The Common Good
May-June 1996

In a State of Hopefulness

by Susan Wootten | May-June 1996

Barbara Kingsolver swims at high tide.

In the midst of a bitter winter, I revel in the warmth of Barbara Kingsolver's new collection of essays, High Tide in Tucson: Essays From Now or Never. It's the kind of read where I find myself erupting into fits of laughter, right there in bed next to my comatose spouse who mutters, "It must have been really good, hummmm." And it is.

Perhaps it's the quirky title and the hermit crab that inspired it. Perhaps it's the line, "In a place such as my hometown, you file in and sit down to day one of kindergarten with the exact pool of boys who will be your potential dates for the prom." Or, most likely, and more importantly, it's the fine thinking and careful writing that makes this collection a winner.

Taken together and in order, as Kingsolver would have us do, the 25 self-contained essays articulate a strong case for living life in a state of hopefulness. In her title essay, "High Tide in Tucson," Kingsolver argues, "To be hopeful, to embrace one possibility after another-that is surely the basic instinct....If the whole world of the living has to turn on the single point of remaining alive, that pointed endurance is the poetry of hope."

The essayist weaves a thread of hope through the background of each essay, adding texture with her trademark wry, loopy humor. Readers of Kingsolver's acclaimed fiction (The Bean Trees, Pigs in Heaven, Animal Dreams) are well-rewarded by their attention to Kingsolver's meditations on nature, family and community, and the writer's art, among others. She addresses a host of social, environmental, and political issues through personal anecdotes.

Kingsolver takes the high road, keeps her own counsel, and finds solace and revelation in the natural world-not surprising, for a writer first trained in zoology and ecology. She is unafraid to name our condition for what it is: "[We are] born to citizenship in the Animal Kingdom. We love and we lose, go back to the start and do it right over again. For every heavy forebrain solemnly cataloging the facts of a harsh landscape, there's a rush of intuition behind it crying out: High tide! Time to move out into the glorious debris. Time to take this life for what it is." Our membership in the animal kingdom is the unifying theme that undergirds all Kingsolver's essays in this collection.

She includes her own instructive tale of adaptation to the Arizona desert where she attempts to cultivate a garden on four "brambly" acres. Ravenous javelinas rebuff her efforts to plant hollyhocks. (Old Kentucky habits die hard.) Kingsolver suffers other gardening setbacks until her philosophy evolves to one of accommodating territoriality: OK, you guys take the lion's share of the desert flora; I'll just erect something akin to a Pueblo wall and settle for a few tomatoes, eggplants, and so on. "Maybe a little bed of snapdragons."

THROUGHOUT High Tide in Tucson, Kingsolver is eloquent but tempered in describing her gains and losses. In an age when it is fashionable to lay bare one's pain and disappointments, I found her restraint refreshing. The writer touches on her small-town Kentucky roots in several of the essays. Now living in Arizona (and having done so for half her life), she laments what she has lost: "I'm here for good, it seems. And yet I never cease to long in my bones for what I left behind." And who amongst us cannot say the same when we leave behind a well-loved landscape and its people?

But I do agree with Kingsolver's response to some of her "city-bred friends [who] muse about moving to a small town for the sake of their children. What's missing from their romantic picture of Grover's Corners is the frightening impact of insulation upon a child who's not dead center in the mainstream." For those of us, like Kingsolver, who are not dead center, finding the context in which our uniqueness is an asset, not a liability, often means forsaking that well-loved landscape, sometimes permanently.

In her essay "In Case You Ever Want to Go Home Again," Kingsolver uses a stunning metaphor for the instinct that drives her to write. She says, "The part of my soul that is driven to make stories is a fierce thing, like a ferret: long, sleek, incapable of sleep, it digs and bites through all I know of the world." It is not surprising that Kingsolver describes her vocation in such raw, powerful terms. And she casts its success in familiar language, for, she says, "the secret of writing [is] attitude. Hope, unyielding faith in the enterprise."

One of my favorite essays, "Paradise Lost," concerns Kingsolver's sojourn to the Canary Islands. In it, she describes a lost language based on melodic, whistled communication, called silbo. I was captivated by the thought of humanity's endless ingenuity, of the adaption of this language to its island culture that stretched along steep, curving shorelines hundreds of years ago.

Remarkably, Kingsolver seems to have witnessed (heard) an archaic remnant of silbo from her hotel balcony, a lovely call and response that reminds her of "a conversation of birds...in the garden, asking each other questions." Finding only a white-haired gardener, she asks him the name in silbo of a tropical, fruit-laden tree in the garden. "His mouth turned down in a strange pinch and he stood still a long time....Finally he said, 'She doesn't have a name in silbo. She's not from here.'" Such confirmation in its absence!

Delicate mauve blockprints by a longtime friend and collaborator from Kingsolver's days as a science writer enhance her text. Without giving too much more away, I can say that Kingsolver claims unexpected grace as hers, over and over, as she embraces life in a state of hopefulness. She finds much to celebrate in the ordinary stuff of life and that is instructive for each of us.

SUSAN WOOTTEN is a free-lance writer living in St. Louis Park, Minnesota.

Review of High Tide in Tucson: Essays From Now or Never. By Barbara Kingsolver. HarperCollins Publishers, 1995.

From Sojourners Online, copyright 1996 Sojourners, May-June 1996, Vol. 25, No. 3.

Culture Watch

Pledging Allegiance to our God
The ground of urban ministry.
by Al Gallmon

After reading Eldin Villafañe's Seek the Peace of the City, while driving up 16th Street NW in Washington, D.C., I noticed at almost every glance a church, temple, or synagogue. I recalled Luke 19:40-41: "He answered, 'I tell you, if [my disciples] were silent, the stones would shout out.' As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it."

Villafañe has boldly challenged the church in general, and the inner-city church in particular, to return to the fundamentals of transforming the landscape into a "city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God" (Hebrews 11:10). Seek the Peace of the City serves as a wake-up call to those of us who have fallen asleep at the helm of prophetic engagement with a ruthless society.

I was inspired by Villafañe's listening to the Proverbs writer's words, "Where there is no vision, the people perish" (Proverbs 29:18). I would suggest, however, that Villafañe not speak so gingerly with us, for vision and revelation do exist. The question is at our tent doors: Is the vision and revelation from God?

Perhaps some of us are giving clarity to another shepherd's voice, causing the vision and revelation to lack any real transformative power. Perhaps the vision is not to build fancier stones, which isolate and insulate us from our neighbors and their condition. Instead we should be building greater avenues of trust and understanding, as Villafañe discusses in the sixth chapter, "Hispanic and African-American Racial Reconciliation: A Latin Jazz Note."

As a Latino, Villafañe has captured the essence of a new exploration of liberation theology-the liberation of our souls. We should now begin to build upon Villafañe's "ministry of presence, the ministry of peace (Shalom) and the ministry of Prayer," in order to shape and mold our own particular context.

Villafañe testifies:

It is at the cross of Christ that paradoxically our poverty and powerlessness are transvaluated into the power of God for personal and social transformation. The cross of our Lord Jesus Christ is not only a historical reality that is crucial to our theological self-understanding and experience of redemption, but it is also a paradigm-a model-for our lives and for the life of the church-especially if it is to play a redemptive and revitalizing role in the urban world....

When I look for models of vital, growing, and faithful Christianity around the world, I find them not in those churches whose life and mission are defined by the powers of this world. Rather, I look to the many "poor" churches-the churches from the underside-who by intention (explicit conformity to the gospel) or by oppression (implicit conformity to the gospel) bear the marks of the cross.

The people of God, as well as the people of the city, are perishing because their vision lacks the breadth of God's vision. And the result, Villafañe states, is that "the Spirit is grieved." As Jim Wallis reminds us in his book The Call to Conversion, "The kingdom of God has come to change the world and us with it. Our choice is simply whether or not we will offer our allegiance to the kingdom."

AL GALLMON is the pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., and chair of the Sojourners Neighborhood Center board of directors.

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