Monday, December 8, 2014

The Literature of Caregiving: "Home" by Marilynne Robinson

I have been a caregiver for more than 30 years, and for the past ten years I have been coaching family caregivers. A couple of years ago I created a class called “Caregiving 101” to reach family caregivers in community centers, faith communities, and in workplaces.

What I’ve learned is that one of the biggest supports for a caregiver is hearing about how other people cope in their caregiving. We can learn from the good and the bad, from the “Do” and the “Don’t”, examples of how other people approached, struggled and survived their caregiving role.

In caregiving classes and support groups we hear poignant stories directly from current caregivers. But there is another way to share in these caregiving stories and that is from reading literature.

In the midst of my own caregiving I found myself leaning into the experiences of poets, novelists and those who write literary nonfiction, (essays and memoir as opposed to self-help books). Today my caregiving bookshelves have an equal number of advice books and works of literature—all guides to me on the practices, methods, strategies, and emotions of caregiving.

A few years ago I began teaching a class—for caregivers and for writers—called “The Literature of Caregiving.” Today, here at “Love in the Time of Cancer,” I am starting a new series on the literature of caregiving. Once a month, or maybe more often, I’ll introduce a novel, story or poem that offers a perspective on caregiving.

I hope you’ll enjoy these voices and that they will be helpful to you.

In caregiving literature we are often talking about pain, suffering, grief, or family dynamics, which we all know, complicate the day-to-day stress of caregiving.  Some works of literature in the caregiving genre can also be classified also as works of “narrative theology”—where there are underlying questions of meaning,  “What does all this mean in a bigger sense?” and “What wisdom do these stories offer about how I should live my life?”

I’ve chosen Marilynne Robinson--one of America’s great modern authors to lead this new series. Her books land on the best-seller list with each publishing, and they have the wonderful dual quality of holding their own as great page-turning fiction as well as having deep, deeper and deepest layers should you want that kind of read as well.

Maybe you recall some of her books, which were published in this order:
“Housekeeping”—which was also a wonderful movie, then “Gilead”—which won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize, then “Home” in 2008 and most recently, “Lila”. All of Robinson’s stories are set in Iowa—where Robinson lives. And each of her books centers on the joys, sorrows and struggles of one or more family caregivers.

In “Home” (2008) Robinson gives us Glory Boughton, age 38, who has returned to Iowa to care for her dying father. Glory has her own struggles that her father isn’t aware of. Glory’s brother Jack—gone 20 years—arrives home as well but not to help out but rather because, as we slowly learn, Jack needs a lot of tender care as well. Critics have called Jack Boughton one of the “greatest characters in recent American literature.”

Robinson’s writing and story telling is extraordinary. She uses a kind of page-turning prose that can seem so simple until you realize pages later that she has delivered complicated relationships and even more complicated emotions to us so gracefully.

Glory and Jack’s father is a retired minister so there is a family language of faith that both Jack and Glory wrestle with as they wrestle with each other. While the theology belongs to their pastor father, Glory is being tested in every way: emotionally, financially, physically and theologically.

Robinson’s other books all have caregivers as lead characters: an eccentric aunt in “Housekeeping”, a husband and wife in “Gilead” and a surprising friend in 2014's “Lila”.

While these stories are serious and important Robinson’s skill is also in making them enticing page-turners, so even the most tired caregiver will enjoy keeping Robinson on the bedside table, or in the bag that goes to and from appointments. 

I’ll return in a few weeks with another entry into our new canon: The Literature of Caregiving. I’d love to have your feedback and your suggestions too. This can be our virtual book group or we’ll be caregiving friends sharing a great read.

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