A Feature Review of
Any Day a Beautiful Change.
Katherine Willis Pershey.
Reviewed by Ellen Painter Dollar.
Among a certain subset of Christians, it has become trendy to praise spiritual memoirists by comparing them to Anne Lamott. I no longer trust such comparisons. Lamott’s voice is so unique—sharply focused yet charmingly disheveled, fiercely critical, yet hospitably humble. And of course, she is funnier than all of the rest of us earnest spiritual memoirists combined. When I open a book that some endorser has labeled as Lamott-esque, I am almost inevitably disappointed.
So the last thing I expected to write about Katherine Willis Pershey’s engaging tidbit of a spiritual memoir, Any Day a Beautiful Change is that it reminds me of Lamott’s work, specifically Traveling Mercies—a book Pershey mentions as a dog-eared favorite. But it does.
Pershey’s voice is more measured and certainly less political than Lamott’s, her humor more understated and her intimate revelations more circumspect. But like Traveling Mercies and Lamott’s other nonfiction work, Any Day a Beautiful Change is not so much a memoir as it is a series of linked essays that explore spiritual truths, relying on loosely chronological events in the author’s life as inspiration.
Ordained in the Disciples of Christ, Pershey writes as priest, wife, and mother, focusing in these pages (a mere 115 of them—her writing is beautifully efficient) on the two-year period following the birth of her daughter Juliette. At the same time, she was pastoring a congregation and working with husband Benjamin to heal a marriage marred by the lobbing of “inexcusable insults,” followed by uneasy truces purchased at the cost of her husband’s increasing “self-loathing.”
Of their ultimately successful efforts to repair their marriage through counseling, Pershey writes:
I’m amazed that a marriage devoid of infidelity and physical violence could be so damaged, that two people who were so functional could be so broken. But I’m even more amazed that such damage could be mended and such brokenness healed.
She goes on,
Not to perpetuate the myth that having a child can save a marriage, but the other thing that saved our marriage was having a child…We’d put up with an ailing marriage for five years, and suddenly, there was a small person whose life would be radically altered if we couldn’t pull it together. We hadn’t done it for ourselves, but we would do anything for her.
As with this insight into her marital healing, the most compelling material in Pershey’s memoir comes when she links insights into her own spiritual and emotional health with motherhood. When I read on the book’s back cover that it arose from Pershey’s participation in the Young Clergy Women’s Project, I was afraid there might be too much discussion of the clergy life—a topic that interests me insofar as I belong to a church, but that I can’t relate to as a layperson. And indeed, the first thing I did upon finishing the book was dash off an e-mail to my own assistant pastor, a young clergy woman who, like Pershey, found herself explaining to her new boss that she would require maternity leave less than a year into a new job. Many of Pershey’s reflections on ministry will ring especially true for those who share her pastoral calling.
But there was plenty that rang true to me as well, as a Christian, a woman, a mother. She tells of a desperate Saturday morning when she realized the severe pain that every nursing session with newborn Juliette brought on might not be either normal or necessary. With Benjamin incapacitated on the bathroom floor with a migraine, Pershey called on a parishioner to drive her to the local lactation clinic for help. She writes,
[Juliette] showed up one day just expecting me to know how to bless her. My desperation to make breastfeeding work was rooted in my longing to have a tangible means to do so—a means as tangible as bread and wine. So long as the milk gets from my breast to her belly, I know she is receiving the blessing she needs. That her blessing pained me for a time…well, yes. That’s how it works. Long after I first wrestled with those doctrines in classrooms and chapels, I’ve finally learned that there’s no way for the bread to be broken and the wine to be spilled without someone’s body and blood taking a hit. It isn’t that the pain is redemptive. The pain is redeemed.
That is one of several passages in the book that left me saying simply, “Yes.” Not, “Yes, but…” or “What about…?” Simply, “yes.” Is it because I too am a mother who has given my body, literally and with much pain, to my children? Certainly. But it is also because I am a Christian caught up in the perennial struggle to make sense of pain and suffering while trusting a God of mercy and love. Mothers are an obvious target audience for Pershey’s book, but many of her straightforward, beautifully crafted theological insights can apply to any of us.
The book’s sole off-note is one that I, as a mom, can easily forgive. Pershey includes a postscript dedicated to her daughter, introducing it by saying, “There isn’t nearly enough Juliette in this book.” I disagree. I think there was just the right amount of Juliette in the book’s main pages, enough to illustrate how her birth and presence transformed (and along with her baby sister’s presence, is transforming) her parents’ lives, ministry, marriage, and faith.
The postscript, a loving tribute by a smitten mama, is unnecessary. But it is also lovely and heartfelt, like the rest of the book. This little gem of a memoir was a pleasure to read, with short chapters perfect for those of us so exhausted by our own family and work responsibilities that 20 minutes of pre-crash bedtime reading is the most we can hope for. With an engaging story serving as scaffolding for genuine theological and emotional insights, Any Day A Beautiful Change is a gift for readers struggling, like Pershey, to find God, along with marital, family, and spiritual well-being, in the muddle of our hectic days.
Ellen Painter Dollar is author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Parenthood, and Faith in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). She blogs at: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/ellenpainterdollar/
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com