Book Reviews | Literary Arts

Soul Food for End Times—Essays by Jana Richman

For those who want to open life’s envelope rather than pass it on sealed, you will find no better companion than Jana Richman. Her new book of essays, Finding Stillness in a Noisy World, provides soul food for end times. Couldn’t we all use a dose of soul food right now?

A sixth-generation Utahn and a gifted writer, Richman has given us four books rife with pleasure and trouble. She dares to take her seat right in the middle of conflict. Her novels (The Last Cowgirl and The Ordinary Truth) explore the particularities of family drama in times of drought, both emotional and environmental. Her memoir Riding in the Shadows of Saints simply claims the entire scope of Mormon history, on a solo motorcycle tour. In her new collection of essays, published by University of Utah Press, Richman’s voice holds such assurance and humility, the reader can relax and relent and recall what it is to be thoughtful in and about one’s place.

These are certainly not namby-pamby essays. A stubborn rancher’s daughter, Richman lives by choice in Escalante where Bill Clinton was burned in effigy on Main Street after Grand Staircase- Escalante National Monument was born. She writes eloquently of what the locals there are losing as times change and jobs end and newcomers bring new ideas to rural life. She says of the desert that she calls home: “It never gets old; it never gets easy; it never stops breaking my heart.”

The topics that draw Richman’s notice are topics we all should care about: dirt, water, desert, wide-open spaces, how nature informs everything we think and do, how it informs our psychology, builds the structures of a well-lived life for us. “Fusion with the natural world might be the only way to get to the core of ourselves,” Richman claims. Her essays go hiking, survive grad school, explore marriage, sink neck deep in mud, cast close backward glances at family dynamics. All of the essays concede the complexities of the Noisy World yet rest on a bedrock of quiet. She is a writer who knows and cherishes nature beyond words:

“The wonder of a place is its indifference to us.”

“Nothing illuminates irrational fear more brilliantly than sun burning off slickrock.”

“As I age, things work their way up to the surface like bones in sand.”

“I want to experience the slight shift in consciousness and the small opening of my heart that almost any place can offer if we pause long enough to allow it.”

I could not put the book down. It fed longings I hadn’t made time for and good old hunger sprang up afresh as I devoured essay after gorgeous essay. The takeaway from this slender book, for me, was respect. Richman’s deep respect for the desert, for her husband, and for the processes that allow us to become wiser, gentler human beings. The book will slip right into your backpack and welcome all the love and sweat you care to give it. Finding stillness in good company remains a noble pursuit.

Excerpt from “Stay”                                                                        

I have often wondered if staying for me is a circumstance of fate. Had I been blessed with financial means would I be one of the widely traveled sharing stories at cocktail parties? I suspect not. An indefinable combination of life’s offerings and deficits brought me here, and I want to know why my homing device is set to the coordinates of dark sandstone canyons. My knowledge of this place is the depth of a rain puddle, yet somehow I know that my understanding of this place is fundamental to my understanding of this life. Both of those things may be out of my reach, but the pursuit seems worthy nonetheless.

I want the wisdom this place offers—not to make me more knowledgeable but to make me more whole—to fill the gaps in my being. On my darkest days, the days when my anxiety surges, the days when I believe the message of my modern brain: a full bank account is the path to peace—on those days I travel. Not to Myanmar, not to Tanzania, but to this place—a spot in the sand below a black shaman with red arms—because this is where my modern brain is quieted by my ancient soul. And it whispers stay, listen.

Jana Richman will read from her new book of essays at Weller Book Works Aug. 16, 6:30-8:00 p.m.

Barbara Richardson’s novel Tributary won the Utah Arts 15 Bytes Award and the 2013 Utah Book Award in fiction.

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