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Writers on a voyage — spiritual memoirs (Originally published 5/1/15)

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Posted by Mary Ann

I enjoyed so many aspects of Peter Coyote’s memoir — his family memories, his colorful Sixties experiences, and, I admit it up front, the insider celebrity baseball. I hadn’t read his previous memoir, 1998’s  “Sleeping Where I Fall,” but I hope to now – it would be interesting to see how his perspective has changed with time.

The thing I enjoyed most of all in “The Rainman’s Third Cure” was  Coyote’s writing about Zen Buddhism. Coyote is a Zen practitioner and lay priest. I have read a number of books about Zen Buddhism over the years, but it’s always been a struggle for me to understand. Peter Coyote’s explanations are truly the clearest I have ever heard, and I am grateful to have encountered them.

Which leads me to the subject of spiritual memoirs. I am not a great reader of religious or spiritual theory – my eyes glaze over at pages upon pages of theological explanation or spiritual rhetoric. What has always spoken to me are memoirs by people who are on a spiritual path – somehow I can understand them better than spiritual tracts, however eloquent or convincing. I suspect that a lot of readers feel this way – the spiritual memoir has been around at least since the fourth century AD, when Augustine chronicled his conversion from feckless young man to committed Christian in “The Confessions of St. Augustine” (also a book worth reading): We have already had one great practitioner of spiritual memoir on “Well Read,” and that is Anne Lamott. Her recent book “Traveling Mercies” is one of the better books I have ever read about her generous and life-affirming version of Christianity.

Here are some other spiritual memoirs from several different spiritual traditions – Christian, Buddhist, Native American and Mormon – on my short list to read when I get all that free time that seems to be just over the horizon.

“The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness” by Karen Armstrong.  I am endlessly fascinated by Karen Armstrong. She is now a world renowned religious scholar – I have gotten a lot out of her books about the interwoven histories and common themes of Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

The beginning of Armstrong’s spiritual path was her determination to become a nun. She went into a convent at age 17. She documented these years in a previous memoir, “Through the Narrow Gate,” but “The Spiral Staircase” focuses more on how she turned from an ex-nun wandering rather aimlessly through the world into an interfaith expert. It is not a cheery book; she had a lot of trials and suffering, including not realizing she had epilepsy until she was finally diagnosed as an adult. But I have immense respect for her knowledge and for her relentless honesty.

“Black Elk Speaks” by John Neihardt. This fascinating 1932 book is the story of John Neihardt’s conversations with Black Elk, a Oglala Lakota medicine man who had been at the Battle of Little Bighorn and also at the Wounded Knee massacre.

Neihardt was researching the Ghost Dance movement, an era in Native American history when several tribes were  returning to spirituality in the face of their likely annihilation by white settlers and U.S. government policies. Living on the Pine Ridge reservation in North Dakota, Black Elk agreed to speak with Neihardt and did so for many sessions, using a translator.

There is much about Native American spirituality in this book, not all of it agreed with by contemporary Native Americans, who said that Neihardt was not really equipped to translate Black Elk’s visions and interpretations of the spiritual world.

Still, it’s an amazing window into the life of Black Elk, who endured some of the worst of the cruel history of Native Americans and whites in this country, and who still managed to believe in a philosophy of interconnectedness and the wholeness of the earth.

“A Match to the Heart” by Gretel Ehrlich. Here is another author we have had on “Well Read” for her book “Facing the Wave,” her memoir of visiting the area of Japan devastated by the 2011 tsunami.

Her 1994 book “A Match to the Heart” is about what happened to Ehrlich in 1991, after she was struck by lightning while walking her dogs on her Wyoming ranch. She almost died.  She is a practicing Buddhist, and she tells her story of almost “passing over” through that perspective.

Ehrlich is a superb nature writer, used to describing things with great accuracy and precision, but she also had an experience that put her in an almost dreamlike state.

She struggled with her recovery – for a time she suffered from ventricular fibrillation (chaotic heartbeat) and a damaged nervous system until she found a capable cardiologist who helped her with both. An tale of suffering and redemption told through a Buddhist perspective, this is an eloquent look at a very talented woman’s confrontation with mortality.

One of the most beautiful Buddhism-influenced books I have ever read is “The Snow Leopard” by Peter Matthiessen. It’s the story of the author’s five-week trek in the Himalayas with wildlife biologist George Schaller, a walk across the top of the world. It’s also a meditation on the loss of his wife, who he lost years earlier to cancer and who was the only person he ever felt truly “one” with. Matthiesen, a Buddhist, writes about the natural world with such feeling, and that, combined with his ruminations on love and the nature of loss make for an exceedingly powerful book.

Another family memoir that will grab your heart and make you think is “Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place” by Terry Tempest Williams. This is an unusual book that combines a number of threads. Williams’ mother, to whom she was very attached, died of cancer at age 53. The family is located in Utah, and the book combines Williams’ concerns about her family, concern about the natural habitat of the Great Salk Lake, which is being altered by developers, and concerns that her mother died of cancer because she was exposed to atomic radiation testing as a child. A  beautiful and heartbreaking book.

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