Thursday, June 11, 2009

A Big Thank You

I had intended to post a book review on the first of each month, but time got away on me.  The last book list with comments was posted on April 1!  Lots of books have crossed my lap since then, but none more interesting and inspiring than the one recommended in the comments by Sara.  So to Sara, a huge Thank You! for mentioning Dakota, A Spiritual Geography by Kathleen Norris.
This book totally resonated with me on several levels.  She talks about moving to a small town near the northern border of South Dakota from New York City in the 70's. From our backyard in New Jersey where I lived for my first seven years you could see the afternoon sunlight glinting off the towers of New York City.  Then I grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which I believe was about 300,000 population during those years.  So I was really a city girl.

The summer that we married we spent 10 weeks as pulpit supply in a tiny (pop. around 157) town in northwestern Minnesota.  It was a delightful summer and formed our attitude toward the west and toward small towns.  Then in the '71 we moved to a small town in Alberta.  For the first year I missed trees.  Our home in Ontario had been surrounded by four stately maples. In Alberta everything seemed so open.  But a year later, returning from a visit back East I felt myself relax into a comfortable rhythm as soon as we reached the "big sky" country of North Dakota, and realized I had come to love that openness.  From page 157 "Maybe seeing the plains is like seeing an icon: what seems stern and almost empty is merely open, a door into some simple and holy state."

She talks about small town gossip, and I chuckled.  My husband and I bought a condo in Lethbridge as an investment a few years ago.  The news of the purchase reached home here in our small town, almost before we got back.  Yes, that's the way it is in a small town; your business is everybody's business.  Mostly it's a supportive, congenial interest, but don't figure on keeping secrets.

Another topic she mentions is the way people in small towns hate change and like to hang onto the old ways.  One typically humorous remark she makes is about New Leipzig, North Dakota, "where only a radical nonconformist would hang out laundry on any day but Monday."

Norris writes at length and in depth of religious matters.  p. 91 "We go to church in order to sing, and theology is secondary."  Oh yes! the music in church has always been so much more important to me than any theological arguments or positions.  I do want to hear a solid sermon, theologically based, and meaty enough for me to ponder during the following week.  But my heart shrivels at the maudlin theology and musical poverty of so much of what passes for church music today.  Ouch!

I especially enjoyed the chapter "Getting to Hope," a rambling on about a very small country church called Hope that she preached in for some time.  She discusses the relationship of the people to the land, the prevalence of cultivation in religious images, and the modern city dissociation from the roots of life.  

Several times Norris went to a monastery for a retreat, and her recollections and ruminations on the monastic life are enlightening.  She speaks of the contrast between the contemplative life and the mad busyness of most life today, and concludes that "it is in choosing  the monastery or the Plains, places where nothing ever happens, places the world calls dull, that we can discover that we can change. In choosing a bare-bones existence, we are enriched, and can redefine success as an internal process rather than an outward display of wealth and power." (p. 203) An eloquent call to the deeper ground of our lives!

I have touched on only a few of the rich ideas and insights in this book.  If you read only one book this year, make it Kathleen Norris' Dakota, A Spiritual Geography!


  1. Well, Lou, I'm delighted that you have enjoyed Kathleen Norris! Glad I made the recommendation back when. Sometime you can go on to other books she has written.

    Right now Charlie and I are reading "The Gift of Years" by Joan Chittister, O.S.B. She makes some good points about our CHOICE of how we will react to aging, but is repetitive. It might be better not read aloud, then I could skip over the parts I don't need to hear again!

    Keep telling us what you find good to read. We all need suggestions.

  2. I quote Norris in a paper I wrote in my M.A. (I'll let you read it sometime if you want) (-:

  3. Yes, D., I'd love to read your paper. Kathleen Norris is a find for me; I'll certainly be reading more of her books!

    Let me know by email,, and Thanks!