Kindness stories that are good for the spirit

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Julie Perrin, Tender: Stories that lean into kindness, MediaCom Education Inc., ISBN 781925722192

Every generation throws up popular reflection on how best to live. Much of it comes from within religious traditions. It is designed to help people reflect on their lives by building bridges betwee religious traditions and the world in which the reader lives. It is instructive to note how its style and emphases vary with changes in the religious and broader culture.

Pile of books on a table, Tender by Julie PerrinJulie Perrin's recent book Tender, a collection of short reflections, grouped thematically, is splendid in its own right. It is spare and elegant in its writing, inclusive in its address and open-ended in its invitation to reflection. It also offers an occasion to reflect on the ways in which spiritual writing has changed.

Seventy years ago much spiritual writing was based in the language, ritual practices and shared faith of religious communities. Readers outside the community would normally feel themselves made outsiders. A reader wandering along shelves of spiritual books would look first for their denominational origin to see if they were Anglican, say, or Catholic. If readers drew on their own experience or on contemporary news, they usually did so simply to illustrate a point already made conceptually.

Fifty years ago many churches were becoming less tribal, ascription to faith was less certain, and people looked to a range of authorities when seeking wisdom. Though spiritual writers generally worked within a particular tradition, they also drew on other Christian and religious traditions and appealed to psychology and other secular sources. The writing was often exploratory rather than didactic. Readers measured it, not by its denominational solidity, but by its spiritual depth.

Today another genre coexists with those earlier ones. In it, writers with a strong and questioning faith address a general audience, using anecdotes, inherited wisdom, contemporary social debates and a broad cultural reference to encourage their readers to move beyond inherited prejudice and ask themselves what really matters. The heart of the exercise is to find the right words that will disclose the depth in ordinary experience. The writing encourages readers to pay attention to the world around them, to wonder, and to celebrate God's presence there. Readers evaluate it by the quality of the writing and its attentiveness to the depth of ordinary human experience.

Among writers familiar in Australia who write in this vein are Michael McGirr, Terry Monagle, Pádraig Ó Tuama and the much missed Brian Doyle. Their writing does not merely describe but evokes and creates a world, and shapes a human response that respects its variety and mystery. Significantly, too, these writers are masters of short anecdotal pieces which invite us to see the great in the small. They also write fastidiously, choosing words that disclose freshly aspects of reality which the language of traditions conceals at first reading. Following the age-old advice to writers their words don't merely tell but show.

These qualities are evident in Tender. Even the title is evocative. Not Tenderness, a lovely word, but sometimes tainted with sentimentality, the adjective Tender suggests at once rawness, vulnerability, affection and offering. In the subtitle — stories that lean into kindness — lean intimates the delicacy of an invitation to follow a direction without compulsion. It also suggests the intimacy shown when we lean on another's shoulder, and perhaps trust that the reader will respond to the gentle invitation. Kindness evokes both generosity and our shared humanity.

 

"Human cruelty and human kindness, they sit closely together." — 'Bank Teller', by Julie Perrin

 

The encounters and reflections that compose the book display the same sharp attention to the rawness and pathos of reality and the possibilities of words. Behind the initial detail of description of place, time and ordinary actions, a deeper reality is disclosed that leads to reflection inviting readers to ask themselves what matters. In 'Bank Teller', for example, the opening paragraph sets the scene through simple, carefully observed detail:

'In Melbourne, I'm walking along Sydney Road, Brunswick, the traffic is stretched bumper to bumper. There is a taxi at the kerb outside the bank. As I enter the foyer through the glass doors a young man is walking towards me. His arm is outstretched as if to make a space ahead of him. With his other arm he is guiding a woman dressed in long flowing robes and hijab.'

The succeeding paragraphs fill out the description. The young man is corporately dressed, sharp, but in his attention there is something unexpectedly 'decorous, almost tender'. The woman's face is a mass of scarring, with no nose, and she seems to be blinded. As they talk together, 'he leans his head closer, so he can hear'. The final paragraph sums up the story into which the reader has been drawn and invites them to ponder a larger question:

'Human cruelty and human kindness, they sit closely together. The bank teller carved out a space for the scarred woman to walk in. Her presence and energy called something out of him, and from other witnesses to their conversation. What will it take before we can make space on our shores for people who carry their scars less visibly?'

In this writing, every word, every punctuation mark, every turn of phrase has been considered in order to draw the reader into the human reality of a simple action, to share the writer's compassionate regard, and finally to embrace a question that ripples out into widening circles. Our shores can be those of our inner life, our domestic relationships, of our workplace and, evidently, of our nation.

In this book, as in the genre of which it is representative, the writing encourages the readers to draw on their traditions, not as authorities to close conversation but as resources to open it. It displays devotion to the word fleshed out.

 

 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Julie Perrin, Brian Doyle

 

 

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Existing comments

Really enjoyed this thoughtful and beautifully written article, and the article published by Eureka Street by Julie Perrin, 'Jack baptised himself' on 17/7. Looking forward to reading more!
Karen B | 18 July 2019


I agree that current writers of the kind identified by Andrew exercise admirable human sympathy and dexterity with language, but can't say I find them as spiritually engaging or rewarding as I do, say, writers like Graham Greene, Flannery O'Connor, Evelyn Waugh or Andrew Bullen SJ (author of the recently published poetry collection "Etiquette with Angels"). When I ask myself, 'Why?", I think the answer is that there is a closer, more explicit - but no less evocative - integration in these latter authors' works between the spirituality they explore and and doctrines which inform it, particularly when they address profound theological realities like the workings of sin and grace in human experience. The religious sensibility - indeed mystery - these writers arouse is enhanced, I suggest, by the value they place on and provision they make for the intellect in their subject matter and treatment of it: "a small red flame - a beaten-copper lamp . . . relit before the beaten-copper doors of a tabernacle. . . burning anew among the old stones" in the Marchmain chapel (Waugh), and "Who besides Dante and the damned/enters hell wittingly?" (Bullen, in his masterful Holocaust poem, "Kreis, Kreis") come readily to mind. By comparison, "the modern spiritual mode" (or should that be "post-modern"?) to me resembles an echo without a source, or perhaps a child - like much of contemporary Europe - shy of acknowledging its spiritual and religious parentage.
John RD | 18 July 2019


A thoughtfully shaped review, which understands and honours the tender observation of the original. Julie's writing makes generous space for the deep unsaid.
Janet | 21 July 2019


Poetic, John RD.
john frawley | 22 July 2019


It is satisfying to read this article by a reviewer who is prepared to 'lean' thoughtfully into the author's writing and its intent. I have enjoyed Julie Perrin's articles published in Eureka Street, in particular "James and the Four Eggs" and "The Rosella's last walk" and I am now enjoying taking time over her book "Tender".
Sally | 26 July 2019


Excellent, nuanced review of a book I found deeply engaging.
Brian Walters | 27 July 2019


I wish I could speak with the eloquence of the reviewer of Julie's exquisite book, "Tender". Julie's writing "...is spare and elegant in its writing, inclusive in its address and open-ended in its invitation to reflection.” I am not a Christian but I find Julie's writing very compelling because it is not bogged down in theological exegesis but in soulful observation of fellow humans from a heart full of compassion. My eyes are opened to the miracles in the ordinary and I reflect on the world differently. Thank you for the gift of your writing Julie.
Jill H | 31 July 2019


I loved this little book. Such wonderful story telling, keen observations of everyday life and a timely reminder of the importance of kindness. Luckily I received this book as a gift and I would recommend it as a wonderful gift for family and friends.
Ann P | 20 August 2019


I thought I would just dip 'in and out' of this book, but of course, once I started I read it cover to cover. Thoughtful and insightful observations of everyday life and also times that are more challenging. I would really recommend it - a meaningful read!
Sue G | 01 September 2019


Julie Perrin's collection of vignettes and reflections, 'Tender' gently moves the reader towards a greater humanity. I am so pleased that I read this excellent book.
Andrew Calwell | 15 September 2019


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