Thursday, August 29, 2013

More Quiet Rhymes: a note of thanks

This is in part a belated--and totally unconventional--note of thanks to one of my faithful readers, Chris Parmentier, who has taken the time on several occasions to comment on my posts. Since I have no other way of thanking her, I begin with this acknowledgement: that every writer longs for a few perceptive and appreciative readers; even one (like Chris) will more than suffice. Ned is another, but I know how to thank him personally; so, too, Kurt. The others are nameless but also appreciated.

Since Chris commented two months ago concerned my listing of Lynn Schiffhorst's newly-published Kindle book of poems for children, I thought I would mention here that Lynn, who happens to be my wife, has published a second volume of "quiet rhymes for quiet times," entitled Spoons on the Moon, intended for younger kids (6-9) but, of course, also directed to their storytellers.  So this post is also an unabashed advert, as the Brits say. (Butu at least it is not a fund-raising request!)

Lynn has had a difficult time finding a conventional publisher. Few editors seem interested in her old-fashioned, literary pieces that would have easily found a wide audience in print thirty years ago or so.  So we have turned to Amazon, where anyone can peek at her books, and those with Kindles can download them for $2.99.

This week, Lynn Schiffhorst is launching two works on fiction (novels for young readers) on Kindle; the first of them, set in Denmark, is called Cats, Dogs, and Miracles. It will soon appear on the site and I hope will attract readers.  Even if she reaches only one or two readers, that might suffice.

I remain grateful to all the readers who find something of value in what I write and would welcome comments at

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Disruptive Language

Just when we think we know what English words mean, they change. Take "disruptive," for example, which used to be a bad thing, as when kids disrupted classes with various disturbances.

Now--but for how long?--it can mean "innovative," thanks to a Harvard Business professor, Clayton Christiansen, whose 1997 book The Innovator's Dilemma gave the word a positive thrust, a new bit of jargon that the business world has picked up on: the idea of a disruptive innovation in the status quo.

For a critique of the social and implications of this usage, see the piece by Judith Shulevitz in the New Republic (Aug. 15), who says that "disruptive" has replaced "empowering" and "transformational" as buzz-words.

A more serious linguistic problem, it seems, is posed when words are thought to mean what we all have agreed they mean and begin to be used--like hoi polloi--to signify the opposite of what the dictionary records.

Consider "literally," which quite often no longer means literally but its opposite, figuratively, rather than exactly.  Martha Gill in The Guardian has a recent piece on this. She suggests that the word is best avoided at present. Soon, like tattoo craze, it will fade.

She is referring to such popular usage as "I could literally eat an entire cow," when you want emphasis and don't really mean literally at all. Dictionaries, ever vigilant, have begun to record the newer usage, one of them stating that "literally can be used to acknowledge that something is not literally true but is used for emphasis or to express strong feeling."

In other words, language doesn't necessarily mean it did until recently; and English, like the vines in my yard, is growing out of control. But before we panic, remember that at issue is conversational, colloquial English, not the written word. What is colloquial can rapidly change. The issue is not serious.

Writers, we must hope, will be more conservative and traditional in using "literally" to mean literally, not that disruptive newer usage.

Monday, August 19, 2013

College for All?

Having spent most of my adult life in universities, many of them teaching undergraduates, I have some definite ideas about the cultural trend in America that leads young people to see a four-year college or university degree as the only passport to economic success.

I was sorry to see Mr. Obama say that every young American should pledge to attend one year of college. What, Mr. President, if they are not academically interested or prepared?  Or do you mean the trade and technical schools that too often get sidelined by the middle-class emphasis on a degree?

In a recent article in the Wilson Quarterly, Sarah Carr brings such issues to the fore once again in her focus on minority students in New Orleans and elsewhere who, like American students in public schools generally, are "brain-washed" into thinking that college (four-year university study) is their ultimate goal. The teachers' mantra, as early as kindergarten, often is "get knowledge for college."

This one-size-fits-all view of education is not new, but Carr says that in recent years educators have been increasingly calling on low-income students to pursue a college education as America's anti-poverty strategy.
What about the programs in two-year colleges and technical schools that train people in fields ranging from plumbing to culinary arts that do not require SAT preparation and other academic skills?

These programs are seen as outdated, yet in my own area, the two-year state colleges provide some valuable "trade" programs, even though they lack the prestige that their parents often want.  The middle-class ethos of a college education for all remains alive and as unrealistic as ever.

I am an elitist, I suppose, who wants to give every talented student the chance to excel; but I see the university as a place for those who want to study and learn and have the ability and motivation to do so. I have seen far too many incoming freshmen bored with their academic studies. Many drop out, some take three years to find a major that suits them, then complain that there are no jobs for them when they graduate; so they come back for an M.A. or become depressed in a dead-end job.

If only their grade school and high school teachers had do more to promote what Europeans have long developed: a two-track system, one for the academically motivated, one for the career-motivated, without any stigma attached to the latter. Many people do not belong in universities and find this out the hard way, after taking out expensive loans to fund an education they do not want, that our society does not need. 

I know that having "college" as a goal can motivate kids and give them a structure for their studies in math, science, and language, but it can also intimidate them and limit them by forcing them into an academic mold that, whatever their socio-economic class, does not fit their talents. Carr writes: in cities "where more than half of students fail tests of basic academic skills," imposing purely academic aspirations is a fool's errand.

Carr talks about the dismal state of our technical and career programs in the post-secondary world of education.Why are they so dismal? These need a major boost among the community colleges so that "going to college" in this country does not mean simply pursuing an academic, four-year degree and having the "college experience" (including, of course, those spring breaks and other forms of partying).

Too many young people are being guided toward unrealistic goals.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Yearning for Silence

Tim Parks, an Englishman living in Italy, is an interesting writer whose books about Italian culture I have enjoyed.  A recent piece of his in Aeon magazine, however, struck me as missing the mark a bit, although, being about his personal spiritual quest, Who am I to judge? (as someone else recently asked)

His topic is the yearning for silence, a topic of great importance to me. He says we fear silence and long for it at the same time because it involves the end of the self. Huh?

Well, Parks, having no religious experience with prayer and with only a 10-day Buddhist retreat under his belt, finds that a discussion of silence involves consciousness and selfhood, with which I agree; but it also involves, he says, "the desire to invest in the self and the desire for the end of the self." But it's more than Self!

His Vipassana experience taught him that "our excessive interest in our own wordy thoughts" can dissolve as language melts away during the meditative breathing but that meditative "techniques" return us to the noisy self, the busy mind, something most people understandably long to escape from. And he learned what most beginners know: that silence and stillness are related.

Parks does not seem aware that he is on the edge of the ancient mystical tradition of contemplative prayer, the practice of the presence of God in silence.  Whether or not this is a technique or not, it is lifelong pursuit (for monastics and laypeople alike) of the union of the self with God in which the self falls away; but this is not a loss but a fullness of experience.

The experience of God-with-us-now in the present moment is a loss of the self-conscious self but also a discovery, according to Thomas Merton, of the true self, the one known by God, who dwells within at the center of our being.

I hope Parks looks more deeply into silence and practices it regularly, that he reads Merton and Thomas Keating, John Main, and others like him in the Christian tradition. Their work is richer than the essentially secular and limited approach he has outlined in which the fear of death and the loss of the self becomes the result of silent meditation.

I want to tell him: What seems to be lost in the darkness of silence is the self, but that is only the first step on the mystical path that can't be clearly explained, even by great poets like John of the Cross or T. S. Eliot, except to say it involves finding the true self in the love of God. 

That may not make any sense to some readers, and I am not sure I understand it myself. That's why we call it a mystery, the kind without a solution or answer.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

On Terrence Malick

I admire the creativity of Terrence Malick and find his theological concerns fascinating, but his films are not always easy to admire.

In his most recent movie, To the Wonder, goes even further than in his luminous The Tree of Life, going beyond conventional plot structure, character development, and dialogue with visuals and music to create a mood that can be beautiful at times, confusing at others, as when the camera jumps erratically from one character or scene to another.

It must have been hard for Ben Affleck, with so little to say, to perform his nameless role as an American who moves from Paris and, too briefly, to Mont St.-Michel and then to the American heartland (Oklahoma), where he brings his French lover. Unfortunately, her narrative in French is hard to follow in the pale little subtitles that are provided.

She mentions "the love that loves us" (God) and years to return to the sacraments when she encounters a priest, who is unhappy and searching for meaning; so we again have, as in the last film, the interesting overlay of Catholicism with Protestant America--clearly a fascination for the filmmaker. Richard Brody (the New Yorker blog 4-17-13) offers a fuller appreciation of this topic, including Malick's critique of religion as doctrine and the light that floods the movie, stemming from the place of wonder, the Catholic shrine of Mont St.-Michel that gives the film its title.

Roger Ebert, in his final movie review, praised Malick's search for beauty everywhere and his interest in isolating souls in need. His swirling dances, wheatfields, water and other symbols give the scenes a cosmic perspective, as if life is seen from eternity; and it is up to the viewer to piece all this imagery and silence together.

Even without the subtitles, you can tell that the big themes are here: faith, love, God, happiness, meaning...and beauty; and Malick gives us at times a feast of light and sound. Yet his effort fails to be coherent and interesting enough for me, at least, to avoid tedium.

As the priest asks God, "how long will you hide yourself?" part of  me applauds a filmmaker daring enough to deal with religious issues in a serious way while the other part of me wants to ask, "how long will this movie go on?"

I am sorry to say, with Ebert, that if The Tree of Life was awesome, this latest experiment is puzzling and pretentious.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

What is a Marriage?

The question about the true nature of marriage is not new, despite the current discussion of same-sex unions. Most people opposed to such unions argue that marriage "has always been" about creating a family. But has it?

When I taught the work of Milton and the 17th century, I often surprised my students by telling them how "radical" the poet of Paradise Lost was when, in 1644, he advocated divorce when a man and woman were incompatible; and he defined the early modern attitude toward marriage: that it was a union of souls, not merely a means of producing offspring.

I was taught a narrow view of marriage in my Catholic education: that procreation was the ultimate end of marriage. Luckily, the Church has shifted a bit on this simplistic view, putting pastoral emphasis on love on an equal footing with or ahead of procreation. There is still more work to be done on this before Catholic practice catches up with reality.

A recent article, found on the internet, by Thomas M. Finn, a religion professor at William and Mary, puts the issue of marriage in a fuller, historical light. He shows that Augustine in the 4th century changed his earlier view after the pastoral experience he gained as a bishop of Hippo: what made marriage marriage, he said, was mutual consent to a life together by two people (one of each sex, presumably) who were committed to love, support and respect each other.  The importance of offspring took second place in his mind, says Finn, as he encountered countless childless marriages that he considered true marriages.

Since he was the only early Church father to write extensively on the topic, Augustine remains a key figure in the Western idea of sex and marriage. Medieval arguments among scholars at the early universities ended up, says Finn, following Peter Lombard's text which said that consent, given in the present, to live together as partners, with mutual affection and respect--the very idea advocated by Milton--was the essence of marriage.

So, for 1,600 years, the definition of marriage hinged on consent, from which its secondary benefits, including children, flowed. Whether a couple could have children was not what made marriage marriage.

The historical lesson is always important in illuminating the present, and Finn sums up clearly what is at stake in today's debate about same-sex couples getting married even though they can produce no offspring.  Some 60% of Americans, he reports, including Catholics, agree with the historical consensus about what constitutes marriage: the consent of two people to live together in mutual respect and affection. It all comes down to love.

All too often, people of my generation, especially Catholics, tend to think of marriage as monolithic, unchanged since the Garden of Eden, rather than an evolved understanding of a commitment to love.

Friday, August 2, 2013

The death of darkness

I remember vividly my first encounter with pitch-black night. I was about 10 years old, and my family was visiting my aunt's summer home "out in the country," as we said, far away from the lights of St. Louis.  My mother's alarm at the total lack of light is probably what makes me recall those few nights. I came to see night as a time of fear and danger. In more recent years, I have been aware that the night sky of our cities and sprawling suburbs is not really dark in that natural way it once was.

I thought of this as I skimmed an interesting new book with a fascinating topic, the gradual loss of darkness on Earth: The End of Night by Paul Bogard, whose interests are primarily ecological, though he ranges widely from an opening visit to the Nevada desert, some of the darkest geography left in the U.S.  Two-thirds of Americans and Europeans no longer experience real night, real darkness, he says.

We live in a semi-twilight glow of artificial light, a world marked by light pollution. Finding natural darkness in our world, as Bogart shows, can be a challenge. His book is well-written and documented, a collection of revealing facts and insights from various perspectives.

Included, very briefly, is the religious, with two pages or so devoted to darkness in Christian tradition, and with nothing really about the mystical tradition such as John of the Cross's dark night of the soul or Rilke's "I am in love with night."

This spiritual dimension of night is a major part of what interests me about the topic, the parallel between darkness and silence: Just as silence is not the mere absence of sound but a kind of presence or reality in its own right, so it seems that darkness is not the absence of light but, as in so much myth and literature, a creative source of life. The feminine aspect of darkness (the womb) as something quite other than frightening or evil has often been discussed and is beyond Bogard's scope here.

He comes closest to treating such material, in what I have read, in quoting from members of the Native American tradition, who see darkness as a time of healing, as the earth rests. It is a time of rituals and ceremonies when spirits can wander across space and time. At night, says a Cherokee who is interviewed, one should be able to cross into other worlds and other eras, as in ancient times.

One of the striking features easily overlooked about earlier periods in the West, such as the Middle Ages, was the dramatic contrast between the dying of the day and the onset of night, when it was really dark, when people could look up into a velvet-black sky alive with stars and planets, as night's shadow extended into space.

The author does cite the Bible, both the story of Samuel and Christ in the agony of the garden, among many key events that occur in the spiritually alive darkness when the ultimate mystery of God is felt.  If religion tends to "illuminate" and study such things, the stories themselves remind us that darkness has to do with the mystery of being, what the mystics call the "negative way"--that ultimate meaning, or God, is unknowable, obscure.

I am glad to have come across Bogard's book and share his need to celebrate the few dark spots we have left on this artificially illuminated planet and to lament their loss elsewhere. I would welcome more discussion of the creative power and mystery of darkness--as well as the power of light.