The Wrong Way to Save Your Life: Essays
Paperback: Harper Perennial, 2017
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Reviewed by Seth Vopat
We have learned a mere 140 characters is all that is needed to express much in our digital world. Twitter has become the ideal platform for those with a sharp whit who speak and connect with the emotional angst we all feel about current events in our world. For those who need more space the blog has become the preferred method to speak and analyze the present.
Some might say the essay format like Megan Stielstra’s new compilation of essays entitled, The Wrong Way to Save Your Life, is outdated and obsolete in our digital wrong. But, they would be wrong!
As much as I have come to appreciate these new platforms the internet age has given us. I still find they cannot replace for me the well articulated and reasoned essay. Without question there is no easier way to hear a variety of voices and different points of view than through a simple internet search if—and it’s a big if—one is willing to leave his or her echo chamber. However, I like the tender and juicy—not to mention delicious—slow smoked meat which is hours in the making. I like words that have been sat with and chewed on and weighed for a weeks and months before being arranged on a page.
With essays, I find myself coming back again and again to reflect more on the author’s insights. To reread them and learn anew what the author revealed to me about a life lived well. Seldom do I find myself running a google search to find a previously read blogpost. Blogposts make great sprints, but essays endure for the long distance.
Megan Stielstra’s new compilation is a set of essays I see myself revisiting. I am not sure I have ever read an author who writes with more clarity and transparency. I grieved her sadness. I celebrated her joys as she reflected upon her experiences in life.
The book is masterfully framed in the first essay as she shares a story about a friend of hers, a man named Pete, who received word that a dear friend of his had passed away. Pete is an artist. He locked himself away in his room as he began to process his grief through his art. One day while Pete was out of the room Megan snuck in to see what he had created. When he came back in the room Pete shared with her how he was processing his grief.
She said Pete told her, “‘I wanted to get it out of me…You can’t fix it if you can’t see it.’”. Pete processed his anger, frustration, and grief in the best way he knew how. This story is in many ways the central arc which runs through Megan’s compilations and ties them all together. Like her friend who is an artist, she is a writer using words to get her feelings out onto a page where she can process them and the reader has the fortuitous opportunity to learn from her fears and joys.
I cannot say for sure, but I believe it was her willingness to be vulnerable—not willing to present a polished image—which invited me to reflect on my journey through life. And more strangely my own spiritual journey in life.
From essay to essay I found myself wondering if even fifteen years ago I would have been willing to read her book?
Or would I have deemed it too offensive?
For when I say she is transparent, I mean she is transparent as she writes about multiple sexual experiences she has had in life and what they taught her about sex and love.
I imagine my younger self would have found her to crass and vulgar. And yet, there is much I can learn from her as could the church. I don’t know many times growing up I have sat in a pew, hiding behind a mask, like the person next to me. Unwilling to confront my fears. Unwilling to try and look like anything less than perfect for fear I would then be labeled “unChristian” and “unfit” as a future ministerial candidate. To dismiss her work would be a mistake.
There are many essays I connected with in her books as I share similar fears. She writes, “Fire drills were easy: get up, go outside. Tornado drills: those were more complicated…Now our kids have active shooter drills.” As a father of two boys who are now in elementary school my heart thought, “these are my fears too!” and wrote amen beside many of her sentences.
As much as I loved her willingness to be transparent there were times I found myself in the role of a sibling thinking, “way too much information, you don’t need to be this explicit!” I have yet to decide whether my reaction is due to not seeing the relevance of some of her experiences to the larger narrative she crafted. Or was it simply a matter of my twenty year-old, more narrow minded self still trying to linger on. I will have to spend more time getting my own thoughts and emotions out of me, so I can see them, before I may know the answer.
Not one to be a spoiler I will simply say, I found her story about a baptism to be one of the most emotionally beautiful descriptions I have read in a long time. Clearly Megan is a gifted writer and a very humble one. I have seldom come across an author willing to make this declaration, let alone leave it print. She writes, “I’m not a good enough writer yet to explain what that did to my heart.” Maybe she does not feel this way, but her essays say otherwise.
They are written with an earnestness and an elegance which becomes infectious by the end. Her words encourage the reader to have courage, begin the hard work of getting one’s emotions and thoughts out in whatever format is preferred. So he or she might begin the task of seeing the beauty in his or her own heart and life.
Seth Vopat is Minister for Youth at Lee’s Summit Christian Church in Lee’s Summit, Missouri.