''I know that I live in a crass and boorish culture, a culture of shock jocks and road rage, 'reality' television and thong underwear, corruption and consumerism, mean porn and meaner theology,'' writes Kate Braestrup in her incandescent new memoir, Here If You Need Me. ''I know all this. And still, the world I move through is rich and beautiful, and the people I work with...are decent, discerning and good.''
This, in a nutshell, is Braestrup's simple, immensely appealing credo, one that acknowledges the chaos of this crazy world while honoring the grace that, despite it all, happens. This belief informs Braestrup's life, and illuminates her extraordinary book. In 1996, Braestrup's husband, Drew, died in a car accident, leaving her a widow with four young children. After personally washing and tending to Drew's corpse a mourning ritual she describes in poignant detail Braestrup battled grief by enrolling in seminary school. ''Mine, in reality, was a pretty plain and practical calling,'' she writes. ''I needed to do something.''
Yes, becoming a Unitarian minister was an unlikely move for a woman who grew up secular and used to roll her eyes at churchgoing friends. As her brother asked in an e-mail, ''You don't really believe in God, do you?'' It was a reasonable question then, and you can finish this book not entirely sure of the answer yourself Braestrup is almost dogmatically undogmatic. Atheists are okay with her; she collects jokes that begin ''A rabbi, a pastor, and a priest walk into a bar...''; and she has little to say about scripture or theology. Instead, Braestrup lives her faith through her work, as chaplain for the Maine Warden Service, which oversees search-and-rescue missions in the state's vast wilderness.
Of her uniform, a green ranger's jacket and vinyl clerical collar, Braestrup quips, ''I look like a cross between an effeminate priest and a gas station attendant.'' But she writes with affecting gravity about the everyday horrors she encounters: the drowning of a fisherman in an icy lake; a child's disappearance in the forest; the suicide of a depressed young mother. ''The body in the woods or in the water is not just a practical problem, but a matter of tremendous spiritual significance for those most intimately involved,'' she writes. ''As a reverend, I can express our reverence.'' And in her service to people in pain, Braestrup herself finds deliverance.
As spiritual memoirists go, Braestrup isn't as outrageously funny or self-revealing as the great Anne Lamott; and her story lacks the effervescence of Elizabeth Gilbert's best-selling fairy tale, Eat, Pray, Love. But this witty, middle-aged Maine minister has a calm, earthy authority all her own. A-