A deeply felt celebration of a classic novel--and a reflection on the ways our favorite books can shape and heal us.
Our favorite books keep us company, give us hope, and help us find meaning in a chaotic world. In this fresh and relatable work, atheist chaplain Vanessa Zoltan blends memoir and personal growth as she grapples with the notions of family legacy and identity through the lens of her favorite novel, Jane Eyre. Informed by the reading practices of medieval monks and rabbinic scholars from her training at the Harvard Divinity School and filtered through the pages of Jane Eyre as well as Little Women, Harry Potter, and The Great Gatsby, Zoltan explores topics ranging from the trauma she has inherited as the granddaughter of four Holocaust survivors to finding hope, meaning, and even magic in our deeply fractured times. Brimming with a lifelong love of classic literature and the tenderness of self-reflection, the book also reveals simple techniques for reading any work as a sacred text--from Virginia Woolf to Anne of Green Gables to baseball scorecards.
Whether you're an avowed "Eyrehead" or simply a curious reader looking for a richer connection with the written word, this deeply felt and inspiring book will light the way to a more intimate appreciation for whatever books you love to read.“Praying with Jane Eyre is literary, spiritual, and autobiographical all at once. This is a book committed to the truths of things—from the Holocaust to personal betrayal—no matter how hard those truths may be. . . . We can follow [Vanessa’s] example of learning how to read as if our lives depend on it—which I believe they do.” —Terry Tempest Williams, from the foreword
“In these soaring, open-hearted essays, Vanessa Zoltan writes with fierce brilliance about suffering, survival, and the kind of meaning in life that can withstand real scrutiny.”
—John Green, bestselling author of The Fault in Our Stars and The Anthropocene Reviewed
“As an atheist, I’ve hungered for these sermons. As a reader, I’ve longed for this exegesis. This is a book about much more than how to pray secularly, and much more than how to read reverently. It is a book about how to be. And it is told through the wondrous earthly companionship of not just Jane Eyre, but the miraculous Vanessa Zoltan.”—Lauren Sandler, author of This Is All I Got and Righteous
“How does one create a life of meaning—not merely a sense of purpose, but a ritual and a practice to give that purpose structure and power—when traditional religion feels untenable? Vanessa Zoltan destroys the boundaries between ethics and aesthetics with a radical and beautiful idea, one that will ring true to every passionate reader: that intentional reading can empower and shape our lives. More than a love letter to the power of books, more than a reinterpreting of religious practice, and much more than a reading of Jane Eyre, Praying with Jane Eyre invites us, in Zoltan’s accessible voice, into an intimacy with the most vulnerable parts of ourselves, and shows us how literature can sanctify them.”—Dara Horn, author of Eternal Life and People Love Dead Jews
“This book will make you laugh. It will make you cry. But best of all, it will change the way you read forever.”—Casper ter Kuile, author of The Power of Ritual and cohost of Harry Potter and the Sacred Text
“Praying with Jane Eyre is a readable, huggable guide to better living, and loving, through literature—not to mention the most affectionate portrait of grandparents that I have read in ages. And doses of Jay Gatsby and Harry Potter besides. Who can resist?”—Mark Oppenheimer, host, Unorthodox podcastVanessa Zoltan has a B.A. in English literature and creative writing from Washington University in Saint Louis, an M.S. in nonprofit management from the University of Pennsylvania, and a M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School. She is the CEO and founder of Not Sorry Productions, which produces the podcasts Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, Twilight in Quarantine, and Hot & Bothered. She also runs pilgrimages and walking tours that explore sacred reading and writing.
On Staying in Bed
There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs Reed, when there was no company, dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating, that further outdoor exercise was now out of the question. I was glad of it.
-Chapter 1, Jane Eyre
Starting in the spring of 1958, my grandmother spent eleven months in bed.
Debilitating vertigo kept her there. Doctors could not account for it; they could not find the source of the vertigo, nor did they find sufficient treatment. So she stayed in bed.
Our family has a theory of the vertigo, though, and it is simple: up until 1958, Mama didn't have a minute to stop. She went from a childhood of absolute poverty in Slovakia to hiding, as a maid in Budapest, from the Nazis. Then they found her and sent her to Auschwitz.
I know very little about her time in the camps. I know, because she had fake papers, that she went to Auschwitz a full year and a half before Hungarian Jews. I know she worked for a munitions factory while there. I know she met the man who would become my Papa there. Sorry to tell you that they did not fall in love there (boy, would that have been a story). But they interacted several times in the factory and became recognizable acquaintances to each other. In fact, Mama was Papa's supervisor and would "overlook" when Papa intentionally sabotaged an item. This could easily have gotten them both killed.
I also know Mama lost her brother and her parents in the concentration camps. Her sister, to whom she was not close, survived. But Mama, throughout my life, spoke very little about her time in the camps.
After the war, my grandfather made his way back to his family in Paris. They had all survived thanks to fake Catholic passports. My grandmother, with no family to return to, got a job as a housekeeper in Brussels.
Pretty quickly after returning to Paris, Papa started working in the postwar depression that was Europe in 1945. In December of that year, that work brought him to Brussels, and right outside the subway, he ran into an acquaintance from the camp. They got married a month later.
She joined his family's postwar business: smuggling. She once had to go back to Gare de Lyon, sneak onto a train, and cut out diamonds that had been left in the bathroom by my grandfather because an inspector was on the train so Papa was forced to exit without his loot. She alone figured out which car the diamonds were on, sneaked on, and smuggled them off.
She had five pregnancies and three children all between 1946 and 1951, when my mother was born. She moved to France, then to Israel, back to France, and then to America. Los Angeles.
In Los Angeles she found herself working in a factory again. Papa quit smuggling and became a busboy. Then in 1958, Papa got promoted to headwaiter. The restaurant was one of those fancy places where the waiter would coddle an egg at your table to make you fresh Caesar salad dressing right before your eyes. Due to his big promotion, Mama was able to quit her job at the typewriter parts factory. And as soon as she quit that job, she got vertigo. As soon as she was able to stop, her body said, Stay down. Stay down.
For eleven months the vertigo was so bad that someone had to help her get to and from the bathroom. They had to bring food to her bed and help bathe her. My mother remembers spending a lot of time in bed with Mama during that time, and she also remembers that Papa had to learn how to do my mom's hair. He used his acquired skills to do my hair as a child too, knowing from his experience with my mother how to handle my curls. The lessons learned from necessity can sometimes turn up in French braids.
I have no idea what Mama thought about during that year in bed. But my spoiled little mind imagines the worst, the most dramatic version of the possibilities. I imagine she was trying to understand how in one lifetime she could go from being the daughter of an Orthodox tombstone engraver in a shtetl in rural Slovakia to being the mother of three American kids who wanted a Christmas tree in Los Angeles. I imagine she was wondering how her little brother had died, how her parents had died. Did they suffer? Were they scared?
At the end of her life she spoke about her experience in a death march. When she had dementia, she would tell the story on a loop. It was when the Germans knew that the Americans and Russians were coming into the camps to liberate the prisoners, so they tried to just march as many people to death as possible, making them walk around the clock without food or water. Mama and two other women survived by holding one another's arms and walking together. The person in the middle would sleepwalk, the other two helping carry her. Then they would rotate. I wonder if during her year in bed in the 1950s Mama was as obsessed with that memory as she would later be, when she was bound to her bed again by old age.
Regardless of what she thought about, the theory of her year in bed stays the same. I think of it this way: her body had been like a yo-yo that got twisted over the years of use and abuse, and so when she finally stopped and simply held still, she needed to unspin, which is dizzying. She had to stay down so she wouldn't fall.
The opening lines of Jane Eyre are about an inability to walk. The weather is too punishing and so the children of the mansion (one of whom is our darling Jane, being the unwanted ward of the house) cannot go on their usual evening march. They had already had to walk around in the leafless shrubbery in the morning. They had already had their time of aimless, forced wandering. But now the weather makes it impossible for them to go out again.
It is not any one thing that keeps Jane and her cousins inside. We hear of the "winter wind," the "rain so penetrating," and the "clouds so sombre." It makes me wonder whether if only two of those three things were true, the children would still be sent out of the house on their evening walk. Of course, those three things are related, contingent upon one another. Just as love begets love, awfulness, of course, begets awfulness. The rain is only penetrating because of the winter wind. It is alchemy that keeps Jane inside. And Jane reports that she is "glad of it." Glad that she gets to stay inside and not go on her walk. She is not glad that she doesn't have to go out in this bad weather. She is glad that the bad weather means that she does not have to go on a walk at all.
As punishing as I am sure Mama's vertigo was, I wonder if she too was glad of it. I wonder if it was a relief to not be able to get out of bed, to have to stay down. Sometimes there is no better feeling than that of having no choice. And there must have been something a bit delicious, at least sometimes, about having a warm, safe bed to be in after all those years of running, and having no choice but to stay in that warm, safe bed and have her needs tended to. I'm sure it was awful in many ways, like the wind, the rain, and the clouds. But maybe it was also a relief.
When I was sixteen years old, over forty years after Mama's first forced stay in bed, her back broke. She had cement put in between the vertebrae, but she still couldn't hold herself up. So in 1998, she went back to bed and stayed there for the rest of her life. Right around then, I was in a high school play that did not have rehearsal on Wednesdays, so I would go and nap with her after school on that one day a week. We would hold hands and sleep. I think I just wanted a nap and couldn't justify it unless I was in bed with my Holocaust-surviving grandmother. But I loved the time we spent in bed together. She could be a mean woman for most of my childhood. But when she went back to bed in 1998, she became kind. So I was in bed with a kind, gentle woman who looked and smelled exactly like my grandmother.
I know some of what she thought about then. This was when she talked about the death march on a loop. She talked about what she had eaten that day, and I'm guessing she thought a lot about her needs and her pain and how to ease it. She made a lot of snarky and truly funny jokes at other people's expense. She talked about who had visited her and who had not. She talked about doctor visits. She writhed in pain. She welcomed her visitors. She watched Jeopardy! with Papa.
She died in that bed in April 2005.
I have depression that at times feels like a rain so penetrating that I cannot get out of bed. Depression sleep is different from the delicious naps I got used to on those Wednesday afternoons, and it is different from the naps I still take sometimes. I also have endometriosis, which is a physical pain that comes and goes in great extremes. And sometimes I am glad for the flare-up of my physical pain symptoms. It's like my body is giving me proof, an excuse to stay in bed. Look! It's not in my head. It is real! It's not that I don't want to go on a walk. It's pouring rain with punishing wind!
There have been many times in my life I have spent in bed. When I was undiagnosed as a depressive in college, I would often spend weeks at a time in bed, lying to professors and to friends in an endless dance of covering up what I was convinced was laziness. (I am still not completely convinced that it was not.) I had mono at the age of thirty, and if I tried to walk I would faint. And at thirty-three, after a tough breakup, running around, and working eighty-hour weeks for six months, I donated blood and then thirty minutes later fainted onto a patient who had just given birth and whose newborn was ill, with whom I was supposed to be doing a chaplain visit. I woke from my fall and had vertigo. I had it for two weeks and no doctor could account for it. It went away either because I went to an acupuncturist who healed me or because it was two weeks since the vertigo had started and vertigo often goes away after two weeks.
Part of what I think about when I am in bed is obviously a self-indulgent notion of my own weakness. Mama stayed in bed after time in concentration camps, miscarriages, loss of parents and siblings, a death march, and an actual broken back. What is my excuse? I would like to tell myself a story of multigenerational trauma. I would like to tell myself that I am staying in bed to keep Mama's ghost company. When I am in bed now, depressed and sometimes also with back pain so bad that I cannot sit or stand, I can feel Mama's hand in mine like a phantom limb, a judgment, inspiration, excuse, and benediction all in one. But I know that my reasons are not as good as hers were.
I envy that Mama's broken back and vertigo made getting out of bed "out of the question," and I realize that thought is like saying I am jealous of Anne Frank for being stuck in an attic with a boy she had a crush on. There is a lot at risk for me if I let go of the guilt that I feel when I am in bed. If I do not feel guilty, it means I am ungrateful for the privilege I have that has allowed me softer reasons to spend so much time in bed, compared with Mama. The key is to make sure, like Jane, and like Mama, to walk around when the weather is fine enough, even if it is only in leafless shrubbery. The answer to my guilt is to make the most of what my body and mind are capable of on the days when I am not in bed. That way, on the days when my body and mind betray me, I can be glad of it.
|Praying with Jane Eyre