Lauren Winner rose to mild fame in certain areas of the Christian world with her memoir Girl Meets God, the story of her conversion, first to Orthodox Judaism (she was raised Jewish, but had to convert to be technically considered Jewish, since her mother was not a Jew), then to Christianity. I really enjoyed Girl Meets God, finding it engaging and well-written, and I liked her subsequent book of essays, Mudhouse Sabbath, a series of reflections on lessons that Christians could learn from Jews about spiritual practice. I didn’t read her book Real Sex, on chastity and marriage, which may be just as well, since we learn in her fourth book, Still, that Winner’s own marriage ended after only five years. Coupled with her mother’s death, the divorce left Winner feeling spiritually adrift and abandoned. It’s out of this experience — a “mid-faith crisis,” as she describes it, that Still emerges.
I’ve read some bad reviews of Still, some of which seem to be bad reviews of Winner herself, criticizing her maybe for getting divorced, or maybe just for putting her inner life on display in such a public way. One thing that most readers of Still, those who like it and those who don’t, agree on that this is no tell-all memoir: Winner decently refuses to air the details of her marital break-up. In fact, for someone who was pretty relentless about exposing the details of her most significant pre-marital relationship in Girl Meets God, she’s extremely reserved here. This preserves both her own dignity and that of her ex-husband, but it leaves a lot of questions hanging. As with the author of Eat, Pray, Love (a book Winner mocks, but also admits to reading twice in a row soon after her divorce) one can be left with the image of a discontented young woman who broke up an acceptable marriage for insufficient reasons.
The thing is, that’s not really what Still is about. Winner is even willing to place a good deal of the blame for her marriage’s break-up on her own shoulders — again, like Elizabeth Gilbert. What the book is about is what you do next — and it’s really not a memoir. There’s very little narrative thread running through Still, and readers expecting a memoir may find it disappointing. Nor is it an uplifting how-to manual on how to hang onto your faith when you’re in the midst of a spiritual dry spell — something a lot of us would like to have. Many of the negative reviews I’ve seen have come from readers who seem to expect the book to be one of the other of these two things, and who find it hard to decide exactly what Winner is doing here, what the point of writing the book was.
To me — and I read the book very quickly, with great enjoyment, on a snowy Sabbath — Still is exactly what it claims to be: a collection of notes. The purpose of those notes is better understood, I think, if you pay attention to Winner’s love of Emily Dickinson and Anne Sexton, both quoted frequently in Still. Although her format is prose, not poetry, Winner is doing here exactly what poets do — writing short individual pieces that capture what she’s seeing and doing and feeling in a specific moment. There’s not a “big picture” here in terms of a narrative or an argument, though she does arrange the pieces into three sections that suggest a movement from total spiritual blankness, to a re-engagement with God. She provides no blueprints for how to get from one spot to the other, nor does she narrate many of the life events she passes through on they way. Rather, she pauses at moments, like a poet or painter or photographer might do, and says, “Here’s where I am. This is what the view from here looks like.”
If you’ve ever experienced a period of spiritual darkness or dryness (and I find it hard to believe that anyone seriously pursing a spiritual life has not), don’t pick up Still if you want to read a gripping and inspiring memoir of how someone else came through such a time and triumphed. Don’t read it if you want a manual that will give you step-by-step instructions for getting through this hard time. Read Still if you want to share those moments with someone who’s been there and stopped to take a few snapshots. You may not emerge with anymore answers, but you’ll know you’re not alone.