A Moving Memoir From Maine's Unlikeliest Chaplain

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    Kate Braestrup, a Unitarian Universalist minister serving as chaplain for the Maine Warden Service, travels all over the state to outdoor emergencies that unfold with varied outcomes: a six-year-old girl lost in the woods, a woman who's slid over an 80-foot waterfall, or a snowmobiler trapped under ice. In addition to giving counsel to the game wardens, her work involves comforting anxious or grieving families -- by listening, praying, or just talking.

    Braestrup's memoir, Here If You Need Me (Little, Brown, August), chronicles that work, as well as its unexpected beginnings. Braestrup, from a nonreligious family, had no intentions of becoming a minister. (Although she did, at age nine, have a vision of Jesus that, upon closer examination, turned out to be a giant fiberglass statue of him "presiding over the landscaped grounds of the Mountain Rest Memorial Garden.") Becoming a Unitarian Universalist minister was actually the plan of her late husband, Drew Griffith, as a second career when he retired from his job as a trooper with the Maine State Police. After Drew was killed in a car accident while on duty, Braestrup found that she wanted to take up his "hand-me-down calling" herself. Plus, she notes in her book, the seminary is a wonderful place to grieve. "I highly recommend divinity school for anyone recently bereaved. With rare exceptions, your classmates will be unbelievably nice, sensitive people."

    Braestrup, who likens herself to Father Mulcahey (from MASH), added that until not too long ago, she would have been uncomfortable with anything outside of the secular. "For many people, including me until relatively recently, if somebody wrote a book about how she found God through experience, I would put the book down and run away screaming. I would think, 'Oh, Jesus.' In fact, I probably still would. But I came to a more profound understanding [of God] as something that German philosopher Paul Tillich calls 'the ultimate concern.'"

    While Here If You Need Me offers meditations on theology, the handling of the dead, and questions of fate and faith, it is also full of Ian Frazier-esque family stories dealing with the emotional tumult of puberty, wars waged at the dinner table, and the misadventures of her children's "objets d'amour." One objet, a doll her daughter Ellie named Jesus, turns up as part of the family lore. When Drew was alive, he would watch Ellie drag her dirty, washed-too-many-times doll everywhere she went. He told her soberly, "What a friend you have in Jesus."

    There's also an element of true crime as Braestrup catalogs the various emergencies and crime scenes she visits (the experiences have helped her write several articles for Law and Order magazine. "They're desperate for copy," she said). And the memoir offers quick, elegant sketches of the Maine wilderness and lots of Braestrup's great sense of humor -- irreverent and otherwise. Have you heard the one about the church lady who goes to the L.L. Bean housewares department wanting to buy monogrammed guest towels for the First Unitarian Church of Kennebunkport, Maine?...

    For a book that deals with weighty issues, Braestrup said tempering tragedy with comedy was critical. "What I find in my work, situations are so serious that humor can sometimes be the only way to talk about them," she explained. "Cops, like nurses and firefighters, use bleak humor as a way of talking about something that otherwise they couldn't speak aloud. I mean, if I say something like 'I was widowed when I was 33, and I had four small children' that is so self-evidently awful. But if I use humor to talk about it, it opens it up, it allows it to be talked about. And if you use humor to talk about religion and faith, especially, it allows it to become a conversation."

    Braestrup does sometimes pepper that conversation with scripture, but usually for comedic effect. When she catches her young son hammering great lumps of concrete from the house foundation, she yells, "O' faithless!... I brought you into a plentiful land to eat its fruits...but you defiled my land and made my heritage an abomination. Be appalled, O' heavens, at this."

    Braestrup's facility with reporting on macabre stories of victims of murder, hypothermia, or just errors in judgment is a talent that runs in her family. Her father, Peter Braestrup, served in the Marines and became known as an authority on military reportage. He went on to become a war correspondent for the Washington Post and the New York Times.

    Although his work often took him far from home, Braestrup's father encouraged her writing, which was "the one thing I always knew Dad approved of about me," she said. "I was the second girl and I was supposed to be a boy, so I was kind of a catastrophe from Dad's point of view. But I knew that he really loved my writing. He'd say, 'You've got the touch Kate-O.'"

    About her first book, Onion, a novel that deals with some ponderous theological issues, Braestrup admits she was "too young" to have tackled such weighty subjects. "I had the facility to write well enough to get a novel published," she said. "But it was pretty obvious that I bit off way more than I could chew." Now, after much more life experience, she explained, "I won't ever be in the same situation in life that I was then. Whether I write fiction or nonfiction, what I understand and accept about the world is so different."

    Braestrup, now remarried, needed the passage of time to be able to write about the experience of losing her "intelligent, brave, and tender" husband. After almost a decade, she said, she has "most of this stuff adequately processed. You feel like you've become the only person in the world who something like this has happened to. With time you realize, no, you're really not. And then you realize that you have a kinship with other people."

    One particular scene in Here If You Need Me underscores this kinship: an elderly woman with Alzheimer's had wandered off into the woods. The entire community mobilizes: local firefighters, off-duty sheriff's deputies, town cops, members of the local rod and gun club, volunteer Maine search and rescue dog teams, college students. The focus is intentionally not on the result of the search committee, but instead on the entire group "bent on the common purpose of love." Braestrup said that this is how she now defines God. For her, in that particular moment, finding or not finding is not the point. "It isn't that life isn't important," she said. "It isn't even that preserving the remains isn't important. But the thing that's of the ultimate importance is love, and that was there. In a way, the sacred had already made itself manifest, and everything else is kind of gravy." --Karen Schechner