By Rachel Naomi Remen
Riverhead Books, 382 pp.
String of Pearls: Recipes for Living Well in the Real World
By JoAnna M. Lund
Putnam, 192 pp.
A Place Like Any Other: Sabbath Blessings
By Molly Wolf
Doubleday, 229 pp.
Some of the godmothers in our lives are those assigned to us at birth. Others gravitate toward us, or we toward them. And then there are the godmothers whom we discover between the covers of books. Molly Wolf, JoAnna Lund, and Rachel Naomi Remen are three such literary godmothers whose new books weave webs of wisdom. They offer doses of stark, sometimes bitter reality, which are accompanied with equal doses of the good stuff: Call it hope, love, or meaning in the face of its apparent absence. Or call it God.
Molly Wolf, author of "A Place Like Any Other: Sabbath Blessings," a collection of bare bones, plain-talk essays, ends her advice, invariably, with a glimpse into how God is revealed in the everyday. Wolf began writing about God's presence in her own life for a couple of internet mailing lists. The best of these popular weekly entries are organized according to the seasons of her Canadian year, one of much mud and long snowy winters. Wolf lives a life "without interesting incident," she admits, in an untidy Victorian home in an unpicturesque Canadian province.
She keeps house, goes to work and church, raises kids, rakes, gets caught in the snow, recycles, visits the dentist, and chats with friends. Altogether unremarkable, she claims, and probably no one's idea of a life to die for, except for one thing: Looking around, Wolf inevitably discovers "that God keeps intruding, almost always in very small matters."
Her God waits in loving ambush, ready to pounce--or to be discovered--no matter which path she chooses, no matter how murky. She admits the process isn't effortless: "Maybe God's work in me goes faster and better if I actively help--if I dig out the rocks, clear out the scrub timber...making it as straight and level as my inner landscape allows. This is a two-way business, after all, a dance, not a solo performance by either God or me."
If Wolf wins you over, it will be because of her conviction that God is here with us in the ordinary, and love--both human and divine--can be encountered in the dailiness of things and in the sometimes agonizing give-and-take of trying to do the best we can by each other. Wolf's vision of grace is cast in Christian language and is shaped by the seasons of the Christian liturgical year. Except for an uncomfortably curious aside she makes about Jewish perspectives on the messiah (for Jews, she says, the messiah is a king and warrior), and her tendency to speak of "we Christians," as if the book is meant for the churched alone, her vision can be translated for seekers on the paths of diverse faiths.
Godmother No. 2 is JoAnna M. Lund, author of "String of Pearls: Recipes for Living Well in the Real World," folksy wisdom by the author of the popular Healthy Exchanges Cookbooks. This is a recipe book of a different sort--Lund is offering her "pearls of wisdom" for "living a happier, healthier, more complete life." Speaking from her own transformation from a "failed professional eater into a healthy and successful middle-aged grandmother, at peace with my size-14 hips," she believes the key to living well is having a positive attitude, not to mention eating healthy food and exercising moderately. Many readers will be inspired by the weight loss she can boast: 130 pounds kept off for a decade.
But as a skinny person who doesn't really get weight issues, what inspires me is her ability to persuade us that we can change parts of our lives even if the big picture is really out of our control. After all, "God never asks you to do more than you can, so when the burden feels like more than you can bear, remember God is just a prayer away."
The third godmother, Rachel Naomi Remen, author of "My Grandfather's Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge and Belonging" (and before that, "Kitchen Table Wisdom"), intertwines the wisdom received from Remen's Orthodox Jewish grandfather, a rabbi and kabbalist, with all she has learned as a physician who has counseled the chronically ill and dying. These people taught her how to live, and to engage in acts of tikkun olam, the Jewish expression for all the acts, tiny and large, that help repair a broken world.
Blessing is the key for Remen; she believes we all have the capacity to bless life and to bless each other. A blessing is relational; it is both a stance toward the world and a way of service. As she explains, "A blessing is not something that one person gives another. A blessing is a moment of meeting, a certain kind of relationship in which both people involved remember and acknowledge their true nature and worth, and strengthen what is whole in one another."
Remen teaches us that it is possible to discover a place for wholeness once again, even when a physical cure is not possible. As wise godmothers know, that is a lesson we can only learn for ourselves.