[Eerdmans; 2023]

I read John West’s Lessons and Carols: A Meditation on Recovery in a single afternoon, compelled not by plot—there is none in this series of nonlinear, page-length reflections—but instead by the memoir’s quiet grace. The refusal of urgency is reflected in West’s choice to leave behind a sequence of time. This allows the book to uniquely replicate our lived experiences, when pasts offer themselves to us in a felt moment. The grace of West’s memoir extends also to the form of compassionate witness over the various characters. Even when West describes despair, informed by feelings of either resentment or abandonment, the wiser narrator holds each of these vulnerable moments with great tenderness. For example, the book begins with the raw example of parenting, “Caring for this baby has taught me new ways to resent. Other people tell me things— absurd things, things about seeing with baby’s eyes, etc.—and I resent that I do, in fact, sometime see with baby’s eyes.” In this way, the narrator blends the common usage of grudge with resentment’s etymological home, “to feel again.”  To see through a baby’s eyes invites re-experiencing a fresh, living encounter with the world. Doing so is in keeping with a later definition of resentment: “a name for a memory left too long in a warm, damp place.” The narrator models a practice of moving back to when a feeling was first struck, bringing it to life in an innocent and complete way.Such gentle writing through memory, especially through difficult and painful memories, is masterful guidance for how to think of the self.  

The book is anchored on recurring structural elements. The organization springs from the book’s title: Lessons and Carols is a Christmas Eve service invented out of necessity in 1880, maintained in certain Protestant denominations. This theme supports an ongoing set of reflections on the nature of Christmas largely based around three core terms: real, sad, and best. The use of these terms also reflects West’s self-understanding as he struggles not only with addiction, but also bipolar disorder that causes him to swing from depression to hypomania. Each involves wildly fluctuating experiences of self. Christmas also serves as a useful central point because it offers a handy referent that already embodies the book’s thematic tensions: the religious and secular, personal and universal, day and season. In theological terms, this choice places the book in liturgical or eternal time, rather than ordinary, chronological time.

Other authorial choices amplify this effect. The refusal of chronology, through discontinuous page-length episodes, demands that readers move away from causal logic and toward deeper understanding. West’s model for this continuity through recurrence is found in music: “How many notes in a Bach cantata need to change before it’s a different piece altogether? What lives at the center of a piece?” This theme is taken up in parenting: a “constant state, and it’s in the process, rather than in the grand moments, that I’ll need to find joy. I sometimes do. More and more.” In speaking of a lost friend, the sentiment becomes “A didn’t want to be A with speed. She didn’t want to be A with AA either. She just wanted to be. . .” Such diverse ways of invoking the eternal riddle of sameness through difference is a constant motif throughout the book, and it unfolds into a way of seeing a persisting self capable of experiencing moments of grief and joy,those strange bedfellows of an emotional landscape.

These narrative choices provide a window into a different way to experience time, which parallels the narrator’s assessment of the secret to a meaningful life. Aside from a brief reference to the pandemic, the bulk of the book wholly eschews any sense of external time to reflect an ongoing, subjective sense of now. Along with the recursive patterning, the continual use of present tense invites a sense of immediacy, an eternal now.

Perhaps most striking is the way that the book deals with the last term of the subtitle: recovery. West recounts struggles with sobriety and shame, holding these moments with a rare blend of humility and dignity. Much of his writing about these periods of his life occur within a larger context of grief—not about him so much as those he has known. West’s recovery ultimately allows a reflection on loss, all of the losses that are unable to be fully recovered, the loss of connections that in turn require a change of identity. The loss of past identities ultimately enables the recovery of the original mind, the capacity to see the world with the unreserved delight of a toddler.

The larger structure which moves through nine lessons (suggested carols are listed in the back) retains contact with both the ongoing tradition of Lessons and Carols as part of some Christian celebrations of Christmas as well as West’s personal, secularized devotion to this practice. This reflexive mode of moving from structure to theme to event and back again provides a mediative lens through which to understand “identity” as sameness, both in relation to the self (the core of most autobiographical essays) but also in relationship to others.

Understanding how Christmas Eve is both the same and different throughout West’s experiences demonstrates in concrete terms what it might mean to embrace an ongoing original sense of self as well as a shifting tide of connections. The explicit questions of identity dominate the book, involving not only West’s relationship to alcohol, but his relationship to gender, Christianity, marriage, and fatherhood. Each episode shows how these defining, intimate identity markers remain vital, even as they continue to change in what they mean. His awareness of being an alcoholic even through sobriety, of being queer while marrying a queer woman, of writing that prayer is “an awful narrative device” before listing prayers, all show an ongoing comfort in embracing present moments in a process.

For the narrator, identifying himself is an ongoing process, one that allows him to “envy [a friend’s] certainty that there is some way to be, absent our rusted pasts,” and to follow this with meditative questions like “So what lives at the center of a piece of music? Or in the heart of a poem? Or the soul of a person?” The deeper answer is seen on the following page, in a seemingly unrelated reference to doves and pigeons: “The line between these two imagined species is a question of aesthetics and nomenclature—a question of beauty—not a question of truth.” This shifts the question of how we identify to look at the process, rather than the product. Shifting the how to focus on the potential of beauty, which refuses truth’s pretense of objectivity and instead relishes in the joy of personal participation, seems close to the gravitational center of the book. This ethos is reflected in the last conversation recorded in the book, which involves the naming of a bird with delight, an invitation to participate in looking so potent that the phrase “I see” is repeated twice. This conclusion echoes the beginning of the book, where resentment is tied to seeing, re-experiencing, through a baby’s eyes.

Given the book’s thematic emphasis on Christmas, it is perhaps worth noting what a gift West’s book offers to its reader. Like good computer code, it is written with an eye to elegance; it includes only what is most essential for readers to experience the uplifting movement from despair to grace. The result echoes the introductory image of a shack near the skeleton of a cathedral. Consistently, the narrator indicates that what is needed is a place, a center, a gathering point. Rather than bemoaning what remains incomplete, and staring at fragments, one can strive to be a center that integrates the whole. The courage and wisdom involved in providing permission to imagine the story echoes West’s final discussion of Christmas. He writes, “Maybe I want Christmas not because its promises are empty but because they are waiting for us to fill them.” The space is invitation, not deprivation. In offering readers an example of how to move through this process of creatively reshaping our identities, West gestures to the potential of each reader to experience rebirth and recovery, allowing miracles to coexist with the everydayness of the world. 

Daniel Boscaljon has doctoral degrees in English and in Religious Studies from the University of Iowa, with an emphasis in narrative theory and post-Christian theologies. He’s published a number of books and articles on theology, literature, and pedagogy. He is also the co-founder of Alchemy of Love (alchemy-of-love.com), which provides trauma-informed relationship guidance for individuals and couples.

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