Not sure what I was expecting when I drove down to Oxford, Mississippi, to meet my favorite memoirist, Mary Karr, at Off Square Books Tuesday night. I think I had imagined she would be ten feet tall with a mystical glow around her head. Maybe even with wings that blind you with their light the way Earl’s do on “Saving Grace.” What I found was something just as amazing, but a bit more grounded. Mary Karr is the real deal.
I already knew she was the real deal, back when I first read “The Liar’s Club” and “Cherry.” And then I read her book of spiritual poetry, “Sinners Welcome,” and that explained a lot. Poets are the spiritual center of humanity, in many ways.
First of all, what a joy it was to travel with my Goddaughter, Katherine Thames, who is also a big fan of Mary Karr. And we were able to meet her as she arrived, just before the crowds gathered around her. A local Catholic priest walked in the door about the same time and joined us for a photo op… thanks to Square Books owner, Richard Howorth, for taking the photograph. Sorry I didn’t get the priest’s name, but I loved that he showed up to support Karr.
We chatted briefly, and then followed her to the table up front, where she signed our books and chatted a bit more. She’s one of those people (like barkeeps and hairdressers) who make you feel so comfortable you just want to talk to her. It’s not just her approachable personality (no snob, this gal) but also because of the intimacy of her writing. She is quoted saying as much in an article at KansasCity.com:
“Because so many people know so much about what happened in my life, they sometimes feel comfortable telling me things they wouldn’t tell most people,” Karr says.
Read more here.
So what did I tell her? I said that she was one of my favorite authors, and that another author, Cassandra King, had helped me begin to find myself with her novel, “The Sunday Wife,” and now she (Karr) was helping me find God in the midst of a huge spiritual struggle. She gave me a hug and a look passed between us as I reluctantly walked away, allowing her to visit with others.
Like my friend, Neil White, another terrific memoirist, who was there to meet and greet Karr, along with Oxford’s poet-in-residence (my words) Beth Ann Fennelly. (That’s Beth Ann talking with Mary. I call this picture “2 Poets”)
Karr read a section from “Lit,” and then spent some time on Q&A.
I had been especially intrigued by two passages in Lit where she talks about the difference in pleasure and joy (I think I cited these in my book review in January, too.):
When her son, Dev, was born: “Never have I felt such blazing focus for another living creature. I can’t stop looking at him. Joy, it is, which I’ve never known before, only pleasure or excitement. Joy is a different thing, because its focus exists outside the self—delight in something external, not satisfaction of some inner craving.”
And when Warren and Dev visit her in the “mental Marriott”: “In my life, I sometimes knew pleasure or excitement but rarely joy. Now a wide sky-span of quiet holds us. My head’s actually gone quiet. Some sluggishness is sloughed off. I am upright all of a sudden, inside a self I find quasi-acceptable, even as I’m incarcerated. Maybe this giant time-out has given me rest I sorely needed. Basically, some fist pounding on the center of my chest has unclasped itself. I’ve let go.”
It’s Karr’s honesty that I hold onto, as well as the beauty of her words. In the Afterword to her book, Sinners Welcome, “Facing Altars: Poetry and Prayer,” she says: “Maybe saints turn to God to exalt him, from innate righteousness. The rest of us tend to show up holding out a tin cup.”
That’s me. And maybe that’s enough, for now. But I’m going to try to touch the hem of Karr’s garments and hook a ride on her faith for a while. As she continues (in “Facing Altars”):
“My new ascetic struggle is to accommodate joy as part of my literary enterprise, but I still tend to be a gloomy and serotonin-challenged bitch.”
This much I can do today: I can say thank you to God for Mary Karr, for her books, and for the blessing of meeting her. I think I’m going to go out and buy a tin cup and put it by my bed to remind myself to pray, even if I can only manage the words, “Help me, God,” in the morning, and “Thank you, God,” at night.