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Summer Books

Meditations inspire but don’t stretch

By Therese Johnston Borchard
Orbis, 157 pages, $12


Inspiration can be tough to come by. Perhaps, once upon a time, the world dripped with mysticism and faith, but nowadays our lives are far from divine. Cell phones ring during Mass. Long ATM line-ups spark fistfights. Still, we remain spiritual people with a common need: peace and revelation, in a day-to-day context. In Winging It: Meditations of a Young Adult, Therese Johnston Borchard shares her youthful insights of everyday experiences of God in 86 brief meditations.

Borchard approaches this task in a frank manner, writing readable prose and discussing problems in a contemporary setting. From the physical/emotional impact of too many Doritos to life beyond the black and white of the film “Pleasantville,” the Notre Dame Theology graduate finds meaning, clarity and questions about faith for readers to consider. The personal becomes universal. Borchard uses her experience with mental illness and alcoholism to connect with her audience in an immediate, intimate way.

It’s modern stuff: “Seinfeld” and “Seinfeldisms” appear often (she faces trouble with relatives whose photos aren’t “wall worthy”). The plot of the film “There’s Something About Mary” is used as an introduction to a meditation about the Blessed Virgin. E-mail is bemoaned for its ability to steal time. Reality is not ignored, and the result is a book of meditations firmly based in the now.

Is it insightful, though? Admittedly, it’s difficult to review a book of meditations. Ideally, a meditation should be read, then meditated upon. One a day would be good. Unfortunately, book reviewing is not an 86-day process, so each meditation had to be given short shrift. Still, meditations are meditations, and I read through the first, “Progress, Not Perfection” -- Borchard’s return to her alma mater and subsequent realization that life’s challenges do not get easier with age, just different -- slowly. When done, I put the book down, closed my eyes, pondered and thought, No duh!

This feeling continued through the next meditation and then the next. After much confusion, I reread the book’s introduction to remind myself of its purpose: This book is a collection of Borchard’s “pearls of wisdom,” not answers. And that saddened me. I had hoped to read snippets of inspiration, short anecdotes that would domino my own opinions into a cavalcade of thought. Instead, I found I agreed with most of what she had to say. In short, the meditations in this book did not make me want to meditate.

Does that mean the book’s not worth reading? No. It is sincere, concise and, yes, contains pearls of wisdom about work, sex, marriage, family and exercise. Clearly, Borchard has pondered, struggled and formed enlightened conclusions. While the “Seinfeld” references grow tired fast and a link drawn between coffeehouses and the underground railroad (and their mutual contributions to freedom) absurd, the deep sense of faith underlying each meditation is a nice change from the goofiness of inspirational e-mail forwards and feel-good self-help paperbacks. Borchard is at her best when she abandons excessive cultural clichés and attacks the topic at hand (notable examples include “The Sculpture of Marriage” and the post-Cameron Diaz discussion in “There’s Something About Mary”).

Still, the book lacked challenge. I wanted to be provoked and questioned. I wanted to read a meditation and feel my mind stretch -- uncomfortably, even. Borchard quotes Elizabeth Bowen at the start of “Friendships Like Edna”: “Intimacies between women often go backwards, beginning in revelations and ending in small talk.” Oddly enough, what I wanted from Winging It was the reverse: an intimate relationship with the writer, beginning in small talk and ending in revelation -- a forward motion I never quite found.

Sue Birnie lives in Victoria, British Columbia.

National Catholic Reporter, May 11, 2001