Sugarcoated. . . .

Byron Borger’s July 1, 2004 blog is one of the reasons why I keep telling people that Byron’s Hearts and Minds bookstore is the greatest bookstore in the world. I’ve known Byron for years. His pastor’s heart and love for all things good, true, right, and honorable have combined to make him a businessperson who doesn’t seem like a businessperson (as most of us know them) at all. Rather, he’s a man who’s passionate about life and passionate about the books that take us deeper into understanding what life is truly all about. I often joke that if it was legal for a man to marry books, Byron would be a polygamist! Yes, the man loves books.

A trip to Byron’s store is an adventure. The converted house is jam-packed full of all kinds of stuff. Somehow, Byron knows not only where everything is, but what’s between the front and back covers. All you have to say to Byron is, “I’m looking for something on _________”, and you’ll get a verbal bibliography – annotated, I might add – that can keep your eyes, heart, and mind busy for a long, long time.

Reading Byron’s blog is an adventure in and of itself. Because I like to read widely, I took notice when in July 2004 Byron pointed folks to Steve Almond’s Candyfreak. I made a mental note to “read Candyfreak someday.” I’ve read a few books on candy because I live 10 minutes from Hershey, there’s an M&M/Mars company here in Etown, and I just happen to love eating candy. In fact, one of my favorite childhood memories involves candy: the Halloween night when I filled two paper grocery sacks full of loot that when dumped out, formed a small mountain of sugar on my bed. I finally got around to Candyfreak last month, and I wasn’t disappointed. Subtitled “A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America,” Candyfreak is not just about the stories of some of America’s not-so-well known regional candy companies and their products, but about life itself. Almond is hilariously funny, a phenomenal writer, and master wordsmith who really knows how to turn a phrase, and a man – like all of us – who is trying to find his place in the world. Somehow, Almond uses candy as the basis for what is in many ways, his memoir.

Disappointed that the book was coming to an end, I read with great interest as Almond wrapped up his last chapter with some musings on his own life. His journey through the chocolate underbelly of America over, he resigned himself to the fact that it was time to re-enter real life. He writes: “It was Freud’s belief that people return, inexorably, to the trauma of their childhoods. And he was right. I had spent most of my adult life doing just that, making my best friends into cruel brothers, my bosses into negligent fathers, my sweet, clutching lovers into insufficient mothers. And thereby, fading into my late thirties, I still lived in a condition of aggrieved solitude, as I had so many years ago. I couldn’t escape. I had always imagined some splendid woman would come along and cure me. Or that my work as a writer, my passionate, empathic accomplishments, would overwrite the bad files of my childhood. And what I realized, as I drove through that light California rain, was that the burden of these great hopes was often too much for me to bear. I feared I would die before I got better. In certain ways, I wanted to die. And, in certain ways, I felt dead already. I had decided to write about candy because I assumed it would be fun and frivolous and distracting. It would allow me to reconnect to the single, untarnished pleasure of my childhood. But, of course, there are no untarnished pleasures. That is only something the admen of our time would like us to believe. Most of our escape routes are also powerful reminders; and whatever our conscious motives might be, in our secret hearts we wish to be led back into our grief.” Almond’s conclusions raised memories of Douglas Coupland’s “confession” in Life After God.

While Steve Almond and I share a love for candy, there was nothing in his book that led me to believe that we share the same experience of having finally found redemption. Yes, I must admit that I sometimes slip up and go looking to escape through the sweet stuff that comes in carefully designed wrappers (along with lots of other stuff), but I know that it can never be found there. Redemption comes only through the One who came into the world to undo the depravity that has infected our lives to the core.

In Almond’s very next paragraph he writes: “There sat the bag of goodies from Annabelle on the seat beside me. I reached in and grabbed myself a Big Hunk so that, even as these dark musings tossed me about, even as I gave myself over to tears, I was also tasting, for the first time in many years, the sweet, cake-butter nougat of that bar and the soft roasted peanuts exploding with flavor on my tongue; chewing and chewing until my jaw ached with the effort.”

It got me thinking. . . . isn’t that how so many of us live our lives? We chew, chew, and chew some more. We long to escape the depravity that has enveloped us through our own efforts. . . . and we just keep aching all the more. Steve Almond’s words brought to mind the contrasting words written by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans: “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

And to Byron. . . . thanks for turning me on to this light-hearted yet very thought-provoking book!

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