The gift of dynamic readers

Without getting into that whole death-of-the-author thing, there’s no denying that once a book is out there in the world, the die is irrevocably cast in many ways. The author can’t really take it back, nor trail around after their readership explaining what they really meant, nor prescribe how people read the book when they pick it up, nor adjudicate their opinions once they have. In many ways, a book is its own and only advocate; it stands or falls on whatever ground it is written to occupy.

So when I say that dynamic readers are a gift, I don’t mean that I-as-author can or even want to do any of those things. As Flannery O’Connor says, “When a book leaves your hands, it belongs to God. He may use it to save a few souls or to try a few others, but I think that for the writer to worry is to take over God’s business.” Letting God mind God’s business is a lot easier said than done, generally speaking. But most authors want to get their trajectory right without having to correct it in midair.

Which is why we still crave the return of evidence showing where the arrow landed. And that’s where dynamic readers come in.

I would have said “engaged readers,” but that term has dropped out of the realm of vital encounters between individuals, and fallen into the pan of ad-speak. I would have said “transformative readers,” but that comes on a little strong. “Active readers” doesn’t come on strongly enough.

A dynamic reader is one who, well, engages with the text and then makes their engagement known either to the author or to the public at large, in a way that reveals something about the text that the author couldn’t say or didn’t know. I have a pretty modest and quiet readership, so finding a dynamic reader is like gold.

Here’s a thing I didn’t really know about Ryswyck before a reader showed it to me: the characters grow slowly on the reader until the first major plot turn, when the security breach happens. Oh, I knew that the first two or three chapters were slow; I made a deliberate choice to start the story where I did despite the risk of losing people — which I suspect has happened more than once. What I didn’t know was that there is a certain point in Act One where readers tend to look up startled and realize that they’ve been drawn in, that the characters have got them compelled, that they’re invested.

It’s not that I wasn’t employing the skills at my disposal to make that happen. It’s just that I can’t know I succeeded till it actually does happen.

And that leads to the other face of the thing I didn’t know, which is that the characters — Speir and Douglas and Barklay, at least — are Ryswyck‘s own best advertisement. Intrigue, sure. The community, which I was determined to write as a character in its own right — absolutely. But those need advertisement. Let a reader get to that certain point, and the characters will advertise themselves.

This is actionable data. We likes it, precious.

Not actionable in the sense that I can or want to do anything to the book that’s out there. But there are things I now know I can and should keep doing, or do again to calculated effect.

And it’s extremely gratifying when a reader grasps things you tried to do, and tells you about it. When a dear Community friend went down to officiate at V’s funeral, I asked her to bring back the copy of Ryswyck that I inscribed to her, as she was bringing things away from V’s apartment. Now, I didn’t at all plan this, but putting a book in C’s possession, even for a short time, is a temptation to her to read it; so she read it, despite avowing that she didn’t want to read a Long Book in a genre she dislikes.

The next thing I know, she’s texting me with raves about how much she’s loving it. (You never have to wonder what C’s opinion is about a thing.) Then when she finished it we talked for two hours on the phone, about what we could have said in a three-cornered discussion with Virginia about it, about the nature of offerings, about du Rau’s secret illness, about Barklay’s peccadilloes and the thematic choices thereof, about my allusions to the Gospel of John, which I put in for Virginia and myself but which C did not fail to notice. There’s not much that she does fail to notice — and remember well enough to quote and ask questions about. After one reading.

And that really is a gift, a gift to me as an author as well as a friend. Other people might read my book as observantly and enjoy it as much, but no one’s obliged to tell me so. No one’s obliged to dig into the text up to their elbows and play with its ideas, explore its ramifications, have a dance with the story — or a duel. And if they do, I might never know about it. And that’s just the nature of sending a book out into the world.

“Are you going to write a set of questions about Ryswyck for book discussion?” C asked me. I hadn’t; I hadn’t thought Ryswyck the kind of book that would be in much demand for discussion groups, nor any idea what its readers would even want to talk about if they did.

But I sure do know who I’d like to ask for help writing the questions.

The Lady with the Lamp

Today is the feast day designated in our church for Florence Nightingale: today my dear friend passed away after suffering a massive stroke yesterday.

Virginia and me, Pentecost 2016

I don’t…even know where I would start to bear proper witness to Virginia Dabney Brown’s life and ministry, let alone how I’d finish up. Over a 43-year ministry as a priest, she gave light and healing to so many people that probably the National Cathedral wouldn’t hold them all — and that’s just the people she blessed directly. This is by way of saying that although I’m writing this blog post about me, a thousand thousand equally unique and momentous tributes could be — should be, will be — written by other people.

Other than my family of origin, Virginia is the person I’ve lived the longest with under one roof. I’ve joked before that the fact she didn’t kill me at any point during our sojourn together is possible testimony for her sainthood — but saints are, themselves, not always easy to live with. As Frederick Buechner said, “A saint is a life-giver… A saint is a human being with the same sorts of hang-ups and abysses as the rest of us, but if a saint touches your life, you become alive in a new way.”

She was, by all reports, the first woman to be ordained to the priesthood in the Episcopal church at whose ordination no formal protest was lodged. That was in 1977. By the time I met her in late 2002, she had ministered in both church plants and large parishes, founded a religious community, and given spiritual counsel and direction to an untold number of people. The earth moved under my feet the first time I heard her preach. Never before had anyone delivered me a sermon that reached all parts of my soul — intellectual, emotional, and spiritual — and with such unruffled, simple clarity. I think it was only the second time I’d set foot in that or any Episcopal church, and — already half in love with church in this mode — I saw a woman in the pulpit preaching in a thin, idiosyncratic voice the best good news I’d ever heard. And that is how I came to haunt the Rivendell Community, to be wherever that round of prayer and praise and laughter was happening at its fullest, and take vows as a member six months later.

The Rivendell Community is so named because the Lord of the Rings was Virginia’s favorite mythopoeic story. She told the story often of how Tolkien gave her unexpected spiritual sustenance when as a young woman studying physics she was horrified to find herself contributing to nuclear weapons research. Rivendell was a waypoint refuge, “the last homely house,” but in the Community “last” has come to mean “latest.” Any house Virginia was in became a Rivendell; every house a community member was in became Rivendell too.

Virginia was notorious for the best-worst puns ever made. She could make a witty joke out of a mere banana lying on a table. She could deliver a profound meditation on the spot at an instant’s notice, and make you laugh doing it. She and I played themed Scrabble in the rectory in Branson where we lived for a few years — “Lenten Scrabble” where all words played had to have something to do with Lent, or “Thomas Cranmer Scrabble” or “Mary Magdalene Scrabble” or “Inklings Scrabble” — or anything. It made Scrabble more fun, and more fun to me because Virginia always beat me by upwards of a hundred points; I think I beat her twice, and the first time I did I crowed for hours.

Virginia liked singing the Daily Office liturgy a lot more than anyone else in the Community did. Still enamored of everything to do with the church, I minded it less, so V and I found excuses to use the cantilated version of Compline — Saturday nights which were the eves of every weekly Resurrection feast, all through Eastertide, and any other excuse we wanted. About the only time I didn’t like singing in chapel with V was the year she set the Pascha Nostrum to “Sine Nomine,” a tune I abominate with a hatred I can’t account for in words. She wrote songs on her guitar, and sang others, with a voice not beautiful but pure.

One evening when we lived at the Motherhouse, which was the second Rivendell house and our retreat center at the time, V came in to the chapel for Evening Prayer from an afternoon reading The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. It reminded her so forcibly of people she knew in the years she served in the Peace Corps in Uganda, when Idi Amin came to power, that we had to delay the start of prayers so she could wail in rage for the lost. I could only watch in concern, not knowing such a grief or a rage — then.

I got Virginia into reading Connie Willis and Dorothy Dunnett (V had wry remarks about the treatment of the d’Aubigny family in the Lymond Chronicles, as those were her ancestors); she got me into reading Charles Williams (and Walter Wink, and Evelyn Underhill, and Julian of Norwich, and…). So when I dedicated Ryswyck to her as a Companion of the Coinherence, I meant it as tribute not only for her encouragement as I wrote the book, but for my being the kind of person who could write it. I would not be even half that person without Virginia. But it’s the whole of me that grieves.

Emaciated for years by chronic illness, Virginia was a perpetual fall risk. I found myself often walking alongside V not just as a companion but as a walking stick. I couldn’t be her walking stick when she got up to celebrate the Eucharist, but I didn’t need to. Her thin frame generated a palpable presence behind the altar, her arms, no matter how weak, held in a wide, graceful orans curve, her eyes lifted up, seeing what I could not except by proxy. She spoke often of that moment in the fraction, when the bread is torn like the veil of the Holy of Holies, and how in that moment the witnesses of all the saints in death are joined to the witness of those present among the living. To her this was not metaphor but quantum fact.

She herself now is quantum fact; and I am a paltry scientist.

“When I am lifted up,” Virginia quoted John’s Gospel in sermons more than once, “I will draw all to myself,” and she would go on to explain that the passage arguably meant that Jesus would draw not just all people, or all nations, but all: every crumb, every atom, every speck of the dust of stars, everything, into the embrace of God, “so that nothing is left over,” or lost. In these days when my faith has half foundered, I think of her insight here, of her trust and assurance, of how safe it truly is to lose things into the hands of God, and I am glad I have such an advocate on the other side of the Eucharistic altar.

But still I am going to weep a little while longer.