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John Wilson

A Letter from the Editor

In this issue, Frederica Mathewes-Green reviews Rod Dreher's The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life. By my calculation, this is the fourteenth piece Frederica has written for Books & Culture (and a fifteenth, on beekeeping, is forthcoming).

Frederica's first piece for the mag, "Through a Glass More Clearly," appeared in our very first issue, September/October 1995, and it remains one of my favorites of all that we have published since day one. Here's how it begins:

Jesus is lying on his side on my dining room floor, leaning against the radiator, balanced on one finger and one toe like a gymnast. He is flattened, just a sheet of painted plywood, and from pointed toe to the tip of his halo he is about four-and-a-half feet tall. For protection, for storage, Jesus is swathed in a blue tablecloth that has been knotted around his ankles and pulled up over his head. When I push the cloth aside, I can see his form, a crucified body without a cross. He floats in misery, head sunk toward one shoulder, eyes tightly shut, face brimming cupful of pain.

It's a piece about Orthodox icons, touching as well on how she and her husband, Gary, an Episcopal priest, converted to Orthodoxy. Here's my record of Frederica's subsequent pieces for B&C: "The Baltimore Book Dump" [Nov/Dec '95]; "The Women of Disney" [March/April '96]; "The Subject Was Noses" [Jan/Feb '97]; "Poetry for Dummies" [March/April '98]; "Good for the Soul" [Sept/Oct '03]; "What Heresy?" [Nov/Dec '03]; "The Meaning of Christ's Suffering" [March/April '04]; "Ungawa!" [Sept/Oct '05); "Hee-Haw" [Nov/Dec '07]; "Holy Hegemony!" [March/April '08]; "The Holy Gaze" [Sept/Oct '10]; "Pray Without Ceasing" [March/April '11]; and now her review of Rod Dreher's memoir. If you are a subscriber, you have access to all of these via our website. (Warning: the formatting in the first couple of years leaves a lot to be desired.)

I had no intention of re-reading all of these when I began dipping into them, but once started I couldn't stop. As it happens, Rod Dreher himself appears in "The Baltimore Book Dump" as "my youthful friend Rod," who has taken Frederica to his "favorite bookstore-café" in Washington, where they sat "on high stools at a small, sticky square of yellow wood, buffeted by alternative rock flowing from the excellent sound system," and Frederica "chose, at Rod's suggestion, a designer beer that the menu described as 'fruity and complex.' " In turn, when Rod visits Baltimore, she takes him to her

favorite book source, across the street from the Friend General Store and Love Nest Package Liquors. The bulky one-story building fills nearly a city block; it is painted rosy beige with deeper brown trim and topped with romantic crenelations. The orange metal sign bolted to the wall reads "Baltimore Department of Finance, Bureau of Purchases, Warehouse #9." But those familiar with its charms eschew the formal title; we call it the Baltimore Book Dump.

You can understand why I had to keep reading (and why I wish I could paste the whole piece in here), but then I hear the siren song of "The Women of Disney" (Snow White, Cinderella, Ariel, Belle, & Co.), beginning irresistibly: "In the middle of my life's journey I came to myself alone in a dark plastic poncho at the Haircuttery." And this:

The Disney women, ageless, still meet covertly in a private club overlooking the Pacific. The waves crash on the rocks below, and they lift toasts in their little three-fingered hands. To us. We taught a million little girls what womanhood is like. Too bad none of them could make it. Then they snicker.

But I must hasten on to "Poetry for Dummies," for which I sent Frederica "a hearty stack o'poetry." She enlisted Gary to read the assembled volumes with her ("I was aware that the poetry industry had gone through a number of software upgrades since I last twirled an 'oftimes' "), and the piece reported their responses to Jorie Graham, Tony Crunk, Joshua Clover, Sharon Olds, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Harriet Levin, and Samuel Hazo, plus Nancy Bogen's How to Write Poetry.

I can imagine a certain kind of reader looking over these pieces and feeling a bit baffled, maybe even irritated. What do they all add up to? And what is "Ungawa!" (on the "curiously compelling" saga of Tarzan, especially as imagined in the movies) doing cheek by jowl with "The Meaning of Christ's Suffering" (explaining the Orthodox understanding of the Atonement (in part as a counter to Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ)?

What do they add up to? The world we share, as seen by one woman. "I wonder, still," Frederica wrote in her 1997 book Facing East: A Pilgrim's Journey into the Mysteries of Orthodoxy, "why I should be so drawn to God":

I want to be near God, not anywhere else. This doesn't make me any kind of woo-woo special holy person; quite the reverse. I'm endlessly needy. I can't help what I want. I can't even explain it. Even my wanting him, I know, comes from him. How strange this is. I've never seen God, so how can it be that he feels more real than anything I've ever known?

Strange, yes: wonderfully strange.

—John Wilson

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