Thursday, December 27, 2012

Finding Yourself as a Writer

"How do you expect to arrive at the end of your own journey," Thomas Merton asked, "if you take the road to another man's city?  How do you expect to reach your own perfection by leading someone else's life?"

In his finest book, New Seeds of Contemplation, the source of these arresting questions, Merton the monk is very much, as always, Merton the writer and the individual finding his own existential path to God, even though he lived within the confines of an ancient monastic tradition.

What do his questions say to writers? That no matter how much we owe to others, how much we read and absorb, we must to our own selves be true, following our own individual path.  Style, as I discover each time I try to teach it, is a unique reflection of each writer. It emerges out of the material of life deeply lived. It is a matter of the heart as well as the head. Like our lives, it is not about imitating others but making our own choices.

One contemporary poet and memoirist, Mary Karr, has found a singular voice, even though anyone reading her amazing 2009 book, Lit--an account of her progress from "blackbelt sinner" to Catholic convert--can see her indebtedness to those who have gone before her.

In a style that is smart, funny, profane, and intense, Karr describes leaving home (with its violence, abuse, alcoholism, drugs) and her mother to find a new home. Her memoir is about overcoming a life of terror and gradually discovering a community of prayer--and she does it her way.  The past becomes vividly present and alive, even though the reader can tell that something positive will come out of the gritty horror of her narrative.

Karr has discovered her own path from the harrowing darkness of alcoholism and rage to a realization that "nothing we truly love is ever lost." To feel (not just think) such a truth after much pain is, I think, a key spiritual insight. That she has found prayer as a source of power does not meant that the demons of the past are forgotten.

They are very much alive in this memoir, which manages to take street talk to a lyrical level.  Much of this book is not for the squeamish, but its unique style reflects Karr's journey, the hard choices she has made not only as a writer but as a woman of intelligence and strength who has moved beyond living someone else's life. It is good to know that, in her new life as a professor of English and acclaimed author, she is far from the end of her journey, which is very much her own.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Savoring Christmas

I have always been a celebrator, especially when it comes to Christmas, even though this often surprises some of my friends (mainly men).

I don't think it is merely the religious event itself but the way this event was, in my youth, overlaid with festivity that carries on from year to year as I have grown older.  Family parties were lively, both on the eve of and the day of Christmas, and memories of them rich.  Gifts and lights and midnight Mass, with me in the choir or serving as altar boy, were part of a month long celebration, complete with Midwestern snow and a vacation from school.

It was a magical time, even as I grew up and learned where to go to buy the best German baked goods in St. Louis, the finest eggnog, the trimmings for the tree, which for my German-American father meant wiring two trees together for the fullest possible and most ornately decorated tree imaginable.  He insisted we keep it up until the end of January (to my great embarrassment).

In Florida, I continue to delight in seeing palm trees wrapped elegantly in white lights, I savor the many ornaments I have kept from my childhood, I welcome as many guests as we can accommodate for lunches and dinners, and I have several decorated trees in our house with lights and garlands.

I cannot get enough of the music of this season, both popular and classical; and I tend to overeat.  The combination of all these sensory delights--smells of cooking and pine, candles and lights, music and cards and gifts and above all smiling friends (in the absence of family)--makes our Christmas festive.  We don't have children, yet my wife and I become kids again, in a sense, as we find time to prepare in Advent for the great day.

I think sadly of those who are alone, wishing this day were over, and of those who are turned off by the material side of Christmas, which for me complements the spiritual meaning of light coming into the darkness of winter, of love being born again, and of the hope for peace.

Merry Christmas and happy new year!

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Does Happiness Exist?

One thing can be said about all the studies of happiness, which have grown exponentially since 2000, is that the topic is highly subjective and complex. So as I send friends and family members cards and messages with wishes for Happy Holidays, my mind returns to this elusive subject, which for many has economic implications.

The feeling of well-being often relates to being well-off, or so the economic studies indicate: people who say they are happy tend to be financially secure, healthy, married, religious, and engaged in purposeful work.

Yet no matter how healthy, wealthy or wise we are, we are also, inevitably, aware of evil in the world: who is untouched by disease, pain, injustice and loss?  It is this awareness of evil that leads the political philosopher Leszek Kolakowski (who died three years ago) to question whether happiness exists.

Like every thinker, he raises important (often unanswerable) questions: does a person in the state of Nirvana, which seems to involve the happiness of self-detachment, have an awareness of the world? If not, what kind of reality is he part of?  If he or she is aware of the human life-world, he must also be aware of suffering and evil. "Is it possible to be aware of evil and suffering and still be perfectly happy?" (A singular question.)

The article from which I quote in the Dec. 20 issue of The New York Review of Books is entitled, 'Is God Happy?'  After all, to consider a Nirvana-like state is to imagine, in the West, what the souls in heaven presumably experience.  Are they aware of our lives on earth, as most Christians believe? And if they are, how can they be happy in their eternal state, knowing about our unhappiness?

If God is perfectly immutable, He cannot be upset by the misery of those on earth, so He is indifferent; but He is called a loving father (by Christians), so He cannot be indifferent. So, of course, we cannot understand the divine, and all Kolakowski can finally say is "God is not happy in any sense we can understand."

He concludes that happiness is not applicable to God nor to human beings--happiness defined as an ongoing condition of serenity and well-being. This, he says, can only be imagined, not experienced.

So the message here is not too cheery this holiday season. The only way to be happy is to be unaware of the misery in the world. I could live a contemplative life as a monk or hermit and tune out the world, but wouldn't I still be restless and unhappy much of the time?  Mystics seem to experience prolonged states of bliss before they are returned to ordinary reality.

I suppose we must be grateful for what Wordsworth called "spots of time" in which we feel temporarily uplifted out of ourselves; but these experiences of timeless bliss occur mainly in early childhood.  Adults can be happy by experiencing moments of wonder and pleasure, and as long as we love others, we can feel satisfied much of the time--if we don't think too deeply or read the daily news.

If our Polish philosopher is right, the idea of happiness as an immutable condition is beyond us. So what it is that we seek--and wish each other when we say Happy New Year or Merry Christmas?  A brief respite of good fortune amid life's turmoil?  Pleasure? Prosperity? No one knows what happiness really is.

Presumably Thomas Jefferson had prosperity in mind in his famous phrase "the pursuit of happiness." The history of happiness shows that in earlier times, happiness went along with luck. The Greeks said that no man can be judged happy until he is dead (only then it is clear he has been fortunate).  Today we tend to define happiness as personal well-being.  We never think of earthly happiness as enduring, do we?

Happiness may be indefinable and subjective; yet questioning the very thing we desire and pursue makes sense. In general, raising questions can be more important than providing answers. "Never forget," wrote Kolakowski in another piece of work, "that there are questions that lie beyond the legitimate horizon of science and are crucially important to the survival of humanity as we know it."

In this season devoted to wonder, I am happy to say that my life has generally been happy: I know and have known love. Love exists, if happiness eludes us. This--and the peace that comes from loving and being loved--is what I wish for others now and in the new year.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Writing and Being Still

A recent piece in the New York Times, "The Art of Being Still," by novelist Silas House caught my eye. Especially his comment, "too many writers today are afraid to be still."

Or they are unable to unwilling to be quiet with their busy lives in which writing time is sandwiched in between parenting, earning money, maintaining a home, etc. House does not mean that writers have to sit still in a lonely garret. He means their minds have to be quiet.

His piece includes much sensible advice, especially for emerging writers who spend a lot of time talking about or planning to write or reading about writing or attending conferences. His advice, like mine, is to do the reading and networking in a limited way to keep your mind open.

How do we become still so that we "achieve the sort of stillness that allows our senses to become heightened"? In writing extensively about silence, I have talked about the need to slow down and find spots of contemplative time.  House is practical in recommending that writers use every moment they have to think about the story or article they are working on. And nothing else.

The issue is not, How many hours a day must I write?  But: How can I use my driving, shopping, chore time to reflect on one thing (my writing) only, without distractions?  He recommends what my wife, Lynn, has always done: writing constantly in her head.  In her periods of silence, she is actively thinking about her characters and what she wants them to say or do.  Little of this is written down in the initial stages.

Writers can go for weeks without putting words onto paper, but, if they follow House and many, many other authors, "they write every waking minute."  They do so by cultivating an inner silence that blocks interference (cell phones, etc. off) and opens the channels of observation.  The quiet mind comes when we turn off our overly busy thought patterns and remain quiet, open to what may come as we focus on living in the present moment.

Silence and writing seem to be opposed; yet silence and stillness are more than the absence of words and activity. They relate to a disciplined habit of listening to and observing what the universe has to reveal. And it can be done amid all the no-mind duties we must daily perform.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Do People Enjoy Boredom?

It sounded like something cooked up by the Onion, the satirical magazine: a conference on boring topics. What began as something as a joke has caught on, according to a piece in, in England, where people have a distinctly different sense of humor than here in the U.S.

Mark O'Connell in his Slate article on Boring 2012 says that the young people who attended the recent London conference on such things as toast, supermarket self-service checkouts, and letterboxes, among other banal topics--presented in pedantic detail and dead seriousnes--became enjoyable, showing that people really like what is boring.

But it seems to me that what they like is a chance to laugh at the absurdity of scholarly presentations on mundane things from mustard to coffee mugs. At least I would, having sat through countless MLA presentations of abstract, jargon-filled papers that in their pomposity often put me to sleep. A paper on letterboxes might be preferable to one on Lacan.

Of course, good writers are taught that every topic is dull until someone finds the clever angle, the amusing or original perspective to use in developing the topic: this is the writer's or speaker's job--along with avoiding jargon and pretentious language.  So perhaps a long discourse on toast, complete with pictures of various degrees of toasted bread from the virtually untoasted to the mostly burned, might turn out to be interesting.

The conference was conceived by James Ward in 2010; he maintains a blog, "I Like Boring Things."  I'll have to check it out since I find the topic of boredom interesting psychologically and also find myself looking from time to time into certain obscure historical details.  This week I have been searching for the symbolic meaning of chairs. 

Maybe I will get invited to London to talk about what I discover. It actually sounds too interesting and not at all amusing--at least to me.