December 31, 2013

Reading in 2013: Capote, Milosz, Lewis & More

Last day of the year. Last books of the year.

Breakfast at Tiffany's and Three Stories - Truman Capote. The only fiction I read during the semester, this was for a book club meeting that I didn't make it to (thanks a lot, winter cold!). However, I enjoyed it immensely. Not only the title short story, but the three others included in this small volume. I would like to read more Capote. And watch the classic film adaptation with Audrey Hepburn.

As soon as the semester ended, I ravenously picked up more fiction. Actually, that's not entirely true. Before I hit up any fiction, on the silent retreat, I leafed (leaved?) through several books in the monastery guest house's little library, skimming a bunch of Nouwen, and ultimately sitting down to read this book:

Christian Mystics: Their Lives and Legacies Throughout the Ages - Ursula King. I enjoyed this and found it utterly fascinating. For one, it features several women of prominence in their own time and culture, women known for their wisdom, spirituality, and often, poetry/artistry. I currently crave these stories and was encouraged to remember that strong women have actively participated and influenced the world throughout history. Another thought that fed my interest in these people was an awareness (coming out of this semester's introduction to church history) that within the past 150 years, monasticism and communities entirely devoted to spiritual thought/reflection have radically decreased within the Christian church. For over 1800 years, this was one of the foundational forces within our community (and beyond, into culture at large). What does this shift signify? What do we lose in it? Do we gain anything? 

The Unnamed - Joshua Ferris. The first novel I'd read in months, Ferris tells the story of a successful NYC lawyer who finds his body taken over by the compulsion to walk. Unable to find a cure (or even a diagnosis), this book details his struggles, its impact on his work, his family, and ultimately his own self.  It was not what I expected, but it was good. Whenever I read novels that gets at the heart of marriage and wrestling with its immense difficulties, I brace myself, ready to be saddened at yet another story that ends in brokenness and separation. But this was surprisingly hopeful, even in its honest pain.

Selected and Last Poems: 1931-2004 - Czeslaw Milosz. Technically, I started reading this book last year. I read poetry in small quantities, picking up an anthology here and there, now and then. This one is a doozy that I have finally completed, and I am sure I will re-read again and again.You may recognize Milosz's name, as I've posted excerpts on here more than once. I. Love. His. Writing.

(For those of you who mistrust poetry, I would like to reassure you by sharing that as I read an anthology, if I love 25%, enjoy 50%, and am puzzled/confused/don't understand 25%, we are doing well, the poet and I.) I do believe a better knowledge of Greek mythology would help me with many poets, and maybe someday I will tackle that. In the meantime, I am moved by this poem, and this one, and this one, and this.

The Spirituality of Narnia: The Deeper Magic of CS Lewis - John Bowen. A Christmas gift from my boss (who is also the author), this was read in the post-ice storm quiet. I love CS Lewis, and taking time to ponder spiritual themes and the beauty with which he expresses them was an excellent start to my time at home. In particular, I was left thinking about the idea of heaven - what it is that we mean when we talk about the "afterlife" and what difference it makes to how we live in this "beforelife." I don't have a strong sense of what I believe in this realm, but Lewis and Bowen remind me that it is of utmost importance. And that it is likely more mysterious and beautiful than I have often believed.

Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra (Voyage to Venus), That Hideous Strength - CS Lewis. Since I was now at home, and my dad has an extensive Lewis collection, I uncovered his vintage copies of Lewis' Space Trilogy (they'd put him out $0.95 each, back in the day!). A mixture of pre-space-exploration science fiction and ancient mythology, I found these harder to get into than the classic Narnia. They're not an "easy" read, and they are certainly intentional in attempting to communicate Lewis' views on humanity, progress, our past and our future. But I found them fascinating. They challenged, again, the ideas I hold about the inevitable end - of one human life, of our corporate human life, of all things as we know them. I found the third book to be the easiest to really enter into (perhaps because it is set on Earth, and I found the setting accessible/believable), but the first two were the most philosophically stimulating. Would I recommend these? If you're into sci-fi or fantasy, and philosophy, sure. If you're simply a fan of Narnia, not necessarily.

Girls in White Dresses - Jennifer Close. I actually read this way back in the summer, but somehow missed posting it. It was a light, fluffy, easy summer read. I found it relatable in its perspective on ladies my age navigating relationships (and lack thereof) and the angst of being many times a bridesmaid, although the circles these girls travel in are little like my own.

There you have it, folks. Apart from the assigned readings for school, my entire year of reading is up for your perusal right here. I enjoyed keeping track and expect I might do it again in 2014. See you all there!

December 18, 2013

Peace and Joy

Exams are finished, papers handed in.

I am back from the silent retreat where the snow fell softly for 48 hours and I curled up with books and wrote and thought and sat and breathed deeply. We trekked through the snow to the abbey for prayers. We dreamed and we prayed and we thought and we wrote, and I'm pretty sure we heard things in the silence.

My Christmas shopping is one small gift from finished.The first gift has been given and received. After dinner out with my roommate this evening, we exchanged gifts - beautiful, lovely, thoughtful gifts. And cards. Cards with near-matching sentiments of prayerful care and gratitude for one another. I feel a great deal of gratitude this month, one extended sigh of relief.

And yet, as I ponder the concepts of peace and joy, what they mean, and how we live them out, there is much to be somber about.
This afternoon I took photos for a family whose baby was not expected to live two months, and now they celebrate Christmas with her. Her diagnosis is terminal, imminent. 

I visited another child whose recovery from serious illness is uncertain. Back in the hospital again, she laughed and teased, but fell quickly to tears as nausea overcame her.
A coworker's wife recovers from surgery to remove cancerous tumours and faces further treatment; it is not the first time cancer has visited their home.
Another friend posts often about his fight with leukemia. They are losing ground, but he and his wife maintain a level of courage and peace that moves me greatly.

I have so few answers for the way life moves and the waves that carry us to unexpected and difficult places. Yet I am not losing hope; not the way I did a few years ago. This time around, I see glimpses of peace and joy. Laughter, from a child who's being fed through a tube. A father seeing his baby without oxygen tubes for the first time. Communities rallying around their loved ones.

There is so much beauty in the way the "good" and the "bad" run side by side, how the happiest parts of life are entwined with great difficulty. I think I am almost (tentatively, reluctantly, nervously) ready to accept that the good and the bad, the highs and the lows come hand-in-hand and are both to be embraced. I've spent a lot of time avoiding and mourning the lows, and I don't think those are wrong instincts. But to quote CS Lewis, you can't have one without the other.
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket - safe, dark, motionless, airless - it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.

The plan was not to make this a post about Christmas, but my thoughts are taking me there... It's a time of year that brings some of the best and worst of our culture, some of the highest and lowest of memories. And in the Nativity story, the greatest gift at the highest cost.

My search then, ceases to be for the safest life, but for one in which I experience, in the midst of all the tragedies, peace and joy. And hope.

December 12, 2013

Semester 1: The Home Stretch

I have had a cold since last Monday. Today is the first day I can breathe through my nose. On this Monday, I woke up with a stomach bug.

It was not a pleasant day.

But guess what!? I am nearly better and nearly done.

This morning I sent in a take-home exam and wrote the in-class portion. Then I ate some lunch and laughed a lot and then I went to the library. And now, five hours later, I am almost there.

"There" being finished. I have one half of a ten page assignment completed. The difficult half. So I came online and said hi to a friend:

me:  want to skim seven pages of catechetical analysis?
ha ha ha ha ha ha
wait. only 6 pages.
it is supposed to be 4.
Teagen:  catechteticghctall?
kitty, calico??
me:  yep.
it's six pages of kitty pictures and criticism of them.
Teagen:  then YES!!!
give them here
Oh, if only I were analyzing adorable kittens. 
Although I am also enjoying this assignment.
But not as much as I will enjoy no assignments, for almost a month.

Ok. Back to work.

December 4, 2013

3 Thoughts & A Poem

Last week of classes. I feel a bit bittersweet. Like I haven't learned enough to earn any credits. There is still so much that I don't know; I wonder how I will feel at the end of the degree and whether it will still seem like such a tiny fraction of the things that could be known.

Next week is exams, and then I'm going to get out of Dodge (Ford) City and have a silent weekend of thought and writing to see what to do with all that this fall has held, in and out of classes. I'm quite excited for a getaway, the friends coming along, and what it means to be together without speaking. No, seriously - speaking is not allowed inside the monastery we're staying at.

I've started reading poetry before bed. It helps me unwind and encourages me to think creatively. I am almost finished a volume of Czeslaw Milosz' work that I started 18 months ago. Here is one I particularly liked last night:


It was in hospitals that I learned humility
and I walk, listening to a voice that weeps in me
and laments, as it pities us, human beings.

Our muscles are universal.
The pumps of our hearts are universal.
Our guts and reproductive organs ready for dissection.
The same bones to be laid in the ground.
Skulls to be racked in a pyramid.

We are a wretched species,
That in anger hurled rocks ripped from the ground at the enemy
And thus came to invent the first tool.
Polemos pater panton.
War, father of everything,
Said Heraclitus.

That voice in me weeps for us.

Yet if human intelligence, dimmed as it is,
Discovered two times two and other laws of mathe matics,
Then if only it were brightened, it would discover more,
Unto the whole build of the universe.
And that is where the concept of incorporeal intelligences, or angels, is based.

All conceivalbe nonsense,
All evil
Stems from our struggle to dominate our neighbor.
And every individual entity
That separates itself from the dying body
And lives in the No-Where, is tainted.

Whence the dazzle,
The aerial architecture
in the kingdom of the sun?
Emaciated, naked, they crawl and likc the crumbs of light,
Of their majesty revealed,
Of their religion of man.

On the cross.