Shortly after New Year’s I began reading one of “those” books, a book that sings and breaks your heart and now I am re-reading it, something I almost never do. The book is Colum McCann’s “Let the Great World Spin.” Although I have wanted to write and talk about it, I have yet to do so. But today is Ash Wednesday and the book is about grief and redemption, grace and pain. So here it goes…
The book is held together by the tightrope walk of Phillipe Petit, an event that has never held any particular fascination for me. The idea of tightrope walking between the twin towers makes my heart race and my hands sweat. It is not something I want to think about. But McCann uses the event to weave many lives together, predict the future, and illuminate the truth of Ash Wednesday: we are dust and to dust we shall return. In the meantime, we each walk our own tightropes in different ways and it is our compassion and that of others that allows grace to save us from a fall.
Corrigan is a monk who chooses to live in the burning Bronx of 1970’s New York. His faith is quiet yet completely obvious to all with whom he comes in contact. It almost seems as if his faith and the accompanying grace he bestows on others was given to him as a child and he could no more rid himself of it than he could his eye color, the shape of his brow, or any other in-born trait. We meet him first and all the other characters and emotions that form the book spin out from his compassion and suffering.
Not long ago, the class I am currently teaching was spending time at the Ackland museum. One of the objects that had been selected for us to look at was a photograph of someone jumping from one of the towers on 9/11. At first, many of us did not know what we were looking at. The jumper appears to be a bird or perhaps a skydiver. And the angle of the picture is such that it takes several seconds before the viewer notices the smoke and fire in the far left of the picture. The conversation that followed was poignant and difficult. If our class was any indication, as a nation, we still do not have good ways to discuss this event or the grief and disappointment that stem from it. Even within a class of nine we were on the brink of polarization very quickly. As a teacher, I was tempted to jump in and “get us back on track.” However, I didn’t really know how to do that, so I took a deep breath and waited. And, like the characters in McCann’s book, these students found a way to be generous, forgiving, and kind to one another. Their ability to listen to one anothers perspective and experience allowed us to maintain the open, seeking dynamic that is very important to this class, in particular. It was a small moment of grace and it reminded me of the many moments of grace found in ordinary moments in McCann’s novel.
I’m still not sure I can talk about this book very well. It is like a piece of music that makes your heart ache and soar at the same time. If you read it, please tell me how it affects you.
Here’s a link to an interview with the author. http://www.nationalbook.org/nba2009_f_mccann_interv.html