Like many of you, I am surrounded by books and paper everywhere I go. Here in the red chair, which serves as my favorite office, magazines spill over each other on the both sides of me. In front of me is the pile of paper I scooped off my work desk on the way out the door for the holiday weekend. Embedded in the debris are about four books I have promised to review.
In the next room, which doubles as guest bedroom and my official home office , sit stacks of books that have reproduced like rabbits since the last time I cleaned off the desk. Next week we will have guests to welcome in that room, so I have vowed to find places to store the books. Soon I can procrastinate no longer!
All of which is to say that Lee Kravitz had his work cut out for him when his publicist sent me a copy of the book that had to compete with all the rest.
But he won the battle.
I read his memoir, Unfinished Business, in a matter of days. As I said in a previous post, his thesis matches one of my most profound motivations for doing this blog. He knew that he would be a better person, a better father, and a better writer if he took care of the unfinished business in his life. Where I work, we call that desire the power of love and forgiveness. I believe that memoir writing at its best resolves unanswered questions and teaches both the writer and the reader profoundly spiritual lessons.
Lee Kravitz is a name you might recognize. Until a few years ago, he was the editor of the largest circulation magazine in America–Parade. If he had not been fired from that job, we would not have his memoir, his father and his brother would still be estranged from each other, his high school teacher and mentor would not have gotten a thank-you visit, his friend would never have heard from him after his daughter was killed in Iraq, an old debt would still exist in the debit column, a Muslim friend and an Eastern Orthodox bishop would not be in his life, and an old enemy would continue to haunt him. The benefits of these redeemed relationships, will cause every reader to do an inventory of his or her own unfinished business. You may even find yourself hoping to get fired yourself!
The book falls neatly into a preface, ten chapters, and an epilogue. The deceptively simple structure, each the story of a memory or relationship that the author attempted to salvage, makes a satisfying package. But it could have been otherwise. If the author had not found ways to maintain the complexity and individuality of each relationship or had allowed a sentimental stew of good feeling to overflow without a real struggle to understand himself, he would have destroyed the value of the book to anyone outside his immediate family.
So how does the author keep us reading? He begins with aimless depression following the firing and the arrival of ten cardboard boxes of personal momentos that he, as a good workoholic, had stored in his place of work rather than integrate into his home.
As Kravitz goes through the boxes, he finds evidence of parts of himself long repressed–the world travelling adventurer who had been to Israel, Pakistan, and Afghanistan in the 70’s, the puzzled and dutiful son who saved over 1,000 letters from his father full of capital letters, red type, and strange punctuation, a highschool yearbook brought back the fear he felt in the presence of his childhood bully, but also the love he felt for his history teacher and for the boy who had opened his eyes to the possibility of experiencing God. In the box was a recording of an interview he did with his grandmother Shirley. He listened to her voice again with awful guilt–he had skipped her funeral because he had had too much work to do when she died.
In Kravitz’ own words: “There were signs in these boxes that there had been a better me: a more curious, adventurous, and compassionate individual who had taken risks to do the right thing.” He decides to wait to search for a new job and instead to devote an entire year to “tying up my loose emotional ends.”
The great spiritual traditions offered great support on this journey. Kravitz, a Jew by birth, rediscovers his own tradition as well as explores what Buddhism, Christianity, Alcoholics Anonymous, and Islam have to say about making amends. The book has an ecumenical, inclusive, joyful spirituality running like a current under a stream.
The author does not try to hold us in suspense. We know from the beginning what he is trying to do and that he will succeed in doing it. Yet we keep moving, page after page. Why? My own reason was to discover the nuances of the journey, the how and why of it. The what hardly mattered. Adventure in this book happens in the mind and in the heart not so much in plot devices. His narrative arc is readymade, but his real story has to be chiseled from his unique displays of courage and ingenuity. We follow him, still curious, as he checks one mistake after another off his list, because his approach varies adroitly every time.
Martin Buber, Jewish mystic and spiritual guide to many, provides Kravitz with the language he needs to describe his transformation. Throughout his ten journeys he learns to take time to listen, to recognize the holiness of other human beings, and to treat them as “thou” rather than “it.” Though this new ability to hold the other’s gaze with love and attention may seem like a small thing, it is in fact the beating heart of every spiritual tradition. Discovering how to love in daily life is the spiritual equivalent of scaling the Alps. Kravitz shows us how the smallest act can either slip into our metaphorical boxes of unfinished business or can elevate us to the place Buber talked about in another of his famous books–ecstatic confessions.
Identifying unfinished business may in fact be the route to your own memoir. What aspects of yourself and your story lie buried in boxes, literally or figuratively? I’d love to hear questions and comments about Kravitz’s approach. What thoughts does his story evoke in you?
Thank you for this thoughtful review of what sounds like a wonderful book–now on my reading list! I think forgiveness is often a strangely unconsidered option in our culture, even in churches as many of us say “forgive us our trespasses” each Sunday. And, as you highlight, recognizing the humanity or intrinsic being of others–Eckhard Tolle is wonderful in A New Earth on this, as is Buber.
Mr. Kravitz's response to his depression and to his ten boxes reminds me of a prayer practice written about by Minnesota pastor, Daniel Wolpert. The invitation was to pray with stuff–with all the things we have around us, and I imagine reading this book would be like entering into prayer. As one is sometimes alarmed by the volume of boxes and books and 'possessions' in my life, the possibility of transforming the accumulations through memoir beckons. I wonder, what did Mr. Kravitz do with the ten boxes after finishing the memoir?
Thank you for the encouragement to read what sounds like an important book. I've been exploring creative options in the last year or so, and this looks like a meaningful addition to my quest.
Welcome to 100memoirs, Bonnie. I enjoyed a visit to your site. Since you have been teaching memoir writing, do you have a syllabus you would be willing to share with the readers of this blog? Would love to add it to the collection!
Dolores, I don't think Kravitz tells us what he did with the boxes except as he mentions various items scattered throughout the book. You might enjoy Lanie Tankard's guest post on touchstones here:http://www.100memoirs.com/2009/08/touchstones-keys-to-a-great-memoir/
Richard, thanks for this insightful comment. Our culture glorifies the individual and the right of autonomy. The Lord's Prayer, and many other religious classics, encourage us to connect and to recognize our own flawed humanity in another.
Wow. What a great concept and a very helpful review Shirley. Thanks for this. I'll add it to my toppling pile :)I'm at a memoir workshop in Taos New Mexico right now and am in a class with Minrose Gwyn. I'm halfway through her memoir called Wishing for Snow and find it mesmerizing. I'm reading her novel The Queen of Palmyra at the same time. The overlap is fascinating. So, just in case that piles not big enough, I'd recommend them both as good reads..Thanks again for all your insightful postings. Take care,Colleen Friesen