Monday, September 28, 2015

September (A Poem by John Updike)

Not long ago, I came across this poem in my files. I thought it would be a wonderful thing to post in these waning days of September.

~by John Updike

The breezes taste
Of apple peel.
The air is full
Of smells to feel-
Ripe fruit, old footballs,
Burning brush,
New books, erasers,
Chalk, and such.
The bee, his hive,
Well-honeyed hum,
And Mother cuts
Like plates washed clean
With suds, the days
Are polished with
A morning haze.

Isn't that a wonderful poem? It has many elements of a list poem; its simplicity and concreteness could also make this a great poem for children to model.

In fact, it was written for children, a fact that surprised me a little given Updike as the author. I actually went hunting online to discover if the poet was truly the John Updike, because I never knew he wrote anything specifically for children. It turns out that he actually wrote an entire collection of poems about the months of the year. It's called A Child's Calendar and the "new edition" published in 1999 has illustrations by Trina Schart Hyman, whose picture book St. George and the Dragon I love. 

Although I love the list-iness of this poem, I'm especially fond of the first lines:
The breezes taste
Of apple peel.
The air is full
Of smells to feel-

Breezes we can taste and smells we can feel in the air. Might be a cool way to introduce the concept of synesthesia to children.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Complete Joy (Meditative Reading and Thinking With Henri Nouwen)

We've just turned the corner on fall, and I am at last reaching the end of a book I began re-reading in mid-summer: Henri Nouwen's The Return of the Prodigal Son.

I first read this book many years ago in seminary. My seminary years are now so long ago that they're beginning to feel like a distant memory. Trying to remember specifics of what I learned gets harder, but the general contours are still with me. And the thing seminary taught me most was to be a better reader.

I learned that lesson in two ways: first, I was taught (by two professors in particular) how to read theology and history in ways that helped me mine, respect, and otherwise engage what was being said. I call this informational reading. Secondly, I was taught the importance of reading that is formational rather than informational. Some call it lectio divina (divine reading). It's the art of sitting with -- meditating on, ruminating, praying through -- what you read. Both kinds of reading are important in different places and seasons, and both are things I knew how to do in some measure before I went to seminary, but it was there that I learned to think about how I approached a text and what I was trying to get out of it (or receive from it, or let it do with me).

I liken meditative reading to sipping rather than gulping. It's a metaphor that works for me, and makes me smile, because I am the "sipper" in my family -- the one who can take a glass of iced tea and make it last for a couple of hours, while my husband, for instance, tends to gulp down one glass and order another. While I am a sipper of tea, I have always tended, by temperament and inclination, to be a gulper of words. That may be a by-product of how early in life I read and how much of my life I've spent doing it, but I do have the tendency to read fast and furiously. It's not always a bad way to read, especially when falling into a story you love (and know you can go back to read more slowly later) but it's not the kind of reading that tends to serve me best when I am approaching spiritual reading.

With the Scriptures and with other spiritual books, I have tried to consciously slow down my reading. I tell myself that learning to sit with a small portion of text is more important than racing through. I have learned to be a sipper of words when it comes to books that feed my spiritual thirst.

I mention all this because I have spent a lot of months reading Nouwen's relatively small book, and it has blown me away on this second reading. I remember enjoying it and getting a lot from it when I read it in seminary, but I am sure I tended to gulp it then because I was in the midst of two-years of fire-hose kinds of reading (ironically the sheer weight of academic reading in seminary almost assured that, despite learning a lot about reading formationally, I spent most of my time reading informationally). I don't think the book was assigned. I think I chose to read it as part of a project I did for a course on Christianity and the Arts, in which I surveyed different ways artists had engaged the story of the prodigal son.

This time through, I've been able to linger in passages, go back and revisit lines, paragraphs, and pages that spoke to me the first time through, and sometimes journal my engagement with the words. The Return of the Prodigal is, essentially, a book about reading: Nouwen spends its roughly 150 pages "reading" Rembrandt's famous painting of the same name, reflecting on what he has learned as he contemplated it, and reflecting on how the painting has helped him to read himself (and find himself in the painting and in the story from the gospels that it depicts). That's a lot of reading layers, and it's just a joy to add to the layers when you come to the book and add your own layers of engagement -- with Nouwen's words, with the painting, and with the gospel story.

Since my memory of the first time I read this book is rather dim, I found myself smiling at how many times, as I sipped at the book this summer, I would think to myself "whoa, that was powerful," or "oh, that's truly a beautiful insight I needed to hear," thoughts that would be quickly chased by the thought "that's probably why I loved this book so much the first time." After awhile, I started to chuckle whenever I had the thought. It's a book full of rich places to linger, and I can't honestly pinpoint which part is the part that might have spoken the most to my 30 year old self. But I can engage how it speaks to me at 47 -- and of course, part of the wonder of reading is that the book itself, sitting all these years with no changes to it text, becomes a different book because I am a different person than I was when last I read it. It has floated into a different place in the river of my life, and oh, I'm thankful it has.

Just one tiny, tiny example of how I find myself sipping at its riches came in a passage I read a few days ago. In the book's penultimate chapter: "The Father Calls for a Celebration," Nouwen reflects on how God invites us into joy. He writes:

"The father of the prodigal son gives himself totally to the joy that his returning son brings him. I have to learn from that. I have to learn to 'steal' all the real joy there is to steal and lift it up for others to see. Yes, I know that not everybody has been converted yet, that there is not yet peace everywhere, that all pain has not yet been taken away, but still, I see people turning and returning home; I hear voices that pray; I notice moments of forgiveness, and I witness many signs of hope. I don't have to wait until all is well, but I can celebrate every little hint of the Kingdom that is at hand.
This is a real discipline.  It requires choosing for the light even when there is much darkness to frighten me, choosing for life even when the forces of death are so visible, and choosing the truth even when I am surrounded by lies. I am tempted to be so impressed by the obvious sadness of the human condition that I no longer claim the joy manifesting itself in many small but very real ways. The reward of choosing joy is joy itself."

He goes on later to say:

"People who have come to know the joy of God do not deny the darkness, but they choose not to live in it. They claim that the light that shines in the darkness can be trusted more than the darkness itself and that a little bit of light can dispel a lot of darkness...Jesus lived this joy of the Father's house to the full. In him we can see his Father's joy. 'Everything the Father has is mine,' he says, including God's boundless joy. That divine joy does not obliterate the divine sorrow. In our world, joy and sorrow exclude each other. Here below, joy means the absence of sorrow and sorrow the absence of joy. But such distinctions do not exist in God. Jesus, the Son of God, is the man of sorrows, but also the man of complete joy...Jesus wants me to have the same joy he enjoys: 'I have loved you, just as my Father has loved me. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments you will remain in my love just as I have kept my Father's  commandments and remain in his love. I have told you this, so that my own joy may be in you and your joy be complete.'"

Let those last words of Jesus sink down deep into your heart. "I have loved you, just as my Father has loved me. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments you will remain in my love just as I have kept my Father's commandments and remain in his love. I have told you this, so that my own joy may be in you and your joy be complete."

Is it not astonishing to realize, really and truly realize, that we are so loved? That Jesus himself wants our joy to be complete? Those were the astonishing words I found myself penning in my journal as I reflected on this passage the other day: "Jesus wants my joy to be complete." I wrote them down large. I underlined them. They were my takeaway, my ribbon to carry with me from this passage, and I am walking with them still. Jesus desires our joy. He is longing for our joy. He is working for our joy. He invites us into the joy he has known with his Father from before the time the world began. He offers us the pathway into joy: abiding in his love, obeying his commandments. In another place, he tells us that his commandment is that we love one another so that our joy may be full. He shows us that true joy lies in our loving as the Father has loved. Our love for others then isn't something we do just because it's our duty or even because we are grateful that we are so loved (though those are all bound up in why we love). Our love for others, through the power of the Holy Spirit, becomes the way we are caught up in the divine life of Jesus and the Father and invited to inhabit their joy which is deep and wide and real and which encompasses everything we know and experience, including real sorrow.

Wow. Just wow. (No doubt, this was the passage that made me love this book so many years ago!) Yes, I'm chuckling again.  And I'm so glad I've had a chance to sip at Nouwen's beautiful book once more.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Harper Lee Biographies and Memoirs

So I've begun reading The Mockingbird Next Door: Life With Harper Lee by Marja Mills (2014). This may seem a little like overkill, since it's my second biography of Harper Lee this month. A week or so ago I finished Charles Shields' The Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee (2006). But my library had both, and I'm on something of a roll. Added to which, they seem to be the only major biographies of Lee that really seem to count.

Although actually, not to split hairs, The Mockingbird Next Door is classified as a memoir. It's an important distinction in this case, because in some ways it's as much about the unexpected friendship between Mills and the Lee sisters (Harper and Alice) as it is about Harper Lee. In fact, I honestly think it might have been better all the way around if Mills had shaped it into even more a memoir (I'm only about half-way through) sharing more of how this unexpected friendship shaped and changed her as a writer, a human being, a storyteller, a person struggling with illness. Even better, I find myself wishing she'd just decided to write a straightforward biography of Alice Lee, Harper's older sister, because it seemed like Alice was the one who really wanted to share stories with her. And her story -- as a woman lawyer in Alabama who practiced law until she was 100 -- is worth telling in its own right.

But Alice and Nelle (that is Nelle thing both Shields' and Mills' books have done is to put me on a first name basis with Harper Lee, who is generally called either Nelle or Nelle Harper by friends and family) are really a pair, and it would be hard to tell one story without telling the other. Especially since so much of Nelle's life was spent with Alice, and Alice was so protective of her sister and her sister's legacy.

There was a lot of controversy surrounding Mills' book -- I'm starting to wonder if there is ever NOT controversy when it comes to anything written about or published by or about Lee -- because apparently Nelle Harper went on record to say she didn't authorize it or endorse it in any way. Alice then went on record to say she didn't think her sister was really responsible for saying that (they were both in late years by that point, and Nelle was in assisted living) but then Nelle apparently countered later to say that you couldn't credit Alice's assent because she was, after all, 100 when she gave it. All of which just feels wearying, and to be honest, a bit sad.

What comes through in the book itself is how much both of these elderly women seemed to enjoy Mills' presence and the chance to talk with her, and how they encouraged her to get things straight about their lives. They certainly encouraged her journalistic activity (she wrote newspaper articles about them long before  she came out with this book) so it seems strange that Nelle at least would feel so adamantly against the book. But Nelle Harper Lee is a complex woman, and she has certainly guarded her privacy fiercely for many years, so perhaps it isn't so strange.

What I mostly come away with is the sense that I wish someone could just tell the story of her life without needing to worry so much about what she's going to think or say about it.

Which is essentially what Shields did in 2006 with his biography. He didn't bother with authorization -- probably because he knew that "hell, no" would always be Lee's response to any such request. What he set out to do was to write the best, most respectful biography he could, given the limitations of not being able to speak to his living subject. He talked to many people who knew her at different periods of her life, and he did copious amounts of research. It's a respectful and very well-written book, one that feels very rich on Lee's life up through the mid 1960s when she stopped giving interviews, but is necessarily a bit thin after that.

In many ways, I think I will ultimately feel that I got to know Lee best through the biography, despite the fact that Mills spent fourteen months living next door to the Lees and actually spending time with them doing ordinary things (fishing, drinking coffee, watching football). Perhaps because there continues to be a sense in Mills' book that she's always hedging her words, always just a little uneasy about the fact that she's sharing in ways that Lee, with her deep sense of privacy and her rather volatile temperament, might not approve. You can't help but get the sense that, for all the times she enjoyed with the Lee sisters, she never got fully comfortable in Nelle's presence, waiting for the unexpected invitation she'd been issued to get to know her to be revoked.

Shields, by contrast, just confidently presents his story. He doesn't gloss over the mysteries surrounding Lee and her reclusivity after Mockingbird, and he asks the tantalizing question that everyone asks "why was there no second novel?" but he doesn't indulge in ungrounded speculation and he doesn't invest too much in one answer, preferring to let us see how Nelle Harper more or less seemed to drift into her later years without, perhaps, making a big decision regarding all that. Mills speaks to that too, but I'm just having a harder time sticking with her more tentative, less cohesive book.

One more note: if you're especially interested in Lee's longtime friendship and working partnership with Truman Capote on In Cold Blood, Shields' book is a goldmine. He provides such a long chapter on that partnership that he almost seemed to be gearing up for a whole book on the subject. Clearly at least one thing he wanted to do was to set the record straight regarding how much Lee contributed to that whole creative process, even though Capote never fully acknowledged her role.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Go Set a Watchman: Harper Lee's Search for the Story She Wanted to Tell

This weekend I finished Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman. Originally written in 1957, three years before she published her iconic and beloved novel To Kill a Mockingbird, this was an early draft of that classic story, though so different it stands on its own as a novel, albeit an uneven one.

I debated inwardly about whether or not I wanted to (or should) read this book, given all the controversy that has swirled around it. I won't revisit that here in detail, except to say that I feel deeply sad if Harper Lee was manipulated to give her consent to the publication of the book. I'm afraid that's likely the case, given the timing of its release (it was announced just a few months after her sister's death, and Alice had been highly protective of Harper and her work) and her previous statements regarding not wanting to publish anything else. I also find it frustrating to realize just how misleading the copy on the flap, and other advertising, no doubt, reads: as though this was a "new novel" intended as a sequel to Mockingbird. Which it very much wasn't and isn't.

I do think that it's likely that such a manuscript would have one day ended up in someone's archives, so that scholars would have access to it. Much of my own interest in reading it -- and I put it on hold at the library rather than buy it and further benefit Harper Collins -- stemmed from curiosity over how it would read as a draft. I expected there to be a lot more overlap than there was. Instead, what you find are the seeds of the greater novel to come: the characters and setting still in development, the germ of certain ideas humming in the background. This is very much the novel of an excellent writer still learning how to shape a novel...and still trying to figure out precisely what story she wants to tell.

The story in Watchman, in fact, is a completely different story than Mockingbird. Without providing too many spoilers, it focuses on 26 year old Jean Louise (Scout), lifelong resident of Macomb, Alabama. Jean Louise has been living, since her college years, in New York, but she still comes home to visit her family a few times a year. On this particular visit, she realizes that she no longer knows where she fits -- she no longer feels like she belongs to (or in) Macomb, but on the other hand, she is realizing, to a staggering degree, how much this tiny southern town has shaped her. She is also recognizing how much other things have shaped her: especially her upbringing by her rock-steady, older father Atticus; and the fact that she was raised, just as much, by a black woman as a white man, since their housekeeper Calpurnia took her in hand after her mother's death when she was only two.

Watchman is a coming of age tale: it's about Scout's (sorry, Jean Louise's -- she is called that much more often here than she ever is in Mockingbird) coming to grips with growing up. She's trying to find her place in the world; she's trying to understand that she is her own person apart from the people and places that she loves so much and that have influenced her so deeply. She's also trying to realize that she can part ways with some of their ideas and mistakes because she's got to learn to have and make her own.

So much of what makes this story different from the one Lee eventually decided she wanted and needed to tell is that it has a different heart altogether. It is a story of a young adult dealing with growing up and a crisis that precipitates her awareness of who she is and is becoming. In actuality, I think there are a couple of crisis moments, one involving Calpurnia and one involving Atticus, that are almost equally emotionally powerful, though the moment with Calpurnia isn't given enough development or weight, in my humble opinion.

Because Jean Louise is thinking through her own identity, and how her upbringing shaped that identity, she occasionally flashes back to her childhood and youth. It's those flashback moments that will feel most familiar to Mockingbird readers, but also frustrating. If you love Mockingbird, then coming upon these moments gives you the exciting thrill of a familiar train rushing down the tracks, bearing someone you know and love -- but then the train rushes by in clacking roar, not stopping at your station. Or if it does stop, the person who gets off is not who you expect. Most of the anecdotes related from Scout's past in Watchman are different from the ones she tells us in Mockingbird, and while it's interesting to get different glimpses (including moments of Lee's unique brand of humour-wrapped-in-poignancy) they feel tantalizingly brief or somehow unconnected to the narrative with the same depth we're accustomed to. I think this rings true to this story that Lee set out to tell, about a confused young woman who discovers some painful and joyful truths about herself as she tries to sort out a rush and tumble waterfall of memories, but it means that memory plays second fiddle to the more important melody line of young-woman-finding-herself.

Memory has a far different role in Mockingbird, where the heart of the story is Scout's childhood, roughly her early elementary school years. We dive deep into it from the first page and never really come up from the dive.  The narrative is still told in flashback, but we're never entirely sure just how old the adult Scout is now, and how far back she's looking. We've still got a sense of unfolding awareness, but this time it's the awareness of a child coming to understand some of the suffering of the world, and how our choices can matter a great deal in how we respond to it. The intense focus of the second half of Mockingbird's narrative on one particular year provides a backdrop for exploring that growing awareness and also some deeply rich character study. But you get a definite sense that the adult voice looking back is the voice of a woman who has not only come to terms with the memories she's relating, but has lovingly shaped them and is telling them on purpose because she already understands their power.

The raw emotion of emotional exploration in Watchman, where Jean Louise sometimes sees memory as the only place where she can safely live and love (while feeling afraid to come outside of those memories back into the land of the living, where relationships are ragged, loss is real, and choices are hard) gives way in Mockingbird to the voice of someone who has come to terms with the hardness of life, looked it square in the face, and understood how even the hard moments shaped her for good. We know that many of the things Scout goes through as a child are not things she could have fully understood then, so the telling of the story and the way it's told subtly points to that kind of deep reflection.

One reason I can't ever read the end of Mockingbird without a flood of tears is because the narrative voice is permeated with such peace and such a deep awareness of the love that held her, formed her, and shaped her in her childhood. Whatever may or may not have happened in the intervening years -- and Watchman, since it's not a sequel, does not really provide us with knowledge of that -- the Jean Louise/Scout who looks back in Mockingbird tells her story with a depth and serenity that speaks of real maturity and love. In Watchman, she is still unraveling bits and pieces as she attempts to fit those stories together into something that makes sense. And might this not reflect, in some real sense, the actual creative process that Lee herself was going through as she wrote a first draft? In Mockingbird, the narrator seems like someone who has gone through that process off-scene and now sketches the picture she's put together from the past in powerful strokes so we can envision it too.

What amazes me is how a woman as young as Lee (31 when she wrote Watchman, 34 by the time she published Mockingbird) became such an artist in just three short years. It makes me wonder what all the in-between drafts must have looked like, as she honed in on Scout's voice and the particular story that called out to her and asked to be told. The pivotal situation that drives that second half of the narrative in Mockingbird is barely glanced at in a paragraph or two in Watchman, a memory that Scout herself acknowledges but barely explores. The page feels practically lit with neon when you read it post-Mockingbird, but you wonder when Lee herself realized that the seed of the story she needed and wanted to tell lay right there, like a small stone you pick up on the beach and rub between your fingers to get a sense of how it feels.

How many times did she take up pen and paper to explore that story, to write it and re-write it, to feel the heft of it again, to drop it into the water to see what it reflected, and then pocket it for later, only to take it back out and begin to once again explore its contours and colors?

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Letting the Holy Spirit Preach to Our Hearts (& Giving Into Joy)

It's been a good but difficult and tiring first week of school. I knew back when I set out my schedule for the end of August/beginning of September that the first week of our homeschool year, I was likely to feel a bit crunched. The beginning of our fall schedule overlapped with the end of my summer work ~ right as it was time to dive into fall work (and preparation for more work and ministry), I got flooded with final projects from all my summer seminary and diaconate students. 

Add to this some continued physical challenges (for me) and emotional challenges (Jedi Teen) and here on the eve of Labor Day, I am feeling a little weary.

So I thought I would come here and reflect on joy. 

I've been reading Timothy Keller's book Prayer. In Chapter Six, he highlights the prayer practices of Augustine, Luther, and Calvin. In the section on Luther, he quotes the reformer regarding something to keep in mind while practicing prayer and meditation on the Scriptures. Keller calls it keeping  "a lookout for the Holy Spirit." He quotes Luther as saying that if (during the course of our regular and planned prayer and meditation):

"an abundance of good thoughts comes to us, we ought to disregard the other petitions, make room for such thoughts, listen in silence, and under no circumstances obstruct them. The Holy Spirit himself preaches here, and one word of his sermon is better than a thousand of our prayers. Many times I have learned more from one prayer than I might have learned from much reading and speculation...If in the midst of such thoughts the Holy Spirit begins to preach to your heart with rich, enlightening thoughts, honor him by letting go of this written scheme...Remember what he says and note it well and you will behold wondrous things in the law of God." 

I suddenly recalled this teaching today when I came across this line from contemporary poet Mary Oliver:

"If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it."

To which I can only say, to both the old and the new, yes and yes. May it be so, Lord.