Sunday, May 30, 2010

Feline Spirituality

Why Time Spent with Cats is Never Wasted

“Where’s that lazy cat of yours?” a friend asked not long ago when he had been in our house for ten minutes and had not yet seen Lizzie, our gray tabby.

I almost responded by saying, “cats aren’t lazy,” but I knew that would sound defensive or, more likely given my career, professorial; he had not come by for a lecture. So I said something innocuous and changed the subject.

What I could have pointed out is that cats, unlike people, do not have the advantage of choosing between work and idleness; laziness is not an option since they are born to do nothing but be. I know they can be useful hunters, but nearly all the domesticated cats of my acquaintance have so few opportunities to catch rodents that they revert, full-time, to what they do best: living in the present. This is what I envy about all animals: their ignorance of time.

And this is where they are, in their seemingly useless fashion, of most use to us as models of inspiration. Lizzie, a house cat, spends her entire day in a kind of reverie, listening to the sounds of nature on our porch and observing every detail of her environment. Even when she appears to sleep, her ears are alert for any sound that might interest her.

It is impossible to say for sure what occupies her mind during these reveries, but I believe that, like other cats, Lizzie is a contemplative. She has found what many of us in our increasingly noisy world seek: inner peace. It is no wonder that so many writers have had feline companions since they are quiet (most of the time), like solitude, and are known for their sensitivity and intelligence. And, being contemplatives, they live lives of monastic simplicity.

Whether cats actually inspire writers or help them focus remains an open question, but I continue to recommend a cat to anyone who wants to be more centered and less scattered. As the French writer Colette wisely declared, “time spent with cats is never wasted.”

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Lies and damned lies

When a friend of mine recently opined that there is more lying in the world today than in the 1950s or 1960s, when we were both growing up, I wasn't sure how to respond. Is it possible that we both are simply more aware these days of the corporate and government lies that have had tragic consequences in everything from national security (the Iraq war) to the environment (the current BP disaster in the Gulf)?

My friend's observation reminds me of asking my students, Is there more evil today than in the past? Many said yes automatically; others reflected a bit and concluded that there are just more people doing awful things. Others said we are more aware of the crimes and horrors perpetrated by one person against others because of media technology. (My question was intended to stir more questions, not to be answered in a definitive sense.)

Anyone who has read George Orwell, writing just after World War II, or even classic authors from 700 years ago like Dante knows how deep-seated greed and corruption are in public life--and how universal in private life.

Although people surely were not less selfish in earlier times, I am tempted to say that there seems to be more cheating today both in schools and in the public sphere. There is more plagiarism, I suspect, because of the ever-greater pressures to get ahead at any cost in difficult times.

Just yesterday I learned of a congressional candidate from Idaho, one Vaughan Barnes, who had the audacity to deliver a speech copied almost verbatim from Barack Obama. Mr. Barnes, a Republican, has no shame and no brains but will probably get elected anyway; he is part of a culture of deception wherein politicians lie about taking bribes from lobbyists when they are not lying to their wives about affairs or to the voters about policies they often misunderstand or misrepresent.

This is not cynicism but realism. It is also realistic to say that human nature, being essentially selfish, will continue to produce amusing and horrifying examples of good old mendacity.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

My encounters with film

I watch too many movies. Netflix is to blame. It seems that, if Lynn and I don't have something from Netflix to watch each evening, we are a bit flummoxed, as the Brits are more likely to say (we watch a lot of British imports). Maybe it's an addiction.

If so, it is a pleasant one. Sometimes, it's like watching others' dreams unfold; and the more subjective, character-driven, and slow it is, the more I am likely to value a film. I seek less fast-paced action than reflective, even contemplatively silent, visual experiences.

The ultimate example of this would be the documentary 'Into Great Silence', filmed at the Carthusian monastery in the French Alps where, with no dialogue or voice-over, we watch, as if in real time, the daily lives of men at prayer. For me it is a spiritual experience, as it might not be for others.

But I cannot include this three-hour encounter with silence on my list of my favorite, most enjoyable films, which people often ask me to list. Doing so is a challenge since I have seen so many that I like, some of which I have seen repeatedly. This is always the test of a great film: whether I can enjoy it a third or fourth time.

This is the case with Visconti's 'Death in Venice,' which, because of the haunting music of Mahler and the visual beauty and slow pace, is a piece of pure cinema where dialogue is minimal and atmosphere everything. It's another example of finding silence in films that aren't silent in the literal sense.

How many times have I seen 'The Third Man"? The atmosphere of Vienna in 1947, highlighted by that zither, makes it the ultimate film noir and one that I watch again and again whenever it comes on TV. The appearance of Orson Welles in a shadowy doorway, with the cat, is always thrilling.

Also on my list is 'The Lion in Winter' for very different reasons: a witty screenplay and the superb performances by Hepburn and O'Toole in their prime. I never tire of 'Chariots of Fire' or 'Mrs. Dalloway,' the latter because of Vanessa Redgrave. I admire the skill and cinematography of 'Apocalypse Now'--one of the greatest of anti-war movies. 'Field of Dreams' is not only a sentimental favorite but memorable for the way "the other world" intrudes on the Iowa cornfield. 'Amadeus' has Mozart, which should be reason enough, but the whole production sparkles; so does 'Gigi.'

I never miss 'Witness for the Prosecution' when it appears on TV and always find the court appearance of Marlene Dietrich memorable. And I always enjoy 'Moonstruck,' which captures the essence of Italian-American NYC as I like it to be, with a nod to Shakespeare and Puccini.

So that's my list, in no particular order. The problem is there are so many great ones that I know I omitted, like Hitchcock's 'Rear Window' and 'Psycho' and all those filmed classics from British TV ('Bleak House,' 'Daniel Deronda,' 'Middlemarch,' 'Martin Chuzzlewit,' 'Vanity Fair,' etc., etc.)

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Being Grateful

A recent thank-you note arrived with this line quoted, although no source for the quote was provided: "A grateful heart knows many joys."

This is perhaps not the most profound thought in human history, yet it caught my attention because I had been thinking of the relation between gratefulness and happiness.

Influenced by a book on gratitude by David Steindl-Rast, I have noted in several talks and at least one article the importance of acknowledging the value of even the simplest of things; such gratitude is an important form of prayer.

Being grateful for the beauties of each day, for the people I know, for my life experiences, for the countless good things in my life is a powerful antidote to cynicism and depression. Even though I do not hold God personally responsible for micro-managing the creation He has entrusted to us, it is hard not to connect gratefulness and prayerfulness. And also to see that mindfulness is part of the mix, too, by which I mean attention to the sacredness of the present moment.

To acknowledge a radiant blue sky, to be aware of the absence of pain and the feeling I have of well-being is an affirmation, on the psychological level, of life as good, despite the horrors that surround us both in the outside world (turn on the news) and among those we know. It is at the same time a spiritually important recognition that, in spite of everything, the world is worth fighting for.

I think of Pascal's often-quoted comment about the way people rarely think of the present; they live instead in the past or worry about the future; as a result, he said, they never actually live but only hope to live. To be conscious of the ordinary realities around me, including the food I eat, the water I drink, the technology I use, is to be fully in the present and therefore to experience, if not joy then a satisfaction, free of worry or regret, that can be callled happiness.

To take nothing for granted is a key to remaining happy.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

God Stuff

It's hard to visit Barnes & Noble and not find at least one interesting new book. Most recently, a volume by Mario Livio, an astrophysicist, caught my attention: "Is God a Mathematician?"

The question is intriguing and led me to skim his book, even though I am one of the least likely people to understand much of what he says. His chapter on knot theory was far too knotty for me.

I used to tell my students that questions are ultimately more important than answers--the really interesting questions being unanswerable--and that in a world where science claims to solve mysteries, nothing is more important (spiritually, I meant) that the wonder and awe of mysteries that lead most open-minded people to the ultimate mystery of God.

So it was not too disappointing to find that Livio seems to say little about God or theology. He does note the remarkable "magical patterns" found in numbers, as when the sum of every series of odd numbers (1 + 3 =4) produces a square number. When I taught my course in the medieval cathedrals and referred to the apparent use of numerology in some of the designs of Chartres, for example, the students were especially fascinated. The use of the divine ratio and of variations on 3 (Trinity) by the architects is only part of the question we are left with as we study these enormous structures,built before modern engineering: How on earth did they do it?

Behind the numerology of Chartres, and Livio's book,is the fundamental question that has bedeviled mathematicians for centuries: Is math a human invention, or does it reflect a divine order that scientists keep uncovering?

I naturally favor the latter view. I am intrigued to read about physicists who keep discovering in the intricate design of the universe a sign of the divine mind.

Scholars at the School of Chartres in the 11th century began to use Pythagoras and other ancient sources to pose such questions about the relation between numbers and the universe, the same type of questions which later intrigued Dante in his conception of paradise. To know that thinkers today still ask similar questions is wonderfully humbling.

The most important thing in Livio's book, for me, is the unanswerable question in the title.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Silence and Noise

"In Pursuit of Silence," a new book by George Prochnik, sounds, from the recent reviews, like a book I must read. Yet one reviewer summed it up by saying, "To understand silence, one must understand noise as well." I beg to disagree.

As I have written in several articles, the longest one just published this month in "Cithara," silence is not the opposite of sound and does not depend on noise but rather has its own independent existence; it is ultimately a spiritual entity. I have tried to show, using everyone from Walter Ong and Thomas Merton to Zen writers, that silence is a positive sign of presence, not absence.

Since words, which emerge from silence, do not last as silence does, a real encounter with God or with the non-material world is an encounter with silence. Thus silence in the East, as in Christian mysticism, is not an empty nothing but the enduring reality that sound interrupts. Silence is the key that opens the door to the contemplative life. Here Merton is the best of guides (see "New Seeds of Contemplation").

As my recent article states, I have been searching for silence in various places not because of its contrast to noise but as a source of prayerful attention to the present moment, as an indispensable source of inner peace. Only in silence can we encounter a timeless reality where we find, among other things, our true selves.

Still, I look forward to seeing what Prochnik has to say since our increasingly busy and noisy lives cry out for the deep attention of silence and since any reflection on silence is likely to be of value, mysterious though it ultimately remains.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Rats and Laughter

Since we seem fated every few years to be infested by rodents in our attic, we can fortunately call on an unusual exterminator, whose visits ligthen the experience.

He would have made an excellent university lecturer since he not only studied entomology at the Univ. of Florida but knows the daily habits of mice, rats, squirrels, and other critters. With humor and great animation, he talks to me at length about how they live and how more interesting and intelligent they are than insects. Finding their entry-ways is a strategy for him. "If I were a squirrel," he will say, "this is what I would do." A demonstration then ensues.

I have learned many things from this erudite ratcatcher, including the fact that squirrels sleep at night whereas mice and rats are nocturnal, rising from their afternoon naps in early evening to rummage around. So what we hear at night cannot, alas, be the sound of squirrels.

Sometimes I think it is easier to get rid of rats than of the loquacious ratcatcher, who enjoys nothing more than explaining to us much more than we need or want to know. A five-minute conversation easily expands into thirty-five minutes. But Lynn is delighted to hear from him the colorful details about little creatures she can include in her stories for children, and I come away pleased to know a man who enjoys his work so much and who turns what could be disgusting or slightly alarming into something entertaining.

I keep discovering that I don't have to search for things to be grateful for. These often involve the indispensable element of laughter.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Happiness: Does Anyone Know What It Is?

Last year I gave a lecture on the meaning of happiness for 350 people at the Univ. of Central Florida. Whether they were happy during the experience, or after, was unclear. I doubt if any of us ended up with a clear definition of the idea.

I trust that my listeners, like me, had never thought much about the subject, and so I shared with them the highlights of a readable and enlightening book by Darrin McMahon, "Happiness: A History." I was interested in his discussion of Jefferson's phrase enshrined in our constitutional history of the right to the "pursuit of happiness." I was also interested in the earlier meaning of happiness as good fortune, in contrast to the more modern idea that it's something not only desirable in this life but attainable by our efforts. The history of happiness is essentially a series of people asking, Will we ever know what satisfies human beings?

Since discovering McMahon's book, I keep running into more and more happiness studies. The latest book, "Happy," by Ian Smith, M.D., is about how to get the most out of life. He mentions that happiness, among other things, is not about getting something we don't want but appreciating what we already have,presumably what is here in the present moment.

Many of the "positive psychologists" adding to the growing field of happiness studies in universities seem to sense that material pleasures alone don't provide real happiness, even if they are reluctant to state that happiness is, in the final analysis, a spiritual matter. Our hearts are restless, as Augustine wrote, indicating that we can never find any real happiness in this earthly life, or (to use a bit of the lyrical Catholicism I was raised in) "this vale of tears."

It so happened that today's e-mail message from the Merton Institute, a weekly reflection taken from the works of Thomas Merton, says this: Can't we be content with "an ordinary, secret, personal happiness" that doesn't have to be explained or justified? No mention of a vale of tears here; rather, a happiness that costs nothing and has never been advertised "in some publically approved way." This type of happiness, Merton implies, transcends the material and defies definition.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Name calling

My wife and I call each other names. This doesn't mean that we fight; quite the opposite.

Perhaps because she is a poet and writer specializing in stories for children, Lynn has always had pet names for me (that I keep private) and in fact rarely calls me by my given name. Nor do I call her "Lynn" except when we're in public. I doubt if I will become like the octogenarian in the joke who impressed visitors by calling his wife of 65 years "honey" and "sweetheart" all the time. People were so amazed that his marriage was so romantic after so long that he finally confessed to one of his friends: "To tell you the truth, I forgot her name about 10 years ago."

We not only have such pet names for each other but we have something I recommend to others: a cast of invisible characters who can take the blame when things go a bit wrong. For example, we have "Ruby," named for the scullery maid in the TV show "Upstairs, Downstairs." If Lynn has forgotten to do something in the kitchen, I avoid any hint of criticism or complaint by simply blaming Ruby, who is not the brightest of creatures. This makes for a refreshing contrast to Lynn, who is brilliant, and who enjoys shifting the blame.

My own persona in the kitchen, since I do a lot of the cooking, is Chef Andre, who takes credit (and blame) as the case may be. Then there is Suzette, who makes soup and other good things. Rather than express disappointment about the taste of a dish, I will shift the responsibility to Suzette, who, we have decided, is still a novice cook and demands patience. "Do you think Suzette can put less salt in the soup next time?" I will ask. "Will Jeremy (another persona of mine, the office manager) mind filling out some insurance forms?" Lynn will ask. These characters are limited, as of now, to 6 or 7, but they might increase as the need arises. Even our cat, Lizzie, has an imaginary attendant, responsible for cleaning her box. It's a private in-joke that Lizzie is not privy to (pun intended).

Although I would never have come up with such a scheme on my own, I see how valuable it is in turning potential conflicts and hurt feelings into something amusing. To refer to oneself in the third person, as a friend wrote to me in a recent e-mail, is to take some of the potential danger out of a situation.

No two people can live together without disagreements and conflicts, mostly minor; yet these conflicts can easily build unless there is an element of silliness or at least comedy built into the style of communication the couple uses.

So if I were asked for a helpful technique to smooth out the wrinkles in a relationship, I would say at once, use humor; then, specifically, create a character, a pseudonym, a persona. Such a character is especially useful if there is an area where one of the partners is not too skillful, such as my inability to repair things. Tap into imagination; be silly; lighten up the atmosphere. Comedy allows for distance and detachment.
Most of the issues people argue about are essentially trivial anyway.

Eventually the character you create will develop a "real" personality and identity, like a character in fiction--as long as you don't forget the identity of your real partner.

If you think I'm crazy, consider: Don't we all play many roles on life's stage, as Shakespeare wrote? Aren't we all made up of many facets?

My writing workshop

Again this summer, I look forward to leading a 6-week workshop on prose style at the Winter Park Library.

The sessions will meet from July 8 through Aug. 12, 2010--six Thursday evenings from 7-8:15 p.m in the third floor Melanson Room.

We will look closely at sentence patterns, then at descriptive paragraphs, reviewing along the way the basics of editing. Most writers, especially emerging ones, can benefit from a focus on style.

Although I am a non-fiction writer, the course is open to fiction writers too. I am fortunate in having Chris McClelland, an assistant editor of 'Narrative' magazine and a published author with solid experience, to assist me in the discussion. Both of us volunteer our time, but the course has a fee attached, mainly to cover the course materials.

Registration is required: for non-members of the Institute for Lifelong Learning, $50; for members, $25. Call the Library's Institute at 407-623-3279. The workshop is limited to 18 students.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Perchance to dream

Because I am supposed to teach a short-term course next year on dreams in literature and film, I have been thinking of my own strange dreams and they often involve the anxiety of being unprepared, especially to teach. After 45 years of teaching, my unconscious mind keeps telling me I am hopelessly disorganized, sloppy, and stupid, maybe even a fraud.

I wonder if my readers have similar anxious dreams worth sharing. (My e-mail is unless you wish to leave a comment below.)

Hitchock turned his nightmares into classic films that scared millions: I think of Psycho, Rear Window, and Vertigo, probably his best movies. Salvador Dali is but one painter who has put his fantasies and dreams, often produced by large amounts of Camembert cheese, according to the artist, onto his surreal canvases. Dreams have inspired R. L. Stevenson, Mary Shelley, and countless other writers to produce masterpieces. I watched a Fellini movie last night and was reminded of his dreams. So this topic is overwhelming, and I am not sure how to approach it in a one-week course.

Dreams, after all, are so personal. Yet what is personal is supposedly universal.... I will have to return to this topic at another time.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Good Listening

A recent Associated Press poll asked, Are pets better listeners than spouses? I suppose it should surprise few Americans, given the state of marriage today, that many respondents said they preferred to talk their troubles over with their dogs or cats than with their marital partners. Twenty-five percent said their dogs were the preferred listeners; alas, only 14% said cats.

Having written and spoken extensively about the spirituality of cats, I was more concerned with the latter data than with the fact that people talk in depth to non-human partners.

So I want to write on behalf of feline listening. Cats are ideal listeners because, first of all, they have superb, antenna-like ears with dozens of separate muscles designed to pick up sounds we can scarcely imagine. More important, as I p0int out in my book Writing With Cats, felines are unusually skilled contemplatives. They live fully in the present moment and thus exude a peaceful aura (most of the time) that is conducive to reflection on the part of their human staff who happen to be writers.

Thus it comes as no surprise that most of the world's great writers have lived with cats. When Hemingway wrote that he valued the cat's emotional honesty, he was on to something important that I have noticed in our cat, Lizzie, who is an excellent listener. She can pick up the emotional subtext of what I say and can sense, with exquisite intuition, any apprehension or distress on our part--as when we are preparing to take her to the vet. And she is never phony in her responses, even when they are not what I might prefer. If she misses the meaning of my words, she gets their tone and resonance.

I don't really need Lizzie as a therapist since I am married to one. Lynn, although retired as a counselor, is a gifted listener. But we both talk to Lizzie and notice that she is fully present to us when we do so; she enjoys hearing her name mentioned and is more alert and sympathetic as a listener than many of the people we know. I mean those concerned with their own agendas who pause only long enough in their monologues to breathe. Or so it seems sometimes.

Good listening has to do with giving full attention to another. In most circumstances, Lizzie scores well in this category.

I think we can learn some lessons from our feline friends, especially about living in the reality of the now and being fully present to those around us. One drawback with cats is their tendency to walk away suddenly in the middle of a conversation. But that's what comes with emotional honesty.