501 Minutes to Christ is a collection of personal essays written by Poe Ballentine. They are in the first person viewpoint, as one would expect with stories that are taken from the author’s real life experiences. This book is not one of those Christian inspiration books that include short stories that attempt to restore a person’s faith and make them feel uplifted. It is not a book of prayer.
The title of the book comes from a small piece of one of the personal essays. In it, a man is standing in the doorway of a church holding a sign that says “501 Minutes to Christ”. No further explanation is given by the man holding the sign, or the author writing about it. You are left to come to your own conclusions about what exactly that was supposed to mean.
There is one story called “God’s Day” that could possibly be considered religious. But, it’s not one that follows a prescribed, set out, recognizable religion. One could say it is more spiritual than religious. In “God’s Day”, the author describes this made up day that falls on a random place on the calendar. He fasts, has a conversation with God (not exactly a prayer), and then places twenty dollars somewhere in the world where a person in need might find it. This time, however, things didn’t go as planned with the money.
One of the things I liked about this collection of personal essays was the honesty in them. Ballentine shares thoughts that might not be considered popular ones, such as his plot to punch John Irving in the nose after opening for him at a big event. (That’s in an essay called “The Irving”).
An essay titled “Methamphetamine for Dummies” is about a time when Ballentine went back to his home town and ended up doing meth with some friends and a girl he’d known since childhood. The two form a tenuous relationship based around the drug, which both are using as an escape from their dissatisfying lives. She’s in a deteriorating marriage, and he’s trying to figure out how to start writing again.
There are details about what meth does to people, both physically and mentally. It definitely doesn’t make the drug look attractive. Instead, the grimmer details show what happens to people who are “stuck” and unable to find real satisfaction in their lives. I found the story compelling, in part because I can see that type of scenario happening with people who never left the town I grew up in, decades later.
Many of the personal essays include two concepts. One is writing. Or rather, the need to write but the inability to find a way to start writing, or to find the time to do more writing, or to find inspiration of what to write about. An essay called “Blessed Memories for Minor Poets” is about what happened after he received a letter from a publishing company that wanted to include one of his essays in a collection. In short, getting published by a big publisher wasn’t all sunshine and roses.
Anyone who is a writer will find themselves able to relate to many of the stories in the book on that commonality alone. The other concept that is included in many of the essays is that of transitioning. Poe Ballentine takes you with him as he travels by bus from one place to another (not always knowing the destination).
He shares stories about having to take temporary jobs, while living in cheap motels, just to get by until he has enough money to start focusing on writing again. All along the way are fascinating characters that he either worked with or traveled with. Without giving too much away, I’ll just say I can see why those people stuck in his mind all these years later.
When I first picked up this collection of personal essays, I wasn’t sure if I’d be into it or not. The reference to Christ on the cover made me hesitate because I’m not religious (and find it hard to relate to books that delve deeply into faith). Shortly after reading through the first couple of essays, I was hooked. There is something extremely compelling about a book that takes you along on the journeys of the author.
If you’re feeling stuck, in life, in your job, or in your own writing work, take a break and read some of the essays in 501 Minutes to Christ. Personally, it gave me the illusion of “getting somewhere” even though I hadn’t left my house. There is something about starting over that feels freeing, and terrifying, even if you are only reading an essay about it.