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June 2016

The Complete Patrick Melrose Novels

The Complete Patrick Melrose Novels: Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, Mother's Milk, and At LastThe Complete Patrick Melrose Novels: Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, Mother's Milk, and At Last by Edward St. Aubyn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm glad I tackled these novels together and while I was on sabbatical, as I enjoyed reading them, though I doubt I would have stuck with the series if I had read the first two independently. They build in quality and depth.

Prima facie a series of novels of Patrick Melrose growing up in a rich household (though less rich than it once was) and being raised by awful parents and then as an adult wrestling with his demons as he raises his own family.

***Spoiler Alert***

But the themes are much richer, which only becomes fully apparent near the very end. Throughout philosophers have been minor characters, philosophers exploring identity and consciousness and these issues hang just below the narrative.

Another word I noticed maybe halfway through was "inarticulacy" and wanted to run to Charles Taylor's Sources of the Self to brush up, but didn't have my copy with me. The word dominates the final pages, which merit repeated re-reading, for at the very end Patrick must make himself vulnerable to his "core of inarticulacy." Quite profound.

And then, a child's wisdom. His son Thomas has told him that he can change his mind, because that's what minds are for. The comment returns to Patrick at the very close as he chooses to attach with his own children rather than allow his own demons to continue destroying him.

View all my reviews

Working Breakfast--Evening Fire

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Dan and I have been bouncing around a project idea for a few years, so Wednesday of last week was our time to work on that.  We drove up to Timberline Lodge on Mt. Hood for breakfast and settled into the upstairs bar for rather early drinks while we advanced our plans.  We watched people skiing and trekking outside, as we were well above the snow line.  

After our long, and at times difficult, hike of the day before, we chose to take it easy on Wednesday.  The morning had been clear, a rare occurrence, with beautiful views of Mt. Hood which is one reason we also drove up the mountain.  The night before as we drove back to Hood River, Mt. Adams loomed clearly in the view.  Previously the northern horizon had been shrouded in cloud, so I had no idea to expect a beautiful towering mountain right there in my view.  I said, "It's so strange to know that this huge thing was right there all along and I was unaware."

Speaking of the mountains.  When I flew in on Monday I had experienced the wonder of flying over Western landscapes and then floating down out of the high clouds to see the volcanic peaks of the Cascades and fly directly alongside Mt. Hood.  Glorious.

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"Because it's clear, let's go to Mirror Lake."  The lake is supposed to afford great reflective views of Mt. Hood.  Alas, after a much longer than expected uphill trudge, we arrived to no view of the mountain, as the clouds had appeared while we were walking.  A man in flip flops asked, "I thought you could see the mountain from here."  We answered, "It's behind those clouds."  Dan translated, "Did I walk all the way up here in flip flops and see nothing?"

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Speaking of flip flops we were quite often surprised last week by the poor choices people had made before going hiking--lack of good shoes, dressed improperly, without water.  We were incensed at times to see people on steep, rough hikes with small dogs who clearly were miserable.

After the longer and more tiring and largely unrewarding hike at Mirror Lake, we stopped for lunch in Government Camp, Oregon (that's the village's name) for a wonderful lunch at a Czech cafe.

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On the drive home we pulled off to see the grave a of Pioneer Woman, who died on the Oregon Trail, and saw part of the Barlow Road, the original road carved through the region for the Oregon Trail pioneers.  I said, "We are unworthy of our ancestors."

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We also visited a fruit stand and fed some goats.

That evening we chose to stay at the cabin, build a campfire (proving our masculine skills), and drink and snack as we laughed uproariously.  We remarked on the enduring fascination of building and maintaining a fire, watching it burn, and, even more fun, burning things in it.  Dan had ripped some shorts that day, so we burned those.  "Burning your shorts" we decided should become a euphemism for something really enjoyable happening.


Mass Murder

Terrorism is traditionally characterized as a political act, a way for non-state actors to try to get a political response out of the target by terrorizing their way of life because the non-state actors can't rely on traditional military means to achieve their goals. Or something like that.

So, Bin Laden wanted US troops to leave the Middle East. Which proves that terrorism is rarely effective at achieving its goals.

But we seem to have entered into something new. Most of the terror attacks of the last year or so, the ISIS inspired ones, don't seem to have a clear political objective. Neither before nor after has anyone said "Do X or we'll do Y." At least not that I can tell.

Really, then, these aren't traditional terrorist acts. They are simply mass murders. Mass murders rooted in ideology and fanaticism, but mass murders.

Which, in some ways, is worse. Because terrorism, at least as traditionally defined, is predicted on some measure of rational discourse--that the violence could be avoided with a political solution.


Misery Ridge

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The women were quite nervous as they very carefully and slowly descended past us on the Misery Ridge trail.  We were ascending.  One woman said, "I think you chose correctly.  It would be easier to descend the other way."  I responded, "He's been here before and made that call this morning."

This despite 30 minutes before hearing some man say to the woman with him about us, "I think I'd rather descend this way than the other."

We did chose wisely.  The Misery Ridge trail was long slopes of loose gravel with little to hold onto.  The other trail was mostly swtichbacks and steps, much, much easier on knees and nerves.

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Smith Rock was glorious, even with the rough hike up and down the mountain.  

For our second day of hiking Dan recommended driving two hours near Bend, in the high desert for this wonderful place very unlike the Gorge and the Cascades.  As we drove around the side of Mt. Hood, it snowed on us.  On June 14.  Later that day Michael sent me a thermometer reading on his car back here in Omaha that read 108 degrees.

As we descended from Mt. Hood toward Bend one noticed that the trees began getting shorter.  Then scrub grass appeared.  And finally, the trees disappeared.  Radical changes in landscape in a few miles.

Smith Rock is a small canyon with towering rock formations--something like a Yosemite in miniature.  The place is popular with rock climbers, and we watched many ascending the walls.  Little stands were conveniently placed with crutches and stretchers for those who might need them.

Along the floor of the canyon runs a gentle stream graced with wildflowers.  The valley was filled with song birds.  After the clouds and rain of the day before, the bright sunlight was a welcome refreshment as we walked gently along the bank, pausing often to look up at the rock towers beside us.

Then we ascended Misery Ridge, a humble reminder of our age as we saw much younger people bounding up and down.  From the top there were wide views of the valley.

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After our hike we enjoyed delicious food and beer at Crux Fermentation Project.


Not Valid

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Dan, my host and hiking buddy last week, went to Oklahoma Baptist University and majored in religion and philosophy while I was still living in Shawnee and working on my Ph. D. at the University of Oklahoma.  He once led a youth group event for me at Rolling Hills in Fayetteville and a few years ago I led a Lenten event for him in Oregon City.  In between he has also lived in Paris, Southern California, and Zurich.  He became an Episcopal priest and I became UCC.

He told a humourous story about one time being in a meeting with some Roman Catholic priests when one called everyone else "Father" except Dan.  Later he was asking Dan about his church and when Dan mentioned a priest of the Old Catholic Church, the dogmatist said, "Oh, his orders are valid."

Thus implying that Dan's orders are "not valid."  I responded, as we hiked along sharing this story, "wonder what he would think of your orders in comparison with the gay married UCC guy?"

We enjoyed apostolic succession jokes and anecdotes and much other theological, churchy, middle judicatory, and philosophical humour in our days of hiking (and drinking) together.

Dan and I agree that the issues facing the mainline churches are not as severe as often reported.  That most churches simply need to make a few correct decisions and that what often plagues congregations is poor leadership (can be clerical and/or lay). 

I have also rarely laughed so hard so often in one week.


Mother's Milk

While traveling home from Oregon on Friday I completed the fourth Patrick Melrose novel, Mother's Milk, which was by far my favourite yet.  This one is set about a decade after the last one, when Patrick is married and has two young children, the oldest of which, Robert, is the opening narrator of the novel.  The book is set during successive August vacations in the South of France and grapples with issues of motherhood and our relationships with our mothers.

I am now in the midst of the fifth and final novel, At Last.


Hiking Lost Lake in a Hail Storm

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Okay, the hail part goes like this.

As we came along the final stretch of our hike around Lost Lake, a little girl, walking with her family, said to us excitedly, "Did you get hailed on?"

We had not.  Apparently it did hail.  We had ten or fifteen minutes before heard ominous rushing winds, so maybe that was actually hail in the near distance, but fortunately not falling on us.  

That does not preclude that the story will now be that we, my Episcopal rector and soon to be Canon friend Dan Morrow, did hike around Lost Lake in a hail storm.

I was in Oregon for a week of hiking as part of my sabbatical.  Despite wanting a week of hiking, I had also planned this to be the real retreat portion, though after last week's mass murder in Orlando, I was unable to cut myself off of the internet all week as I had planned.  I felt not only a personal need to connect but a responsibility to be present.  Dan and I also have a project (or maybe projects) idea that we have been tossing around and this would be a chance to work on that some.  More on that later.

I left Omaha that Monday morning bright and early, taking a cab as my husband and child were still asleep.  Dan picked me up at a time that was still early in Portland and we went to breakfast before driving up the Columbia River Gorge to Hood River.  I had last (and for the first time) been to Oregon three years ago in the winter to lead a Lenten discussion for Dan on the Problem of Evil.  I knew then that I wanted to return and do some hiking.  Last year Dan and I were going to hike together in New England as part of the sabbatical that I had planned before news of Sebastian's impending birth delayed the time off.  Months ago I asked Dan about hiking around him and he arranged with some church members to use their cabin in Parkland, near Mount Hood.

The weather in Oregon was cooler than average, only reaching a high of 70 once while I was there.  The near 100 degree temperatures back home were happily missed and returning to this heat has made me irritable.

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In Hood River we drank some of the many delicious local beers as we plotted out the week's events, then grabbed our groceries and headed up to the cabin.  After getting settled we took a short hike to one of two Punchbowl Falls we would visit last week before driving up to Lost Lake.

Rain began to fall as we arrived.  Dan had left his rain jacket at the cabin, so he bought a temporary poncho from the General Store, though they only had what was labeled kids-sized.  That it fit Dan made me wonder how it would engulf a child.  We then began the two hour walk through the pine forests as the rain came and went, enjoying the lush surroundings and admiring the newts lazing in the water.

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A Letter to Rep. Sally Kern

Rep. Kern,

Many years ago when we debated on Flashpoint and in our few interactions afterwards, I was always very polite with you, believing that kindness and rational discourse are essential for democracy and because of my Christian faith.  In my sermons, public speeches, and private conversations with others I always encouraged them to speak kindly of you because you too are a beloved child of God and deserving of our grace and mercy not hatred or cruel speech.  Sometimes encouraging folks in this way was more difficult than other times.
 
Your words all those many years ago that gay people engaged in the democratic process were a bigger threat to the country than Islamic terrorists were reprehensible.  I never have understood your failure to comprehend that.  I was puzzled by what seemed like a form of irrational relativism in your insistence that the words didn't mean what everyone told you they meant, as if meaning is private instead of objectively created by a language community.  I was puzzled by your failure of Christian character--the lack of grace, mercy, and compassion in your stance, as if you had never experienced forgiveness or redemption.  For someone who had experienced God's grace and forgiveness would surely comprehend the need to ask for forgiveness for words that hurt and damaged others as your words had done.  And I was puzzled that an educator would seem to be so uninterested in learning about others and their perspectives and truly listening.
 
The truth is that I have pitied you.  You seemed so bitter and angry and confused, so closed off from the liberation and joy and hopefulness of God.  I have prayed for you so often over these years.
 
But always to no avail.  Watching from afar after my move to Omaha in 2010, your political stances seemed only to worsen, your attempts to harm others became ever more severe.  
 
And today, the world your words and actions helped to create has come into fruition with the largest mass murder in our nation's history committed by a terrorist against LGBT people enjoying and loving life.
 
We never were the bigger threat.  You were always wrong.  Your words and actions were always sinful.  And this is the evil wind that they have inherited.
 
May God have mercy on your soul, for I am too much of a sinner to be able to offer you mercy anymore.
 
Rev. Dr. Scott Jones

In response to the terrorist attack upon a gay club

The emotions are quite complex today after the mass murder at the gay club in Orlando, Florida.  As I pondered what words to share, I thought of a section of my memoir (not yet published, but hopefully soon) in which I contemplate the risks of being an advocate and spokesperson in the LGBT community.  This moment occurred in 2005 shortly after I became the pastor of the Cathedral of Hope in Oklahoma City.  I am with my boyfriend at the time; he was on staff at the Cathedral of Hope in Dallas.

 

Hanging out at John’s condo in Dallas, we would often curl up on his couch together to watch the final episodes of Queer as Folk as they aired that summer.  In one the gay nightclub Babylon is bombed.  Our mood was sober when we finished watching the episode.  Holding me close he said, “You know, we have high security at the church because of this very fear.”

“I know about the high security.  They have educated me about it.”

The main offices of the church were at the backside of the building, away from the parking lot.  They could only be accessed with a card that was electronically coded.  Many members of the church had never been in the church offices.  At the front of the church building was a reception area that was separated from the rest of the building.  The reception area contained a waiting room where you sat and waited for someone to escort you into the building to the main offices.  Cameras monitored the building and during worship services and big events uniformed security guards patrolled the grounds.  The ushers were also trained in how to respond to a disturbance.

“Does the church really fear an attack?” I asked.

“We have received many threats through the years and the rare person who attends worship and starts making anti-gay statements.  Nothing serious has ever transpired, but we, of course, take precautions.”

“Sure.”

He turned to look at me.  “I worry about you and your congregation, however.  You have none of the safeguards we do, and Oklahoma is even scarier than Dallas.”

“I don’t think our congregation has ever had an incident.  We are so much smaller that most people don’t even know about us.  You all are big and in the news a lot.”

“But,” he said, “if you do your job well, that will change.  People will know about you and that could draw unwanted attention.”

“I guess it’s something we should prepare for.”

John then held me close and said, “I fear for you personally.  What if you are attacked?  What if someone tries to kill you?  You are already pretty public, and there are lots of crazy people.”

I touched his cheek.  “I’m not sure why, but I’m not worried about that.  I’m not afraid.  I really don’t think that anything is going to happen, but if something does happen and I’m harmed, then it’s not like my worrying about it will help.”

“But you should be cautious.”

“I know.  And I am.  I will be.  I am still getting used to all of this, of course.”

We sat there silently for a while, holding each other.

“You know,” I added, “I’m not afraid because if something were to happen to me, it could probably be used for good.  I’m willing to be a martyr for my faith and for something I believe in if that’s what happens.  I’m not going to seek it out, but it doesn’t frighten me.”

“It frightens me,” he said, kissing me.


Some Hope

The third Patrick Melrose novel by Edward St. Aubyn, Some Hope, was more enjoyable than the first two novels in the series of five.  Primarily because this one actually had a couple of characters that I enjoyed, who had at least some redeeming qualities.  It is also a hilarious send-up of upper class British society.