Falling in love with a writer
Valentine’s Day is almost here, and I have fallen in love. Again.
Three years ago, Nina George entranced me with her novel The Little Paris Bookshop. Ah, Nina, Nina, Nina: she won my heart, and I still open that fine tale once a month or so, rereading certain passages and always delighted by her romantic take on life and the ways of the human heart.
For the last 10 years, Mark Helprin and his A Soldier of the Great War have also held me in thrall. (Yes, I am a bi-bibliosexual.) Alessandro, the novel’s hero, draws me back again and again with his wisdom, kindness, and erudition.
And now Cupid, that wicked little devil, has once again drawn his bow and released his arrow straight into my word-loving heart.
I almost turned my back on Patricia Lockwood’s Priestdaddy: A Memoir (Riverhead Books, 2017, 336 pages). That book winked at me from the bookshelf in the public library, but after flipping through the pages, I sighed and returned her to her companions. But she kept whispering, “Oh, come on, I think we’d be good together,” and so 10 minutes later I returned and picked her up. Two days together, and she had my full attention. After another day I was, as I say, in love.
Priestdaddy is, quite simply, one of the most loving, most humorous, most insightful, most poetic, and most generous memoirs I have ever read.
Here Lockwood, age 35, brings us her family: her father, a Lutheran pastor turned Catholic priest, a political and cultural conservative who loves to play electric guitar and lounge around in his underwear; her mother, a fanatic about health and diet who is a devout believer with a ribald sense of the absurd; and her siblings. Lockwood also tells her own story, her adolescent years in a strict but loving Catholic home, her running away from home at 19 with Jason, a man she will later marry, her struggles with the Church, and her ups-and-downs as a poet.
So how do I love thee, Patricia Lockwood? Let me count the ways.
First, Lockwood is a poet, published as such, and she has the connoisseur’s taste for words and syntax. Of her sister and singing she writes: “My sister stayed on the home note, and she never walked outside of the church. She will take fresh breaths of the cathedral as long as she lives, and empty her dead breaths into it, and in the midst of all that lofted air, her voice will keep climbing, surrounded by its angels, and the arches of their wings.”
Priestdaddy and Patricia Lockwood also brought me a mountain of mirth, which is what lovers do. Real lovers tell us something wicked or bawdy, and and delight us, and we burst with laughter, which brings strange looks from those around us. Below are a few of Lockwood’s lines, funnier when you have read them in context, but still sparkling here:
On her father and hunting (he was terrible at it): “Because my father wasn’t allowed to hunt hippies, he decided to settle for hunting deer instead.”
On her father’s refusal to wear a seatbelt: “Why would he ever want to be safe? What was he, a little girl? A miniature woman? A babylady? John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, huge hairy Samson form the Bible — those men didn’t wear seatbelts.”
On her sister’s home-schooled Catholic children: “In the course of regular conversation, they sometimes burst into Latin. In regular children, this would indicate a need to call the exorcist ….”
On her mother and her ignorance of computers: “Starting at midnight, she opens her laptop and begins reading the Internet aloud. How long can it take? she reasons. Five hundred pages at MOST.”
On the seminarian who lives with them for a while: “He was born, like many seminarians, at the age of sixty-five, with a pipe in his mouth and a glass of port in his hand.”
Then there is her take on Catholicism and conservatism. Lockwood no longer practices the Catholic faith in which she was raised. She is a progressive and a feminist.
Yet she writes of her childhood, of her parents, of conservatives, and of orthodox Catholics with a civility, a tenderness, and a smile rare today in our public square. She writes what she knows, her life and the life of her family, and of those eccentricities she finds in herself and others. Whether she agrees with her father’s ideas about God or her mother’s take on the Virgin Mary — she doesn’t — is immaterial. She writes as she does vibrant with love, telling us, perhaps unintentionally, that while ideas, faith, and politics are important, so too are the human beings in our lives.
In the last paragraph of Priestdaddy, Lockwood writes that “A family never recognizes its own idylls while it’s living them, while it’s all spread out on the red-and-white checked cloth, while the picnic basket is still open and before the ants have found the sugar, when everyone is still lying in the light with their hearts peeled and in loose sweet segments, doing one long Sunday’s worth of nothing. It recognizes them later, when people are gone, or moved away, or colder toward each other. This is about that idyll … and I am giving it no chance to grow cold.”
Thank you for Priestdaddy, Patricia Lockwood. You served up the idyll piping hot.
Now, a personal note and a warning: I am a believing Catholic (and sometimes a damned bad one), yet I found Lockwood’s presentation of the Faith humorous and true. Others more rigid than I might decry some of her humor as blasphemy.
Oh, well. I always was a fool for a merry woman who knows that words and language are holy.