent visit from the local police.  The DS called Margie again.  “Can you just get them through until Christmas?” he asked.  Over ten years later, she’s still there.

51pCNACoaPL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Given the sad history of her predecessors and the sparse numbers in the pews, the revival of these two rural churches under Margie’s leadership seems miraculous.  But as Briggs describes it in her new book, Can You Just Get Them Through Until Christmas?: The Turnaround Story of One Lay Minister and Two Small, Rural Churches [Cass Community Publishing House, 2017], the building blocks to recovery were simple and fairly traditional—an openness to God, outreach to the needs of the community, and leadership that was determined “to greet new and different people.”(x)

Lay ministers like Margie Briggs have always been a part of the Methodist leadership pool, but they are taking on a growing role in rural areas where churches are struggling to support credentialed clergy.  Many of them are part-time and bi-vocational, but most are extremely dedicated to the churches they serve, offering them a chance to create new chapters in ministry.  Some lay ministers are seeing growth and new relevance for congregations that thought their best times were in the past.

“Small churches don’t need to create a system of small groups to help people fit in,” Briggs says in her introduction, “they are natural places of intimacy.”(x)  They can use this natural gift to make a difference in their communities in making disciples.

Over the course of 23 short chapters, Briggs tells episodes in the story of the Calhoun & Drake’s Chapel turnaround.  She describes physical improvements to make the church spaces lighter and more welcoming.  But the churches not only upgraded the inside of the church, they moved outside for ice cream socials in the parking lot and put floats in the Calhoun Colt Show parade.  When they planned a one-day Vacation Bible School and only one child showed up, they jumped in the car, drove around the neighborhood, and collected children.  They exchanged youth mission teams with a church in downtown Detroit, did luncheons for public school teachers, and began a prison outreach ministry.

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Margie Briggs

“It is so easy to be consumed by what a small-membership church cannot do,” Briggs says (75).  But she describes how each of these ministries began with a small, manageable step and grew on the enthusiasm and compassion of those who participated.  It also helped that Briggs herself seems to have a contagious spirit and a commitment to excellence.

“Unless we are going to give up on every town or village across the country with under 2,500 people,” Bishop Robert Farr says in an epilogue to the book, “we need to figure out how to create, encourage and renew compelling and competent small churches, engaged in ministry that is dedicated to reaching new people and doing whatever it takes.” (100)  He notes two key components in this renewal—lay leaders “who are in love with Jesus, people and their mission field” and a willingness on the part of the congregation to change. (100)

Briggs encouraging book, (which includes a study guide), makes the daunting task of helping small, rural churches thrive seem possible and even, dare I say, fun.  At the very least she makes it clear that we don’t have to live with the ghosts of what’s gone before.  We can trust that God will do a new thing even in old places.

Teenager Abuses Hand Sanitizer, Finds Self: The Beauty in John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down

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photo by Mark Adriane via Unsplash

Aza has a hard time getting out of her head.  Worse yet, she’s beginning to wonder if she’s really here at all.  For all the choice she feels she has, she might as well be fictional.  “Your life is a story told about you,” she muses at the beginning of John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down, “not one that you tell.” (1)

Of course, sixteen-year-old Aza is fictional, but the invasive thoughts she experiences are the plight of many a person with obsessive compulsive disorder–thoughts that make Aza think that she is destined to be overrun by Clostridium difficile, a sometimes fatal collection of bacteria.  To stave off this dread possibility Aza has developed a regular routine of opening a small wound on her finger, letting it bleed, surveying the surrounding skin for infection, and slathering the spot with anti-bacterial hand sanitizer.  Which she will also drink sometimes to get at the bacteria in her mouth and gut.  None of which will keep her from going back to the C. diff. article on Wikipedia that feeds her anxiety.  And all of which leaves her feeling like she’s not in control of herself and not really here.

51j8ClOJzoL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_You might think a book about such things would be exhausting to read.  But John Green, who has dealt with “invasives” his whole life has pulled off the trick of making Aza fascinating even though she is exhausted herself.  As Green described the condition in a recent NPR interview, “It starts out with one little thought, and then slowly that becomes the only thought that you’re able to have…It’s like there’s an invasive weed that just spreads out of control.”

When Aza is able to be present to her world, she has a lot of interesting relationships to nurture her.  Aza’s father has died, but her mother is interested and supportive, if a little overprotective and anxious for her daughter.  Aza’s best friend Daisy is artsy and vibrant but also occasionally annoyed with what she perceives as Aza’s self-obsession.  Daisy’s passion is writing inter-species romance fan fiction in the Star Wars universe and she works out some of her frustrations with Aza there.

Then there’s Davis, eldest son of the billionaire Russell Pickett.  When the father disappears in the midst of growing clouds of scandal, Aza renews a relationship with the teenaged Davis that had begun in ‘Sad Camp,’ a program for children whose have lost a parent.  Their relationship includes art, friendship, astronomy, poetry, and potential romance, despite the terror that kissing presents for Aza.  And overarching everything is the mystery of where Pickett has gone, a mystery that Daisy and Aza are sleuthing in their spare time.

Well, perhaps that’s not true.  What’s really overarching everything is life, the universe, and everything.  There’s the question of what there really is and who we really are.  Like every young person, Aza is trying to find herself but with the added anxiety that there may be no self to find.  “When I look into myself,” she confesses to Daisy, “there’s no actual me—just a bunch of thoughts and behaviors and circumstances.  And a lot of them don’t feel like they’re mine…when I look for the, like, Real Me, I never find it.” (244)

Like every young person, Aza is trying to find herself but with the added anxiety that there may be no self to find.

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John Green

There’s no real happy ending here, (though it is a very satisfying ending), because these big questions are not easy to answer and conditions like OCD don’t just evaporate because you come to a big revelation.  But there is growth and reconciliation and acceptance and the promise of a frame within which to live a good and rich life.

This is a book that many people will read and believe that John Green knows them because he has written something recognizably human.  Young adults will see themselves in the language, the settings, and the cultural references, but also in the stressed relationships of the characters.  Older readers will nod their heads at the things that have not and do not change about coming of age.  And we can all hope to find even some of the beauty illuminated by this excellent book.

How to Get Out of the Inner Circle: Ministry with the Poor

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photo by Tom Parsons via Unsplash

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” [Philippians 2:5-6, NRSV]  This, I believe, is one of the greatest biblical expressions of what ministry with the poor means.  In this passage, Paul gives us an image of God’s identification with humanity in all its limitations and also how God took on that humanity to restore it.

So if our ministry as Christians is to model Jesus’s, (“Let the same mind be in you…”), what does it say that we have so much difficulty getting beyond mere charity to really being with people in poverty?

41yErQDxaLL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_“In so many churches, what they call missions or working with the poor is simply donating,” United Methodist pastor Mike Slaughter says in the book The New Adapters: Shaping Ideas to Fit Your Congregation [Abingdon, 2015]. (23)  If the measure of our ministry were clothes, kits, and shoeboxes, we’d have to say we’d arrived.  But most of us know what we really long for is relationship.

We are, as United Methodists say in their most ubiquitous confessional prayer, “a church that has not loved its neighbors and has not heard the cry of the needy.”  But Jacob Armstrong, the principal author of The New Adapters, feels this is “our greatest opportunity, because when we connect to the stated vision of Jesus, the church is unleashed…To do this we must move from inward-focused ministries and simply having ‘missions’ and ‘outreach’ as subsections to a church that sees all of its ministries as focusing on the poor, which includes everyone.” (15)

This is not a matter of glossing over the differences and affirming that “all lives matter.”  It’s a way of seeing with the eyes of God and knowing that God not only doesn’t shun our poverty, but enters into it because our poverty is the best we have to offer.  God sees us as we are and loves us all the more.

So Armstrong encourages churches to grasp the reality that “the gospel is not good news unless it is good news to the poor.” (15)  So how can we see the poor around us—in our neighborhood, in our community, in the world beyond?

rawpixel-com-384899In small churches, we often pride ourselves on the ‘family feel’ of our congregations.  Even churches despairing about declining attendance will often list their welcoming hospitality as one of their greatest strengths.  But how far does that perceived welcome extend beyond the doors.  When we are encountering people who find churches to be intimidating, are we able to see through their eyes?

Here’s an experiment: Find someone who doesn’t attend church and ask that person to talk about her/his experience of church.  No need to try to convince them to change in the moment.  Just listen and see if you can hear in their stories the deep desires of their hearts.  What would it take to touch those needs?  How are they the same as yours?

At the end of the experiment, you may have a glimpse of what church looks like through their eyes and that will be useful.  More useful may be the relationship you have started to build with someone who is, like you, looking for a place to belong.

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.  Beyond donation, find connection.

A Rose Still Blooms Post-Brexit: A Review of Ali Smith’s Autumn

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photo by Simone Dalmeri via Unsplash

Autumn is the season for reflection.  A cold wind blows and you wonder how many more winters you have in you.  Golden leaves burnished by a golden sunset rustle in the limbs above and you remember how they used to thrill you.

“The trees are revealing their structures.  There’s the catch of fire in the air.  All the souls are out marauding.  But there are roses, there are still roses.  In the damp and the cold, on a bush that looks done, there’s a wide-open rose, still.

“Look at the colour of it.” (259-60)

Sure the opening lines of Ali Smith’s Autumn declare “It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times.  Again.  That’s the thing about things.  They fall apart, always have, always will, it’s in their nature.” (3)  And yet young Elisabeth will read to Daniel the centenarian A Tale of Two Cities as he lies sleeping in the elder care facility.  So the best of times must be hidden somewhere within.


Autumn
caught me up short.  It has such a deceptively gentle and playful spirit.  It chronicles, in broken time, the relationship between Elisabeth and Daniel from the time when she was a lonely 8-year-old in a single parent home wondering about the elderly man next door.  Her mother is troubled by the stranger (and many other things) and we do think its odd that the two should take an interest in each other.  But there’s nothing unusual about the relationship for them.

“Very pleased to meet you,” the old man says on their first meeting.  “Finally.”

“How do you mean, finally? Elisabeth said.  We only moved here six weeks ago.”

“The lifelong friends, he said.  We sometimes wait a lifetime for them.” (52)

“A fine friendship,” is what her mother’s late-in-life lover calls it.  But Elisabeth corrects her.  “I love him,” she says.  (216)

51PcAU4NAEL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_It’s not that kind of love, whatever you’re thinking.  It’s born of art and reading.  It’s the playfulness with words that young children and old people share as the letters slip on the tongue and in the hearing and certain meanings dissolve into new possibilities.  They read together and tell stories together.

“The whole point of Bagatelle [their storytelling game] is that you trifle with the stories that people think are set in stone.  And no, not that kind of trifle—“ Daniel says. (117)  And their love grows deeper and Elisabeth sees the possibilities of life and thrives on the space that Daniel gives her.

Of course, Britain is going to hell as this happens.  It’s 2016 and the Brexit vote has just happened.

“All across the country, there was was misery and rejoicing.  All across the country, what had happened whipped about by itself as if a live electric wire had snapped off a pylon in a storm and was whipping about in the air above the trees, the roofs, the traffic.  All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing.  All across the country, people felt it was the right thing.” (59)

Yes, it’s A Tale of Two Countries.  We have our own American version.  A house of an immigrant family is spray painted with the words, “GO HOME,” and just below a retort is written, “WE ARE ALREADY HOME, THANK YOU.”  Elisabeth must endure a bureaucratic nightmare at the post office just to get a passport.  Her mother throws an antique barometer at a new electrified fence around an ominous government facility and plans daily assaults with archaic weapons.

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Ali Smith

But calling Autumn the first great post-Brexit novel is doing the reader a disservice.  Because as bad as things are there is a vivacious undercurrent, one that is symbolized by the third great character in the book—the 1960s British artist Pauline Boty.  Boty is a real historical figure whose star shone brilliantly as the lone female in the British pop art scene and then flared out as she died tragically early and her art was lost.

Daniel’s stories are suffused with Boty’s memory and Elisabeth picks up on the theme.  She grows up to study Boty’s work.  And then (it is not a spoiler to reveal) at the end of the book Boty herself has a chapter, speaking from the peak of her career.  The alchemy Smith performs in bringing the woman to life with the full-throated dreams of that era, empowered by the possibilities for women, art, and relationship, gave me a mild and welcome dose of euphoria.

“To take the moment before something had actually happened, and you didn’t know if it was going to be terrible or if it might be very funny, something extraordinary actually happening and yet everybody around it not taking any notice at all.” (252)  This is Boty’s view of the artist’s work.

And this is Autumn.  A time when an old man barely breathing on a bed at The Maltings Care Providers plc looks like death itself.  Like England itself.  But look again.  “There’s a wide-open rose, still.  Look at the colour of it.”