Phyllis Tickle's exquisite memoir Shaping a Life
ranges across a sweeping Southern landscape where we see the events--highly dramatic and tenderly simple--that shaped her esteemed spiritual life. (Tickle, author of The Divine Hours
, is a contributing editor on religion for Publisher's Weekly
and is one of America's most respected authorities on religion.) When we first meet Tickle, she is a highly imaginative only child growing up in the mountains of eastern Tennessee in the 1930s. By the end of the book we have followed her through the formative days of college, her migration into the Episcopal Church, and into some of her most riveting moments as a young wife and public school teacher in the 1950s.
Tickle has the wisdom of a mature storyteller as well as the humility of a spiritual seeker. She makes meaning out of the smallest details, showing us how a backyard forsythia bush became a sacred hiding place, foreshadowing her lifelong compulsion to find private sanctuaries. We meet her gentle mother, who made a daily ritual out of reading a magazine, manicuring her nails and studying the Bible. This, she concludes, influenced Tickle's adult attraction to the daily psalms. Even the way she sneaked cigarettes in her college dorm offers insight into the nature of her Christian yearnings.
Some of her scenes are utterly gripping, like her near-death experience after having an adverse reaction to an anti-miscarriage drug. "Without a care for anything that had ever been or ever was or ever might be, I lifted toward the light as lithely as if I had been a sparrow upon the courses of the early morning wind." Throughout the memoir we are held in this kind of lilting narration. Like a feminine version of Pat Conroy, Tickle is a strong, descriptive author who thoroughly appreciates how Southern landscapes, family, marriage, and death can shape a character as well as a spirit. --Gail Hudson
From Publishers Weekly
Tickle (PW's contributing editor in religion and author of The Divine Hours) offers an enthralling spiritual memoir of her early life in Tennessee, recording academic and religious awakenings and her evolving understanding of prayer. Though her mind is numinous, Tickle's life has never been ascetic. Always the demands of the spirit competed with and were complemented by teaching duties, marriage to a country doctor and the needs of her children. (Although the memoir closes when Tickle is pregnant with her third child, she went on to have four more.) Because of this, Tickle's memoir is reminiscent of the best writing of Madeleine L'Engle, in that the business of spirituality is conducted while stirring the sauce. Several of Tickle's most holy realizations occurred while she engaged in domestic tasks: sorting the china after her wedding or scrubbing out smelly socks in the bathtub. Tickle is quite simply a marvelous writer, continually delighting the reader by her facility not only with the English language but with the human character. In recounting her own life, she pauses to appreciate the mentors, both in the flesh and on the printed page, who assisted in her spiritual formation. Many laugh-out-loud moments balance the frank acknowledgments of dark times, as when she struggled through depression or miscarriage. Even when discussing the more painful memories of her early life, Tickle's writing shines with a joy that is transcendent of circumstance.
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