Christine Hale, friend of a dear friend, has a new book out in July: A Piece of Sky, A Grain of Rice: A Memoir in Four Meditations.
The four meditations are “What You Do Wrong,” “Sky,” “Lucky,” and “Walk Fast, Keep Going.”
And the advance praise says it better than I ever could:
“Christine Hale’s memoir A Piece of Sky, A Grain of Rice vividly and beautifully describes a chaotic life, and rather than the expected acceptance that accompanies a Buddhist memoir, this book finds several avenues out of pain, including tattoos, which come to represent the sometimes ragged fashion in which people are able to love. I couldn’t stop thinking about this book after I read it: the many startling scenes and places brought so vividly to life, the rich detail, and the remarkable (if deeply flawed) people who populate its pages. A candid, deeply absorbing tale.”
–Debra Spark, author of Good for the Jews
“Christine Hale’s evocation of the bewildering complexities of life as a mother, daughter, wife (and ex-wife), and student of Buddhism is both a poem and a letter to those she has worked so long and hard to understand. On a journey that takes her through emotional and actual hurricanes, love and cruelty, urgent losses, and painful gains, she climbs to sometimes unnervingly high altitudes as she experiences “the joy and the sorrow of samsara.” In beautiful, clear language, Hale explores the wounds life gives us, the wounds we give ourselves, and the long process of healing.”
–Sarah Stone, author of The True Sources of the Nile
“A Piece of Sky, A Grain of Rice is an exquisite engagement with those tough human questions that must be asked even if they can never be answered. Hale writes toward acceptance, every page brimming with honesty, insight, and deep understanding. A truly beautiful meditation in lovely, lively prose.”
~Dinty W. Moore, author of The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the Writing Life
That “lovely, lively prose” makes the book worth reading, to my mind, even apart from the story. And the story is gripping. An introspective, bookish child born and raised in southern Appalachia. A mother given to anti-social passive-aggression and violent rages. A father who puts up with it–and also, in secret, forces sex and physically abuses. A disabled sister.
Through interweavings of memory and half-buried flashbacks, Hale tells the story of how she came to be who she is now: mother of an adult daughter “J” (now a medical doctor) and slightly younger son “B”, student of Buddhism, author, creative writing teacher, seeker, pilgrim, wife.
The book is wonderful on the awkward raggediness of family life. One recurring theme is what comes to be a family ritual: Hale and her two children getting tattoos. They make a deal for each to accompany the other to a Tampa, Florida, tattoo parlor for “Lefty” to do his magic. Her daughter J, the last to take the plunge, steps into Lefty’s chair for the first time one year right after Christmas. Afterward, Hale offers to treat the kids to dinner (she also, of course, pays for the tattoos).
“Christmas dinner after Christmas tattoo!” I hear myself chirp. They roll their eyes.
At my favorite Indian restaurant, seated two-facing me in a particularly uncomfortable vinyl booth, the seat too hard and the back too straight, I’m the only one eating. My children piddle and stir their entrees; they confess one after the other (in what seems to me callous disregard for my feelings) to having eaten in what seemed to them famished necessity) immediately before the tattoo.
The minute I’ve paid the check, J heads straight back to Lefty’s to meet a guy friend who’s become a tattoo addict, she explains, after witnessing the inking of her back–his third tattoo scheduled tonight. B is visibly impatient to get to the privacy of his room and answer all those mixed calls and text messages, and maybe make a pass at his homework.
Driving home alone after dropping B off at his dad’s, I can’t fail to notice how J is right, again: we never do anything together.
And I keep making mistakes I cannot fix.
Of a tropical hurricane that flattens a retirement community a mere hundred miles south, and spares her own home, she writes:
I understand I have learned something from what did not happen–although I have no words to label it. I know I ought to be ready to start my life over, with greater clarity and resolve. I have, after all, taken refuge and been spared. But all I really feel is wonder: my own open-ended amazement about how much we can’t predict, how surprising life is, what happens to us, and what does not.
This embrace of paradox, the unknowable, the ever-unfolding surprise ending–life as unfinished symphony–is the central paradigm of course, of the Cross. In fact, in the one passage that made me wince, Hale’s house is in dire danger of being flooded from rising storm waters and she rejects, just a bit contemptuously, “petitioning the Methodist God of my youth to save me and my son.”
As a “good Buddhist,” she writes, “[N]o-one except me had the responsibility or ability to save me and mine. I could face the question squarely, do what I could, and accept the outcome. Or I could panic, do nothing, blame someone else. My choice.”
Just for the record, no-one in this vale of tears holds the corner on facing questions squarely, acting decisively, taking responsibility and accepting whatever happens,
Which this gorgeous writer and deeply thoughtful, deeply sensitive human being, I’m sure would be the first to acknowledge.
Besides, that someone from such a traumatizing childhood could find her way to the writing that saved her–and as all good writing does, in turn helps to save us–is the real takeaway.
“Paralyzed silence–at the table, in the car, in the den while the television prattled: the default sound of my childhood. On the infrequent occasions my parents did speak expansively, they told and re-told Southern Gothic tales of people they’d known–not tragically dead–and places they’d lived or visited–now ruined. A scree of nostalgia rubbled every story’s surface. When we traveled, we toured graveyards, battlefields, antebellum mansions. Much of what I saw was sealed under glass cases. Everything that mattered happened in past tense, way past. All of it reeked of loss. When I was very small we still visited relatives. They were old, wrinkled, eccentric, infirm or alcoholic…
[My parents] had been born defeated by their origins, the land where their people had always lived: beautiful and backwards Appalachia…My parents passed their defeat directly on to me; I didn’t just inherit it, it was cultivated in me.”
Perhaps. But that some of us manage to transcend all that was inherited and cultivated in us as children, while still honoring and loving our parents for all they gave us, is some shaky kind of Resurrection.
But then the Resurrection is always shaky.
I’m sure there’s a tattoo in that.