The following is from Roger Pearson’s biography, Voltaire Almighty: A Life in Pursuit of Freedom: “â€˜What put me off studying the law,â€™ he later told his friend the marquis dâ€™Argenson in 1739, â€˜was the vast amount of useless rubbish they wanted to load into my brain. Get to the point, thatâ€™s my motto.â€™” 
Dr. Mark Chmiel,
Hello, my name is Robyn d’Avignon and I am a recent graduate from Washington University (in St. Louis). Upon graduation, my best friend, Emily Warming, sent me a copy of The Book of Mev. Emily had the opportunity to meet you when you visited Creighton University this past year. I am sure you have received many emails about the book over the years, but I wanted to make sure that I let you know that the book meant a great deal to me. Emily and I have shared a close friendship since early high school and we have gone through many struggles with the Christian faith together. Her experience at a Jesuit university was formative for her, and consequently, challenged me in many ways (it especially challenged many prejudices that I now realize I held for the Catholic church). All that is a background to saying that we both feel deeply committed to service, although, I for one, am also deeply conflicted on how best to serve in my life and the relationship of this service to my faith.
The Book of Mev arrived at my doorstep at a very difficult time. I was deeply conflicted about whether or not to accept an offer from the Peace Corps for a country assignment that I had serious hesitations about. To be honest, I did not want to read the book because I was afraid it was only going to make me feel more inadequate about where I was not only with my faith, but with my capacity to serve. I won’t repeat in detail what I am sure many have told you. But in short, I read the book and had the complete opposite reaction I expected to have. I was deeply moved by your story and of the many people (scholars, priests, etc) that were included in it. I related considerably with your struggle as a young person with faith and your relationship to service as a scholar.
After much deliberation, I decided not to accept my first Peace Corps offer. Fortunately, I received another offer that, I believe, will best utilize my strengths. I found that many of the reasons why I accepted this offer to serve were reflected in the final pages of your book, in which you described to a close friend why you wanted to travel to Palestine. I just wanted to thank you because I feel certain that I was sent your book at a very critical time in my decision-making, and I am grateful for it.
In a month I will be leaving for Senegal to serve as an agriculture extension volunteer. When I return I plan to apply for doctoral programs in cultural anthropology. Currently, I am contemplating the possibility of spending the year in between Peace Corps and grad school working in North St. Louis, potentially for a non-profit that a friend of mine from Wash U has started there. I hope that I can be involved with the Karen House when I return to St. Louis, or in the least, learn more about the community there.
In the interim, I thought I would ask you if you had any book recommendations for a hopeful young scholar heading off to the Peace Corps. I am particularly interested in theology titles that speak to the social commitments of Christianity and service.
Thank you for your time and your book!
Recently, I’ve been sharing a reflection from Virginia Woolf with my students. In Three Guineas, she describes the kind of professional we ought to avoid becoming.Woolf’s skepticism about women joining men in the professions reminds me of the discussion Mev had with Jon Sobrino about the need not just for liberation theologians, but liberation phgotographers, accountants, and, one can imagine, every kind of professional (The Book of Mev, p.54). Here’s Woolf: â€œThose opinions cause us to doubt and criticize and question the value of professional life â€“ not its cash value; that is great; but its spiritual, its moral, its intellectual value. They make us of the opinion that if people are highly successful in their professions they lose their senses. Sight goes. They have no time to look at pictures. Sound goes. They have no time to listen to music. Speech goes. They have no time for conversation. They lose their sense of proportion â€“ the relations between one thing and another. Humanity goes. Moneymaking becomes so important that they must work by night as well as by day. Health goes. And so competitive do they become that they will not share their work with others though they have more than they can do themselves. What then remains of a human being who has lost sight, sound, and sense of proportion? Only a cripple in a cave.â€
The other day I was reviewing some notes I took on Before Night Falls by one of my favorite writers, Reinaldo Arenas, from Cuba. Reading his novel, The Color of Summer, was a breakthrough experience for me, as he gave me an idea of how to structure The Book of Mev in a series of recurring chapter titles. The following are some passages from Before Night Falls that I love, ones that reflect his ardor for the word, for books, reading them and writing them…
(1) â€œWalking among those shelves, I saw, radiating from each book, the scintillating promise of a unique mystery.â€
(2) â€œMeeting Lezama was an entirely different experience. Here was a man who had made literature his very life; here was one of the most erudite human beings I had ever met. He did not use his knowledge to show off; it was simply something to hang on to for survival, something vital that fired his imagination and at the same time reflected on anyone who came close to him. Lezama had the extraordinary gift of radiating creative vitality. After talking with him I would go home and sit down at my typewriter to write, because it was impossible to listen to that man without being inspired. In him, wisdom and innocence met. He had a special talent for giving meaning to the life of others.â€
(3) â€œWe wrote incessantly and would read anywhere: in abandoned houses, in parks, at beaches, while walking over rocks. We would read not only our own words but also those of great writersâ€¦. We would read for everyone to enjoy.â€
(4) â€œWriting crowned or complemented all other pleasures as well as calamities.â€
(5) â€œI started writing my memoirs in the notebooks that Juan had brought me. Under the title Before Night Falls I would write all day until dark, waiting for the other darkness that would come when the police eventually found me. I had to hurry to get my writing done before my world finally darkened, before I was thrown in jail.â€
(6) â€œSometimes at night I would continue reading The Iliad with the help of my lighter.â€
(7) â€œAt midnight we parted and Lezama said to me: â€˜Remember that our only salvation lies in words: Write!â€™â€
My friend Pat Geier sent me the following reflection from Scripture scholar John Dominic Crossan. He reminds me of the chapter in The Book of Mev called “God/1,” in which Mev and I discuss atheism and idolatry.
As our friends at CTSA (www.ctsastl.org) have often reminded me, the great question of our times is, Are we moving toward community or empire?
The following is from The Washington Post and in answer to the question “Do you believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God? If so, what exactly does that mean? If not, who was he?”
Jesus, As Son of God, Brought Humanity Salvation
John Dominic Crossan
For me, as a Christian, Jesus was and still is the â€œSon of Godâ€ as a transcendental alternative to Caesar as â€Son of God.â€
High above the Meander plain, on the mid-Aegean coast of Turkey, lies a broken beam from above the entrance to ancient Prieneâ€™s main temple. It proclaims in large Greek letters a dedication to that cityâ€™s patron goddess, Athena, but also to the â€œAutocrat Caesar, the Son of God, the God Augustus.â€
Greeks and Romans distinguished between a god who was eternal backwards and forwards â€“ for example, Jupiter â€“ and a deified human, eternal only forwards â€“ for example, Hercules. Romans distinguished those two categories linguistically as deus or dea versus divus or diva. Greeks used the same word for both types of divinity â€“ theos or thea. (And, of course, since the New Testament was written in Greek not Latin, the fully human Jesus is designated there as divine with theos- not divus-language.)
In any case, and by whatever term, the essential job-description of a deified human, of a person raised to divine status was quite clear. Required: major salvific service to the human race.
Deification was usually accorded only after death but Caesar Augustus received it even while he was alive. He was called Divine, Son of God, God, and God from God; Lord, Redeemer, Liberator, and Savior of the World. Why? What service had he rendered the Roman Empire or – as it preferred to style itself – the world, the earth, the human race?
He had brought permanent internal peace to an empire almost wrecked by twenty years of civil war â€“ a nightmarish strife with battle-hardened legions led by predatory warlords on both sides. They even called it Augustan Peace (Pax Augusta) although we usually say Roman Peace (Pax Romana). Roman imperial theology formed around the emperor as divine â€“ and with all those other titles just given – that is, around a human being who had executed fully and incarnated perfectly its core creed of peace through violent victory. In other words, the eternal and imperial creed of all those who cannot distinguish between peace and lull.
Early Christians, with whom I stand as a contemporary Christian, claimed that Jesus was Divine, Son of God, God, and God from God; Lord, Redeemer, Liberator, and Savior of the World. Those titles, taken from a Roman emperor on the Palatine hill and given to a Jewish peasant on the Nazareth ridge, were either low lampoon or high treason.
Since the Romans did not roll over laughing, I trust their judgment that they were deliberate anti-titles. They announced that, not Caesar the Augustus, but Jesus the Christ had incarnated and contributed the fullest transcendental service to the human race. What, then, was that alternative service to the imperial chant of peace through victory? It was the call of peace through justice and that vision came straight from the heart of Judaism.
Jesusâ€™ alternative vision was utterly Jewish even if not every first-century Jew would have agreed with it â€“ not Josephus, for example, nor similar faith-based Roman collaborators. His vision came from the non-violent creation in Genesis 1, from the core of Torah in Leviticus, from the relentless critique of injustice and inequality in the prophets, from the insistence that the world belonged to God in the psalms. It came from Godâ€™s opposition to Empire â€“ Egyptian in Exodus, Assyrian in Nahum, Babylonian, Medean, Persian, Greek, and Syrian in Daniel.
Jesus confronted the Empire of Rome with the Kingdom of God and his followers later confronted the Roman emperor as Son of God with the Jewish Jesus as Son of God. Today we may like or dislike their choice of theological language, but we should at least recognize that they proclaim Godâ€™s opposition to Empire â€“ Egyptian or Roman, British or American â€“ because of its violent injustice.
Finally, titles of Jesus like Lamb of God, Word of God, and Son of God are relational metaphors. They are not literal but they are real because we humans can only see by seeing-as, that is, metaphorically. But metaphor is never simply Rorschach. It never means just whatever we need or want. It always requires some integrity of interpretation from the constraints of meaning born of time and place, society and culture.
But among those three metaphors, Jesus as Son of God is very special because that was the title of Caesar on coins and inscriptions, statues and structures all over the Mediterranean world at the time of Jesusâ€™ birth. To confess that title of Jesus was to de-confess it of Caesar, that is, to commit your life to peace through justice rather than peace through victory. It still is.
Irish-born John Dominic Crossan is a professor emeritus in the religious studies department at DePaul University in Chicago. Between 1950 and 1969, he was a member of a 13th-century Roman Catholic religious order, the Servites, and remained an ordained priest from 1957 to 1969. He has delivered lectures to secular and lay audiences from Scandinavia to Australia to Japan to South Africa. The On Faith panelist has authored 23 books and his writings have been translated into 11 languages.
I just received another email from Kate Heidemann, who is all excited about an imminent visit from her St. Louis family. Thinking that she was a poor university graduate working abroad in France, I offered her a few shekels for her enjoyment, but this is not to be (yet). I encouraged her to write an op-ed for the Post-Dispatch on how the French view “typical” Americans.
Kate is one of those people who, when she’s with you, makes you feel like you are the most important person dans tout le monde.
Ah, to be young and in France….
So little time (this is my last computer session before I leave tomorrow!!) and so much to say …
Yes, you can use whatever you want from any of the emails I send you, ever. You don’t even have to ask. I looked at your blog and read a few of the exerpts. The little voice in my head said “Oh my God, what the heck did he see in your email to want to put it up on this page with so many other, more important messages?”
But I’m trying to tell that voice to shut up, because I know that’s what you’d want me to do ;)
I’ve been trying to write a bit while I’m here. Sometimes I get out paper at night–and I have lots of ideas and feelings that I want to capture!–but whatever comes out just doesn’t do anything justice. I think I’m out of practice. Anyway, I had never thought of sending something to the Post, but now that you mention it… I’d LOVE to!! Maybe that would give me a little direction for my writing.
I WOULD LOVE FOR YOU TO SEND ME A COUPLE CHAPTERS OF YOUR BOOK, if you don’t mind. I know that, for me, letting people read things you’ve written is scary–but it would mean a lot to me. Maybe it will inspire me to get back on the writing bandwagon!
Well, I’m off to Manchester tomorrow, and then on Thursday I will go back to Paris and meet my family there. We’re going to stay there for four nights (including New Year’s Eve, which might be a bit crazy!) and then we will head over to my region: Alsace-Lorraine, in the northeast. We’ll visit Thionville and Nancy and Metz…and my dad the history buff just can’t wait to see Verdun. Je suis amoureuse de Paris, bien sÃ»r–qui peut voir La Tour Eiffel et ne pas tomber en amour? It sparkles every hour on the hour (I remember when I was in Paris for the first time, with Teresa and Amy, and we were wandering around eating crÃªpes at night, and suddenly I heard this blood-curdling scream and Teresa was jumping and pointing and the Eiffel Tower, which had just begun to sparkle…Amy insisted she was in love…).
Mais Paris est une grande ville, pleine de touristes, donc presque chaque fois que je dis quelquechose en franÃ§ais (dans un restaurant ou un magasin ou mÃªme dans la rue) les gens me rÃ©pondent en anglais. C’est si frustrant!!! Je sais que mon franÃ§ais n’est pas tellement mauvais qu’ils ne peuvent pas me comprendre. Je suppose qu’ils sont habituÃ©s Ã parler anglais, Ã cause des touristes (et moi, je suis touriste, quand mÃªme)–et en plus peut-Ãªtre qu’ils aussi veulent practiquer leur langue Ã©trangÃ¨re–mais je deviens de plus en plus dÃ©couragÃ©Ã© quand Ã§a arrive. Donc c’est pour Ã§a que je suis heureuse que ma famille viennent aussi voir des autre villes plus petites.
So that’s what I’m doing with my family.
Dr. Chmiel, thank you thank you thank you for your offer of monetary support :) but I WILL NOT accept. Don’t feel bad!!!! You said I have given you so much, but perhaps you don’t realize how much you have given me. Already. Besides, I am getting along just fine–you wouldn’t feel so sorry for me if you could see what I DO spend my money on ( e.g., croissants au chocolat, cafÃ© au lait, pretty French hats…). I couldn’t accept money with a good conscience, knowing that I’m really NOT scrimping to get by. But I will tell you this: If, in the future, I ever find myself in a truly tight situation, I will not hesitate to ask for help from a kind professor who wants me to be happy.
Bon, je vous laisse; joyeux fÃªtes, Dr. Chmiel!
by Krista Rux
I like The Book of Mev because of its honesty. When someone that you truly love dies, and it’s a death that can seem unfair or premature, sometimes the pain of even hearing their name can be too great. So to go back and tell her story, and yours, well…I don’t think I’d be that strong enough for that. I had two best friends in high school. One of them discovered she had leukemia our freshman year of college. She battled it with all her might. She passed away in February and just thinking about her or having a simple flashback of going to Sonic or having a sleepover hurts. And then there’s the memories of her in the hospital, or finding out that the treatments didn’t work, or her talking about the daunting idea of her death–and I fall apart. To be able to share the life that Mev lived with others is wonderful. It’s strong. And I’m sure it’s painful. The thing about cancer or a tumor is that it seems like a cruel joke. You feel cheated. For the person you care for and even for yoruself. In one way it’s nice to be able to say goodbye. With Gabby, I was there throughout the years. And when it was the end, I was there the last week up until the last hours. I’m grateful for that. But you can’t help being a little angry. At the injustice of it all. They had so much life left. They had so much to give. It hurts. The Book of Mev was really relatable for me. The terminology, the emotions, the heartbreak was real. I can only imagine what it was like to have it be your spouse, when a dear friend was hard enough.
Krista Rux studied in Social Justice in fall 2006. She graduates from Saint Louis University in May 2007.
I had the good fortune to have Ms. Kate Heidemann in my spring 2006 Social Justice class. Now she is working as a teacher in France, and I like her teaching savvy in the following email she sent me.
Sometimes, when I’m having a particularly bad day (don’t worry, it doesn’t happen often!) I open up your emails and read them. I have a REAL message in the works, headed for you, but internet time is scarce here, and I’m finding that planning lessons that won’t flop is more time-consuming than I thought! I expected to be nervous to get up in front of a class and teach, but it turns out that if you just pretend to be confident and in charge (and if you act like your lesson is insanely interesting and you can’t imagine any student not loving it) then you somehow end up becoming the teacher, sans problÃ¨me. Jumping around in front of a class is the easy part for me; it’s engaging the students and getting them to talk and use their IMAGINATION (which it seems there is considerable lack of here) that is the hard part.
But then there’s that student who tries hard and who actually gets something right, or those two girls who run up to you and say they missed you when you didn’t come to class yesterday, and they make it all worth it.
I guess that, as a teacher, you probably know what I’m talking about. I just hope I am making some students’ hearts smile–like you did to mine!
December 5, 2006
Via email I received an essay by Bay Area activist and founder of Middle East Children’s Alliance, Barbara Lubin. In her conclusion on her 20+years of activism on Israel/Palestine, she writes the following…
And what about hope? I leave you with a final word about hope.
One night poet and MECA advisory board member Allen Ginsberg came to San Francisco for a book signing and later he dined with a small group of friends in North Beach. On this night, the last time Howard and I would see him before he died, we were going around the table talking about all sorts of issues including what was happening in Rwanda, Iraq and Palestine. None of the news was very good.
We were getting more and more depressed. I turned to Allen and asked â€œSo, Allen, whereâ€™s the hope?â€
Allen jumped up, taking the table and the food with him. He was furious. â€œFâ€¦ hope,â€ he yelled. â€œItâ€™s not about hopeâ€¦. You donâ€™t do what you do because you hope things will get better. Itâ€™s about getting up every morning and asking yourself whatâ€™s the right thing to do and doing it.â€
Allen Ginsberg taught me a great lesson that night. He was right. It is wonderful if one is hopeful in life, but I will not wait around trying to feel hopeful about what is happening to the children in Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq, or in poor communities here in America. I will continue to be angry and I will get up every morning and ask myself â€œWhat is the right thing to do?â€ and do it.
And I will never be silent again.
One of the delights of being a teacher at SLU is that, having once been introduced to students in the Social Justice class, I often am able to keep in touch with them, as they go forward into the world, whether they go to England to study at the London School of Economics, or go to Palestine to work with the International Solidarity Movement, or fight it out in Washington on Capitol Hill as a lobbyist with the Quakers, or continue with education at Michigan Law School, Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, or SLU Medical School.
Megan James studied with me in the spring of 2003. She’s now at Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Mev got her MTS, and where I lived for a year or so. Megan’s always a pleasure to be with for a long chat at Coffee Cartel. She recently sent me a reflection from her blog, which I post below, as it deals with writing and theology and Natalie Goldberg and candor and putting it out there.
I Lost My Heart In Boston
Wednesday, November 22, 2006
Feeling a mix of frustrated and inspired tonight and in honor of Mark always trying to get me to share my journaling:
Meeting with Mark tonight, so I thought I should get some writing done. He wants to know my thoughts… what thoughts? I don’t know what I think… I’m scared to think and I’m scared to feel. And I’m even more scared, Natalie Goldberg, to write down my bones. Terrified of what will come out. Frightened that I won’t be perfect, that someone will find a flaw. It is like I’m 12 again… not comfortable in my own skin; every moment it tightens around me and feels all wrong. What happened to me? I used to be so strong, so confident. I used to pack such sass. I am broken. I walk around feeling like a doormat and overwhelmingly sad. So unsure of myself. And so tired.
I hate theology. Yes, right now I hate theology. Apparently I can’t think about God with my heart. No it is all philosophy. And it doesn’t move me. The name dropping, the “right” and “wrong” perspectives and readings, the intense debates, the “big words” that make us feel smart because we can talk past the average person (quit flashing your feathers… no one is impressed. You make think a lot but you do nothing, at thought without action is worthless)– it all makes me sick. No I don’t find God in this.
And we all talk of the poor as we shuffle past them in the subways and on the streets. But we feel good about ourselves because we are filled with ideas of a larger cause, of living in the Third World countries in solidarity, and we tell ourselves it is where we stand at the end of the day. I lost my heart in Boston. I have become this, and it isn’t me. This isn’t me.
And what the fuck does “solidarity” mean? We go feed the natives and teach them to read and feel good about ourselves? We will never be “poor,” not economically. We will never be poor because we are educated. (Sorry Gustavo, you aren’t poor.) So what is a different term then? What can I call it? A “hand-up”? Even that sounds demeaning. But I don’t know that solidarity can be expressed by people in the First World with the Third World. Nor can I be in solidarity with the poor in the First World if I fail to notice them on my evening commute home. And I can’t fool and lie to myself anymore with the “it is where I stand at the end of the day” bullshit. It no longer gives me comfort. I am an oppressor, and I will be an oppressor so long as I live in the US or any other developed country. You can’t get around it here. But I am supposed to feel okay about it because the sweatshops are better than the failed rural farming. True there’s a progression to development, but there’s also so much exploitation. I want to save others from this, but it seems like a futile effort. And why do these rural farmers fail? Big business and the West? Well, that’s likely part of it… a large part. Sure people develop, cultures change, that’s natural, but the poverty that exists worldwide is anything but natural. So now what do I do? Go feed the natives, teach them to read, and feel better about myself?
So what do I do? I will propose this question again to Mark. I told him I was thinking about an MSW or a Psy.D. I can’t do academic theology forever. I hope all this provides me with a good moral foundation and perhaps some work in teaching social justice. Mark suggested the Psy.D. because the initials may make people take me more seriously if I decide to publish (I am sure this isn’t his only reason, but something to think about). But should this be one big paper chase? Unfortunately, he may be right. I always wonder about freedom. To be honest, I want my life to be a bridge berween the First and Third Worlds. I’d like to work for a NGO similar to PIH (as I have always had an interest in medicine) and also work with immigrants and refugees here. I want to do it all. (Yeah, I know this doesn’t move me out of oppressor, but I am working on the that answer… I’ll get to it eventually.) I hate this uncertainty, and I hate being frustrated all the time. Maybe I should throw it all away and just live what makes me happy.
From November 12-14, I had the good fortune to share Mevâ€™s story with the community at Neumann College for their Poverty Awareness Week. Several studentsâ€”Kate, Kerri, Jillian, Jaffir, Ashley, Rob, Vicki, Alicia, and Shermaâ€”took turns with me reading passages from Poverty & Riches, Life without Mozart, Seeing the World, and other chapters. There were spirited discussions, too, on the work people most want to do in their lives, the purpose of Neumann College, the people in our lives who inspire and challenge us, and the need for us to interfere with injustice. I was glad to know that several students were going to the School of Americas Watch vigil at Fort Benning later in the week.
Tuesday night, several students came to hear about some of my experiences working in Gaza with the International Solidarity Movement in the fall of 2003. In the spring semester at Neumann, a course is being offered on the contemporary Middle East, a wonderful opportunity for Neumann students to learn and think about this crucial region in the world.
In addition to the exuberant students who welcomed me, I am grateful to Mary Kay Kelley, Cathy Johnson, and Melissa Hickey for our stimulating conversations and their support during the three days I visited Neumann. Mary Kay, in particular, has been an enthusiastic supporter of this book project for some time.
by Rachel Wieser
It is touching me more than I thought it could. For some reason, it wonâ€™t leave me. Last night I had a dream in which Dr.Chmiel was present and I think in it there was something to do with his book. Itâ€™s not just the love between the spouses and the heartache of â€œseeingâ€ Dr.Chmielâ€™s beloved die, but itâ€™s â€œthe books never birthed, the never recorded visions of the damned and defiant, the passionate reportage ever to be silentâ€ (p.342). Itâ€™s seeing a women of such vitality, compassion, and humanness reduced to a loss of speech and vision. Reduced to. I shouldnâ€™t use that word because I donâ€™t think she was reduced in any way. Mev documented the suffering of others, she suffered with othersâ€¦and then she suffered. And her husband suffered. And those who loved her suffered. And in her suffering, people were made aware of what it means to be selfless. A book was written about her which can open the eyes of so many. Even in Mevâ€™s death, she brought awareness to the world.
I promise Iâ€™m not a creepy person, Dr. Chmiel, even if you did appear in my dream. I donâ€™t remember anything about your role in the dream, but you were there! I think your book has been on my mind so much that it- and you- worked your way into my subconscious. I remember when my friend Angie bought your book and was reading it, and how she told me what a wonderful book it was, but it has made more of an impact on me than I thought possible.
Rachel is a senior at SLU, enrolled in Social Justice 361-02 in the fall 2006 semester.
by Amy Nuismer
My reaction to The Book of Mev so far is that it is simply amazing. I love reading every page and I’m not exaggerating in the least. I find myself wishing I had more time to read it and yet don’t want to finish too quickly so that I can savor every word; when I’m done there will be no more. I feel so honored to have taken this class and yet reading about Mev I can’t help but wonder what I’ve done with my life-wishing I’d done more, seen more, read more and that I could be more like her in so many ways. It’s funny reading your professor’s book, it makes you realize how much of a person remains hidden, buried beneath the surface and this amazing book offers a glimpse into someone’s world.
I think about our coffee conversation and how we talked mostly about me. I hate talking about myself, how I wish I could just listen and absorb, that I was better at asking insightful questions and capable of eliciting honest and sincere responses (like Mev could). I truly love this book, it’s something I’d pick up to read myself and it’s just so great that I’m at a loss for really descriptive adjectives. I wish I could have met Mev and asked her so many questions, just been around her and observed her. While I’m captivated by her person in the book, I’m also dreading reading on because I know she dies and I don’t want it to happen though it already has. How do you go on after finding the love of your life? No one can make you as happy as they did. That’s the risk of loving-loss. But this book makes me sure that it’s worth the risk.
Amy is taking Social Justice 361-01 in the fall 2006 semester.
Rereading Proust these days, which is always a pleasure. Here is a passage from Time Regained, v. 7 of In Search of Lost Time, which may explain some of the reactions people are having to The Book of Mev.
For it is only out of habit, a habit contracted from the insincere language of prefaces and dedications, that the writer speaks of â€œmy reader.â€ In reality every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self. The writerâ€™s work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without this book, he could perhaps never have perceived in himself. And the recognition by the reader in his own self of what the book says is the proof of its veracity, the contrary also being true, at least to a certain extent, for the difference between the two texts may sometimes be imputed less to the author than to the reader. Besides, the book may be too learned, too obscure for a simple reader, and may therefore present to him a clouded glass through which he cannot read. And other peculiarities can have the same effect as inversion. In order to read with understanding many readers require to read in their own particular fashion, and the author must not be indignant at this; on the contrary, he must leave the reader all possible liberty, saying to him: â€œLook for yourself, and try whether you see best with this lens and that one or this other one.â€
Oh goodness, where do I start? What do I say? How do I express in words my reaction to this book? Maybe it was because Dr. Chmiel is teaching this class and it gave me further insight into his life. Maybe it was because I could relate on a different level to this book since I grew up in St. Louis, in the same community that Mev came back to so that she could die close to family. Maybe it was because I could somehow relate to Mev in small ways â€“ her connection and passion for Haiti, her love for some pretty awesome music (Yea Broadway and John Michael Talbot!) Maybe it was for a lot of reasons, unwritten, that I just couldnâ€™t seem to put this book down over Thanksgiving Break. The words came alive while I read it. Not only was I able to get a glimpse into Dr. Chmielâ€™s past, but I was also able to learn about the world, read about amazing things people have done, and be inspired by the life of Mev and the life that she and Dr. Chmiel shared. I laughed, I cried, I became enraged, I was inspired, I was challengedâ€¦ the list goes on.
But how do you let your teacher know this? How do you let him know that it wasnâ€™t just Mev that came alive through the pages, but that he did also? Oh, the modest Dr. Chmiel. So he wonders whether or not it was worth it to write this book. I can answer that it most certainly was. I thought it was great. And I know that Iâ€™ll need to go back through it, maybe read it again, because thereâ€™s too much richness to absorb in just one reading.
The most wonderful thing was that, in reading it, I wanted so desperately to be able to sit with Mev and talk with her. Iâ€™d love to hear about her childhood and how she was raised, her relationship with her parents, her relationship with God, what drew her to Dr. Chmiel, how she discerned big decisions, her experiences in Haiti, and whether or not she would teach me about photography.
Cassie is in Social Justice 361-01 at SLU.