Becoming A Giant Ear

All words at all times, true or false, whispered or shouted, are clues to the workings of the human heart. Listen. You must, if you care to understand anything at all, become a Giant Ear.                                  Kate DiCammilo, Flora & Ulysses

 How to see life, as Frederick Buechner suggests the Good Samaritan did, as a poet or a child? In response to this question, I wrote in my journal: settle back more, let things come instead of pushing, be attentive, be available, be less defensive, listen to others.

 Yesterday, I heard on the radio that the author of the famed Eloise books, originally published in 1955, did not intend them to be “children’s books.” For me, the multi-layered-ness of many so-called books for children is the power in these stories, for all of us.

Kate Di Camillo does write for younger people. She captures and conveys not so childlike wisdom through her storytelling. I’ve given Because of Winn Dixie, her first novel, as an adult gift and again last semester I read The Miraculous Adventures of Edward Tulane, winner of the Christopher Award, established to affirm the highest values of the human spirit, aloud to my class of twenty-some-thing people. I decided to re-read Flora & Ulysses, after listening to her Newberry Acceptance speech—hearing the real story behind the written story. Maybe, her stories hold a key to seeing life as a poet or a child.

Flora & Ulysses is a hybrid format – part is traditionally written and part graphic novel. The story of Flora, a “natural born cynic,” and her unassuming squirrel friend Ulysses—turned super-hero—was not immediately appealing from these descriptions. Compelling, though, was Kate Di Camillo’s real story that involved her mother, a giant vacuum cleaner, and the capacious hand of God.

In the novel, it is Flora’s father who has a capacious heart and the giant vacuum cleaner that transforms the yard squirrel into a poet with super powers. The story is about Flora, her divorced parents, and a myriad of neighbors and objects who become friends and accomplices on her way to seeing her life anew. Through the wisdom of long-lived Dr. Meescham who resides across the hall from Flora’s father and the blunders of voluntarily blind William Spivey, her next-door neighbor’s nephew, and her mother’s beloved unusual lamp, Flora observes her own life through other eyes.   In fact, throughout the story, Flora reminds herself in her role as a young cynic, “Do not hope; instead, observe.”

Paradoxically, what Flora heard and observed as a giant ear was astonishing.

Now, back to my own musing in connection with Flora’s reminder. Settle back more, let things come instead of pushing, be attentive, be available, be less defensive, listen to others.

It’s not that I don’t hope—it is ceasing to participate in the kind of “hope” that is continually playing a purposed scenario in my mind.  This imagined scene controls how I am in the unfolding story and takes me away from the present moment. Letting things come is an expectant hope, not of my own making.

Likewise, working out my own defense, in the form of a response or justification, is working out my own worth. I don’t have to do that. Maybe, listening is a way of finding common ground rather than needing to shore up my own perspectives.

Kate DiCamillo says that the word capacious means “being open, more capable of seeing and receiving the wonders of this world.” That’s another clue to how a poet or a child observe their world.

In the words of Dr. Meescham, Flora’s wise friend, “There is much more beauty in the world if I believe such a thing is possible.” And listen with a giant ear to hear it.

An Eye That Sees More

While consuming my daily dose of Buechner, as usual, I found myself with more to ponder about the very thing I might be hesitant to claim. I’ve been struggling (in my head) with some professional relationships, trying to sort out why things might seem more complicated than they really are. I didn’t imagine that the parable of the “Good Samaritan” might provide some insight. Buechner reimagines the players in the story as he says,

I prefer to think of the priest and the Levite as less than really bad, more just half blind…

So that let me off the hook a bit, maybe, I’m not really bad for continually wondering what I sometimes wonder; I’m just half blind.  Mitch, my everyday minister, often, when his sermon revolves around a story in the bible, encourages us as listeners to find ourselves in or even in-between the characters.  We do locate our lives in all kinds of stories we both read and hear.  Other wise people, too, say that that is how we come to some understanding of the ancient stories when we find a bit of our own story there.

In the Good Samaritan parable, I most often identify—no—I am the priest and the Levite.  I seem to come by quite a few people lately who have some kind of obvious pain. I do think of and even pray for them.  Yet, I don’t actually tell them so or do anything that makes sure they are being cared for and I probably only notice some of the time.

Considering that the priest and Levite aren’t all bad, just half blind makes it easier for me to see my way past myself a little more clearly.

In the same way that Buechner calls the priest and Levite “less than really bad,” he understands that the Samaritan is “more than good.”  He prefers

To think that the difference between the Samaritan and the other two was not just that he was more morally sensitive than they were but that he had, as they had not, the eye of a poet or a child or a saint—an eye that was able to look at the man in the ditch and see in all its extraordinary unexpectedness the truth itself, which was that at the deepest level of their being, he and that other one there were not entirely separate selves at all.  Not really at all.

Beyond the extraordinary insight these words offer, the glimmer of myself in this version of the story is more difficult to hear.  The “extraordinary unexpectedness” for me is that the person I am passing is not a stranger on the road but someone I see often, whom I have made “strange” because she doesn’t think or act or live like I do.

How do I develop that eye that sees more?

Doing is Being Present

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It is natural for me to focus on the day or even the upcoming week, on events that I have been anticipating, on things I have to do.  However, I sometimes catch myself, knowing that this isn’t necessarily what I need to pay attention to and also knowing that will I will go back to anticipating.

Even in the midst of this everyday stuff though, Buechner says that Jesus comes.  Like when I hear a passing comment that causes me to lean in, to listen differently or notice the honeysuckle growing wildly and wonderfully outside my bedroom window.  It is as if there is a message for me hidden in the words or scene and I ever so fleetingly pay attention.

Buechner calls these moments

the clack-clack of my life… The occasional, obscure glimmering through of grace.  The muffled presence of the holy.  The images, always broken, partial, ambiguous, of Christ.

That clack-clack, the everyday things, harbor glimmers of light that turn me toward noticing something. Today that noticing was the smell of the honeysuckle and sweet jasmine that was overwhelming as I walked the dog this morning.  In a starkly different scene, I noticed that my colleague’s response to my own pushing to get something done caused me to realize that I was trying too hard to get something done.  This kind of noticing, the smells of late spring or gentle reminders to offer grace, calls for an unusual response, an act of deeper listening.

Walter Bruggeman says that to listen is to resist autonomy, an intriguing option for me.  In his book, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming, from the chapter, “A Case Study in Fidelity” he says,

In our own time, these chapters (of Jeremiah) speak eloquently against the ideology of autonomy so powerful in modernity, against our notions of holding initiative for our life, and our mistaken notion of being self-starters.

The deeper kind of listening that I am being called into, how does that fit with my restlessness to get something done?  I’ve been reminded lately that my version of “getting things done” is for my own gratification.

In a meeting earlier this week, I was acutely aware – after the encounter was over—that I talked too much about what I do or think or understand instead of listening for how what I do or think or understand even matters. I’m pretty sure I was thinking of my own response, conscious of how I was being perceived, instead of listening deeply to my colleagues.

Maybe there is something better than doing.  And that something better, Parker Palmer says is “our gift of self in the form of personal presence attention, the kind that invites the other’s soul to show up.”

I realize that I am able to choose to notice all the subtle opportunities I have to pay attention, to listen more deeply, veiled in the fleeting words or actions or circumstances of another, whether the “another” is a person or the awe-inspiring honeysuckle outside my window.  And amazingly, no, by grace, things get done that are visible and invisible, without striving.

Put a Lid On That Frying Pan

Put a lid on that frying pan.

Living in any area, like the Appalachian valley where I live, people have sayings that color their talk.  It would be easy to note the uniqueness of the phrases and miss the wisdom.  Wisdom is indeed what I’ve needed lately.

I’ve noticed that it is too easy to get caught up in my own opinions.  Well, they’re not really just opinions—I know stuff.  A man I worked with many years ago once drew a volcano on a post-it-note and gave it to me.  Evidently, my opinions were often shared when they weren’t even asked for—and with passion.

And that is the trap I’ve fallen into again lately.  So, when I expressed my desire to consider some fundamental changes in a form our students’ are required to use, my wise colleague, who has grown up and lived in this area for most of his life, responded,  “Put a lid on that frying pan.”

Clarifying, he said that there were others who also had concerns; implying I should be patient…literally to put a lid on my own ideas until the proper time and place.  Like the volcano post-it-note, there isn’t a sense of urgency when it comes to opinions; nor are they productive when liberally shared.

Again and again, I come back to the question of what is important, what matters here?  Again and again, what I need to be reminded of comes from unexpected places—through my friend Gene’s colloquialism and from a character, Lillian, in Frederick Buechner’s novel, The Final Beast.

Nicolet is a parish minister whom Buechner literary critic Dale Brown describes as   “another Buechner character trying to decipher the darkest mysteries and looking for something like happiness…”  Nicolet encounters a woman of prayer, a faith healer of sorts, fashioned after Buechner’s real life encounter with Agnes Sanford, author of The Healing Light.  The Final Beast’s version of Agnes Sanford, Lillian Flagg, asks,

“Have you ever received the gift of the Spirit, Mr. Nicolet?  … The Holy Spirit… I don’t mean the frills.  I mean the real business…The life.”

Nicolet shook his head.

“I didn’t think so,” she said.  “You get so you can tell.  Pray for it, Nicolet.  Nothing else really matters, you know.”

That’s what I need to hear, what really matters.  Put a lid on that frying pan full of hot grease.  Don’t let it spatter on others, or myself for that matter.  Don’t let it be the substance I rely on to give me The Life.

Listening to continuing and troubling public rhetoric of blaming someone else, of being against, of choosing sides, of being caught up in power and privilege hasn’t helped. However, that is part of the grease that splatters.  I do that, too, comparing myself with others—to see if I am measuring up or even to see if they measure up to me—instead of building sustaining relationships. How to act “self forgettingly out of the living center” of whose I am “without the paralyzing intervention of self-awareness” (Alphabet of Grace).

She [Lillian Flagg] said it was amazing what God could do on his own sometimes…

Maybe that is enough to know today. Put a lid on my own frying pan and step back and notice what God is already doing here and be part of that.

The Pray-er

“No, I won’t look at it.  You are not praying to those people who are in the room, you are praying to God; trust your own prayerfulness.”

While I do consider public prayer a responsibility, Mitch’s words caused me pause.   Was I concerned about praying before my colleagues for the wrong reasons?  Was I more concerned with sounding holy or intelligent or somehow both?  His words also reminded me of whose presence I was calling upon in that prayer, even in a faculty meeting.

Reading like a writer is a pedagogical practice I not only teach but do. Since I was praying for a large meeting, my first response was to take out my copy of Praymates, compiled by Candida Lund.  I began leafing through the ancient and more contemporary prayers this book contains.  I read the prayers with the express intent of finding one I could pray or remix for my own purpose.

From my perspective, the contemporary idea of remixing and my understanding of the responsibility of corporate prayer are reflected in these words from literary theorist Bakhtin’s, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays.

All words have the “taste” of a profession, a genre, a tendency, a party, a particular work, a particular person, a generation, an age group, the day and hour.  Each word tastes of the context and contexts in which it has lived its socially charged life; all words and forms are populated by intentions (Bakhtin, 1981,p. 293).

The words I chose to pray did rest, as Bakhtin states, “on the borderline between oneself and the other.”  I wasn’t praying only for myself, nor was I praying only with an audience.  My prayer was ripe with my own intentions and, while it would also become other’s intentions, spoken in that moment.

While this doesn’t seem deeply spiritual as I write this now, my intention for reading the prayers in Praymates was to make someone else’s words our own. As I paged through the prayers in this book, I found eloquent lines that would allow me to put on airs of holiness but kept returning to a prayer by Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland (1542-1587) that almost seemed too personal for my gig.

Keep us, O God, from all pettiness; let us be large in thought, in word, in deed.

Let us be done with fault finding and leave off all self seeking.

May we put away all pretense and meet each other face to face without self-pity and without prejudice.

May we never be hasty in judgment and always generous.

Let us take time for all things, and make us to grow calm, serene, and gentle.

Teach us to put into action our better impulses, straight forward and unafraid.

Grant that we may realize that it is the little things of life that create differences, that in the big things of life, we are as one.

And, O Lord God, let us not forget to be kind!

Amen.

The line, teach us to put into action our better impulses, straight forward and unafraid, is one that I needed to act upon.

Praying before a faculty meeting, praying publicly “on the job” meant that I am “owning up” to the whole person I am.  Mitch’s words, that began this post, reminded me that I had to give up the idea that I wanted to come across a certain way—a perfect prayer.  Parker Palmer in his book, A Hidden Wholeness, speaks of our yearning to be whole; but living a divided life seems easier.  For me, that division is between my thinking self and my surrendering self that seems at odds rather than intertwined.  Palmer says that “wholeness is not about perfection: it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life.  Knowing this gives me hope that human wholeness—mine, yours, ours—need not be a utopian dream…

So I remixed the Queen’s words:

We come in gratitude, God, for your creating and loving spirit that brings new freedoms, joy, and provision for hope in this day.

Keep us from all pettiness; let us be large in thought, in word, in deed.

May we meet each other face-to-face without pretense; never hasty in decisions or judgments, always generous.

Teach us to put into action our better impulses, straightforward and unafraid.

Grant that we may realize that we are one in your spirit.

Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

And this prayer became and continues to be a kind of talking to myself. I found that when I said the words out loud they reminded me what I needed to do, so I keep on saying them.

Buechner says in Wishful Thinking:

Whatever else it may or may not be, prayer is at least talking to yourself, and that’s in itself not always a bad idea.

Talk to yourself about your own life, about what you’ve done and what you’ve failed to do, and about who you are and who you wish you were and who the people you love are and the people you don’t love too. Talk to yourself about what matters most to you, because if you don’t, you may forget what matters most to you.

Even if you don’t believe anybody’s listening, at least you’ll be listening.

More Than I Intend

Isaiah 44: Doing the right thing for the wrong reason…was the message that simple?

In a recent chapel at the institution where I teach, an English professor, who epitomizes the kind of person I want to be in this world, offered a meditation on Isaiah 44: “When meet ends are met.”   Meet is an archaic word meaning proper, fitting, or correct. It was one of those moments when God speaks gradually through my pondering of my own experience, my reading of other people’s words and now, in this instant, as I listened in chapel and new understandings emerged.

Again and again, I struggle with what I do; more specifically how what I do matters. Not so much my teaching, the relationships I build seem right even though there is tension between dismantling hierarchies of teacher and student and being the “most knowledgeable” one in that relationship.   I spend time wondering about other academic work that I was acculturated to do in graduate school. It has been my experience that some of my work has little to do with what matters. After listening to this chapel talk, I am wondering if maybe I am asking the wrong questions.

I have gifts that sometimes seem paradoxical—like dilemmas to be solved. Instead of asking, “do I do this?” when opportunities present themselves, my question might benefit from a change. How do I, or even do I, do this for the “right” reason?

Dr. MacDonald, the chapel speaker, said that it is not a matter of the “things” themselves, rather, Isaiah 44:12-20 recounts an example of Israel’s improper use of those things. In these verses, craftsman use their skill and resources for right ends and for wrong ones. Each tool and gift a craftsman uses, for example, has its own value or end and it is up to that craftsman to discover that value and make proper use of it. Dr. MacDonald summarized that in its highest sense, “fitting” grows out of respect for the true order of things; finding the true value of something and recognizing it in some appropriate way.

 My troubling revelation from my colleague’s chapel meditation was that I’m looking to the wrong things to “save me,” to make me count in the grand scheme of life.

We all are a part of the kind of Exodus story that Isaiah recounts. We, too, invite distress by an unknowing or even a defiance of God’s presence and purpose.

Dr. MacDonald wondered, “But in the people of Israel’s oppressions and neglects, what were they really doing? Were they, too, seeking salvation and deliverance from something that could not provide that for them?”

How would changing the reason I will write an academic article or present at a conference with other academics (whose opinions matter for all the wrong reasons to me) change what I do?

I’ve been on the look out for something more tangible or maybe intangible to transform what I have felt compelled to do for my academic worthiness. What could change my practice into something that reaches into the core of what matters or do I change what I do?

A couple of summers ago I attended the Buechner Writing workshop at Princeton Seminary in search of putting more of my “heart” in my academic writing. As a result, I began this blog—a very different purpose and practice of writing, or is it? This blog writing has everything to do with whose and who I am; yet, doesn’t hinge on what I am.

I will admit my continual angst about naming my degree, a job title, a kind of education, a kind of place where I work that results in tension. I was using all of those things to save me…to give me a platform…to validate my intellect…to put me above others in particular ways when that was the very thing I was fighting against. Using the right tools to do the wrong job?

While those questions persist, the good news in this story in Isaiah, as Dr. MacDonald pointed out, is in the poetry that frames the prose that troubled my work. In my dilemmas, I also experience the promise and transformation of the opening verses that remind me that I belong to God.

But now hear, O Jacob my servant,
Israel whom I have chosen!

Thus says the Lord who made you,
who formed you from the womb and will help you:

Do not fear, O Jacob my servant.

I am the Lord’s… The Lord’s.    

I am the Lord’s; more than intend.

Read On…

Over the Christmas holiday, I read several novels by Lee Smith. I read Oral History, Black Mountain Breakdown, Fair and Tender Ladies, and Saving Grace. Now, I am reading her newish memoir, Dimestore. I literally can locate my life in these books because they are set in the area where I live. Growing up in the Appalachian mountains of southwestern Virginia, Smith writes the stories of her childhood in Grundy, Virginia, and the nearby isolated “hollers” of the mountains surrounding Grundy and on toward Bristol, where I live.

The truths of stories, those truths that emerge and inform my own life, are tacitly experienced in my reading beyond the geographic landscapes I know. For example, across the four novels, I realized that the strong women that anchor each book go through much of their lives waiting, even longing, for something intangible that will make their lives complete. Often these longings result in hastily made decisions based on strong emotions that challenge the very relationships with those closest and most dear to them—husbands, brothers, sisters, and children.

I understand that kind of longing,

I’m teaching children’s literature this semester and I want the class to think deeply about the power of story in our lives. We use words and the many forms of language we encounter to become human, to connect ourselves with people and places and things in the world, and to connect ourselves beyond our human understanding.

Reading for me is one of those interpretive practices that creates a real “place” where I learn about myself. It’s not always explicitly obvious, though that does occasionally happen. Most often, it is what literacy researcher and writer, Dennis Sumara, calls the gradual instant. He recounts the experience of 90-year-old Hagar, from Anne Michael’s novel Fugitive Pieces.

Near the end of her life, when Hagar realizes Marvin has been the best son, not John, it is an epiphany that has been years in the making. As with all unexpected revelations, there is no immediate accounting for this understanding. For Hagar, insight does not spring directly from a particular episode in her life, but emerges ambiguously from the strange crevices that collect memory, current perception, and fantasy.

 Sumara goes on to say that he reads memoirs, ethnographies, and autobiographies for the explicit interpretations of life that he is only able to make in retrospect. In all kinds of reading of stories, I would argue, I am continually finding myself, giving “words” to my lived experience. So that “gradual instant” emerges from a complex relationship between my history, memory, language, and geography—where I am in-between what I experience and what I imagine.

So, what do I want the young people with whom I’ll be reading stories this semester to know? Those who will be using stories in their own future classrooms to engender the same kind of experience of exploring and eventually knowing?

Reading is an interaction—a transaction with the text. When we talk about stories we not only interact with an author’s rendition of living but also make sense of our own lives in the context of other peoples’ thinking and experience.

Stories speak truths that we may or may not hear. As we identify with aspects of the text and develop a relationship between these identifications and the context of reading, a complex web of associations emerge.

One thing I love about being in a small university is the opportunity I have to learn from others across disciplines. In a recent conversation, a wise colleague from Religion and Philosophy recalled our own power to “speak words” that create out of chaos.

In those moments, those gradual instants, when I am reading a novel, a memoir, the Bible; I come to insights that matter, just as Frederick Buechner says about our stories.

My story is important not because it is mine, God knows, but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours. Maybe nothing is more important than that we keep track, you and I, of these stories of who we are and where we have come from and the people we have met along the way because it is precisely through these stories in all their particularity, as I have long believed and often said, that God makes himself known to each of us most powerfully and personally. If this is true, it means that to lose track of our stories is to be profoundly impoverished not only humanly but spiritually.

Read on…