Letters from a Distant Shore

There’s a stream of great books being published by former students of the  USF MFA program, where I teach. Letters from  a Distant Shore by Marie Fiala is a remarkable story of mothering, family, and faith.  Fiala’s son, Jeremy suffered a devastating brain injury, and her book tells the story of his long hospitalization and recovery, and the enormous impact his illness had on their family.    It’s a story of struggle, survival, and redemption, but it’s also an unflinching account of faith.  Twice, Jeremy had near miraculous following international prayer vigils.

My kids are in Catholic school, and one of the things I love best about it is how the school supports their spiritual growth.  Their education is not simply about academic achievement but about becoming a better, more faith filled and spiritual person.  I don’t believe that everyone is called to believe in the same way, but I do believe in raising children with faith, who have a spiritual core to sustain them.

Fiala’s book shows the miraculous and pedestrian aspects what faith can mean in a family’s life and she does so in prose in that is fresh and compelling and completely free from jargon and cant. This is the kind of faith I struggle to convey to my children, and books like this one help me on that path.

Whatever you believe, this story will move you.  And you don’t have to take my word.  Terrific reviews are coming in at Kirkus and Literary Mama.

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The Future

I’ve been reading and teaching Nadine Gordimer’s Burger’s Daughter, a difficult luminous book about the daughter of a Communist revolutionary hero in apartheid-era South Africa.  After her father dies while serving a life sentence, Rosa Burger is freed to explore what it really means to be Burger’s daughter. Will she inherit the extraordinary discipline and responsibility of Party life, a forgone conclusion for many of her friends, or will she pursue the more personal, intimate life of a more ordinary person? After seeking out both ways of living, in South Africa and abroad, Rosa returns to her homeland to take up the mantle of suffering because political suffering, well, that is the one kind of suffering she can do something about.  Her reasons are neither her father’s nor the Party’s. But as she sees her friends grow old, sick, suffer from the inevitable ravages of time, she understands that a meaningful life, for her, must be to being to put an end to the suffering she can do something about.

The book haunts me.

I have known people like Rosa and her father Lionel (inspired by the real life revolutionary South African Bram Fischer), people of extraordinary discipline and commitment.   People for whom the public life and the commitment to end suffering has been the major work of their life.   And I look at the small circle of my family, and the small ways that we contribute to our children’s education about the world and our small donations and community service and think it is not nearly enough.  Rosa and her compatriots believe in The Future, in radical revolutionary change and their is a seamlessness between their lives and their actions. They are willing to accept consequences, even prison, as a matter of fact.   They are devoid of what Rosa calls bourgeious sentiment.  Things are the way they are.  Sentiment is not to be indulged.    And their is a final freedom of Rosa’s acceptance of her beliefs, a joy even in her imprisonment.

Rosa is relevant not because I think I should become or be training revolutionaries, or engaging in civil disobedience or going to jail over health care reform…

But the book has forced me to I ask myself with renewed urgency:  To whom are we responsible?

And then:  What will I do about suffering? And how will I teach my children that the suffering of the world is their job?  We may not have directly caused the social and environmental problems (or we may have) we are concerned with, but does that make us any less responsible?

Can we face injustice, poverty, hunger, racism, pollution with a cold eye and do the job we need to do? Can we raise our kids with a fundamental awareness about how their lives are linked to others in their community?And then teach them to live in a way that acknoweldges those links and responsibilities?

Such thinking quickly becomes overwhelming.  And so I return again to the impulse to start with small and local actions and behaviors.  But the challenge is not to stay small and local, but to look for ways to make a difference so that activism in not an extraordinary, heroic gesture toward life, but one of it’s fundamental facts.