Monday, June 27, 2011

Paying Attention

Right now, I am paying attention to the rain bucketing down outside my window. Actually, I could not be really paying good attention to it if I were also thinking of composing this reflection. But for the past half-hour, I have been mindful of the wonderful rain, enjoying its ability to seal me off in the present. I welcome any such experience as highly spiritual, akin to prayer.

And I have tried not to attend to the minor headache that's now receding. It might be the result of reading once again the difficult prose of Simone Weil, that most remarkable of 20th century thinkers whose remarks on attention, on silence, on affliction and other topics leap off the page with startling originality.

I have just read, "every time we really concentrate our attention, we destroy the evil in ourselves. [She apparently means the selfishness.] If we concentrate with this intention, a quarter of an hour of attention is better than a great many good works." [arguable at best, it makes more sense in the context of her work and of the essay on studies that I quote]

Earlier, she has asserted, with all the confidence of the brilliant French intellectual that she was, that attention directed toward God is the very essence of prayer. This is not a new idea, but her focus on the quality of attention in relation to self-annihilation is arresting, to say the least. Weil died in 1943 of self-imposed starvation in solidarity with those who were suffering during the war.

Although she chose not to be baptized, seeing her vocation as one who attentively waits on the threshold, she was more devout as a "Catholic" outside the church than many baptized Catholics. Like Dorothy Day, she was unswervingly devoted to those who suffer: "The capacity to give one's attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing..." This sentence sums up her commitment to love Christ in and through all people.

There is no one quite like Simone Weil as a thinker, activist, and writer. Born into a secularized Jewish family in Paris, she developed a unique combination of Greek philosophy, Catholic spirituality, and social justice. She identified with the workers and, despite her physical weakness, insisted on laboring in factories in the 1930s. She believed that work is the most perfect form of obedience. This meant an interruption of the brilliant academic career for which she seemed destined.

In 1938, she spent ten days in a French monastery where she coped with intense headaches by concentrating through prayer in such a way that she transcended the pain. During that stay, she was so profoundly moved by meditating on the suffering of Christ that she felt Christ taking possession of her.

T. S. Eliot was one of many notable writers who were impressed by her mysticism, calling Weil a genius, "of a kind of genius akin to that of the saints."

Anyone interested in learning more about Simone Weil can find abundant sources on the internet, including

I have always found her essays, published after her death, rich with insights (along with some contradictions) and important for anyone interested in prayer, spirituality, and the inner life.

Friday, June 24, 2011

On Being Perfect

Like several of my friends, I have always striven for perfection and thought that the term "perfectionist" was a compliment. In recent years, I have learned the folly of this approach to life.

To be the best I can be in everything I do, from teaching and writing to husbanding, is different from the futile quest for perfection. In my twenties, I tried to look perfect, combing my hair with great precision so that every strand was in place, making sure my tie was just right, that I said the right thing at parties, and all the rest.

With the passage of time, I have thawed out: I was once frozen in a steretype of perfectionism that would have driven me crazy, had I continued to pursue that path. I have a neighbor who freaks out if a leaf or smudge mars his perfectly waxed car. This is borderline madness. I have seen parents push their kids to get nothing but A's on their report card, who settle for nothing less than first place in any competition. What does such pressure do to these kids growing up?

Be the best you can be, I want to tell them, without going to extremes. After all, nothing is life is perfect. We have to accept unfinished symphonies as part of human existence, as Karl Rahner once said. Happiness is always limited.

Ron Rolheiser has written widely (and well) on this topic: we tend to romanticize happiness, thinking of it, searching for it as the lack of tension and the ultimate in pleasure. But disappointments and frustrations are always near, ready to intrude on this impossible ideal.

What we should seek, says Rolheiser, is meaning, not happiness. "Meaning is what constitutes happiness and meaning isn't contingent upon pain and tension being absent from our lives." (from his blog of 6-12:

The mature person, it seems to me, puts aside false, superficial notions of perfection as well as unrealistic ideas of happiness, seeking meaning in his or her job, family, religion, soul. This implies that the "good life" is reflective, with goals that are ever changing, as life itself changes.

We are on an unfolding journey not toward perfection or happiness (at least in this life) but toward understanding ourselves and others and achieving the wisdom to cope with life's many imperfections.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Do Cats Get Bored?

As I watch our house cat, Lizzie, spend her days doing nothing but staring into space, I wonder, is she happy? I've read that cats sleep and doze a lot--80% of their lives--and spend the rest of their lives grooming themselves, eating, and playing. Each night as I prepare for a movie or TV show, Lizzie demands my attention: I become her playmate since she lives a solitary life, never seeing another cat (except for an occasional visitor to her screened-porch enclave). I worry that she should have a companion, that she is restless and bored.

And yet, I tell myself that boredom is the fear of running out of things to do, and cats are born, it seems, to do absolutely nothing; so how can they be bored? They live in a timeless present, without knowledge of a future (no worries), with no apparent capacity to analyze the past or to experience nostalgia. As such they are fortunate. Restlessness is something else.

In a recent essay on boredom (human) in Commentary, Joseph Epstein mentions that even animals know boredom, though they can't complain about it. Recent pieces on the internet tell me that many studies of the behavior of animals reveal that we have much to learn about their emotional states: birds can be optimistic or pessimistic, it seems, and baboons, among other primates, undergo grief. Most of us have seen unhappy animals: restless, agitated, frightened, etc.

The two recent books that Epstein discusses--one by Peter Toohey, another by Lars Svendsen--don't help much with cats since these authors focus on human behavior. They seem to agree that part of being human includes the capacity for boredom. And that boredom is less common in simpler cultures.

We in the West, with our many gadgets and sources of information and entertainment, are more likely to be bored than the pygmies or remote tribes in Borneo. In fact, the more stimulation, the more likely the boredom.

Just yesterday, the teenage boy I tutor wrote me an e-mail saying he was having a boring summer--despite his music, video games, reading, e-mail, Facebook, telephone, upcoming travel, family outings, friends, household tasks, family dog, fencing and violin lessons.

In all the studies I've seen of boredom, I always look for the connection between boredom and depression, if there is one. Epstein says that ennui, apathy, depression,
acedia, and melancholy are all aspects of boredom. Chronic boredom can bring about agitation, depression and anger, but boredom and depression are not the same.

"Boredom is chiefly an emotion of the secondary kind, like shame, guilt, envy, embarrassment...Depression is a mental illness, and much more serious."

That comes as a relief when I feel restless and bored now and then as the long, hot summer stretches again before me or as I worry about Lizzie's moods and hope she does not blame me for not entertaining her more often.

Boredom may be indefinable and a bit mysterious, but it's perfectly normal for people to be bored now and then. I can stop worrying about the boredom of cats. And I can ignore the ever-more-sophisticated distractions from boredom dreamed up by Steve Jobs and others who, says Epstein, allow people to live in a world of nearly full-time communication and entertainment with no time out for thought.

But it's a relief to know, amid all this change, that there will always be bored teenagers in the summertime.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Fear, part II

How could I write about fear not long ago and not include the ultimate fear that most of us have, death?

In this connection, I like the following statement by George Bernard Shaw, a playwright and wit whose work I don't usually care much about. But his statement (source unknown) captures some of the peace I have come to feel about the inevitable coming of the end of my earthly life because of the optimism I strive for about life itself. I aim to live as fully in the present as I can, learning and helping others as much as I am able....

I want to be thoroughly used up when I die,
for the harder I work the more I live.
I rejoice in life for its own sake.
Life is no brief candle to me.
It is sort of a splendid torch which I have got hold of for a moment;
and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible
before handing it on to future generations.

Interestingly, this would seem to sum up the feelings, too, of Robert Louis Stevenson, whose life of suffering and triumph in spite of pain comes through so well in the biography by Ian Bell that I've been reading. He was at death's door repeatedly, traveling incessantly in an effort to be comfortable or get aid for his tuberculosis, yet when he wrote, he came alive and was able to surmount his pain, enjoy his family and surroundings and be at peace. The harder he worked, the more he truly lived because he found himself in his writing.

Common Sense about Fear

The opening chapter of Pema Chodron's book When Things Fall Apart is very valuable as a clear-eyed, very human look at fear.

"Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth." Chodron, the American Buddhist nun, says that any spiritual journey through unknown lands, such as sitting for hours in silent meditation, will naturally evoke fear.

The present moment, so important in Buddhist practice, is "a pretty vulnerable place," she writes. To be alone in silence, without a reference point, is to experience groundlessness. And so anyone who attempts such meditation needs to be cautious and able to tap into the courage of someone like Chodron.

When you encounter fear, she says, consider yourself lucky; it gives you a chance to push through a basic human emotion and act anyway.

As one who has experienced many fears, and been restricted by some of them, I welcome this chapter, "Intimacy with Fear," as well as any advice by those who have been there and are not reluctant to talk about their experience with fear.

I value the courage of spiritual seekers in any tradition who take great emotional risks on their journeys.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Writing Sentences without Stanley Fish

I bought the new book by Stanley Fish, "How to Write a Sentence..." in the hope that I might gain some new insights and examples to use in my upcoming workshop on prose style that starts July 7.

I was a bit disappointed by the opening chapters: they taught me little that was new, and I found the emphasis on mastering certain sentence patterns or forms, and then imitating them, to be restrictive. And I was not won over by Fish the stylist; his writing seemed full of abstractions, academic jargon, and cliches.

Thanks to the helpful webite Arts and Letters daily, I happened to see an article in The New Criterion by a master stylist, Joseph Epstein, who reinforced my unhappiness with Fish's book, calling its author an "undistinguished writer" who produces some ungainly sentences. I felt vindicated.

Not that I find the book worthless. I, too, am a collector of memorable sentences and believe in sharing them with students, though my tastes differ from those of Fish, who likes Henry James, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Wolff, and several other great writers whose style do not seem to provide good models for emerging writers.

This raises the question: for whom does Fish write? I assume, as a good teacher, he wants to help the less experienced reader learn how to write more skillfully. But he seems more concerned with displaying his own deconstructive skills, analyzing sentences with a certain jaunty confidence (Epstein's phrase). His advice--to ignore the rules (which ones?) and focus on the limited (?) number of relationships words, phrases, and clauses can enter into--seems odd since the the number is unlimited. Nor can he tell us what a good sentence is.

Fish's chief argument--that "without form, content cannot emerge"--is certainly arguable, as Epstein shows (content usually dictates the form of what we write, not the other way around). And the emphasis on imitation is questioned: if a form or type of sentence is imitable, it is (Epstein says) probably stale and best avoided; for him, good writers create their own forms.

I'm sure I have learned some lessons from this book about the way I will NOT conduct my writing workshop. And as for good examples of great sentences, I don't find many in Fish's short opus. I would say to would-be writers: save your money. Read good prose and write as much as you can. Avoid books of advice on writing and style, especially by writers who are not master stylists.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Faith and Doubt

For most thinking believers, faith and doubt always co-exist in an uneven, ever-shifting continuum. This is healthy and keeps things in balance.

So it is with my belief in miracles and apparitions, with the doubt far outweighing the belief. I have always been skeptical of Marian appearances, wondering what role dreams and psychologically-induced visions play. The experiences often seem genuine, but did Mary really appear to these (generally young, impressionable) people?

The question has never been very important in my life of faith--until my wife, Lynn, shared with me a book by Robin Ruggles, Apparition Shrines, which includes the amazing story of what happened outside Cairo in 1968.

There, opposite St. Mary's Coptic Church in Zeitoun, a group of Muslim laborers arriving for the night shift at a garage noticed something move on one of the church's domes: a "white lady" knelt at the cross atop the church. One of the men thought it was a desperate girl about to jump and called out to her, pointing his infected finger toward the lady.

The lady rose amid a flock of white doves and said nothing before disappearing to a crowd of onlookers, one of whom had cried out, "Our Lady Mary!" The infected finger was healed, the first of several miracles as further visitations occurred. An explosion of light would form the outline of a lady wearing a white robe and blue-white veil. Sometimes she appeared above the palm trees in the church courtyard, like a phosphorous statue gliding twenty feet above the roof level. The apparitions, which drew huge throngs of people, gradually ceased in 1971.

One remarkable effect is that the Christians (Coptic Orthodox and Catholic) as well as Muslims prayed together. (Maybe that was miracle enough.) Mary was seen by 250,000 people at a time. Like T. S. Eliot's mysterious Lady of Silences, she said nothing, gesturing, bowing, recognizing the people's greeting. Ruggles provides much fuller information, including records of the healings.

Why did she appear? What did it all mean? What does it tell us?

For me, this apparition has greater credibility than most of the others I know about because of the witnesses (heavily Muslim)and documentation. It tells me that these happenings are not simply imagined by credulous believers, that there is more to reality than what reason and science can describe. It tells me that the supernatural is real, just beyond our sensory capacities, and can easily take shape, entering our space and time, perhaps when when our doubts about immaterial reality and the presence of God in the form of the Mother of Perpetual Help need reassurance.

Whatever it means, such an apparition is a reminder that faith in things unseen often involves the wondrous and mysterious. And that it's OK to have unanswerable questions.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Bad Language: The F-word

Weary of the ubiquitous and seemingly obligatory use of the F-word in films and other media, I was happy to encounter the playwright Jonathan Holmes, writing last month in the Independent, who asserts what I have long known: our cussin' ain't what it used to be.

The age of Shakespeare did it with style. How poor, by contrast, our educated classes have become at the noble art of insult, writes Holmes. The Jacobeans in the early 17th cent. knew how to hurl insults ("you whoreson, flea-bitten loon") that did more than repeat a once-shocking sexual slur. Being part of a Christian culture, they could attack the soul and body, invoking God and the devil, commenting on the corruption of the world in the process. To call someone a faithless dog was to target the interior life of the one being cursed, notes Holmes, his or her very being.

Today, by contrast, we live in a secular culture in which "Goddamn" and other forms of traditional profanity (taking the name of God in vain, I was taught) are less often used because they don't have the punch or shock value they once had, even 50 years ago (note the language of Arthur Miller's characters compared with those of David Mamet). The English use "bloody" (presumably from the medieval curse "by our Lady" that makes no sense in a secular culture or even in church circles any more); it was one of the euphemisms for religious oaths (like heck for hell, etc.).

So our bad language is reduced for the most part to crude, sexual terms that tend, as in the case of fuck, to be drained by overuse of their original meaning, as in "you're fuckin' beautiful." It's tough, colorful, masculine street talk that has made its way into The New Yorker and other high-toned publications for understandable reasons.

Why? Because it fits--most of the time. It captures the language many people use. Kathryn Schulz explains in a recent New York magazine piece. Rather than being insulted as many women were in the earlier days of feminism by the violence of the word, she contends that writers use this expletive not because they're lazy or wish to shock or have run out of alternatives: sometimes the four-letter word is the best one. It has, apparently, lost much of its sexual shock value.

Quoting John Lanchester, Schulz compares three words: the French-originated debacle, the Italian fiasco , and the American fuck-up. In many contexts, the last one is not obscene, just the most appropriate to capture the speech of a contemporary character in a story, play, film, etc. "Fuckin'" has never been a word I use, but lately, in certain company, given a certain level of anger, it comes out and seems right. It's liberating. But, like other types of slumming, I don't want to overdo it.

Schulz continues: she knew that using the f-word in one of her books would upset some (many) readers, who would have moral, religious, or cultural objections to the language and stop reading. But she also knew that serious literature should sometimes present just such difficulties, raise such questions. "Surely one of the chief pleasures of literature is that it urges us into unfamiliar terrain..."

But wait: the whole point of using the f-word is to capture a pervasive (some might say excessively pervasive) form of street language, with that tough tone that can only come with the use of one of the many, many forms of this word. So many, that it is anything but unfamiliar; it has become at times mind-numbingly overly familiar.

I conclude this excursion into what used to be an obscene (not strictly profane) usage by noting that any language that's appropriate in a given context is right, that there is, then, no such thing as "bad language," if well used by mature people who know what they're doing. I'm thinking mainly of adults who write.

For a Midwesterner, religiously schooled, seldom exposed to much "bad language," I see how far I have come in the past 40 years to accept the reality of an ever-evolving language in which that once-shocking f-word is sometimes funny, sometimes good. I still urge caution in its use.

And I still would prefer Shakespearean curses to this impoverished vocabulary of ours in which cursing is, strictly speaking, impossible.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Advice on Writing

Since returning from Edinburgh, I've been reading a fine biography by Ian Bell of Robert Louis Stevenson, the author who grew up there. He heard what he called the "horrible howl" of the cold wind as it whipped the clouds and the gorse on the Pentland Hills, and he was motivated to get out of the place, to travel to warmer climes. I can see why.

But the old city with its narrow, cobble-stone streets remained in his imagination, even when he went to and wrote about London, Paris, Menton, San Francisco, Samoa or one of the other places he went, seeking the sun or freedom. Even in his early years, he carried a notebook and knew that to be a writer, he had to describe things. Like so many would-be authors of the past, he thought of himself as an artist in training.

Before seeking publication, the young RLS spent three years in his early twenties reading. He would study the style of the masters. He would imitate passages he liked, listening to their rhythm, and his own work underwent countless revisions until he was happy with the sound and tone of what he had written.

This traditional method of learning one's craft seems, sadly, out of fashion, yet it seems to me essential: how can anyone write unless he or she has read a lot, absorbing at a deep level the various types of sentence patterns writers use, considering how they describe and structure their work? When I tell my writing students that they can learn about writing not only by writing a lot but by reading, they are often surprised. They are too eager to leap into print; to wait three years is unacceptable to many of the wannabes I meet.

With his frail health, RLS must have known he would not have a long life, yet he could not send out his work until it was ready. He was willing to wait. And he wrote out of his pain and misery, trying to overcome the suffering of tuberculosis.

Reading, travel, and fever-induced dreams shaped his imagination and led him to become a recognized writer known throughout the world for his "strange case" of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as well as for Treasure Island and other tales.

Anyone who wants to write can learn a lot from the habits of other writers. Their patterns tend to be remarkably similar: reading, jotting down carefully observed description, and the daily discipline of re-writing. There is no easy path; writing is hard work. But the rewards are apparent as soon as one person reads and enjoys at least one short thing we have written.

As a side note, I am grateful to the many readers of this blog. Until yesterday, when I happened to check the stats on the past two years, I had no idea that 70 people in Russia had checked out these pages; that's more than in the U.K. or Canada. I was astounded that I have had readers (or viewers) in China, Kuwait, Latvia, Iraq and other places far from the USA.

I had thought my audience was essentially a handful of people, including two or three friends in Florida, who kindly left comments on the blog. I now feel part of the global village made possible by the Internet and Google.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

What is the True Self?

The closer I get to some people, the less I seem to understand them. Most of us are complicated, unpredictable, subject to various feelings and moods as well as desires often hidden from others and ourselves. We surprise ourselves and others; the result can hurt relationships of all kinds, which require honesty and truth.

In reading recently a piece by Joshua Knobe in the New York Times, I was reminded that there are several divergent approaches to the enigmatic self. In academic philosophy, it is assumed that we find our true selves in those moments of reflection when we think about the central values of our lives.This assumes that the central feature of being human is being rational, so our urges and emotions are not fundamentally who we are.

If we reduce ourselves to desires, whether repressed or acknowledged, we are (contra Freud) betraying our true selves. Most people would dispute this philosophical view, contending that the true self, to the extent that it is knowable, involves those various urges and desires, repressed and expressed.

Knobe finds neither side convincing, leaving us with the mystery of who we are: is there an unchanging essence within me, or am I shaped by the way I value my life? I am no doubt the sum total of the various choices and judgments I have made, the various experiences I have had; I have become who I am because of the people I have known. This would seem to include love.

When I think of this topic, I recall the work of Thomas Merton (and the valuable study of the true self in Merton undertaken by James Finley). Merton does not talk about the soul as such but about the essential self, in contrast to the false selves we assume, the masks we wear in society. The true self is that part of our unchanging essence, he says, the part of ourselves known to God.

In Raids on the Unspeakable, Merton writes, "If we take our vulnerable shell to be our true identity, if we think our mask is our true face, we will protect it with fabrications even at the cost of violating our own truth."

How easy it is to protect the fictitious identities we assume, how hard to find the truth buried beneath the false identities. To have an identity, one must be awake and aware, Merton says, rooting out the lies we tell ourselves about who we think we are.

The topic is important because it involves truth and honesty, with ourselves and with others. It raises questions not easily answered.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Slow Down and Live

In the recently published book What Happened When I Almost Died, Chris Licht, an ambitious TV producer, tells the story of how a brain hemorrhage taught him some valuable lessons. Anyone who lives on or aspires to the fast track, for whom work is all-consuming and important, should read this short book. The life you save may be your own.

Co-creator and producer of "Morning Joe" on MSNBC, Licht at 38 was obsessively competitive, he admits, and given to angry rants when the details of his daily show did not move smoothly. The result: tension and stress that nearly killed him. In April, 2010, he was rushed to a Washington, D.C. hospital and during eight days of recuperation, pondered his life, including the time spent away from his wife and two sons.

He confessed to learning about letting go of fears, including controlling everything and worrying about losing his job, and making better use of time. Licht has learned that no one can give 100 percent of his time to a job, simply because there's nothing left.

Licht does not find God or the Meaning of Life in his memoir. He has returned to work, having become, it seems, more reflective and a bit wiser. It's a brief book by a busy man; the very fact that he took the time to write it should be encouraging to his family as a sign of some changes he has made in his lifestyle.

Reading his story, I was struck by how often people must be faced with death before they think about the quality of their lives, especially the time and attention--the love--they need to give and receive. I thought of all those who have died too young because of obsessive desires to be "successful," of those who rush through life, risking their health and being too busy to really live. I thought of those who are totally unaware that time spent quietly in the now, cultivating the inner life, is essential for a healthy life.

I trust that Licht, with his various connections, will help many readers see the light before it's too late.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Travel as Travail

The two words are related: to travel is to undergo discomfort, even suffering. The hero on his mythic journey has to undergo hardship if he is to be tested and learn who he is. So is that why we ordinary folk today travel great distances?

The question has been on my mind since returning recently from ten days in Edinburgh, with side trips to Durham (England) and a few places in Scotland. Buffeted by high winds and daily rain, we endured expensive discomfort, eating odd foods, missing our own beds and bathrooms, and being generally exhausted by crowds and, on the way home, by eleven hours in the air followed by secruity at the airport that included, for the first time, a dog who sniffed out an uneaten sandwich in my carry-on bag; it was confiscated. The dog was friendly, but this episode delayed our connecting flight, which we nearly missed. So it goes.

Why do people endure all this to have a good time? Is fun what we seek when we travel long distances?

What leads me to be cooped up like a frozen chicken in a narrow seat for eight hours of transoceanic flight, my body punished by lack of sleep and time changes? Is it to escape the boredom of my life in Florida? No. Is it to learn new things? Yes, perhaps, but much of what I have learned about Scotland has come from reading. Is it to prove to myself that I, like a medieval pilgrim, can find spiritual enlightenment in ancient, revered places? Perhaps, since I do revere ancient places where "prayer has long been valid," as Eliot wrote. Or did he? I am still too tired to know.

As I look at the pictures I took on those rare moments last week when the sun appeared, I sense that it was all worth it: the ridiculous prices, the inconvenience, the queues, the strangeness of things: all this produced more than bragging rights. I now have evidence that I saw beauty and that I encountered something in the past of my culture that means something to me. And I learned I could do it, despite the fearful apprehensions and all the bother.

I don't enjoy writing; I enjoyed having written, someone once said. The same is true of traveling overseas: I only really enjoy having traveled, being grateful I have survived the ordeal and can look back on unique memories. I heard the English language used in amusing ways, met charming people, and saw some wonderful things. I have enriched my life (I think) by undergoing the travail of traveling 8,000 miles.

But would I do it again?