Happy Families Shovel Snow All Alike

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

first snow

Our first snow in the new house!

An adventure as we debated exactly where the driveway was under eight or more inches of gorgeous powder. A disappointment when we realized the plows all dumped the heavy stuff from the road across the street right in our driveway. A blessing in that our endurance was just enough to accomplish the whole job in one marathon session.

Visions of Russian peasants who probably spent a fair part of their difficult lives wielding snow shovels flashed through my mind. After a two and a half month literary slog that was much tougher than today’s shoveling, I finally finished Anna Karenina last weekend.

With more spite than I intended, when I finished, I asked my husband if he was insane to count this epic of whining and jealousy and navel gazing among his favorite books.

I cannot remember having a more extreme love/hate relationship with a book. Few novels take up so much time, so I guess I had more time than usual to consider how Tolstoy was a genius, but a genius with a deeply disconcerting perspective on human nature.

Did Tolstoy hate humanity so much that he chose to expose only the pettiest, most deluded aspects of human nature? Or (and this is what I really fear), was he a master who brilliantly shed light on the private, claustrophobic confines of the unquiet mind?

Anna Karenina’s first line is so iconic, but what does it mean when a book that is an essential part of the Western canon takes such a dim view of happiness and contentment?

Of course, how would eight hundred pages of pleasure actually read? Tolstoy was definitely on to something when he operated under the belief that angst and intrigue were much better fodder for fiction than fulfillment and requited love.

dsc01497What is it that is so boring about happiness that we don’t much care to read about it and so many of us chase it out of our own lives in exchange for a bit of drama and excitement?

We don’t have to live out our lives like novels or movies, seeking out painful plot twists just to keep the audience interested. Pursuing and savoring simple old contentment can be the most fascinating occupations of all.

Happiness takes a trillion different disguises. Sweating and working and achieving something with your honey. Making dinner. Making love. Making up. Making out. How quickly would you lose count of ways to find your bliss?

There is something decidedly out of joint in a world whose headlines are all about the bad stuff in life. There’s real tragedy in the fact that entertainment so often relies on the voyeuristic impulse, the need to watch other people’s failures and heartbreaks.

Maybe it’s true, and there really is a great diversity in the ways that unhappiness can settle upon families and individuals. It certainly seems that such stuff sells and I know I love a good tear jerker every now and then. But that doesn’t mean that there are not myriad ways to be happy or that every narrative has to focus on disappointment and the denial of joy.

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.

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.

Assuming Ecofeminism and Other Elementary Topics

In my valiant and stumbling effort to describe yoga to my grandfather I was confronted with the weight of my own assumptions of reality and shared human experience. He asked at the most basic level, what is a yoga class like? Well, you know, it’s yoga in a room full of people with a person leading you through poses. What else is there to say? Come on, let’s talk philosophy and how all these postures are sweeping me along my spiritual quest! Oh wait, first we have to define and describe the room, the teacher, the poses, and yoga itself and explain what brought me to something as foreign as a four thousand year old discipline anyway…

I cannot keep leaving out the breaths between words, the leaps between aspirations, the years of error and fear and breakthrough that led to the person I am always becoming. I have to account for all that I am now before I can expound on such distant abstractions as spiritual quests. This must be a ridiculously elementary realization, but I know my reflections will root themselves in a constructive version of reality only when I ground my words in deliberate consciousness. For all that I have learned of late, the greatest epiphanies have emerged from interrogating the truths that have long been assimilated into who I am.

Rosemary Radford Reuther‘s Gaia and God: An Ecofeminst Theology of Earth Healing took me months to finish as I slogged through discussions of the foundational myths/ideas of Sumerian, Hebrew, Platonic, Hellenic, and Christian traditions – I am sure I am missing a few that she discussed at length, but I was just trying to get to the good stuff. The “good stuff” ended up being the last thirty pages in which she largely agreed with Carol Christ and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (with notable exceptions) and expressed her own theories on how we must live in mutuality with this earth and pursue a biophilic existence. She talked about reimagining energy production and transportation and the food chain and communities – all of the hard stuff that we refuse to hear is necessary to stop global warming (even if we secretly fear it really will be that hard). I skipped millennia of religious thought to get to the bit where she corroborated everything I believe already. After countless generations of destructive, wasteful, egomanical regimes bent on domination, the world is horrifically screwed up and only a lived philosophy based in the interdependency of all living things and the transience of the self will redeem us (but not in the Judgement Day sort of way…). Did I actually gain anything from this book besides a few interesting quotes and a vague reminder of the divisions inherent in Platonism and the negation of the material in Augustine? Is it a failing of the volume itself that the majority of it was taken with outlining the bitterness of patriarchy rather than defining an “ecofeminist theocosmology”? Is there really that much ground to cover regarding the cultural norms of the West that have made the subjugation of women and nature normal and even necessary to the propagation of civilization as we know it? Granted this book was written in 1992 and two theses on the spiritual aspects of Irish women’s poetry leave me in the unique position of having already absorbed the basic truths of Reuther’s thesis without forcing me to unlearn several thousand years of history. She was born in 1932 and I was born in 1979; the choir that educated me had been preached to quite effectively and was nicely won over before I even started questioning the absolute sovereignty of Christianity.

What I wish this book had given me was a coherent narrative that could inform my seemingly inherent belief in the sacredness of the earth and the human responsibility to all life on this planet. I realize my inability to draw such arguments from this book stems from my own lack of attention and the fact that I was an English major not a theology major (Boston College didn’t seem open to teaching my kind of religion as I defined it at 18…). It is my strong academic bent that pushes me to find evidence to support my thesis. I feel I cannot stand behind facts that I have not questioned deeply.

But wait, if my “seemingly inherent beliefs” can be translated into action and become something as fundamental as faith, do I need to find them in someone else’s book?