Thursday, January 3, 2008

Feed it to the Hungry Ghost!

The Worst Thing I've Done
by Ursula Hegi

This is a quick read and a compelling story. As usual, Ursula Hegi creates memorable, believable characters that move the narrative forward with a lot of dialogue. Hegi is able to write real-sounding dialogue that does not sound forced. I would also say, though, that this is not Ursula Hegi at her best. She overuses that writing technique where the author writes in short sentences of only two or three words and reconciles everything only on the left margin - more like poetry than prose. It is fairly effective in small doses, but in this case it starts to feel choppy and disjointed. If you are interested in getting acquainted with Hegi's books, I recommend starting with Stones from the River or Salt Dancers.

One character, Mason, is part of the story only posthumously. He has committed suicide and the story begins with his wife, Annie, trying to work through her anger and grief. Much of Mason's life is shown to us in flashbacks. Three of the principal characters - Annie, Mason, and Jake - have this weird, complicated trio of lifelong friendship and love/lust. I have to say that Mason is a real jerk. He is insanely jealous and highly manipulative. He could be a poster boy for women who are considering staying single, because being married to him would be horrible.

In the aftermath of Mason's suicide Annie and her much younger sister Opal find respite and eventual progress toward healing in the home of an "aunt" (known as "Stormy") who is really their deceased mother's best friend. An unlikely family forms, composed of Stormy, her lover Pete, Annie and Opal. The time frame is early 2003, in the run-up to the current Iraq war. In their opposition to the war Stormy, Pete, and Annie become part of a larger community of protesters and peace activists. I think the best part of this book is it's showing the reader that a "family" can be made up of people who are not necessarily biologically related, and that there is spiritual power in people banding together for something in which they strongly believe.
There is a lovely scene in which, on the first day of the war, the ad hoc family builds an osprey nest on the beach in an effort to engage in a peacebuilding activity. Made me think about how the combined efforts of concerned people, small as the individual contributions may be, really do make a difference.

This group also participates in the annual ritual of the "Hungry Ghost." The ritual comes from another culture - possibly Asian (the origin is just slipping my mind, I think it is explained in the book). Once a year, they build a massive skirted ghost out of wood and paper and other natural materials. They take the ghost down to the beach and everyone writes on a piece of paper what they would like the ghost to "eat" - that is, remove from their lives. The paper is used as kindling to burn the ghost. Sounds a bit pagan, but I can see where it is helpful to get specific about what we want to change and engage in a physical activity that symbolically kick-starts our effort to transform whatever is broken in our lives.

In lieu of a New Year's resolution this year, I'll feed a couple of things to the Hungry Ghost. One: anxiety about things over which I have no control. Two: impatience. Poof, be gone! If only it were that easy!

Grace and peace,

Reverent Reader


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