A Feature Review of
Wild in the Hollow:
On Chasing Desire and Finding The Broken Way Home
Hardback: Revell, 2015
Buy now: [ Amazon ] [ Kindle ]
Reviewed by Matt Bays
We autopilot through our twenties on the fumes of our adolescence. Breakdowns are just around the next bend in the road—sin crouching, waiting on us to sleep with someone who doesn’t belong to us, or take up an addiction we thought we were immune to. I’m convinced that in our twenties there are two people inside each of us—the broken down twenty-something who’s waiting to be beautiful, while our future-self painfully paints our faces with the truth.
For those of us who’ve grown up in church circles, we got it honest. Because self-awareness isn’t on the “fruits of the spirit” list, most religious institutions never taught us how to take a good look inside.
“…people go to church to discuss how fabulous they are,” author Amber C. Haines tells us in Wild in the Hollow: On Chasing Desire and Finding the Broken Way Home.
Spend a decade or two living amid the rabble of those whose concern is to keep things civil with God rather than honest or ugly-beautiful, and you’re a prime candidate for a moral or spiritual failure.
The truth is, so many are trying to recover from the subculture of Christianity, with its secret language, mandatory holiness, and forced, skin-deep community. Of course our faith of origin did good things for us too, which Amber is gracious to point out, but so many have walked away from God as a result of the things Amber experienced in her spiritual formation. This is why I’m so grateful for her book, which is not simply a memoir, but a guiding spirit for those who know what it’s like to be lost, even when we were told we had been found.
If I’m being completely honest, the only reason I picked up Wild in the Hollow in the first place is because I was making friends with a writer (Seth Haines) and he mentioned that his wife Amber had also written a book. Truth be told, I thought…
I like this guy, so I’ll read his wife’s book as a token of esteem for our new friendship.
Two days later I was sitting in a church service, flipping page after page, drawn deeper into one of the most gorgeous narratives I’ve read in a long time. And I suppose it was poetic justice to be reading it in church, which I wasn’t doing out of rebellion, but because I couldn’t put it down.
Some we call “Wordsmiths” because they string words together in a way we haven’t heard before, and this new way of saying a thing feels good on our tongues. But Amber is a new breed of wordsmith. She hasn’t pounded out a phrase with a literary hammer until it falls into place. Instead, she has knit phrases softly together, or rather, brush-stroked them into existence. They don’t proudly display themselves before us—they dance with grace and humility. And they offer us their hand as our eyes float over them. They are ballet, not tap—watercolor, not oil.
“Even during my years of rejecting what I had been taught to be true, I would marvel at the fog folding up over the pond. It was the robe of God, the fabric morning unveiling day. It has never been a leap for me to see God in the trees and in the sky. If I saw an eagle shoot up hard like a firework and drop tight like a stone into dark water for a fish, my heart would leap like God might actually know my name…I wouldn’t speak to God, no, but my heart was undergirded with sorrow toward him, how there was always a part of me that knew his kindness existed.”
During the three days it took me to read her book, I called friends and recited excerpts over the phone. I dog-eared pages so I could return to them later, because like a good song lyric, the poetry of so many passages validated things within me that needed to be confirmed. That life is not so easy to understand. That faith is more beautiful at the ragged edge of our goodness. That I am a broken man. That God loves me that way.
That the world needs me that way.
If you have forgotten the church of the 80’s and 90’s, Amber will remind you. In Wild in the Hollow she conjures a spiritual world where decency and decorum eclipse the glory of our weakness and healing of God’s love. One of the examples that so creatively illustrates this point is a reference she makes to sweater sets; a uniform or sorts, she often wears to church. This image is used as a metaphor for the tidy veneer many religious groups aim for. But her sweater set is a straight jacket—a symbol of bondage; of religious instability, bordering on spiritual coercion. And Amber is left searching for something—for anything she can find that is real.
On her journey, Amber finds comfort in words. Poetry reconnects her to the mystical God who chased her down in her youth. She becomes a student of poetry in a master of fine arts program and recognizes her deep longings for freedom in the students who welcome her into this new world. But these good people love in ways that are perhaps too free, and as she and Seth fall away from one another (and because she is still running on spiritual fumes) Amber falls in love with another man.
“Franz Wright came to teach for a semester and won his Pulitzer during his stay. I was in the first class he taught….His reading was slow. Our breaths sucked up inside us. We were holding. Not a sound. Then his voice cracked, and he stopped to catch the words in suspense, lest he cry in front of us all. That’s when I knew I loved him, right away, someone broken.”
Amber openhandedly invites us into her and Seth’s story of infidelity, broken vows, and addiction, which authentically transitions into a coming of age triumph—one of faith, love, and new found strength in weakness. Because as Amber so beautifully tells us,
“Weak places are indeed a siphon for glory.”
This new spiritual freedom Amber finds within her broken story is transformed into something useful. She now carries her pain into the light and presents it as a love offering to other stragglers she is finding along the way.
“Know that when you meet someone working hard to be outwardly beautiful and fit for consumption, inside they may be wasting away. Bookmark them with love, because if they burn out, if they become the lowly and see their misplaced desires, they’ll need arms to hold them and dinner tables where brothers and sisters pass the plate.”
Amber shows us how to be tender to the broken, and thus to ourselves.
Wild in the Hollow took me completely by surprise. Initially, I read it only to be nice, having no idea what a rare and generous gift it would become. I highly recommend this memoir for those who are bonded in the straight jacket of religion and struggling to be freed. For those who read it, it is sure to be a chapter in their own story of freedom and redemption.
Matt Bays is the author of: Finding God In The Ruins (How God Redeems Pain), his debut book, which NY Times bestselling author, Ann Voskamp, describes as “Rare, raw, gorgeous writing—profoundly moving.” Matt lives in Indianapolis with his wife, Heather, and their two daughters. Find him online at mattbayswriter.com or on Twitter: @mattbayswriter .