Monday, May 16, 2011


As we prepare to go on holiday, as the Brits say, I will take a hiatus from blogging for a fortnight, resuming after June 1.

In the meantime, a good quote from Thomas Merton that is worth pondering:

'We make ourselves real by telling the truth. Man can hardly foreget that he needs to know the truth, for the instinct to know is too strong in us to be destroyed. But he can forget how badly he also needs to tell the truth. We cannot know truth unless we ourselves are conformed to it.'

--from A Merton Reader, ed. McDonnell, p. 120.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Writing Workshop Begins July 7, 2011


My third annual summer workshop on prose style will meet on the four Thursday evenings of July at the Winter Park Public Library (7-8:30 p.m.).

This 4-week course is intended for both non-fiction and fiction writers who want to learn more about their options as writers. I put a lot of emphasis on effective sentences and paragraphs.

Many writers are unsure how language works and are not good editors of their own work. This workshop will help them--and anyone who wants a short course that will motivate them to write or to overcome writers' block.

To register call the Library at 407-623-3279. The workshop is not limited to Winter Park residents. There is a fee (I am a volunteer instructor) to cover the course materials. Anyone with questions can write to me at

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

History's Details

I've always been attracted to social historians who, instead of making sweeping statements about the political and economic issues of an era, focus on people's lives: what they ate and wore, how they worked, what they did. This seems to bring the past alive in a way that conventional history never does. I call it microhistory.

So the discovery of Bill Bryson's work, especially his book At Home, has been a welcome one. It has led me to some of his other books, including lively and amusing studies of the English language and the life of Shakespeare. He is a curious fellow who unearths vast amounts of information about the past that he presents in an engaging manner. He deserves to be a best-selling author.

Living as he does in a Victorian house in England, Bryson gives us an anatomy of each area of the house, with all the interesting "digressions" about the oddities of human behavior as they manifest themselves in the customs of English life from 1750-1900, mainly. In At Home, I have learned the following delicious tidbits:

1. The Duke of Malborough, who paid untold millions for the building of the extravagant Blenheim Palace, was so stingy he refused to dot his i's to save ink. A detail like this is worth the price of the book, and it tells me a lot about the man.

2. Ladies' wigs in the 1790's became so extreme, rising on wire scaffolding that made the wearer look seven feet tall, so high were they that the ladies had to keep their heads out of the carriage windows when they traveled. These hairpieces were so elaborate they were untouched by soap and water for months at a time, leading to unpleasant things, like the lady who found mice nesting in her upper decks.

3. Landscape architects often added mock ruins to an estate for picturesque effect. A nobleman in Surrey once had a hermitage installed and hired a man as a live-in hermit. He paid him handsomely to live for seven years in monastic silence in this hermitage, but the man quickly grew tired of the solitude and silence and ran off to a nearby pub. If only the nobility had kept the monasteries destroyed by Henry VIII, I thought: they would not need ersatz hermits.

Anyone interested in the building or dining or bathing customs of our 19th century ancestors or who wants to appreciate the modern conveniences we take for granted will enjoy books like Bryson's. The truth about life in the past is often found in amusing details; and history, far from being a dull record of the past, can be hilarious.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Molding the Inner Life

"Stay in the present as much as possible," a wise friend advises me; postpone thinking of tomorrow. He and I keep learning from each other the basic spiritual value of mindfulness.

For some reason, I thought about this not in relation to my own anxieties but to the way Etty Hillesum faced the Holocaust. In 1999, I wrote an article on her spirituality, noting that this courageous woman, whose life ended at 29, deserved to be better known; that is still true.

Esther (Etty) Hillesum was a cultivated, assimilated Dutch Jewish woman, who worked in Amsterdam as a translator and teacher, but her real aim was to be a writer. Before leaving to join her fellow Jews on their way to what would be their deaths at Auschwitz in 1943, she kept a diary that has been published as An Interrupted Life. There we see her, like so many others, struggle with a lack of confidence in writing, yet growing, page by page, more eloquent as her faith in God becomes stronger through her writing.

She records her day-by-day experiences with fear and loneliness and love, refusing to focus on what might lie ahead, savoring the present in her own quiet little corner of the world. Finding safety in the silence of wordless prayer, she writes, "Sometimes the most important thing in a whole day is the rest we take between two breaths, or the turning inward for five short minutes."

Etty Hillesum was never published in her lifetime, but her luminous spirit can inspire anyone interested in writing as a key to the inner life. This is something she creates with words, with the desire to "describe the silence and the stillness." Writing is a form of prayerful meditation which keeps her sane while the world outside her little apartment is exploding with madness. She turns inward in what she calls "an uninterrupted dialogue with God."

"We must become as simple and wordless as the growing corn or the falling rain. We must just be." Her diary records the birth of a poet who senses the silent presence of God within her. As a result, she can write: "a hint of eternity steals through my smallest daily activities...I am not alone in my tiredness or sickness or fears but at one with millions of others of many centuries and it is all part of life."

In my article I compared her to Simone Weil, who also displayed the tough inner spirit of a courageous mystic. Etty writes, "In a labour camp I should die within three days. I should lie down and die and still not find life unfair."

Her final words, written on a postcard that she tossed out the train window as she and her family were taken away: "we left the camp singing." Apparently, others testified, she kept up the spirits of her fellow victims.

Among the many riches in this diary and letters, two things: an intense savoring of the present moment, giving prayerful attention to each hour of each day; and a growing sense of God dwelling in her heart: "I repose in myself. And that part of myself, that deepest and richest part in which I repose, is what I call 'God'."

Etty Hillesum does not hold God responsible for the evil she is caught up in. She says, rather, that "we must help You to help ourselves." In her writing, like that of St. Augustine and Rilke, her favorite poet, she often talks directly to God.

Although she had abundant reasons to be terrified, Etty Hillesum faced her greatest fears with the courage of amazing grace.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Avoiding Humiliation

"Avoiding humiliation is the core of tragedy and comedy and probably of our lives," wrote John Guare, the playwright, who said he was chiefly interested in how characters (and people in real life) avoid humiliation.

This statement caught my attention. It reminded me of my own life-long fear of being shamed and even of the many people I know--most of my students included--who would do anything rather than stand up and speak before a group of people. The fear of looking like a fool is apparently widespread, if not universal.

I always thought we in the West were part of a guilt culture--all that Biblical sin and need for forgiveness--rather than a shame culture, yet I suspect the two are not opposed at all, as I was taught, but related. What was the first thing Adam and Eve noticed after the Fall? That they were naked (and ashamed).

The Christian aspect of the so-called guilt culture values humility, a willingness to surrender the ego and its desires for a higher goal. There's nothing popular or admirable about being humble--in the eyes of the world. One can be humble without being shamed, embarrassed, or humiliated, though I think this takes heroic, saintly talent.

Reading about E. B. White not long ago, in an engaging memoir by Roger Angell, his son-in-law, I was intrigued to learn that yet another distinguished person--in this case a noted stylist and author of great influence--was so socially inhibited that going to weddings, receptions, parties, or funerals--any kind of gathering of more than six--was excruciatingly painful. He is not alone by any means. Many sensitive, intelligent people are socially shy for genetic reasons, apparently, even though some learn to cope with this.

Do they fear embarrassment? Or humiliation, which goes deeper? Perhaps both, unconsciously, I would say. I also think of the kids who learn early in school that their writing might be held up to scorn--and their worth as human beings de-valued--so they hold back, refusing to call attention to themselves and thus avoiding the pain of criticism. I recall the remark by Mark Twain: It is better to say nothing and be thought stupid than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.

The lengths to which many of us go to avoid humiliation can be humorous, if we have the objectivity to stand back and look at our lives. If King Lear could have laughed at his absurd plight, his tragedy would have been a comedy. If E. B. White could have laughed at his fear of social embarrassment, would that have cured him?

I don't think humor goes very far when issues of race and gender are part of the humiliation. Yet much of the bemused reaction to the Birther "issue"--by the President himself to some degree, might be an exception. It's almost as if Obama refused to be humiliated by the nonsense.

We have to take some risks. Going public in a blog like this is risky. But I hope that most of what I say will not seem foolish and, when I do toss off ideas carelessly, the overall body of work I "have put out there" will save me--not from healthy criticism but from dreaded humiliation.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Questions about Hatred

While many people were learning of the death of Osama bin Laden, I was watching a PBS documentary this past Sunday on Irena Sendler, who fought hatred quietly by rescuing Jews in the Warsaw ghetto.

For four years, at great risk, Sendler and a small group of other Christian women set up safe houses where Jews, starving or being taken off to Treblinka and other death camps, could hide. Of course, anyone helping rescue Jews--indeed anyone seen publicly with a Jew at the time--would be shot by the Nazis.

Two hundred Polish convents took in 2,500 Jewish children, who survived the horrors of the Warsaw Uprising. Irena was the organizational brains behind the operation, staying one step ahead of the Germans until she was finally caught and imprisoned. Later, the Communists in Poland harassed her, and the truth about what she had done could not be revealed until near the end of her long life, which came in 2008.

Like so many great souls, Irena never thought of herself as heroic. Yet on the day when a famous and worthy son of Poland was beatified by the Church, I could not help thinking, Why isn't this remarkable woman recognized by Rome? She is one of those who deserve canonization, not just the powerful and the famous.

The bigger question in watching her story: Why don't we do more to fight hatred? Why do we let it fester and grow in our schools and neighborhoods, where suspicion, prejudice, fear, and resentment easily turn into hatred and violence? If we put the media spotlight on bullying or racism or other injustice, do we really reduce the amount of hate in our society? Rare are those who, like Irena Sendler, do something concrete to combat hatred, bit by bit, family by family, with quiet courage.

Will the death of bin Laden cause more hatred of Americans in certain parts of the world? The answer seems obvious: as people cheer the bold and courageous action that brought down this chief terrorist, as they celebrate the triumph of justice,do they recognize that killing the enemy is not ultimately the way of peace?