It’s dark today, dark like the sky’s about to burst into storm, which is weird because it never never ever goes daytime-dark or rains one drop in this town from May through October.  Still.  It’s dark, and I’m reading Roxana Robinson‘s SPARTA.

9780374267704_p0_v1_s600-220x330SPARTA is my latest favorite book of 2014.  If you’re a reader, you can’t stop reading.  If you’re a writer, you can stop trying to figure out how gracefully, and naturally, Robinson eases the narrative through time.  As if that’s not enough, I’m learning more than I knew (and I thought I knew a good deal) about the early stages of the Iraq war —- from a smart young Marine’s perspective — and about ancient Sparta.  Most importantly, which I did not expect, I’m learning how and why we choose to place our faith, or time, our allegiance, here or there.  Robinson opens the 4th chapter with this:

The difference between a cult and a religion depends on what’s being worshipped.  It’s a question of whether or not the object is divine, and whether or not the worship is excessive.  But the definition of divinity is subjective, so the answer will depend on who you ask.  Zoroastrians or Jews, for example, might consider Christianity a cult.  Civilians might consider the Marine Corps a cult.  But true believers know that what they follow is a religion.

Becoming an initiate into anything involves instruction, ceremony, belief.  It means yielding certain personal freedoms in exchange for the power, knowledge, privileges, and protection offered by the group.

It’s that last sentence that stings.

It’s like Robinson hit me with a bat with my often-vehement rejection of groups, of organized religion and clubs of any/all kinds.  Organizations are inherently both inclusionary and exclusionary.  Such dichotomy.  I forget who said, “I’d never want to belong to a club who would have me as a member,” and while that’s funny, it’s also something I feel deep down.  I find myself recoiling at the idea that I’m “in” somewhere.  A church group.  A golf club.  A tennis team.  A dinner table.  In essence, belonging to a group makes me feel I’ve failed somehow, that I suddenly have to exclude what’s “other” and, frankly, it’s the “otherness” that I’m most drawn to, most interested in, most desiring of knowing.  The minute I’m accepted or “in” somewhere —- and of course it feels great to be accepted, included, wanted —- I can’t wait to get the hell out.

We’re Catholic, you’re not. We’re Jews, you’re not. We’re poor, you’re not.  We’re Republicans, you’re not.  We’re gluten-free, you’re not.  We’re educated, you’re not.  We’re not educated, and you are.  —— the list goes on and fucking on –—– I’m reminded of going out to dinner with my kids when they were young.  “Why are you talking to those other people?!” they would say, cowering, embarrassed.  And I would think, “Because they are so interesting!”

In THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING, Joan Didion mentions Roxana Robinson, that maybe she could call Robinson, that she’s met her briefly and believes that Robinson knows something she doesn’t know about grief.  I can see this while reading SPARTA.  That Robinson knows something I don’t know: about grief; about what it’s like to be estranged from the world that’s most familiar to us; about what happens to us when we know we can never get that world back again.  How do human beings survive (and even thrive) after that?

This is one of those books that makes you think you’re reading about a young Marine and his time in Iraq, but really you’re learning about your own humanity.  Questioning your beliefs.  Both the story and the writing are outstanding.  If I had 5 stars, I’d give this book every single one, and maybe even one more.


How do you feel about groups?  Do you like being “one of them” and protected, or do you rebel like mad?




17 thoughts on “Sparta

  1. Pamela

    (Ooh, yes. Sparta was on our list last year for the Great Group Reads Selection Committee. I gave it 5 stars too. Makes me happy to know you’re reading it.)

  2. Les

    I hate groups. Not writing groups, but, groups that meet because they’re all about a certain, “Our group’s better than your group” reason, or, “Our groups is so prestigious it’ll get you into places just by having been with us!” Like in high school, when my English teacher (of all people!) insisted I join the “Knights,” which was a school-based purported public service group that was basically just a bunch of nerdy assholes who acted like a junior fraternity (they even wore black sweaters with gold knight helmets embossed). At my teacher’s behest, I allowed the Knights to “interview” me, which was me, sitting on a stool in the middle of the classroom and being peppered by semi-demeaning questions directed at how I would alter my life to suit membership in their little clique. I basically told that, yeah, my life is full enough and I didn’t need their noise. My teacher told me the next day, “Wow. You really gave it to the Knights. You might think about that and how you’re going to present yourself to future groups…” Yeah. I thought about it. Fuck the Knights.

    1. Teri Post author

      That’s just what a high school kid wants, to sit alone on a stool and be interrogated, right Les? I can see this here in Silicon Valley, too. Where you’re in the “in” crowd if you work for the big tech names like Google or LinkdIn or Facebook, etc…

      Of course I’m not immune. It feels good to be asked, to be included! But the minute I’m ever “in” I find myself looking at the people who aren’t and feeling like I’m an ass, and that I’d rather be hanging with the outsiders.

  3. amyg

    first, too bad you’re SOL cause you’re already in my group.

    second, in the way robinson’s last sentence got you, this sentence of yours got me: “That Robinson knows something I don’t know: about grief; about what it’s like to be estranged from the world that’s most familiar to us; about what happens to us when we know we can never get that world back again. How do human beings survive (and even thrive) after that?”

    third, i am inclined to run in the opposite direction when approached be any group – mostly b/c I find that when the “group” decides to do something, it’s usually only a small faction of the group that does the actual doing. not joining is the best bet for me when trying to avoid feeling obligated to all the doing.

    1. Teri Post author

      I am! Hahaha. 🙂

      You would love this book, AmyG. It’s the boy’s story, but it’s also a family story about our expectations of each other and ourselves. And the writing … *swoon*

      As to groups, it also seems that only a few people are really the ones making decisions for everyone else. And the “everyone else” goes along because they feel they have to, that this is what they committed to, even when they don’t agree.

  4. Paul Lamb

    I think it was Groucho Marx who uttered that line about membership. I’m not much of a joiner, and I seem to be more of a quitter. I left my church, most of my friendships, I can even do without most of my family. I’m not sure if this is due to an extreme lack of confidence or the opposite, that I’m confident enuf with myself not to need support. About the only group I’m a part of now is my running club, and that’s mostly for the beers on Wednesday nights.

    1. Teri Post author

      That’s an interesting question, Paul. Lack of confidence or the opposite? Maybe a healthy combination of the two. Though there must be something in our DNA about needing to belong to a group, like a family or a herd. For survival.

      I’m off to think more about this whole thing….

    2. Teri Post author

      On another note, there is a very interesting father/son story in SPARTA. The expectations of men and how we all view “success.”

  5. Averil Dean

    Yeah, I’m not a joiner. It’s the organization of social behavior that bores me: the committee, the rules, the fees, the requirements. I just don’t give a shit about that stuff.

    Now, if the group is one where we hook up once a year at a BH or DH, I’m all over it.

    1. Teri Post author

      I’ve been thinking about this all morning. That it’s not necessarily the group — though I do despise the inclusion/exclusion thing — and that it’s more the doctrine created by committee, rules for all made by the few, and how, if you want to remain a member, questioning that doctrine, those rules, is forbidden.

      And god knows I love questions that lead to more questions.

      Plus, there’s the group-think of “we’re right.” How does one group ever think it knows something so absolutely?

      1. Averil Dean

        I just watched an interview on Charlie Rose about that very thing as it pertains to politics. The guest (David Brooks, I think) says we’ve lost the intellectual integrity to admit that we’re probably half wrong and that the other side may be half right. We’re all guilty of this, in many different facets of our lives. An interesting cultural shift has taken place and it’s leading us to some pretty dark places.

    1. Teri Post author

      I wonder if the social anxiety is just as much for those needing to join? That maybe it just manifests differently?

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