By Heather Murray Elkins
The Pilgrim Press, 2006
Stuff. That’s the word that caught my eye when I first spotted the book Holy Stuff of Life: Stories, Poems, and Prayers about Human Things.
A colleague once accused me—and accurately so—of generously infusing the word “stuff” into my conversations. “Stuff” is vague and nebulous. But, at times, isn’t life? Sometimes I do not want to define or label things, to pin down that which should be untethered. Much can be learned by occasionally resisting the temptation to define the indefinable by refusing to give form to the formless with inadequate words, sometimes freedom and a greater sense of truth can be found by forgoing the responsibility of naming something and instead, embracing the ambiguity of a moment, a person, a thing, of, well, stuff.
At other times, most often when I am working on a poem, I obsess on the need to be precise. I must capture the essence of some thing. This thing demands exactitude, a word or words that illuminate its truth. Is it glistening or is it really shimmering? Captive or confined? Friend or comrade? Stuff or objects? What exactly is it? But I digress…
So when I came across Holy Stuff of Life displayed on a shelf in the church library, I felt an immediate affinity with the author and had to take it home.
Holy Stuff of Life is a collection of writings by Heather Murray Elkins, in which extra virgin olive oil, spoons, rocks, tattoos and other sundry items are salvaged from the commonplace and transformed into the extraordinary. Murray Elkins points out within her introduction, “This universe of stuff offers us a process of altar-ing our selves and our world. To altar/alter is to lift up the common place of life for holy use.”
This former “Truck-stop Chaplain” turned professor of worship and preaching at Drew University Theological School in Madison, New Jersey, Murray Elkins seems ever on the lookout to make connections that others might easily miss. And in this quest, she discovers holy in the mundane. Stuff becomes transformed when a story becomes attached to it; a spoon becomes the weapon for Christians, a dead Christmas tree become a sign of redemption. Each chapter is short and can stand on its own. Her stories are nuggets of wisdom, grounded in her own life as a daughter, mother, a pastor’s wife and as a minister herself.
During a recent stay at our home, my mother-in-law picked up the book and found herself reading aloud passages to her husband, a retired Methodist minister. “It’s not a book to be read fast,” she cautioned me. “You have to read it, put it down and think about it.” She’s right. I found myself, after each piece, setting the book down, staring out a window and wondering things like: What is my relationship to “stuff? What am I holding onto that I should be letting go of? How do I forgive? What am I missing?
Murray Elkins describes the final pieces of her collection as “stories of things that help us hope while waiting to see. And while we’re waiting for the broken circle to be mended, we remember to plant trees, wait on tables, sing songs, and tell stories about those people and things we’ve loved, lost, and hope to find again. Above all we must expect to be surprised.”
It is in this section she reflects on her father at the end of his life:
A man and his tool are not easily parted. It took my father both hands to drive a nail when he was eighty-five, but he was counting on being able to drive a nail when he turned ninety. A bleeding ulcer nearly swept him off the ladder of life, but he held on fiercely. I watch him doing arm lifts with Mother’s five-pound large print Bible so the doctors will let him go home. Pumping the iron of the gospel gets him home for one more year.
While most of her stories flow, her poems which are sprinkled throughout the book are another matter. With the exception of “Stirring Women” and “Father Joseph” the poems leave something to be desired. While she explores interesting ideas within them, the poems amble off and lose their way. Contrast, for example, these simple, lovely lines within a story about how her mother responds to losing the family farmhouse to fire:
She tells us to set the table, which means a lace cloth spread on the grass with mismatched spoons and saucers. Of course there’s no supper, but we set the table anyway.
to the first stanza within her poem “Soul Salsa”:
Now is the winter of our discontent.
An April ice
can frost any fire in the belly.
Global warming remains science fiction
in a season so rough in its going
that even the tough can’t get traction.
we’re all slip/sliding away.
Huh? What? The line breaks are odd and the whole poem lacks rhythm. I wished her publisher, The Pilgrim Press, had said, “Hold the salsa, Heather.”
That said, Heather Murray Elkins offers up a good book to the world/reader. (Just skip the poems.) Read it and you just might look at a spoon in a whole new way. It’s pretty good stuff.
For more on Heather Murray Elkins, check out her website: http://depts.drew.edu/tsfac/helkins/index.html
(And now I’m off to read: When You Were a Tadpole and I Was a Fish: And Other Speculations About This and That, by Martin Gardner, perhaps best known for his Mathematical Games column in Scientific American. This and that. It caught my eye. What can I say?)