Sunday, May 17, 2009

Heart in the Right Place, by Carolyn Jourdan

I highly recommend* Heart in the Right Place, a sweet-hearted and down-to-earth memoir by Carolyn Jourdan.**

When her mother has a stroke, Carolyn Jourdan leaves her high-paying, high-profile job in Washington, DC, to substitute as “receptionist, bookkeeper, backup nurse, lab technician, and jack-of-all-trades sidekick” for her father’s medical practice in rural Tennessee. For a few days, she thinks. But her mother’s condition does not resolve quickly, and Carolyn’s stay stretches over weeks, and then months. Her father is the sole medical provider, 365 days a year, for a hilarious assortment of characters, many of whom won’t be able to pay for the care they receive. Carolyn’s accounts*** of her adventures will leave you in shock, in stitches, and in tears.

Finally, Carolyn must choose: Will she abandon her fast, fulfilling, and relatively luxurious urban life and become the unsung receptionist for a shoestring practice? Can she make greater contributions to the world through an influential career or by serving in the trenches?

By the end, Carolyn realizes that the unsexy receptionist job is the truly significant one because it allows her to help people during their crucial moments: when they receive the diagnosis, when their life hangs in the balance, when life slips away and then is brought back. “By intervening in each other’s traumas, we could utterly transform each other’s lives,” she writes. It's the content of the service, not its venue that matters: “God didn’t care how or where we did [good], just as long as we did….There were no extra bonus points for visibility or magnitude.”

To me, this is exactly the challenge and joy of choosing motherhood. In many ways, being a mother means giving up on markers of success--the pay, the notoriety, the perks, the appearance of success—in return for the intangible but real joys of serving in a heart-to-heart, bare knuckles style.

But it’s not just about being there for the big moments of trauma and crisis. Carolyn’s job allowed her to serve people in their moments of drama and trauma only because it first gave her access to the crossroads, to the daily round of comings and goings. Because she was there for the warts and infections and tractor injuries, she was there for the breath-taking, heart-stopping moments as well.

Mothers stand by as kids leave, return, eat, play, work--a hundred million seemingly insignificant things. And the reason we do this is so we’re sure to be there when suddenly an insignificant moment becomes the crucial one. When a frolic in the backyard turns into a broken leg. Or even just when a chitchat over pb&j veers into an important discussion of the child’s fears and questions.

As mothers we provide the service of being there—being the receptionist ready to greet anything from a casual checkup to cardiac arrest. And it’s that fact that we are there that lets us give our children the love and service that no one else can.

* A fast, fun read with plenty of substance. My sister Nancy just bought it to read on the airplane to come visit me later this week.

** Since I posted the book on my Recent Reads list on the sidebar a couple weeks ago, the author has come back and left comments on my blog--twice! So I'm happy to spread some grassroots love for this worthy book. And I'm hoping Carolyn will come back one more time before Book Club meets on Wednesday to discuss this book.

*** With a healthy dose of self-deprecating humor that’s a refreshing counterpoint to the cloying self-absorption of Eat, Pray, Love.


  1. I admit that I didn't really read this post. I don't like to know too much about a book right before I read it. But I'm excited for my excellent, alone, airplane ride with a good book. I'll come back and comment after I read it.

  2. Beautiful! That's a very eloquent review. Thanks.
    : )
    By the way, I met Elizabeth Gilbert and she behaved like a monster. In all the nearly 100 book tour events I've done in the last couple of years, she's the only writer I've met who was rude to the point of meanness.
    And you can tell it from her book.
    Say hello to the book club from me.
    Say hello to the kids from me, too.

  3. Thanks for your comment, Carolyn. The book club will be thrilled!

  4. Would you believe my library only has it on cd? I'll have to give that medium a try--I'm going cold turkey from buying every book I want.

    I heard Elizabeth Gilbert lecture and she is hilarious, but just as self-involved as she seems in the book. And no, she doesn't even meditate regularly. It appears her "soul searching" was just a wade in the shallow end. Oh well.

    (Cool that you got a comment from the author! {Squeal!!!})

  5. After reading the book (and then your review), I agree with Carolyn that yours is a very beautiful, eloquent review.

    And I seriously, thoroughly enjoyed this book. I don't think it should be compared to Eat, Pray, Love at all. Other than being Memoirs about women - they have nothing in common. EPL was ...well, I don't want to bash on it anymore... it's just not in the same league as this book in my opinion. I'm reading Obama's "Dreams From my Father" now and struggling through it because he is trying too hard to be deep. I think this book was so wonderful because it wasn't pretending at all.

    My book club is Thursday night and I will be recommending this for our next read.