“There’s more than one way to skin a cat,” my dad used to tell us. What he meant was just that the absence of a jack was no excuse for not changing a flat tire. “Look around you,” he’d say impatiently. “If you don’t have the right tool for the job, figure it out. There’s always stuff in the back of the truck, and lying on the ground.”
I got to be very, very good at building tools out of rocks, old railroad ties, and baling twine. It’s a strange skill, but there it is. I have a knack for seeing relationships that aren’t always immediately apparent.
I like to think of it as having a touch of the metaphysical poets. My Romantic English Literature professor put it another way. “Boy, do you ever have a vivid imagination,” he said. I still got an “A”, though, so that was all right.
But even my metaphysical brain didn’t expect to find common threads running through books as seemingly diverse as Brenda Peterson’s memoir, I Want To Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here On Earth, and Marian Allen’s fantasy, Eel’s Reverence. It wasn’t until I was actually writing the reviews for the two books that I found myself saying, “Hey…”. And then I started looking. And there they were–a lot of them, actually, far too many to discuss here.
The most striking, of course, is the examination each offers into the knotty subject of personal spirituality versus organized religion. Readers who haven’t been following the discussion can catch up if they wish; just go back to Marian Allen’s interview, and read forward.
The central conflict in Allen’s book grows out of that very issue; Aunt Libby, a “true” priestess advocating a personal spiritual experience stripped of the trappings of religion, finds herself squared off against not the “reaver” priests, who offer a turnkey approach to soul maintenance and seem to operate more or less peaceably with the “true” priests, but a corrupt coalition of priests set on destroying all other spiritual options, and garnering all temporal and spiritual powers for themselves. Peterson’s memoir explores the same issue from another angle–she describes growing up a mystic in a family of Southern Baptists.
What strikes me most about the two books, though, is not that they both explore the relationship between religion, spirituality and power–after all, tthe question is the subject of constant debate these days. What I find most amazing is that both writers seem to find a system that gives power to neither path, but permits both, to be the uneasy solution.
Eel’s Reverence doesn’t conclude with a triumphant Aunt Libby trouncing her foes the reaver priests, but with an agreement that ensures people are offered both spiritual options–an agreement that allows for cooperation, conversation–and possibly conversion. Likewise, Peterson concludes her book by tracing her own family’s steps toward not agreement, but toward the sort of conversation that includes listening as well as speaking, that seeks to understand, rather than convince.
She includes a quote by Rumi, a 13th-century Afghani mystic poet:
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and rightdoing there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.
And perhaps that is the most striking thing of all–neither author sees resolution in the triumph of “right” over “wrong,” but in a world where there is room for choice: one in which there are indeed many ways to skin a cat. Allen and Peterson may have traveled vastly different routes, but they have both found their way to the field beyond.