Friday
May292015

Communion

By Curtis Smith


 

Dock Street Press
March 2015
978-0991065738


Reviewed by Meghan Lamb


 

I confess that I approached Curtis Smith's memoir Communion with a kind of trepidatious excitement, believing—based on the book's title and cover art—that the text was a testimonial of his experience growing up Catholic. This is an experience we (regrettably) share, a particular tint to the light perceived by all who have gazed at the world through stained glass. While the text is filled with glimmers of Smith's Catholic background, he filters these rituals through his own interpretation, his own warm, compassionate, and highly personal language. Though Smith attests that he no longer possesses "the faith expressed by others," his memoir serves as a form of secular communion. He offers us beautifully-worded reflections of instants shared with others: moments of counsel with his students, long walks with his son, times of loss, celebration, and waiting. He offers these words as his own writer's version of sacrament, something to absorb and take inside ourselves even after the moment has passed.

Communion begins with its title essay about the day Smith's young son is inducted into the Catholic Church. Smith explains that though he does not believe in God, he wants to provide his son with the opportunity to explore his faith, to reconcile his relationship with "a God who suffered as we suffer." He writes:

I admire faith. I feel the tug of the spirit. I believe in forces beyond my comprehension. But I falter when human hands claim these notions. Our imperfections stain what is beautiful. We fashion crude vessels, but the tools of this world are no match for the task. I'm afraid all that is pure bleeds through the cracks. We are left with doctrine. We are left with pageantry. We inherit prejudices and centuries-old skeletons.

Thus, Smith perceives "communion" as a metaphor for all human rituals: our desire to speak to all that which is holy, all that which holds us together, all while understanding, "all that which is pure bleeds through the cracks." Our words fail to encapsulate the strength of our desire. The passage of time wears away at our greatest attempts, our most artful constructions of meaning. The title story ends with a wistful nod to the forthcoming years. Smith writes:

My wife and I pinch the petals from each others' hair and shoulders. We place a few in our programs. Years from now, when our son towers over us, when his deep voice rumbles in the tiny rooms of our house, we will unearth the program. Inside, we will find these petals. They will be dry, their color faded. We will bring them to our noses and test whether their scent remains.

There is an immaculate quality to these essays that reminds me of my favorite writer, Yasunari Kawabata, and his "Palm-of-the-Hand" meditations. Kawabata often left his stories unfinished by Western notions of "the ending."  The loose ends of Smith's sparse little pieces of writing are not tied into neat, tight conclusions. There's a feeling his words are left open to time, to senesce and decay as they're read. Yet, for all their refusal to summarize themselves, to fashion themselves—in Smith's own words—as "crude vessels," these stories radiate with an unusual beauty and clarity. Herein, "the moment" is briefly uplifted, the host of something almost sacred. "The moment" becomes a form of lyrical currency. Smith speaks of this currency in a scene of Communion which takes places on one of many winter hikes with his son:

I take off his other snowshoe, and while I unbuckle mine, he retrieves a chunk of ice and hurls it into the field. The next snow will bury our shoes' imprints. Spring will bring the thaw. Come summer, my body will forget how it shivered. Someday I will find myself distanced from my son. In one form or another, he will be lost. The paths we've traveled so closely will unravel as he makes his way, and I will be left to consider the tracks we've left. Here will wait the only currency that matters.

 

My grandmother recently passed away. I was reading Communion while she was in hospice care, knowing she was living through her last days. She was a life-long Catholic. Her funeral took place in the church where she was a life-long member, where my family went for Easter mass, for Christmas mass, and all visits that fell on a Sunday.

Her church is very traditional, as one might imagine. There is a list of songs—all hymns—that can be sung within its walls. For her funeral, I sang my grandmother's favorite hymn, "On Eagles Wings." The lyrics of this hymn address, "you who dwell in the shelter of the Lord, who abide in his shadow for life." The hymn promises that if you accept the Lord, his grace will "make you to shine like the sun," that he will "hold you in the palm of His hand."

I marvel at the weird evasiveness and mystery of these hymns, that followers of God can be made to "shine like the sun" even as they "abide in his shadow for life." I contemplate what it could mean to her to feel held "in the palm of His hand." So much winsomeness blended with death. It seems simple, but still, so overwhelming. What on earth does it mean, to be so tenderly encapsulated?

 

Smith understands that just as writing allows him to exchange the currency of these moments with his readers, acts of writing—just as acts of worship—are infused with contradictions. The ritual of writing—the sharing of words—is a strange kind of death. Experiences ossify when frozen with descriptions. They transform as they're read and re-read and re-lived and reborn (perhaps? maybe?) in some way. Smith uses his words with the utmost respect for their strengths and their failings. In this way, Communion is not merely a writer's contemplation of beautiful moments, but a reflection on writing itself as a spiritual act.

Connections between writing and death resonate throughout Communion. Smith describes the effort of composing a eulogy for a close friend's funeral, writing, "while I will never pin down the words in my heart, I can at least make them shine a little brighter." He recalls the experience of re-reading a nearly forgotten text as he waits by his father's death bed, writing, "My father breathes, but not for long. The story is over, and what remains are its echoes, the words and memories I will carry beyond this day." He writes about the progression toward his own death, considering not only the aging of his physical body, but the gradual fading of memories, the little deaths of moments. He mourns the loss of narratives, the dwindling connections between paths he used to feel he followed freely.

 

In the last few years of her life, my grandmother lived within the advanced stages of dementia. There were no edges to her thoughts. The past blurred with the present. Sometimes she saw birds through the windows and thought they were flying inside. Sometimes she believed that she saw my great-grandfather's face at the doorway. She struggled to remember details and dates, even her daily schedule. She became obsessed with simply staring at the calendar. In spite of these struggles, she never lost her memory of our names. My mother tells me that she smiled whenever someone in the room mentioned "Meghan."

I wonder what she could remember of me in those last days. I think of my own sadly fragmented memories of her.

It seems fitting that Communion was the book I was reading the day that she died. I bought a copy for my mother for her birthday. Her birthday was the day before the funeral. I don't know if the book will bring comfort. I hope it will help us to feel some connection.

 

In many ways, this is just how life goes, the irrefutable result of living, aging, and dying. We are fallible humans and "all that is pure bleeds through the cracks." Moments bleed into each other and memory forms a disjointed narrative. Recollections seem wooden and forced. Nothing quite fits together. But the love between Smith's words is palpable. There is something that bleeds through the cracks that is felt in some way, even when the words fade. In the meantime, we feel ourselves and each other in struggles to summon these moments, to gather them close to us, hoping for something to cusp all our lives in the palm of its hand:

I lay my hand on my son's chest, a communion with his life-giving currents…He will live his life, forgetting and revisiting his longing. He will join the rest of us, all of us curators of empty spaces, the keepers of wishes untold, all of us boats upon the current.