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.