Saturday, December 17, 2016

Staying Connected

One of the best features of the Christmas season for me is contacting my many out-of-town or seldom-heard from friends and relatives, conveying best wishes. This annual ritual is a reminder that we are all connected.

It is very easy for me, as a writer and reader who loves solitude, who disconnects the telephone at certain times so my wife and I can write, to feel restless and lonely, isolated in my comfortable bubble.  As I think of the many single people I know living alone, I often think of the Lennon-McCartney song, "Eleanor Rigby," with its refrain: "Ah, look at all the lonely people."

Why are there so many people who feel alone, unwanted, or useless every day?  I think of my elderly neighbor, whose frustration with the limitations of her life at 89 causes her to lash out in anger at the caregiver who's there to help her. If only she could feel a part of the greater whole that surrounds her--in nature, the world of ideas and music, the friends and family who think of her every day, the prayers said for her.  She is surrounded by love.

Achieving such a feeling of being loved and connected is not easy. Sometimes it comes naturally, the way prayer does after a dry spell that we must endure before finding a sense of relatedness to God, or, if you prefer, to Life.

I combat feelings of isolation by an awareness of the many people who admire me, think of me, write to me, maybe pray for me--sight unseen.  I think of the strangers who read this blog in various countries--or something else I have published: something I have written has interested them, or moved or helped them in some way.

Or I can think of the many thousands of students who have benefited from my classes (and still do) as well as family members, now gone, whose faces and voices I can still hear in my mind. Or I think of the saints since I believe that somehow, in the great mystery of things, I am surrounded by many who wish me well, from this side of the grave or the other.  Their memories of me might be more positive than I will ever know. And our connection is real.

So, I tell myself, I am surrounded by good will. I know dozens of people I can call on for help, other than  my wife.  Moreover, from what I know about biology, I am aware that I live in a interconnected world of supportive relationships.  I am a living part of nature, related to the plants and animals, to the stars at night that remind me that millions of others in many other places are seeing the same stars, maybe feeling that they, too, are part of the cosmos.

I am reminded that the Greek word "cosmos" means order, also ornamentation (as in cosmetics), and so the universe or cosmos means the ordered beauty of the reality in which I live and breathe and have my being.
Of course, the media, too, are daily reminders that we are part of a global community. I like to think that love, in the form of caring or compassion, is at work in these contexts: altruism, which is said to exist in our very genes, is real, as in the effort of most of us to make our planet healthier.

If we live in isolation, believing we are inferior to everyone else or superior to them, we are living in the kind of hell depicted by T. S. Eliot ("The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock").  The answer: reach out and contact the sick or lonely or depressed neighbor. Write an email to someone who'd appreciate a reminder that they are not forgotten. Or ask for help: it will come.

Those contemplatives in my Catholic tradition (monks, nuns) who are physically apart from public life are linked, as Thomas Merton once wrote, in a "friendly communion of silence."  I think of them every day.  Richard Rohr, writing in this religious context, writes:  "we are already in union with God. .  .inside a life larger than us that can't be taken from us."  The union of the divine with the human is precisely what is celebrated at Christmas.

As Merton wrote, because we are a part of God, who is in us, "we are already one. But we imagine we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity.  What we have to be is what we already are."

My first wish for those of you who read this rambling post or other musings of mine is that you will contact me with a comment: use the Comments section or my email: schiffhorst@yahoo.com. Thank you.

Even if I don't hear from you, I know you are there and that you, like me, are part of this living cosmos united in love and with every reason to celebrate Christmas.  My second (and primary) wish is that you enjoy a season of true peace that extends into the coming year.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

How Bad is Boredom?

Many of the heavyweights who have written knowledgably about boredom have seen it as negative, perhaps akin to depression, certainly related to the inevitable restlessness we all experience. I have written about it as a fear of running out of things to do.

Andreas Elpidorou, writing in Aeon, suggests the positive benefits of boredom: it alerts us to the need to be creative, to break out of the unfulfilling activity we are engaged in.

First, he says, not everyone who experiences boredom, which is to say nearly everyone at some time, is prone to ongoing boredom, a more serious issue (depression, I assume, though he doesn't use that word). If a sensation of pain alerts us to a problem in our bodies, then the feeling of boredom is a signal that we are pursuing the wrong thing for us spiritually; we are being prompted to find something else to do.

In a popular culture where distractions abound, that should not be hard. In fact, the culture of 24/7 entertainment functions as a kind of narcotic, writes Ron Rolheiser.  Of course, as he points out, we often need a palliative from pain, so we turn to music or movies or games to protect us from feeling hurt. But, Rolheiser says, too often this narcotic becomes a way of escaping the reality of our inner lives.

In a world of instant communication, in cities where restaurants and clubs are open around the clock to please us, we can be amused, distracted, and catered to any time of the day or night.  Our TVs contain hundreds of channels, and iPods give us access to vast libraries of music. But are we happy?  Do we not still remain bored, restless?

Some say our popular culture is giving us a permanent attention deficit disorder: we pay attention to so many things that we aren't giving real attention to anything that matters.  We are so busy being distracted that we seldom find opportunities to feel deeply our connection with others.

It takes a serious illness or death in the family sometimes for some people to start paying attention to what's going on inside them, to reflect on the meaning of life. All the stimulation and entertainment in the world can't help us live in peace with ourselves and those who love us.

In other words, the soul needs attention. As Rumi wrote, we rush from room to room desperately searching for the necklace that's around our neck.

So when I feel restless or bored with the same routine of humdrum activities, I must remind myself that, instead of turning to the media, I can turn inward.  I can find within myself, through solitude and silence, an essential link to what some call God, others call the essential reality of the now.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Seeing the Trees

Whenever I can, I drive a mile or so from my home to a lakeside park to enjoy the beauty not only of the large lake but of the giant cypress trees, hung with Spanish moss. Looking at the water through the cluster of these trees is always memorable because I am taken out of myself.

The trees are home in the spring to nesting egrets, large white birds who are wise to choose such a lofty perch.  In April, they can be noisy. On my recent visits to the lake, all is quiet except for occasional boats.

This spot has become for me a prayerful place, a place to see the reality of the present.  "Most people don't see things as they are," Richard Rohr writes, "because they see things as they are."  And this is not seeing at all.

It is looking with the small self, the ego. To see and observe trees, in this case, and the serenity of the lakeside park is to move beyond myself, to follow Rohr's line of contemplative reflection, and to grasp a larger reality since my life is not just about me in isolation. It's about me in relationship with nature and others. It has to do with love.

Can I say I love trees? Perhaps. I care about them and appreciate their beauty, especially the strong oaks that spread out their branches or the camphor tree in my back yard that has grown in twenty years from a sapling to a huge, powerful presence.  I am in awe of many old trees and love to look at them in their varying shapes and sizes, with or without leaves. Many are ancient (who knows how old?) and have withstood blights and human civilization.  They endure, silently feeding a hidden world of creatures.

I have just read an interesting piece in the New York Review of Books about two new studies of trees, one by a German, one by a British academic. The review prompts me to want to know more about the inner life of trees.  Especially the oaks described by Fiona Stafford (The Long, Long Life of Trees):

"No other tree is so self-possessed, so evidently at one with the world," she writes in the review I quote by Thomas Pakenham.  "The solid, craggy trunk of a mature oak spreads out, as if with open arms, to create a vast hemisphere of thick, clotted leaves."

Do trees have a way of communicating to one another?  Peter Wohlleben indicates they do: in fact, he finds a subtle underground network among the trees he has studied; they send vital information to one another. If a certain tree is threatened by a certain insect, it will send a message prompting other trees to release a chemical that repels the harmful insect. Amazing.

I am glad to know that these authors care about how trees live and die and relate to the rest of the ecosystem--and who, at the same time, look at them with the wonder and awe that I do when I look at the giant cypresses towering over the lake.

Maybe part of my appreciation comes from seeing how often I have taken these trees for granted.  I look at them now with deep gratitude and really see them.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Two "True Stories" on Film

I watch a lot of movies via Netflix. This week two recent ones, one from 2015, "The Man Who Knew Infinity," is billed as based on a true story; so is the more recent British production of New York publishing, "Genius."

Many viewers might have scant interest in the relation of the legendary editor Maxwell Perkins and the overblown writer Thomas Wolfe. But being a writer curious about both, and about their relationship, I was intrigued to see British actors capture some of the spirit of New York in the Thirties, even if  many of the scenes are needlessly dark and rainy.

Colin Firth as the quiet, hardworking Perkins asks the key literary question: When does the work of an editor become a collaboration? He is concerned about his role in altering and taking responsibility for the fiction of Wolfe.

Apart from the father-son (or bromantic) relationship of the older editor with the younger, hard-drinking and notoriously wordy Wolfe (Jude Law), both Perkins' wife and Wolfe's mistress resent the time and creative energy that Perkins devotes to shaping and changing the huge piles of words Wolfe produces into the huge novel, "Look Homeward, Angel."  So for me the question is, who is the genius is this movie?

I get no clue to Perkins' inner life from the always reticent Firth, whereas Wolfe is larger than life and easy to understand (in Law's great performance).  How did Perkins manage to deal with Hemingway and Fitzgerald, both difficult, while being obsessed with the obsessive and compulsive Wolfe? And what did he see in Wolfe's undisciplined, unreadable work (so different in style from the other two masters)? I also wonder what point the producers of the movie had in mind--especially for non-writers.

I have no such doubts about the other film, with Dev Patel as a young Indian man, a mathematical genius, who leaves his young wife behind in 1913 to work with England's leading mathematician, played memorably by Jeremy Irons. I like the contrast between the older scholar's skeptical atheism and Patel's mystical belief in intuition: he believes that every equation reflects the mind of God. And Irons's character seems almost persuaded that this might be true.

The story is moving, as "Genius" is not, and sad in ways I won't mention. Having spent a summer at Trinity College, Cambridge, where most of the action occurs, and having been an academic who clings to religious belief, I naturally gravitate to this story.

How true (historically accurate) these stories are I have no idea; suffice it to say they are based on biographical reality; one of them ("The Man Who") is true to the human heart, which is what counts in the end.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

A divided America--linguistically

One of my favorite activities is to sit with a cup of coffee at the cafĂ© in our local Barnes and Noble and look at three to four new books that look interesting. Usually, by reading the opening page, I can tell whether I want to continue.

Last week, I happened on a glossy book, intended mainly for non-readers since it is filled with colorful charts and maps; it's what used to be called a coffee-table book: Speaking American by Josh Katz, who surveys several dozen words and expressions used in various ways in the U.S.  Of course, it is a fascinating topic for someone like me.

Some of the words pronounced differently in various regions are interesting for writers, especially poets concerned with sound (rhyme): "syrup" is pronounced "sir-up" by 53% of the population, we learn, whereas  36% say "seer-up." This despite many decades of TV and radio ads with their mainstream pronunciation.  Regional differences do not die out very easily.

How do you say "route"?  We seem about evenly divided, according to Katz's research, between saying "rowt" and "root."  Oddly, he doesn't include the word roof, which has a variant pronunciation.

If the Brits have take-away food, most of us say "take out" while "carry out" is used in some parts of the Midwest.

"Skillet" is regional (Northeast mainly), as is the use of "sneakers" instead of tennis shoes.  In Chicago, you might hear "gym shoes."  (Frying pan is much more widespread than "skillet.")

Which is right?  Wrong question!  In matters of usage, there is no right or wrong; the sources from  which Katz draws in his book merely record or describe what we say in this country. Of course, writers creating dialogue might be aware that their own regional usage (should we use garbage, trash, rubbish, refuse, or waste?) will impact readers in different ways.  "You guys" is preferred by 50% of Americans in contrast to "you all" (10%) and "y'all" (28%) or simply "you" (10%)

I enjoyed looking at this book, reminding myself that we are divided not only into bitter political camps, especially following the recent surreal election; but, on a lighter note, by the way we speak, which proves again the adage (applied originally to the linguistic divide between Britain and the U.S.): we are divided by a common language.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The election: detachment

I know I am one of many millions who have experienced shock, disbelief, grief and anger since the election of Trump.  I could be angry at the media and the pollsters for misleading us or at the voters who chose radical change over continuity or at the crazy system which allowed Clinton to receive the popular vote but lose the election. But anger leads to more hatred.

I know that I must detach from the news, from the emotional upset that comes each time I revisit the election results. For me, the path has to be contemplative.

It was only when I turned off the TV news and absorbed the beauty of the moment, feeling a unity between myself and nature (specifically a tree outside the window), that I felt at peace, absorbed for a while in the now. Later, I used music with the same effect.

My wise wife, Lynn, reminded me that "God writes straight with crooked lines," her way of saying that eventually some good will come out of the new order. It's up to us to work in our own garden to make that happen.

As I pray for Trump and the country, I pray that each of us can find an inner peace that moves us forward.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The end is near

Finally, after an uncommonly nasty and embarrassing election campaign, the day for voting has come here in the U.S.  Nearly everyone I know will be relieved to have it over.

What surfaced was summed up in a comment by Pope Francis over the weekend, in a veiled reference to the U.S. election:  Do not give in to the politics of fear, he said, by building walls but instead work to build bridges.

"Fear numbs us to the suffering of others. It makes us cruel."

The anger felt by many during this long, long election cycle has been fueled by the age-old fear of change (immigrants, e.g.).  I hope that fear can be replaced, more and more, by trust as the candidate of continuity (Clinton) does her best to be a builder of bridges. It is a daunting task. I pray she is up to it.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

What does poetry do?

I spent the past weekend with a group of 75 poets, members of the Florida State Poets Association, meeting at a seaside hotel.  As I listened to these people read and talk, I asked myself, Why have they come here for this weekend?  What is the value of the work they do?

I was reminded of the line from W. H. Auden (often quoted out of context): "Poetry makes nothing happen"--in the sense that it does not drive the economy or the government. It survives beyond the world of executives. Yet, for those concerned with the inner life, poetry makes a great deal happen, and this has nothing to do with status, power or money.

One of Maria Popova's Basic Beliefs is "Do nothing for prestige or status or money or approval alone."  Of course, like the assembled poets and their prizes, we who write and create want some approval, but that alone is not our goal. We do it because of love, because the poem must be written, and, as isolated poets, we need to come together with like-minded people to share in a community of appreciation.

Our keynote speaker was the noted poet Lola Haskins, who lives in Florida and England. She gave us a valuable overview of poetry in the Middle East, where poets are much more important than they are here in the First World.  The same is true in Russia and Eastern Europe, in fact, in many of the hurt cultures of the world. As my wife, Lynn Schiffhorst, says, in numb cultures like ours poetry is not valued. It has only a small audience.

In the Middle East, I learned, illiterate tribesmen know and recite poetry, the way the Irish and the Anglo-Saxons centuries ago have done. I learned about the Mother of Palestinian poetry, Fawda Touqan, whose love of the land is expressed in her verse. Mahmoud Darwish, another Palestinian, says his action in the world, his work, is poetry.

There are statues to noted poets in many lands; in America, we put up statues of generals and presidents, mainly. Yet, as I discovered this weekend, poetry is alive and thriving, hidden amid the many other activities that dominate our media. It is alive because many people find their spiritual outlet in verse, because they care about language and feeling and sharing their unique insights with others, irrespective of money, status, or prestige. Bravo!

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Toxic Trump

The recent "debate" in St. Louis between Clinton and Trump was, because of Trump's behavior, more like a brawl, one that I was unable to watch to the end. It was embarrassing.

That up to 40 percent of Americans might support a man clearly unbalanced by narcissism, sexism, racism, and lies as well as ignorance is alarming.  Soon it will be over.

A valuable perspective on his "locker room talk" came today in the New York Times in a piece by Jared Yates Sexton. It touches on a topic, masculinity, that has long preoccupied me both in my fiction and earlier in my teaching.

Sexton's point is that the so-called locker room talk that demeans women is a manifestation of the fear many men feel: fear of inadequacy, rejection, and (I should add) of women as controlling.  Although most men outgrow these fears, many, like Trump,the Highchair Child (as Maureen Dowd called him), never do.

Many men, with limited knowledge of the world, facing complex foreign and economic issues, take refuge in a compulsive or toxic masculinity of tough-guy domination because social forces threaten their belief that they alone control their fate.  They feel overwhelmed by the political reality and so react negatively.

The author goes on to point out that such compulsive masculinity and its posturing causes men to suffer more than they realize. I am reminded of the fine book by Frank Pittman, Man Enough (based on his years of treating wounded men who fear that they are never quite masculine enough).

This approach certainly does not excuse the vile behavior of someone like Trump but it helps us understand how troubled men like him really are, how insecure and frightened. And where there is fear, there is often anger. And hatred. And violence.

Seeing this enacted on the national stage instead of a discussion of issues that concern the world is horrifying.  Soon the election will be over. But Trump will no doubt continue to rant and rave. If only people would stop listening to him and giving him the attention he craves.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Living with a Hurricane

Hurricane Matthew is, as I write, moving at 130 mph thirty miles off the coast of Florida, about 50 miles from where I live. I awoke this morning surprised to find electricity, despite the wind and heavy rain, having expected to spend the day in hibernation, hunkered down with only the basics.

For days, fearful Floridians have been storing up food and water and checking with each other about roads, worrying about trees being uprooted and crashing into our roofs, as they did 12 years ago when three major storms hit us in central Florida.  Will we escape all such discomfort this time?  If so, our neighbors to the north will not.

Major storms remind us of our solidarity with others.

I read today a piece by Richard Rohr on simplicity: A simple lifestyle, e says, is "an act of solidarity with the way most people have lived since the beginnings of humanity."  This is a helpful reminder that the constant acquisition of goods and luxury comforts, including air conditioning, are not the norm and that living under a hurricane warning can have spiritual value: it can remind us of the power of solitude and silence.

It can provide time for prayer, for simple games and crosswords, for reading perhaps by flashlight, and just being: chatting with neighbors, comforting our pets and elderly friends. I sort of looked forward to a day when I would be forced to give up our dependence on the internet and the other media, on cooked food and iced drinks and all the other things we take for granted.

So far, I am grateful to be spared the worst. I also welcome the freedom that can  come from a life limited by nature to the basics. If tonight brings a power outage, I will be ready.

(For Richard Rohr's daily meditations, see meditations@cac.org.)

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Pride and Prejudice

The little known story of women, especially African American women, who played a key role in the early days of the space program has been rescued from obscurity by Margot Shetterly, author of Hidden Figures.  Thanks to Maria Popova's Brain Pickings newsletter for alerting me to this.

We can now belatedly applaud the work of these women who, like their counterparts at Bletchley Park in England decoding the Nazi Enigma machine, were human computers (before there were such things as computers).

At NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia in the 1940s and 1950s, black female mathematicians and scientists like Katherine Johnson did the hard work of calculating the launch windows of the Apollo space mission.
Who knew?

Well, Margot Shetterly, who grew up near the Center, assumed as a child that, since she knew so many black people working in science and technology, this is what African Americans did.  She did not know then of the stereotype I grew up with: the black as waiter or maid, shoeshine "boy" or train porter. I never encountered educated or professional African Americans; and, sadly, many people today continue to stereotype blacks as poor, likely criminals.

The first five black women came to Langley in 1943 and forty years later, there were more than fifty of them, along with many unheralded white women whose knowledge and skill were essential in the race to  space.  I assume they worked in segregated offices in those pre-civil rights days.

By interesting coincidence, I saw a docudrama last night about Alan Turing, credited belatedly with having developed the idea behind the computer.  "Codebreakers" tells his tragic story, which is better known now than that of the women in Virginia but equally an object of prejudice and hatred instead of the pride he deserved to feel.

Because Turing was honest about being gay at a time when this was strictly illegal in Britain, he was arrested and chemically castrated in a brutal display of state-sponsored homophobia. It was the cold war and homosexuals like Turing were  seen as high security risks.  He committed suicide at age 41 in 1954 after playing a key role at the Bletchley Park codebreaking project and while teaching at a university in Manchester.

His was one of the most brilliant and original minds of the 20th century, and his life was cut short by hatred, his contribution to science until recently forgotten. Like the gifted women at Langley, he should have been honored for his pioneering work as the father of the computer and made proud of his work instead of condemned by fear and hatred.

It seems to me we, as a nation, have made much progress in overcoming official homophobia but less progress in racial understanding--as the current election campaign sadly reminds us.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Understanding your audience

Understanding who makes up your audience is fundamentally important for any writer or speaker. I was reminded of this today in an otherwise boring talk on a topic far from boring (Sherlock Holmes) because the speaker read, verbatim, to an audience of non-experts a lecture designed to be read by scholars. It was written to be published in a journal, not delivered orally.

This practice is all too common at academic conferences. Instead of talking in clear language, scholars generally write a paper that is really an article in disguise, full of long sentences and abstract language ("narrative strategies deeply informed by hermeneutics....") that seems designed to put people to sleep within fifteen minutes.

The speaker's problem today was that he had no idea to whom he was speaking. He wanted to sound impressive, I suppose, and ending up wasting our time, or at least mine.

The lesson is something I always consider in communication. I cannot write without deciding, Who will read this? Where can I send this (for publication)?  If I picture certain readers I know, or imagine someone like myself as the ideal reader, I have an audience, and the communication process works. I have a reason to write.

Without an audience of readers, I am lost as a writer, unable to do anything.

Consider this blog: Who is my audience? I get only hints since so few readers ever leave comments.  The fine people at Goog'e BlogSpot give me a tally by country of those who have clicked onto one of my posts, and I am amazed to find readers in China, Russia, Europe and the U.S. (rarely in Canada or Australia, for unknown reasons). 

Beyond location, I know nothing much about these readers except that certain topics elicit more attention than others. I have to imagine who they are since a writer's audience is always a fiction, as Walter Ong once wrote n a famous article.

Just knowing taht at least one or two people "out there" in cyberspace might read what I write gives me the motivation to communicate. So I remain grateful to Google for this service and to the presence of unseen readers who make possible what I do on Writing in the Spirit.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Loneliness as Poverty

Speaking in 1975 about the many people who are unwanted and forgotten, Mother Teresa, who was made a saint officially today, stated, "Love them. Loneliness is the greatest poverty."  She knew of what she spoke.

News accounts of the darkness she experienced often register surprise, that someone so close to God, so holy, could have been depressed, lonely.  Yet how could she not be?

First, surrounded daily by dire poverty, hunger, neglect, and an uncaring world--and by the duties of running a large community of women. Then the isolation she must have experienced as the mother superior, with no one to confide in, no intimate friendship to relieve the burden of constant work.

Can we love God if we have no human love in our lives? That is a question someone like Mother Teresa must have dealt with.

So naturally, worn out emotionally, she turned in her prayer life and often found, apparently, an emptiness, a dark night of the soul; this, for the great mystics, is often a prelude to light, the negative way leading to the positive way. That is, the sense that God is absent and unknowable and distant is the first step in finding, through contemplation, the opposite: a sense of the presence of a loving God.

This process is found in the late poetry of T. S. Eliot, who was widely read in the mystical tradition of Christianity, and many others, including Thomas Merton, have discussed these states of the soul.

Part of the process surely is emotional, the feeling of being alone and unloved: even though many people admire you and praise you, do they know you?  Do they listen to your innermost self?  St. Teresa of Kolakata, as she now is, had a confessor and used her personal writing to express a poverty greater than material want: the feeling of being unloved.

Surely part of her greatness, as with many other saints, is that she suffered inwardly, feeling, like Jesus on the cross, abandoned by God, and unable to pray, even to believe for a time. Ultimately, it seems in the end to have brought her closer to God.

Knowing about this darkness makes Mother Teresa all the more human.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Trapped by Fear

Fear plays a greater role in our experience than we tend to admit. It is often the unstated motivational force in stories and films, as in life.

In researching the life of T. S. Eliot recently for an upcoming talk, and in reading Philip Roth's 2008 novel, Indignation (made into a recent movie that I've not yet seen), I see the ironic confluence of anxiety, especially the kind passed on from father to son.

First, Eliot: When I taught the major poetry of Eliot at the university, I referred to his life, his troubled marriage in particular, but focused mainly on the ideas, as I tried to help students cope with the challenge of his poems. Now that I have read three important biographical studies of Eliot by Lyndall Gordon, I can see how fear governed his life.

As one of his friends said of him: Tom, like his character J. Alfred Prufrock,  is enveloped in "frozen formality." He was not merely shy and reserved, but fearful of people, of women in particular, of sexuality--this the heritage of his Puritan New England grandfather, William Greenleaf Eliot, whose influence on the family seems to have been significant.  The poet's father registered a disgust with sexuality. And the upper-class world of Tom's upbringing taught him to be suspicious of outsiders and especially of feelings. So he turned inward, to poetry and philosophy.

We now can see that "The Waste Land" and Eliot's other poems and plays are the direct result of his disastrous first marriage to a hysterical woman, later institutionalized. His true love (Emily Hale) was turned into a muse, as Beatrice was for Dante. Tom ran away from emotional conflicts and found some comfort in his faith as well as in his literary career.

The poet's various torments had much to do with the Eliot family; the same is true of the young protagonist in Roth's novel, the 18-year-old son of a kosher butcher--about as remote from the occasionally anti-Semitic world of Eliot as one could imagine--whose father is so worried about his son's safety that he runs away from his Newark home to an Ohio college, where he is unhappy, tense, restless, and worried much of the time.

The consequences of the father's high anxiety are tragic for the young man, yet the tone of the novel, as in much Jewish American fiction, is comic because the feelings are so extreme.

This masterful short novel by Roth has nothing in common with the work of Eliot except one basic thing: the centrality of fear and how, when passed on from one generation to another, it can ruin one's sense of happiness. But it can also create great literature, which always stems from more than ideas: it comes from the emotional experience of the author, shaped and transformed into art.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Happiness as Freedom

Reading recently about the tormented life of T. S. Eliot, who was often paralyzed by fears of various kinds, has made me realize again the importance of living and trusting fully in the present moment.

And of being grateful, each day, for the good things around us as we try to free ourselves from self-preoccupation. For me, this is a daily struggle since my own physical problems send up alarm signals about my life in the future: how will I be six months from now, a year from now?  What will I do about X?

Realizing the good things that are around us seems to be part of statement I recently found by Seth Goldman, CEO of Beyond Meat, an ecologically friendly company:   "There's a easy formula for happiness. It's when what you have is greater than what you want.  Most people would say the way to be happy is to have more. I say the way to be happy is to want less."

It's interesting that a relatively young entrepreneur would take the "less is more" philosophy of Thoreau and E F. Schumacher, author of 'Small is Beautiful.'   Happiness is not all about acquiring more and more; it is, as Richard Rohr has said, realizing that life is not all about me. He would go beyond Goldman's notion, which seems limited to money and material things.

"You can have political and economic freedom, but if you are not free from your own ego, from your own centrality inside your own thinking, I don't think you are very free at all. In fact, your actions and behavior will be totally predictable. Everything will revolve around your security, survival, self-preservation. . . ."  In other words, around yourself (Rohr).

This self Rohr speaks of is what Thomas Merton called the false self: the public face we present to the world ("the face to meet the faces that you meet," as Eliot's Prufrock says).  The false self is mainly a creation of our own mind and so is an illusion; it is that part of us that feels offended, critical, agitated or worried about what others will think and how we will be judged. The false self needs approval.

Happiness, we might say, is the freedom from this false self, from self-preoccupation. It is by staying fully in the present moment that we can let go of the ego and prevent our emotions and obsessive thoughts from controlling us.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The problem with lone wolves

Among the to-read books on my to-do list is the latest study by Sebastian Junger, Tribe, which, like all of his books, deals with an important topic in a thoughtfully done, wide ranging manner, in this case combining history, psychology and anthropology.

Junger explores our all-important human connection to the community into which we are born or live: our tribe. This in itself makes it noteworthy for me, concerned as I long have been by the dangers of extreme individualism, at the expense of the common good, an individualism that underlies so much American culture (consider the Second Amendment furor). And having taught courses on masculinity, I remain interested in studies that deal with the lives of men as men.

Why has tribal society captured the imagination of people, men in particular, for centuries? The answer is, apparently, found in our evolutionary past as a communal species. Those who study the tribal cultures of earlier times, such as the Anglo-Saxon world of Beowulf, inevitably realize the emphasis on loyalty and belonging rather than individual bravado that typified such a society.

The practical application of this to the contemporary American veteran, especially young men returning from combat in the Middle East shell-shocked, as they once said, or suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, as we say today, calls out for the attention that Junger has devoted to the issue.

So many men in our  society are disconnected from families, who live far  away, from religious affiliation, from other social organizations: they go it alone, often with disastrous results: drugs, alcoholism, depression, maybe violence.  This syndrome lies behind the many young men drawn into terrorist groups: they are desperate to belong to some group that gives them a reason to live.

Carl Jung wrote that a man alone, without family or faith, is prone to evil (my paraphrase).  The evils involved are often psychological: violence to the self as well as to others.

The famous Swiss psychologist knew that the individual, a social being, cannot be divorced from some form of community; and that he must find his role in the world as part of that society, not as a lone wolf. The life of the lone wolf is unnatural.

We are destined to be part of something larger than ourselves.  Men in particular need intimate bonds, not merely sexual, but bonds of sharing and friendship--no group more so that the combat veterans returning to American shores and finding a lack of closeness. The intimate bonds of platoon life are suddenly gone, and they drift because the society they return to values individual achievement more than communal life.

I'm glad that Sebastian Junger has given attention to men and tribes since, every thinking person is concerned about the increase in violence in the world, often perpetrated by young, rootless men.

As someone once said, a man alone is in bad company.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Time to Go

Ignorance, according some of the ancient Greek philosophers, was one of the great evils. And in a public figure, like Donald Trump, is a source of alarm.

A recent piece (Aug. 1) in the New York Times by Max Boot, a conservative, lists some of the numerous statements Trump has made, indicating the level of his ignorance.  Boot does not repeat Trump's statement that he loves "poorly educated people." 

Trump seems proud of his lack of learning. He's a man whose source of news is TV, not reading; he told the Washington Post that he reaches decisions "with very little knowledge." He thinks the Constitution has 12 articles rather than seven and, for his own devious purposes, traffics in the conspiracy theories that Obama was born in Kenya and that the father of Ted Cruz was involved in the Kennedy assassination.

Trump seems to be the monster born out of the right-wing media, such as Fox News, with its emphasis on news as entertainment.  Well, Trump was a bit entertaining at first, but now his extreme statements are as unacceptable as he is.

Here is ignorance at work: He knows he is right and doesn't care about the truth. He has taken the anti-intellectual element in American politics to new heights--or depths.

If it were merely a matter of his being poorly informed, I would not be worried so much about the American election. It is Trump's willingness to say anything to insult and ridicule people, especially Khizr Khan, the father of the Muslim soldier killed in Iraq; this man, saying Trump had a "black soul," has the kind of moral courage Trump, with his five deferments from military service, lacks.

There seems to be no one he will not insult in an effort to dominate the news; and the media are foolish enough to play along with him.  Just as the GOP looks more and more foolish with Trump as their standard bearer.

Why do his party leaders, while try to distance themselves from his statements, not disown Trump?  How can they vote for a man with a black soul, lacking compassion? This ignoramus is not only a national embarrassment but the most dangerous demagogue ever to seek the White House.  As an American, I feel ashamed.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Missing Him Already

The more I look at the two candidates for president of the U.S., the more I start missing Barack Obama. He has some months left in office, but his steady, calm style, more than his policies, remains remarkable in these violent times.

As Timothy Egan wrote recently in the NYTimes (7-15), Obama has been a classy model of dignity whose personal behavior--no scandals--"has set a standard few presidents have ever reached."

As consoler-in-chief, this masterful speaker has been widely praised for providing unity in a time of chaos. This cool, unflappable, patient guy is the same man attacked viciously by the right wing for the past seven years, having his Americanism challenged as well as his religion; yet he has responded with predictable eloquence, not anger.

A careful thinker and writer who spends hours alone reading in his private study after he has said goodnight to his family, Obama is the kind of thoughtful leader we need, the kind who rarely misspeaks or makes embarrassing errors.  He remains who he was in 2008: a family man who reads widely, thinks carefully, and knows who he is.

Obama the man will be missed, even if Obama the president has made decisions that are questionable.  His cautious foreign policy has been far from perfect in dealing with ISIS, yet he has moved away from the ideology of his predecessor to pursue new areas of engagement (with Iran and Cuba and Asia). 

As Fareed Zakaria wrote some months ago, Obama has not been given credit for many significant achievements:  his forceful response to the financial crisis of 2008,  bringing the U.S. out of the Great Recession in better shape than any other major country. And he provided a health care program that covers 20 million more people, even recently taking the time to write, in the Journal of the American Medical Association, a critique of Obamacare, offering suggestions as to how it can be improved.  What other president would do this?

He has, says Zakaria, transformed energy policy (solar costs have plunged seventy percent). People will argue about these and other policies, but few can (honestly) say that Obama has acted dishonestly, embarrassing our country in the eyes of the world.

When I look at Donald Trump, I see the antithesis of Obama: I see chaos in the recent convention and campaign, not order; irrationality and anger, not patience or clarity in the face of complexity; carelessness and lies, not a clear policy; and a bleak view of a new dark age that has supposedly fallen on America and the world that only Donald can, single-handedly, fix. Trump is a ludicrous figure who makes Obama's scandal-free White House and his calm, reassuring message of hope and clarity all the more remarkable.

I predict a valuable post-presidency for Barack Obama. He will continue to do important work in the world.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Paying Attention to Light

I advise my writing students to begin by observing: Look closely at someone or something and describe it. Sounds easier than it is.  Paying attention is rarely simple, but it's essential if we are to be in the here and now.

I've been paying attention to the light that, even on hot summer afternoons, floods the room where I work.  Thanks to shady trees and a southerly exposure, the light is diffused, its glare softened. I enjoy looking at it as it pours through the window over my desk, cooling the room. 

Or so it seems.  I have never, until now, put it into words. Light is, after all, a silent presence, and that's the whole point: an encounter with silence and stillness.

I ask myself, Why do I enjoy looking at light?  Maybe the answer has to do with memories, half remembered, of afternoons elsewhere, in hotel rooms when we were on vacation and after a busy morning, a brief siesta was called for. Or maybe it reminds me of certain paintings, especially Vermeer's, where a lady quietly reads by a window in a room filled with natural light.  Thanks to Vermeer, the light is as important as the lady or the room.

I am drawn to light. I can identify with medieval folk in Gothic cathedrals as they felt the power of colored light from the stained glass windows, suggesting a divine presence, as if the barrier between earth and heaven, matter and spirit, had been bridged and they felt, in that lofty space, a bit of eternity.

I think about light because I know the value of contemplation and find too little time for it. Richard Rohr recently wrote that most of our thinking is unstable, a series of self-centered reactions and preferences, of judging and labeling things or worrying, none of which has anything to do with being fully in the present moment.

I need time alone each day--even just ten minutes--so that I can calmly watch everything as it comes and goes, even something as fundamental as light. I need a place in the day when my mind can be still and let things float by, without analysis or judgment or feeling.

Silence and emptiness, when we make room for them in our busy lives, are open to infinite horizons and transcendence in a way that nothing else is, Rohr says.

Time spent gazing out the window, looking at the light, may seem to some busy people time wasted, but it is the overactive, busy mind that is wasting an essential opportunity for something essential to every day: the freedom of contemplation.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Killing for Sale

"More American civilians have died by gunfire in the past decade than all the Americans who were killed in combat in the Second World War."  (In other words, more than 418,000.)

This statement is one of several that stunned me in an article by Evan Osnos in the New Yorker (June 27), whose topic, the making of money from the sale of firearms,will probably surprise few readers. But the accumulation of facts he presents is unforgettable, especially about the way a massacre, such as happened near me in Orlando earlier this month, will send stock prices of outfits like Smith & Wesson up.

After the attack in Orlando, the CEO of Smith & Wesson, the leading maker of firearms, said, he was "very pleased with the results that we got."  Surprised? Sickened?

Experts like Osnos tell us that sales of weapons, once purchased for sport, are now mostly purchased for protection. Out of fear. Gun sales continue to break records, this article states.

The mass shootings that horrify us result in just two percent of gun deaths. Most of the time, Osnos says, Americans shoot each other impulsively, up close, without political motivation.  Handguns in the wrong hands remain a major problem that our Congress is unwilling to deal with, as are assault weapons, which have no place in American homes.

How can people who consider themselves pro-life be opposed to strict laws on the sale of weapons?  The answers are complex and involve the American myth of freedom and independence; they also involve good old-fashioned capitalism and greed.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Hate and terrorism: in my own backyard

The worst incident of mass terrorism in the U.S. since Sept. 11, 2001 took place not far from where I live in central Florida.  Today, I met a young woman whose closest friend was among the 49 clients at the Pulse nightclub who were mowed down and killed early Sunday morning while I slept--along with about 50 others wounded.

She, like many of us here, are sad and of course angry and confused:  Is this latest attack a sign that gun violence is out of hand, or is it a hate crime, as it appears to be?  The killer targeted gay people and was known to hate homosexuals, raising the question, has the progress made in gay rights led to more homophobia?

The killer was also a Muslim who claimed some connection, still unknown, to ISIS. So we ask yet again, why can the U.S. not persuade Saudi Arabia and other Islamic nations from sponsoring extremism in schools and mosques around the world?

And of course, there is the most immediate question: When, oh when, will this country get serious about gun control?  Why should a man suspected by the FBI of being a potential terrorist be allowed to purchase an assault rifle?

Who outside the military needs an assault rifle?  The right of self-defense with firearms has nothing to do with the easy availability of guns in America, which has become, like other parts of the world, marked by hate and senseless violence.

As I pray for the victims, many Hispanic young men, and their families, I pray too that Congress will get serious about gun control and that the federal government will do much more to stop Islamic extremism.  Fifteen years after 9/11, we face the same issues and feel unsafe in our own communities.



Thursday, June 2, 2016

True Freedom

People have always sought one form of freedom or another, it seems: freedom from oppression of various kinds, from injustice, from abuse and danger and so much more. But Rowan Williams singles out something more fundamental: freedom from self-orientation.

The former Archbishop of Canterbury is quoted by Richard Rohr, whom I quote:  "You can have political or economic freedom, but if you are not free from your own ego, from your own centrality inside your own thinking, I don't think you're very free at all.  In fact, your actions and behavior will be totally predictable.  Everything will revolve around your security, survival, self-protection, self-validation, self, self, self."

That this is the great age of self-centeredness and narcissism is seen in the  rise of Donald Trump, who thinks that, as long as the world revolves around him, everything will be fine.  Truth, facts, knowledge, taste--none of these matter.

As Michael Sean Winters writes today in NCR, toddlers can get away with combining viciousness and feigned innocence when they are caught in lies. Apparently, many American voters see their own self-interests mirrored in the narcissistic Mr. Trump.  The consequences are alarming.

The mature person knows that if we think only and exclusively of ourselves at the expense of others, we diminish our own humanity.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Looking out the window

I wasn't eager to see a movie about Mother Teresa, whom I admired greatly, but I joined my wife in viewing "The Letters" last night and came away impressed.  It was not a piously sentimental story of a saint.

The 2014 movie was not a critical success, and I can see why: the title is misleading. We don't see the anguish felt in the many letters Mother Teresa wrote, including her sense of hopelessness and depression.

But writer-director William Reiad has chosen to give us the full story of the woman's spiritual growth from 1946 on. As admirably depicted by Juliet Stevenson, the saint of Calcutta has been teaching in India at a convent school for privileged girls. Looking out the window each day, she is bothered by the poor and hungry who are there and feels driven to move out of the cloister to help them.  She cannot ignore them.

Although many might agree with the Mother Superior, who asks skeptically, "how can you hope to make a difference amid such vast suffering?", Sister Teresa forges on to offer loving care to one dying person at a time among the poorest of the poor.  For me, this change of heart, from being happy as a teacher to leaving her profession for something wholly new and risky, was memorable.

It led me to think, why don't more people volunteer to work for justice and peace in this world?  Is it a sense of being overwhelmed by the enormity of world poverty and hunger, by the refugee crisis in Europe, among other horrors?  Is it selfishness or perhaps the inability to imagine thinking outside the box?

Richard Rohr, in today's comment from the Center for Action and Contemplation, suggests another answer: that we easily fall into a kind of postmodern fatalism that leads us to retreat into our safe enclosures, where we try to remain. He refers to it as "the Late Great Planet Earth" view of history. Everything seems hopeless, and we easily believe that anything we do won't really matter.

How can people, especially believers, be happy or hopeful in such a culture?  Negative thinking, Rohr says, is a great danger and has helped create a cynical, aimless, and futile lifestyle even among those who are otherwise good and sincere.

Very few are called, like Mother Teresa, to undertake missions to the poorest of the poor. But anyone with imagination can look out the window and see that there are needs all around us: lonely people who need attention, infirm neighbors who need help, poor people who need a dose of love.

It's so easy to be cynical in this world; it's more challenging to be positive.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Jesus Lives in Las Vegas

Each day for the past year, we receive a phone call--sometimes more than one--from the desert, actually from Las Vegas.  The caller knows my wife, who is a gifted listener; at times, I pick up the phone and chat with this woman of 60, who has stage-4 cancer and, although not apparently in pain, is dying of loneliness.  She and I have never met face to face and probably never will.

I have learned that the caller, whom I can call "M," fled her third marriage to live, alone, in Las Vegas, where she seems to know no one; she has no family.  Her one-sided conversation tends to avoid how she feels, instead dwells on the dull, daily events of her day. It is clear that M must have someone to reach out to, someone who will listen and care.

We have been selected.

I think of M. often and pray for her, mainly that she finds, somewhere, a caregiver or friend closer to her who can befriend her. I think often of human loneliness and the desperate need we have of love. And I think of Christ in the desert, that spiritual landscape as far removed from the glitz of Las Vegas as imaginable, feeling no doubt totally alone, abandoned.

I believe M. feels less alone after these daily phone calls, less helpless. I worry that she will die alone, forgotten, far away from us.

It was Jesus who said, "What you do to the least of my brethren, you do also to me."  That foundational statement of Christianity, and of most other religions, is a mandate to love one another as best we can. Love forms whatever bond we as isolated individuals have.

So even when the sound of phone ringing as many as three times a day annoys me, I must welcome it as a reminder of the pain of being totally alone in the trackless desert--and of the necessity of listening, which is surely a form of love and of prayer.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

It began with 'Hello'

When a couple from India, with their three-year-old daughter, moved across the street from me last year, I did what I often do on my street: overcome any inhibitions or feelings of awkwardness and introduce myself. When I saw them outside their house, I walked over and said "Hello, and welcome to our neighborhood."

They smiled broadly and remembered our first names. They must have thought it more remarkable than I did at the time since, despite vast differences in our ages and cultures, we have become friends. My wife and I are now tending their garden while they visit family in India.

After my wife, Lynn Schiffhorst, gave the little girl one of her children's stories for her birthday, they reciprocated, at Christmas, with gifts of home-made vegetarian foods they had prepared.  Another little story followed, then an invitation to be their guest at an Indian restaurant, where we could learn more about their life in southeastern India and share our fascination with their culture just as they can learn more from us about America.  Food plays such a role in breaking down barriers.

So as they go to  the Hindu temple and we go to church, we always wave. I will miss them when they leave (she, a physician, will be moving next year), and I feel that my wife and I, by a simple gesture of welcome, have bridged an important gap often left by busy, impersonal neighbors who remain strangers behind closed doors, especially in our large metropolitan areas.  The result, sometimes, is hostility and suspicion of the newcomers as outsiders, potentially dangerous, in an age when terrorism in on many minds.

Although our Indian couple has never said so, we know they are grateful to feel less like foreigners, with dark skin, in our white neighborhood of strangers.  It took very little effort for us to reduce whatever fears they might have had.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Looking at Pope World

One of my former students, a librarian at the Orlando Public Library, asked me recently if I would repeat my talk, "Behind Vatican Walls," as part of the library's Preservation Week. The topic, she said, was all about saving and preserving the culture in various parts of the world, and my talk, which she had heard last year, was important.

I was initially surprised at the invitation because my research into what happens in the world's smallest country, Vatican City, had focused mainly on the surprising customs and practices of what I call Pope World.  Yet, as I thought about how the Holy See (the papacy) has for centuries valued tradition and maintained its vast art collection, library, and archives, I realized that the preservation emphasis was worth emphasizing.

So I mentioned how Latin is still spoken by 200 or so of the priests who work in the Secretariat of State, translating documents (and many of the Pope's tweets) into the language of Cicero and Caesar.  Latin is not a dead language at the Vatican, although Italian (along with English and other languages) is used for daily business. The Vatican uses eight official languages to communicate with the world.

I mentioned how the Vatican Library's vast treasures include the earliest example of Arabic (a 7th-century Koran), 800 Hebrew manuscripts, including a Torah used by Maimonides, as well as Persian and Hindu texts,  rare papyrus manuscripts dating back 2,500 years and 300,000 Greek and Roman coins. This library was founded in 1451 and has been open to scholars since the 17th century.

The so-called Secret Archives are not really secret (just private)--except that, for the past 100 years, scholars can consults nearly all of them. They include the letters of Henry VIII asking for an annulment of his first marriage, the excommunication of Martin Luther, letters from Mozart and the first Queen Elizabeth.  Official documents from 1939 to the present remain sealed, but many of the famous documents, like letters from President Lincoln, can be viewed online.  Novelists who write sensational fiction about Vatican secrets prefer to ignore what the Archives are really about.

I also mentioned (among many little-known facts) that the first high-ranking woman hired by the Vatican was Jewish: Hermine Speier was hired in 1934 to set up a photographic archive, which she headed for forty years. Today, 41 percent of the female employees have university degrees: they are curators, librarians, linguists, media experts, historians, and lawyers. About 19 percent of the staff are women.

I mentioned that the Vatican Observatory has been doing important work in astronomy for 400 years and now is a partner with the University of Arizona. Of course, the eight museums with 100,000 objects from Roman, Etruscan, Egyptian, Greek and medieval times as well galleries filled with Renaissance art make the Vatican home to the greatest concentration of art in the world. Today, there is a Ministry of Culture to promote exchanges with other museums.

Although the past is a constant presence in Pope World, I reminded the audience that the Pontifical Academy of Science (and of Social Science) has regularly invited scholars of many faith traditions to discuss humanitarian issues: most recently, stem cell research and the environment.  When the mayor of New York City, Bill De Blasio, recently attended an economic summit at the Vatican, he declared that, for the first time in his life, he could say that "the Church is one of the centers of progressive thought in the world."  Jeffrey Sachs, the Columbia Univ. economist, has been a regular consultant on the environment; he stated that the Catholic Church, through the various Vatican agencies, has provided leadership on nuclear disarmament, the international debt crisis, human trafficking, and refugee relief.  A lot goes on behind those old walls besides theology!

I have been fascinated to learn how the past and the present intersect in this unique place that Lord Norwich, the historian, has called the "most astonishing social, political, and spiritual institution ever created."

The Vatican has been around a long, long time, often as a center of controversy and conflict, but also as a powerful institution that affects much of the world, beyond the 1.2 billion members of the Catholic Church.

Thanks to my interest in Pope Francis and the way he is reinventing the papacy, I have learned a great deal about the colorful, complex organization he heads and have enjoyed sharing what I've learned with audiences.

I

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Making Connections

I enjoy finding commonality in my readings, seeing connections between otherwise unrelated topics. A case in point: a recent series of reflections by the Franciscan spiritual writer Richard Rohr and a New York Times article today (by Dan Kois) on swimming in Iceland.

What they have in common, believe it or not, is the very idea of connectedness and the danger of extreme individualism, which isolates one from community.

Rohr's point is that "the goal of the spiritual journey is to discover and move toward connectedness" on every level; the contemplative mind seeks and enjoys union. This might begin with our relations with animals and nature as well as people as we "grow into deeper connectedness" (love). 

"How you do anything is how you do everything," Rohr reminds us. The little things we do carefully, lovingly--the activities that seem trivial or boring--can, in fact, be reminders of something bigger. Our relationship to our surroundings, and the people we encounter daily, offers opportunities for love, in the broadest sense of the word. Think: care of the planet.

Rohr relates connectedness to communion with God as well as with what he calls "our truest selves."  He reminds us that, even at the cellular level, we are, like other organisms, part of a greater whole. We do not find wholeness/holiness in isolation but as part of a community of believers; that, at least, is the Christian vision.

On a purely secular level, in Iceland, where the nights are long and the days cold, people in every town and village, according to Kois's article, find solace in outdoor public hot tubs and swimming pools. It is their version of the pub or social center.

Kois says the people of Iceland, despite their remote locale, are among the most contented in the world. Why?  Perhaps because they are daily immersed in warm, communal baths, their mostly naked selves bared and shared with others.  You have to interact with others in a hot tub.

If clothing and a reserved Nordic manner keep people detached, naked Icelanders find a solution in their heated pools: connectedness. And they seem more than satisfied, craving, in fact, this daily ritual, this reminder that we are all part of one whole.

As someone said, a person alone is in bad company.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

What Pope Francis Means

Catholics and others, reading accounts in the mainstream media of the Pope's most recent document on the family (released April 8), might easily conclude that the statement is a major disappointment, a setback for those wanting changes in the church's handling of divorce and remarriage, among other issues.

In fact, the document is radically important since it calls on those of us who are Catholics to act like adults. It indicates that the individual is more important than rules. Francis does not believe he has all the answers or that the church should dictate rules for moral behavior or tell people what to do.  Rather, the emphasis is on pastors giving guidance on a case by case basis so that individuals can make their own private decisions.

Although I have only read excerpts of the 260-page treatise, I have read the comments of John Thavis, a veteran Vatican observer, as well as Michael Sean Winters, Thomas Reese, and James Martin (among others) in America, Commonweal, and the National Catholic Reporter.

The key take-aways (for me) from what Pope Francis says, in summarizing two years of deliberations by the world's bishops, are inclusiveness, conscience, discernment, and collegiality.

One term at a time: collegiality is crucial because the Pope states clearly that many issues are to be settled at the local level, by the individual and his or her pastor--not by Rome.  The bishops and other clergy are being reminded of their role as guides.

Discernment: people are capable of their own moral choices in complex situations, as Chicago Archbishop Cupich said yesterday. Discernment re-states a key idea from the Second Vatican Council: that the individual conscience is the final arbiter of the moral life.

As Pope Francis states, the church has been "called to form consciences, not to replace them."  Each pastor is called upon to accompany people so they develop spiritual maturity.  As Winters states in NCR, "Francis is calling the church  to a deeper conversion than a mere change in rules." He is reaching out to the unchurched, disaffected, seemingly excommunicated members to reassure them they are welcome.

He wants Catholic lay people to have an adult discussion of doctrines, which many of us have thought were beyond discussion, such as can a divorced and re-married person receive Communion?  The answer (as Fr. Martin sums it up): the final decision about "the degree of participation" in the church is left to a person's conscience.

The Pope deftly avoids mentioning receiving Communion specifically just as his overall document deftly avoids coming down on the side of the liberal or the conservative wing of the church. He is, after all, a Jesuit.

This strikes Ross Douthat of the New York Times (today's Op-Ed) as disturbingly ambiguous: he prefers clear, authoritative regulations since he worries about a "deeply divided" church and a Pope who is "licensing innovation" and relativism. There is no mention in Douthat's column of the primacy of conscience or of the welcoming, inclusive attitude of "Amoris Laetitia," as the document is called (the Joy of Love).

So while conservatives like Douthat worry about a church becoming soft, the rest of us rejoice that, in preparing this major document, Pope Francis has thoughtfully listened to all sides on the moral issues involved and has done something more radical than change the rules: he has challenged us to think in Gospel terms, in terms of mercy, not judgment.

If all this sounds complicated, Francis sees complication as "wonderful" since, as he writes, "no easy recipes exist."  Amen.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Eyes Wide Open

Over twenty years ago, when she was a student of mine at the University of Central Florida, Marie-Helene Carleton shone in a way that suggested she might become a citizen of the world.

The daughter of UN officials, she was born in Beirut and spent summers in her mother's home country, France, where she and her sister mastered the language and saw much of Europe.

But I never expected her to risk her life as a journalist filming in some of the hot spots of the world.  In 2005, she published American Hostage, a gripping account of how she and others managed to rescue Micah Garen, her partner in Four Corners Media, from Iraq, where he had been kidnapped.

Since then, she and Micah have traveled the world making documentary films about the dispossessed. This January, they went to the tiny Greek island of Lesbos to film their forthcoming "Light on the Sea," showing how the largest refugee crisis to the Western world since 1950 is playing out.

An article about their work in Lesbos appears in VanityFair.com (March) and is important for what few people realize: 67,000 refugees from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan poured into Greece in just one month--this January--the majority landing on Lesbos, where more than 80 relief organizations, including hundreds of volunteers, are doing what they can in impossible conditions. Does the world care about these refugees?

Marie-Helene says that Lesbos, the "island of goodbyes," has become the gateway to Europe.  Her concern is not about what policies European nations should develop to meet this crisis; rather her concern, and that of Micah, is for the plight of those affected. Her work comes from having always had eyes wide open to the human dimension of what often appears on the "back pages" of the news, at least in this country.

By putting the spotlight on refugees in Lesbos, Marie-Helene turns a crisis from an abstraction in the minds of many to a focus on specific stories, the daily suffering and death of our fellow humans; she also shows that her heart is also wide open.

I am proud to know her and to have had a tiny role in her education.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Seldom acknowledged realities

Two items in the current news cycle strike me as noteworthy because they are not widely acknowledged.

The first is the credit that President Obama deserves for the economy, among other issues. I was glad to see in today's NYTimes a piece by Jackie Calmes on why Obama is not given credit for the current low unemployment in America.  Could the reason have to do with his race, or is it that the anti-Obama narrative that has set in has obscured the reality of his many achievements?  For an answer, see Paul Krugman's op-ed piece in yesterday's Times.  (nytimes.com)

It is easier for many to protest and rally behind Donald Trump than to recognize the president's positive record.  Anyone who listens to the carefully worded, thoughtful and informed Obama, then listens to the rambling, inconsistent babble of Trump would be hard pressed to find two public figures more different.  One is being celebrated, the other denigrated.

This brings me to the second point: the "religious right," courted by Republicans since the Reagan years, is often blind and seldom right. Richard Rohr, whose recent comments I summarize, says it well: Many who call themselves evangelical Christians cannot see through the self-interest that cloaks itself in Christianity, as is apparent among several of the leading GOP candidates and their supporters.

The role of religion should be to offer a corrective to the culture of capitalism and materialism, to the lack of compassion so evident in people like Trump and Ted Cruz.  As Rohr says, cultural Christianity in America often has little to do with the Gospel.

 "Two thousand years of Jesus' teaching and compassion, love, forgiveness, and mercy (not to mention basic kindness and respect) are all forgotten in a narcissistic rage. Western culture has become all about the self. . . ." He doesn't mention Trump by name, but we know. It is often self-interest masquerading as Christianity.

I saw a woman in a T-shirt yesterday. It said, "Holler if you love Jesus. Holler if he is your personal Lord and Savior."  Doing the will of God is more important than proclaiming a personal devotion: What about loving thy neighbor? What about our connection with our fellow men and women?

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Why Go To Church?

Many churches are half-empty much of the year, except on Easter, as I was reminded today when I encountered throngs of people, some with babies, crowding our parish church.

I wanted to ask some of them, especially the younger crowd: Why are you here?  What motivates you to include Easter Mass as part of your holiday--especially if you come only once a year? Is it simply a cultural expectation, something to do, a place to show off your finery?

I suspect that for many it is the unspoken, because unconscious, awareness that there is a loss in their daily lives of some experience of the sacred, some contact with a spiritual reality greater than their daily lives of work and play. They somehow need to be with others as prayers are said and sung and new life proclaimed, even if the Biblical story of the Resurrection is a bit vague to many of them, because there is something missing in their inner lives.

I like to think that in a world that is full of violence and the fear generated by terrorists, in a world that seems meaningless, the churches provide a reminder of something larger and more meaningful and hopeful.

Richard Rohr and other mystical-global thinkers would probably add that, whether we know it or not, we sense the need for a connection with others. We need to move beyond isolation into solidarity with others since everything in the universe is connected.

The independent self is hopelessly limited; it cannot see the whole picture. Easter is about the cosmic reality of life overcoming death and providing a pattern of hope.  We have to be part of a community that is hopeful.

Friday, March 11, 2016

The paradox of hate

In a recent internet article, Charles Mudede asks an important question: Why do so many white Americans, mainly working class, support the billionaire Donald Trump?  What do they get out of it?

His answer, also important, is that doing so gives these people a platform in which to openly enjoy their hate.  He goes on to Spinoza for philosophical answers to the idea of hatred as the feeling you have toward a person who makes you unhappy, that is, who diminishes your power to act.
Hate is more than this, I think: it arises from the emotional life, from fear--often leading to anger--that others are a threat because they are outsiders or because they have something the hater wants.  Hate energizes, giving powerless people a reason to live. We see this in studies of white supremacists, people at the bottom of the social order in terms of education and income who feel powerless; hatred of those in government or of minorities or immigrants or gays or whoever gives them a target for their deep-seated resentment and a source of pleasure, of superiority, as if they can overcome their fear of change and injustice by racial hatred.

I remember a retired neighbor ten years ago whose hatred of Bill Clinton still raged years after his presidency. Clinton was a convenient target for resentment. By hating him, my neighbor felt stronger, more in control of his own life.  Many single out Jews for hatred because of their successes in business and many other fields, suggesting that envy is at work.  Envy comes from the Latin invidia: a form of hatred slightly different from jealousy, which I see as a fear of losing what one loves (see Othello, whose enemy, Iago, is a figure of pure envy in Shakespeare's play).

Many people, lacking a sense of history, sense that the world is such a total mess that only someone outside politics (Trump) can possible save what's left of the system they grew up with (white-dominated society). They fear losing control of their lives because of "big government" and "crooked politicians."

They fail to see, as Mudede  points out, that in turning to the Republican party, they turn to a colossal failure, whose leaders have refused to provide working-class whites a real opportunity to enjoy their hate. 

A man I met today who supports Trump says he does so because Trump is non-political, self-financed. Is that all, I wondered. Doesn't he see the dangerous race-baiting and mob violence (seen today in St. Louis) that attends Trump's rallies?  Of course not. He doesn't want to admit his own hatred (racism).

Why aren't more thinking people angry at Donald Trump and what he preaches? Because they are not thinking, but reacting emotionally, based on fear; and because they want to enjoy whatever superior pleasure they derive from hating.  Very sad, very troubling.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

From Suffering to Boredom

Zadie Smith is an interesting writer. In the recent (March 10) issue of the New York Review of Books, she comments on the film "Anomalisa," using Schopenhauer to suggest how we seek pleasure as a release from suffering, only to find a vicious cycle of restless desire and boredom.

Of course, these are enormous topics, which she is only able to touch on. The examples from the film, which I have not seen and may never see, are revealing: room service in a luxury hotel offers pleasures people hardly know they want, like chocolates on their king-size beds and carefully chosen artisan water. I remember a New York City hotel offering five types of pillows (they had a pillow concierge), leaving no possible area of comfort unaccounted for.

Except, of course, that, as the old song says, "After you get what you want, you don't want it." Schopenhauer wrote that desiring lasts a long time, but "demands and requests go on to infinity; fulfillment is short and is meted out sparingly. . .the wish fulfilled at once makes room for a new one."

He went on to theorize that we humans deliberately intensify our needs so as to intensify our pleasure, all of which leads to a kind of boredom, something he says animals do not experience, whereas for us, "want and boredom are the twin poles of human life."

As soon as the luxury hotel supplies the film's characters with some delight, apparently, they are bored: hotels exist to meet and fulfill all our needs and desires, and fulfilling the desire itself leads necessarily to disillusionment.

Of course, these desires are not spiritual, even though the movie's characters are told that they are incomplete as individuals: we are all one in some vaguely Eastern transcendental sense. But, says Smith, the characters cannot accept this, or the lesson of compassion. And she doesn't develop this point, which is all-important. It relates to what I would call the mystical dimension of religion, which offers an escape from suffering more reliable than pleasure and desire.

This point has been made beautifully by Richard Rohr in his 2008 book, Things Hidden, being excerpted now in daily email installments from his Center for Action and Contemplation.  I sum up his lengthy comments in a  few basic points about moving from the self to the Other:

  1. If we cannot find some deeper meaning in our suffering, to "find that God is somehow in it" (in the Christian sense), if we don't see that there is some good, some purpose in our suffering, we are doomed to become shut down emotionally (spiritually) and to pass along to the next generation our bitterness and negativity.

 2.  Mature religion deals with transforming the individual (and history) into a meaningful  pattern that involves love. We see our connectedness to others; we make our contribution to the world's suffering by "participating in the Great Sadness of God."  Rohr, following St. Paul, is referencing the idea of Christ as the Suffering Servant and the role that believers play "in Christ," in the universal drama that leads from pain and suffering to transformation.
This brings us, of course, far from what Zadie Smith, using Schopenhauer, is saying about the film she analyzes; but it shows, for me at least, the extra dimension we need if we are to move beyond the endless cycle of desire and boredom as escapes from suffering--if indeed that's what pleasure is all about.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Addiction and digital media

Are we hopelessly hooked on digital media?  People like me, who have cell phones but seldom use them but check email and rely on the internet daily, are not; but all around me I see people obsessed with their smartphones.

Americans spend about five hours a day on their digital media, most of it on mobile devices.  Students at Baylor University, according to one survey, said they spent ten hours a day using their cell phones, but that number may be low.

On average, Americans check their phones 221 times a day; and a Gallop Poll last year reported that  people checked their phones less often than their friends.

The data comes courtesy of a review-article by Jacob Weisberg (in the New York Review of Books) on the latest book by Sherry Turkle, the MIT researcher who has been studying the psychological effect of social media on behavior, including conversation.

Reclaiming Conversation (Turkle's important book is not anti-technology but presents a wake-up call to the 21st century, contending that the communications revolution of the past two decades has degraded the quality of human relationships.  We all know about parents distracted from their children or people driving while texting or eating dinner with the smart phone replacing live talk.  I remember teaching a college literature class where, as if to avoid eye contact with me, most of the students were looking at their laptops, perhaps checking emails or material unrelated to the discussion. We were in separate worlds.

The effect of the smart phone on dating is one of the many areas of concern to researchers like Turkle: how can young people develop a relationship if they are mainly absorbed in the messages and music of their cell phones? If they feel disengaged from busy parents and teachers, they might also be alienated from friends and partners--and from solitude.

As Jonathan Franzen has written (in a piece praising the work of Turkle), conversation requires solitude because "in solitude we learn to think for ourselves and develop a stable sense of self, which is essential for taking other people as they are."

So the issues raised by the addiction to digital media are serious: a loss of solitude, of empathy, of self-reflection, of genuine relationships. I was shocked to read in the Weisberg review that many young people never speak to one another on smart phones: they prefer to type text messages.

How sad that fear dominates communication, hampering interpersonal connections. People walking down the street prefer to look at their smartphones, thus avoiding eye contact with others and feeling safer, presumably.  Are they so fearful of human interaction--or so bored--that they need the constant reassurance or stimulation of their ever-present mobile devices?

Seventy percent of those under age 25 contacted by the Pew survey said that cell phones make them feel freer, and fifty percent said they use their phones to avoid contact with others.  I would think they would not feel freer but enslaved. I worry that their inner lives, lacking time for empathy and unable to be present to others--to listen--will never develop in a mature way.

No doubt it's too early to draw too many firm conclusions from the current technological revolution, but the danger signs are clear.

Franzen, who calls Twitter irresponsible, echoes Turkle's thesis that it's time to act like adults and put technology in its place.  This means that the devices we create are at our service; we do not serve them. And that people of any age must make time to be alone, to be personal, to be human: that is, to be fully present to those around us.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Positive lessons for Lent

For Christians, Lent is time of introspection and penance; it begins with Ash Wednesday ("Dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return"), a sobering reminder of our last end.

But the daily meditations I have been receiving by email from Richard Rohr and his Center for Action and Contemplation this year are, not surprisingly, upbeat. I have known for years that Father Rohr is uniquely gifted and a major spiritual master. He combines in a powerful way the best of many worlds: Franciscan spirituality, mystical theology, Jungian psychology, and Biblical reality. The result: dozens of books and retreats that provide a refreshingly hopeful and holistic view of the Bible, Christian belief, and human behavior.

In today's reflection, he typically singles out the problem of dualistic thinking that results from a misreading of the Bible and of religion as dealing with right or wrong. Rohr, seeing the big picture, provides a needed corrective to the negative emphasis of much religious practice because he makes connections others often miss.

He begins today's email newsletter (available at www.cac.org free of charge) with a quotation from D. H. Lawrence about how greatly we fear new things and changing old patterns.  Authentic religion is supposed to challenge us to deal with our own self-renewal and help us change our inner lives, even though human beings do all they can to resist change.

Can we change our perspective on sin, a big issue in Lent?  Rohr says Yes! We all make mistakes, but we are also "sinned against as the victims of others' failures and our own social milieu."  Think, for example, of racism and other prejudices. This for Rohr is what St. Augustine really meant by original sin. The negative notion that has haunted Christianity for 1500 years is that we have inherited a sinful nature. That, says Richard Rohr, was never Augustine's point; rather, it is that we carry the wounds of our ancestors: our sins are not entirely our own. We are, at the core, inescapably good because we come from and are connected to a Creator who is good.
No wonder, he says, Jesus was never upset with sinners; he was upset with people who didn't think they were sinners. His basic message was one of loving understanding and mercy toward our failings since he knew that each of us is essentially good. As Rohr writes, the bad is never strong enough to counteract the good because the soul carries the divine spark of God's essential goodness.

So the Gospel is a hopeful, optimistic text. Those who read it carefully,with the wide-angle lens of someone like Richard Rohr, see that the ones Jesus wishes to exclude are those who exclude others. No wonder Pope Francis and Donald Trump clashed this week in an interesting dust-up: Francis preaching inclusion and mercy, the Donald seeking more publicity as he rants against immigrants.

I need a positive corrective to the negative political propaganda I hear in the media as well as an optimistic approach to faith that does not emphasize hell and damnation. So I am grateful to Richard Rohr for providing the latter.  And for always being human.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Politics, language, and civility

Anyone following the American presidential primary season, especially the Republican candidates, is struck by a tone of negativity and pessimism about the present and future that is unfortunate--as well as by ugliness and a lack of good manners.

Much of this ugliness in language comes from Donald Trump's efforts in self-promotion. His use of crude language, in the presence of families with children, is not seen by most people as a major problem at a time when cable TV and movies regularly use the language of the street. Long gone are the days when "expletive deleted" was part of the political dialogue.

Michael Gerson in the Washington Post is one who has noticed and called him out for being tasteless. He rightly says in a recent piece that Trump's foul mouth is a cover for ignorance and weakness.  His use of the F-word and other vulgar insults seem to be based on the view that such talk is authentic, that people like to hear candidates tell it "like it is."  Yet this is a kind of pseudo-toughness that adds to the overall nastiness of the current public debate.

Profanity demeans people; it is generally cruel and aggressive. But that is the basis of Trump's vulgar style.

What a contrast to the 2008 campaign when Barack Obama emerged on the public stage: poised, articulate, optimistic.  And so he has remained, as David Brooks notes in the New York Times yesterday (Feb. 9).  Brooks is no fan of Obama's policies but praises the outgoing president's integrity and good manners in contrast to today's vulgarians.

He rightly notes that the Obama administration has been free of scandals. This president has appointed people of rectitude and he and his family have been humane and decent.  Brooks doesn't mention that Obama, unlike so many candidates today, thinks through issues and speaks in coherent sentences that require few corrections. He has shown, as Brooks says, grace under pressure, handling the economic meltdown and other major crises with coolness--and without vulgar language.

I was struck by the conservative Brooks's praise of a liberal President for his decency and "elegance" at a time when, sadly, there has been a decline recently in public behavior and speech; the result, as George Orwell long ago warned, is a decline in public life and society as a whole.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

When writers get blocked

In one of my favorite movie comedies, "Throw Momma From the Train," from 1987, Billy Crystal plays a writing teacher named Larry, who is stuck on the opening of his novel.  The movie opens with Larry at his typewriter.

Repeatedly, and with growing frustration, he types, "The night was. .  .dark," and then scraps that and goes in search of other equally silly adjectives, hoping for the perfect word that will get him going, as if a strong opening sentence will lead to another sentence, and so on.

What kind of writing teacher is Larry? Maybe he deserves the student from hell, Owen (Danny DeVito), who has a mother from hell; she must be seen and heard to be believed.  See the movie if you haven't.

Larry should know that trying to get it right the first time is pointless: there is no writing without revision, and the opening is usually one of the last things to be redone again and again. Equally missing in Larry's amusing notion of teaching is his stereotyped belief that writers must wait for inspiration, and also suffer, curse, waste paper and time, as if the perfect word and idea will magically appear.

Writers in movies often gaze at the stars, waiting for the Muse to inspire them. It doesn't work like that.

As I tell my students, it's normal and acceptable to write bad sentences; writing isn't brain surgery. It's all about redoing the sentences. The first draft is expected to be rough, and it is by forging ahead and "talking" it out on paper (or screen) that ideas emerge that can be shaped into something readable.

Hemingway, who says he revised the ending of "A Farewell to Arms" 39 times, wrote to a young would-be writer that if he completes ten stories, he throws out nine of them: only one is worthy of publication.

Even though Hemingway exaggerated a good bit, and lied, he was a good craftsman, a wide reader, and had sensible advice on the writing process, such as: Put the work aside until the next day. Know when to stop. And know that the draft will always be there for you to rework.

Writing doesn't have to be frustrating. It is not easy to think clearly, and it takes time and patience and an ability to sit still for a while. But it should be enjoyable, in the sense of fulfilling.  If it isn't, why do it?

Are the half-dozen unfinished stories, and the eight or nine finished but unpublished pieces in my files signs of wasted time? No, they were enjoyable to do because I take satisfaction in re-writing, line by line, until I have something fresh and worth a reader's attention.  I have begun dozens of articles over the years that never got completed, but the time put into them was a learning, and learning should at some level be enjoyable.

I worry about beginning writers who want to be published but don't really enjoy writing or have a sense of language; when they read, they do so for information rather than style. I suggest that they pay attention to the way skilled authors construct articles, stories, paragraphs, and sentences. Being a writer means immersing yourself for several years in the work of good writers before you even consider writing for publication.

Now, how do you know what writers are good?  Don't ask teachers like Larry, who, like Owen in that movie, is a wonderful comic invention with no clue about what writers really do.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Football violence: the Catch-22

The problem with American football is that, with increasing evidence of its dangers, especially to young players, people still love it, even some of those doing research on brains impacted by the collision sport.

It was the legendary coach Vince Lombardi who said, "Football is not a contact sport; it is a collision sport."

David Maraniss, himself a devoted fan, opens his review of several key books and documentaries about football violence with this quote. Like so many other American writers, he is torn by his devotion to the game and the guilt he feels about its effects. (NY Review of Books 2-11-16)

He says the game has never been more popular, even as evidence against it mounts. The NFL alone brings in about $11 billion a year, and hundreds of universities depend on football to secure alumni loyalty and income, even while those in the know remind them that no helmet can defend the head against the kind of impact that the brain jostling inside the skill endures.

Neuroscientists now say that rather than concussions, it is the accumulation of successive blows to the head that lead football players to experience depression, dementia, and other long-term damage, sometimes resulting in suicide.

Chris Borland is one of the few NFL players who quit the game last year at age 24, alarmed by the statistics. He wanted to live to be a healthy 75, at least. Most players, says Maraniss, say that playing the game, usually for big bucks and fame, is worth the price.

Yet the question remains: why does the most popular and unifying game in  the U.S. keep causing so many players to suffer brain damage? It's hard to change when even a researcher like Ann McKee, whose pioneering studies of diseased brains of deceased players at Boston University revealed horror stories, remains loyal to the game she loves.

At least Mike Ditka of the Chicago Bears says he won't allow his son to play the game. If only more dads would follow suit, starting with high school parents. Why should a Steelers player, Randle El, be suffering, at age 36, memory problems?

As David Remnick says in this week's New Yorker, many football fans today live in a world of denial, in which reason, science, and statistics aren't yet enough to convince them to give up the game they love. He alludes to the famous line from the Confessions of St. Augustine: "Lord, make me pure, but not yet."

So the theme seems to be, Let's do something serious about football. But not quite yet.  How sad.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Reading in a screen-based culture

Much is written, with alarm, about the death of the book, the bookstore, and serious reading in general as the result of digital books and our screen-based culture.  I have participated in the hand wringing since change is always challenging.

If serious reading were doomed, I would not have published my novel on Kindle nor would my wife, Lynn Schiffhorst, have used the same e-book format for her many stories.  There are many advantages to online reading, especially the immediate networking available as one reader shares his or her views with many others, joins a discussion group, or links to a website. Writers and readers become part of a new global community, with access to a vast array of titles available via the Internet.

Yet, as Michael Dirda wisely observes in a valuable article last month (in the journal Humanities), the new technology poses some serious problems. The kind of reading we do online encourages skimming rather than the deep immersion associated with holding a printed book in the hand.  For most people I know, nothing beats the traditional printed book: it is always there, not subject to the fluctuations associated with many online publications. Who is to say, Dirda asks, if some censor will alter the texts of certain classics to make them politically correct? 

Factual errors are commonplace in online reading and have to be double-checked against the more stable medium of the printed work. Beyond that, book lovers like Dirda and me value printed books because of their reassuring presence in our lives. They allow for browsing (in libraries, in bookstores) that leads us to find related books or ones whose covers invite investigation. This is hard to replicate online. "Human beings are tactile creatures," Dirda writes, "and we find ourselves drawn to things we can touch and handle."

He also worries about the way online reading, which I see as a valuable adjunct to print reading, involves an excessive concern with the present and its demands for conformity and political correctness, with the past too often viewed as irrelevant.  In other words, the screen-based culture is youth-oriented in a way that will never satisfy those of us beyond the age of forty who seek an engagement with more than the present culture.

And this returns me to the main concern, the loss with online texts of what has been called the spirituality of reading: the ability we have with a printed novel in our lap to enter worlds and cultures other than our own, to savor the characters and language in a well-crafted story and lose ourselves there. I hope this kind of interiority is possible for some readers on Kindle and similar media; I have found some short pieces online that encourage deep reflection, yet these websites are part of an electronic world filled with meaningless Internet chatter on a multiplicity of distracting, constantly changing sites. It is hard to pay real attention to such reading.

In short, there is nothing like a traditional book: its advantages continue to outweigh the benefits of the newer technology.