An Essayist's Adventures of the Heart

BOOKS

THE HABIT OF LOVING by Barbara Ascher, New York: Random House, 157 pp., $16.95

THE short essay is the dinghy of literary forms. But take it out with Barbara Lazear Ascher, and it can provide pleasure and a test of character when the wind comes up.

The wind in my little analogy is the shifting subject matter of this most protean of literary forms. The goal is to go as fast and far as one can depending on the wind. This may require adroit tacking and coming about to get the most out of the weather, and the quickest way from dock to mark is often a zigzag.

Ascher can sail circles around most columnists. When she left her law firm to write, raise her daughter, and be with her husband, she knew which way the wind was blowing. She longed for moments that ``reveal oneself,'' for ``close calls,'' for ``risk,'' and discovered them at home.

But when she writes about sending her daughter off to college or spending a summer vacation alone with her husband, the wind rises and the salt stings. The contradiction in her approach is her longing for adventure and her recognition that just opening a bank statement can cause anxiety, that having to say no to a child can cause dread.

So she tacks and comes about, telling heroic tales of Beryl Markham's night flight and Sir Earnest Schackleton's polar voyage. She acknowledges that ``love catches us off guard and unprepared.'' When she confronts the eventuality of widowhood (she married an older man), the imagery is from her adventure book: ``I'll go to the snow when my time comes.''

An essay ``on passion'' turns away from ``the red suspenders'' of corporate life encouraged by the women's movement, away from the ``new happiness'' of the professional husband-and-wife team, and toward the open water of her own life. ``It's less lonely to undertake what the world expects of us than what we expect of ourselves,'' she says. And she concludes, ``If we have become what passion bids us to become, it is possible that we might return to the world a sense of the heroic.''

When Barbara Ascher left law for writing, she turned outward and inward at the same time. She didn't choose to write novels - Tolstoy's ``dream of life'' - or journalism - to hide behind the facts. She did not confuse her strength with that of Flannery O'Connor's faith: Her title, ``Habit of Loving,'' acknowledges its distance from O'Connor's ``habit of being.'' Ascher's no metaphysician; she longs for the sublime and writes sublimely about getting ``the hang of loving. The hang of being loved. The hang of grace together.'' She writes passionately about ``that self capable of joy and the ease of being.'' Her essays are acts of skill, tact, poise, and tactics. Reading them, one agrees that ``secret lives are lives worth living.''

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