Do you remember the scene in the movie As Good as It Gets when Jack Nicholson tells Helen Hunt, “You make me want to be a better person?” This book made me feel like that. Lee Snyder, whose life of academic and church leadership, culminating in the presidency of Bluffton University, 1996-2006, far exceeded what she ever asked or imagined in her youth, has written an inspiring spiritual memoir.
One of the things I like most about this book is that it owes its origins, in part, at least, to a course taught by Jeff Gundy at Bluffton University when Lee Snyder was president. You can find the syllabus for Jeff’s class here and imagine deeply engaged class conversations as Jeff and the students, including Lee, read books by Anne Lamott, Thomas Merton, Dinty Moore, Annie Dillard, Kathleen Norris, and Cynthia Yoder. The topics included the finding of vocation, since all these texts have a spiritual dimension, and the course was developed as part of a larger, Lilly Endowment-funded, emphasis on vocation in liberal arts colleges and universities.
Spiritual memoirs have their own tradition, and, according to some, it is a gendered tradition. Those who have studied the history of the form usually begin with Augustine’s Confessions and also recognize the important contributions of cloistered, powerful, medieval women, such as Hildegard of Bingen, Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila, and Marjorie Kempe. Jill Ker Conway, herself both a former college president and a scholar of memoir, has observed, “There are archetypal life scripts for man and for women which show remarkable persistence over time. For men, the overarching pattern for life comes from adaptations of the story of the epic hero in classical antiquity. Life is an odyssey, a journey through many trials and tests, which the hero must surmount alone through courage, endurance, cunning and moral strength.” Conway notes that St. Augustine, in the prototypical memoir, Confessions, assumes strong authorial agency through hundreds of pages and then, even when he surrenders to God, “he makes us believe that his inner struggle is of vast and world-shaping significance” (When Memory Speaks, 7, see first chapter here).
The first women memoirists were, like Augustine, religious figures. But unlike him, they told their stories not as heroes but as meditators on the nature of God and as ones who experienced direct revelation of divine illumination. They did not focus on the will or the intellect, and thus were not heroic action figures but receivers of revelation. Conway traces this archetypal pattern of female surrender and service, which may include ecstatic visions but does not include what she calls “agency.” Women, even spiritual leaders, frequently do not think of themselves as actors on the world stage but as players called by God to partake in the divine and to give witness to it. Conway goes on to trace the evolution of this archetype from spiritual to secular in the 18th and 19th centuries, when finding the ideal mate and acquiring domestic security replace the surrender to God in women’s narratives.
Why this historical analysis as background for reviewing the memoir of a Mennonite woman college president? It’s a bit of a side question, but I wonder whether Mennonites, with their emphasis on community, peace, and servant-leadership follow this gender division in their autobiographical writing or whether both men and women adopt more of Julian’s position toward God rather than Augustine’s. I’ll take up this question when I review Rudy Wiebe’s of this earth: A Mennonite Boyhood in the Boreal Forest, a Canadian bestseller, and winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award.
But now to Snyder’s memoir itself. First, a few minor criticisms. The title At Powerline and Diamond Hill: Unexpected Intersections of Life and Work and the hard-to-decipher cover art do not serve the author or publisher (Cascadia Publishing House) as well as they might. Also, I could not uncover the logic in the organization of the book with its six parts, an introduction, and three epilogues. If I did not know and admire the author, I might have gotten confused by the loose thematic structure which sometimes jumps decades between paragraphs. Non-linear structures can be excellent 21st-century forms, but they work best with strong thematic focus. This book celebrates both calling and challenge and the ordinariness of everyday life–life and work flowing together and apart over almost 70 years. It works well as a series of pearls strung on one thread, or stacks of laundry neatly folded. It does not have the tightness of construction of Karen Armstrong’s The Spiral Staircase, reviewed here.
I’m looking right now at the cover of Kathleen Norris’ Dakota, one of the books Snyder read in Jeff Gundy’s class. I own the hardcover edition, which is evidently no longer in print, and love the cover of this edition. The image starts with blue sky, cumulus clouds, and ends with flat stretches of red land and black hills running along the bottom of the cover. The simplicity of the word Dakota with the subtitle A Spiritual Geography floating in the sky and clouds draws the reader into the work in a way that one might covet for this book, which is so much like Kathleen Norris’ (down to the way weather is discussed in both books). I can picture Oregon: A Mennonite Woman’s Journey with Mt. Hood on the cover and strong themes of what Oregon means as the place of birth and childhood but also the place, physically, spiritually, intellectually, and psychologically, to which Snyder keeps returning throughout her life.
In any case, Oregon does figure prominently in this book, and Snyder opens with an introduction that lays out her purpose beautifully, placing herself squarely in the women’s spiritual autobiography tradition of accidental leader following a spiritual path. “Growing up in a Mennonite family,” she says, “I did not know women who had career goals. I never had any.” Sometimes statements like that sound disengenuous coming from leaders who have a need to deny their power, and Jeff Gundy, who writes the foreword, challenges a similar one where Snyder says, “While I never actually rebelled against the community’s strict expectations, rituals, and beliefs, I gradually began to see that the sharp lines of separation and supposedly clear boundaries were much murkier than anyone wanted to admit.” He is right to question her, even with tongue in cheek, because Lee Snyder’s career trajectory is amazing–from farm girl with only a year of college to young wife and mother, years of voluntary service during the Biafran war in Nigeria, administrative assistant at Eastern Mennonite University, assistant dean, academic dean, president of Bluffton University, and denominational head for several years during a decade of presidential leadership. Along the way, while working and mothering, she somehow finished three degrees, concluding with a Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Oregon with a dissertation centered on Joan Didion.
“Why do you want to go to college?” asked her father before she set off across the country with her high school sweetheart for one year of college before they married. “Will you have a good man to work for?” came from her mother when she took the position of academic dean at Eastern Mennonite University, and “Why would you want to do this?” asked a board member’s wife when she interviewed at Bluffton. All three questions indicate how radical her path was when judged by traditional Mennonite standards for women. How did she resolve them? By her thorough knowledge of the Bible and its narratives of unusual people called by God to do particular work in the world, by her careful reading of great writers, by her loving relationship with Del, her supportive husband, and by her daily practices of contemplation, some of which included traditional tasks like folding laundry. When she gets a particularly nasty letter in her work as academic dean, she goes home and scrubs the toilets!
What I find most amazing about this book is exactly what I find most wonderful about Lee Snyder in real life. Just barely five feet tall, soft-spoken, and self-effacing, she never commands with her presence. I think about a poetic line describing Emily Dickinson– “demure as dynamite”– when I look at her. Like the frangipani blooms that perfumed her days in Africa, she permeates a place with a spirit of love and power combined. This memoir,written out of gratitude to those who have loved and taught her, comes out of a place of genuine humility. Desiring to serve, she was called to lead.
Let me conclude with just one final observation. Snyder’s story could be told as a tale of rebellion, will, heroic struggle against the odds, and even sexual abuse (she briefly and somewhat enigmatically describes an incident with a construction worker when she was seven years old). In our feminist age we might want to see more criticism of all the people and structures that held her back. That would be the tale of “agency” that Conway seems to desire for women.
But this story is not about the individual hero. It celebrates God’s surprising mercies, forgiveness (even to the man who molested her), learning, and above all, the community of faith that formed her in the beginning in that special place in the Willamette Valley of Oregon and has continued to draw out her many gifts over a lifetime.
“Is life’s purpose something you create or discover?” asks an unnamed professor in this book, probably Snyder herself. Lee Snyder would never claim to have created her life, but she has not been the passive recipient of it, either. Somewhere between the Oregon sawdust trail of her youth and the president’s corner office, she discovered harmony, a peace that passes understanding, something larger than the mere resolution of the contradictions and conflicts in her life. Her story is not a testimony to striving, or “agency;” instead, it testifies to the possibility that the still small voice inside, when rooted in faith, love, and a physical home in the world, can lead both to great adventures and to a larger spiritual home that we carry with us always.