Book Review

That our world is broken—sundered by pandemic, climate crisis, race and class oppression, chasms of political discord—seems beyond dispute. What is equally clear is that we have no choice but to live in, and try to love, that world. In that light, although Jennifer Sinor’s new collection of personal essays was written over a span of fifteen years, it has arrived just in time.

The appeal of Sky Songs: Meditations on Loving a Broken World is summed up by one of Sinor’s students, quoted within the text: “When you write about something true, something real, the reader can’t look away.” To this observation I would add that the true and the real, in holding your gaze, force open a space in your mind—in a way, they break you. And into that broken place comes rushing the wild stuff of being human: love, fear, devotion, rage, astonishment.

It is this kind of brokenness that Sinor seems to be talking about: not a brokenness beyond repair, or even necessarily to be repaired, but the brokenness that we all live with, every day. As she has written elsewhere, “It is our moments of brokenness that define our spirit.”

Sinor ranges widely in this slim volume, from northern Alaska to northern India, and from her own childhood in Hawaii to her adult life as a parent and teacher in Utah, all the while tracking her evolving inquiry into the big questions of how life should be lived. Broadly speaking, the book’s first section, “The Ground Below,” frames these questions in terms of the outer world of landscape and other people, and the second section, “The Sky Within,” turns inward, to the Self and the Divine. If all of this sounds pretty academic, and not very much like the stuff of a page-turner, think again: as much as Sinor writes philosophically, she has the instincts of an entertainer. These essays are intellectually gripping and frequently suspenseful in their plotting.

The first half of the book, for example, is bracketed by tales of aqueous peril. In “Headwaters,” Sinor reconstructs an Alaskan rafting expedition undertaken by her father and his ailing older brother. We are informed at the outset that “for the first twelve hours after my father returned . . . he was under investigation for the murder of his brother.” Having thus secured our attention, Sinor pieces together what happened in a series of exquisitely tense vignettes, equally heartbreaking and heroic.

In “The Little Bear,” we find ourselves on another disastrous river trip. This time it is Sinor and her husband, Michael, who must fight tooth and nail to save their children and themselves. Again, Sinor weaves together adventure scenes that would be at home in Jack London’s novels (the river treats them as “a forgotten plaything”) with poetic exploration of how these moments, when everything is spinning out of control, when all seems lost and broken, divulge nature’s teachings: “Every river runs with certainty towards an ocean that will always accept it . . . All you need to know about life, the fierce ties that bind us as well as the branches that will take you down, can be found between those shores.”

The second half of the book dials down the white-knuckle thrills, but Sinor’s knack for drawing us in with the true and the real doesn’t require imminent danger—she also manages to transfix with descriptions of meditation and outings to glimpse the Dalai Lama.

The first three essays of this second section are drawn from an extended visit to India, where Sinor was studying yoga (in the classical Indian sense of a holistic spiritual practice that includes, but is not limited to, the physical poses and breathing techniques familiar to Westerners). In the process, Sinor traces her loss of faith in the Christian God of her youth, a period spent on what she calls “the sterile shore of atheism,” and her gradual rediscovery of the Divine through the study of Hindu-aligned philosophies.

The notion of Westerners going East for a quick spiritual salve has fraught implications, but it’s abundantly clear that Sinor’s respect for, and dedication to, these matters goes deeper than some kind of spiritual tourism. She reflects on the occasions when she tried to impose herself on India, when she has been “the one who refused to accept the world as offered.” And her sincerity reveals itself in the cautiousness of her conclusions: “I cannot fully explain to anyone how I have come to believe in the existence of a force beyond what I can name.”

Perhaps the most perfectly formed essay in this collection is “The Wanting Creature,” which resembles a parable one would expect to find in Buddhist or Hindu scripture. During their stay in the Himalayas, Sinor and her family hear that the Dalai Lama will make an appearance nearby, along with a rumor that if you purchase a special white scarf, His Holiness may bless it for you. A huge crowd gathers, and the monastery grounds become something of a melee, with foreigners, pilgrims, and monks jostling for position. Sinor writes: “Before coming to India, I had not specifically wanted to see the Dalai Lama . . . Before learning about the white scarves, I had not wanted to own one. Before realizing the possibility of a blessing, I hadn’t needed one. Yet there I was . . . Planning, devising, pushing, needing, wanting.”

In the end, her two boys both get the sought-after blessing purely through serendipity—their mother’s frantic efforts have nothing to do with it. They even get a photo with the Dalai Lama. “I, on the other hand, wasn’t even in the picture,” Sinor writes. “Which I find perfect, since I was never fully at the temple.”

It’s a tidy lesson in presence, attention, and letting go—the hallmarks of a yogic practice. But this experience, instructive as it was, cured nothing in itself. The next day, with the Himalayas blazing in glory above her, she finds her thoughts wandering instead to more prosaic landmarks from back home: Target, Old Navy, the Apple Store. “My wanting creature,” she writes, “only bided his time, waited.”

In other words, while the essay might be a perfect whole, the person writing it probably never will be. That’s the magic of writing, after all—the ability to forge beauty from the flawed materials of life. But like the craft of writing, cultivating love for what is broken, starting with oneself, is the work of a lifetime. We need voices like Jennifer Sinor’s to light the way.

About the Reviewer

Benjamin T. Miller is a writer whose fiction and essays have appeared in ZYZZYVA, Santa Monica Review, Epiphany, Hobart, and others. He earned his MFA from UC Irvine, and lives in Durham, North Carolina.