Essays and Criticism
Religion and Spirituality
In What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day, Pearl Cleage creates three main characters who share a common reliance on a religious, or a spiritual, practice. They each use their own individualized philosophy and ritual to help them overcome tragedies. Despite the fact that the characters’ beliefs vary as widely as their motives for observing such practices, Cleage implies that it is through such spiritual practices that the characters confront their challenges and realize an inner peace. Upon discovering this sense of tranquility, the characters are then able to step out of the blindness of their personal suffering and feel compassion for the suffering of others.
The protagonist of this novel, Ava, has many challenges to face, and most of them center around her bout with AIDS. Ava also suffers from alcoholism. In the beginning of the story, she has sold her beauty shop and is leaving Atlanta in search of a new home in a new city, which she hopes will accept her as she is. As the story opens, she has little thought of changing her lifestyle and has resigned herself to an early death. Thoughts about the spiritual side of life, such as praying, would almost be an insult to God, since she has ignored everything religious throughout most of her adulthood. She quit trying to pray because she had figured out that she was just “hedging” her bets. If she was smart enough to come to that conclusion, she believes that “God must know it, too” and probably would not grant her wishes and might even decide that she “needed to be taught a lesson for trying to [bullsh——] him in the first place.” With these beliefs in mind, Ava focuses on the physical elements of life and consumes large quantities of alcohol in an attempt to forget that she is dying.
The only remnants of a religious belief that Ava retains are based on her childhood memories of Christianity in the Baptist Church. Her view of religion is that of a powerful figurehead, or god, who exists outside of her and is in control of her life. This spiritual being judges her actions and sends rewards or punishments her way, depending on the decisions she makes on how to live her life. Since she has denied her early Baptist upbringing and has not acquired any spiritual practice to replace it, she is left with only a physical approach to life. In other words, Ava identifies herself only through her body. She says that the reason she is heading for San Francisco is that she believes that that city is progressive enough to accept her on her physical terms: “I wanted to be someplace where I could be my black, female, sexual, HIV-positive self.” Because of her inability to see beyond the physical definitions of herself, Ava finds her only sense of relief in dulling her thoughts with large quantities of alcohol. When she is drunk, her thoughts cloud over, removing her, somewhat, from her fears. The most that she gains in her inebriated state is enough distance to temporarily become sarcastic about her condition. However, as soon as the alcohol wears off, she is right back where she started. Only now, she also has a hangover to deal with.
Not until Ava renews her friendship with Eddie, a Vietnam veteran and ex-con who has found solace in a more Eastern approach to spirituality, does Ava find some peace of mind. Through Eddie, Ava learns to meditate and to focus on the present moment through the practice of Tai Chi. In general, this Eastern form of spirituality appeals to the psychology of an individual. Through an understanding of how one’s own thoughts influence one’s actions, people who practice some Eastern spiritual rituals, such as Tai Chi, believe that the godhead dwells within oneself. By stilling one’s thoughts, a person can cultivate an inner peace, which allows a more direct communication with the spiritual aspects of life.
It is through Tai Chi that Ava learns to live in the present moment and to face her fears of death. She does not embrace the Eastern philosophy fully, but rather she mixes the Eastern beliefs with her own Western understanding of religion. She uses Tai Chi to reawaken her sense of spirituality, thus giving her a reason to stop numbing herself with alcohol. Once she begins to cleanse herself of her destructive nature, she becomes more compassionate with the people around her. She takes an interest in her sister’s community actions. She opens up her heart to the baby that her sister is trying to adopt. She also allows herself to imagine the possibilities of falling in love with Eddie, rather than simply enjoying the thrills of their sexual relationship. Through the characterization of Ava, Cleage states that it is impossible to run away, or hide, from life’s challenges. The best path, Cleage implies, is to confront one’s fears. For Ava, this confrontation requires that she use a mixture of beliefs that combine a trust in oneself as well as a faith in a god-figure, whom she describes as a man who reminds her of her grandfather: “tall and tan and like he’s been working too hard.”
Eddie’s story is in many ways similar to Ava’s, although the circumstances differ. During his involvement in the Vietnam War, Eddie was taught to kill and was forced to exist in a world of horrid atrocities. “I saw the worst things you can...
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Less Effective Characters
What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day was selected in 1998 for the Oprah Winfrey Book Club, which boosted its sales enormously and brought it attention that might otherwise have been placed elsewhere. There is a certain kind of book that catches Winfrey’s eye. Such books often feature women, usually minorities, facing up to difficult, dangerous lives, courageously overcoming obstacles through a sense of solidarity with other women and establishing their independence. A dose of New Age spirituality about taking control of one’s life and finding the core of truth within oneself does not go amiss either. Given the talk show host’s persona, Cleage’s first novel and Oprah’s Book Club were a perfect fit. What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day, for all its literary qualities, is a self-help book. It points the way to how to live a productive, useful, happy life, especially for women. It is also a book with a social conscience. It highlights social problems such as AIDS, domestic violence, and the devastation caused by cocaine addiction. In that grim context, it shows women empowering themselves, making better choices about life, and tackling problems themselves when institutional structures (in this case, the local Baptist church) fail them. In fact, when Joyce, the social activist who thinks there is a solution for every problem, writes her statement of purpose for the Sewing Circus, it comes close to the message of the book as a whole: “To create and nurture women who are strong, mentally, physically; free of shackles, both internal and external . . . women who . . . choose their lovers based on mutual respect, emotional honesty and sexual responsibility.”
So it is that Ava Johnson, although carrying the weight of being HIV positive, succeeds in making a complete turnaround in her life, both physically and mentally. She is the perfect New Age heroine, the ideal example for everyone who writes or reads those ubiquitous articles in women’s magazines that outline a seven- (or eight- or nine- or ten-) point program for physical/mental/spiritual well-being. She begins an exercise program, regularly walking three miles a day; she starts to learn Tai Chi from Eddie; she meditates twice a day; she and Joyce begin referring, in fashionable New Age feminist style, to “Mother/Father God”; she eats better and virtually eliminates her consumption of alcohol (giving up caffeine, however, proves too big a hurdle). Ava also learns to value what she has and to appreciate the present moment rather than dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. Going back to her roots in Idlewood, she finds that home can be more than simply the place you come from.
Ava is undoubtedly an attractive heroine. Her informal, chatty, confessional, diary-like narration has considerable verve and panache. She is resilient and able to learn. She has an innate decency and a sense of humor that carries her through the most difficult situations—and it is hard to imagine a more difficult situation than being diagnosed HIV positive, which, despite the recent advances in drug therapy, remains a slow death sentence for almost all of its victims.
However, there is an odd paradox about Ava’s narration of her story. It is considerably wittier, earthy, irreverent, and entertaining in the early part of the novel, when she is at the height of her alienation from herself and her situation, than it is by the end. At the beginning, when she travels to Michigan and has to get used to living again in Idlewood, there is a gritty edge to her personality, as seen in her frequent use of street-slang, her self-confessions, her defiance, and her refusal to sugarcoat her situation or to lie to herself. All this sounds completely authentic; Ava has a genuine voice of her own. But, as her relationships with Joyce and Eddie deepen and she comes to terms with her situation, valuing the good that is in her life, she softens. She loses that street-smart edge to her language and becomes more bland and predictable. No doubt Cleage softened Ava on purpose, but the result is unfortunate. Instead of the heroine becoming progressively more interesting as the novel unfolds, she becomes considerably less so as she learns to do and say all the “politically correct” and “spiritually correct” things that her creator, who understandably wants to use her to convey a positive social message, requires her to say and do. The result is that Ava loses a quality that few people in real life ever do: the capacity to surprise or startle us.
Just to give one example: when early in the novel Ava describes her inability to adopt the kind of self-help program to reduce stress she sees described in magazine articles, she is humorous and engaging:
I read those articles all the time and I look at the things they recommend and I usually am not doing a single thing on the list. I consider doing them all the time, but I rationalize not starting to work on them immediately by thinking how they’d be so easy to do if I ever really wanted to do them. This is bulls— , of course, since every one of them would require a major redirecting of energy and since I’m already so guilt-ridden about not having done this stuff a long time ago, I could never just take one at a time. I’d have to tackle the whole righteous group simultaneously, or not at all.
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