“Skin Boat” by John Terpstra

Posted: July 7, 2010 in Dark Art Cafe

Think of it this way: an ancient curragh, a skin boat made from ox-hide tanned in oak bark and stretched over a rib cage of ash wood, launched out onto the North Atlantic. No keel to this boat and its easiest to steer in the waves when the pilot is sitting backwards in the bow facing the stern. In other words, forget what you thought you knew about faith – good or bad – and step into this thing, this carefully crafted memoir, and see where the swells of Terpstra’s honest questioning and the deep calm of being spoken to land you. This is no polemic but a journey, on which you are welcome to carry whatever baggage you hold dear. Just don’t be surprised at feeling unburdened, lighter, by the time you reach the landfall of the last page.

This book is beautiful, carefully and lovingly wrought, each word and phrase honed and true. But don’t go looking for perfection in these pages; you won’t find it. Rather, you will find navigations between the myth of Saint Cuthbert’s uncorrupted body and the uncanny persistance of the church through the ages, the pain of watching a friend and spiritual leader suffer, and the swell, swirl, and wonder of voyaging into the unknown like Saint Brendan in his fragile skin boat.

Terpstra’s prose seems straightforward but it curls inside knotted mysteries to give beautifully looping and sometimes hilariously loopy meditations on faith, life in the body, and cliched religious language. Like this one on the word “religion”: “If this is religion, then I hope it is in the sense of religio,  a word that has the words ligature, and ligaments, built into it: the living stuff that ties the body’s bones together, allows the bones to move in concert, stops them from rattling” (48). Or this one on his friend Bob the architect who organizes a yearly canoe trip: “Father, Son, and Bob. Our Bob is an awesome Bob. What would Bob do? There is a Bob. Obviously. The absence of Bob? Hard to be rid of more like it. Through all this verbal horseplay… [our] flesh and blood Bob, who is being warmed by the same fire [we sit around], does not rise to the bait. He maintains his Bob-like silence. In other words [we] cannot get him to respond. Bob-dammit” (149).

It has been said that in nonfiction writing an author can hold up an object or idea to the light, turn it, spin it, see its dints and flaws refract the light shone on it. This and more happens in this wonderful book. Something beyond looking occurs in the reading. You will feel breath on your face, new wind in your lungs, and a longing to step back into the world.

Why? What’s in it for you? In Terpstra’s own words: Nothing. Everything.

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