The Universe of Illusions

I have been away from writing in this space for more reasons than I really understand. Imminent plans to pack up and more back to Cape Cod are not amongst them, despite my last post, but I still have faith that such eventualities will be revealed in their time if it is meant to be. It is not that I have been off on a crusade against global warming either, despite all of my fiery rhetoric from a few weeks ago. Neither of these things are any less important to me; I was not speaking anything other than the truth when I bathed the topics of climate change and the desire to return home in such urgent tones. It’s just that I fell back into the rhythm of living life rather than talking about it for a little while.

Across the Universe* * *

I spent yesterday reading David Edwards’s Burning All Illusions: A Guide to Personal and Political Freedom and then we watched Across the Universe, that movie about the sixties with the beautifully Beatles-laden soundtrack. They complemented one another in a stirring way.

The basic premise of Edwards’s book is one that reverberates in my core, even as I yearn desperately to push such insights as far from me as possible. He describes the commodified, profit obsessed “reality” of modern life, the inescapable pursuit of property and status that marks Western life (so often at the expense of the rest of the world) and leaves us all empty, devoid of purpose of our own. To him, being caught in this trivialized culture is exactly the opposite of freedom. Though it seems as if we have limitless options, our paths are all predetermined because they function to support the ever expanding financial markets. We stand in a place where it is impossible to discern the truth because it is filtered through the media machine that is just as much in thrall with conformity and the bottom line as the corporations. Success is counted in dollars and pounds; happiness becomes an elusive, undefinable destination often only understood in monetary terms.

I know, I know, maddened lefty rhetoric from a guy who probably couldn’t hold a real job, right? He quotes Chomsky and asserts that Shakespeare is not actually a very good writer (he was just someone who eloquently dressed up themes that the elites have continued to approve of), so he must be an irrelevant wacko, right? I mean, we can all list our myriad liberties and successful instances of insightful, investigative reporting, right?

The problem is, what if he isn’t nuts? What if there is real truth in these ideas that our society demands we reject? I know I am susceptible to his message since I have been plagued with my own questions about what to do with my future (dreams of being a healer and a writer and a yoga instructor with the ocean not far from my door) and am constantly confronted with “but how are you going to pay the bills, kid?” and “don’t you worry about not having benefits?” And these comments come from those I love and respect, those who only want the best for me! But I am certainly not the only one to have woken up to realize that the layers of schooling and networking and financial obligations should not lead to a life sentence in a sensible job that leaves one feeling soulless – despite the health insurance and the fact that there are plenty worse places to be. Since the picture of society that Edwards creates seems accurate enough, clearly most people who wake up in such a crisis listen to those concerned friends and worried family members and continue to do the job and make the sacrifices because that is the only “realistic” way to go.

This unusual (bizarre?) perspective is difficult to express since I am far from comfortable with them myself and fear my readers who will shake their heads at another of my flights of fancy, another of my quaint hypocrisies (how easy would it be for me to forget this Sunday morning ramble and go shopping this afternoon and watch brainless television tonight?). The film Across the Universe at least can function to illustrate some of these ideas.

The movie, of course, is steeped in all of the idealism of the sixties, the nascent radicalism of (most of) a generation. Though it includes some cringe worthy musical theater style dance moves, it really was a beautiful kaleidoscope of an era. What really struck me was the contrast between the emergent, rebellious youth culture and the American war machine. In that case, movement and dance and song made the argument so much more compelling than tradition storytelling. Perhaps I am soaked in my own idealism of my parents’ college years, but it seemed as if a truly independent spirit still inspired the young people of that decade. Maybe it was because music was not yet a completely corrupt industry. Or maybe it was because the war affected so many people so much more intimately than the current conflicts that rage across the globe. Maybe it was just because the military industrial complex was just not as sophisticated as it is now. Back then, the unholy marriage of big business and the “defense” industry was not yet so powerful that it became invisible as it has now.

Of course, in the intervening years, what sounds have become more part of the general culture than the music of the Beatles? It is hard to believe sometimes that their music was once strange and revolutionary, rather than a set of familiar anthems of a now quaint time rife with free love and heavy drug use.

This is not a post that really goes anywhere in particular, except for halfway through a book that just might urge me to analyze some of my own perceptions of the world, but I think that is ok for now. At any rate, check out the movie – it offers an entertaining couple of hours that will make it so you’ll never look at the Statue of Liberty in the same way again. And I think I would recommend Edwards’s book too – I think…

Global Warming and The Place Between Mourning and Action

Six Degrees Could Change the WorldLast night, I declared that the thing that breaks open my heart, the thing that wakes me at three a.m. and turns my sweetly oblivious sleep toward the direction of nightmare is the spectre of global warming. A person who I love has lived his day under a bleak cloud after watching the same program on the National Geographic channel that I did last night, Six Degrees Could Change the World. I was able to tell him that such information galvanizes me at this point; I have done my mourning for the devastation that our modern lifestyle has cast upon this earth, now I am ready to act. Of course, I am realizing now that I may have just been trying to comfort him. I know that I will not finish mourning our stifling planet until I can understand what it means when the glacier at the head of the Ganges has melted and the coral reefs around Australia have all died, and how can I ever comprehend the destruction of natural wonders so vast? It is just as difficult as trying to wrap my mind around the forces that created these beauties in the first place.

The decision to really take on this issue, and make it something that I am aware of with each cup of coffee passed to me in a paper cup and with each shampoo bottle I toss into the trash when I see it is not a number 1,2,3, or 5 and the recycling center has no interest in it, will force my everyday life into a new perspective. Am I really ready for that? Can I find a solution to the 37 miles I drive alone each day on my way to and from work rather than just climb into the car guiltily each morning? Can I bear the inconvenience of keeping a plastic mug and silverware in my purse so that I can cut down on at least one cup and one plastic fork everyday? Can I find somewhere other than beneath torrents of hot water that flow from the shower head to do my best thinking?

Situations like these might lead to minor annoyances or changes in behavior; in the end I will probably reap the great immediate gains of feeling virtuous and proactive. The real problem would arise when I begin to imagine how changes I may feel compelled to make in my own life might make those around me uncomfortable or upset. George Monbiot’s 2006 book Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning was the first to introduce me to the idea of “love miles” and how those are a part of the environment’s undoing. Inwardly, I “tsk, tsk” at the perpetual business travelers who circumnavigate the globe several times a year in the pursuit of universal capitalism. Monbiot tells his readers that they must accept that one of the great entitlements of western society, air travel, would need to be a thing of the past if we are to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by the degree he believes necessary: 90% by 2030. How do I deal with not being able to fly to see my friends in Ireland or that I might be contributing to the devastation of the Amazon if I went on an “eco-tour” there. I am still unready to think that it would be better for Galway Bay if I never went to see it again. What is even more difficult to imagine are those “love miles” that don’t seem like a vacation or a luxury but necessity like the two hour drive to see my grandfather or the four hour ride to the Cape to see my folks.

What would it mean to be of a generation that once had the entire world at its feet, but now may only have it at its fingertips, making the Internet into the only responsible way to reach out and experience the world?

Perhaps we could realize that we are actually creatures who can only truly experience the world as far as the visible horizon like David Abram talks about in The Spell of the Sensuous. Maybe his vision of local culture is not just a quaint homage to the indigenous peoples of this world; maybe their way of life is a model for our future.

And I have not even addressed the idea of action. I am certainly not finished mourning yet.

The Struggle with Humility

Stephan de PalyFor the better part of a year I have been working with Caroline Myss’s Entering the Castle, a refashioning of Teresa of Avila’s The Interior Castle. Part of me feels guilty about spending all of this time with this derivation of such a classic text, with all of its modern directions about “Soul Work” and journaling, but I have to trust my 21st century spirit and give her what she needs. Though I’ve had the original out from the library for ages (in the guise of two tragically plain looking volumes that hold 1960s translations of the saint’s complete works) I know that my chances of really reading unmediated Teresa is rather remote, while I know I will give time to the process as Myss lays it out.

Before you can come anywhere near the pyrotechnics of the soul that mark the mystic’s experience (and I use that term facetiously, knowing that a great deal of the journey to the Divine is rooted in silent communion rather than blinding visions and moments of levitation) one has to work with what Teresa calls the “reptiles.” These are the fears and hang ups and frailties that keep you from real communion with your sacred self. The reptiles are the petty shreds of the all too human preoccupations that keep us from embracing divinity.

Myss introduces humility as a necessary “quality of character” as one walks the spiritual path; understanding it builds the essential foundation as you journey upward to the turrets of the soul castle. She writes: “humility allows you to recognize an acknowledge all the positive qualities of body, mind, and spirit in another person”; “humility disarms the competitive voice”; and “humility enables you to understand another person’s motivations and to transcend any negativity.”

It’s written in a bit of a self-helpy way, but all of these things seem really quite wonderful and I can certainly get excited about the positive outcomes engendered by embracing humility and shifting the way I relate to others. At the same time, I do not think I had ever thought about the concept of humility before I picked up this book; it certainly was never a quality I strove for. What does one think of besides kids who grew up in tiny houses (humble beginnings) and someone forced to eat their words (humble pie)? I, like so many others, was raised to be an achiever; you have to sell your skills and make sure that all of your accomplishments were recognized and applauded. Putting others first all of the time is a good way to be labeled one of the “nice” girls in class, but it is not how you get to be known as interesting or clever.

I have an awful lot invested in being considered interesting and clever, so the realization that my wittiest lines so often come at the expense of others has been a vicious reptile to wrestle with. It is this resistance to letting go of what I tend to see as hallmarks of my personality (rather than banal cruelties) that has kept me in this first mansion for months, knowing that I must go back and peel away endless layers of resistant false self. So many corners of my being are shocked to learn that the goal is recognize myself to be a humble servant of God.

That really is the ultimate goal: to figure out how to act humbly on this earth with all that you meet so that you are prepared to approach to Divine with devotion unencumbered by the petty mandates of the ego. At this point I am willing to declare it a worthy enterprise, but it doesn’t seemto be a quality that contemporary living has prepared me for. I have some more work to do so that I can fight the belief that I will need to wear a sign that declares “I’m not being shy/dull/retiring, I’m being HUMBLE!”

And so I close another entry, wondering whether I am transgressing the humility code as I hope that people find my words intriguing enough to have reach the end…

What We Might Discover in the Heavens

Discovery of HeavenFor the past few weeks I have been making my way through a dear friend’s favorite book, Harry Mulisch’s sprawling novel The Discovery of Heaven. I have been away from my little world of epiphanies mainly because I have been so deeply immersed in sorting out the truly personal; it has seemed impossible to pull such insights into the broader context of these public pages. This hefty volume of fiction may also be partly to blame for my silence, however.

So much of the inspiration for this blog comes from the various spiritual texts that I have been exploring. For months I have neglected reading and writing fiction almost entirely, nourished by narratives that seemed to describe the plot of the entire world. Characters and a storyline seemed too constrictive, and, dare I say it, unnecessary. Then I read a book like this, so full of philosophy and Big Ideas (with an extra large capital “B” and a really big “I”) that I know I cannot possibly be absorbing it all, seeing as I am distracted by the lives of a handful of Dutch intellectuals living through the legacy of Hitler and countless other dramas of modernity. I am mute in the face of all that this book achieves, generally unable to add more words to the tapestry Mulisch has created.

I struggle with some aspects of this novel: its hyperintellectual acrobatics (conversations between an astronomer and a linguist? oh my) and a sexism so pervasive that you barely even notice the cloud it casts. (Oh, wait, that’s just reality of their world that I can ignore, right? For now I reserve commentary on how applicable that description may be to this world.) At the same time, I cannot help but be entranced by a story that is framed by two angels discussing the ways they manipulate the creation of humankind – what accidents of history became necessary so they could bring certain individuals to life at exactly the right time in accordance with “the Chief’s” plan. In a time when religion and science clash over the origins of this universe a book about Heaven’s indignation at the earthly power of science seems more than timely.

One idea that has really struck me is steeped in much more astrophysics that I could possibly understand or do justice, but I must try. Muslisch take us to a complex series of telescopes have been built on the grounds of was once a camp that held Jews before they were transported to Germany. The inordinately wise and sensitive boy named Quintin states:

Max once told me that we see the stars as they used to be. So on the stars they see the earth as it used to be. If the people on a star that is forty light years away from here look at us with a very powerful telescope, then they must be seeing what happened here forty years ago, mustn’t they?

I am not sure how well this quotation encapsulates what it is much longer conversation, but what I hope to convey is way that his question touches on the simultaneous nature of time. Every moment that has ever been lives on in a constant journey deeper and deeper in space. The earth is surrounded by concentric rings of history. All events exist into infinity. Nothing that has happened ever truly disappears if one stands at a certain perspective far away from this world. Isn’t that exactly where we have placed God for so long?

In some ways this makes me shiver, to realize that every heinous aspect of humanity and each shame filled moment of my life I’d love to forget still reverberate through the cosmos. At the same time, however, anything that still echoes through creation like that might yet be able to be redeemed. Perhaps this is a great argument for forgiveness and that nothing cannot somehow, eventually be transformed by love?

But let me tell you what I think!: Interactive Readership

Over at The Website of Unknowing this morning Carl McColman wrote about the joyful immediacy of the blog world compared to the less “fun” act of book writing and the way that the conversations that mark this electronic realm force one to constantly think and question in new ways. After just over two months writing in this space, I have come to realize how a new appreciation for immediacy has altered my perspective, even the way I read the still beloved printed page.

Today I started a Christmas gift, Andrew O’Hagan’s novel Be Near Me. I have been in a pitiable fiction rut lately, but after only 35 pages, this book reminded what it is I love about literature. The flow of language, the cleverness of the author’s connections, my immediate yearning to understand the “why” of everything that unfolds in this depressed Scottish town that so seem to hate its Catholic priest. All I wanted was to stop and thank O’Hagan for transporting me, for inspiring me again. While I have always been moved by storytelling, this new impulse to drop a book so that I could celebrate how it has touched me is quite new. I am left to wonder how it enhances my ability to interact with a text – to articulate exactly what it is I love (or despise); I also must consider how it might detract from what has always been a meditative, solitary pursuit – breaking the flow of reading another’s work with the need to interject.

Again I am thinking of David Abram’s Spell of the Sensuous that I mentioned yesterday: it’s about the way our global culture, which has been created in part through the propagation of the written word, has detracted from our true connection to nature. At the risk of pulling his argument too far from its original course, I believe in some ways it is this new medium that actually can return us, if not to the direct experience of nature itself, then at least to a new ability to be present and responsive to experience.

Perhaps I am bending logic to make sense of this new blog habit that drinks up so much of my time. Certainly I am not considering all that we lose in face-to-face interpersonal experiences by constantly interacting with “virtual” folk. Responding to what we read used to be the stuff of coffee shops and book clubs after all. Maybe I just feel the need to draw connections between narratives that flow through ink on paper with this new form so that I can believe there will be such a think as the spine of a book upon which my name might appear some day. It just might be that the rules really are not written yet and we still have to negotiate what reading and responding will mean in the future. We risk such fragmentation as skip between mediums, always looking to speak rather than listen and contemplate. At the same time, there is beauty in this alternative to reading in a vacuum in which reactions might simply settle to create a thicker mental hummus of vicarious experiences, largely inaccessible and unexamined.

That debate will rage on, but for now I suppose I will have to fall back on that line from Yeats: “Words alone are certain good.” Well, words may not be the only source of good, but they are an excellent rock to cling to.

Pacing the Earth With Humility and Grace

“In order to obtain the astonishing and unifying image of the whole earth whirling in the darkness of space, humans, it would seem, have had to relinquish something just as valuable – the humility and grace that comes from being fully a part of this whirling world.”

– David Abram, Spell of the Sensuous

Apollo 17 Crew, NASA

In his remarkable book, Abram looks at the way written language (and all of the technology that resulted in perfecting that particular form of magic) has altered our relationship with nature. We are almost completely wrapped up in the power of our own minds to the degree that we no longer recognize that living on this planet is to coexist in an infinite partnership. He describes the ability of people of oral cultures to live in harmony with the land and every entity; he makes it clear that we “moderns” have alienated ourselves almost completely from such a symbiotic dance.

I wanted to celebrate the chirp of every cricket right along with him and know what it would be like to see the earth not as an inanimate setting upon which I enact the drama of my life, but to recognize the landscape as a main character. I was able to lose myself in the text. At the same time, the unforgettable element that reverberates through this work is that such a well-crafted narrative can only exist thanks to the innovations that have pulled us away from this original sensibility. And though his story is captivating, I think I would be looking for a little more excitement than the local moss and soaring birds might be able to offer after a little while. He offers a very brief solution to this separation from nature, and that is to return to a localized culture that truly focuses on what is immediately outside your back door rather than on the global vision that entrances us now. I am not sure that his answer is immediately practicable or even attractive, but I gained much simply from Abram’s description of an idealized unity of humans and their environment.

I chose the quote above both because it creates a startling perspective on the consequences of “progress” and because Abram employs the terms “humility” and “grace.” During this period of soul searching I am trying to take a break from my current dilemma that revolves around asking “what’s next?” to move further within to ask “where am I now?” Caroline Myss’s Entering the Castle has been my guide, and in working with this book I have encountered these two words that I have thrown around before but certainly did not fully understand. These words are an interesting choice for Abram because one thing I missed in his book was any direct discussion of God. That is not a failing of this book necessarily – the natural world is the mightiest manifestation of the divine and it is easy to read into this text the sense that removing ourselves from nature is also to separate ourselves from the most beautiful and immediate expressions of the sacred. It is just something that I noticed was absent since so much of what I am reading these days is so overtly laced with “God talk.”

But what does it mean to live with humility and grace? This question is enough to fill endless entries, but it is one that I must begin to pose. At this moment I would consider grace to be the ability to walk through my day knowing that I am a channel of divine energy, conscious of the unity of all creation and of my own powerful place in that continuum. Humility is a concept I am just beginning to get my head around – to understand on a personal level that it is not about fading into the woodwork and sacrificing my personality in an effort to be blandly and angelically good. It is about settling into my truest self so that I am secure enough and grounded enough not to need to be first, not to demand constant attention and praise, not driven to denigrate others in order to improve my own position. It is about honesty and authenticity.

Both of these terms apply so perfectly to the way in which we must be bound to behave on this planet. To act with grace is to recognize our position in this web of life both by refusing to exploit it and by making positive contributions that better this world. And to move from a place of humility is to give up the idea that we are supreme creatures entitled to trample every other species and resource in a mad dash to have more and more and more. It is to recognize our own impermanence and look upon this planet with respect rather than as another foe to be conquered, another force to be controlled.

Life Changing Philosophy and Bumper Sticker Ethics

“Why do we have to spend our lives striving to be something we would never want t0 be, if only we knew what we wanted? Why do we waste our time doing things which, if we only stopped to think about them, are just the opposite of what we are made for?”

– Thomas Merton (quoted in James Martin’s Becoming Who You Are)

I read Martin’s slim book about the search for the true self this morning and was transported by Merton’s quote, feeling as if he were speaking directly to me as I try to sort out my perspective on occupation and duty on the one hand, and dreams and destiny on the other. My education and experience position me to continue to climb the professional ranks; the inherited family work ethic has generally lead me to follow this path without question. But now the questions refuse to fade into the background and the path looks like it leads to a thicket of doubt and mediocrity rather than an upward spiral to worthy achievement.

One of Martin’s central theses is that we are never alone in this search for meaning and identity. If you think your existential dilemmas are more harrowing than someone else’s, you’re probably just a touch self-absorbed. Trying not to assume that my current internal debate is any more taxing than other people’s, however, only makes the choice of what to do next marginally easier. I am certain that some of this could be chalked up to being a recently married college graduate in her late twenties who was raised to be believe that she was clever and accomplished and could have it all. That would really explain my predicament if I was wondering how to balance career and motherhood, but we are not even there yet. Right now, I am trying to sort out how to reconcile the pull of a full time spiritual, writerly life even though I think I cannot bear the guilt associated with leaving what, by all appearances, is a lovely job that compensates me quite well.

Being a Jesuit, Martin flavors his work with examples from the lives of the saints. That’s probably the best way to maintain some perspective and remember that my current crisis does not rank all that close to say, Thomas Aquinas (his family imprisoned him for two years in an attempt to get him to forget about running away to join the Dominicans). At the same time, articulating my desire to leave the 9-5 life behind seems like one of the most difficult things I have ever done – marriage was a simple “yes” in comparison!

As I try to employ this bit of wisdom from Thomas Merton, I admit I am reminded of a cute little slogan that graces the bumper of many a Subaru wagon around here:If it's not fun why do it?

To tell the truth, I have always sort of hated that sentiment (even if Dublin Mudslide is the best flavor ever). All I can think about when I see that line are all of the not-so-fun things that are quite essential – trips to the dentist and the dump, paying taxes, walking a dog on a dark, rainy night. Guess I am not such a crazy hippy after all…

But you do not have to look too far to realize that Merton was not giving us sugar coated philosophy when he talks about “what we are made for.” To follow his lead and question our current existences in an attempt to sort out whether we are striving to become something we don’t really want to be is not to choose a sundae instead of a salad, hedonism over maturity. It is an act of ultimate bravery that may take us outside of the expected social norms, but is the only way to fully understand your purpose in life. The question for me is to determine whether I actually have to leave the framework of my current occupation behind in order to discover what I am truly meant to accomplish in this world.

And maybe, just maybe, Ben and Jerry really wanted to say “If it’s not uniting you with your true self, why do it?” but it wouldn’t fit on the back of a Volkswagon.

Dreaming the Present Moment

I spent a few quiet moments during the boisterous Thanksgiving holiday reading David Abram’s Spell of the Sensuous by my parents’ fireplace, completely captivated by his description of the Aboriginal people’s concept of Dreamtime. The landscape is fully mapped by the trail of the ancestors, each hill and valley associated with Kangaroo Dreaming Man, or Tortoise Woman, or one of the many other animal spirit beings that are thought to have preceded the natives of Australia. Individuals come to be connected with an ancestor and they learn the stories and songs associated with the “songline” of that being. The songline is one of many trails that cross the country, taking a route through areas most rich in resources. It seems that the ancestors marked the paths that could sustain the people in times of scarcity as these trails would lead the singers of the songline to ample food, water, and shelter.

How interesting that I read part of this chapter on a bus full of college students all plugged into more electronic equipment per square foot than the average Best Buy. No one spoke as screens flickered in nearly every seat and we crawled through towns that couldn’t imagine scarcity. Now I write this back in the mountains of New York, thinking about a book I read not far from the waters of Cape Cod. I have traveled much in the last few days, but I never gave the act of moving across the land a thought (beyond taking a bus instead of renting a car). What is it to move not because the journey was informed by traditions deeper than memory, but simply because of the cut of the highways and a holiday dictated by calendar and national decree? (It is not as if we were all hiking home because the full moon indicated it was time for the harvest, after all.)

One of Abram’s central theses is that the alphabet, written language, made it possible for humans to essentially live without concern for the natural world that sustained and informed all aspects of our own ancestors’ experience. Certainly the excess of food on a Thanksgiving table produced in countless forgotten corners of the planet and the massive migration of Americans in their quest to be reunited for family and football is a time in which we generally forget our allegiance to the planet as we contemplate traffic, getting along with relatives, and the shopping season ahead.

But then again, in its own way Thanksgiving itself is a tradition deeper than memory since we celebrate it not because of a children’s tale of Pilgrims and Indians sharing a meal in some remote context, but because the ancestors who inform us of who we know ourselves to be have taught us to feast together at the end of each November. It may be an event less than four hundred years in the making and it may not tell an origin tale that is quite as fundamental as Adam and Eve, but it comes close. In reading Abram’s book I have worried over what we may have lost in the translation of capturing life on a page (or a screen). The indigenous societies he describes all sound idyllic and all of their myths sound pure. But perhaps their stories that we now idealize made some of the tellers cringe because they knew survival of their world came at the cost of other races and species, just as the story of this country often makes me shudder even as I recognize its inherent beauty and revel in its bounty. Perhaps after much happiness enjoyed with my family marking a day that forms the national consciousness, I am able to see beyond the romance of times irretrievably lost to the demons of progress and understand the joy there is to be gained in living right now.

A Reader’s Treasury of Misfortune

Recently I have noticed that my capacity for violence and ugliness in “entertainment” has diminished sharply. A girl who barely flinched when she saw Braveheart in the theater now cannot stay in the room during Pan’s Labyrinth and can barely make it through many of the movie trailers shown during prime time. A distaste for blood and gore isn’t all that surprising, I suppose, but it seems strange when a student of literature finds the typical tragedies of modern prose increasingly unbearable.

Last month I read a novel I wouldn’t usually pick up – Joyce Carol Oates’s We Were the Mulvaneys – and last night I read an article that I wouldn’t usually come across – “The Man Who Got Away (Thank Goodness!)” by Amy Dickinson. These two pieces have several things in common: both had been acquired in airports; the novel is an “Oprah book” and the article is in this month’s O magazine; both stories are about heartbreak and disintegrating families in upstate New York; and both left me wondering.

What is it about Oprah and airports? It seems that people like me who generally curse glossy magazines with their cover stories about “effortless” exercise plans can reconcile the “guilty” pleasure because the incitement to “Live Your Best Life” is a little less damning than the pointy hips and pouty lips splashed over Cosmo. But is there something about her brand of media that particularly appeals to people in transition? I mean that both in terms of time zones and personal growth. I’m a little hesitant to comment on the whole Oprah industry because I worry about the commodification of quick and easy life changes, but at the same time really respect the way that she has made the spirit a part of public discourse that seems truly inclusive (if consumer driven).

But really, it was not one woman’s empire that concerned me, but the tension I felt between these two narratives. I read most of Oates’s book in one day and in that process recalled why I haven’t read anything by her in years. The novel was like passing a one hundred mile highway pile-up at a snail’s pace except that the tragedies contained within those pages were not the fiery type from which you can distance yourself due to the unimaginable scale of it all. The series of misfortunes in this book were cramped and familial and ridiculous, but compelling and almost believable because human nature can be so tender and fragile and bizarre. Basically it is about the perfect family that falls apart in the aftermath of the only daughter’s rape: the father disowns her, the parents’ marriage dissolves, the brothers plan the perpetrator’s murder.

Dickinson’s article describes her father who walked out on her family and their farm. As the title indicates, she believes it was all for the best and that the rest of the family excelled in his absence; she sees her father’s life as a pitiful cautionary tale. It all seemed a little too pat and moral, but then it cannot be easy to give a complete portrait of one’s father in a few thousand magazine words. What struck me was that even without the salacious elements that are the signature of an Oates novel, there is more than enough drama in this world and there are more than enough readers who want to hear all about it.

I write about all this because I still cannot decide what I think about the validity of the comparison I am attempting to draw. In some ways, Dickinson’s article almost excused Oates’s book for me; it was fictional license that made the pain drag through 400+ pages and hang upon rape and murder, but there might have been a flash of real life at the core that gives the book validity. I am also left to wonder whether The Mulvaneys was really lacking something or whether, as the reader, I was either suffering from compassion fatigue or just a refusal to accept that much misfortune.

Is my withdrawal from what constitutes popular culture with its celebratory brutality and its focus on dissolution a sign of my increasing sensitivity, or a refusal to engage with reality, or the sign of a charmed existence that grants me distance from what I consider unsavory? Where is that line between glorifying suffering and elucidating it so that it can be met with compassion beyond the screen or the page? Is it really as pervasive as I seem to think right now and how on earth do we benefit and grow from this public cult of pain?

Recasting the Emperor, Speaking Truth With the Children

This August while visiting family on Prince Edward Island (the most beautiful place on earth) I read Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, a novel about a passel of hyper-intellectual New Yorkers in the months before September 11. I had a backpack full of Rumi and Merton, but all I could do was tangle myself in the wreckage of these lives (and they were wrecked well before a tower fell).

I was restless because I was compelled to finish an inconsequential novel when I should have been contemplating the herons fishing in the marsh and the way the barley fields rolled into the sea; I should have been thinking deep thoughts about the soul and immortalizing them for the cold winter that would surely follow those exquisite summer days. This was one of the first pieces of fiction I had read since my spiritual studies had begun in earnest. The literary elite that I might so have wished to emulate once upon a time seemed to wage a constant assault on belief and believers, dismissing them as so many simple sheep, weaker minded fools to be pitied for needing such pablum. Because I was unable to find anything other than my own spinning mind in meditation and prayer just sounded like rhetoric that week, I felt vaguely assailed by their derision. Was it because the author cast these people as brilliant and famous and witty and worthy of recognition? Am I so susceptible to doubt? Did Messud hit such a sore spot that I was unable to sense the irony in her portrayals? The climate of this book, in which there really were no victors, made the option of relying strictly on education and reason seem more viable than anything else; the only “believers” were the sad and lonely types who seemed to find a comfort in a hard, cold pew, kneeling before an oblivious silence.

Why I began to think of this book today is unclear. Perhaps it surfaced in the course of one of the many inner dialogs in which I try to sort out what sort of person I am meant to be now that I declare my interest in matters of the spirit to be the most compelling of my life. Where do I fit in the country’s current religious continuum that seems to include only faddish atheism and cafeteria Catholicism (Judiasm/Presbyterianism/Unitarian Universalism/etc.) and religious zealots in the red states? I don’t chose to be counted with “New Agers” (a vaguely recognized footnote that doesn’t quite fit into the spectrum) even if my eclectic faith fits in best under that umbrella because such an affiliation invariably leads to collecting way too many paperbacks I’d never read and seems to call my own intellectualism into question.

Though I raise these questions, I do so with a pervading sense of optimism. I realize the solitary nature of my particular path at this moment, but proceed with the confidence that we will recover from the silliness that has infected the corners of society not preoccupied with body counts and global warming over the past few years. Certainly there will always be the naysayers and those who make a career of doubt, and surely we need to foster healthy conversation about the nature of both belief and disbelief. At the same time, I also trust that we will be able to move to a discussion of faith that does not draw exclusively on bestselling discourses on Godlessness and the predilections of specific voting blocks and embrace a constructive discussion based on passion and respect rather than sound bytes and judgment.