Sunday, June 20, 2010

Language and death

As I take a brief hiatus for vacation, I don't want my many readers to be too bereft, so I put out here two unrelated questions, one minor, one major, for contemplation. I will return around July 4.

1. Profanity: This word is continually used by the media to refer to movies, etc. that have "bad language." Yet the dictionary tells me what I was taught in parochial school: that profanity is blasphemous speech; it is inseparable from religion and can mean secular, unholy, irreligious. It is taking the name of God in vain, as in "goddamn," etc. Or the use of the name of Jesus Christ, which admittedly makes an effective curse word given its sound, as an exclamation. Anybody familiar with the old Holy Name Society knows what I mean. Profanity is clearly distinguished from obscenity (sexual terms such as the ubiquitous f-word so widely overused today that one hopes it will one day expire from exhaustion) and vulgarity (bodily functions, e.g., piss).
Has profanity been watered down in its meaning, or has our secular culture concluded that, religion being irrelevant to most of life, there is no point in defaming a God who doesn't exist?

2. In the opening the Dutch film, "Antonia's Line," the main character says that "death is a miracle." I didn't watch enough of this movie to know if this was a correct translation or if the story exemplies the idea that not only is life a miracle but death is, too. In what sense is death a miracle?

Monday, June 14, 2010

What'll I do?

What'll I do on my vacation? I've been asked this several times when I tell people we are going to spend ten days in New England. Some people seemed puzzled by such a trip.

What I will do, I want to say, is enjoy myself. I plan to take in the beauty and cool air (we hope) and just BE. Does there have to be a lot of exciting things to do?

I know the skiing season is over, and we don't do whitewater rafting or anything much except walking to bookstores, museums, and restaurants and enjoying a change of scene. I hope that's enough.

I hope I'm not let down by the expectations of others. I might be so anxious I won't be able to relax and will have to send postcards and e-mails to reassure everyone at home that our vacation is absolutely Wonderful!!

If only more people could allow themselves the freedom to be--without necessarily doing a lot.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Revisiting Enya's Reverberations

As I drove around town today, I was listening to an old (1991) CD by Enya, the Irish singer and composer, whose work I have overlooked in recent years. I found the songs calming and beautifully haunting. Their magic unfolds with an unhurried ease.

The "Shepherd Moons" album remains a classic if you like dreamy music that wafts you along slowly with "ethereal reverberations." This last phrase is courtesy of Wikipedia, which tells me how successful Enya has been, that she lives in a home called Manderley Castle (which we almost glimpsed as we were driving out of Dublin six years ago toward the Wicklow Hills), Manderley as in "Rebecca," of course, which begins, famously, "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again."

The Wiki article compares Enya to Sissel, the Norwegian singer who seems to me a stronger vocalist, but it's hard to tell what Enya really sounds like, given the electronic reverberations in which her whispered melodies are concocted.

I am sounding critical perhaps because it's a life-long habit when, in fact, my point is to praise this album's memorable songs--especially "Marble Halls," "Caribbean Moon," and the best of all, "How Can I keep from Singing?" To listen to these is to be taken out of oneself (often desirable) and transported out of the present with its anxieties to some romantic-poetic neverland that evokes the world of "The Lady of Shalott."

Seems only appropriate for a singer who owns Manderley Castle--and for me after several weeks of reading and thinking about dreams.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Never On Sunday

Our household policy of disconnecting the telephone on Sundays upsets some people, confuses others, and makes a few others slightly envious.

Those in this last group would also like some cloistered time, but they have families, as we do not, and have to be on call 24/7. My wife and I, being writers with a cat but no kids, tend to view the phone as a necessary evil. More often than not, it is an interruption from more important things.

We realize all too well that few people today have the luxury to live as we do. Many,in fact, go to the opposite extreme and are so plugged in to electronic gadgets that, as a woman quoted in a recent NYTimes article stated, they have no time for the family. With the online chats, text messaging, multiple e-mails and phone calls, the woman's husband can "no longer be fully in the moment."

And I want to say, That's where we need to be for anything resembling peace of mind. Some psychologists believe that too many bursts of information, too much internet use and technical multi-tasking can re-wire our brains. Another article, about Nicholas Carr's book 'The Shallows,' deals with a similar theme, one articulated some years ago by Sven Birkerts in 'The Gutenberg Elegies.'

Many younger people are missing the intellectual depth of reading and thinking in favor of quick information, which results, says Carr, in a kind of blur; and the faster we take in such information, the greater the stress and anxiety.

As an educator, I worry about the pressure many feel to find information and not know what to do with it, not being able to integrate it into the general fund of knowledge and insight that develops during one's ongoing development. Moreover, the decline of private reading in favor of electronic media means a loss of those essential experiences of reflection and contemplation.

I admire what I can do with the computer. But I can't imagine giving up the pleasure of reading the old-fashioned way, with its intellectual and spiritual benefits. Or answering the phone on a quiet Sunday. Surely we are entitled to silence one day a week.

Thursday, June 3, 2010


Last night, a violent storm that cut off power for two hours ended up being a welcome bit of contemplative quiet, at least for me.

I enjoyed the silence, the cool air from the open windows, the candles we had lit. I was given permission to do nothing.

It is wonderful to do nothing and just be. To savor fully the present moment, which is something I write about but don't do a lot of. Like most people, I'm too busy to live--if we mean what Pascal meant when he said that most people are so preoccupied with the past or worrying about the future that they have no time for the present, and so, "we never actually live but only hope to live, and since we are always planning how to be happy, it is inevitable that we should never be so."(Pensees, 17th cent.)

I didn't think of Pascal last night, but I did think of Thomas Merton's famous comment on rain, as it bucketed down on our Winter Park home; it comes from his book Raids on the Unspeakable. He compares the rain to speech "pouring down, selling nothing,judging nothing...soaking the trees, filling the gullies and crannies of the wood with water. What a thing it is to sit absolutely alone in the forest at night [listening to] the talk the rain makes..."

But mainly, like Merton, I just listened as countless ancestors of mine, most of them unaware of electric power, listened to the sound of the rain. I was glad for the gift rain, even a storm, gives us of cutting us off from ordinary time and its constraints and allowing us to savor the timeless present.

Life is Good

The woman who sells me fish at the local supermarket is remarkable. Despite having lupus and various other ailments, and crippling pain, she is always cheerful, gracious, and upbeat.

When I ask Terry how she is feeling, she invariably smiles and says, "Oh, life is good. Hey, I've got a job. And I get to talk to these nice people."

No matter that to get to work, she must haul herself out of bed at 4 a.m. to get the 5 o'clock bus so she can limp into the store by 6. If she sits down, her ankles swell. She gets through the day on pain killers and, mainly, a radiant personality.

I don't know if Terry is religious or what produces her smile in the face of a tough life, but I consider her saintly. She refuses to focus on the negative and tries to live the daily struggle with grace. She lifts my spirits. Seeing her is the highlight of my shopping experience.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Silence Revisited: Yet Another Book

I spent the weekend reading 'A Book of Silence,' a memoir by Sara Maitland, a British novelist who spent time in the Sinai desert and on the island of Skye off Scotland exploring the effects of silence, a topic of wide interest these days. It'sa topic that has occupied me for the past ten years, resulting in several articles.

I learned several things from Maitland's admirably bold adventure but was ultimately disappointed because her journey seemed mainly an intellectual exercise: Twice in one chapter she mentions thinking about silence and prayer without sharing with the reader the spiritual experience of the latter.

The author has read widely and shares many insights about the many different types of silence as found in forests, deserts, mountains, hermitages and in many religious traditions, and she seems torn by the desire to write and be active on the one hand and to divest herself of the ego on the other, as the silence is calling her into a deeper state that she never describes; it's as if all the silence has not been a transformative experience. It has not made her poetic or prayerful as Annie Dillard and Thomas Merton are. (I am expecting too much.)

If I quibble with some of the conclusions she makes about saints and desert fathers, I nevertheless value many of her insights and am grateful that we do not have here another book on noise and silence (I recently saw a review of three new books on this topic). Silence is hot these days.

I applaud Maitland's determination to go beyond the usual pieties (such as ineffability)that arise with contemplative silence and to actually test the emotional effects of silence, which she does with a candor that sounds more American than British. Yet I keep wanting to say, "Go deeper. Cover less material at greater depth. Write a true spiritual memoir."

I have not had anything like Maitland's confrontation with "the freedom of solitude" or "the energy of silence" in the remote places of our globe, but I wish she would explore what these phrases of hers really mean rather than conclude that silence is ultimately a mystery and that, as we are repeatedly told, it is not the absence of sound or noise. That should be obvious to anyone interested in reading this book.

I hate to say it, but deep down, there is something superficial about this book.