Tuesday, October 2. 2007
The five-year-letter is an exercise we've been doing in the Self Knowledge Symposium for many years. Imagine who you may be in five years. Now write a letter to that person. What ambitions to you hope you will still hold dear, and what compromises are you afraid that you might make?
Students are writing theirs this week, so I suppose I should write my own.
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You are now, lessee, almost 43 years old. The boys will be eleven and eight. (Funny, how your kids become your primary means of tracking the passageÂ of years. . . ) And who knows, there may be more . . . but regardless, you and Janet will probably be out of the business of diapers and babies. I hope you did not miss their growing up. Everyone marvels at how quickly their kids are grown and gone, and I imagine you will be no exception. Just grab enough of those moments, unclouded by distraction, when you see them for who they are.
I'm really hoping you're well underway in your writing career by this point. For years I dreamed of being a writer, but didn't act on it because I couldn't see a path, a realistic way forward to that dream. I kept waiting for the right opportunity, the right situation, the right constellation of risk and reward to emerge. But really, I knew better. As Emerson said: "Fools! Paths are made by walking." I started blogging, with no expectation, no direction, just a blind groping towards living the life that I really wanted. And I kept writing, for the better part of two years, practicing the craft. Eventually I knew that my hope was more than a vain hope; I knew I could write every day, and make it the focus of my energy. But stillÂ I hesitated. Only when I saw the student groups stumble did I realize that I was wasting my life. How could I keep going through my work-a-day middle-class existence, when the things that matter most to me were wasting away?
And so I began to make writing a profession. By now you should have the results of the experiement. Either you've found a niche, and know you're in the right business, or you've given it up for a bad job and gone back to the salt mines. Either way, I hope you feel good about trying. If you succeed, I hope it was for the right reasons, and that you're writing what's most important to you and not just what sells. If you fail, I hope you didn't give up too soon, succumbing to the need for ego-gratification and social status at the expense of a better calling. Most of all, I hope that your ambitions to be a writer don't eclipse the desire that spawned it -- the desire for real spiritual wisdom. "What profiteth a man, if he gain his life, and lose his soul?"
I've recently found how important it is to have a rhythm to your life -- not a fixed routine, necessarily, but a conscious pace and procedure which will allow you to be completely present with whatever you need to be doing right now. You've spent the first half of your life being perpetually distracted. I hope that spirit of franticness has become a dim memory by now, a person you barely recognize.
I hope and pray that you will have found more than just new words for the things you already know. I hope that genuine wisdom born of spiritual experience has found you, in its due time. May happy accidents be yours.
Saturday, September 29. 2007
Our book club just finished its long, weary journey through The Sound and the Fury which, we concluded, signified nothing. So now Janet and I get to pick the next book, and the pressureâ€™s one to find a good one: not too long, completely accessibly, and not too blatantly serving of our own interests. I consciously decided not to pick anything that was explicitly spiritual, which wipes out three-quarters of my library.
Which leads me to announce The Top Books That A Book Club Could Handle:
Friday, August 24. 2007
In journalism, the term "toe-touch" is means "to make a quick trip to a particular place, just so you can claim that location in the dateline of the published story." It's considered an unethical practice, since the dateline implies that the writer actually did the reporting in that location, when in fact they might have done all the reporting via internet.
I've seen the same toe-touching phenomena in blogging, where people make lame or irrelevant posts to their blogs just so they can keep up a high frequency of posting. You could think of the toe-touch as any action you take to comply with the letter of the law, even though it obviously contradicts the spirit.
When I started blogging, I decided that the most important thing was to write every day -- even if it sucked, it was more important to produce regularly than to get hung up on endless self-editing. But I also felt committed to not "toe-touching" the blog when I had nothing of value to add, because regular readers wouldn't give a fig about me living by the letter if the law if the writing sucked. I noticed that Adam Felber had some absolutely amazing posts, but the increasing frequency of his "I've-got-nothing-to-say-so-gee-whatever" posts drove me nuts.
But, here we are . . . my daily posting has slipped over the last two weeks, primarily because the start of school: the UNC Self Knowledge Symposium was starting up again, my son started school, and host of other inescapable demands on my time. So the question is: am I betterÂ off living by the letter of the law, maintaining the habit even if I have too little time to commit to the blog? Is a toe-touch better than nothing at all? Will God love you better for abiding by the letter?
Oddly enough . . . yes, toe touching is ok, at least in this context, because:
Too many of my disciplines of died strictly because I lost the habit. I once meditated every day for two hours a day for nine months running . . . but once I went a whole week without doing it, for some terribly good reason I can't remember now, I totally lost the practice. It may be fashionable in modern spiritual circles to focus on the spirit to the exclusion of the letter, since the foolishness of Pharisee-like adherence to rules is one of the dominant themes of the New Testament. But the letter of the law can still serve the spirit, so long as consciousness is maintained.
Monday, August 20. 2007
Psychologists have observed that learning is somewhat state-dependent: that is, if you learn something in a certain physical or mental condition, you will recall that learning better in that same state. If you always practice piano at the same time in the same place, just being in that place at that time will put you in the proper frame of mind to play. And, conversely, you'll have a harder time playing when you play at a radically different setting.
My writing, alas, is really state-dependant now. I find it easy to write at the beginning of the day, and torturous to write at night. I had cut out time in the morning to write because it was the least susceptible to disruption by my work schedule . . . but no time is completely safe from disruption. I was at UNC's FallFest last night and didn't get in until 1:30 am . . . which was a blast, but it's waaaay past my bedtime. And then I had to go to Winston-Salem in the morning to be with my mother-in-law for a doctor's appointment. All it takes is two back-to-back disruptions to smash out my writing time . . . and if you string enough of those together, a healthy habit is toast in no time.
I've always taken great pride in being flexible in my schedule, and willing to work long and hard . . . but I am continually rediscovering that "long and hard" is not nearly as efficient and "conscious and consistent."
Sunday, June 17. 2007
I have been blogging long enough that I face the threat of inadvertantly repeating myself. (I confess, I felt a little thrill of pride the first time I experimented with RSS feeds and Internet Explorer warned me, â€œThis feed is updated very frequently.â€ Someone once asked me about my writing goals, and I said: â€œI want my obituary to include the word â€œprolific.â€)
Today I thought, â€œGee, I really ought to write something about Fatherâ€™s Day,â€ and rumbled along with some of my thoughts about the celebration of fatherhood. But then I stopped: â€œWait a minute . . . .what did I write last Fatherâ€™s Day?â€ Â So I dig waaay back and . . . sure enough, I had written much of the same stuff a year ago. Which also pleased me: itâ€™s nice to read stuff that youâ€™ve completely forgotten about ever writing, and then read it again and say, â€œGee, that was pretty good.â€ That is, Iâ€™m told, the only way to directly experience whether your writing is any good.
But now Iâ€™m without an easy topic. Darn.
The glaring exception, as all the Freudians in the audience will point out, is that I havenâ€™t written about my own father. A basic part of psychological and spiritual work is that you unpack your relationships with your parents. Were I feeling braver tonight, I might go there. But itâ€™s not going to happen . . . ok? You got a problem with that? Fine.
Ok, ok, whatever. I wonâ€™t wimp out. Put it this way: I always really identified with Robert Haydenâ€™s poem â€œThose Winter Sundays.â€ (Iâ€™m sure itâ€™s getting a lot of hits today.) If you subtract out 100% of the anger in that poem (because my father is an exceedingly self-controlled and gentle man) you would have the tone of my relationship with my father. I sense a good, kind, responsible, hard-working, very admirable person, standing on the other side of a wide abyss of unknowing. That I love my father has always been without question. I just wish I knew him better.
Saturday, May 19. 2007
I was pitching some SKS students on a collaborative spiritual blog, and one of them raised a concern: "I would think that constantly publishing your thoughts would be egotistical, and be counter to an attitude of humility and service." Granted, he had just come back from many months with the brothers at Mepkin Abbey, who probably would find a blog to be somewhat self-aggrandizing. But I wanted to take the question head-on: of what spiritual value is blogging?
Friday, May 18. 2007
In the first session of a poetry writing class in college, Jerry Barrax asked us, "What are you reading? Who are your favorite poets?" A few students ventured to say that they didn't read much poetry, although they liked to write it. "I'm really not much interested in what you're writing," Jerry said, some edge in his voice. "I'm much more interested in what you're reading. Because if you want to write poetry, you need to read poetry. A lot of poetry. And not just the classics from half a century ago . . . you need to read contemporary poetry. You need to know what your peers are doing."
That stuck with me. Jerry is a poet who believes in craft -- that good writing is much more a matter of skill and experience than inspiration. Nor was Jerry alone in the advice he offered. In a possibly apocrophal story, when J.D. Salinger was last sighted (a truly rare occurrance) by an aspiring writer who asked him for advice, he simply said, "Read." The Pultizer-winning playwright Marsha Norman advised writers to keep their current work relatively private ("Don't talk the play away") but otherwise to read voraciously. "Read at least four hours a day, and don't let anyone ask you why you're doing that instead of writing."
I think the advice could be generalized: if we want to create, we need to consume. If you're writing a blog, you'd better be reading other bloggers . . . and looking for new blogs all the time. If you want to get an online community going, you'd best participate in a bunch of other online communities to see what works and what doesn't. And if you want to create a spiritual community, you'd better see what other spiritual communities are doing. I see (in myself, anyway) the same sort of egotistical parochialism among spiritual seekers that dogs would-be writers. Sometimes we are so sure of our own wisdom that we don't allow ourselves to be educated by a wider world.
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