GRACE IN THE FIRST PERSON: Growing into Life and Faith
Lee Pearson Knapp
Reading the very first line of Lee Knapp's introduction to her book of essays, I had the feeling I was really going to like this book. Half way into the first chapter, I knew I would, especially when I realized I was smiling as I read.
Maybe I was smiling because Lee Knapp is so much like me --- we're both recovering fundamentalists, mothers of boys, as well as sharing similar chaotic childhoods --- and yet, she's so much better at articulating what I'm thinking and feeling than I am. Or perhaps, she's just more honest about her struggles to fulfill everyone else's expectations for her ---her parents', her children's, her faith community's and even her perception of what she thought God wanted her to be. Whatever the reason, her book is very good, particularly because she's such a good writer.
The lines in the introduction that grabbed me were these: "About a fourth of the way into writing the first draft of this book, I found my voice. This was a much better proportion than the 50 percent of my life I have spent trying to figure out who I am." A sentence or two later, she writes, "The other half of the time I've tripped into the traps of comparing myself either to someone else or to some impossible standard."
And so starts chapter after chapter of well-written prose examining bits and pieces of her life as mom, wife, daughter, artist, writer, friend and church member, learning to tune out everyone else's voice and discover, for the first time in her life, a true sense of freedom. As a writer, this freedom allows her to stop trying to sound on paper like somebody else; as a Christian, she learned to cease conforming to her faith community's impossible standard of perfection and "lack of emotionalism." As a mom, it meant stopping to try to make her three boys perfect and as a daughter, it was a fresh permission to look back on her father's life from the perspective of adulthood, with a much better appreciation of how much he loved her, even if he had trouble expressing it.
In her first essay, Knapp explains she was voted "Most Likely To Succeed" by her high school classmates, a title she found flattering at the time, but in looking back, "was actually rather cruel." The phrase "carries a burden of proof that is missed at eighteen, but painfully obvious at forty." In less than a hundred paragraphs she unravels what it means to be a success comparing her son, who is complaining he'll never grow to be able to compete with much larger and more talented boys, to her own life.
"I have wanted the desires of my heart and the toil of my hands to produce instant results, like the time-lapsed National Geographic films of lilies blooming or baby chicks hatching. Anything I could imagine producing --- whether it was art or money or children --- would seamlessly and gracefully unfold while a soft-spoken narrator gently explained every well-ordered and beautiful phrase. But in my experience, life doesn't work that way…When my Big Zero year was approaching, I was defending myself against the feeling that zero was also the sum total of my life. I couldn't get the thought out of my mind that by forty I should be slam-dunking life in a tank top with armpits full of hair too. Like Eric's, my desire for stature and my need to achieve something really big by then had grown so overblown that it blurred a long-ago strongly held sense of identity. I should have heeded my own advice to Eric, only slightly adjusted for middle age: You do need a deep sense of who you are on the inside when surrounded, seemingly, by people whose glands drained way before yours."
As a writer myself, I often hope for one or two great sentences --- and I mean, really great sentences like Knapp's --- per essay. Knapp's work is filled with so many great lines that thumbing through my copy shows more underlined prose than not. This quick read has plenty of "ah ha" lines that will leave you not only smiling, but also wanting to leave your copy on the nightstand to come back to, again and again.
--- Reviewed by Diana Keough
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