Tuesday, September 16, 2008

SFGate: Nonfiction review: 'Acedia & Me' and writing

Paula Priamos, Special to The Chronicle
Acedia & Me
A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life

By Kathleen Norris
Riverhead Books; 334 pages; $25.95

What prompts a professor on sabbatical to waste precious time by hosing down his house rather than work on his book? Why would a teen girl resolve not to make her bed in the mornings because she knows she'll be sleeping in it later that night?

According to Kathleen Norris, these odd rationalizations are described by an old monastic term, acedia, or mental sloth. For Norris, who's written such widely regarded works as "The Cloister Walk" and "Amazing Grace," appraising the importance of faith and the Christian vernacular is familiar ground. In her meditative memoir "Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life," she scrutinizes the intricacies behind acedia, these destructive mental detours of the mind, leading the reader through her own lifelong struggle.

Retreat to South Dakota

It may strike the reader as strange that a husband and wife, both of whom suffer from depression, would choose to move away from the frenetic energy of New York City to the stillness of a small town in South Dakota. It would be a culture shock for anyone. But for Norris and her husband, David, it is the ideal place. They hole up in her grandparents' old farm house and write, just write. Depression, Norris contends, is closely related to acedia, with the exception that one is a treatable ailment and the other is a vice.

With no children to worry about, not even a television set to serve as a distraction, this solitary way of life works well for Norris and her husband, or at least it does for a while. Norris also seeks the local monastery for "intellectual stimulation," which makes the difference for her. David, however, soon suffers a mental breakdown.

Although Norris and her husband are fully aware of drug treatments for depression, "we believed that our ups and downs were part of the creative process, and we didn't want to risk being flattened emotionally, which could stunt our work." Not seeking treatment comes at a high price for David. He vanishes for days, sending Norris what appears to be a suicide note that results in his having a short hospital stay.

While her husband has a dodgy relationship with religion, particularly Catholicism, Norris is deeply rooted in Christianity and monastic principles. She turns to them during her husband's mental breakdown, as well as during his later terminal illness. In times of affliction, the repetitive act of prayer serves as a form of healing, her spiritual salve. "Throughout this crisis, the psalms had been my constant companions, calming me and helping me endure."

Repetition is a process that Norris must also confront when it comes to her writing. "As a writer I must begin, again and again, at that most terrifying of places, the blank page." Through the ebb and flow of daily routine, she sometimes finds herself creatively stagnant. What some in her situation might call writer's block, she recognizes as a "gestation" period where "new writing then begins to emerge."

Successful at giving care

The most tender and substantive sections of the book are when Norris recounts caring for her husband, who suffers for years with complications from lung cancer. In search of a warmer climate, the two of them relocate to her home state of Hawaii. She never thought herself capable of motherhood, but she succeeds in her role as her husband's around-the-clock caregiver and is by his side reading a prayer when he dies. She recognizes that "as with prayer and poetry, so with love; it has not ended for me because I have lost the love of my life."

"Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life" takes a soulful trek through the contemporary writings of Joan Didion and Saul Bellow to the great thinkers of all time, among them St. Thomas Aquinas and fourth century Christian monk Evagrius Ponticus. But it is in those moments when Norris relies on her own words, her own story, that the reader experiences the real spiritual awakening.

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