Wednesday, December 23, 2015

A Christmas Meditation

Until recently, I had read very little of the work of Marilynne Robinson, the prize-winning American author. Then came her interviews in the New York Review of Books with President Obama last month, in which he confesses to being a great fan of her thoughtful fiction, which is seen as unique in today's world by being both intellectually challenging and infused with Christian thought. She has been praised for being critical yet also positive in viewing cultural conflicts (gun violence, atheism, gender, etc.).

Robinson strikes me in some ways as another Gary Wills, a public intellectual who looks at big issues historically and from the perspective of a committed Christian, deeply informed about American culture. Both can be opinionated, contrary, original, and deeply engaged in the main issues of our time, including the relation between science and faith. Whereas Wills is a Catholic historian, Robinson is a Protestant novelist and intellectual.

Robinson tackles many such issues in her newest book of essays, The Givenness of Things.  I am especially intrigued by her fresh take on Calvin in her essay on metaphysics, which she defines in her own way.

One piece struck me as giving some fresh insight into the mystery of the Incarnation, which Christians celebrate this week: the Son of God becoming man.  Robinson, reflecting on several Biblical passages (including the opening of the Gospel of John and Col. 1: 15-20), tries to show what it means that, even before he became human two thousand years ago, Christ existed as the "first-born of all creation."  Christ was implicitly present, she suggests, in the poor and humble from the very beginning, "from the primordial moment when human circumstance began to call for justice and generosity."

So before there was Jesus there was always Christ, the divine Son, existing (not merely in some vague heavenly realm) metaphysically in humankind before the Nativity, before he became physically present as a man. "In the beginning was the Word. . ."

I welcome this elegantly thought-out reflection since I need a fresh way to think about these timeless mysteries, and I am grateful to Ms. Robinson for her essay. I must now read more of her work.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Trumpeting Hatred

The most disturbing thing for me about the Donald Trump phenomenon is not just his arrogant, toxic disregard for truth or his constant media attention or the failure of the Republican establishment to remove him from the spotlight, as Senator McCarthy was finally removed.  What bothers me is the fact that he has generated millions of followers and supporters to whom he panders. They make him a national embarrassment.

Like all demagogues, Trump appeals to the self-interest and fear of many people who are understandably confused by the threat of terrorism to this country and the challenge of refugees.  He allows these people to vent their anger, based on fear; and in this sense he serves a purpose. But the time for this public display of venom to end has passed.

What Trump-ism reveals to me is the power and appeal of hate: how much easier it is to hate than to love. Love takes effort and attention to someone other than the self; it takes patience.  Hate is easy: it bubbles to the surface when fear turns into anger, as when issues of injustice in race, gender or ethnicity arise.  The powerless feel empowered by hating; they feel important, and so they attack what they resent or fear.

The fact is, people enjoy hating, and the world-wide media enjoy covering the frenzy of Islamophobia unleashed by the Trump candidacy. His followers feel better--temporarily. But citizens probably felt the same way in the 1930s, when fascism took hold in Europe.

We know where that led. That's why the most disturbing thing for me in today's news is that millions of seemingly rational Americans agree with the fear-based hatred represented by Donald Trump. To dismiss him as a clown is to undervalue the dangerous impact of his appeal.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Tips for Fiction Writers

My main tip for would-be writers is to read a lot of good stuff. And of course, to write regularly.  If you write contemporary fiction, you can't go wrong in checking out the Provo Canyon Review, whose editorial guidelines are revealing:

They seek short fiction that is "deeply moving without being sentimental," tender, with a mix of grace, vulnerability and compassion. And that shows attention to style and language.

These qualities and more are abundantly present in the recently published volume of short stories, Fine People, by the Review's co-editor, Chris McClelland, whom I have known for some years, starting from his graduate work at the University of Central Florida.

Chris is a master of the short story, having read and absorbed what he has read; as a result, his readers who also write can learn some valuable lessons from his work. For example, about how to have a strong opening sentence that propels you on to the narrative that follows; characters that wrestle with complicated emotional issues and become believable because of what they say; and narratives that are concise, with carefully crafted sentences.

Consider the title story, "Fine People," about the grief and anger of a couple traveling in Mexico sharing their grief unexpectedly with the owner of a cantina. This is the kind of powerful story that makes us want to read the other stories in the collection, which do not disappoint.

Chris McClelland, in his deeply felt and well-crafted fiction, has much to teach the reader about how the short story works.  He experiments with various points of view, uses various locales, and never flinches from hard truths about the human heart.

His book would make a fine holiday gift for someone: only $9 on Amazon for the paperback, only $4 for the Kindle edition.  Just a suggestion.

And if you're a writer of short fiction, consider submitting your work to after you have seen what work they are looking for.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Errors and Expectations

I have high expectations when I open a book published by a noted publisher. I expect, or used to expect, a factually accurate, carefully revised and edited text, with full documentation to sources consulted, and an unbiased stance.

Today, with electronic publishing and cut-backs in the cut-throat world of publishing printed books, I have to settle for less. At least the New Yorker maintains the traditional standards, being conservative in punctuation and style, hiring line editors to proof every article more than once, and fact-checkers to double check each statement. Few other outfits today spend the money for all this, and the public suffers.

Mark Twain, suspicious of health fads and knowledgeable about printing, once said that in reading a book giving advice on health, you have to be careful or you might die of a misprint.  I suppose that is still true, perhaps even more so on the internet where editing in the usual sense is rare.

According to a study a few years ago, sixty percent of articles published in American newspapers and magazines contained errors; only 20 percent were ever corrected.  The New York Times remains one of the few publications with a full-time corrections editor, who lists amended versions of 3,500 items a year; but many go unnoticed.

Students in graduate schools learning research methodology are taught, or should know, the importance of reading sources with a healthy skepticism, taking time to double check facts and quotations for accuracy.  Other writers are well advised to double check the meanings of words, as I do from time to time.

Ultimately, the author is the one responsible for being accurate, and by going public, he or she should expect to be challenged not only for unwarranted statements but for statements of fact--something lost on several leading political candidates these days, whose wild assertions are laughable, yet get circulated in the media so that people come to believe they are true.

Given the statements made by Donald Trump and others in his party, the little errors I worry about in printed books seem inconsequential; still, when I find one, it causes me to wonder how reliable the author really is.  An author is one who writes, supposedly, with authority. . .  .Ah, well.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Cost of Giving

Yesterday was called Giving Tuesday, the day when many charities and non-profits asked for donations, just in time to cash in on the holiday spirit, apparently, when many people consider giving gifts.

We shouldn't need reminding, of course, and we shouldn't need a season for giving. Yet it does often take an effort; it's not easy to reach outside our own needs and anticipate the needs of another, even to know what gift might please a friend. Quite often, we buy things we might like, failing to consider the recipient.

The challenge of giving, and its relation to attention (and thus to love) is explored by David Whyte in his little book I referred to earlier, "Consolations."  He mentions that, as far as we know, no other creatures on earth have the ability "to fully acknowledge the spirit of another," which he sees as central to giving. I quote Whyte:

"Giving means paying attention and creating imaginative contact with the one to whom we are giving. . ." Thus it is a way of acknowledging and giving thanks for lives other than our own. It is, I might add, a form of prayer, gratitude being central to prayer.

The cost of giving often goes well beyond the money or time involved.

Many forms of giving, however, are also valuable but less personal, less a matter of attention.  Consider dropping money in the Salvation Army bucket during this pre-Christmas season. Or sending a check to a charity.

Here's a even easier practical idea for anyone who wishes to give without the challenge suggested by Whyte: click regularly--I do it daily: it's free!--on the Hunger Site:  This website, in addition to generating food for the hungry around the world, has links to the Literacy Site (389,000 books were given to children last year alone).

It takes only a minute or less to click on one of these sites, where sponsors contribute funds for the needy based on the number of clicks. So, especially in this season, you can make a difference and give regularly. Sometimes, giving can cost nothing.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Letting the light in

This wonderful line from Leonard Cohen, new to me, has to be shared:
"There's a crack in everything; that's how the light gets in."  Similarly, the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich spoke of wounds as "holes in the soul" where light--and life--can get through.

As I wrestled this week with pain and the body's various aches, I turned to this bit of wisdom, reminding me of life's imperfections and the positive lessons to be learned from contemplating a  global community that shares pain, fear (over the terrorism in Paris and elsewhere), and suffering.

What can pain teach us?  David Whyte has posed that question to himself many times, I would think, as his little book of reflections, Consolations, shows; and often there is an undercurrent of the positive breaking through the reality of suffering.

Although sometimes his sentences lose me by their level of abstraction so that he becomes opaque rather than lucid, Whyte has things to say about loneliness that illustrate what I mean.  Loneliness allows us to pay attention to others, he says, to find "the healing power in the other" even in the midst of our sadness.

In the silence of solitude, as Thomas Merton found, we can feel spiritually connected to other souls; and we can listen to our inner selves and the voices of authors we read before we emerge in the world again, ready to listen to those around us with real attention.

Without pain, would there be empathy?  For the Christian, of course, the crucified Christ embodies the world-suffering of humanity in such a totally unselfish way that the believer can feel saved, enlightened by the light that comes through the cracks.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Truthiness and Fundamentalism

The emergence of Ben Carson, a surgeon, as a leading presidential candidate in the U.S. is alarming.  Some find his calm manner of speaking very appealing and refreshing, and they overlook some serious problems with many of his statements.

One involves what Stephen Colbert calls "truthiness": feeling something is true even if it isn't, as when right-wing folk like to think President Obama is a Muslim born in Africa.  Carson doesn't go that far, but his biblical fundamentalism and his personal view of facts is either a sign of intellectual laziness or willful blindness.

Because he sees the Genesis story as literally true, Carson believes that Joseph, who was sold into slavery in ancient Egypt, built the pyramids to store grain. Even when presented with the facts of history and archaeology, he continues to insist on his fundamental belief, which amounts to an ignorance dismissal of science, seen, too, in the refusal of many on the political right to accept global warming as a humanly created reality.

A literal reading of the Bible, as St. Augustine showed in the 4th century, is only one means of interpreting Scripture or other literary texts.  Those in the mainstream of Christianity know that there is also the allegorical, the typological, and the anagogical levels, not to mention the historical context out of which these biblical stories emerged, unless we are to have a limited understanding of what we read.

To insist on a literary reading of the Bible is one's personal right; for a public figure like Carson to do so in the media, contradicting facts and history, is to denigrate other Christians as backward and simplistic.

And for Carson to publish books that have not been fact-checked (as when he wrote that he had received a full scholarship to West Point) is a poor reflection both on the world of publishing (careless editing) and on himself and his collaborators.  Again, truthiness prevails. His view is what matters, not reality.

As Charles Blow wrote in the NYTimes this week, Carson's candidacy for the highest office in the country and world leadership seems to be part of his business operation, a means of gaining publicity for some of his health supplements. It's good for his ego and his business. His campaign is run by his business manager.

I know several people who find Carson's pleasant, laid-back manner a welcome change from the usual high-charged political scene. They like him, even though he has no real policy positions, no apparent knowledge of economic or national security issues. To me, he comes across on TV as either over-medicated or seriously under-educated.

Santayana was right: Those who are ignorant of history are condemned to repeat it.  If the Republican Party continues to allow know-nothings like Ben Carson and Donald Trump to campaign for the presidency, they should remind these men that facts matter; they cannot choose the science they believe in and at the same time try to represent the United States.

What must the world think of us, to see such candidates substitute private beliefs for public positions--and be applauded for doing so? 

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Silence Revisited

For nearly twenty years, I have been investigating the power of silence, a topic that first struck me when teaching the later poetry of T. S. Eliot.  I then discovered all the many things Thomas Merton had to say about silence as contemplative prayer.  In several articles on Merton and silence, I tried to define the broader implications of silence as something more than the absence of sound.

Many other writers, I found, have explored this topic, suggesting that genuine silence is not about emptiness or negativity but presence. What kind of presence is not always easy to define, but it became clear to me that true silence has its own positive, independent existence: it is the enduring reality that sound interrupts. Or we can say it is the permanent reality that supports sound, a bit like the way the white space on a printed page exists in dialogue with the words, which come out of silence.

Silence lasts while words do not. And while such insights come from my literary background, they also come from my search for prayer, the kind that goes beyond words to an interior reality known to mystics in both Eastern and Western spiritual traditions.  Christians might find in contemplation and meditation an awareness of the kingdom of God within.  This attention to spiritual reality through stillness and silence has been called the sacrament of the present moment.

Recently, I have profited from listening to Richard Rohr, the Franciscan priest and author, who sees silence as an alternative consciousness, a way of way of knowing beyond rational analysis.  The ego, he says (drawing on Jung), needs words to make points and to get what it wants; the ego is uncomfortable with silence since part of us wants to argue.

But the soul, so to speak, sees that silence is more important than words. Silence for Rohr is the wholeness of being with nothing to argue about. It gives us moments in the timeless present but also something more:  a sense of the eternal since time increases ("grows into a fullness") in silence, which is more significant than words.

Rohr's great spiritual model is St. Francis, who said, "Pray always and sometimes use words," referring to actions (good deeds) and silence as more expressive of love than language. If our words begin with, and come out, of silence, our words will be carefully chosen.  Words not surrounded by silence (but blurted out in a great rush) can be hurtful, critical, sarcastic, hardly spiritual.

Rohr also suggests that a focus on silence as a spiritual practice prepares us for death, the Great Silence. And the other manifestations of silence in art--the stillness of paintings, for example, or the eloquent absence of sound in certain films--are also worth studying.

I remain grateful to Merton for reviving the Christian tradition of contemplative prayer and seeing its parallel in Buddhist practice, something he was exploring in Bangkok at the time of his death in 1968.  I am happy to see that what he and many others have done, in both poetry and prose, continues the exploration of silence as a source of ultimate meaning as well as the source of language and music.

As T. S. Eliot wrote (in "Ash Wednesday"), the word cannot be heard here, in ordinary time: "there is not enough silence."

Monday, October 26, 2015

Listening and Conversing

My wife, Lynn Schiffhorst, has an interesting insight on the relation of reading and listening.  As an inveterate reader of fiction from early childhood, then an English major, she found when, as an adult, she worked as a counselor, that the skill she had acquired over the years in paying close attention to the flow of a narrative helped her greatly as she listened to clients and their stories.

In reading fiction, we put our own "issues" aside for a while and let ourselves be absorbed in discerning the motivation of the characters we encounter: we lose ourselves, as it were, as we pay attention--the key point here--to what the characters say and do and to why they do it.  So reading novels becomes not only an exercise in interiority but an essential skill in dealing with people.

So often, it seems to me, people meet and fail to connect at a deeper level. I notice this quite often with most of the people I know: we meet at a restaurant, and  although they might show perfunctory interest in what I am doing, their focus in on themselves; and when I do talk about my life or activities, they fail to pay close attention; they seem distracted, unaccustomed to following the short narrative I am unfolding, perhaps because they are mainly concerned with their own ideas.

As a result, the encounter is superficial, and I come away unappreciated. I know several people who, after more than twenty years of seeing me, never really get to know me because they fail to pay attention. They don't know how to listen as well as talk, how to ask questions to further the conversation.

In fact, there is often no conversation or mutual exchange at all, merely an exchange of information, which can be pleasant but forgettable. We have not nourished each other.

It seems from my observations of the British royal family (and other such celebrities) that they have mastered the art of the polite question, putting people at ease with a series of questions while providing no answers of their own. The result is not a real conversation, but the technique of asking questions of the other is a skill seldom practiced, in my experience, when people get together.

If reading fiction provides essential background to following someone's story during a conversation, then it seems to me that asking a few questions is not a matter of politeness but a basic part of what it is to converse.

The limits of conversation is the subject of several books I have looked at, most recently Sherry Turkle's "Reclaiming Conversation."  She provides abundant examples of people in our technological age who have "sacrificed conversation for mere connection."  Her key question is: Does our passion for smart phones and other technology help us avoid genuine encounter?   The answer seems self-evident.

Turkle makes the point that to grow and love and understand oneself and the world around us, we must converse, not merely send Tweets.  She says that many college students she has met yearn for their friends to put down their cell phones long enough to really talk.  They have learned in school to avoid seeing faculty during their office hours--too personal and embarrassing--in favor of email relationships, which are not real relationships at all.

The result of growing up without genuine conversation is a lack of empathy, the very thing that Lynn, a fine counselor and teacher, has mastered.  No doubt she has spoiled me because most of the other people I talk to give monologues, as if unaware of that dialogue requires attentive listening.

The harmful effects of over-reliance on gadgets rather than face-to-face encounters are chilling to contemplate.  Tweets and emails provide rewards, Turkle says, in their little bursts of information; and they more we feel such rewards, the more we tend to crave more such instant stimulation.

I don't see Turkle, or for that matter, Stephen Miller, whose book on conversation I wrote about here in 2013, defining the art of conversation in any real sense or relating it to listening, the kind of listening that requires patience and some humility as well as the experience of giving attention, a form of love, to another person.  

To listen well takes maturity, skill, and the polite attention we need to follow another's unfolding narrative, with the reward being that we, too, will be listened to in the same way.  This kind of personal exchange is becoming rarer in our speeded up world, where connections are more important to many people that genuine friendships and where conversations are rare. No wonder there is so much unhappiness.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

A first novel

After many years of presenting myself strictly as a non-fiction writer, I had a breakthrough four years ago, completing and publishing two short stories.  Two other stories followed, so far unpublished.  I had been (without knowing it) in the creative closet, with a long-held secret desire to write fiction. I was now "out."

And so I tentatively began a novel, which over two summers and two winters of revision, finally emerged this year, all 53,000 words of it.  Rather than wait years for some publisher to accept it, I decided to follow my wife Lynn's lead and publish it on Kindle.

Thus this week, on my birthday, after much revising and editing, I finally published Friends and Brothers, an elegiac novel of friendship and loss. It deals with two men who meet in high school, get acquainted in college, then stay close as their careers diverge in New York City. There are issues of betrayal, grief, and faith involved in this essentially simple story that some would label as "bromance."

A novel-long structure seemed right because the story takes place over 40 years, from the Sixties to the end of the 20th century, allowing me to indulge a bit of fantasy and have the main characters meet various NYC celebrities, including George Plimpton and members of the Kennedy family, real people who make an appearance in this fictional narrative.

I found myself half-unconsciously imitating Waugh's Brideshead Revisited in structure, with a first-person narrator looking back at his greatest friendship. I was also greatly influenced by other stories of male friendship and from having taught a course on masculinity and literature.  One of the topics in that course was the challenge of male friendship since most straight men tend to find their closest emotional connections with women; yet all men yearn for, yet often don't find, real friendship, caring and support with another man.

I learned many things about my own life in writing this novel. In terms of craft, I found, first of all, that if I worked for at least an hour a day for six months, I could compete a first draft of something much longer than a novella or short story, following my rough outline and keeping the plot simple.

The second lesson is that it is good, maybe essential, to put the draft away for a few months, as I did this spring, then return to it with fresh eyes. And I kept learning the hard lesson of "suggestion, not statement": showing, not telling.  As a teacher and non-fiction writer, I chiefly explain; in fiction, I must hint, using dialogue to suggest a mood and letting the reader complete the meaning. 

This became the focus of my revision just as eliminating wordiness and repetition became the focus on my editing. Even if no one reads Friends and Brothers (available on Amazon's Kindle), I have satisfied my long-held wish to do what seemed to me impossible: write, complete, and publish a novel.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Pioneers in Tibet

Alexandra David-Neel and Ippolito Desideri are names unfamiliar to most people, including me until the past week when, by coincidence, I encountered them both.

Both were intrepid adventurers who overcame fear and the hardships of early modern travel to reach the roof of the world, Tibet.

Desideri caught my interest at first because he was a Jesuit, and I have long been interested in the amazing feats of the these men, mainly in science, in the 17th and 18th century.  An Italian missionary, Desideri (d. 1733) was the first Westerner to master the study of Tibetan language and culture.  He lived in Tibet from 1715 to 1722 and was the first Christian to master the language of Tibet well enough to explore Buddhist thought and debate fine points of theology with Tibetan monks.  He wrote five works in literary Tibetan providing the first accurate account of Tibetan geography, government, agriculture, and religion.

Robert Trent Pomplun, himself a contemporary Catholic theologian and Tibetan scholar, has written a book, Jesuit on the Roof of the World (2010) and is now translating the works of Desideri, considered the father of Tibetan studies in the West.

Alexandra David-Neel was a French-Belgian feminist, anarchist, explorer, scholar of Buddhism, and opera singer (she performed in Hanoi in 1896). 

She wrote 30 books based on her extensive travels to Asia, including her 1924 visit to Lhasa when it was considered the Forbidden City.  Leaving her husband back in France, she traveled disguised as a beggar. I wonder if she knew of Desideri's works, long buried in the Jesuit archives in Rome.

Just after her 101st birthday in 1969, she renewed her passport. How can you not love that? How can anyone not be amazed at the will power, stamina, courage, and intelligence of these two pioneers--and at the potential we all have?

Sunday, October 4, 2015

An ethic of solidarity

The feast of St. Francis of Assisi today, and the aftermath of the recent visit of Pope Francis to the U.S., offers an opportunity to reflect on what it means to shift the religious and moral focus from issues to people.  This has been the major achievement of Pope Francis, in my view, and was clear in his many comments lately and in the start of the Synod in Rome.

Blaise Cupich, whom Francis hand-picked to become Archbishop of Chicago, recently wrote an important and eloquent piece on how members of a community who disagree on some matters can still lived in harmony.  He calls it the ethic of solidarity, not wanting to limit the "life issue" to the unborn but also to the unemployed, the undocumented, the unwanted, to all who are marginalized in society.

So the many non-believers who applaud much of what the pope says and were moved by his visit are not excluded from sharing common values with believers (Christians especially).  If someone disagrees with us on one issue, it does not mean, writes Robert Sean Winters, that we cannot find common ground with them on many other issues.

This is in keeping with the spirit of the recent papal encyclical Laudato Si with its emphasis on a person-centered economy. It was the reason so many non-Catholics told me how much they approved of this pope.  It is a refreshing contrast to the Us vs. Them approach of those in the culture wars, and it will take many years, perhaps a generation or more, for the Catholic Church to assimilate what could, and should, have been enacted following the Second Vatican Council fifty years ago.

But then being inclusive and finding common ground require hard work. It is always easier to rely on proclamations of exclusion and condemnation.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Listening to Pope Francis

The remarkable Pope Francis, on his first trip to the U.S. this week, is giving 18 speeches. I hope he also has time to listen to Americans and their needs.

Listening to his moving speech today before Congress, I can see that he knows what notes to strike, what tone to take in dealing, as only he can, with major issues that go beyond partisan politics.

I was almost as nervous, proud, and excited as Joe Biden, the VP, and Speaker John Boehner, who wept: a Catholic leader universally regarded as a wise prophet who doesn't shout to be heard, who speaks courageously, from the heart, saying tough things in soft tones.  His halting English became more confident and lively as he proceeded, and the audience sat in rapt attention to every word.  Quite a contrast to the anti-Catholic attitudes of past times in this country.

The greatest surprise of the speech was his inclusion of two of my favorite people from recent American Catholicism: two radical converts, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, both viewed with some alarm by bishops in the 1960s for their peace activities and their preference for social justice as the way to live out the Gospel message.

I have written a good bit about Merton and have given talks on Day and her Catholic Worker Movement (once considered a socialist-Communist operation) and so was thrilled to hear these two Americans singled out and honored in one of the major speeches in recent memory.    

"My duty is to build bridges," Francis said today, putting Merton and Day in the company of Lincoln and M. L. King as four heroic Americans concerned as the pope is with the common good, rejecting by implication the selfishness of ordinary political life and celebrity culture.  This is a pontiff who lives up to what that title implies: bridge builder.  Merton and Day also built bridges of action and prayer that live on.

I have often been dismayed that many people are unaware of Day and Merton. Now they will have a chance to learn, thanks to Pope Francis, the pontiff who does not pontificate.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Laughing at Pain

During the past year I have been wrestling with pain in two areas of my body: head (migraine headaches) and knee. Extensive walking is not easy, and I am easily discouraged, fearing that I will simply get worse and praying for an unlikely cure.

Luckily, I have been talking to a compassionate friend, a retired doctor, who has some similar health challenges, and we share the ups and downs of getting older. I quote to him ideas from Shakespeare (King Lear, especially) about the inevitability of pain as part of the human condition; and he, having seen great pain in his medical practice and having known spiritual pain from family members who underwent the horrors of the Holocaust, shares wisdom from the Jewish tradition. I tell myself each day, "this too shall pass," no pain is permanent.

And yet the fear is there, at least for me, that I am on a downward spiral. So it was of value that I ordered a copy of David Whyte's book of reflections, Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words.   Whyte, a marine biologist in the Pacific Northwest, was raised in Yorkshire, with Celtic ancestry (Irish and Welsh). Not surprisingly, he is a gifted poet, as his miniature essays on selected words reveal.

I first chose his entry on "Pain," and was reminded of several positive aspects of this problem: first, that it is "the doorway to the here and now."  Whyte sees pain as a "way in" to interior healing. And to a sense of humility: "In real pain we have no other choice than to ask for help. . . Pain tells us we belong and cannot live forever in isolation."

In connecting us to others who share pain as part of the price of being human, Whyte goes on to emphasize how pain can lead to "real compassion."  And as we undergo the limitations caused by pain, we also find that bodily pain calls for a broader view, whereby we step back and look at our lives from a detached perspective.  Such a perspective is essentially comic: we can laugh at our predicament, at the physical absurdity that limits us.  This is hard for me, but a point to return to.

Finally, Whyte says that although pain takes us on a lonely road that no one else can truly know, it also offers the possibility "of coming to know others as we have, with so much difficulty, come to know ourselves."

It took several readings of Whyte's concise reflections for them to sink in; when they did, I felt a relief that was less physical than emotional, a sense of solidarity with others who suffer. And I was reminded of the saying that "pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional." We have some choice in how we respond to the body in need of healing, how we turn despair into some kind of hope.  I can experience physical pain, but I don't have to suffer and be miserable.

Whether I can laugh at my infirmities is a greater challenge, one that another author, Kelly Carlin, the daughter of the comedian George Carlin, notes in her new book, A Carlin Home Companion, a memoir detailing her progress from substance abuse and family dysfunction to healing.  She, too, notes the need for detachment, the ability to step back from self-absorption, and look at the bigger picture:

"When you can learn to laugh at your pain, then you have a chance of finally moving on from it."  She is able to do this through writing her life story: in organizing her life story into a narrative, she is able to shift her relationship to trauma and pain.  They become "an object outside yourself."

For Kelly Carlin, as for David Whyte and millions of others, the art of writing becomes the means of detachment, a kind of therapy of healing the soul, if not the body.  I am grateful to have come across both of them at the same time.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Learning from Buddhism

What can Christians and other non-Buddhists learn from Buddhist meditative practice?
Many things, as Thomas Merton showed fifty years ago in his writings about Zen, as Richard Rohr and others suggest today--without becoming Buddhists.

I remain very much a beginner in Buddhist practice and derive most of my insights here from the recent (Sept. 7) post by Richard Rohr, who says our "deepest, truest reality" is our oneness with God.

Although he didn't use the term 'mindfulness,' Merton brought the ancient Christian contemplative tradition into the 20th century by emphasizing inner silence, solitude, and attention to the sacrament of the present moment, or what has been called the power of now.  His work and those who have followed him (John Main, Thomas Keating, James Finley, et al.) remind us that the goals of Buddhists are different from those of Christians, but they have much in common.

Being mindful and living mindfully, with full attention to the presence of God in the present moment, is the key mystical element that links the two traditions, Western and Eastern.  It is a unitive, non-dualistic approach that replaces dualism--body vs. soul, man vs. the planet, good vs. evil, and God "up there" vs. people "down here"--with an awareness that all things are one.  To live and move and have our being in God is to know that we are not separate from God.

Romano Guardini (cited by Finley and others) articulated in a memorable way the non-dualistic, unitive nature of this mystical experience. "Although I am not God, I am not other than God either, " Guardini wrote.  From this we can say, although I am not you, I am not other than you; although I am not the earth, I am not other than the earth.

The implications of this way of unitive thinking are enormous: we are all connected to one another, to creation, and to God, however alone we might feel.   Without losing our individuality, we exist also in relation to and with others. How then can we hate our neighbors?

In Catholic thinking, the human person is not just an individual, with freedom and rights; he or she does not find complete fulfillment until he or she lives in relationship with others. In other words, we live in relation to others in pursuit of the common good, that which benefits all, not just the isolated individual.

So, simplifying a complex topic, I would say Buddhist practice and Christian contemplation share the goal of seeking unity with God in the present moment. The effect of such a spirituality not only benefits me but reminds me of my connection with others.  I am unique yet also united with the suffering of my fellow man.

So the way I relate to myself affects how I relate to others and the world we share and, ultimately, how I relate to God.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Out-Trumping Trump

Although I've tried to steer clear of politics on this blog, sometimes I can't help myself.  The emergence of Donald Trump as a possible Republican presidential candidate in the U.S. is irresistible: in addition to being entertaining, he is alarming.

Two recent articles on the Trump phenomenon struck me as important. One, by George Packer in the current issue of The New Yorker, places the New York real estate mogul in the context of American populism.  He explains how this sometimes  volatile posture is dangerous in its oversimplification, pitting good against evil, demanding simple answers to complex problems.

He cites the demagogue Thomas E. Watson, who wrote in 1910: "The scum of creation has been dumped upon us. Some of our principal cities are more foreign than American."  He goes on to talk in alarmist, apocalyptic terms about the dangers of crime and vice following the "corrupting hordes of the Old World descending on us."

I can't help but think of the crisis in Europe today, with migrants from Syria and north Africa landing in Europe and hardly being welcomed. Or of the fear-mongering one hears today in this country on talk radio about foreigners--in a country made up of foreigners.

Have we made no progress since 1910?  The hatred of Jews, Catholics, and other undesirables arriving in the U. S. a century ago is now directed to Mexicans, by Mr. Trump and others, or to any of the immigrants seeking a new life in America. He calls them criminals and losers.

As Packer shows, the populist outsider as an anti-political force includes not only Ross Perot and George Wallace but Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama.  But Trump is distinctive in his crude, shoot-from-the-hip style that makes some "ordinary folks" happy because he sounds authentic even if he is really a showman.

Trump, with his jutting chin and curled lip accentuating his arrogance, reminds me of Mussolini--and for good reason.  Packer notes several comments by Trump that should alarm anyone who takes this candidate seriously, such as his speculation that representative government may not be necessary. Why, he once asked his audience, do we need an election?   Does he seek a coronation?

And why bother, he implied yesterday in a radio interview on foreign policy, to know the leaders of the world, such as the men involved in ISIS, since by the time Trump is elected, a new cast of characters will appear on the world stage.  So the Know-Nothing ignorance of past decades lives on. Is it surprising that the orangutan-haired populist-demagogue has been praised by ex-Klansman David Duke and by at least one neo-Nazi website?

The other article, by Timothy Egan (Aug. 28) in the New York Times, was a revealing contrast between Trump and the ultimate anti-Trump:  Pope Francis, the humble celebrity soon to visit this country.  Egan quotes Trump:  "Show me someone without an ego, and I'll show you a loser."  So I suppose if he meets the pope in New York, Trump, who values winners, will see the pontiff, with his echoes of St. Francis of Assisi, as the ultimate loser.  What a sad spectacle.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

You are the music

The longer I live, the more I realize how indispensable music is in my life. I can't imagine a day without at least thirty minutes of something classical or popular, whether on Youtube or the radio or the CD player in the car or the usually enjoyable TV station, Classic Arts Showcase (produced free of charge and free of commercials!).

Music can take me out of myself, help me become centered in the present, detached from the usual anxieties and realities. This week it was a bit of Dixieland jazz, songs of Lerner and Lowe, Puccini in the brilliant tenor voice of Jonas Kaufmann, Gilbert and Sullivan with their comic rhymes, Chopin's nocturnes, and so much more.

The effect of music on the brain was rarely so well expressed as by a noted scientist and gifted writer who just died: Oliver Sacks.

This week, in reading about Sacks I found (thanks to Maria Popova's "Brain Pickings") excerpts from his 1984 memoir, A Leg to Stand On. There Sacks describes in often lyrical detail how he was terrified on a mountain in Norway in 1974, threatened by a bull and an injured leg, feeling totally alone and abandoned, facing death.

What came to his aid?  Rhythm, melody, music: he began to chant over and over as he hobbled along in the middle of nowhere until "the musical beat was generated within me, and all my muscles responded deliberately." 

After chanting the song for some time, he began to feel, deep within, that he had no room for fear because he was filled with music, including the "silent music of the body."  Sacks quotes T. S. Eliot: "you are the music, while the music lasts." And he becomes a creature of motion, muscle and music, all inseparable and in union with one another.

The result: a feeling of gratitude, what I would call a prayerful experience.  As in his later book, Musicophilia, Sacks reflects on how amazing it was that a remembered melody should have such a profound effect on him, that music would be so passionately alive for him, conveying to him "a sweet feeling of life. .  .As if the animating and creative principle of the whole world was revealed, that life itself was music, or consubstantial with music, that our living moving flesh, itself, was 'solid' music. . .  ."

Facing his own death in recent years, Sacks kept writing up to the very end, brim full of life.  Now I am inspired to want to read more by this brilliant writer who found what many others have felt but seldom expressed: the power of music at the cellular level, something that is part of our being and that connects us to the cosmos.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Ordinary Radicals

On a day when yet another shooting, this one in Virginia, claimed at least one life and dominated the news media, and when political slings and arrows (aka insults) compete for the remaining time, it is refreshing to come upon someone like Shane Claiborne, as I did today in reading about his work with the Franciscan Richard Rohr.

Like another Dorothy Day, committed to feeding the hungry and working for peace, Claiborne, from an evangelical background, is one of several people at work in the New Monasticism movement, creating communities that build on the wisdom of the old monasteries of the Catholic tradition and often partner with them.

Claiborne, as I learned today, is one of the founders of the Simple Way in Philadelphia; he has worked with Mother Teresa in Calcutta and in Bagdad with the Iraq Peace Team.  He is a radical in the sense that Jesus Christ was a radical.

So it is apt that he has teamed up with two Franciscans to present, through the Center for Action and Contemplation, a webcast on Aug. 30-Sept. 1 and conference on "How St. Francis and Pope Francis are changing the world." I wish I were there in New Mexico to hear the speakers. Rohr is always worth listening to.

Like the Trappist Fr. Thomas Keating, he teams up with non-traditional, evangelical and other spiritual seekers who try to apply the Gospel message to an ever-violent world. Rory McEntee and his Foundation for a New Monasticism is another group that appears to be breaking new ground, reaching new audiences that might be turned off by traditional organized religions.

A hopeful sign that good is operating in our world.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Forwarding Emails

Among the hundreds of emails I go through in a week, most are forgettable, but some are amusing, a few memorable.

I am grateful to several retired friends who forward jokes and funny cartoons--most of the time since they tend to be tasteful and not insulting.

This past week, the "joke" forwarded involved racist humor that no doubt amused the sender. I responded to the sender, asking him not to forward offensive material. He responded with an apology that said, in effect, "I'm not responsible; I just pass 'em on."

But the one who passes them on presumably reads them and approves of them and likes them well enough to share them, even if the material denigrates minorities in stereotyped ways that are unfunny.  Doesn't the one who forwards a bit of humor or political satire via email have a responsibility to screen the material he or she passes on?  Those who use the internet have some moral obligations, it seems to me. . . .

This happens about once or twice a year, with the same response from and to me.  What else can I do but object? Ninety-percent of the material these people send me is good, and I know they're decent folks.

The second email this week worth commenting on was totally welcome and worth forwarding. It includes at little known (to me) episode in the life of Walt Disney. He was fired from one of his first jobs working for a Missouri newspaper because he lacked imagination!

Irony of ironies. Moral: assume those who criticize you are fools until proven otherwise.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Understanding Catholic Ideology and Ecology

For Catholics and others trying to understand Pope Francis, the Jesuit writer and political scientist Thomas Reese is essential reading.

I say this because of two of his articles in the National Catholic Reporter: one in July showed in detail how thinking Catholics might respond to the cultural shock of same-sex marriage--and how the bishops should respond.  He writes about the "fanatical opposition to the legalization of same-sex marriage" by the U.S. bishops as a sure way for younger people to look on the church, and organized religion, as bigoted.

Just as Pope Francis relied on the scientific consensus when writing on the environment, Reese says, so the bishops should consult the best social science before making sweeping assertions about families and children. Arguing that children will suffer if they don't have a parent of each sex is not supported by evidence. Just as the bishops were wrong in opposing divorce a generation ago, they should, says Father Reese, accept the reality that gay marriage is here to stay; it doesn't mean the end of civilization.

It doesn't mean sacramental marriage is threatened.

The second Reese article, published this month, deals with a broader issue in less detail.  It shows how radically different Francis is as pope compared with his two immediate predecessors and what this means about the way the church deals with ideology.  Whereas John Paul II and Benedict XVI were men of ideas, who said reality must change if it does not reflect the unchanging ideal, Francis says that facts (and experience) matter more than ideas.  If the facts clash with the reality, he says, question the theory/theology.  This is Jesuit discernment, something Reese understands.

Case in point: the pope's widely praised encyclical on the environment, which begins with scientific facts, not theology. Among those environmental experts outside of Catholicism who have read and evaluated "Laudato Si," Bill McKibben (writing in the New York Review of Books for Aug. 13) offers an especially valuable and detailed commentary.  He calls the papal document one of the most important and influential statements of modern times.

McKibben shows how radical in the best sense Francis is in his critique of how we inhabit the planet and how sweeping this critique is on moral, political, social, economic, and spiritual grounds. The pope sees that underlying the ecological crisis is that a basic way of understanding "human life and activity has gone awry," as we in the modern world have come to believe that "reality, goodness and truth automatically flow from technological and economic power."

The pope is "at his most vigorous when he insists that we must prefer the common good to individual advancement," McKibben says, mentioning in passing how Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher thought the opposite (Thatcher once said, "there's no such thing as society").

This article, "The Pope and the Planet," is must reading; so are the pieces by Thomas Reese. I am grateful to have found them.

Monday, August 3, 2015

What it means to read

I have written posts in the past about the way slow, careful reading of fiction, especially, can lead us to a deeper level of consciousness--quite apart from the value it has as a window into understanding reality.

A recent article in The Nation by Joanna Scott on the challenge of reading difficult books caught my eye, but mainly because she quoted a scholar from American University (Naomi Baron) who asks the question: Are digital media altering our understanding what it means to read? 

Of course, the answer is yes, but how? Baron's study concluded that the attention span in the U.K. has decreased by half--from five minutes to seven seconds--since 1998. I don't know the scope of her study, but I was struck by another of her findings: that among university students in the U.S., Germany, and Japan, there is a widespread preference for reading printed texts--even as many libraries are, regrettably, disposing of much of their print collections.

What happens when young people today, with their penchant for text messaging, confront a long, serious novel?  No data exists yet, apparently.

What effect does the lack of sustained reading have on writing--a topic of major interest to me as a teacher of writing?  I continue to remind would-be writers, especially if they want to become authors, that the first step in being skillful as a writer is to be a good reader, paying attention to the style and structure of what they read.

Reading--the kind that promotes interiority--is basic to learning and understanding the world and the self, and it seems to me that without it, the attention span of students will continue to decline, with disastrous results for them and for society.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Slow Goodbye

Death, the subject we tend to dread the most, is always present somewhere in the mind, usually at an unconscious level.  Sometimes it is tinged with hope and a sense of relief; often, with a terror of the unknown.

I wish I could simply say, like Hamlet's mother, "all that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity," and let it go at that.  But fear of the final goodbye and the extinction of our consciousness and identity runs too deep.

For the past year, our cat, Lizzie, a nineteen-year-old tabby cat, has been teaching us a lesson in dying with dignity. When the vet yesterday officially said what we knew--that her kidneys have failed--she also said Lizzie has been very tolerant of her condition. She has always been a quiet, indoor cat, a model of patience and simplicity, who now spends most of her life sleeping.

Her disease has gradually made her confused, as she walks slowly around very familiar territory, looking disoriented. She neither eats nor plays; yet, when petted, she will still wag her tail and purr a bit.

As my wife and I watch her, we think, invariably, of our own end. We are aware of neighbors and friends whose lives are ebbing away. 

Lizzie is lucky to be spared the knowledge that she will die.  She remains placid most of the time while we wonder about when to end her life: should we prolong it another week, waiting for nature to take its course?  When is the right time to say goodbye?

If Lizzie can wait (without knowing she's waiting), why can't we? 

This gentle cat has taught us many lessons, provoked many laughs during the past fifteen years, and inspired many stories. Now I think it is her destiny to teach us  something about accepting death as the natural part of life it is and as something to be welcomed with relief.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Trump, Bloviating Demagogue

After a talk I gave last night on Winston Churchill, I was asked if I saw a connection between the World War II British Prime Minister and Donald Trump.  At first, I was taken aback, then realized that, having stressed some of the negative aspects of Churchill's personality--spoiled, arrogant, outspoken, immune to the feelings of others--there might be some parallel. Sir Winston could often act like an unruly child.

Of course, he was also brilliant, thoughtful, careful, and witty, with a mastery of language that he carefully honed over his long career of reading and writing--unlike Trump, the real estate mogul with no qualifications to run for the presidency.

So the question I have for the Republican Party is: why do you allow this embarrassing ignoramus to distract so much attention from the decent candidates (of which there are too many) and the issues?  Do we want to elect an unruly child, a self-centered man who bloviates, as president in 2016?

To "bloviate," I was reminded on Google, is an American coinage c. 1850, popularized by President Harding, and it means to speak endlessly in a pompous, empty way, as Trump does.  He also fits that venerable American political type, the demagogue, who avoids reason, common sense and facts to appeal to the prejudices of his audience.

Hence we have Donald ("everyone loves me") Trump famously denying the facts of Obama's birth and now mocking the war record of a hero of the Vietnam war while attacking immigrants as criminals. The result? The media, which should put him in the entertainment section (as the Huffington Post has done), loves to talk about him, the perfect cartoon candidate, and the polls so far favor him because, presumably, he "tells it like it is," irrespective of facts, reason, and taste.

Those who love Trump look past his enormous ego and love of power, his childish love of attention, and his clownish ability to say anything to get more of the attention he seems to need. They are the fools who would turn out to see the freak at the circus.

Ignorance and bigotry do not, apparently, disqualify one from running for president of the United States. When a supporter told Adlai Stevenson, "every thinking person in America should vote for you," he replied with Churchillian wit, "Madam, that is not enough: I need a majority."

We keep learning never to overestimate the intelligence of the voting public.

Since writing this, I have seen Timothy Egan's column in the New York Times, which is must reading.  His point:  What produced the boorish, buffoonish, bloviating, bigoted blowhard Donald Trump?  The right wing extremists who've taken over the GOP, insulted John Kerry by turning "Swift Boat" into a verb, and shouted "you lie!" to the President addressing Congress.  Trump is the inevitable byproduct of the manufactured anger and outrage that typifies so much blather on the right.

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Royals and the Nazis

The photo of Queen Elizabeth II as a seven-year-old girl giving the Nazi salute, along with her mother and little sister in 1933, has somehow found its way, after eighty years, from the private royal archives to the London tabloid, The Sun, which will publish nearly anything sensational.  The Guardian reported on the photo in the past few days.

But there's more to the story, which interests me because of the pro-German, often fascist and pro-Nazi sympathies of many at the highest level of society in Britain during the Thirties.

My first reaction was: what children in that time, having fun, would not mock the then-new Nazi salute, along with the ridiculous goose-stepping that went along with it?  I grew up later in America, where films about the Nazis became a natural subject of parody, even after the war, after the Holocaust. The royal family on display in these family pictures, which are private and should not be published without permission, are having fun with Herr Hitler soon after he came to power, with no knowledge of the horror to come.  The bottom line: they are having fun.

At the same time, we see in the photo two adults giving the salute: one in fun--the Queen Mum--the other, Elizabeth's uncle, the future Edward VIII, who, after his marriage to the American divorcee, became the Duke of Windsor and a well-documented Nazi sympathizer.  He is shown in the photo behind the children prompting them to salute.

Now the image becomes more chilling, at leas to me, having read a good deal about the Duke of Windsor and the forgotten  royal, Prince George, Duke of Kent, whose mysterious death in 1942 has been hushed up, along with many other details of his life. Records about this "special mission" that crashed in Scotland have been, like most documents about sensitive topics, kept in the royal archives, to be opened by the Queen.  This is unfortunate for historians wanting to write a biography of the colorful, talented man who was her uncle or to learn more about Anglo-German relations leading up to World War II.

He was also, according to most sources that we have, doing intelligence work during the war, flying back and forth to Nazi Germany and supporting his brother, the Duke of Windsor in his naïve hope of gaining peace with Hitler--at the very time the Churchill government was beginning to wage war against Nazi Germany.

The Duke of Kent was but one of many nobles at the time who were either members of the Anglo-German alliance or fascist sympathizers.   Those in the royal family were of German stock, with royal cousins in the Germany, including several princes of Hesse who were active Nazis.  Many facts about this have been documented by Philip Ziegler and others reputable scholars.

No sensible historian would question the loyalty of King George VI or his wife, the future Queen Mother, whose earlier Nazi salute was done in jest, in innocence, I am sure. But they are right to be concerned about the ex-king Edward (Windsor), who came close to being accused of treason for his statements and actions around 1940.

The whole story can only be told if the royal archives are opened to historians now, seventy-five years after the major events happened, if nothing else than to put to rest the rumors about being pro-Nazi that continue to haunt the House of Windsor.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Does Handwriting Have a Future?

Handwriting, that antique art form of loops and curves instilled in me in grade school, is rarely taught these days. My students print and sometimes can't read my cursive writing.  Of course, this is a minor problem in our changing world. Yet to people like me concerned with writing in its various dimensions, the shift in technology from old to new is important.

What is the point of handwriting? That is the title of a fine article (in Hazlitt) by Navneet Alang, who connects handwriting to the body and identity in fascinating ways.

First, I agree with his contention that cursive writing expresses feelings and personality in a way that the printed word cannot.  Even though some dismiss handwriting as a lost art, a crude form of writing, hopelessly outdated, or a sign of a bygone age, Alang shows that this form of writing is distinctly human and, what's more, helps one retain and understand what he or she is writing. Why? In part because it's slower.

And it has a future in 21st century technology:  the digital pen soon to be part of Microsoft's new Edge browser will let users write by hand atop web pages; so this antique writing, ignored by most English teachers over the past thirty years, may find a rebirth on screens.

While the speed and efficiency of typing on the computer will continue to dominate the way we write, capturing the speed of our thoughts, the slower pace of cursive writing and its personal impact have many benefits.

The author shows how studies of penmanship have an important bodily dimension, and how language, the body and the identity we create through writing come together. Fascinating!  Valuable!

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Is it good to be bored?

The internet is full of tips on what  to do to avoid boredom. This assumes that boredom, which some link to depression, is bad and to be avoided

Yet an article (by Maria Ebling of the IBM Watson Research Center) given to me by a friend indicates that it's important to be bored; in fact, it's good to be bored!

A study in the U.K. shows what neuroscientists have been investigating: that there is an evolutionary reason for boredom.  The mind-wandering, daydreaming that comes when we have run out of things to do can be the source of creativity since it moves us beyond the conscious mind to the subconscious, where the imagination is most active.

Those who seem addicted to their smartphones and texting, says this author, may be cheating themselves.  Presumably, they never have to be bored since they have an endless supply of entertainment and information at their fingertips. But they miss a lot: the chance to do critically important work that mainly happens in "down time."

So, according to this research, it's good for writers and other creative people to be bored a bit. To those who turn to their pervasive computing, the advice must be: Put the phone away and think. Dream. Create something new and beautiful.

And it's quite possible that the electronic devices that are supposed to remedy boredom produce, in time, more boredom and, one hopes, more chances for the imagination to wander or for the artist to observe what's in front of him, turning the object of his or her attention into something worth sharing.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Time and the Writer

No one ever has enough time, it seems, especially writers. Yet having too much time in my literary experience is more of a problem than being forced to follow a set schedule. It's so easy to procrastinate if you have an entire summer free, with no deadlines. The result can be the dreaded writer's block.

Most writers, certainly most successful authors, follow a schedule and find that they can do the daily tasks of living, along with a day job, while being committed to their craft in the mornings or evenings or in half-hour segments whenever they become available.  Writing, after all, can occur anywhere, at any time.

Some beginning writers assume that, to write, they must stay at home or at their desk full time since successful authors are, presumably, full-time writers.  Yet many authors have worked only part-time at their craft, but they have done so regularly.

I think of Anthony Trollope, who produced 47 vast Victorian novels while working full time as a postal inspector in Dublin--a job that he came to enjoy because of the people he came to observe; their gossip and scheming gave him material to build on. Setting a goal of 2,500 words a day, Trollope worked faithfully each morning from 5:30 to 8:30, then went to work.

The type of writing produced may not always have been inspired, but it was a draft that could be revised.  Writing doesn't have to be great the first time around; it isn't like brain surgery.

I was reminded the many writers who have other full-time commitments while reading an excellent article online (via the Literary Hub) by a novelist who's also an oncologist, Ray Barfield, M.D. He is one of many  people who manage to write as part of an active professional life--because they see that the two worlds are related. It's not a matter of  multi-tasking.

Barfield makes some valuable comments about the importance of observation, something he finds that writers and doctors have in common. He says the world of medicine is not made of drugs, equipment, labs, and white coats but of "stories that situate the person, account for the past, impact the future, and offer a sense of what to do next."  The good doctor listens and gets to know the patient. He or she is immersed in the drama of human life.

He asks the reader to imagine being in an ER where a man on a gurney is wheeled in, followed by woman carrying a red rose and a sombrero.  Whether you are there as a medical professional or visitor, you will inevitably, says Barfield, pay attention to the woman with the rose and sombrero. That's why he says being a writer and being a doctor are so similar: they involve paying attention.

He quotes William Osler: "It's much more important to know what sort of patient has a disease than to know which disease the patient has."  Interns need to be trained to be curious about the lives of the people they treat; so too writers begin by paying attention to details and end up telling stories about what they see and hear around them.

Writing, then, is not a matter of genius or great talent; it demands many things, including a love of language and certainly an interest in people.  And whatever time we can find in our busy lives to record the often amusing, shocking, ironic, or disturbing details of ordinary life might be enough--if we stay committed to the task.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Inspiration is Overrated

I am not a great believer in artistic inspiration, that is, in writers waiting for the muse to stir them into creative action. I believe in plunging in and getting started.

In addressing writer's block, a topic on my mind this week as I prepare to teach my annual writing workshop, I usually refer to my own experience and the comments of successful authors who value the importance of reading and observing as key ways to develop ideas for fiction or non-fiction.  And I value the work of Julia Cameron, William Zinsser, and many others who advise beginning writers not to sit and wait but write: anything you jot down can become the beginning of something to develop.

Sometimes just paying attention to the people around you will be enough to provide an amusing or revealing incident that might figure into a piece of writing.  Everyday, it seems, I hear something that I file away for possible use.

Today, a 94-year-old friend nearby, shuffling along toward her church with her walker, came to a low fence around a parking lot that impeded her progress, so she threw her walker over the barrier and then climbed across.  It might have been only mildly amusing, if I had seen it instead of hearing it recounted. But knowing the lady involved, and what a determined Irishwoman she is, I suspect many stories could be told about her adventures in living.

So a valuable piece of advice for writers is: observe what's in  front of you. Observe it closely.  Make note of it. Maybe you can use it in some future writing. If not, the act of writing it out in your journal is itself a breaking down of a fear barrier.

Observing what's in front of us is one of those "centering devices" that keep us grounded in the present moment; the result is that our busy minds are less likely to be scattered and full of the tension that inhibits creativity. Being relaxed, and having no interruptions, is important.

Of course, a certain amount of "stage fright" is inevitable as we compose--and probably healthy as the unconscious mind thinks about potential readers. Getting started, even for an experienced author, can be a challenge. I think of how Hemingway worked: he wrote "one true sentence," then another; and soon he had a paragraph.  Some days, that was enough.  Even just one thoughtfully composed sentence was enough to build confidence.

I quote John McPhee:  "If you lack confidence in setting one word after another and sense that you are stuck in a place from which you will never be set free, if you feel sure you will never make it and were not cut out to do this, if your prose seems stillborn and you completely lack confidence, you must be a writer."

(This is an excellent example, by the way, of those right-handed or periodic sentences in which the main idea is held until the end. We don't use them a lot, but they have a unique emphasis Concern with style is part of the revising process, once the initial draft has been done.)

A writer needs many things, patience and a good sense of humor topping the list; he or she should not expect divine inspiration.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

At least be interesting

"If you can't be funny," Harold Ross used to tell his writers at the New Yorker years ago, "at least be interesting."  He was the founding editor of that magazine, which continues to maintain high editorial standards in everything from comedy to commas.

His advice is not bad for such a publication and for the kind of non-fiction books I especially savor, the latest being at 2010 book by Dianne Hales, Bella Lingua, which succeeds in being informative and entertaining at the same time.

Being a sometime student of Italian, who taught Dante and longs for a third trip to Italy, I have long appreciated most things Italian: the food, the music, the culture, and, of course, the musical, playful language.  This is what Hales manages to capture in her book.

It's remarkable that an American with no knowledge of the language or country managed to immerse herself in the Italian language with such enthusiasm and good humor that she makes the reader--or at least me--want to read on, beyond the opening chapters.

What is the secret of her success? The main one is that she provides a bounty of examples of what Italians say, and don't say: they don't have a word for "lonely," she points out, or for "spelling."  There is no need for either, for reasons she explains.  And some words, like brio and gusto and inamorata, are untranslatable.  So is Bravo!

Hales gives the earthy and colorful details of Italian speech so that the reader gets a sense of the country and its people: the emotional pull is there.  And so is wit and a lively writing style and a feel as I'm reading that I am there on that beautiful peninsula.

The reason, as she makes clear, is that a love of a people's language opens the door to their soul.  And Italian, the most musical of tongues, is also the most emotionally expressive.  The words are mostly easy to pronounce and play with, and Hales clearly enjoys her subject and knows how to make it interesting--the hallmark of good writing.

Any topic can be rendered dull or interesting, depending on the way an author approaches his or her subject. Mere knowledge of the subject is never enough.
It takes an effortless ease and grace that the Italians call (in another untranslatable word) "sprezzatura," in which what is challenging is made to look easy.

This book has made me eager to return to the study of Italiano, so to its skillful author I say, Bravo!

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Parenting and Writing

I've been reading about the 4th volume of a series of books by a writer from Norway, Karl Knausgaard, called The Struggle.  His struggle is to find time, as a stay-at-home dad busy with three young children, to get writing done amid the endless chores that make up parenting.

His solution: after some frustration at having no time to write, along with a desire to get as close as possible to life in his writing, he decided to capture the daily flow of life as it happens, in all its details. The result, so far, is an autobiography of 3,600 pages.

He says in an interview that the children might take time from his writing, but they also open up time for him, allowing him a new sense of time as felt by kids.  Children live in a moment-to-moment kind of ordinary, uneventful time basic to family intimacy. Adults who write rarely tap into this.

And so, he has discovered the material, often tedious perhaps to recount and read, provided by describing cooking meals, cleaning up, reading stories, and all the rest. In the process he says he re-examines his own childhood memories, which are so limited in comparison with the immense amount of time he now spends with his children. And this leads to questions about memory:  how can I know that the particular events from childhood I remember now were decisive in making me who I am and not all the others of which I remember nothing?

How does a writer sort out the noteworthy from the ordinary in everyday life?  That is always a question for the writer of fiction, memoir and autobiography: what to include, what to exclude. And, of course, how to find time to think and write, apart from the busy-ness of duties. Knausgaard seems to have found a solution to such questions that works for him.

Although he may end up boring the reader, Knausgaard keeps himself faithful to the child's perspective, in which every little event is of great interest and the focus of attention. Yet, in what I have read of his books and the interview, I see no reference to his concern about the reader.  Is he not concerned about conveying something interesting to readers, something they will want to learn more about, or does he just assume that realistic/naturalistic fiction is, like certain documentary films that unfold in real time, interesting merely because of its ordinary details?

I brought up this topic of the role of the reader in my post of April 7: "Why Write?" At issue was the author of a diary turned into a journal that seemed to avoid the key issue of communication. Any topic can be made interesting by its style and selection of details, yet I worry about anything written to be published that doesn't concern itself about being interesting to someone other than the author. 

If Knausgaard raises issues of childhood time and memory, as he did in the interview I read, if he goes beyond the mundane details of cooking dinner, his 3,600-page opus may prove to be worth the reader's time.

My source for this post is the article by Elaine Blair in the current issue of the New York Review of Books. I found the review-article fascinating, but I doubt if I'll ever be motivated to read any of the four volumes of Mr. Knausgaard's experiment with real-time narrative.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

What makes good historical fiction

I have never been a great fan of historical fiction. It seems that most of the novels that I tried reading, often involving the Tudor period in England, seemed contrived, with  artificial dialogue resembling furniture that's been antiqued.  Lately, I have encountered some fiction rooted in the 20th century, where I feel more at home or, I should say, where the author and I feel more comfortable.

One of the very best in this genre is The Paris Wife by Paula McLain, recommended to me by someone in the audience at my talk on Hemingway last month at the University Club in Winter Park.  Hearing what I had to say about Hadley Richardson and the Paris years of Ernest Hemingway, she said, "you must read this book."

I find McLain's novel a template of what makes historical fiction function well. First, the author is clearly immersed in her subject, having read probably everything, including the letters, of the people involved; as a result, she captures the rhythm of their sentences in her own elegant style. It helps that McLain is a published poet since her language is original without being showy, and her sentences sparkle: "we wore navy-blue skirts," she writes, "with knife-sharp points."  Ernest at 21 is "white hot with life."

As a result, the reader--at least I--can feel the energy of the man, which is easily reduced to a cliché, as in Woody Allen's otherwise charming movie, Midnight in Paris. Her style brings the characters to life in a way that rings true for someone like me who had read a lot about and by Hemingway over many years.

The result of reading the novel is the true litmus test of historical fiction: I forget at times I am reading fiction. It all seems real! This is made possible by something recommended by Wendell Berry in his poem "How to be a Poet": "you must depend upon affection."

Reading and knowledge are important for a writer, along with narrative skill and the careful revision of every sentence, but McLain's success begins with her obvious love of her material. Her enthusiasm draws me in so I have an immediate affection for Hadley and even the young Hemingway. She is able to convey the tragic family background of her narrator, Hadley, whose father committed suicide, with subtle feeling but no sentimentality.

She has also organized the narrative crisply, with clear transitions when flashbacks occur; and the novel is concise. No doubt I came to this book with a bias in its favor, having just spent a lot of time on Hemingway's life and the women in it, but I never expected a female novelist to bring alive the man's charisma:  "He grinned a grin that began in his eyes and went everywhere at once. . .  .He moved like light. He never stopped moving--or thinking or dreaming apparently."

(I say "female" novelist because Hemingway has been famously unpopular with many women readers; of course, McLain's real subject is his first wife.)

I have no formula for good historical fiction, and I doubt if I would ever attempt a historical novel since I can see the great challenge involved: making real, well-known people into fictional characters who have an imaginative life, apart from the facts of history; and not letting the facts dominate. Letting, rather, the affection dominate, as McLain admirably does.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Same-sex marriage and Catholic voters

The election in heavily Catholic Ireland last week, with 62 percent of the populace in the Republic voting in favor of same-sex marriage has been widely reported and analyzed.  The first piece I read was by Frank Bruni in the NYTimes, who raises a question he does not answer about why voters in traditionally Roman Catholic countries--from Argentina and Brazil to Belgium, France and Spain--have suddenly, it seems, become "gay friendly."

Why do sixty percent of American Catholic voters polled say they approve of same-sex marriage?  Bruni suggests that young Catholics are "less rooted in Rome." In Europe and Latin America, he goes on, many people pay "primary obeisance to their own consciences, their own senses of social justice."

That last phrase is troublesome. I doubt if the sense of social justice on the part of many Republican politicos in this country is congruent with the church's teachings, going back to Leo XIII in the late 19th century and including Dorothy Day and the Franciscan tradition embodied today most visibly by Pope Francis.  Bruni is overlooking the importance of "thinking with the church," which is not the same as agreeing with everything taught by the church.

That point aside, each country that has so far legalized same-sex marriage is different, so generalizations are not easily made. What is there about the Irish, for example, other than disgust with the hierarchy's handling of the sexual abuse scandal, that would lead them to such a surprising vote?

I would like to think it has a lot to do with charity toward an oppressed minority, a respect for equality in the eyes of God, even if this basic human respect is at odds with the moral teachings of the church.  Of course, there are other reasons, too: a higher percentage of Catholics today are better educated than in the past, at least in the USA.  There is also the Catholic experience with celibate clergy whose numbers include many homosexually inclined priests.

There may also be a paradoxical love of tradition, as E. J. Dionne mentions in his current Commonweal article. What is more traditional than marriage, which indicates a belief in the past as well as the future, a belief that a structure exists, even though outside the sacramental rubric of the church, enabling fidelity and fostering stability.

So it was sad to see the harsh response to the Irish vote from the Vatican's Secretary of State, Cardinal Parolin: "a defeat for humanity." The Archbishop of Dublin was wiser, less hysterical: he said that church needed a reality check, that bishops should listen to young people.

Cardinal Kasper of Germany, in another context, has called for a "listening magisterium": a hierarchy that pays real attention to the capacity of individuals to think about moral and social issues in the context of what the church stands for.

One thing is now clear from the vote in Ireland and other seemingly Catholic cultures: the days of top-down authority coming from Rome are coming to an end, with more power being given (in keeping with the Second Vatican Council) to the laity and the local churches.  I hope that gay people will feel more at home in such a church and actually be treated in a Christian way.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Greed and the socially dead

As the U.S. presidential candidates line up for 2016, it's "full greed ahead," to quote Frank Bruni's latest column in the NYTimes, referring to the uneasy mix of politics and big money.

Bill Clinton was singled out for earning $100 million over the past twelve years in speaking fees alone; his wife, Hilary, has been asking $200,000 per speech "to pay the bills." Meanwhile, a Miami billionaire bankrolls Marco Rubio, and the King of Jordan flies Gov. Christie in his private plane, among other perks.  Now that Jeb Bush has been able to earn "real money" after leaving his post as Florida governor, he can identify with the recent New Yorker cartoon that said:
"Now that I've made my fortune, I can run for office in order to consolidate it."

The absurd amounts of money pouring into political coffers is no surprise in a world where the top 25 hedge fund managers last year earned $11.6 billion in salary alone, with the top manager earning $1.3 billion, even though the funds themselves were down, paying only three percent interest to investors. What do these plutocrats expect in return for their support of presidential and congressional office-holders?

Meanwhile, the divide between these high-rollers and the shrinking middle class has seldom been wider, and the poor remain invisible. I was struck by a term, used by historian Peter Brown in discussing money in early medieval Christianity, that referred to the poor as the "socially dead," in contrast to the physically dead.

When greed and self-interest rule the public sphere, what happens to the community, its needs and its importance?  How visible are the poor to the donors at charity balls and dinners who enhance their own self-importance by announcing that they will seek the presidency, even if their mind is only on power and money?

I wonder if the socially (and spiritually) dead today do not include those who seek public office for their own enrichment and remain blind to the needy all around them.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Race Matters: Is Biology Destiny?

Is racial prejudice, so much in the news as African American youth come in conflict with mostly white police officers, a learned behavior, or is it innate?

Nicholas Kristof in a recent New York Times piece blew me away with his summary from a study, published in  Psychological Science, by a Harvard researcher that indicates we have in our brains an ingrained tendency to racial bias.   "The human brain seems to be wired so that it categorizes people by race in the first one-fifth of a second after seeing a face."

This is very disturbing, at least to me, having thought we learn about racial difference as we grow up.  I think of the boys playing next door to me: two whites and one black, long-time buddies. I thought young kids were color blind.

But Kristof's summary tells us that even infants show a preference for their own racial group: the type of faces they are familiar with. Does this mean we are doomed to spend our lives judging and possibly hating those unlike us?

Whatever the evolutionary origins may be, the answer is no.  The penchant for one race over another does not mean that this is one's destiny.

Kristof suggests that, if we make friendships with other races and come to admire certain athletes or heroes of other races, we will grow more tolerant, thereby overcoming the biological pre-disposition.    We may have hidden gender and racial biases, but we might also disapprove of them; and we can work to counter them.

I thought about some of this while watching a documentary about the Roma people, often called Gypsies: "A People Uncounted," which focuses on the Holocaust and the long-standing prejudice by the white majority in Europe against darker-skinned "gypsies," often stereotyped in story and song as thieves and musicians.  They came to Europe from India a thousand years ago and remain the most widely discriminated against group, with twenty percent of these people experiencing hate crimes today.

There are, I learned, about 12-15 million Roma in Europe; 500,000 were killed at Auschwitz or in mass shootings, and the film gives too much emphasis, I think, on this tragic past and not enough on the present.

The story of the Roma people is important because it has generally been overlooked: these people rarely have had the education or social structure to become writers and academics; they remain wanderers or shunned as outsiders at a time when racism in Europe is on the rise: stories about anti-Semitism make it into the news but rarely do we hear of the Roma people.

The main voice of hope in this bleak view of the European Union and its prejudice is that positive things can occur at the local level: if families, communities, and churches take action on a case-by-case basis, discrimination can be fought.

But the roots of this animosity grow deep, deeper than the thousand-year history of gypsies in Europe, as deep as the brain itself.  Apparently.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Problem with Work

Americans are known for over-working. We have created a consumer society that promotes products people feel they must have to satisfy their quest for happiness, thus leading to debt. Other costs, such a health care and college tuition, prompt too many people to undertake more than one job to pay for the cars, the insurance, and everything else needed to keep up with life in the 21st century.

Compounding the problem today is the proliferation of digital technology that allows many employees to be on call all the time, anywhere. Everyone has a smartphone or similar device attached to his or her body at all times, making stress a constant and making the workplace demoralizing and demanding.

How can we slow down?  How can we find a balance between work and living so we are not burned out?

Sidney Callahan in the recent America magazine notes this problem and suggests that monastic detachment may be an answer. She cites the Rule of St. Benedict, which since the 6th century has governed life in Western monasteries and serves as the model for contemplative prayer today. It is also analogous to the practices of yoga and mindfulness that have become popular.

For the Benedictine tradition, work is valued "without overvaluing and over self-investing in achievement as the measure of identity," she writes.  In the monastery, time for work and study, recreation and hospitality, is limited and secondary to the spiritual life, the "work of God."  As a result, work is important but less important than prayer. It is impossible in such a world for status, money or power to become a goal, as it is in the lives of most people.

The key lesson from the monastic tradition is that "who I am is always more important than what I do."

What a contradiction to today's culture, where what we do (or want to do or used to do) often defines who we are and how we think.

I don't know how the goal of monastic detachment advocated by Callahan can be implemented in the workplace, though I have read that some innovative outfits like Google have developed innovative, flexible schedules where employees can take long breaks for exercise and meditation on the campus where they work.

For most people, however, finding a balance between activity and leisure, with time for creativity and the spirit to flourish while earning enough to pay the bills, is a daunting challenge. But I believe we are creative enough to find solutions before we destroy ourselves.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Can Poetry Save Lives?

The power of poetry to speak the truth, to be the voice of reason in an irrational world, is ancient and is still part of the culture in Eastern Europe, including Russia.  In America, poetry has generally been a marginalized occupation, practiced by many but read by few. As the Anglo-American poet W. H. Auden famously wrote, "poetry makes nothing happen."  It just is.

But even in the world of productivity and profit, it's possible that a great poem can move hearts, even change lives.  When I saw the book, "How Dante Can Save Your Life," I had to sit down and read it because, first of all, it is the title of a book I once imagined writing, having taught the great medieval poem, known as the Divine Comedy for some years, and having explained that it's much more than a journey to Hell (since "Inferno" is only the first of three parts of the epic).

I was unfamiliar with the author: Rod Dreher, a conservative American journalist whose roots as a Methodist in small-town Louisiana hardly prepared him for Catholicism, to which he converted, or for the greatest piece of Catholic poetry, completed by Dante c. 1321. Like Dante the character in the poem, he found himself in a dark wood of middle-age depression, and he found in his reading of Dante's poem life-changing wisdom.

The result is a clearly stated, accessible memoir that combines the essence of Dante's complex vision with Dreher's own life journey.  This is an achievement since explaining a medieval Italian classic to 21st century readers is no simple task. Yet Dreher is hardly alone in finding his own life journey mirrored in Dante's.

He makes it clear that one need not be Catholic or Christian to be, as he was, deeply affected and changed by Dante's story of loss and restoration since the poet speaks to readers who have lived long enough to have lost faith in society, politics, family, and love.  I wish my young students, often confused by the poem's mythology, theology, and Florentine politics, could see as clearly as Dreher that the dark wood is not all there is.

And that a poem about love and justice can indeed transform, or help transform, one's life by putting the reader on the cosmic journey of life from darkness to light in search of meaning. That's what T. S. Eliot found in 1922 when his marital breakdown and spiritual wasteland led him to read Dante as a way out of his own crisis of faith. And, for me, it was reading and teaching Eliot that told me, thirty years ago, that I must study Dante and master his epic.

I learned that this most amazing and daring poem is probably the greatest work of literature in the Western world: it is personal as well as universal, political as well as philosophical and mystical.  The Comedy, as Dante called his poem, speaks to non-Christian readers because the supernatural meaning doesn't cancel out the human, spiritual and moral lesson we still need to learn: hatred, selfishness, and greed will always cripple our lives as long as we fail to work for the common good. Without loving others, social justice is impossible, and man will continue to fail on the personal, social, and political levels.

So the poem is a great love story, one full of hope. It shows the reader that he or she is not alone in feeling confused and alienated.

If we feel hopeless, as Alan Jones once wrote, if we have been sorry for mistakes we have made and want to make a new start, we can identify with Dante's afterlife, even if we don't believe in his idea of Hell, Purgatory or Heaven.  Dante's cosmic journey depicts in vivid detail what loss and alienation mean and how they can be turned into a test of character that leads to illumination.

Dante, through love, discovered how loss and failure can be reversed. Rod Dreher has been able to see this essential theme in the medieval classic, showing that, indeed, a poem can change lives, maybe save some people from despair. It can make something happen.

I hope his new book leads more readers to discover their own wisdom in the many fine modern translations (like those of Robert Hollander) of Dante.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Update: What to study in college

This is an important addendum to my March 29 post about the value of the liberal arts curriculum in university study.

The new "ammunition" in my argument comes via Nicholas Kristof in the April 16 New York Times, quoting Harvard economist Lawrence Katz: "A broad liberal arts education is the key pathway to success in the 21st-century economy."  Why? Because there has been a flattening of pure technical skills in the economy, and what is now wanted are those who can combine communication skills and people skills with technical skills.

The student needs both, in his view (which I am glad to say is widely shared). So a humanities major with courses in psychology, economics, computer science and other sciences has greater career flexibility.  So too a science major who takes a good dose of the humanities will be in good shape.

Kristof goes on to say that our society needs people from the humanities to reach wise policy decisions. He also cites evidence that wide reading in literature "nurtures deeper emotional intelligence."

We have to understand ourselves and others if we are to engage with the world as educated people who are, upon graduation from college, not merely trained.  Since literature offers lessons in human nature, in assessing the feelings of others, there is still an important place for the English major.

In my days at the university, I hated to see young people short-changing themselves by having too narrow a  focus. Many freshmen had blinders on when it came to the liberal arts, which they saw as useless, whereas engineering or computer science promised jobs. Yes, but what kind?  And does a technical degree produce a happy life in a world where we must know how to interact with others?