This is my favorite kind of memoir. The ones that feel like getting to know a new friend, with frequent shocks of recognition, and plenty of memories from my own life bubbling up to the surface.
It's a story about being raised in a community based on the teachings of a spiritual guru, but the dynamics will be familiar to anyone who has been immersed in a fundamentalist worldview. Instead of mocking the true believers from her childhood, Claire Hoffman allows us to see the absurdity of their loyalty and deference without losing sight of their humanity. It's written with respect, restraint, and tenderness.
In large part, it feels like an adult child's love letter to her mother. There is something so universal and relatable about doing the best we can as parents. Every decision her mother makes along the way is fueled by hope for a better life — even a better world. She's a devoted, earnest, and warm character who can't afford not to believe. I was on her side throughout. And being equally on Claire's side never felt like a contradiction. It revealed the complexity of parenting, growing up, and individuation.
There's not a shred of naïveté in this memoir, but there's not any bitterness either. This can't be by accident. What a gift it is to get glimpses of someone losing her faith in unquestioned authority and absolute answers growing to embrace the messiness of real life with enthusiasm, humility, and kindness.
"I've gone to meditation retreats and listened to countless talks and sermons by other spiritual and religious leaders. I love the insight and the pursuit of a meaningful existence. And yet, when someone stands on an elevated platform and tells people what life means, I still resist. Never will I be able to trust that anyone knows the answer for anyone but themselves. Real trouble ensues when anyone tries to say otherwise...
In thinking about what it all means, I don't have an answer. But I know that for me, meditation provides a space that is uniquely my own, a mode of being that is totally separate from the ups and downs of the everyday. When I can make myself settle into that quiet, transcendent space, I'm reminded on a deep level of who I am and that feels really good, like a big glass of water when I'm thirsty.
But I've come to believe that part of being who I am is being uncomfortable. (Along with a profound mistrust of anyone who stands on a stage and tells you the Truth About Life.) It's a funny contradiction that was bred into me — an ability to transcend and a countervailing reaction to push out and question. These days I try to enjoy that contradiction rather than fit to have one side be right or wrong."