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.