Josh MacIvor-Andersen’s thoughtful memoir, On Heights & Hunger, wrestles with faith, fear, and desire. His intellectual and spiritual wondering is grounded by concrete moments and honestly rendered individuals.
MacIvor-Andersen spent his early childhood living with his family on a Christian commune called Love Inn, which prompts him to pray “the sinner’s prayer” at a young age. But he struggles to hold on to his faith as an adolescent and young adult. It is ignited by moments of intense emotional and spiritual “highs,” but doubts about its connection to his everyday reality and the brokenness around him cause his faith to fade.
When the family moves to Nashville, they settle in an old homestead called Sam Donald’s Farm, a place both MacIvor-Andersen and his mom love for its trees, small animals, and dependability. After his father becomes involved in an affair that separates the family, MacIvor-Andersen, his brother Aaron, and their mom remain deeply connected to the farm.
He idolizes his older brother Aaron, an adrenaline junkie who has discarded the faith his parents taught him, while also fearing for his physical and spiritual life. Eventually, MacIvor-Andersen and Aaron start a tree trimming company and become involved in tree climbing competitions with events based on the industry’s tasks. Trees are a constant in both of their lives. MacIvor-Andersen admires their balance of fragility and strength as he attempts to control them with his work.
Along the way, MacIvor-Andersen develops a passion for travel as a means of escape from his home life. Just as he does in his work trimming trees, MacIvor-Andersen is constantly trying to fix the suffering of others. Many of his travels are driven by a need to face their pain head on, despite feeling powerless to make a significant difference.
His life becomes more settled when he meets Kathryn, his wife, who urges him to pursue writing and helps him face the future and his past. While MacIvor-Andersen didn’t always consider himself a writer, he was always connected to words and story. He often mentions his desire to find the right words for his life experiences and includes many references to books, legends, and Biblical stories. I could easily relate to his use of writing as a way to express desire and the search for a purpose in life. These moments provided a refreshing break from his many questions and uncertainties.
Each chapter of the memoir is about a different relationship or period of time in MacIvor-Andersen’s life. Treating the relationships in his life as distinctly separate left me wondering how the individuals fit together in each other’s lives and in the other stories MacIvor-Andersen relates. While the themes of the search for belief and struggle with doubt hold the pieces together, their occasional looseness asks for the reader’s care and attention, making this a book to enjoy without distractions. I appreciate the mix of ambiguity and clarity; life, faith, and writing aren’t always clear cut, but there are times of conviction that help us keep moving forward.
MacIvor-Andersen’s tendency for introspection is transferred to the reader, raising questions about a life of faith and writing. What is the difference between wanting faith and having faith? How do we leave room for ambiguity in life, faith, and relationships? What do we, as writers, do when language doesn’t adequately describe our toughest questions and deepest feelings? How do we find peace and appreciate beauty without ignoring despair and the ugliness that exists in the world? Josh MacIvor-Andersen ultimately learns how to begin answering these questions for himself, and invites readers to do the same.
Megan Pooler is the Book Review Editor for Relief journal and is grateful to be part of a community celebrating the intersection of art and faith. A creative nonfiction writer and graduate of Whitworth University, she lives in Bend, OR where she works as a digital content curator for a travel company. When not agonizing over the right word choice for her essays, she can be found cooking with her family and friends, playing on the water, or curled up with her dog and a classic movie.