Life’s Holy Mess


It has been an extraordinary time for Keeping the Feast in recent weeks:

–MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski wrote a remarkably strong review in the New York Times Book Review of March 21, calling it a “blunt and brave memoir.”

–Two days later, NPR’s Linda Wertheimer aired an interview about the book on ‘Morning Edition.’

–On March 28, Keeping the Feast was listed as an Editor’s Choice selection in the NYTimes Book Review.

–Then National Catholic Reporter’s editor-at-large Tom Roberts wrote a powerful review that captured the three major threads of the book: not just clinical depression and its affects on family life, nor the sharing of food around a family table as a source of healing and strength, but also the power and comfort of spirituality in confronting what sometimes seems like “life’s holy mess.”

–But perhaps the biggest surprise was when the Rev. John Marsland, the president of Ushaw Seminary in northern England, based his Easter Vigil homily on the book. “It was food, friendship and faith that won the battle,” Fr. Marsland said. “Food representing the continuous celebration of ordinary life prepared with constant love. Friendship from their close circle and from strangers alike giving words of comfort, encouragement and wisdom. Faith expressed at times in a scream of anger and frustration at God.”

It still seems totally out of character that something I had written might be talked about — positively — in church. In high school religion class my senior year, I was the one for whom the sister asked the class to pray. Later, another sister told me I was risking hellfire, because, she said, I “asked too many questions.” I’ve often wondered if I became a reporter just to be able to cite a legitimate reason for asking “too many” questions. To this day I’ve never figured out her link between the posing of questions and hellfire. In our house, there was no such thing as too many questions, just not enough answers.

In the weeks since the book was launched all sorts of utterly unexpected happenings have occurred: the director of a Yale-affiliated mental health program happened to hear me speak on Connecticut public radio. Intrigued, he bought and liked the book, then got in touch to ask whether I might consider speaking at the Connecticut Mental Health Center’s annual fundraiser. Serendipitously, the center was planning to sponsor a new farmer’s market in the New Haven area this year, to provide better quality food for its poorer patients, a move that ties in with the food and nourishment threads of the book. I’ll be speaking there this summer, happily, not just because it’s a great program, but also because it was a Yale doctor who helped my brother fight back against a kidney ailment that used to kill its sufferers before they turned four.

I’ve also been amazed at the deeply personal and thoughtful messages that have been coming in as people read the book. Some come from women whose husband, ¬†suffers from depression or other serious illnesses. Some come from Italian-Americans whose memories were jogged by my descriptions of our family meals, or from people who know and love the slow-food life that’s perhaps more easily followed in Italy or France than in the States.

One message that touched me deeply came from a Jewish woman who was going through family problems serious enough to make her decide she wouldn’t bother with a Passover seder this year. After she heard me speaking on NPR, she decided that even though she wasn’t keen on it, she’d give the seder a try. So she “cooked a large and wonderful meal with brisket, potatoes, soup and, of course, spring asparagus. My twin grandsons were ecstatic, my husband suddenly became warm and fuzzy with my daughter. The food was a comfort and a blessing. Everyone thanked me. I even thanked myself. There will be more hurdles to jump but I couldn’t help but reflect … how all ‘the feasts’ in our lives are moveable and permanent at the same time.”

Spring. Where would we be without it?

5 Responses to “Life’s Holy Mess”

  1. jen says:

    you said a mouthful!

  2. Luz Clarke says:

    Paula, you’re an amazing woman for surviving all that you did and for recognizing that God’s grace will get us through somehow.

  3. Luz, actually I think my husband is an amazing man for having managed to survive his illness, and I think my mother was an amazing woman to hang on for as long as she did. In fact, I think anybody who suffers from clinical depression and survives is not only amazing but heroic. Thanks for writing.

  4. Claire Hasselbeck says:

    It is wonderful that your book had received so many positive reviews and more importantly that is engendering such heartfelt responses and forging new paths for you. To put it simply, it is helping us get through the messiness of life.
    On a lighter note, I wanted to share one of my Catholic High School experiences. I once was given a demerit slip, because I raised my eyebrow in response to what the good nun said in history class. Apparently in addition to being bold and brazen, I was also skeptical. Not a bad characteristic to have when it comes to hellfire and questions.

  5. Claire, Thanks so much for your message, and sorry it took me so long to get it posted; it came in just as we were heading off to Germany to visit the big kids and our grandson, and I’m just now coming up for air. I love the story about your demerit. And I would LOVE to know how and why the word “BOLD” morphed from something good and positive to the worst sort of crime in the minds of certain veiled Catholic school teachers in the ’50s and ’60s. I hope that negative connotation has gone the way of meatless Fridays.

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