Every day, it seems, I find myself looking up words and their etymologies, trying to get at the root of what something I've just read means. Sometimes it's a word in the Bible, and I end up wading my way through ancient languages I've never studied, searching for clues. Other times it's just words from daily life that suddenly pertain to some matter I'm struggling with or considering. Often the word has changed over the centuries; I find such words particularly fascinating—particularly when, as is often the case, the word's current meaning is at odds with what it once meant. Some of these word studies find their way into my writing projects. My goal is to post new words weekly, sometimes brand new material and sometimes excerpts from my books.

14 December 2007

Some Thoughts on Blogging

For their final exam the other day, the students in my Composition Theory course read aloud brief analytical accounts of their own writing histories. I always love it when students read their writing aloud—which I have them do in most of my classes, often at the end of the semester—and I also love it when they tell stories from their lives. I learn so much, not just about them, but about life.

In recounting what they had learned about writing and how they came to learn it and how their writing had changed over the years, my students typically began in early childhood, back before they could write at all and their concepts of writing were determined by the writing in books their parents read to them or that they read themselves. That was my first surprise: the attention they paid to the writing of others, often before they even entered school. They retold or added to, in stories of their own, the stories they had liked when they were younger.

One student perpetuated the Narnia series for a child she often babysat. Another wrote detailed notes just like the love notes her father left lying around for her mom. That student also wrote miniature research papers, sometimes just a couple of sentences long, in which she retold information she found interesting in books and newspapers and such. (In her paper for my course, she referred to these works as micro-essays. You elementary school teachers out there need to consider assigning such essays in your classes!) Another woman told of how, in middle school, she was asked to write from another person's point of view, and she chose the point of view of a fictional character she still loved from a series of chapter books she had read when she was younger, Junie B. Jones. She wrote in first person, but took pains to tell her life in Junie's voice, and she returned repeatedly to check and make sure she was getting it right. Unconsciously, these women, as children, taught themselves to make art via a method that is not often practiced among writers nowadays: mimicry. I found this so interesting.

It may be a gender thing—the class is all women, with the exception of a student who was taking the class via independent study because of a time conflict and stuck his head in the room from time to time—but almost all of them wrote about journaling. For some of them, it was a brief flirtation with writing in which they wrote for a few days in a diary—they remembered and described these in minute detail, the picture on the front, the color of the pages, etc.—and then abandoned it. They felt bad about this. Guilty. There is something about a journal that makes you feel obligated to keep it up. One student returned to the same abandoned journal on occasion throughout her school years, beginning in elementary school and continuing on through high school. Imagine it, that Bildungsdiary. The voice maturing with the events depicted. The focus narrowing to comprise the gestalt of the woman before us. In their papers, my students wrote about how journaling archived the emotional minutia of their lives: their friendships and crushes, their fights with their parents, their reflections on matters of faith, their thoughts about the future.

To a woman, they summed up the essence of journaling in one word: private. A diary was a safe, private place to explore dangerous topics you wouldn't want made public. It was a place to confess, to fantasize, to hope.

One student, in sixth grade, was asked write an imaginary page from her journal that was representative of who she was. "One page from your journal has come loose and fallen out on the floor," her teacher told them. "What would it say? What glimpse would it give of you?" The eleven-year-old incarnation of the student before us wrote, of course, about the boy she liked, and she was aghast when she was asked to turn the page in. You don't turn in journal writing, my student reasoned. Journals are "private property"! Turning them in makes them public. (For the writing teacher these days, by the way, the current and absolutely appropriate lingo for turning writing in is "publishing"—that is, "making public.") The teacher commented on the crush in the margins of the student's journal, counseling her that, at her age, it was better to be "just friends" with boys. That is, the teacher judged the student's confession. And, to make matters worse, years later, she even made mention of it to the student. She joked, at a public event, with others present, about the girl's youthful feelings for the boy. She called him by name.

What's all this got to say about blogging? I know you're wondering. I think my students' way of looking at journaling says everything about my struggles with blogging. The trouble with blogs—and perhaps in some ways it is also their appeal—is that they are like journals: emotionally-laden, but only minimally processed stuff from one's life. Stuff that typically remains private—at least until some potentially smarter, healthier editor-self has a chance to have a go at it. Blogs are the private made public. Boringly public—as boring as a teenage girl's journal is likely to be most of the time. Embarrassingly public—as embarrassing as one's crush, once outed. Self-consciously public—as I often find my blog-voice to be. Careful. Half-squelched. Cramped, like a diary entry, by the date at the top of the page, the inadequate number of lines, the emphatic date on the next page, reminding you that you must do it again soon. Often, it seems to me, my blog-voice as false as the little lock on the outside of my own childhood diary—a chinzy little decoration of a lock that never really felt secure. I opened it with a bobbypin whenever I couldn't find the key.

Perhaps journals, I sat thinking as my students read, should remain private. For the students' sake, at least. Teachers shouldn't give journal assignments, I decided. (I've never liked assigning journals, which I find students often do all at once, at the last minute, as they do their papers but with much more license to say whatever.) Or rather, teachers can give such assignments, but they shouldn't collect them. Shouldn't grade them. Certainly they should never read them or comment on the entries or censor them or in any way stand in judgment.

Assigned journals threaten the privacy of students, but, at the same time, there is this sense that the teacher really isn't reading them at all. The other day my daugher Charlotte was telling me how, in a reading journal she had to keep about In Cold Blood (She's fifteen, and it's a pre-AP literature course, and they're reading true crime—go figure!), she wrote in all caps and wrote, in gigantic letters in the margins, READ THIS!!!, to be sure that the teacher actually took note of some joke she wanted to make.

The voluntary divulgers among us—and, if you haven't guessed, I am one, as are you, if you blog or even comment on this or any other blog—are a mystery, even to ourselves. READ THIS!!! we shout, without thinking much about what that entails. We are blind to all that goes along with the publishing of the private. The boredom. The embarrassment. The falsity. Consider: Blogging is like sending that ill-advised email that, once sent, can never be erased. The email written in a hot moment. The kindly meant email (or so one tells oneself) in which one's real nature is revealed in a glib remark. The email that defines one, as surely as a page torn from one's journal and dropped on the dirty floor.

That's blogging, I think. Much as I try to fight the natural contours of the form—despite my fastidious editing and even though, from habit, I set out to write each post just as I would set out to write an essay that might go into one of my books—I never feel quite in tune in my blogs. Never entirely me. Or maybe it's that I feel too much me: the glib me, the ill-advised me, the messed up me, the pushy preachy arrogant me, me in all my meanness.

I have written here or somewhere—that's another thing about blogs, you lose track of what you said where in them—about this odd thing that happens with my blog posts for Today's Christian Woman (http://blog.todayschristianwoman.com/walkwithme/, if you would like to go there). I write what are supposed to be posts on the subject of spiritual formation—I think of them as little essays in which I report on my own struggles to grow in faith—and the people who comment frequently give me advice and try to solve me. I think that, too, is symptomatic of blogging. In blogging, you are submitting your thoughts to the democratic urge out there. You become a project for others. Your secrets become the stuff of the people—solvable, fixed, known—and your voice potentially the Junie B. Jones of other would-be writers out there. Or not.

Anyway, that's what I have been thinking today about blogging. It's funny, too, how bloggers often blog about blogging—resultant from a self-consciousness that, again, has something to do with the public-private tension of blogging, I think. Anyway, as I say. Anyway.

28 November 2007

Back Again!

Yes, it's been two months. I've been busy with other writing tasks—not the least of which, by the way, is my monthly post for Today's Christian Woman that you might want to have a look at if you have been missing the comforting voice of the fellow struggler and amateur believer. It's here: http://blog.todayschristianwoman.com/walkwithme/. You can also give me advice there, as those who comment frequently do. This initially bothered me. I guess I thought, Hey! I'm the one who's writing this blog; I should be the one doing the advising. But I have come to find it amusing. And often encouraging. A kind of advice column in reverse, where the messed up columnist details her doubts and struggles and questions and her savvier readers write in with counsel. And it brings the added benefit of all these people out there praying for me—people much more secure in what they believe and surely much better at articulating to God what it is I need. I usually don't know. I'm pretting much of a groaner, when it comes to prayer.

Anyway, I reenter this blogspace with new resolve to write shorter, bloggier posts on a more regular basis and thus enjoy it more. We'll see if I am successful. It's part of my New Year's resolution (yes, I know it's early for that; I'm all messed up in my schedule this season) to try, in the context of some or the other daily event, to do unto others what I would have them do unto me. My husband routinely lets this mandate direct his encounters and most mundane decision-making, and it has always impressed me. I want to see if I can make doing what I would have others do in similar circumstances into a habit, as it seems to be for him. And so I thought, what kind of blog posts would I like my friends and former students and current students and interesting strangers to write? I decided each post should be small and succulent. Like a lamb chop. Or, rather, like several little lamb chops, since one is never enough. In their little puddle of that wonderful vinegary mint sauce that the British eat on lamb.

Okay, so that's one new thing. The other is that I have been running. I don't know if I have put this in past posts (and I'm too lazy to check), but I started in the early summer and I now run 9 MILES three days a week. Added up, that's a marathon a week. I don't know how this happened. I could barely get to my mother-in-law's house at first. It is some sort of miracle. I run, in any case, on a straight, hilly road near my house. I still dread it—I am writing right now when I should be running—but I love it once I get out there. I get to notice so many things I never would have noticed—deer, bird songs, a neighbors' buffalo herd, this black mule with a dusty mouth I've fallen in love with that I have named Beautiful. The other day I found a young-looking owl lying open-eyed on the roadside. Seemingly uninjured—just dead. I've never seen one up close before. And I have all sorts of ideas for writing. I've planned so many books that I will never be able to write them all. Something about running unlatches my thoughts. I'm not fast (I go around 12 and 1/2 mintes a mile) and I'm not getting a bit skinnier, since I can't seem to shake the notion that with all this running I should get to eat whatever I want. But it's a great stress reducer, which I especially need at Christmastime, which triggers all my post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms.

I always have some song at Christmastime that kind of takes over my brain. Whatever I'm doing, from the when I wake up, it's there in my brain. An Ohrwurm, as the Germans call it— earworm. Or, like the Jesus prayer that Eastern Orthodox train themselves to repeat constantly. It's usually a melancholy, almost hopeless song that speaks to my Christmastime misery. Amy Grant's "Breath of Heaven." Or Pedro the Lion singing Longfellow's anti-war carol, "I Heard the Bells." ("There is no peace on earth, I said!") Or that James Taylor version of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" that came out right after 9/11, in which he reverts to the original lyrics of the song in lieu of Sinatra's cheerier take, singing "Until then we'll just have to muddle through somehow" instead of "Hang a shining star upon the highest bough." This year, my inescapable Christmas song is Sufjan Stevens' "Sister Winter," with lyrics just shy of maudlin about trying—unsuccessfully—to be grateful and merry in the wake of a love relationship that failed in the previous summer. The central line is "But my heart is returned to Sister Winter," and he repeatedly tells his friends, "I apologize, apologize." It reminds me of that scene in one of Lulu's favorite movies, Notting Hill, where Hugh Grant apologizes to his friends for having been depressed for so long. That's a really captivating thing about that movie: that healthy, supportive group of friends. I wish us all a group of friends like that this Christmas. Anyway, that's what's in my head these days: But my heart is . . . apologize, apologize. It's there when I lie down and when I get up and when the girls make me take them to the mall. It's enscribed on the lintel of my door. The only place I hear other noises is when I run.

There. That's four little lamb chops worth of my thoughts, five morsels for your reading delight, in their little puddle of vinegar. Advise away, friends. I'm off to run.

07 September 2007

Rethinking the Gospel

Chapel at my university the other day featured a guy named Dieter Zander, the speaker for our semesterly Spiritual Awareness Week. He’s a former pastor at Willow Creek Church, about which I know nothing except that it’s massive. Currently he leads a church of just 300, the second biggest church in San Francisco, a city of 750,000—only 4% of whom, according to Zander, profess any religious belief at all, Christian or otherwise. Zander is, in other words, something of a missionary there.

He began with a story about one of his San Francisco neighbors—a man who had never really met a Christian before—who asked him to explain what Christians believed. Zander enthusiastically launched into an account of the gospel—or “good news,” he etymologized—that was essentially the message that had saved him as a boy: that Jesus died for so that he wouldn’t have to go to hell for his sins but could be united with God in heaven. At the end of of this explanation, the neighbor commented that this didn’t sound like very good news to him. In fact, it could only be good news to those who felt bad about themselves and were worried about going to hell, but he felt pretty good about himself. Zander was upset by this answer, comically reporting that he found himself trying to find some way to make the guy feel bad about himself, before he finally gave it up and decided to go back to the Bible and see what Jesus himself had to say about the gospel that he hadn’t managed to communicate to the guy.

What he found was that virtually every time Jesus mentions the “good news,” it’s that the Kingdom of God is at hand. I had never noticed that before, although I had recently noticed, in writing an essay about Jesus’ parables, that just about every one of them is an extended metaphor that starts out, “The kingdom of God is like…” Zander took us to a representative passage to back up his claim, Jesus’ first words in Mark’s gospel:
After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!”

Zander went on to talk about this kingdom of God, which was a call to action more than anything else, in his view. And he could be right. (I have been taking to heart Kimberly’s warning, in response to my last post, against holy navel-gazing.) Zander also talked about the need to “repent” his previous understanding of the gospel and remarked that we are all called to such repentance. The word repent, he hurried to explain, literally means “rethink,” by which I think he must have meant that the word repent is derived from Latinate morphemes meaning again and think (an etymological detail that I had never noticed before but did find interesting). And he also explained that, in this rethinking process, his old gospel became a part of his new one.

But it was too late. I was already thinking the thought he wanted to squelch: that my current concept of the gospel was probably wrong or at least incomplete—or, worse, outright sinful and in need of repentance. I’m always so susceptible to others’ faith claims.

In any case, I decided, I needed to figure out what my concept of the gospel was to begin with. Early on in Zander’s sermon, he had talked about the Christian message as being like a jigsaw puzzle. He put a picture of one on the overhead screen and asked us to picture a puzzle box that depicted the gospel as we knew it. It was part of an elaborate metaphor he was constructing that he probably carried through his subsequent Spiritual Awareness Week sermons (I missed them). I won’t try to reconstruct the metaphor here. Suffice it to say that my mind wandered at this point, as it often does when preachers use cutesy analogies and audiovisuals.

Was my gospel even depictable as an image? I wondered as I stared at the blank jigsaw puzzle on the screen. I thought of it more as a story than a picture. One or the other episode of it might be depictable, but it would be hard to get the whole thing into a single frame. God walking with us in the cool of the day. Us hiding from him in shame. Him half pursuing, half chasing us—to Canaan, to Mount Sinai, to Ninevah, to the cross—like spooked cattle he was trying to pen in a storm so that they wouldn’t get under a tree and be killed by lightening, as cattle sometimes are around here. (We once lost a couple of cows that way, and a neighbor lost a dozen.)

The cow-chasing God was maybe depictable, I decided, but it was more than that. He didn’t just want to protect us. He wanted more from us. It is my conviction, which I find supported in just about every chapter of scripture, Old Testament and New, that God loves us as parents love their children—not quite how we feel toward our domestic animals—and, like a parent, he wants something from us in return: namely, to be loved back.

I didn’t get this far during the sermon. I kept trying to, but then I’d overhear, in the midst of my musing, another shocking remark and lose track of where I was. Or else I’d be led to look at a passage in scripture that took me off in an entirely new direction. The last such passage that I remember was this comment, in John 5:17, in which Jesus is defending himself against accusations that he was working on the Sabbath: “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working.”

It was all over, then. I was off thinking about my favorite subjects of spiritual inquiry: work and rest. What is rest? And what constitutes God’s work? Is it, as Jesus says soon after in John’s gospel, merely “to believe in the one he has sent?” Or is it, as Zander seemed to be suggesting, something more strenuous?

At one point in his sermon, Zander took us to Ephesians 2:8-9, a key passage for those preoccupied with the filthy rags gospel that Zander’s neighbor had found so unattractive: “For it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith…not by works, so that no one can boast.” If you read on to the very next sentence, Zander pointed out, you would find something quite different than the anti-works gospel he had been preaching for most of his adult life: “For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” So, we’re not saved through our good works but in order to do the good works God had planned for us. Inexplicably, when Zander went told his neighbor this new understanding of the gospel—that we called to work, right now, in God’s kingdom—the man proclaimed this to be truly good news.

What, exactly, is God calling me to do, now that I’m a Christian? I was left wondering. Me precisely. There are so many possibilities, each one as compelling as the next, and so many people surrounding me claiming to know what I should be doing rather than write books or teach or cook dinner and raise daughters. Am I already doing whatever it is God has planned for me? Or am I shirking? Should I be worried about this at all?

Clearly I had a lot of “repenting” to do about these matters.

03 August 2007

Locating—and Loving—My Circle of Influence

My daughter Charlotte just got back from camp a couple of weeks ago. It was her first summer in leadership training, and she came home bragging about all the work she had done. In addition to washing dishes nightly and serving the other campers their food, she was part of a work group that hauled and split logs, scraped the rust off of outdoor furniture, collected trash, and spent fifty hours doing community service which amounted to clearing out a vacant lot full of probably toxic junk and weeds so overgrown they had to use machetes to get through them. She came home with blisters and scrapes and bug bites and bruises and an enthusiasm for hard work that was entirely new to me. "I want to find some more community service to do!" she planned out loud, as she hummed the camp theme song for this summer, which was something about being consumed.

This glow, this enthusiasm for hard week, lasted just long enough for me to manipulate her into cleaning her room to welcome her friend from Atlanta, who spent last week with us. By the time the friend left, so had Charlotte's sweet desire to serve, and now she's back to her old teenage self. Her shoes are piling up inside the front door, her room cannot be discussed in this public place, and her freshly washed clothes waiting to be hung up to dry are starting to smell moldy.

Just the familiar story of the camp high that goes away when you've been home a few days, I'm sure you're thinking if you've ever been to church camp. (I haven't, but the youth leaders always talk about this phenomenon at the chapel to which we parents are invited when my girls go to camp.) Today it occurred to me that there's another problem at issue here, though. Not the problem they warned about in the camp chapel in an effort to fix it, but rather one that church camps—and, frequently, churches themselves—cause in the first place. Namely, the mistaken belief—common to all sort of missionaries, religious and secular—that service to others is primarily to be accomplished by going out of one's sphere of influence, rather than deeper into it. Evangelism and service to one’s community are thus appropriately called, in current church lingo as well as the social services communications of the secular community, “outreach.”

My family and I have recently been visiting churches with youth groups—our old one had none—looking for a spiritual home with more appeal for our daughters. The kids in these youth groups plan expensive mission trips to Mexico and Uganda and return with glowing reports of how they painted a community center somewhere or helped pour a church foundation. But not one kid has approached either of our girls at church and said, “Hey, you want to hang with us?” As far as I can tell, none of the adults leading these youths has told them that it is just this sort of inreach—to the lonely and churchless and needy and damned within their community—that is likeliest to reach the goals they are purporting to set in doing mission work in the first place.

Yes, I am aware of the Great Commission. And that even in the Old Testament God was forever telling his chosen people to "go out" somewhere. And that Jesus told us, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even life itself—such a person cannot be my disciple.” But Jesus, we know, was being hyperbolic here to emphasize his own importance over fidelities we are probably already honoring. He didn’t mean we were to hate those around us any more than he meant we were to hate life by committing suicide on his behalf.

I'm ranting, I know—and I was going to give that up, I think I reported in a recent post. But this isn’t just about my daughters. And it isn’t just about the missionary kids—frequently among the neediest of my students at the Christian university where I work—who were raised in boarding schools instead of at home with their missionary parents. The business of outreach—of mission work and social justice and volunteerism—is becoming increasingly a topic in the news and, correspondingly, for me as well.

Here’s the thing. Although I have a longstanding love for other cultures, I believe our first mission work—our first calling—should be to address the needs within our communities. Not the aliens in some other place—They aren’t even aliens there!—but the aliens in our midst. Not orphans in Russia or China, but our kids’ friends—maybe even our own kids—that come home from school to empty houses and microwave Hot Pockets for dinner. Not even the widows at church—though they are certainly worthy—so much as the widows God has selected for our very particular notice—my mother-in-law, in my case. Over those close to us we have more influence than we have over recipients of our charity that we see for the space of a morning or a week or even a year and certainly more influence than we have over someone we never meet at all but who simply receives a portion of the check we sent to some organization we hope is trustworthy.

My particular widow, at 85, increasingly needs help with daily activities like shopping, driving places, visiting doctors, but she’d never accept help from anyone but one of her own family. Although Mamaw—as we all call her—is undoubtedly lonely and her days are long, she locks herself in her house and longs only for the company of Charlotte and Lulu or Kris or me. She hangs on every sentence that drops from my mouth, listens to me read my essays aloud, and tells me only complimentary things. She’s conveniently located—just a quarter of a mile from my house—and it doesn’t cost me a thing besides time and patience to assist her. She’s also the recipient of my notice likeliest to appreciate and remember it. She is the widow I should find easiest to love.

But in other ways she is the hardest to love. She calls me perpetually, stays on the phone longer than I want her to, repeats herself, can’t hear and won’t get a hearing aide, and generally gets on my nerves. She needs more and more, the older she gets. I have no doubt about my call to mission work in her regard. She is definitely the one God intended me to think about when he told me to look after widows.

Some of my more socially just friends—with whom I like to argue on this topic—tell me, Yes, but why not do both? Love your widow and widows at large! Your aliens—like the international students in my classes and the Vietnamese checker in the grocery store—and those in other countries. Your orphans—those kids who have never eaten squash before and blithely throw trash out my car window when I take them somewhere—and the child prostitutes of Thailand and the Walking Boys of Sudan (who are now men) and and and. You see the problem. It’s overwhelming how much good work there is to do out there. And the time and effort you spend on one area of service, necessarily takes time and effort away from another. This is an aspect of charity I have never heard discussed in church.

The poor will always be with us, Jesus said. And the widows, he might have added. And the aliens. And the orphans. The best we can do is focus in on, as he did, the needy ones we encounter in our daily lives. Love them. Touch them. Minister to them. And above all, get to where you enjoy them—instead of viewing them as a hated chore that slips further and further down the to-do list and then, thankfully, off the page and past your notice entirely.

Dickens’ appalling character in Bleak House, Mrs. Jellyby, who neglects her many children in her devotion to the “natives” in Africa, and, similarly, the Suffragette Mrs. Banks, who ignores her children in the Disney adaptation of Mary Poppins (in P. L. Travers’ novel she is a much more sympathetically rendered feminist who does not return to her childrearing duties at the end of the book) demonstrate well the kind of faulty prioritization I am objecting to here.

And the mispriorization of love that I, unfortunately, too often end up emulating. Even as I type these words, the neglected waif Lulu stands behind my chair, trying wistfully to get my attention. I have been working, she says, all day. Now it’s her turn.

So, with that, I will end this weird little mission work of ranting that I am doing here and make dinner or ferry the girls down to their Mamaw’s house or do whatever it is that she’s wanting. And then, in the spirit of inreach, I will go hang Charlotte’s damp clothes before the mildew sets and I have to wash them all over again.

07 July 2007

Faith Envy

I have finally begun—for the third time—Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, and I am l-o-v-i-n-g it. I don’t know why I had so much trouble getting into it the first two times. Must not have been ready for it.

I am having a curious reaction to the book: I am beset with a bizarre faith envy. I keep comparing my faith to the main character’s faith, which I suspect mirrors Marilynne Robinson’s. I wish I were more like the two of them as a believer. More relaxed in my faith. Less squinchy-eyed about everything. And, above all, more just plain kind.

Both Reverend Ames and Robinson, I fear, would disapprove of me as a Christian, especially with my long-held view—which I’m starting to question, the book is so convincing—that spiritual development only occurs through struggle. On page 24 of the paperback, the Reverend reflects, “It seems to me some people just go around looking to get their faith unsettled.”

That’s me, I keep thinking. Worrying. But he’s talking about people who get all bent out of faith by reading Feuerbach, whom Ames characterizes as an atheist. (Feuerbach called himself a theist, but he pretty much believed we make God up to address our needs.) The Feuerbachs of the world are not what unsettles my faith. Rather, it’s a struggle with myself, mostly, and with what it appears to me the Bible is calling me to be and do. I struggle with God, in fact. Maybe that’s an okay way to struggle. Jacob did it and won a blessing. Not that Jacob is someone I want to emulate. I'm probably not alone in finding him one of the least likeable God-followers in the Bible. Right up there with Lot.

Robinson’s writing just undoes me. So clean and simple. So many surprises in such plain, straightforward sentences. It’s like getting a beat up package in the mail, wrapped in grocery bags turned inside out, and opening it to find a delicate treasure from far far away, from some person you’ve forgotten, a porcelain bowl so thin you can see light through it. You think, how did it ever survive? The story of Ames trekking out to Kansas during the drought to find the grandfather’s grave. Man. I read it aloud to Kris at the breakfast table yesterday. So real. So horrible. So funny. Or when they baptize the kittens. I keep wishing I had written it, not her. Or, as Jim Whitehead used to say, “I wish I had written that book, and she had written a better one.”

Apropos packages containing delicate bowls. In one of my moves in my traveling years, I sent a bowl I couldn’t part with to a friend in Boston to store with some of my other things. It was pale slick green on the inside and matt brown, almost black on the outside. About the size of a cantaloupe, but more oval, wide at the mouth with a very small footprint—like the bottom of a drip in midair. Just the perfect bowl. Very old. Made by someone with a very light hand: thin enough, as I say, to see light through it, even though it was glazed dark on the outside. I sent it hurry-scurry, in the midst of buying a plane ticket and paying bills and packing, so I didn’t have much time or energy to devote to it, and all my tools—scissors, tape, etc.—were all packed away. Somehow, I got it in a box, with squashed up bags stuffed around it and to the post office, and years later I went to my friend’s house to get my things, and there it was on top of my trunk in the half-darkness and damp of her cellar, this old beat up box tied up with string the way we used to do. The box looked hardly bigger than the bowl in my memory, and I expected to find just shards when I opened it. I opened it carefully, nonetheless, and, miraculously, it was not in the least damaged. I held it up to the light bulb dangling above me to see the light through it, and at that moment I slipped or tripped on wet, uneven concrete, and the bowl dropped. Exploded into tiny black and green shards. I can still feel that moment in my stomach when I think about it—of loss so nearly coincident with such a surprising and delightful recovery of what was precious to me. Ach.

I ordered Anita Brookner’s The Next Big Thing through Interlibrary Loan, so that’ll be next.

I wish I could touch your faces and bless you all, like Ames with those kittens.

02 July 2007

Editing, the Rant, a Question, and a Proposal

By working like a crazywoman and making myself unavailable to my bored daughter (Charlotte went off to a class on the Enlightenment at Duke and left Lulu alone and feckless) and a crank to my patient husband, I got the food memoir edited exactly on my deadline. When I sent it in, I immediately got back one of those automated email replies that my editor would be out of town until 9 July. I would have had, in other words, another week and a half, had I known.

I'm glad, though. It's done. I can—and need to—work on other things. And I like the work I did: Minus the 16,000 words I cut—and the resultant rearranging I had to do to cut so much—the book is a more successful narrative, as a whole, more integrally a book.

It seems to me that ought be a metaphor for something: that cutting about a tenth of the book's length improved it so much. Like cleaning house, I suppose. Or losing weight. Or weeding. All of which has been going on in my life of late. I haven't lost 10% of my weight yet, but I'm past halfway--thanks to my new habit of running (i.e. jogging) 3 miles every other day. And Kris has cleaned out the garage and the two studies. It is interesting to consider how invigorating loss can be.

In the editing process, I learned that I don't like diatribes and that I am given to them. It is something I can now be alert to, like clichés. It's funny to learn this now, so late in my teaching career. And also to learn it right after having read an interesting book—Lad Tobin's Reading Student Writing—in which the author recommends the "rant" as a legitimate form. I had been thinking I would assign a rant the next time I taught English 1. But then I read aloud a chapter from the food memoir to Lulu—she was sick, so she wanted me to read to her—and found myself getting bored not two paragraphs into it, even before Lulu said anything. Rants, I would argue, are never interesting. As essayist Rebecca Solnit writes in "Locked Horns," "Everyone's encountered bad divorces, noise-obsessed neighbors, monomaniacs who let a grievance take over their lives to the exclusion of everything else, a sort of psychological starvation." A rant is an indulgence in just this sort of monomania, resulting, I would argue, in not only psychological but intellectual starvation—i.e., boredom. One becomes, that is, a bore. And, now that I think of it, students of writing, if they have anything to say at all, don't have to be taught how to rant. Ranting comes naturally to the best of us. So I won't be teaching it.

Tobin's book is worth reading, though. It represents what he refers to as a hybrid of academic and personal writing on the subject of teaching writing—or, well, on one aspect of teaching writing: how to think about and value (but not evaluate, mind you) student writing. It's not a terrifically practical book on teaching writing. In fact, more than anthing else, it is a defense of the hybrid writing he practices. Such a defense is warranted in our field, perhaps, but he sounds defensive in making it, which is unfortunate. I've been getting away with a hybrid of academic writing and personal writing since I was an undergraduate and have been promoting it in the classroom for coming up on thirty years (shudder). I kind of wished, as I read, that he would just do it and get on with it, rather than expend so much effort and, well, ranting on how it's a worthwhile way of writing.

Anyway, currently in the garden: every sort of squash, cucumbers, green beans, peppers, and unripe tomatoes. Now to think about Jesus's parables.

(This post feels more like a typical blog than usual, to me: formless, solipsistic, wandering. I don't think I like it. Verzeiht!)

Oh. One last thing. Two matters of usage interested me in revising my book: One is the question of whether or not to capitalize the first word of a complete sentence that follows a colon (as here), and the other is whether or not the pronounced s of a possessive following an s should be included, as in "Jesus's parables." Both usages—which I was taught and which I, on occasion, also mention in class—seem to be in flux, at the moment. What are your thoughts? Although both rules are still found in usage manuals, Kris, a stickler for correct usage, disputes and never even heard of the sentence capitalization following a colon rule, and every source I find on apostrophe usage, even those that promote the phonologically determined rule I was taught, seems to make an exception for Jesus's. It's all esoteric, as my publisher will have its own rules that will be the final word, but it interests me nonetheless.

One last last thing. I'm about to read another Anita Brookner novel, The Next Big Thing, as soon as I can get it through special order at Barnes & Noble or through interlibrary loan. I also have Marilyn Robinson's Gilead on my bedside table and want to reread Housekeeping—one of my favorite books ever—soon. Anyone want to join me by reading concurrently and exchanging thoughts?

16 June 2007

Deadlines, Editing, the Flood, Being Edited, and Finding Rest

Wow, I just noticed it's been a month and a half since my last entry! I'm very busy these days—writing, writing, writing—and barely have time to think interesting thoughts about anything I'm not already writing about, much less write them down. However, since I originally decided that the theme of this blog would be struggle, I have decided to offer here a rundown on the writing projects I've been working on and the struggles involved in each one:

  1. Revising and cutting (hopefully) fifty pages from Starting from Scratch: Memoirs of a Wandering Cook, a food memoir, due out in January. My revision deadline is 30 June, and I'm only on page 146. Cutting my writing is the hardest work I do. Usually—when I'm shortening an essay for a conference, for example—I have my husband Kris do the cutting for me. He has a good ear and is merciless and makes big Xs through whole pages. Then we don't speak for days until I recover from the meanness of it. And later I almost always like the resulting essay better for the cuts. Right now, though, Kris is busy with his clients' tax return extensions and all the handyman jobs around the house that he couldn't get done during tax season, so I'm on my own. The mss. started out at 371 pages and I'm down to 338, so I keep thinking I'm doing sort of okay, but most of the pages I've managed to cut are from a chapter that should have been cut from the mss. before I ever got it. Oh well.
  2. My book on Genesis, which was supposed to involve daily Bible reading. By "supposed to" I mean pursuant to a deal I made with God at the outset of the project that I would read the Bible daily if he would inspire me. The revision deadline for Starting from Scratch has gotten in my way, though. I do keep revisiting where I am in Genesis regularly, if not daily, and I have moved on past Noah, which was a very difficult chapter for me to write. Aside from Noah and his family, God destroyed everyone in the whole world, as well as all those animals! It depressed me so much to think about it—as well as challenged everything I had previously been discovering about God in my reading and writing this time through Genesis—that I could hardly write for awhile. But I've moved on to Babel and am back to loving this book. The Bible, I mean, not my own babblings about it.
  3. A monthly blog for the online manifestation of Today's Christian Woman. You can read my first monthly offering at: http://blog.todayschristianwoman.com/walkwithme/2007/06/as_your_garden_grows.html. Blogs, I find, are hard to write, as I've already mentioned in this blog more than once and as I'm sure you've already noticed. I like to write long, for one thing, and and for the TCW blog I'm limited to 700 words. (The entry you're reading is twice that.) Also, it's hard to find a subject that others will find interesting enough to want to respond to. I'm not very polemical in my writing but instead pretty speculative, and obviously in-process in my views, which makes it difficult for a reader to write a rebuttal or even much of an agreement. And, above all, I find it tricky, in a blog, to strike the right tone. I keep thinking, "Who gives a rip what I think? Why am I writing about these private little incompletely thought out matters in this public place?" I am like those students I had when I taught seventh grade that scrubbed out and deleted way more words than they ever submitted for a grade. I called them erasers. Their papers looked like terrycloth by the time they were done writing.

    Anyway, that's one struggle with the TCW post. The other struggle is that, although the people at TCW approached me for a blog—and more recently a feature article in the actual print issue coming out later in the year (see below for details)—I worry that they may not want to embrace who I am as a writer. For the blog post currently displayed, in the final editing someone changed my sentence "Those first fruits are precious treasures you share only with your lover, your children, your spouse" to "Those first fruits are precious treasures you share only with your spouse, your children, your dearest friends." It's a minor change, really. I suppose the impulse was—as a student in a class in which I read a draft of the essay aloud predicted it would be—to eliminate the possibility that the word "lover" might be misunderstood by a conservative audience to refer to an extramarital affair or other illicit relationship. My own impulse in using the word "lover" to begin with was to include in my intended audience someone who wasn't married and had no kids but might have a boyfriend. But I hate the word "boyfriend." It sounds so dippy. And I think "lover" is just about perfect as a word to signify one who loves and who, in the sort of relationship most of us are looking for before marriage, is loved back. No one took the matter up with me before they changed the wording—as I'm coming to expect in this new world of publishing. I have gotten used to editors shortening and in other ways "improving" my writing all the time, and I don't usually take it any more personally than I do my husband's enthusiastic axing of whole pages of my essays. (That is, it takes me about a week to recover and to love—in the Christian sense, of course—my editors once again.) What I really struggle with, though, is being edited for ideological reasons. When, not only as a writer but as a believer, I am silenced. I think we Christians tend to do too much of that: silence the voices of those who say what we don't expect or want to hear.

    It especially bothers me to think that my Christian audience has to be pandered to in this way. In my experience at a Christian university where many of my students and fellow faculty and staff are quite conservative, I have found that Christians are able to operate way further outside of the box than many—Christians and non-Christians alike—give them credit for. And, as we all do when we move outside the box even for a moment, they profit from it. Seeing things a new way is always instructive, even if we don't end up adopting the new way. And, the further outside the box we are able to venture and the more frequently we undertake to do it, the more our credibility among non-Christians grows—which is surely good for the spreading of God's message.

    Mind you, I like all the people I have so far met through this assignment at TCW. They are smart and competent and kind-hearted. And good editing, as I say, requires a certain mercilessness. And it is, as I have already said, a minor change. By next week I will be over it. And I may even like the revision better than my original wording by that time. But my struggle with this matter does raise some important (and more polemical than my usual) issues for us to consider as believers.
  4. A faculty workshop presentation coming up in August on rest in the context of work. Not doing much yet, but did meet with a copresenter to discuss what we might want to talk about. And the topic does seem relevant to this blog, with its talk of deadlines and work and not being able to find time to blog. Rest, it seems to me, is relevant to every topic.
  5. The TCW article I mentioned above, which is to be about Jesus as a storyteller. I'm really excited about this and have allowed myself to get a little bit started, although I don't really have time right now to work on it and I need to reread and think about the parables before I do. The deadline is 10 July.

So, my current struggles are deadlines—what a dreadful word!—and editing and being edited and getting back to daily Bible reading and, with so many projects going at once, finding rest. Welcome to the world of writing for a living.

23 April 2007

Icons, Commemorative Clothing, and Other Visual Prayer Aids

A habit shared by many victims of violent crime is to obsessively collect information on violent crime and violent criminals, especially when there is a crime in the news. It is my theory that we do this because we think that if we can just figure out what makes a person commit an act of violence, then we can figure out something important about how we came to be victims and thereby gain some sense of control over the traumatic event in our own lives. I call this obsessive data collection “researching.” In my case, as a sufferer of post-traumatic stress disorder, researching inevitably leads to my developing the symptoms of the disorder—clautrophobia, avoidance of touch, abiding anger—that are the legacy of a sexual assault that occurred a quarter of a century ago, when I was in graduate school. All this to say, I have been trying not to do research on the Virginia Tech murders, currently in the news.

The other day, though, I ran into a friend who, I discovered, was also very upset about the murders and had been engaging in the very research I had been avoiding. Or, trying to avoid. Later, in a brief email exchange on the subject, I learned that the friend was comforted by the fact that others were honoring the dead students by wearing the Virginia Tech school colors, and I realized that this comforts me, too—not only to see others wear the commemorative colors but to wear them myself.

I often undertake to wear certain clothes or pieces of jewelry in remembrance of an important worry in my life. I wore a speckled white, burqa-like dress during the grim days when the reporter Jill Carroll was held hostage in Iraq. The dress became my Jill Carroll dress: a way of reminding myself of her by wearing something like what I imagined, from the horrifying videos posted on Al-Jazeera's websites, she was wearing. In one of the videos, she was crying. Wearing that dress, for me, was a way of entering what I imagined to be her pain. A way of grieving and showing solidarity. A way of praying.

I have been thinking about these and other visual aids to prayer: commemorative clothes, flags at half mast, a hat worn when a friend is losing hair due to chemotherapy, my silver baby pendant that reminds me of Jesus’ incarnation and of the fact that I am God’s daughter, the pierced hands and feet I privately envision when I think of Jesus’ suffering and my own. Biblical people tore holes in their clothes to mourn, and people of later generations, in many cultures, wore special mourning clothes, often for years, after the death of someone close.

What is it about the visual that so connects us to the spiritual? And why am I so embarrassed, as I have written in an earlier post, by such habits of prayer—and that's what they are, I think—when I encounter institutionalized versions of them in, for example, the Eastern Orthodox church? Why do icons seems so valueless to me? Or, worse than valueless—actively wrong-headed? Feeling connected to Jill Carroll as I did by wearing similar clothes to those she was wearing in her terror, why does it seem absurd to me for another person to kiss the ankle bone of a martyr?

I have no answers tonight. Only these questions, this recognition of connectedness—in my current grief on behalf of the thirty-two students and faculty dead at the hands of a man whose impulses I will never understand—to practices which I have so recently, in this very blog, disdained. I offer them up to you. My penance. Knuckles against the heart. A cross, traced by a thumbnail, on the lips.

08 April 2007

Easter Blues

Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. But this morning, for whatever reason, I couldn’t get to the joy of it.

It began before we even made it to church. It was 25° when we got up, and I guessed that the few eggplants and peppers out in my garden that had survived the previous night’s low temperatures could not have survived a second such night, despite the sheets I had draped over them.

Before I was awake enough to go out to my garden and check on them, Charlotte came downstairs in her strapless, white Easter dress, down the front of which she had spilled some of her “body shimmer”—I don’t know what that is but just report her words when she came to me to have it put right—leaving a blood-colored stain on her left breast that she had already rendered indelible by trying to wash it out on her own. My efforts with bleach on a cloth only made it worse. The dress itself turned yellow where I dabbed at it and the red did not disappear. I didn’t tell Charlotte, but I knew the dress—one of her favorites—was ruined.

To my amazement, she didn’t seem to notice the stain. She kept the dress on and, when we got to church, even took her jacket off, leaning across Lulu to whisper, in response to my raised eyebrows, that there was no reason to wear a pretty dress unless you were going to show it off. So, I spent the first part of the service—while the pianist played and an elder explained what to do if you were visiting for the first time and then another elder led prayer for those of the congregation who were suffering illness or grief or fighting in the armed forces—praying that the Father would remove from my mind all consciousness of Charlotte: the stain, the ruined dress, her embarrassment if anyone noticed, her apparent lack of embarrassment thus far.

“Make me just forget about it so that I can think of your Son, risen,” I prayed.

It wouldn’t have taken much effort on God’s part to answer my prayer: I forget more than I remember these days. And, I reasoned, there would be other ways to address my prayer. God could refocus my attention on some glittering, transforming new discovery of himself. Or he could burn into my consciousness the pettiness of worrying about a stain when we were there to celebrate the resurrection of his Son, our Savior, risen up live out of his dead body and out of our grief. Or he could just make the stain miraculously disappear.

He did none of this. Soon we were directed to greet our neighbors, and every time another person turned around and extended a hand in our direction, all I could think about was, Oh no, now they’re going to notice the red stain and the yellowed place and think, “Why does she let her child wear something like that to church, on Easter Sunday of all days, a dress stained and ruined? And strapless to boot?”

While the choir sang and the pianist played more background music, I studied the bulletin to distract myself from my own pathetic worries. The sermon, I read, would be about the “Rise of the Metachoi”—a word I had never seen before but that sounded interesting—and would focus upon Hebrews 2:5-18. When I looked the passage up, it turned out to be one of those obtuse places in scripture about angels: humans—and Jesus, the Son of Man, along with them—the writer of Hebrews argued, are ranked a little below the angels but nevertheless they are crowned in glory and have everything under their feet. I read through Hebrews 2 twice while the collection was taken and more music played, but I couldn’t figure out what the point was, especially in view of the fact that it was Easter and it seemed to me that the pastor must be meaning to make a resurrection message out of it. The answer, I decided, would be about whatever metachoi meant.

It means partaker—or companion or partner, in a slew of other passages the pastor led us to—and what was partaken of was suffering. The message of the sermon was this: There are believers, and then there are partakers, and even though believers go to heaven, only partakers in suffering are going to get their reward, which is to govern in God’s kingdom someday. Some reward for one’s suffering, I thought—to get to suffer some more as an administrator. I’d rather just get there and do my thing.

What really undid me, though, was the man’s opening comment, one of these throwaway analogies from the news I find pastors are fond of beginning with, probably gleaned from the same CNN website where I had read it last night. The 15 British sailors—whose dinghy had been captured by Iran and who had been terrorized into making false public confessions of error—had caved. Unlike our American soldiers in Hanoi, the pastor said, the British sailors had been unwilling to suffer for their country. Unlike the metachoi, I suppose he meant.

Or unlike Peter—I think he might have said—who denied Jesus on the night of his capture even though there was no one there stripping and blindfolding him or lining him and his companions against the wall and cocking their guns. I guess poor old Peter isn’t going to get his reward either. Maybe we can hang out together when I get to heaven.

I left church glum and not a little angry. And then IGA had no lamb, as I suspected they wouldn’t. (Why is it that bad things you know are going to happen are always so much more distressing than the ones that come as surprises?) And then, on the drive home, I noticed lots of trees whose leaves were hanging down all black and limp from the freeze. My little eggplants and peppers, I knew, would look the same when I got home. I felt out of sorts all day.

Anyway, all this to say I feel in need of resurrection this Easter. From the cold. From the scratched, cloudy lenses through which we observe the world. And from my own petty preoccupation with everything but what matters. He is risen. He is risen indeed. Up, away, to the heavens. And I’m still here.

01 April 2007

Church, Again

This past week my university hosted a writer's festival. We invited three writers in from out of state, and I got to know them a little bit. The keynote speaker—a sweet-spirited husband and father and professor of English about my age—was a poet. He taught my poetry workshop, mainly reading poems with us, and he put me utterly to shame as a teacher. His most recent publication is a spiritual memoir, which I read most of in preparation for introducing him to students at a luncheon.

The memoir is about his search for a closer relationship with God following a spiritual crisis of sorts in his early forties. Toward this end, he sets out for the monsasteries of Mount Athos, in Greece, where he hopes to find a spiritual father who can, among other things, teach him how to go about the business of ceaseless prayer, which he is convinced will cause him to have a more constant sense of God's presence. He seems heartbreakingly young and innocent in this book—as young as I often feel among my age contemporaries who are lifelong Christians. As young, in fact, as I felt as I ate and chatted with him and the other two visting writers. I liked that about him and about his book. Curiously, I had recently been reading Julian of Norwich, who longed similarly for the ability to pray ceaselessly and thereby to sense God's presence more consistently. So, I paid more attention to him than the other two writers.

He is, as he kept referring to himself, "Orthodox," by which he means Eastern Orthodox, and there was much evidence of this tradition in his practices and writing. I was fascinated by his brand of faith, which I have always—rather stupidly, I admit—pretty much equated with the Roman Catholicism of my father's era, with which I am somewhat more familiar. Formal liturgy. Robed priests referred to as fathers. Monasteries. Incense. Fancy church buildings. A high value on church tradition. I have never quite understood why Eastern Orthodoxy is more or less embraced by evangelicals, whereas Roman Catholicism is not. From what little I know of them, both seem to be equally Christian in their essence and equally preoccupied with images and saints, intercessors and formal ritual as pathways to God.

In any case, during the poet's visit, he fasted from meat for Lent and wore a knotted prayer bracelet and a tiny lapel pin geaturing a cross with two additional crossbeams—the standard Orthodox cross, he told me when I asked, and he explained that the extra crossbeams represented the place where Jesus put his feet and the placard above his head. He seemed bemused, even slightly irritated, that I didn't already know these things and had to have them explained. I suppose I should know more about Eastern Orthodoxy. (Certainly I should know more about Roman Catholicism, the faith tradition in which I took my first steps in God's direction.) In any event, I didn't question him further about the Orthodox highlighting of these details of the crucifixion—the foot rest, the placard—although I wanted to. I was sure they had meaning.

All this to say that I was paying a good deal of attention to the man's particular brand of Christian faith, trying to sort it in my head and understand it and maybe understand my own faith a little better. His memoir was mystifying at points. Frequently, I found passages funny that I guessed were not intended so. A story of kissing the relic of a saint—her left foot—and immediately thereafter sensing her sweet presence. Another about feeling for the first time a fluttering about his heart that he knows is the presence of God he has so longed to experience, and then thinking he is having a heart attack. And, more than anything else, his repeatedly believing he has found the spiritual guide he is looking for only to be turned down when he asks. His story reminded me, for all the world, of all those wistful years of looking for love before I married Kris, wanting deeper relationships than I ever found. The same repeated mismatch of desire and commitment.

In the course of his visit, he spoke disparagingly of those—like me, I kept thinking—who don't value tradition or who pick and choose, as he described one community of believers, what they like from this church tradition or that. Although respectful of others' traditions, he had little use for the traditionless. At one point, picking up on my ignorance of church history and probably suspecting a deeper disinclination toward tradition as an element of faith—probably believing me to be someone who rejects old church practices outright as empty ritual, as many of my more conservative fellow Christians do—he pointed out to me that T. S. Eliot revered church history. As if that would convince me.

But what would convince me? I keep coming back to this place in my journey toward God—this landing on the stairway: What is the church? What value its traditions and habits of thinking? How essential is the church—not the global body of other believers, but the particular church one belongs to and its practices—to faith? Why does tradition attract me? Why does it repel me?

Once I read that Martin Luther kept on wearing his priestly robes even after he was excommunicated, and I find that intriguing. Was there something that drew him, too, back into the old habits, despite the impulse to cast them aside?

With all of this in my mind, I returned, this weekend, to two spiritual practices that I have neglected for some time. One was the garden, my thin place, where I turned the last remaining beds and pulled up weeds and planted a few plants I had bought and let the sun and wind and water and dirt do their godly work on me.

And, this morning, my daughters and I went to church. We have been inconstant in our attendance—same old problems of Kris's tax season and indecision about what church is right for us. But when I got them up—Charlotte and Lulu and their friend Kaitlyn, who had spent the night—they didn't protest, as they often do, and so we got dressed and went.

It was Palm Sunday. When the little children ran up to the front of the sanctuary waving their palm fronds, I remembered the Palm Sundays of my childhood—the smell and feel and specialness of those palm fronds, the excitement, the bigness of it—and I embarrassed the girls by crying. One boy—I think he was mentally retarded—was so thrilled by the palms and the noise and the movement that he jumped up and down, flinging out his arms, and his sister had to hold onto his waist to keep him from leaping from the stage. Another little boy stood in the front, his face blank with concentration, and held his frond straight up, like a flag, or like a candle he was afraid might drip or catch something on fire. Others without fronds did the hand movements of the song we were singing: "He came from heaven to earth, to show the way, from the earth to the cross, our debt to pay . . . !" Afterwards the girls commented that they had no idea that there were so many little kids in that church, and they were right. There were a lot of children. They filled the front of the sanctuary.

While I was crying, I had this vision of how it might have been when Jesus entered Jerusalem that last time. By then, the poor and the hungry and the sick, the widows, the rejected, the forgotten, were as excited as children, and it was they who tore branches from the trees and waved them in the air in jubilation. They took off their outer garments and threw them down before the Teacher on his colt. Those in power were, of course, not so excited, and things were just about to turn grim. But, for a moment, there was this joy that expressed itself in this precise way, this grabbing of palm fronds in recognition and worship, this throwing down of clothes, this jubilant singing, and it does seem fit to reenact and commemorate it, to feel its motions.

This is, I think, as far as I can get, today, on tradition: that it is the taking into ourselves of the responses of earlier believers. The followers of Jesus, who heard him and touched him and knew him. And those who gathered after his death around the eye witnesses and, with them, celebrated and suffered on his behalf. Tradition itself does not move me, I think. It has no real value, no notched place in my faith. And yet it seizes me at times, seizes everything in me, and wins—often when nothing else will—my notice.

24 March 2007

From the Garden

Now that I'm finally not sick, I'm trying to catch up on my gardening. It's slow going when you start late. I have lettuce and radishes out, but not yet up, and about 3/4 of the garden dug up for replanting.

I love to dig, although it exhausts me. I dig with a gardening fork, the quintessential gardening tool, in my opinion. We had one in Connecticut when I was growing up, but they are not used much in this part of the country. I can't figure out why not. The fork is the only tool that enables me to dig down really deep into our rather clayey soil and then turn the weeds under. There's something so satisfying in that.

Another part of gardening that I like a lot is weeding—but only when the dirt is still damp from a recent rain and the weeds just sort of slide out into your hand. Another nice feeling. On a day like today in Westville, Oklahoma, after a little bout of much needed rainy weather, it's hard to resist pulling the weeds out instead of turning them under, but the turning under takes care of two crucial jobs at once.

Also, if I start getting down close to the dirt to pull up weeds, I inevitably discover plants I want to save from the fork. New garlics and cilantros growing up from last year. The prettier weeds: wild bluets and violas, both spring bloomers, and what I want to guess are baby black-eyed Susans. Carcasses of hearty plants—fennel, broccoli, Russian sage—that I neglected to dig up at the end of their growing season and that have overwintered and are now sprouting back from their still viable roots. Opting not to notice them is the hardest part of gardening for me. I want to save them all. If I do, though, I will never get to the soil turning part and then the planting of seeds, the part I like least—it's so fiddly—but the part that is most important if I want to have any vegetables.

One year I skipped turning the soil altogether and just planted new between the existing plants. I ended up with a garden of mostly cilantro and elderly crucifers with woody stems and leaves so chewy and insistently cabbagy-tasting that no one would eat them. Usually I break down and allow myself to save some plants—this year I dug up and relocated about a hundred garlics—but in the process of doing so, I rediscover the futility of such acts of mercy: there are just too many little plants that want saving. So, I steel myself and dig.

I hope you're not thinking this is one big metaphor for some sort of cock-eyed message about salvation that I'm trying to make—the futility of it all, so many damned souls out there, some so woody and cabbagy-smelling at the core as to be undesirable even when you do manage to get them saved. But it's not, and I'm not. I'm just cultivating my garden.

Later in the season—once the garden is dug and planted, in the main—I allow myself to save warm season plants that sprout up: tomatoes, zinnias, arugula, basil. And some of the dill. I relocate them to my flower beds. And then, when they get big and scraggly and make my flowerbeds look like old overgrown homeplaces and provide me with more tomatoes and arugula and pesto than I want to harvest and than my family can ever eat, I tell myself, "That was a waste of time, all that transplanting. I won't do that again." But then I do. Over and over. There is something so compelling about the urge to save those little plants, so stout of stem, raising their first fat leaves to the sun.

16 March 2007

Sick, Silent, and Surly

The title about says it. I'm just now getting over the worst flu I've ever had—one of those old-fashioned kind my siblings and I used to get as kids which included gastrointestinal events I won't go into (well, all right, you twisted my arm: one of them amounted to foul, sulfurous belches we used to call "the eggy burps") and fever and upper-respiratory symptoms and wanting to die. When my girls were little, I learned that flus that involve the stomach aren't real flus at all but roto viruses, whatever those are. I think this distinction might be one of those important bits of nonsense—like that tomatoes aren't vegetables, they're fruits—that snobby stupid people like to go around telling everyone. I have decided, nonetheless, to give my flu a name of its own: a retro-virus.

In any case, I had to teach my poetry workshop in the midst of this flu, because we meet only once a week and I am attending a conference in New Orleans on one of the classdays coming up and I just felt like it would be too big of a loss of workshop time not to meet. I spent the day at the university, as I usually do—preparing class all morning and teaching in the afternoon. I got almost nothing accomplished. I was so freezing cold I had to keep going down to my car and turning the engine on and setting the heat and the seat warmer on high, wasting natural resources and polluting the air just to get warm. Then, halfway through class, I had to leave. I was getting delirious. When I got home I had a temperature of 103.5°—the highest I've ever had! My normal body temperature is in the 97's.

Anyway, I got this retro-virus about the time of my last post and then spent the next two weeks in the bathtub, asleep, which is what I do when I don't feel good. That's why I haven't had anything to say yet this month. I've been wellish since then, but in a bad mood—recuperating, I guess. I about stopped talking except to hiss from time to time, "Just leave me alone. Please." Lulu complained that she was going to get a nutritional deficiency from no meat or vegetables because I stopped cooking for the most part, and what I did cook had to be odorless.

Here's what I thought about during this time: How do people who are seriously sick for long long periods of time manage to stay so eager to live and even happy-seeming? I have had three close friends struggle with cancer and horrifying bouts of chemotherapy, and all three, although certainly beset by fear and depression and other sorts of negative thinking from time to time, acted, for the most part, really truly happy to be alive. Speaking out of the experience of my own recent illness, mild by comparison, I am filled with awe.

I thought about all the spiritual commentary I've read on sickness. I remembered a passage in Kathleen Norris's wonderful little book of lectures called The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy, and "Women's Work" (well worth the mere $5 or so it costs with your Reader's Advantage discount at Barnes & Noble, by the way) where she compares the response to terminal illness on the part of two friends of hers: one turned sweet and the other turned mean. If I were close to death, I am convinced, I would be one of those who turn mean, despite my best hopes to the contrary. Flannery O'Connor, I read once, used to lament on behalf of others that they didn't get to have a terminal illness, as she had, because they missed out on the opportunity that constant pain and suffering and fear afford to make them value life and God as she did. So I figure O'Connor was probably one of those who turned sweet as she approached death, although she said some pretty tough things in her writing and I could also imagine some of the dry, hard-minded things she might have said to her mom toward the end. I imagine she must have had to pray that prayer that the weird little girl in her story "Temple of the Holy Ghost" prays: "Hep me not to be so mean." I pray that prayer a lot; occasionally I have it answered.

And recently, at breakfast, Kris was reading aloud from Julian of Norwich's writings in which she prayed ardently for—and was eventually granted—the opportunity to have and survive an illness unto death so as to become more appreciative of Jesus' suffering. I got the creeps as Kris read and decided she was a bit too much of a crackpot for me. (Sorry, you Julian-lovers out there. She just doesn't blow my dress up. She did have this very nice metaphor of a nut in her hand, but the no amount of pondering could make me understand what it was intended to describe. Worse than the Bible for obtuseness!)

And while I was sick and convalescing, I thought, a little bit, about Lent. Jesus suffering. About to die. Afraid.

Yes, I think he was afraid of dying. Certainly, we know, he was reluctant to die. It is odd to imagine God afraid. Or worried. Or cranky. Or reluctant to do the Father's bidding. Reluctant about anything, for that matter. But there you are. That about sums up the crux—mark the pun!—of the God-man.

What a God. What a man.

22 February 2007

Recipes on the Web—A Lament, an Attempt at Obedience, and an Apple Cake Some of You May Want to Try

My editor told me the other day that they're probably going to want to remove most of the recipes from my upcoming food memoir. The book's too long, I think. They suggested that I post the recipes on my website instead. I'm sort of sad about this. I think that recipes are an integral part of one's story. Or mine, anyway.

And, personally, I prefer recipes in books to recipes on the web. I don't like that there are so many recipes out there in the first place. Whenever I google something I want to make, I get that sinking hopeless feeling akin to the one I get in bookstores when, having gone blithely in for something to read, it suddenly occurs to me that there are so many books. So so many forgettable books. How will I ever choose just one? (Worse, why should I even bother to add my little offerings to the pile?)

That said, I do bother to write, both books and this blog, and my attitude toward them is so different. The web is so ephemeral-seeming. Somehow it seems a waste of time. I keep thinking, I should be putting this in a book. And then, I start a new little collection of essays for some future book. Currently, I'm working on a collection of Genesis essays, which began with my last post.

I also don't like the relative lack of authority of web recipes. Of web anything. Recipes in cookbooks carry with them the personality and habits and voice of the writer of the cookbook. Reviews of cookbooks often include information about whether or not the recipes actually work. On the web recipes are just bodiless, personality-less voices, often without names. Often there is even a disclaimer that no one has tried the recipe out in a test kitchen, so the website is not responsible for whether or not they are reliable.

Then, on top of that, there are frequently comments, readers who have objections or suggestions about this or that. A recipe dialogue it becomes to me, rather than a real recipe, and, while that may sound like a nice thing, like those recipes of our grandmothers and great grandmothers passed down and edited in each generation, for me such recipes start to mishmosh together into something like the food at chain restaurants: a cacaphony of ethnic and personal influences that seems always to include cheese, pleasant sometimes, but in no wise distinctive or personal like the food from a friend's kitchen. I prefer to stop at each new edition of a recipe and get to know just that one entry into the food, before being bombarded with all the ways I could change it from how it was supposed to be. I like savoring not just the culinary instruction of each new voice but the personality and priorities that power it, the life behind the voice that wants things richer or lighter or quicker or more redolent of an almost forgotten memory of childhood.

And anyway, I never do exactly what a recipe says myself—even though I do listen to each voice, do weigh and consider each suggestion. So, having all those tongues weighing in on how the recipe might be better—or simpler, or lower in calories or fat or sugar, or more like some anonymous woman's dead aunt used to do it—makes my own contribution to the evolution of the recipefeel like just another of many, and thus voiceless. Recipes are important, I think, representing—no, incarnating—the evolution of a culture. Incarnating a memory of a particular woman in a particular kitchen. (Yes, I know there are men who cook, but that only really started being the case when cooking evolved from the love-chores of mothers and grandmothers into a profession that could generate glitz and fame and money. In the kitchens of the wealthy, the kitchens of kings and millionares and fancy restaurants where cooks are not cooks but chefs who are known by name, cooking became something I'm not particularly interested in. A confection. A set of rules. An oeuvre. A game for hobby-gourmets. Something with which to impress one's acquaintance and far removed from the homelier comforts found, if we are among the lucky, in the kitchens of our childhoods.)

If I want to use a recipe from the web—to get back on track here—I have to either print it up before I start cooking—a task often entailing copying and editing and pasting the recipe into a Word document so that it will print efficiently—or else run back and forth between my computer and the stove. Both tasks take me out of the kitchen, into the stress and chaos of that other life of mine, where I run here and there and cut and paste and fiddle with email and websites and all the voices of the world. Cooking is the opposite for me. It has always been, from my childhood, an escape from this sort of chaos. An inward act. I prefer to prop up the book right there in the kitchen with me, jotting down the changes I make to it as I go for future reference. A recipe isn't really a recipe, to me—isn't really one to which I will return again and again—until it's been baptised with spatters and rendered transparent here and there with droplets of grease and maybe even burned a bit at the edges, as most of my favorite cookbooks are.

So, I'm not sure where my editor and I will end up in this debate. I'm also not sure how many recipes are too many. But, in the spirit of obedience—or, in any case, a trial run—I have decided to offer you all a recipe for the cake I made for my students today. The class I'm teaching this semester meets only once a week, for two and one half hours, so we make tea and I always bake something.

My friend Susan gave me this recipe as "Washington State Apple Cake. It's widely available elsewhere on the web, and, if you want to google it, you will find versions probably closer to how the recipe started out in Susan's kitchen. Her recipe had a rich cream cheese frosting, but I think that's overkill and also covers up the pretty, crusty, meringue-like top that magically forms on the cake—the best part of the recipe. So, I have omitted the frosting here. I have made other changes to the recipe in my version, such as cutting down the cinnamon significantly. Now I usually leave it out entirely. And I put the nuts on top of the batter rather than in it so that they get all toasty tasting. And I only use canola oil, which lends the cake a curiously intense walnutty flavor. The resulting recipe is, in other words, entirely my own.

Also, to save time and dishwashing, I do the whole thing with my food processor, starting with the apples using a slicing disk, then chopping the nuts, then mixing the batter. However, you can use a hand held mixer to make the batter if you don't have a food processor and then just chop the nuts and slice the apples by hand.

Crusty Apple Cake

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Slice, sprinkle with the juice of 1/2 a lemon, and spread out in a buttered, floured 9 X 13 pan:

  • 5 or 6 apples, skin and all—or peel them first, if you object to skins
Food process or beat until thick and light:

  • 3 large eggs
  • 2 c. sugar
Add and continue processing/mixing until light and creamy:

  • 1 c. canola oil
  • 1 t. vanilla

Add all at once and process/mix until smooth:

  • 2 c. flour
  • [1/4 t. cinnamon—I often leave this out, for a purer, nuttier, more intensely apple flavor.]
  • 1 t. baking soda
  • 1 t. salt

Pour, or rather scrape, batter over the apples, then top with

  • 1 c. walnuts, coarsely chopped
Press the nuts down slightly into the batter to make sure they will sink in enough not to fall off as they bake. Bake at 350 degrees for about an hour—by which time the cake will have formed its distinctive meringuey crust. Cool in the pan. Unsweetened whipped cream—or whipped cream ever so slightly sweetened with sugar in which you have stored a scraped out vanilla bean—would be good with this, as a more formal dessert than the baked goods grabbed up in my class.

Hope some of you try this for the people you love through food. It makes a big cake—the sort of cake you might serve at a meeting of your friends or colleagues or at church more than at an intimate family meal (unless your family is huge). Whoever eats it will like the intense nut flavor and the interesting contrast of soft, tart apples with the crusty, nutty topping.

[Don't bother to tell me how it can be improved. I know it can and hope it will be in your kitchen. But let the details remain a matter between you, God, and the people you cook for. Do let me know what you think about getting recipes from the internet in your own experience. I'm not sure I'm on the right track on this. I know getting recipes from the web is widely practiced. So somebody out there must think it's the best contribution to culinary progress since—hm, got to pick just the right cliché here—poached eggs served on a bed of creamed spinach and onions, with a toasted and buttered English muffin on the side.]

14 February 2007

Getting Done—Waw!—My Struggles with Rest

Yesterday I started on a new plan of reading the Bible daily. Usually, such resolutions on my part last a couple of weeks or months and then peter out. Then follows a spiritual dearth, sometimes jolted into vibrancy by some closeby tragedy. Then a renewed resolution to read daily.

For some reason, I can never seem to get the bookness of The Book out of my head, and I always start at the beginning. Consequently, I have read the first chapters of Genesis probably a hundred times, always with the same desire for new enthusiasm. And the story of the beginning of everything never disappoints me. I cannot exhaust this book, not even the first chapter. I always find something new and important in it.

Yesterday it was this. God rests on the seventh day only after he has completed his work of creating. Rest, in other words, follows directly from the completion of work.

Here's the passage: "Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array. By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done." (Genesis 2:1-2 TNIV, my emphasis)

It would be nice if I could argue the causality evident in this and a few other translations—that God was finished working, so he rested. Unfortunately, however, most translations that I have looked at translate that so as a mere and. Also, I did some research on the word used here—actually the ubiquitous Hebrew morpheme waw, which, added to a verb, links it to a previous verb—and I discovered that Hebrew linguists (read: biblical researchers with agendas) fight wrathfully over whether the word actually implies causality or mere sequentiality and they use their theories to argue such hot theological topics as evolution vs. creationism and what, exactly, God's promised rest is. In this particular passage, for example, the waw-question is whether God ever finished resting and moved on to some other work or rather, as some passage in Hebrews suggests, having finished his work, he continues to rest to this day. I don't want to get into that waw stew, nor am I equipped to do so.

Let me say this, though, from my entirely unschooled reading of the Genesis writer's overview of the creation story (which for me begins in the first chapter and ends with the third verse of second chapter): God only rested when he had finished his work.

This is a totally new idea for me. Revolutionary, even. And worth looking at closely.

Not having finished my work is my main resting deterrent. I wake in the night worrying about some part of my current work that I have yet to do or that I forgot to do or that I was in the middle of doing when I went to bed.

Also, I have an abiding sense of never being finished with my work. Never. Even when I have finished some consuming project—as recently, for example, when I sent the manuscript for my second book to my editors—I am suddenly overwhelmed, it seems to me, with all the other things I wasn't able to do while I was working. Gardening. Sewing. Spring cleaning. Inviting students to dinner. Writing thank you notes to endorsers. Planning my next book. Soon, within minutes, I think, I am making to do lists and seized with stress. How will I ever get it all done?

Judging from the number of books out there on the subject of rest, I suspect many share my problem. Not long ago I read one such book called Sabbath Keeping, by Lynne Baab. It was a good how-to book on the sabbath: inviting, rather than prescriptive, for the most part, with exercises at the ends of the chapters that really made you examine the stress of your life and desire opportunities for respite. I found it particularly challenging that the sort of activity Baab recommends against doing on the sabbath was accomplishing anything—that is, getting something done, even if it's something you enjoy. If you find yourself thinking, I just need to finish..., then whatever would finish the sentence is a bad choice. Sabbath keeping, for the most part, was another job, of sorts: the daunting task of sacrificing the desire to complete.

I don't know and honestly don't care if God finished his rest and has moved on to another project—although my guess is that, in the spirit of Ecclesiastes, God's rest and work come in spells, seasons, a time for each. But I do know this: God did not get stressed immediately upon completing the creation of the world and everything in it. He rested. Ceased, as the word is translated in some translations. He stopped working. Stopped thinking about it—about the plants and animals and creatures of the sea and sky, each according to its kind. Stopped looking at it. Stopped talking about it. Stopped blessing it and calling it good, probably, since those actions appear to be key elements of his creative work.He could have taken naps here and there, throughout the process.

He could have slogged through it, making himself a cup of tea with which to rest, after a fashion, while he worked at the computer. Instead, he finished his work completely. And then, for some unknown period of time, he stopped. Totally. Entirely. Gloriously.

Think of it. Stopping. It is hard for me even to imagine. I envision a sensory deprivation tank, in which I am forcibly prevented from accomplishing anything, and the thought nauseates me. Not just the forcible part or the nasty microbes and fungi that probably live in those tanks. Not the claustrophobia or the metallic smell of the water or the dark. Simply the inactivity. The helplessness of it.

Some part of me longs for it, though. For resting that comes as a natural consequence of being done, rather than as an artificial or sacrificial activity of its own. Resting that is not something I do, but something that just happens, like how, when we were first married, Kris and I used to sink into the most refreshing sleep at night after a long day of weaning calves and trucking the bulls to the sale barn. Or after raking and baling a field. Or after spearing the bales, one by one, onto the bale trailer, then toting them off to wherever we were storing them that year and, one by one, lining them up in tidy rows for the winter.

Something about farming was conducive to the kind of rest I'm thinking God takes. Getting done. Perhaps it's because the tasks of farming are so much like God's work in the first place. Globbing everything together into a formless dark mass of cattle or cut grass. Separating them into male and female, young and old, fescue and good clover, windrows and bales, square bales and round bales, each according to their kind. Looking at them. Blessing them. Pronouncing them good. Getting our check at the end of the day, or knowing the cows would have plenty to eat when the weather got cold.

Getting done, totally done, I'm thinking, is the key to rest. Not just stopping. Before we can honor the sabbath—an act of holiness so important in the old law, mind you, that not honoring the sabbath was punishable by death—we have to actually finish what we're doing. How to do that is my next struggle, in the area of rest. But for now, it's just good to be finished thinking about it.

09 February 2007

My Ongoing Struggle with Prayer

I don't know how many friends and preachers have told me that prayer is as much about listening for God's response as about speaking to God. That my words are just one half of a dialogue with God. Still, I continue to struggle—oh how I struggle—with the notion of prayer.

I won’t apologize for this. After all, even the disciples were all about failure to pray. Like us, they had Jesus himself as a model. They saw him go off by himself to pray. They listened to him pray publicly. They overheard those weirdly private public prayers of his in which he told his father stuff like, I know you’re already doing this, but I am just saying this for the benefit of those listening. And yet, they didn’t pray enough—or perhaps the correct way—to cast out demons on at least one occasion. And they fell asleep instead of praying in Gethsemane. And, most importantly, they questioned Jesus about how to pray. They were, in other words, just like me in this. They were worried about prayer. They decided, or feared, or fantasized, that there might be some right way to pray—the way John the Baptist prayed, perhaps, or Henri Nouwen, or the way some dorky self-help book on morning devotions described what the author did each day, or the way some preacher told them was how prayer was supposed to be done—and they weren’t doing it that way. Their prayers felt inadequate, somehow. I know they did. This is how I perpetually feel about prayer.

Don’t get me wrong. I pray. I prayed as a child. Nowadays, as then, I pray on mostly on an as-needed basis. I worry on behalf of others, a kind of intercessory prayer, I think. (I call it pray-worrying, often in emails, as in, Sally, I've been pray-worrying about your insomnia, and here's what occurred to me.) I also get great relief, many nights, from silently talking to God, so to speak, and knowing that he’s listening. (It’s more like thinking than actually talking. If I talked, I'd wake Kris, beside me in the bed, sleeping the rest God promises those who love him. And I don't generally consider what I think to or about others to be actually talking to them.) In my years of atheism, the prayers of my lost faith were what I missed most. Asking. Complaining. Being comforted. Feeling heard.

But. I don’t know what to say here. How to transition from this obvious knowing how to pray that I have had from babyhood—and there is this sense that we all, deep down, actually do know how to pray without being told—to the abiding conviction that my “prayer-life,” if there is such a thing, is somehow faulty? Is it just the influence of the sort of people who use such terms as “prayer-life” that devalues my habits? Or is there really some better way to pray, some more mature way of praying beyond the crying out like a newborn and being comforted?

I keep thinking about this, toying it. It’s a deceptively easy subject, it seems to me. Kris says I worry about it too much. A lot of people tell me this about a lot of things, and they are surely right. Every one of those Fear-not!’s in the Bible was intended for me, I think. Kris, in any case, says, "Prayer is just talking to God. Like in a normal conversation."

But here’s the thing. In most of the conversations I have with anyone else but God, the person responds. Out loud. In audible words. In my language—or at least in a language which I can understand and recognize as language. Which is not how God does it. (Unless, of course, my experience of God really is far more limited than I know about, oh worry, worry, worry. Please, whoever’s reading this, do NOT tell me that you hear an audible voice. It will upset me and cause me to worry even more and covet your greater faith and holiness and such.)

So, I have decided here to consider the way those other conversations I have had—the ones that did not involve the other person audibly responding in recognizable words—to see what might be found there about the nature of prayer. Aside from mental telepathy, which I can't seem to make it work the way it's supposed to, and talking to the radio, which poses similar difficulties, these one-sided conversations fall into two categories for me. Well, three. Conversations with babies. Conversations with animals (mostly dogs and cows, but also hurt birds and moles I have found in the yard and the emaciated lizard that lives in an aquarium in Lulu's room). And conversations with dying people who are able to hear and process what I am saying but are not able to respond.

In all of these instances—with babies, with animals, and with people rendered mute as a result of disease—I held conversations, first of all, by paying attention to nonverbal responses. Eye rolling. Smiling. A look of request or gratitude. Wailing. The cessation of wailing. “Was the baby wanting Mama? Does she have a poopy diaper? Mama’s going to change it. Yes, Mama’s getting rid of that old nasty diaper. Oh, what now? Does Baby want the keys? Here are the keys. Here they are. Yes, Charlotte likes the keys, doesn’t she?”

Also, as you can see with that baby, I asked a lot of questions. Similarly, a “conversation” with a cow was usually a series of questions—“Does it hurt? Do you want it here, or here? Oh, sweet one, are you looking for your baby?”—followed by a few reassuring answers, or, better, by dragging the hay or the water or the newborn calf where the cow could reach it.

Finally, I typically supplied answers for my silent conversation partner. The best example is with the mortally sick person in the hospital. When my husband’s aunt lay dying, she couldn’t close her mouth, and her chemotherapy-blackened tongue was cracked and dry-looking. I knew she was desperately thirsty. She panted heavily. Every time I caught her eye, she directed her gaze meaningfully at the table by the bed, where, in the days before, we had kept a cup of ice chips to give her. But she could no longer swallow or even keep the ice in her mouth, so the nurses gave me a swab to wet and stroke her poor black tongue with. “You’re thirsty,” I told her. “There, you like that. That feels good, doesn’t it? That’s enough now. You’re wondering where George is. He’s gone to get something to eat. Yes, that’s good. He had your Jell-O at lunch. That was all. He wasn't hungry. Too worried about you. You don't want him to worry, I know. You want me to tell him that. Yes, he doesn't need to worry, does he? It's going to be okay.”

These are inadequate examples of conversations with God, I know. God’s not a baby or a cow or a dying person. And he’s certainly not incapable of responding. He's not incapable of anything, except maybe not loving us. But what I get from thinking about these conversations with the mute is something relevant, I think, to how we, of necessity, talk to a silent, invisible, conversation partner like God.

First off, in praying, we have to pay attention to non-verbal information rather than direct responses. Events. Preexisting evidence of truth. Divine gestures, like awe-inspiring weather conditions, a potted plant suddenly blooming, or an auto accident involving the child of friends that suddenly thrusts one’s pettier complaints into perspective. I say we have to pay attention to these things, but, in truth, I think we often do it unconsciously. Sometimes, even, to an obsessive degree, resulting in superstitions and misguided notions about how God works, or ought to work, in our lives. Nevertheless, I believe God does respond to us in such gestures. This idea especially bothers a non-believing friend of mine, who makes much mock of Christians’ egotistical notion that God would cause rain or redirect the attention to a car wreck or orchestrate a bright pink sunrise just for one person praying. Absurd, yes, but, I think, true. (What a burpy little “sentence,” with all those commas. I like it.)

Second, prayer, like conversation with a mute partner, inevitably involves questions. Lots of questions. Sometimes nothing but questions. Questions one is forced to answer oneself, usually with a reassuring offer to take some action. I’m coming. I’m here. I’m ready to do what you want me to.

Finally, if engaging in more involved discussion with God than the prayer-equivalent of reassuring a baby or offering to swab a tongue, one has to be ready to supply both sides of the conversation. Supplying another’s unspoken response is possible only to the degree that one is familiar with that person and can recreate what he or she is likely to be thinking. The ability to predict another’s thoughts is, of course, dependent on some degree of previous interaction with that person. Knowing what the person likes and despises, what topics are important to the person, what the person has said in the past.

God’s past utterances, of course, are helpful here. And luckily, lots of them are recorded where we can check and make sure we’re right about them. We can look them up and cross-reference them and read them in all kinds of translations, get down to the word level, parse them. That, then—our rehashing, if you will, of God’s side of the conversation, of his gestures, the history of our relationship with him, his words on the pages of our Bibles—is what, for today, I have decided that my more experienced Christian friends must mean when they say that prayer is “just being quiet and listening to God.”

It’s the being quiet I take issue with, in part. I mean, unlike in a real conversation, even a conversation with someone who can’t speak aloud, prayer is usually conducted in complete silence. Neither part—not my speaking to God, not his replying to me—is noisy. Or, if we consider our own wordless input to be the opposite of “quiet,” the noise of the prayer that we must silence in order to hear God speak, then God’s input—that is, his wordless response housed in our own thoughts—is no less noisy. If prayer is to be conceived of as a conversation at all, I think, then it’s all about speaking. Speaking for ourselves and speaking, with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, for God.

One last thought. Interestingly, one doesn’t make many requests of babies, animals, or dying people. But prayer does involve requests of God. Or, at least, all of Jesus’ recorded prayers to our Father did.

So, conversely to everything I have written here, perhaps, in praying, it is we who are the mute ones—the babies, the animals, the one who lies dying on the raised bed. We think we are doing the speaking when we pray—casting our thoughts out to some invisible, silent troller of words—but actually we are the ones lying awake and voiceless, listening, trying to respond, wanting to cry out and make our needs known, but, ultimately, silent, while God leans over us and speaks and speaks and speaks and speaks.