Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Laughing all the Way

Often, when I go to bed, I get a bright idea and have to jump up and write it down. Last night I realized (after retiring for the night) that all my reading about happiness has been deadly serious. There has been no mention of laughter, comedy, or silliness in these books.

So this morning, I took out my file marked "Humor," filled with old clippings ande-mails from friends. And I began to laugh. When I felt (briefly) guilty for "wasting time" in this way, I reminded myself that few things are more important for me than relaxing the stomach muscles with a good belly laugh. A perfect way to begin the day.

What tickled me today were old student bloopers, some made by my own students and many passed on from people like Richard Lederer, author of "Anguished English." I am reminded of one of my colleagues who shared this anecdote: a student, after reading Hamlet for the first time, was dismayed to find that "the play was full of cliches." And I am grateful for the student who wrote, "it was once sheik to be elegantly dressed."

Others: a student wrote about "Judyism having one God named Yahoo." When John Huss refused to "decant" his heretical ideas in the 16th cent., he "was burned as a steak." Well, you get the general idea.

A student's e-mail explained that she was unable to drive to campus because her eyes had been "diluted." Another was held up because his parking ticket was not "violated." Another got so excited by a promotion at work--a real "plum in my hat"--that he forgot to attend class. After spring break, a young man wrote that it had been "peek season" for seeing girls at the beach.

I once heard of a student who thought the poet Homer had something to do with the invention of baseball. Another used "wonton," as in a Chinese restaurant, instead of wanton. (Yes, there are secret pleasures in grading papers, but not enough.)

From other sources: After a baby is born, the doctor cuts its biblical cord.
The man who collapsed on the field had to be given artificial insemination.
Their marriage was consummated at the altar. (picture that!)
Older adults see things from a unique vintage point.
The pleasures of youth are nothing compared to the pleasures of adultery.
And so it goes....As Mark Twain wrote, "The difference between the right word and the almost right is the difference btween lightning and the lightning bug."

I also love mixed metaphors as used by politicians. Examples:
1. The sacred cows have come home to roost.
2. The political football is now in the president's court.
3. Some senators are out to butter their own nests and nothing more.

Typos from church bulletins include this all-time fave:
SALE: The ladies of the church have cast off clothing of all kinds and can be seen in the church basement after services. (All you need here is a hyphen.)

Anyway, if the new year is enter on a happy note, as I hope it does, it should begin with laughter.

Monday, December 27, 2010

A Bit of Happiness

One of my Christmas gifts to myself was Sissela Bok's new book, Exploring Happiness, which wisely begins with the problem of suffering. Why? Because, as she says, "it is precisely in times of high danger and turmoil that concerns about happiness are voiced most strikingly."

She does not mean that today's plethora of studies in positive psychology necessarily are due to our troubled economic and terrorist-threatened times. Rather, that in human history the interest in and search for happiness--that is, the great moral and religious questions--come out of the context of disease, death, injustice and poverty.

I like the emphasis, in what I have read so far of Bok's study, on the moral need we have to seek out happiness even in the face of fortune: random events beyond our control should not deter us from moving ahead to alter the situation we find ourselves in, she writes.

Happiness, then, whether we define it subjectively or objectively or not at all, must be pursued. We must keep dancing.

Mrs. Dalloway in Virginia Woolf's novel of that name believes that in giving parties in post-World War I London she might make at least one day happy for a few people. On the day of her latest party, as she worries if it will be successful, a shell-shocked young veteran commits suicide, the most dramatic example of pain and unhappiness around her. Her own marriage, for safety more than love, has broken the heart of her former boyfriend, Peter, and most of her friends are distressed or depressed.

She is asked by Peter if she is happy, only to be interrupted before she can answer, and the question of happiness, or its absence, is the underlying theme in the screenplay based on the novel for the luminous film starring Vanessa Redgrave as Clarissa Dalloway. Her great desire is to stop time and have everyone savor fully the pleasure of living in the moment; but this is hardly possible.

Perhaps Woolf knew that William James had written in 1902 that gaining and keeping happiness is for most people the "secret motive of all they do and of all they are willing to endure."

Like the fictional Mrs. Dalloway, the novelist Nabokov (quoted by Bok) reflected on what most of us can identify with: the search for brief, timeless moments of happiness in a life filled with duty and pain. Such timeless moments provide ecstasy, "and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone. A thrill of gratitude to whom it may concern...."

All this--suffering, gratitude, timelessness, happiness--expressed clearly in what is only the introduction of what promises to be a valuable book, one of the best in the growing field of happiness studies.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

A Lonely Profession

I've written before about the difference between loneliness, which many feel at this time of year, especially if they have no families, and the kind of creative solitude that writers, contemplatives, and other artists so clealrly need.

I recently became aware, again, of a related problem that writers face: they need readers desperately, need the affirmation of people who read and pay some attention to the quiet work writers do. Not receiving this type of appreciation can add isolation to the writer's solitary life, leading to despair. No wonder so many notable authors have been alcoholics.

With the recent publication of my two articles on prayer, I assumed that some of my like-minded friends would comment on seeing my work in the magazines they subscribe to, but, even when I offered some of them an off-print, they said little. This is puzzling. Perhaps they did not know what to say.

Lynn, who is a largely unpublished writer of wonderful stories for children, has similar experiences leaving copies of her stories with friends, even offering to read a short story after dinner. The result is silence. When this happened last month at a friend's house, no one said anything after her reading. Except me. Even then, not much was said. Even fellow writers say little about her work. She feels at times very much alone in the universe--who cares about her work?--even though the joy of creating stories keeps her going.

At the university where I taught, I expected my colleagues in the English department to be less than ecstatic at the publication of one of my books since academic jealousy is taken for granted. But for people I know, who have the education, skill and interest to read a serious article, I expect a message of thanks or a simple compliment (or disagreement)--so I know that I reached someone out there.

I can count on the fingers of one hand the friends who have responded to these posts. This is no great surprise since I do not publicize my blog. But I expected my articles in national publications to capture the appreciative attention of those who know me. (Well, I did get a message from a stranger in Pennsylvania, who was moved by my article on listening.)

I am not really hurt by this so much as puzzled. Is it that non-writers have no appreciation of the work that goes into even a short article and the likelihood of publication, which is always iffy? Is that everyone is so busy they have no time to read or no recollection of their reading? Are my academic credentials so awesome that people are struck dumb, intimidated by seeing something of mine in print?
Perhaps paying compliments is seen at some level as insincere? Perhaps readers are like students: too intimidated to offer praise at the end of a course.

Involved here is the dynamic between writer and reader, the basic bond of communication between the imagined audience I write for (vs. actual readers) and me.

The issue reminds me of not being thanked and my puzzlement when gratitude is seen as an expression of dependence or embarrassment. Some adults, let alone children, have a hard time saying "thank you." Maybe the response of readers is similar. Either that, or what I write has such limited appeal that I can't expect the people I write for to say much of anything.

Well, I remain grateful for the positive feedback I have received (thank you, Ned, and John: this post does not involve you), and I take great pleasure in the process of writing, seeing it as spiritual exploration akin to prayer. I regret nothing and I thank those who read what I have written.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

O Tannenbaum, O Christmas Tree

As Christmas approaches, I find myself facing an old love-hate relationship with my German ancestry. If truth be told, I have never been proud to have a German name and have never been attracted to the language, people, or culture of Germany.

Yet at this time of year, memories of my father, the son of a German immigrant who arrived in St. Louis in the 19th century, and his love of Christmas celebrations takes over. I am reminded that the tree itself, which I still enjoy decorating, and the festivities surrounding the holidays, even shopping and sending cards, are filled with a happy spirit that comes to us from Germany, thanks in part to Prince Albert's introduction to such customs into England. And I owe an equal debt to my dad and to his dad before him, who, according to family stories, loved to entertain neighborhood children. Neither was religious in the usual sense, but both were celebrators.

So when people wonder why I am still enthusiastic about Christmas, I say, "It's in the genes" or "It's a family thing." But it's also part of my Christian heritage, which I got from my Irish-Catholic mother.

(Having lived through two world wars, she would not have approved my reviewing the words to "O Tannenbaum" this week or my singing the first verse of "Stille Nacht" (Silent Night) in the original.)

I grow weary of those who decry the holiday hoopla and insist that Christ's birth gets neglected in the often hectic (and, yes, commercialized) weeks of the Christmas season. For me, the lights and tinsel are part of a world-wide celebration of One whose divine presence in human history (the Incarnation) is apt reason to celebrate.

So bring on the carols and lighted trees and the excessive eating and, especially, the giving: all this enhances the Christian feast of the Nativity and trumpets it to the world. For the believer, the material and non-material are not opposed realities but one reality, an affirmation of the beauty and goodness of this world because of the birth being celebrated.

In other words, without all the "secular" hoopla, the Christmas event would not be celebrated in the way it should be. It would not be sufficiently festive. For the believer mindful that the Incarnation is being celebrated, Christ cannot be taken out of Christmas any more than God can be removed from reality.

(After planning this post, I was glad to find that another German-American, Ron Rolheiser, shares this view, in "Daybreaks," which has again influenced my work.)


Monday, December 13, 2010

Solitude and Inner Peace

At this hyper-busy season, it seems important to pause and be quiet. To find a place for solitude and to see what happens when we arrive at that place.

I have written about the sadness of loneliness, which is deeply felt at this time of year by many who grieve, and I contrasted it with the source of both peace and creativity: solitude. Thomas Merton, who sought more and more solitude in his later years as a monk, found it indispensable for writing and prayer and wrote extensively about it. For Merton, solitude was being fully inside the present moment, grateful for the richness of our everyday human experience.

As Ron Rolheiser has written: "Solitude consists of being enough inside your own life to actually experience what is there." This, he goes on to say, is never easy because by nature we humans are overcharged with restless energy, the kind that draws us to plan for the future or explore the past and thereby overlook the present moment.

But, if we take the time to practice meditation daily, we can find what Rolheiser calls a gentle place inside each of us: a sanctuary not made by human hands where there is no anger, noise, competition, or injustice.

Although this gentle place can easily be violated by the brutalities of the world and our own deceptions, it is "in that place, entered into through solitude and gentleness of spirit, that we have a privileged access to God..."

In my recent Advent retreat, I referred to this inner space using the imagery of light: the divine spark within each of us, connecting us to God, is one of enlightenment. No matter how dark our world may be, the light is always there.

Today, being St. Lucy's Day, still celebrated in Sweden with its festival of candles on what used to be considered the darkest day of the year, is a good time to reflect on the power of light, which is to say on Life itself, on God who is Light and Life and, for Christians, on Christ, the light of the world.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

My Annual Wish List

As I prepare for Christmas while simultaneously reading Dante's "Inferno," which is not a combination I would normally recommend, I decided to come up with a short list of people in the news whose presence would not be missed. (Running through my mind is a tune from Gilbert & Sullivan.)

I don't wish these people any harm, just that they would vanish from my orbit of awareness and be ignored by the mainstream media. I picture them in a new, 10th circle of Hell, a much-needed addition to the old nine cirlces, this one just for ignorant, self-promoting bastards (ISBs).


1. Glenn Beck, who claims to reveal new, inside (secret) information to his gullible followers but who, in fact, re-channels John Birch Society ideas from the 1950s about how we must get rid of the socialist (Communist) menace, currently personified by Obama. Beck is one of those who opposes the Federal Reserve on the basis of a fantasy that it's an unAmerican conspiracy of Jewish bankers. See Sean Wilentz's recent piece on all this.
2. Sarah Palin, a clueless cheerleader for herself.
3. Rand Paul, who has stated that greed is good and essential for capitalism. A follower of the misguided Ayn Rand.
4. Howard Stern, whose latest vile outburst and greed were cited in today's news.
5. Christopher Hitchens, who despite his intelligence, believes that "religion poisons everything."
6. Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh, perpretators of the malicious journalism of hate and self-promotion. They are paired in the Dantean style (see Ulysses and Diomede in canto 32).
If it weren't for the holidays, usually a time of good cheer, I would add more. This is a good start as the year nears its end and we prepare for a new beginning.


Sunday, December 5, 2010

Look at all the lonely people

Thinking, as I often do, of my elderly neighbors, many of them widowed ladies living in large houses alone, I think of the line from "Eleanor Rigby," a lament ("Ah, look at all the lonely people") that raises a question never answered in the song: why are so many people, who would seem to have all they need to live full lives, so lonely?

I've spent much time alone and in recent years have thought about solitude, in the way Merton and Thoreau and others define it, which is not loneliness at all. Writers, especially, need this type of alone-time to be detached from the needs of the world. It is a type of freedom.

But the single women in my community have not chosen to be alone. Even the married woman near us, age 84, who works in the yard mainly to attract our attention so we can chat and she can escape the painful loneliness and monotony of her 65-year-old marriage is lonely, more than some single women. Another neighbor of the same age, mentally declining, seems to be dying of loneliness. She talks with enthusiasm about only one topic: her husband, dead for the past 12 years. What can Lynn or I do that we have not already done to bring her some comfort?

I want to change such people's lives, make them alter their dull routines, open up new doors for them. But I am limited in what I can do.

I am reminded of all this, too, because I am reading Michael Cunningham's novel, By Nightfall, which gives a memorable portrait of a man's inner life. The main character, Peter, "can't stop himself mourning some lost world," but he can't say what it is or what prevents him from living fully in the present. Peter, whose marriage is anatomized in exquisite detail, is a portrait of restless loneliness and unanchored desire. At 3 a.m., when he is sleepless, his real self emerges, but he doesn't talk to anyone about his thoughts (at least not in the first half, which is all I have read of this intelligent and wise book).

Ronald Rolheiser has talked more eloquently than I can about how and why we are all lonely, restless--at least at many times in our lives; he does so in the context of prayer and the search for God, territory that seems foreign to the fictional world of affluent, post-modern New York City in Cunningham's novel.

This is unfortunate since Peter is hardly unique in feeling restless and alone--in that sad, intermittently depressed way that he and his family know loneliness. The only solution to this malaise sounds trite and sentimental: it involves a love greater and more generous than such characters seem capable of imagining.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Fearing the Darkness

When a friend yesterday mentioned his young son's fear of the dark, I was reminded how widespread, and natural, such fears are. My wife and I both retain, after more than half a century, childhood fears of the night and the need for a light while we sleep. Pitch blackness is terrifying, no doubt a vestigial sign of death, the thing we unconsciously dread. Poets often remind us of the sleep of death.

I just read in the New Yorker a review of a modern piece of music by the Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haas in which the orchestra and audience sit in total darkness. The reviewer, Alex Ross, confessed to a fear "such as I've never exeprienced in a concert hall: it was like being sealed in a tomb."

That sums up the terror we have of the darkness, a topic of great interest to me, in part because I am preparing a program on light for an Advent retreat December 1. I will quote John O'Donohue on Celtic spirituality, which puts great emphasis on the power of light:

We are all on a journey, he says, from darkness to light. Our bodies came from the darkness of the womb, and throughout our lives we live within the darkness of our bodies. Every thought we have is a spark of light arising from this deep source of inner darkness. So the brilliance of thought is born in darkness. All creativity begins at this point, he goes on, where light and darkness meet.

The Franciscan preacher Richard Rohr also notes the positive side of darkness, not just the mythic female idea of the dark womb as the source of creativity but the fact that in Scripture, light always includes shadow and darkness. Pure light without darkness is unendurable, so light and dark are not absolute dualities but they go together in the Bible (and in literature generally) since each is included in the other.

Mystics often refer to God as a light too dazzling to see, a light that appears as darkness to the human mind. Sometimes this darkness appears to be despair--the dark night of the soul--or depression or confusion, but it is a prelude to the light. We descend to the dark to rise to the light. This is the universal journey of life.

I like what Paracelsus said in the 16th century: Darkness is what we call the light we can't see; the light we can see we call 'light.' All things on earth are a mixture of light and dark (life and death) and it is unwise to pretend they are totally separate. Even the good things of the world are tinged with imperfection and mutability.

Having explored the meaning of silence as something much more than the absence of sound, I can see that darkness, similarly, is more than the absence of light. If I associate it with the solitude and stillness experienced in contemplative prayer, when the soul is quiet, I can see that it connects me to the unknown God, who is Light but who dwells in a kind of darkness (from the human perspective). My passage from this life to the next will be a passage from darkness to light, just as my birth was. That, of course, was a rude awakening, I presume, the shock of being removed from the warmth and safety of the womb into the cold light of earthly reality. No wonder we have fears and need comfort at night.

Thinking about darkness opens so many doors, ones that we prefer, in the light of day, to keep shut, but at night get opened in the realm of dreams. It's no wonder we are apprehensive about the mysteries of the dark and never quite overcome our fears of its imaginative potential, heighened by stories and films of dangers that come in the night. The dark wood at the opening of Dante's "Inferno" is archetypal, a fearful reminder of those places in us that are connected to what we dread: death. Hell is a place of lifelessness where nothing lives.

My conclusion, for now, is that darkness can be a source of creativity, as our dreams reveal, and our fear of its potential and mystery are normal as long as we are not terrorized by it and fail to believe in the light that is always there within us.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Reading as Spiritual

As I read this week the novelist Muriel Spark's memoir, Curriculum Vitae, I couldn't help noticing that it was big on facts (recounting her literary career) and minimalist on her inner life. I have seen few autobiographies so lacking in personal insights. How is it possible to have an impersonal story of one's life?

Well, Spark provides the answer. But here and there, she does pause long enough to reflect on something deeper, the something I am always looking for in my reading (even if I began reading this book because the author was Scottish and since we are going to Edinburgh, I was curious to see what she had to say about it).

Lacking any religion, she writes about herself in the 1930s, but having "a strong religious feeling," she had the sensation of something indefinable beyond herself, especially when she was writing. "I was convinced I had access to knowledge that I couldn't possibly have gained through normal channels..." She says little else about this; twenty years later, in the 1950s, Spark became a Catholic but can't quite explain why. If religion is not all about feelings, it is about mystery.

The idea of reading as well as writing as spiritual and even prayerful is a topic I addressed last year in an article for the "Merton Seasonal." There I tried to show that the complex process of silent reading (in contrast to the ancient practice of reading aloud) can reveal the mysteries of the inner self.

I quote my favorite Jesuit professor from St. Louis University, the prolific Walter J. Ong, whose influence on my life and work have been immeasurable: as private readers we give more attention to what we read than to what we hear since we bring more of ourselves to the reading act. The silent reading of many texts, such as novels and poems, allows us go deeper, becoming more fully aware of the true self.

To be immersed in a world of fiction is to let get of the ego for a while, "lose ourselves," and have ordinary time suspended. There, in solitude and silence, we encounter ourselves as inseparable from God (whether consciously or not).

Prayer, like reading and writing, is all about paying attention. Silent reading, I think, can become like meditation (if we allow it to be) in which our ordinary concerns, memories and desires are suspended in the timeless present while we read. There God can be found.

There, to put it more simply, my consciousness as a reader encounters the consciousness of the writer: in silent reading, Nancy Malone writes, we can meet the "deepest silences in another being."

My greatest debt in all this, of course, is to Thomas Merton, who found through writing and reading openings into contemplative prayer. For him, his sense of prayer, and his vocation as both writer and monk, were inconceivable without the written word. He found God in himself by wrting about his need to find God. And his writing was prompted in part by his wide reading, which I also see as a spiritual act.

How many other writers, consciously or not, have felt the presence of God in their reading or writing? Many would undoutedly deny any such spiritual presence, but they turn to the written word because they are drawn to something indefinable in themselves there, something we have to be grateful for.

Monday, November 22, 2010

JFK and the End of Innocence

November 22nd is always a somber day, as I recall hearing the news 47 years ago that JFK had been killed in his 46th year.

Today I think not only of him and his family, mostly dead, too, now, but of myself and how the shock of that day changed my life. The innocence of my youth, with its trust that such an assassination could never happen, came to a sudden end. My graduate work at the University of Illinois seemed pointless. I developed an ulcer that year, helped along by the sudden death of my father three months after the Kennedy tragedy.

Thus began my initiation into violence and the ugly side of America along with personal, emotional turmoil and a confronation with the reality of death.

Thanksgiving that year was painful: what was I thankful for? A dazzling, charismatic young leader, adored around the world, had been shot down in his prime.

I have never fully recovered, even though I did not know Kennedy or even see him in person. He was everything I wanted to be: idealistic, bright, eloquent, classy.
The death of my father was expected; Kennedy's seemed impossible.

Everyone of my generation with whom I have shared such thoughts has had similar reactions. They agreed that America changed, and we changed--and not for the better. Life for us was different after Nov. 22, 1963, that day in Dallas that is forever burned into our memories.

May he and all the dead rest in peace.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Florida Illusions

Those of us from the North who reside in Florida, which means nearly everyone you meet here, laughs at the idea of four seasons, which happens to be the name of the apartment I once lived in in the mid-l970s.

"We have a long hot summer, from mid-May to mid-October," people say, "and a few nice months sandwiched in between as a reward for the suffering and monotony."

And yet, if you look closely, you find glimmerings of seasonal change in central Florida.

Today, for example, I encountered five sycamore trees, their huge leaves like big potato chips on the sidewalk; soon the branches will be bare. The sugar maples, though not numerous, are soon going from their present yellow and brown to red. The dazzling raintree, yellow-gold in September, is now and will remain for some months a salmon color.

Most of the trees, admittedly, are not deciduous and do not change color, but it's possible to say that in these months of November and December, we have a good taste of autumn, helped along this year by cooler weather in October and 40-65-degree weather on most days.

The cooler, dryer air at this time of year sends most people into rapture: "Isn't this weather great?" they asked each other, confirming their own relief that it's not typical of Florida, ie., muggy and hot.

Last January, we had many typical winter days: gray skies and cold temperatures down into the 30s, with fears of frost (for growers). The rain and dampness reminded me of England: a penetrating cold that seemed worse than what the official reading indicated. We lit our fireplace quite often and used the heat extensively for at least three months, through March.

Happily, from November through March, the grass slows down its growth, and working in the yard is a pleasure instead of a steamy chore.

Then, the budding of spring arrives: new leaves replacing the fallen oak leaves, bursts of new color in unexpected places (the most dazzling being the yellow tabebouia tree with its trumpet-shaped flowers, brilliant against blue skies).

Our roses and hibiscus and bougainvillea have bloomed all along but now begin their high season, this being, after all, the land of flowers (Florida). But March and April, still pleasant and dry with days in the 70s, give clear signs of spring. People fertilize their lawns and plant new flowers.

So is all this an illusion of four seasons? I suggest it's a matter of looking, of taking in the details and appreciating the changes. Recognizing the subtle signs of seasonal change here in the tropics is a reminder of the importance of observation, a lesson I always mention to beginning writers.

It so happens I am reading the autobiography of Muriel Spark, who begins her book unconventionally with the details of what she remembers of the bakers in Edinburgh where she grew up. She is big on details--the key to good writing. And to remembering. The truth is in the details. And the weather is never a trivial topic.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Remembering in November

As much as I try to focus on the now, being mindful of what's happening in the present and not dwelling on the past or worrying about the future, there's something about November that keeps tugging at me to reflect on those who have died.

Being a scavenger of other's ideas, I turn to Frederick Buechner, a Presbyterian minister, and to the writer Robert Pogue Harrison. I have included quotes from both in my journal; both provide material for reflection on ideas I'm not sure I fully understand.

First, Harrison: Culture, especially language and literature, is a living memory of the dead. What we inherit in law, religion and other areas is authorized (authored) by those who have come before us. We follow in the footsteps of the dead.

And, he continues, we do the will of our ancestors, whether consciously or not, since the spirit of those who have died resides in the earth itself, which is a repository of deceased animals and men. (I think of the primeval coast of Ireland with its rocks and desolate beauty.)

Only the dead (this is the hard part) can grant us legitimacy; by ouselves, lacking a past, we are illegitimate. To be authentic, we must submit to the dominion of the dead, even if we rebel against it.

Not only are our words made up of buried roots and meanings, but our psyches are the graveyards of impressions, desires, and memories with their own afterlife. If we were to take away the residue that consitutes the seas, forests, and mountains, we would lose the spirit that moves in and across them.

I trust I am paraphrasing accurately a perceptive writer who is saying, essentially, that we can't be fully human unless we are connected to the past as it is embedded in everything in and around us. We can't develop as individuals on our own. We need a conscious awareness of how we got here. This seems widely divergent from the individualism that characterizes much traditional American thought.

For me, being connected with the past, especially in this month of All Souls, is to think of those who have died and who live myteriously on. We remember the saints, whether canonized or not, not only as they were but as they are now, says Buechner.

"Memory," he writes, "is more than looking back to a time that is no longer; it is a looking out into another kind of time altogether, where everything that ever was continues not just to be but to grow and change with the life that is in it still." Wow: mindblowing.

If we are able to understand the dead in new ways, does that mean they will come to understand us better? It's a great mystery, this business of eternity; yet I believe we are all connected, the living and the dead, in innumerable ways,and I am grateful to those writers who raise provocative questions, especially in this month when the Christian world prays for those who have died but somehow live on.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Nocturnal Revelations

Quite often, I find, the most arresting and valuable insights in non-fiction books are found in the introduction or initial chapter. This might suggest, in some cases, that the book in question could just as easily have taken the form of an essay or article. But there is less prestige and money there. Often in literary criticism, what could have been a 30-page article has been expanded into a bound volume without advancing the progress of scholarship or learning.

But I digress.

The book that prompts this observation about memorable openings is The History of Last Night's Dream by Rodger Kamenetz, who teaches at LSU.

There I read: "A whole world inside us is asleep. We wake to it but rarely." The noctural revelations the author explores as guides to the soul are our dreams, which he believes suffer from interpretations that repress the dreams' power. He is leading us to his key insight, apparent early on, that the image is more powerful than the word, and that our image of God is impoverished by rational interpretation and analysis. He values intuitive religious insight, which puts him in the mystical tradition that interests me.

I paraphrase the next point: We overlook the fact that more than half of who we are is completely unknown to us, except in the fragments of our remembered dreams. So we have little to show for a third of our life that is spent sleeping.

I was intrigued to find him quote Tertullian (died c. 230 AD), the first Christian dream authority, who said that most people get their knowledge of God from dreams.
We think, says Kamenetz, of revelation as something that happened to holy people in the past; we never stop to think it might be found in last night's dream, which might fulfill our deep desire to know God as a 'you' and not just an 'it.'

These alone are wonderful insights; whether the author continues on this level in the later chapters remains to be discovered. I suspect he will.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

What Makes a Good Biography

I am reading Nicholas Shakespeare's biography of the English travel writer Bruce Chatwin and find myself impressed more by the quality of the book than by the life it chronicles, glamorous and exciting though it was.

First, Chatwin, the beguiling conversationalist who traveled the globe, mingled with the rich and famous, and wrote elegantly, died of AIDS in 1989. He was my exact contemporary but could not have lived a different kind of life from mine. Chatwin was typical of many good-looking people whose self-confidence, combined with considerable talent and self-promotion, charmed nearly everyone he met and opened doors to remarkable adventures on several continents.

A bit like the charismatic Lawrence of Arabia with cold-blue eyes and a taste for danger, Chatwin had what might seem an enviable life--if you overlook his sexual infidelities to his patient wife and his vanity. He did a lot in his 49 years, yet I wonder if he made the world a better place: perhaps as a writer he did, yet questions arise about the authenticity of some of his exotic discoveries. He was not a man capable of loving, or so it seems from this biography. And this realization makes him much less admirable in my eyes.

As to Nicholas Shakespeare, the English writer with the magical name: he provides copious quotations from every possible source, flattering and critical of the subject, and so lets the reader decide who Chatwin really was: a brilliant man to be envied or a bit of poseur. The biographer, never speculating on the intimacies he knows not of, respects the complexity of the life he has studied and like all lives, shows it to be ambiguous, complex, and mysterious. After 600 pages, Chatwin, like so many people, remains ultimately unknowable.

So this contemporary Shakespeare has given the world a well-crafted model for future biographers. He has paid tribute to a talented man who fulfilled the goal of the Renaissance gentleman defined by Castiglione: to fashion one's life into a work of art. An admirable goal; an admirable biography.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Taking Nothing for Granted

Noticing the winter light as it floods my study and puts a spotlight on the bookcase, I am reminded of the importance of being aware of, and being grateful for, the little things that surround me.

Rather than taking my house and yard for granted, I make an effort to appreciate them, especially when the seasons change. This brings me into the present moment and also signals the positive energy of gratitude.

To be grateful for morning light and quiet time for meditation, to be grateful for organic vegetables and Lynn's soups, to be grateful for my friends and their e-mails--all this and so much more contradicts the tendency many of us have to be critical, negative, and pessimistic. To be grateful is to be positive, optimistic.

Gratefulness, as David Steindl-Rast has eloquently shown, is central to prayer, yet I think we can be grateful without being consciously prayerful, without recognizing God's direct hand in every detail of our lives. I do not believe in a God who micromanages the traffic or weather or other specifics of our lives.

If I remember my scholastic philosophy (Thomas Aquinas, et al.), God is the proximate cause of all that exists. This doesn't mean I hold God responsible for the creation of the TV remote, which makes my life easier, or the allergy remedy I take. In other words, I can be grateful that people have been so inventive in creating technology that eases our earthly existence. And I can be grateful, even more, for the caring and compassion of people.

These are all indirectly related to (and reflect) God, of course, so no doubt when I feel gratitude as a positive response to the natural world and to the human life-world, I am implicitly affirming my theism: I am at prayer without knowing it.
In being attentive to what's before me, I experience the sacrament of the present moment.

Is God necessarily involved? I have always felt that too many people have a limited notion of God as a puppet-master in the sky who helps or harms us. This simplistic and childish theologizing has led many into atheism or agnosticism.

As Thomas Merton discovered in reading medieval philosophy, God is not a being but Being itself ("I am who am," as revealed to Moses), the inescapable and loving presence that ulimately makes it all possible, even if God is not involved in every detail of our lives.

So in being grateful, I want above all to take no one or no thing for granted, the unknowable God included. A good idea as we prepare for Thanksgiving.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Advice to Writers

I've been giving advice to writers for more years than I care to recall. The problem is I don't always follow my own suggestions.

For example, I recently told a busy friend that the best way to write was to set aside a fixed time once or twice a week. I was thinking of the habit of many writers who have a studio period every day. Dickens wrote faithfully from 9-1 each day, then took a long, long walk. Stephen King writes every morning of the week, he says.

But beginners are different. To have a studio period, when the house is quiet and there are no interruptions, can easily cause the apprehensive writer to freeze: he or she feels on the spot, pressued to produce. Do I give myself a free morning with nothing to do but write? Not usually. Interruptions are important as times to stretch and breathe.

My own work comes in drips and drabs throughout the day. The best ideas come while reading or watching TV. Paper and pen are usually handy. I might write a few notes or draft while waiting for a meal to be ready or after dinner before settling down to a movie. The busier the day seems, the more I can get done.

So it was with my schoolwork. If I had an entire semester to write a paper, I would procrastinate and end up squeezing the work in two-three days. The deadline loomed and the work turned out well.

So I must remind myself to be realistic and not give advice that I don't follow myself. As a beginning teacher, I preached, "Make and follow an outline." Later I learned that this can be too rigid for most people (and I never did it myself!) After all, writing is very much an individual thing. We learn to do it by writing, even if it's only an e-mail or quick journal entry at bedtime. It doesn't matter when or how much we produce.

Nothing is wasted, it seems to me, in composing; the little notes scattered around the house are part of a composing process that is not neat and simple. Some of these notes and drafts turn into publishable pieces; most do not.

The main thing is to enjoy the process, as another creative friend once advised, and not pressure yourself into that dreaded thing called writer's block, which is really easy to overcome.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Loss of the Sacred?

"In our spiritually impoverished culture...the sacred dimension has largely disappeared, and few of us know what it is to be touched by the numinous."

So writes Anthony Stevens in his book on dreams, Private Myths. He's concerned with Jungian psychology with its interest in the spiritual implications of rituals, myths, and stories that reveal enduring truths about human life.

I question his glib, overstated assertion with its suggestion that the world of the author (British secular culture of the 1990s) is typical of the reader's experience in the West. Religion has declined among many thinking people, yet the quest for the sacred, often taking place outside the bounds of established religion, makes ours a spiritually diverse culture, which is often at loggerheads with scientific materialism.

Stevens says the church is moribund, its symbols beyond reviving. This sounds like Eliot's Waste Land of 1922, which led the poet to religious affirmation in his later Christian poetry.

Stevens' very topic and his discussion of eternal dimensions of what he calls the soul--typical of many in the New Age movement and other widely-read writers who cull the best from various religious traditions (Eckhart Tolle, Deepak Chopra come to mind)--would belie his point.

Religion may on the decline, with many people today in Western society attending services out of habit or not at all, but, as my audience for Thomas Merton and silence indicate, spirituality and the search for the sacred in everyday life is alive and well for those who know where to look.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Deep-down Friendship

True, lasting friendship is rare. This is one of the conclusions I drew from a recent Malcolm Gladwell piece in the New Yorker about social networking

He says that Twitter, Facebook and other types of social media might promise "thousands of friends" but really provide only weak ties. While extolling the benefits of such weak ties, Gladwell implies (or I infer) that there is not much lasting strength in such ties since they involve little risk.

People sign up to be your Facebook friend because it's easy, because little is involved. Genuine friends are hard to find in part because so many people aren't able to commit the time and effort to listen and attend to another person, to love him or her. All that takes emotional risk and effort.

I have only one such friend, who's indispensable to me and the most important person, other than my wife, in my life. (The only problem with him is that he works so much I hardly ever see him.) In the 13 years of our association, he always moves beyond surface chatter that men engage in (sports, etc.) to go deeper. His listening is a form of love. This skill, and our friendship, developed during a men's group we were part of for many years. There three of us shared intimate details of our lives and, in confidence, learned to trust and listen to each other, to see how much emotional stuff we had in common.

I used to mention the idea of a men's group to my students in the Masculinity course I developed, and they were amazed that such things exist. I shared with them data on how few men have really strong male friends (due, in part, to homophobia) and how essential such ties are. We looked at the strong male bonds in myth and literature and the way the companion completed the friend, analogous to the way the feminine completes the masculine.

The course is over, the group has ended, and other friendships have ended. That alone is an interesting topic: how do real frinedships end? Apparently, in silence and awkwardness. I've had so few real ones I am no expert, and have always found lasting friendship to be nearly impossible to achieve, a form of love that Erich Fromm talked memorably about and that is greatly undervalued in our culture of weak ties.

I am inexpressibly grateful for strong ties, especially for the ones forged over the miles with my over-worked and over-stressed friend. What would I do without him?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Perchance to Dream

Like most people, I have long been fascinated by dreams and over the past year have been reading a bit about the physiological as well as psychological aspects of dream research in preparation for a one-week Road Scholar course Lynn and I will teach next year.

I feel more than usually unprepared and inadequate to the task since I am not a psychologist or trained Jungian analyst. But I can focus on the influence on dreams in films and on literature and talk about myths. In this connection a book by Anthony Stevens, Private Myths, is well-titled and very revealing, both about the "two-million-year-old brain" we have inherited and about the universal themes that are expressed in myths and dreams.

Reading about Gilgamesh being troubled by bad dreams and having them explained by his mother in the 5000-year-old epic is amazing--and revealing about the relation between the hero and his boon companion (and lover?) Enkidu, who is needed in the story to temper GIlgamesh's ego-driven desires. We see in this earliest of recorded dream interpretations a truth found in Robert Louis Stevenson and other authors: Man is not one, but two. There is another, hidden side to us, revealed to us in sleep; this other self is completed in and through another person, providing a balanced, integrated personality. Or so I think Jung says.

As I began to list some of my own recent dreams, I find nothing quite as profound to be discovered there, just garden-variety apprehensions. Typically, a fear of being embarrassed by being unprepared. But last night I was in Monaco meeting Grace Kelly, the dream girl of my youth, whose palace I found disappointing. As she looked at me and talked, we seemed to be in a movie, a point reinforced when Lynn, a shadowy presence unseen near me, wanted to leave the theater; I woke up wondering if Monaco was part of a movie or if I was "really" there. I remembered re-watching "Rear Window" about ten days ago: did that influence this dream?

There was the usual theme of being let down, something that often happens as my dream narratives unfold: what begins as glamorous ends up being ordinary or grim. Last night's private myth was an interesting reflection of the idea that all movies are like dreams and all dreams are like movies, the products of that dream factory called Hollywood. Apart from the cinematic analogy, the awareness we are given of the unconscious self who is timeless and mysterious and powerful, an observer of the conscious self who lives in time, is always fascinating.

Salvador Dali ate strong cheese before bedtime to induce vivid dreams that he turned into surrealist paintings. I doubt if I will follow his practice, taking what dreams may come as I sleep and being grateful that I can remember the main parts of the interesting ones.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Lists and Files

The world is divided, or should be, between those who make lists and those who don't. I, of course, am among the former. I suppose it comes from my innate desire to impose order (or from of fear of being so overloaded with information that I will never find what I'm looking for at a given moment).

I made lists of favorite baseball players when I was a kid. Now I have lists of dozens of things: grammar and usage; odd names of real people (including those of former students named Sky Rocket and Forrest Stump and of dozens of others, my favorites being Gaston Feeblebunny, Lavender Sidebottom, Iris Faircloth Blitch, and Wigfall Green); fave movies; former students; and eccentric people/events. I also keep a list of dead friends, family, and neighbors.

The computer makes keeping lists a snap. It doesn't help with old articles and clippings too interesting to discard.

I have copious files on every author I have ever taught, every artist (Vermeer) I have talked about or wanted to, every topic (happiness, dreams, silence, time, love, medieval cathedrals, Mark Twain, masculinity, deserts, monasteries) I have researched or written about, not to mention files of jokes and songs and examples of prose style that I admire.

I try without success to get Lynn, also a writer, teacher, and even more voracious reader, to put material in files. She instead has her own non-system, backed up by a photographic memory. The result: our crowded study is awash in paper, some organized, some not. A constant source of potential irritation.

Saving it satisfies something in me, even when I don't (and probably never will) use it. I suppose it is all a small bulwark against oblivion.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

All Hallows Eve

Surprisingly, many people don't seem to know that the Halloween we associate with kids and candy has serious implications--or even what the word itself means. So much for the loss of Christian tradition.

Today is the eve of All Hallows or All Saints Day, followed by All Souls Day, the Dead of the Dead, not just in Mexico but throughout the orthodox (Catholic) world. If we laugh at skeletons and the scary part of dying on the eve, we honor the dead with prayers on the solemn days that follow. I have always found Nov. 2 especially moving and important, in part because it is ushered in, even here in Florida, with dying leaves, a reminder of life's endless cycle of birth and death.

There is something poetic and reflective in this time of year.

So it was appropriate that I attended a funeral yesterday. The priest read, "Life is not ended but changed." As I looked at the urn containing the ashes of the lively writer known as Edward Hayes, I had to reflect: is death mainly a change, a metamorphosis--or more of a continuation? We carry a bit of eternity with us, the divine presence within us, and when the body is no longer needed, the soul continues in that mysterious realm from which no traveler returns. Perhaps that's what the church's prayer means.

When I came home, I thought about my own funeral, as I often do after attending memorial services, and wrote a draft of a eulogy, added to the file I keep called "Last Things." I want to be sure that whatever clergyman presides at my rites goes beyond the usual comforting words to talk about who I really am and what I did and believed in. I have also outlined the music to be used. It's called leaving nothing to chance.

And like Halloween and the days that follow, doing this isn't at all morbid. I look forward to the great change--and the great love that awaits me.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Listening to Myself

In today's mail, the November issue of 'Liguorian' magazine arrived with an article on listening that I wrote 18 months ago. It's called "Listen, Pray, Love."

As I read the printed version, with its new title and fancy design, I had the strange sensation of being someone else, as if the words and ideas I created last year were the work of another self. Maybe this was the result of the considerable editing that the article underwent: whole paragraphs were cut; others were moved. The result is better, tighter, over all. But seeing this new version came as a surprise.

We grow fond of our own carefully wrought drafts and forget that every piece of writing can be improved (mainly by reducing wordiness).

The other, more important point I discovered on seeing my article in print was to reflect on the main point: the lack of good listening I continue to observe in so many quarters. It's not that people who talk a lot but rarely stop to listen are entirely egocentric; it's just that their tension, and their habits, don't let them stop long enough in the rush of ideas and words so that they can pay attention to the person they're talking to.

It takes rare traits--patience and skill in listening--to give another person good attention. Most of us are in a terrible hurry; God, Kazantzakis wrote, is never in a hurry. Life unfolds as it must and can't be rushed.

But we, in our impatient rushing, upset this basic rhythm of life. The result is not mere miscommunication or frustration but a failure of love, of the communion between two individuals that comes only out of patient attention.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Autumnal Reflection

If I could count all the bodies I've seen dragged out of rivers or lakes, all those corpses stretched out under sheets in various morgues, all those shot, stabbed, strangled, poisoned, blown up or killed more slowly, you'd think I'd be used to death and would fear it less.

These fictional deaths, however gruesome and realistic they seem in films or on the page, remain ultimately a contrivance. The real thing is always a shock.

Just to read or hear that someone you know has died, even someone who's led a long life, is startling: it happened this week when Ed Hayes died at 86, a writer for the Orlando Sentinel. Suddenly, he, that unique, gentle, wise person, no longer exists. Perhaps I should say he no longer has a body. Whatever self remains is unknown, unlocalized. Gone is the person with his unique voice, face, consciousness, memory.

The shock always involves my own recognition that I, too, will disappear, along with all the memories of what I have seen and done.

But, though consciousness ends, my spirit will live and that too, I believe, is real, disembodied and vague though it is. I don't need a body to exist outside of time and space. Some essential part of me, the divine spark, will endure in an eternity that is unknown.

At this time of my life, I should be discarding things, the way I disposed of old files today and some dusty items from the utility room. Yet I continue to buy and consume and live, planning trips and purchases, pushing the fear of the great unknown aside so that life can take over. I try to live in the now.

It has been said that the idea of never dying, of living on indefinitely in this world with all its horrors as well as delights, has little appeal. So I should look forward to the great casting off of this mortal coil, even though I don't imagine "heaven" as a place of endless delights.

Quite by coincidence today, as I threw away old papers, a fragment of a poem by Par Lagerkvist (trans. by Auden) fell to the floor. I read:

"Some day you will be one of those who lived long ago.
The earth will remember you, just as it remembers the grass,
And the forests, the rotting leaves.
Just as the soil remembers,
Just as the mountains remember the winds.
Your peace shall be as unending as that of the sea."

Saturday, October 16, 2010

History without Medication

How different history would have been if certain leaders had been given the medication they needed. I speak anachronistically, of course, since I am preparing to give a talk next week about "The Lion in Winter," the 1968 film about Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, which is filled with intentionally amusing anachronisms. The screenplay by James Goldman spits and sparkles with sarcasm and memorable wit.

The real Henry II (Plantagenet) seems to have been hyperactive, in today's language; the various chronicles record his restless energy, his refusal to sit down (except on a horse). He preferred to conduct business standing up, and was always in a hurry, moving from one castle to another (no permanent home) or from one battle to another. He died at 56, worn out, in 1189.

Peter O'Toole, who seemed destined to play this king (twice on film), roars and bellows while Katharine Hepburn as his troublesome wife Eleanor plots and schemes with their unlovely sons. Quite a family. Quite a movie.

I have also dipped into a new book, "The Tudors," by G. J. Meyer, whom I knew in college when we worked together on the St. Louis University News. The focus of his very ambitious book is on later kings named Henry: Henry Tudor and his notorious son, Henry VIII. How different history would have been if the latter had eaten more sensibly and had some of his egomaniacal tendencies controlled by more than alcohol.

This is not a point made by Meyer, who successfully portrays the Tudors as a far cry from the glamorized Hollywood figures we know almost too much about. Henry VIII here is seen as an arrogant, opinionated bully who ended up as a tyrant; he bankrupted England after acquiring more treasure than any of his predecessors.

What is sometimes called, mildly, the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s, was really a destruction, a wholesale slaughter of thousands of men and women and of the schools, hospitals, and homes for the poor and aged whose inmates were now turned loose.

This has always been for me one of the worst events in English history: destroying libraries and art treasures as well as a way of life, insisting on everyone believing what the king believed. Henry insisted on conformity even while causing a division and confusion in religious belief and practice that continue centuries later to haunt his realm, setting Catholics against Protestants--and all to satisfy his colossal ego.

I don't know if history is essentially biography, as Carlyle said in the Victorian era, but the power of an unbalanced individual, unchecked, has wreacked havoc on the world in other eras. Why is such power unchecked? In many cases, like Henry VIII's, fear is the answer. Tyrants establish reigns of terror.

Meyer in his huge popular history of the Tudors has made this clear.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Needless Worries

Tim Parks has written a lively biography of the Medici banking empire of the Italian Renaissance.

As usual in my reading, I find one or two sentences that leap out at me and demand to be saved. One refers to the longest-lived of the dynasty, Cosimo de' Medici (1389-1464), who, like several other famous people who lived long lives, was a hypochondriac.

Here's the sentence from Medici Money that resonated for me:

"Ever in a hurry, he grew old fearing he would die young." Cosimo died at 75 at a time when 50 was considered old.

Now that I have reached, as of yesterday, the age of three-score and ten, I can breathe a sigh of relief that I have not collapsed, as I often felt sure I would, and been rushed to the hospital, there entering the "undiscovered country" from whose region "no traveler returns," as Shakspeare's Hamlet says (odd because of the presence of his father's ghost, a presumed traveler from beyond).

It has never comforted me that my parents lived into their early eighties or that I have always been physically strong and healthy. I have convinced myself from an early age that any problem I developed in my body was life-threatening and a cause for major alarm. I could not imagine living into the 21st century: too unreal.

It seems comical now to recall these anxious moments, the products of a lively imagination, and to see that fear magnifies the ordinary into the urgent and dire.

Fear of death has always been strongly felt in my life. I think now it is lessening a bit as I reflect on how far I have come. I meditate on moving from darkness to light, and I read some of the many reasssuring words from saints and sages.

One of my favorite statements comes from John of the Cross, the Spanish mystic and poet of the 16th century: "I don't know what lies on the other side; I only know that a great love awaits me."

I pray that I continue to have such a high level of knowing.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Death and Ireland

Just recently, I learned of the fine work of John O'Donohue through the DVD "A Celtic Pilgrimage." This film has tempted me to return to the west of Ireland to see more of the wild and ancient landscape that made him who he was.

The sad news--and there is always something sad about Ireland--is the John died at 52 just over two years ago. He left behind a beautiful legacy of poems and books and people whom he influenced. He wrote, "The greatest privilege of a human life is to become midwife to the birth of the soul."

He spoke eloquently of death, as if he were aware that his life would soon come to an end: Death, he said, is an invitation to freedom, a great letting go. "If you really live your life to the full, death will never have power over you." We can stop fearing it, he believed, if learn to let go of things, living spiritually with greater openness and generosity.

As I think back to the unforgettable Irish landscape on the Dingle peninsula, with its ancient stone huts, you know without being told that you are in a land with a continuous civilization going back 9,000 years, one recorded in stones of various shapes and colors taken from the earth to build walls, forts, churches, castles, and tombs. These stones, most of them born several hundred million years ago, bear witness to the millions who died of starvation, especially in the 19th century, and of the countless farmers (including my maternal ancestors) who fled that rocky terrain to the corners of the world.

John O'Donohue gave testimony to this land and its enduring power. I wish I'd met him earlier.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Faith and Politics

I discovered this tidbit of news on the Internet today and assume it happened: When Michelle Obama visited Spain this past August, she visited a community of Salesians in Ronda. There she said that her husband "always carries a picture of Mary Help of Christians in his wallet" and that the family is devoted to her.

This intrigues me not because Obama might be a crypo-Catholic but that, for personal reasons, he has not made much of his Christian faith. Only when asked in recent weeks has he indicated his beliefs. No wonder some people believe he shares his Muslim father's religious heritage.

The Obama team has been reluctant to publicize what then candidate Obama wrote in his autobiography: that he attended two schools in Indonesia, one of them a Catholic school, St. Francis of Assisi, led by a Dutch priest. Maybe this was the source of the religious picture he carries. Only later, in Chicago, did he join a Christian church and receive baptism.

This reluctance to go public with the president's religious beliefs would be understandable in ordinary times, given the problems that mixing faith and politics have historically caused. But these are not ordinary times: millions of Americans want to believe either than the president is not a native-born American, and thus illegitimate, or that he, with that exotic African name, is a Muslim, not "one of us." In other words, they hate the man and his policies and will defy reason to justify their feelings.

Somtimes these right-wing smears anger or sadden me since they smack of the kind of bigotry once levelled against Catholics in this country; sometimes these smears have to be taken with a patient smile of tolerance because of the misinformation or willful ignorance they reflect.

The White House could do more to make Barack Obama's colorful background clearer.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Talking about the Weather

I used to think that talking about the weather was a poor excuse for conversation and essentially a waste of time, part of the social chatter we feel expected to engage in.

With the passing of the years comes some wisdom--or at least insight: I now see that when my neighbor eagerly tells me about the amount of rain we've just had or even when friends complain about the heat, they are engaging in something important: an awareness of the present world. They're talking about what's happening now, about what's beyond their usual preoccupations, which are likely to involve worries about the future or frustration about the past.

To talk about the weather is to talk about the immediate life-world in which we all share. It is related to the awe and wonder we sometimes feel just looking at a blue sky or at a tranquil lake surrounded by trees, when time seems to stop and we are caught up in an awareness of something greater than ourselves.

G. K. Chesterton writes that before his religious conversion and a belief in God he felt a kind of gratitude for the natural pleasures of nature. He was referring to the inherent mystical tendency we all have but often don't know we have. He writes that even mere existence for him "was extraordinary enough to be exciting."

This reminds me of the poem by e.e.cummings, in which he thanks God for "most this amazing day...for everything which is natural which is infinite which is yes." This poem captures some of the wonder and awe of ordinary mysticism that Chesterton felt as a young man and that most of us, if we're fortunate, can find every day.

The very fact that I can see and hear, that I can write on a quiet morning when the sun pours through my study window is not to be taken for granted: it is all amazing.

This primal sense of gratitude springs from an essential awareness that, in spite of everything awful happening around us, the world is essentially good. This type of affirmation is not always easy to feel, but it springs from an impulse that has to be called religious. To experience life as a gift freely given is a recognition of God.

So we are all mystics when we pay attention to the present, to the wonders of creation, and even to the weather.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Just One Sentence

I love the unexpected details that I discover in reading, in this case Margaret Visser's book on gratitude, which tells me, in one of her many interesting digressions, about Anaximander of Miletus, considered the father of cosmology, the "art of picturing the universe as a whole."

The old guy gave the first explanation, as far as we know, of why the cosmos both changes and continues; he saw the continuance of the world as a vicious cycle of justice responding to injustice.

This pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, who died in the 6th cent. B.C., wrote On the Nature of Things. The really fascinating thing is that only one sentence from that book has come down to us. But that one sentence seems to be enough.

Here it is, that single sentence: "all things come into being and pass away in accordance with Necessity; for they make reparation to one another for their injustice according to the ordinance of time."

Not bad as a contribution to the ages, but I can't help but think of all the other philosophers whose work has been entirely lost. What happens to their ideas? And what fragments of other ancient texts are there floating around tantalizingly, hinting at unknown universes of thought?

And I wonder what sentences of mine, or of my favorite authors, I would choose to survive into future millenia. If I had to choose just one sentence, what on earth would it be? Anaximander seems to have been lucky: his single sentence has given him immortality and plenty of material for philosophers to speculate about. Most of us would probably be less fortunate: either all that we've written would be annihilated, or some trivial comment about pop music or TV would survive.

And beyond that, beyond words and ideas, what part of me will survive indefinitely--on earth?

If nothing survives, since I am childless, does it matter? Isn't it my destiny to transcend this terrestrial globe?

One question only produces more questions, which are often more valuable than answers anyway.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Gratitude Revisited

I have written before about the importance of gratefulness and about how many people have difficulty saying "thank you."

I've now, thankfully, begun The Gift of Thanks by Margaret Visser. She helps me understand that saying thanks is not natural and must be learned. And it is not easy to learn, unlike the "hi" and "bye" that young kids pick up quickly. Being grateful involves the complexities of remembering and interacting with others.

Kids say thanks, she says, before they understand what it means to feel gratitude. There is a history of gratitude, which "creates and sustains memories" while driving our stories and myths. Giving thanks involves intentionality, relationship, understanding, and recognition as well as memory. Clearly, it involves us in history and philosophy as well as psychology and religion.

Visser is an excellent guide to such matters. A British classicist and Catholic who lives in Canada and France and who enjoys giving the Latin or Greek derivate of important words along with historical digressions, usually of great interest, she focuses her research and writing on a seemingly limited topic that ends up opening many new doors.

She showed this gift in a book of hers I have just completed, the study of an ancient Roman church, The Geometry of Love. This may not be an ideal title, but this is a book that has great appeal to people like me who appreciate the ability to use specifics from the material world to illuminate the spiritual. This book is for Christians who want to understand the symbolism of church architecture. Some readers may get overwhelmed by the details Visser provides, impressive though they are; but anyone reading it, and her more recent book on gratitude, will be struck by her thoroughness and originality.

I am reminded as I read Margaret Visser of a remark by Aby Warburg, the art historian: "Truth lies buried in the detail."

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Is the Pope a Liar?

In his blog today, the Catholic scholar and public intellectual Garry Wills writes, "Pope Benedict XVI is the best-dressed liar in the world." This is quite a statement.

Wills, with whom I usually agree and who knows his history, may have gone overboard here. At issue is the beatification this weekend of Cardinal Newman, the 19th century English convert from Anglicanism who did so much to defend the right of the laity to dissent from infallible doctrines, based on a notion of conscience at variance with that of B-16, who tends to look at reality with what Hawthorne called one-eyed vision.

It seems from what I know that B-16 has, as cardinal and now pope, re-defined Newman's position to suit his own understanding of conscience; does this make him a liar?

Lying might be more aptly applied to the papal handling of the sexual abuse scandal--or at least dissimulation--and to various other papal pronouncements that Wills has analyzed in his book Papal Sin.

Benedict, who seems more and more to be the wrong man to have succeeded John Paul II, has ignored Newman's important treatise on listening to the laity and has distorted his record, emphasizing other aspects of his long and remarkable life. Benedict has long admired Newman, but he has misinterpreted or perhaps misrepresented his work in an effort to canonize a fellow intellectual.

Why the pope would personally beatify Newman on English soil is another of the maladroit mysteries of this pontiff. Does he want to turn back ecumenical relations with Anglicans the way he seems determined to set back the reforms of the second Vatican Council? To progressives like Wills, and myself, who watch with horror as the Vatican stumbles into the 21st century, I can only hope and pray, as Newman did with Pius IX, that the end of this pope's reign comes sooner than later.

But I still doubt if B-16, although over-dressed much of the time, is really a deliberate liar.

A more interesting issue for me is how informed Catholics can criticize the institutional church and its flawed leaders, as they have in the past, while remaining faithful to the core of beliefs that are authentically Catholic. Clearly, there are two Catholic churches: the hierarchical one seen most often in the media coverage from Rome, and the community of believers rarely seen in the media but present in countless parishes, monasteries, and other sites around the world.

The tension between these two ideas of church, like the dissension among theologians that Newman wisely defended, has kept Catholicism alive over the centuries.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Importance of Being Silly

As I reflect on the extreme, often ugly nature of the current political scene, with Tea Party candidates coming out of the woodwork, I turn with relief to Mark Twain, Will Rogers, et al., whose comments remain politically timely, and to the comfort of laughter, which is a daily necessity if I am to cope with what life brings.

I am thinking of Rogers' wisecrack in the 1930s: "There's no trick in being a humorist when you have the whole government working for you." I would add "the whole political scene." Twain wrote that all Congresses and Parliaments "have a kindly feeling for idiots, and a compassion for them, on account of personal experience and heredity."

These old-time humorists are on my mind because I've been preparing a future presentation on Historical Humor, the third part of a program with my friend David Jordan. We never seem to run out of material. As someone said, "Political jokes are common; some of them get elected."

On the private level, too, silliness and laughter are indispensable in any marriage or relationship. My wife and I, subscribing to the philosophy that it's never too late to have a happy childhood, use silly names for each other, lines from movies and books, and bits of nonsense throughout the day to ward off any possible tension.

Comedy gives us a necessary detachment and distance from the horror of the news and the violence of our fellow citizens; as a result, we can see step back and appreciate the Big Picture, smiling at folly, stupidity, greed, and all the other vices that keep re-surfacing in our lives.

By smiling, we relax our tense facial muscles; by laughing, we relax the all-important stomach muscles. Even if there's nothing to laugh at, we can always benefit from a belly laugh since our stomach doesn't know what is or is not funny.

So I am grateful to the perennially funny writers of the past and to people like Andy Borowitz and Steven Colbert whose wit helps rescue us from despair.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

My Fascist Fantasy

In all that is being said about the Gainesville pastor who claims that the Gospel says "hate thy neighbor" and "hate your enemies," I haven't seen anyone seriously suggest that he should be legally prevented from burning Korans on Saturday because of the obvious harm to American troops and America itself.

Oh, to be a Fascist and not to be bothered with Constitutional niceties...but even the first amendment does not allow, as the courts have historically declared, someone to shout "fire" in a crowded theater. And when the freedom to practice one's religion involves committing a hate crime, it seems to me that the greater good (security) must come ahead of the rights of the individual.

Of course, I subscribe to the venerable Christian notion, alluded to in some of Obama's remarks as he sought the presidency, that we must balance individual liberties with respect for the common good, however that is defined.

The Tea Party lady quoted at the recent Glenn Beck rally who declared that "I shouldn't be forced to buy medical care..." was one of those radical individualists who populate the American landscape, past and present.

To them, freedom means doing what they want. The Gainesville pastor, who fears Islam less than he fears loss of media attention and therefore power of himself more than the Bible or the common good.

The government, as upholder of the common good, should prevent him from proceeding with his incendiary action.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Slowing Down

I accidentally deleted an email from Andy Borowitz today, an amusing "news story" about a dog being mistaken for a Tea Party candidate. So I had to go to his website, find the article, send it to myself, forward it to three friends, and then print it out. I could have saved some of these steps if had not acted in such a rush.

Email seems to encourage haste (and the inevitable errors that result). People send emails without proper editing or respond emotionally without really thinking. We are all connected to a communications system that values speed and expects us to move quickly.

I have read a bit about the Slow Movement, begun some 25 years ago in Italy to counter fast food and all that is so fast-paced that it disconnects us from each other and from living fully in the present. Carlo Petrini, the founder, says that the aim is to live "a connected life."

This type of living is not possible eletronically; it does not require speed. It means a return to the land and to simple things, to savoring the food we grow and eat.

It also means doing other things slowly, like reading. As I tutored a middle-schooler this week, I reminded him that the purpose of doing homework is not to rush through it to get it over with but to understand the material. Read for understanding, I told him. I have written an article on reading slowly as a spiritual activity. But often I forget to practice what I preach.

I am guilty of eating too fast, talking too fast, rushing through tasks as if a deadline is fast approaching, as if the teeth of the hound of the Baskervilles are on my heels. Why do I hurry when the results are so often frustrating and when I know better?

It's no wonder I turn to meditation and prayer to slow down what is supposed to be a retired life of writing and reading. Or seek out slow music (adagios, Chopin's nocturnes, Satie) or slowly unfolding films in which I can lose myself--that self that is restless and keyed up.

Now I must hurry up and finish this: the day is slipping away! Time's winged chariot hurries near.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Time Doesn't Vanish

I like to save interesting quotations and use them as the basis for reflection or writing. I think of them as seedlings, some of which will take root somewhere. My journal contains hundreds of these, including this statement by Isaac Bashevis Singer:

"What happens to a day once it is gone? To the storyteller, yesterday is still
here, as are the years and the decades gone by. In stories, time does not
vanish. For the writer and his readers, all creatures go on living forever.
What happened long ago is still present."

This statement is full of suggestiveness: I think about characters in Shakespeare, for example, who remain eternally young or old or witty or evil. I think about the act of reading as kind of remembering, just as writing is remembering. Or about reading as a spiritual activity because it gives us access to "time out of time." Such transcendent literary moments come not only in reading someone like Proust but in any work of fiction, or absorbing non-fiction, in which we lose our awareness of ourselves so that "time" (our daily routine) seems to stop and we are able to enter another, imagined or remembered world.

The presence of the past in the present is a theme in T. S. Eliot, and I suppose I have been most influenced by his poetic thinking on the eternal present, or what in religious circles is called the sacrament of the present moment.

When I close my eyes and shut out all the inner voices, refusing to think about the future or the past but become aware only of my breathing, I am able to enter fully into the present, which alone is real, which alone gives me access to God, who is present to me in the present moment. I cannot find God in what is past and surely not in what has not yet come to be.

So for me Singer's statement goes beyond the literary into the contemplative. And it reminds me of the liturgy of the church in which past events, such as the Crucifixion, are re-presented throughout the year as we give attention to them individually and communally. Long-dead saints, too, like figures from the Bible, remain alive to us.

To live, as animals do, in a continual present seems to me a great blessing. I have often thought about this in relation to our cat's inner life as she stares into space for hours in a life that seems to have little purpose. I see her as fortunate in not being tormented by past events or preoccupied by worries: she does not know there is a future and lives every day as if it were part of one, continual stream of timelessness. She dwells in the timeless present without knowing it.

For the neurobiologist, however, such a permanent state of being in the present seems like a prison in contrast to the capacity of the human brain. Our frontal lobe allows us to do what our pets cannot: vacate the present and experience the future before it happens; from the scientific perspective, then, evolution has given us a frontal lobe that was designed to think (hopefully, one presumes) of the future. (This is what I garnered from a recent book by the psychologist Daniel Gilbert.)

Yet for me the future is mainly a source of worry and anxiety. Rather than thinking of it as the past getting younger, as my wife, Lynn, once said, I see my own future as one of progressive deterioration and decline. So I envy our cat Lizzie and all other animals who can live in the timeless present, which is available to me in reading and in prayerful contemplation.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Era of Know-Nothings

Yesterday's "Restoring Honor" rally in Washington, staged by Glenn Beck, made page 8 of my Sunday newspaper, The Orlando Sentinel, which wisely used the headline, "Two rallies, two visions for America," giving attention also to the African-Americans who were there to honor Dr. King on the anniversary of his historic speech. This is responsible journalism.

Beck is quoted saying of his revival meeting, "It has nothing to do with politics. It has everything to do with God."

Excuse me, but it has everything to do with politics--and with Glenn Beck, who seems to think he is God.

Every issue is a political issue, viewed broadly, as George Orwell wrote in a famous essay in 1946, meaning that every public airing of an idea is political. But in the usual partisan sense of the word, how could any event not be political when it is staged on the national mall for a throng of mostly white Tea Partyers with a political (anti-Obama) agenda? Everything that Beck does is political, even though he claims to run an entertainment company.

Beck, with his limited education (he graduated from high school) and unlimited ego, is one of the Know-Nothings of the present age who claims to speak for God, one of those right-wing types who never let a lack of information or logical thinking or historical accuracy or consistency get in the way of asserting opinions as facts, who toss around "socialism" as an anti-Obama slur without really knowing much about what it means.

His rally yesterday, using religion (a watered-down evangelical Christianity) to justify political views led one Orlando woman in the crowd to exclaim that Jesus would never have agreed with the "re-distribution of wealth" in the Obama stimulus package or any form of welfare. Of course, the Obama administration was not named since this was not a political rally.

I wonder what Gospel this woman reads. It is the gospel of self-interest and extreme individualism that is the very opposite of the "love thy neighbor" Gospel values that demand social justice for the needy.

I have just read an in-depth profile of the somewhat shadowy billionaire philanthropists Charles and David Koch in the current New Yorker (Aug. 30). Jane Mayer's article is essential reading: she shows in great detail how the various Koch foundations have funded the Tea Party movement and anything that stands in the way of progressive environmental policy that would negatively impact their many businesses. Look under anything that is anti-Obama, it seems, and Koch money is at work.

I wonder if Glenn Beck, one of the conservative hacks who have become rich and famous by stating or implying extreme positions on social and political policy, has benefitted from this largesse. I see such people as "sowers of discord," whom Dante (all too familiar with political conniving) condemned to the lower reaches of Hell.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Solitude and the Desert

I have just completed a long article on the role of the desert in Thomas Merton's spirituality, and in the process of reading happened to find this aphorism by the 17th century French writer La Bruyere: "All of our unhappiness comes from our inability to be alone."

Like so many aphorisms, this one must be taken with a few grains of salt. Nor is La Bruyere especially original: he is no doubt borrowing from Pascal the notion that man's unhappiness is due to his inability to stay in his room: "man" is always planning a future that does not exist, Pascal famously wrote, or is thinking of an equally unreal past instead of being fully present in the now.

It is a struggle to be a contemplative in a busy life; and, as social creatures, it is a challenge to be physically alone, without human company, in any kind of desert. Yet the desert within, when we are alone with our thoughts, can be a fruitful place, and it is not hard to retreat there, in wordless silence, even when people are around. It gives us access to much needed peace.

There can also be fear in the desert and pain and emptiness. To live in the desert, Merton wrote from his hermitage, is to "wage war against despair unceasingly." But the desert, with its long biblical tradition, can also be a site of transformation.

I began to think about the metaphor of the desert, and to explore its implications, thanks to my friend John, who, loving the geographical desert of the American west, found by accident a remarkable memoir, "The Bread of Angels," by Stephanie Saldana, which he gave me. The result was not only my review of this book (recently published in America July 19-26) but a new understanding of the power of desert places.

Although it will embarrass him for me to say so publicly, my friend John is uniquely talented, a sort of Renaissance man who is both artist and craftsman, a builder who supervises the construction of residences as well as a sculptor and painter and skillful reader; he is also a writer and, in his spare time, is a baseball coach for his son's Little League team and a generous neighbor, among many other things. He is one of those many remarkable and talented people who know a lot and do a lot of wonderful things but don't know how remarkable they are.

Anyway, as he would say to end one of his typically interesting and revealing digressions, I can see why he would be attracted to Saldana's book, being as he is deeply spiritual and able to express many of the depths of the inner life.

He understands that the desert can bloom after we confront the pain and the struggle. It did so for Ms. Saldana. It did so for Thomas Merton. It will do so for my unique friend John.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Fear and Loathing

The increase in Islamophobia and in the related phenomenon of what I call Obamaphobia is alarming.

In reading about the furor over the so-called ground-zero mosque, and about the lies so readily accepted by so many Americans about the president, I am reminded of what I learned some years ago in teaching my course on evil.

Since we focused so much on hatred and its origins in that course, I saw over and over that fear (of the foreigner or outsider, in this case) not only produces anger and hatred (and often violence as the end result) but that the hater is ultimately hurt by his or her own hatred. The person who hates with the irrational hatred that leads to violence diminishes himself.

I also recall Plato's assertion that the greatest evil is ignorance, not something my students agreed with even though it's similar to the Buddhist belief. Today, however, with the growing no-nothing movement engineered by the right-wing media,the idea is worth re-considering.

When I read that 31 percent of GOP voters (up considerably from 2009, according to a Pew research survey) willingly assent to the lie that President Obama is a Muslim (meaning,not one of us), they resemble the fools who want to believe that he was not born in the U.S. So he's unAmerican, part of the "enemy" we are supposedly fighting, and therefore, presumably, to be eliminated. Dangerous stuff.

Although any child who reads can sort out the facts about Obama's biography, including his baptism in a certain Chicago church and his birth in Hawaii, followers of Rush Limbaugh, et al. are willing to remain ignorant. It's easier than doing any of your own reading or thinking; and to hate gives you a temporary sense of power.

To make the president into a "foreigner" (the outsider who represents a threat to our safety and order) reminds me of what the Nazis did in Germany by claiming that European Jews were dangerous because they were "foreign." We know where that led.

The media, seemingly afraid to separate truth from falsehood, have failed to correct the record adequately, and the Obama people have not been assertive enough in demonstrating the truth. This tragic ignorance, a type of evil, persists.

As the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan once wrote, "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not his own facts." Far too many people--18% of Americans, according to the Pew survey--prefer opinion, and hatred, over facts. This is the sad reality produced ultimately by fear.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Looking out of Windows

Scenes of boys looking out of windows in a film I recently saw continue to haunt me days after seeing it. The film was The Italian, a Russian movie about an orphan soon to be adopted by an Italian couple. Little Vanya, or "the Italian," as he is called in the orphanage where he lives, is determined to find his real mother before he is relocated. It suffices to say there is a happy ending in this unusual story of fierce love.

Like many people who are alone, Vanya spends time gazing out the window with a mixture of sadness and wistful longing. There are no words for such longing. Nor are there limits to the numbers of people who are no doubt looking out of windows on trains and planes, in houses and schoolrooms at this very moment. Perhaps much of what they are thinking can be expressed in words, but most of it is, I suspect, silent gazing, seemingly pointless.

I wonder if there could be enough silence in the world to drown out the noise, even for a minute.

I can't help but reflect on how many things in our universe operate silently yet how much of our time is spent in the midst of noise, both external and internal. The truth of the Word cannot be heard, T. S. Eliot wrote, because "there is not enough silence." Contemplative stillness, which is much more than the absence of sound, is desperately missing in our world.

So when we see someone in a reverie, looking at the light as it comes through a pane of glass, we must be grateful. We must be grateful for the paintings, like Vermeer's, where someone is caught off guard for a moment looking toward an open window. Or for the chance to catch a stranger silently looking beyond his or her surroundings and to know that it is not pointless.

We are arrested by such scenes perhaps because we recall those rare, savored moments of real silence in our own lives when we were fortunate enough to be able to pause in the rush of the day's events to gaze out of a window.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A New British Invasion

The latest British invasion of our shores, seemingly ignored by the major media, is an interesting reversal of the usual linguistic pattern whereby Americanisms are spread around the world by our pop culture, raising eyebrows in London and sighs in Paris.

I refer to the appearance in our printed media of words and expressions that I think of as characteristically British. When Jay Leno recently made a joke about $8.7 billion of our money "gone missing in Iraq," he was using an idiom rarely heard on this side of the pond until about five years ago. We used to say that the money or the person or whatever is missing, but because of TV shows and films from England, presumably, we are now comfortable with "gone missing." What was unidiomatic in American English has become idiomatic.

So, too, with "queue," used by Netflix and certain theaters (or is it theatres?). I suppose we are enriching our linguistic options by having another way of saying "line," but I have not heard anyone in the U.S. say "queue up here, mate."

I can't be the only one to notice all this and confess to having done very little research on British-American usage. But I listen and read attentively.

I've noticed being "sacked" used by the New York Times, which assumes its readers know that this is UK slang for fired, laid off. I don't find "get the chop" making its way over to these shores as yet, however. More and more Americans have been "booking" (rather than simply making) reservations in recent years and feel comfortable using, at least in print, such trans-Atlantic words as "randy," "smarmy," and "bespoke" (for tailor-made suits, as by the chaps in Savile Row).

The whole topic of slang is a bit dodgy, as the Brits would say, and endlessly changing, especially in the global village made possible by new technology. So, among the 1.5 billion speakers of English around the world, there's always a good chance of being misunderstood by someone using the English language.

Chances are we will always be two countries divided by a common language, in the words of G. B. Shaw (or was it Winston Churchill?). The Brits are likely to agree with Oscar Wilde's witty proclamation: "We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language."

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Writer's Block

Fear of the blank page is very common, even among experienced writers. The best-selling author often freezes at the thought of following his or her blockbuster with a second book that won't disappoint. Rather like stage fright, which can afflict even the greats (Laurence Olivier and Judi Dench among them).

The poet William Stafford once said that as soon as he felt writer's block coming on, he simply lowered his expectations and so never really experienced the fear. This sounds flippant, but it suggests to me something of value: that we should worry more about revising, developing and improving a first draft than obsessing over the first draft, making that "perfect" and making ourselves tense in the process.

I often asked my university composition students to make a rough outline, and so when they began to worry that they didn't know how to get started with an essay, I would remind them, "But you already have a beginning: build on that." Writing a few sentences--or even one--is a beginning, even if you end up changing those sentences: you have broken through the initial barrier. Many writers start their day by warming up on the keyboard by doing e-mail for 20 minutes; Julia Cameron is one. Her book, The Right to Write, is valuable. But my advice to writers is generally to write, not to read about writing.

Advice to beginning writers is plentiful. Colette, the French author of "Gigi" and many other works, advised a young writer to "look for a long time at what pleases you." Simple observation, then describing what you see, can be a basic tool in getting started. So, too, you can use past e-mails and journal entries as prompts. I typically begin with scribbled notes, then compose on the computer, revising as I go.

Stephen King, in his book On Writing, says that "good writing is often about letting go of fear." What is it that we fear? That no one will care or bother to read what we write, or they will criticize it. Or we tell ourselves, "I don't know enough to be a writer, never having pleased my English teachers since, deep down, I am not good enough."

Writing is often a daily struggle to prove to ourselves that, since we can speak, we can write. We know the basic grammar of English since we use it every day (I don't mean the names of the 'rules.') And we have read a lot, absorbing at an unconscious level the ways sentences work. Above all, we have something to say that must be said, that others must read.

Consider, too, the famous writers who persisted despite bad reviews and rejections: "Stick to your teaching, Miss Alcott, you'll never be a writer." This is what a publisher told Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, the most popular book for young people in the 19th cent. A 1925 review of Fitzgerald's classic The Great Gatsby called it "an absurd story." Joseph Heller, who had tried 21 publishers before he found one for Catch-22 (hence that number), which was called "an emotional hodge-podge" by one myopic editor before the novel found immediate fans in the early 1960s. And so it goes.

These and other authors moved beyond the rejection and the fear of future criticism because they believed in themselves and in what they were doing as writers. Something to ponder for those who find themselves staring at a blank screen or paper instead of writing.