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…


Daily Examen

As is my usual, I don’t have too many ideas that are entirely my own.  Maybe none of us really do.  We meaningfully repackage—or a more contemporary term would be to re-mix—other peoples’ words and experience into significant practices in response to our own lives.  This is one of those times.

In a recent yoga class on New Year’s Eve, my wise guide, Nicole, encouraged us to identify barriers.  She used this quote from Rumi, a 13th century Sufi mystic and poet.

Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.

I am ever mindful about how I make myself known to God and experience God’s love in tangible ways. One realization for me during that ninety-minute yoga class was how my over-thinking and second-guessing—too much attention on what I’ve already said or done or how I came across that I think I control—is a barrier to joy and being loved.

Mitch has reminded me repeatedly, as I lamented over the day, to focus on what I did do.  It is true that I am often focusing on what I failed to do, however, just as often I think too much about what I did do or say or think that day.  As an academic, I feel compelled to critically examine…everything? Okay, I am placing the blame outside myself and that is not exactly the reason for my self-conscious criticism. The truth is that being critical (over-thinking in my case) is a way that I try to control my life and how I view other peoples’ lives.

Even when the things I’m lamenting don’t seem to matter much—like eating out when I could have fixed a meal at home—the time I consider what I could have done, or said, or why, could be more productively spent. Why is it so hard to let go, to stop those inner conversations?

So, I write in my morning pages and rehash a decision or event and insight does often emerge.  However, the idea that my overthinking is a barrier to being loved or trusting beyond what I do creates new possibilities for a response.

In our faculty retreat before the fall semester began, Jamie Smith suggested a practice to cultivate individual reflection in a healing way.

In Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola developed such a prayerful reflection on the events of the day called Daily Examen.  The prayerful practice is intended to help us see God’s hand at work in our daily experience.  The Examen evolves through five stages of reflection.

1.    Become aware of God’s presence. To look back on the events of the day in the company of the Holy Spirit is different than lamenting over what I didn’t do or selfishly focusing too much on what could have been.

2.     Review the day with gratitude. Walk through the day in the presence of God to focus on the day’s gifts.  For me, when I focus on relationships, not just what I did, the day changes.  Relationships are reciprocal.  It’s not just about what I did or didn’t say or do but what gifts I receive without doing much of anything.

3.     Pay attention to your emotions. This is challenging for me.  And here I will recite what I learned about St. Ignatius.  One of his great insights was that we detect the presence of the Spirit of God in the movements of our emotions. I’m not sure I understand this but I’m reminded of the Rumi poem, “The Guest House,” and wonder what God is saying or preparing me for through these feelings that I either give over to completely or want to avoid.

4.    Choose one feature of the day and pray from it.  I have found this kind of prayerful attention significant.  Most often what I have decided to “pray from” has been a seemingly insignificant experience or one that I am inclined to over-think.

5.    Look toward tomorrow. 

The last step, look toward tomorrow, reminds me of Buechner’s words that name my barriers that would be so easy for me to take up again as I look forward to a new day.

“Let go and let God”—which is so easy to say and for people like me so far from easy to follow.  Let go of the dark, which you wrap yourself in like a straitjacket, and let in the light.  Stop trying to protect, to rescue, to judge, to manage the lives around you…because that is just what you are powerless to do.  Even your own life…is God’s business.  Leave it to God.  It is an astonishing thought.  It can be a life-transforming thought.

How do I know God and how do I open myself up to such transformation?  By taking the time to review the day, I listen to my life; recalling the times that I protected my ego by paying too much attention to what I did, thought, or said and the times when I was open to recognizing others.  When I find myself feeling defensive or trying to change others, I will ask for God’s mercy.  When I notice that I did act with little self-concern, I will be thankful and experience God’s cleansing grace.

There is no event so commonplace but that God is present within it, always hiddenly, always leaving you room to recognize him or not to recognize him, but all the more fascinatingly because of that, all the more compellingly and hauntingly.  Listen to your life.  See it for the fathomless mystery that it is.  …All moments are key moments and life itself is grace.                                                   Now and Then