Book Review: Listening Against the Stone by Brenda Miller

Listening Against the Stone: MeditationsListening Against the Stone: Meditations by Brenda Miller

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In my writing life, I tend to chafe against expectations of starting in medias res. I like backstory, I like to be prepared for the action when it comes. I don’t mind a leisurely pace. I am easily hurt by the implication that readers will not be as interested in my protagonist’s innermost thoughts and reflections as I think they should be.

One of the gentle lessons of this collection of essays is why I need to get over that reluctance to “get the story started”.

Miller is a wonderful writer. She can use words like I imagine an artist uses a paintbrush and colors, to create a whole world in readers’ minds with a few deft strokes. Theoretically she is also an interesting writer for me to read because she and I share cultural experiences. Sandwiched as I am between the boomers and the millenials, the same age as Generation X but somehow not part of the mindset, it rarely happens to me that cultural references come easily.

But I didn’t realize either of these until I was about 1/3 of the way through the essays. I won this book from Skinner House Books in a contest I eagerly entered, and its cover claims that Miller is a “Pushcart Prize-winning author”. I was very much looking forward to reading it. So every night before bed, I pushed the pushcart a little further up the hill by reading another essay. Friends and boyfriends, and exotic locales, came and went. Kevin, Keith, A.J. Seth. Portugal, Jordan, Jerusalem, Van Nuys. I too have traveled another continent with a man I thought I loved. I too have been part of a circle of girls at a slumber party, trying to lift a giggle-suppressing friend with 2 fingers, intoning “light as a feather, stiff as a board.” I too have had searing arguments with a lover about the nature of religion and faith. And yet, pushing the cart, I couldn’t keep all those people and places straight, or quite figure out why I should care.

That changed when I got to the essay, “I Need a Miracle,” about Miller’s engineer father making her a mix tape. She tied up the awkward relationship between old-fashioned fathers and modern daughters, and what love can and can’t do in the face of inexorable, faceless change, all in one paragraph, both devastating and hopeful. And so for me, the story started.

The collection then meanders like a mountain stream through hot springs, massages, Buddhist retreats, and an open relationship. I enjoy this, especially given the evocative quality of the writing, but I am a tourist again in the land of the boomers. Miller’s version of California bears little resemblance to the Googlified technoparadise I currently inhabit. I finally think to check when Miller was born. I am guessing she is 5-10 years older than I am. The answer is 6 years older. Boom.

Her version of Buddhism is educational, at times refreshingly non-self-righteous, at times boring. I like, and admire, the fact that she is willing to admit sometimes to being bored by spiritual practice, but perseveres anyway to find the meaning in it.

One central theme of this book is how the author’s view of spirituality has changed over time. I see it not so much as a radical, or even sea change but as a deepening and a falling away of non-essential trappings of ritual to get at the pure joy of being alive. The essay, “Raging Waters” is a perfect example. “Yes, my love, we’ll do it again, and again, until the hours have spilled from this day and our time here is finally done.”

Given how closely linked music and spirituality are said to be, it amuses and charms me that Miller says she can’t sing. I can’t really sing either, although I’m not tone deaf as she claims to be. I can sing in tune and match pitch, but I have a weak, tremulous singing voice. Yet, unlike Miller, I am a musician of some accomplishment, in spite of my lack of vocal talent. I just need a surrogate voice, aka an instrument. Her two essays about music, “The 23rd Adagio”, and “Secret Machine”, suggest that she too is a closet, non-singing, musician.

“The 23rd Adagio” is about one of my favorite music stories of all time: Vedran Smailovic, the cellist of Sarajevo, who played the Albinoni Adagio in the streets honoring the 22 victims of a bakery bombing in that city. Smailovic survived the war and later came to perform in Seattle, WA. Miller was at that performance, and wrote about it. This performance inspired others as well. There is even a UU RE lesson about him in the Tapestry of Faith curriculum. I tried to teach that lesson in my former church and was crying my eyes out before the first phrase of the Albinoni ended. It’s a little embarrassing for that to happen in front of a bunch of 11-year-olds, but as I remember, they were nice about it. As Miller says, “You can’t wait, sometimes, for the setting to be perfect . . . You have to make yourself heard, even if it’s just for a moment or two, when the music takes on a life of its own and leaves the shelter of your hands.”

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: Listening Against the Stone by Brenda Miller”

  1. I enjoyed your review, and your comments about beginning in media res. As I writer, I’m also ambivalent about that dictum! In case you don’t know, there’s also a novelization about the cellist of Sarajevo, which we read in our book group.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m ambivalent about it generally, but in the case of this particular book, it started too slowly and needed some action. I almost gave up on it but am glad I did not! Thanks for letting me know about the novelization. What is the title?

      Like

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