Friday, July 31, 2009

Instructional Film for Women

What I'm Reading Now

Here's one of my current reads:

"One of the vital challenges facing thoughtful people today is how to read the Bible faithfully without abandoning our sense of truth and history. Reading the Bible Again for the First Time provides a much-needed solution to the problem of how to have a fully authentic yet contemporary understanding of the scriptures. Many mistakenly believe there are no choices other than fundamentalism or simply rejecting the Bible as something that can bring meaning to our lives. Answering this modern dilemma, acclaimed author Marcus Borg reveals how it is possible to reconcile the Bible with both a scientific and critical way of thinking and our deepest spiritual needs, leading to a contemporary yet grounded experience of the sacred texts."

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Revision Rage

In October, I'll be presenting at the annual general meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America. The JASNA AGMs are always wonderful--interesting presentations and prestigious plenary speakers in great locations. I've attended AGMs in Seattle, Toronto, and Tucson. This year it's in Philadelphia, and I'm really looking forward to it. I can't wait to see the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, all the historic sights.

This year's theme is "Jane Austen's Brothers and Sisters." JASNA requires proposals to be sent in a year in advance, and, as luck would have it, I'd already planned for one of my dissertation chapters to be about the role of physical beauty within families, so I sent in my proposal hoping I'd get some mileage out of something I had to write anyway.

My proposal, "'Not half so handsome as Jane'; Sisters, Brothers, and Beauty in Austen's Novels," was accepted, and unlike many conferences, I'm actually alloted about forty minutes speaking time (with ten or fifteen left for questions and discussion), so I'll have time to present almost the whole essay and then be able to discuss it with other Austen scholars. Believe me, this can spoil you.

But right now I'm just plain aggravated. Why? Although I have plenty of time to present, if I want to submit my essay for possible publication in Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal (which, of course, I do), I have to shorten my essay to 4000 words. Aaaarrrrgggghhh. I struggle to carefully construct an argument, and then I have to butcher it. I've done this before, and it hasn't gotten any easier. I think it's harder to cut huge chunks out of a finished essay than it is to write it in the first place. Aggravation is giving way to frustration.

What's the antidote for Revision Rage?

Wednesday, July 29, 2009


The meaning we give to what happens in our lives is our final, inviolable freedom.
--Barbara Brown Taylor in An Altar in the World

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Not Enough Bookshelves

During my two-year doctoral leave adjuncts occupied my office at HU, so I'd had to move a lot of stuff out to give them room to put their books on the bookshelves. Most of the books I moved home were ones I thought I'd need for my research. Quite a few books, actually. Add to those the ones I acquired during the course of my doctoral studies and you can imagine how many books were stacked all over the second story of our house.

When I finished writing the dissertation a month or so ago, my husband helped me move all those books back into my office at HU. We just piled them on the floor in a corner because I planned to reorganize as I reshelved.

A couple of days ago, I thought I'd spend the afternoon whipping my office back into shape. Easy, right?

I soon discovered that one afternoon will not be enough. It's not so much the simple act of placing books on a shelf that takes so long. It's deciding where to put what. Do I organize by time period? By author in alphabetical order? By gender? (That makes sense if you realize that one of my areas of concentration is Women's Lit.) By genre?

I think I need to block off at least a whole day for this task. And I'm gonna need more bookshelves.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Booking It--Preferences

Which do you prefer? (Quick answers–we’ll do more detail at some later date)

Reading something frivolous? Or something serious? Serious (but not always)

Paperbacks? Or hardcovers? Hardcovers

Fiction? Or Nonfiction? Fiction

Poetry? Or Prose? Prose (unfair question, though. I like both.)

Biographies? Or Autobiographies? Autobiographies

History? Or Historical Fiction? Historical Fiction

Series? Or Stand-alones? Series

Classics? Or best-sellers? Classics (but I love the occasional best-seller)

Lurid, fruity prose? Or straight-forward, basic prose? Straight-forward, I guess. "Lurid" prose???

Plots? Or Stream-of-Consciousness? Give me plots! Please!!

Long books? Or Short? Long

Illustrated? Or Non-illustrated? Non-illustrated means more to read

Borrowed? Or Owned? Owned

New? Or Used? New

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Cashing in on Twilight

Christian Vampire Fiction?

Don't tell me it's not about the $$$$$. The newest thing in "Christian Fiction" is, you guessed it, vampires. Thomas Nelson is publishing a trilogy by Eric Wilson called Jerusalem's Undead, about characters who have risen from the dead after coming into contact with Judas' blood. A Senior VP says about the series: "It is fantasy, but he weaves it from a biblical perspective and ties it back to the power of blood." Mmm hmm.

In September of this year another Christian publisher, WaterBrook Multnomah will release Christian chick-lit author Tracey Bateman's Thirsty. An editor says that Markus, Bateman's vampire, "is a character but also a metaphor for demons anyone must overcome."

Yep. Sure. Sounds real "Christian" to me. Like I said: It's about the $$$$$$$$.

Friday, July 24, 2009

JA Sightings

1. Last Sunday, Arkansas Democrat Gazette columnist Kane Webb did his a column called "Worst Books '09: Hate the Books, Love the Reviews." He shared some of his favorite great reviews of bad books, then asked some local discerning readers this question: What is the worst book you've read of late? And why? It doesn't have to be new, just new to you. One reviewer named Sophie Kinsella's Can You Keep a Secret as her worst book. She said she wasn't expecting high lit, just a fun read for the beach, but, boy, was she disappointed with the "same old rehashed heroine" in this "stale and tired" book. She continues: "Jane Austen wrote (time and again) a better version of this romantic tale, and she gave us heroines with brains. Take Elizabeth Bennet or Emma Woodhouse to the beach, and leave what's-her-name at home." Amen, sister.

2. From David Gates' article "Now, Read It Again: Like Old Friends and Favorite Haunts, Some Books Reward Revisiting," in the 7/13/09 edition of Newsweek: "Still, I suspect that the most widely reread writers in English have been Dickens, Shakespeare, and Jane Austen--hardly a month goes by whithout my revisiting one of them--who combine the sleepy-time comforts of story and character with all the challenge and complexity, the inexhaustible newness, that anyone could ask for. I've taught them all in the classroom, while in the bedroom their books have slipped from my hands as their stories shaded into my dreams."

3. Even Soytomayor's got an Austen connection. In the article "Meet the Sotomayors" from the 7/20/09 edition of Newsweek, the authors reveal that when Sotomayor arrived at Princeton in the fall of 1972, she felt as if she were in an "alien land." It seemed as if all the other students had attended prep school, played tennis, and went on fancy vacations. "In the summer after her freshman year, she read the children's and adolescents' classics she had missed but that seemed familiar to all the prep-school students--Alice in Wonderland, Huckleberry Finn, and the novels of Jane Austen." [adolescent classics? I wonder if that's Sotomayor's classification or the article's authors'?]

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Fully Human

" My chosen vocation . . . [has] remained a subset of a larger vocation, which was the job of loving God and neighbor as myself. Over the years I have come to think of this as the vocation of becoming fully human.

Since some people consider being human a liability, and 'fully'would only make things worse, I should perhaps explain what I mean. To become fully human means learning to turn my gratitude for being alive into some concrete common good. It means growing gentler toward human weakness. It means practicing forgiveness of my and everyone else's hourly failures to live up to divine standards. It means learning to forget myself on a regular basis in order to attend to the other selves in my vicinity. It means living so that 'I'm only human' does not become an excuse for anything. It means receiving the human condition as a blessing and not curse, in all its achingly frail and redemptive reality.

'The glory of God is a human being fully alive,' wrote Irenaeus of Lyons some two thousand years ago. One of the reasons I remain a Christian-in-progress is the peculiar Christian insistence that God is revealed in humankind--not just in human form but also in human being."

---Barbara Brown Taylor in An Altar in the World

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Take a Number

The other day, I went to the Revenue Department to license my vehicle. I walked in, took a number, and sat down. I looked at my number -- 35 -- then looked up at the display -- 22. Well, I was in for a wait.

Quite a few people came in after me, getting their numbers, looking at the board, grimacing, and then sitting down in resignation. The numbers were called slowly. 24 . . . 27 . . . 29 . . .32 . . .33 . . .

I saw another man come in, get his number, and then sit down.

34! the woman called. 34! No one moved. 35! she said, and I got up and started toward the counter. But so did the man who'd just walked in, and he beat me there. I hesitated as he laid his number on the counter. The woman said, "Sir, we are on number 35 and you have number 52."

"What do I do?" he asked.

"You sit back down and wait until we call your number," she replied, very kindly. He went back to his seat, she gave me a confused smile, and began to process my license transfer.

About two minutes later, the clerk next to us finished with her customer and called out the next number. 36! she announced.

Yep. You guessed it. The same man got up and came to the counter and handed her his number. "Sir," the woman said hesitantly, "we are on number 36 and you have number 52."

"What do I do?" he asked.

"You go sit back down and wait until we call number 52," she explained. Back to his seat he went, and both clerks and I exchanged confused, even embarrassed, smiles.

I left before the next number was called, but I can't help but wondering if that poor man came to the counter the next sixteen times they called out a number.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

What Relief Looks Like

L to R: Dr. Ronald Schroeder, Dr. Natalie Schroeder, me, Dr. Colby Kullman
(Not pictured is my fourth committee member, Dr. Ralph Braseth,
who kindly commemorated the event for me.)

This picture was taken right after defending my dissertation at Ole Miss last Wednesday afternoon. I was confident that the defense had gone well, but I have to admit that I was still pretty nervous as I sat in the hallway outside Bondurant C208 while my committee conferred. When Dr. Schroeder opened the door, smiled, and said to me, "Congratulations, Dr. Eddleman," it was a pretty amazing thing.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Booking It--Following Up

Follow-up to last week’s question:

Do you keep all your unread books together, like books in a waiting room? Or are they scattered throughout your shelves, mingling like party-goers waiting for the host to come along?

Well, for me, it's some of both. You saw my nightstand last week--those are all unread books. And I have stacks of unread books in other places, too. But I do have a few unread books scattered among the already-read ones on my bookshelves, especially in my office. Those are pretty much the "I'm gonna read 'em someday, but I'm not sure when . . ." books. Those on the nightstand are the "I'm definitely reading this as soon as I have time . . ." ones.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The New Novel

Winslow Homer, "The New Novel" (1877), Springfield Museum of Fine Arts, Massachusetts.

Saturday, July 18, 2009


No, it's not what you thought. I'm not burnt out on Austen and ready to put her to rest now that I've finished my dissertation on her works. Today is the anniversary of her death--July 18, 1817. Austen died at the young age of 41, most likely of Addison's disease, and was buried in Winchester Cathedral. Here's a picture of her tombstone:

In memory of
youngest daughter of the late
formerly Rector of Steventon in this County.
She departed this Life on the 18th July 1817,
aged 41, after a long illness supported with
the patience and the hopes of a Christian.

The benevolence of her heart,
the sweetness of her temper, and
the extraordinary endowments of her mind
obtained the regard of all who knew her, and
the warmest love of her intimate connections.

Their grief is in proportion to their affection
they know their loss to be irreparable,
but in the deepest affliction they are consoled
by a firm though humble hope that her charity,
devotion, faith and purity have rendered
her soul acceptable in the sight of her

If you'll notice, her epitaph never even mentions that she was an author.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Big Question

I've already told you that I'm a Type A personality, so you're not surprised that I'm wondering about what's next, right? Life's an adventure that I intend to experience fully.

And I'll definitely need a new topic to blog about.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Time to Celebrate

I have fought a good fight. I have finished my course. I have kept the faith. Henceforth, there is laid up for me a big piece of paper from the University of Mississippi (that I plan to frame) and the right to put "PhD" after my name.

I'm celebrating. You're welcome to join me.

Then I'm gonna rest for a while.

If I remember how.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

4 . . . 3 . . . 2 . . .

Prayers, good wishes, positive vibes, and happy thoughts deeply appreciated! The defense starts at 1:30. I'll let you know how it goes.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Happy Anniversary!

Today is the first anniversary of Pointed Meanderings. I can't believe I've been blogging for one whole year now. I began PM on July 14, 2008, and I remember worrying that I wouldn't have enough to say to keep it going, and here I am, beginning year #2.

I thought that, in honor of my completing one year of blogging, I'd re-run the first post. I've come a long way, baby. (OK. I know that allusion reveals my age.)

Here goes:

Just a glimpse

Last year, I took a class in Writing Creative Nonfiction at Ole Miss. One of our first assignments was to write a memoir; one limited in scope, of course, but covering an event of obvious significance in our lives.

When it comes to writing, I'm not usually a procrastinator. Maybe that comes from being a non-traditional undergrad student who was too afraid that if she put off writing a paper until the day before it was due, one or all of her children would wake up with projectile vomiting and uncontrollable diahhrea, or maybe I just realized that my brain works better if I allow myself time to let ideas take root and grow. Either way, I was always the student who started writing the day after the paper was assigned. (You can probably already tell I have control issues.)

I've written many critical analysis papers, even some fiction and poetry. But the thought of putting my life on paper for others to see left me reluctant even to turn on my laptop, much less to begin trying to find words and shape sentences that would lay myself bare to a classroom full of critics and a demanding professor. Then finally, after producing what I thought was a no-holds barred expose', the most often-repeated response to my memoir was, "You left out what we most want to know!"

This is not a new problem for me. I've started multiple diaries and journals only to either abandon them because the introspection required was too painful (you have to be honest with yourself when you are your only audience) or because I was afraid that someone would find my words and actually read them. Yet, all my life the words that others were brave enough to write have given me great joy. I have no illustions that my words here will illuminate anyone's life or bring joy to the multitudes. I simply want to gain the courage to speak, to reveal myself, but I must admit, at first it will probably be only in small glimpses. That's enough for me now.

Oh, yes--tomorrow's the day!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Booking It--Unread

“So here today I present to you an Unread Books Challenge. Give me the list or take a picture of all the books you have stacked on your bedside table, hidden under the bed or standing in your shelf – the books you have not read, but keep meaning to. The books that begin to weigh on your mind. The books that make you cover your ears in conversation and say, ‘No! Don’t give me another book to read! I can’t finish the ones I have!’"

OK. I've always kept a running list of "Books on my Nightstand" in the left-hand column of this blog, so listing them here wouldn't be anything new. Here, however, is a picture of the books on my nightstand:

I told you that I have a really big nightstand. This picture doesn't show, however, the unread books stacked on the nightstand in the upstairs bedroom, or the unread books at my office, or . . .

You get the picture.

Oh yeah. Two more days.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Bottom of the Ninth . . .

No rest for the weary.

I will be spending the weekend preparing for my dissertation defense. (Four days and counting . . .) I'll be teaching most of the day Monday, so I can't do it then. I teach again Tuesday morning, so that's out. It's now or never. I'm not really worried, but I want to be prepared. It's important to me to do a good job.

I've decided to go down to Oxford on Tuesday afternoon. My defense is scheduled for Wednesday at 1:30, and I really did not want to have the added stress of worrying about getting caught up in traffic or having a flat tire and ending up late. And I thought a nice calm morning to relax (and pray, and pray, and pray . . .) would be better preparation than a three-and-a-half-hour drive.

A funny thing happened yesterday. I had not even looked at my dissertation in probably at least three weeks, so I sat down to read it through. This is the longest time I've had away from it since I began writing the dissertation, and I had the strangest reaction. It was almost as if I were reading it for the first time. It was something strangely distinct and separate from myself. It was hard to believe that I actually wrote it, that those were my ideas and my thought processes, my arguments.

I hope that muse comes back for a visit on Wednesday.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Righteous Indignation

I never thought of it quite this way before:

" . . . the wrath of God is a symbol of holy mystery that we can ill afford to lose. For the wrath of God in the sense of righteous anger against injustice is not an opposite of mercy but its correlative. It is a mode of caring response in the face of evil, aroused by what is mean or shameful or injurious to beloved human beings and the created world itself. Precisely because Holy Wisdom cares with a love that goes beyond our imagining, the depths of divine anger are likewise immeasurable. . . . [Divine anger] stands as an antidote to sentimentality in our view of God's holy mystery as love . . ." Elizabeth A. Johnson

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Neither Extreme

Today, I'm speaking to a group of Christian librarians who are attending a conference here at HU. I was asked to discuss two things:

1. the Twilight series, and

2. blogging about books

Sounds easy enough, right? Those of you who've read my earlier posts on Twilight know what I think about the series, at least from a literary standpoint. And you also know I love blogging about books. All in all, I'm expecting this to be an enjoyable speaking engagement for me.

As I started thinking about what I would say today, I realized that we, as Christian teachers of literature and Christian librarians, are in a really interesting position. We actually embody the best of two worlds. Like all teachers of English and all librarians, we love the idea of books opening up new worlds for us and our students. We encourage exposure to challenging ideas, and we promote critical thinking. We celebrate free access to the books of our choice.

Yet, as Christians, we also recognize that discernment is necessary. We love to read, but we want to protect our minds and to "guard our hearts with all diligence, for out of it are the issues of life" (Prov. 4:23).

Luckily for us, it's possible to reconcile both positions--and we don't have to ban any books to do so. Discerning readers can indulge their love of reading, expand their horizons, and strengthen their Christian worldview, while also developing compassion for those who don't see the world exactly as we do. And we can help our students learn to do the same.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009


One week and counting til the defense . . .

I had a stressful week last week. I went down to Oxford the week before and filled out my application to graduate and took care of all the paperwork across campus. I came home feeling on top of things and thinking only of preparing for my defense. Then, last week, late Thursday afternoon, I get an e-mail from the graduate school telling me that I don't have enough hours to graduate. And I'm not lacking just a few hours. It's a huge chunk.

Well, of course, panic sets in, even though I'm one of those students who micro-manages her schedule. I read the catalog; I keep a checklist; I visit with my advisor regularly. I knew I'd dotted every i and crossed every t. I also knew that I'd been evaluated every year by the whole English Department faculty and given a "Satisfactory Progress" rating. And how could I have been allowed to take Comps and enter dissertation phase if I hadn't finished my course work? I called my advisor. He said he'd check on it. He sounded a lot calmer than I felt.

Then the University shuts down for the 4th. Of course. A long weekend with no information.

I heard nothing Monday.

By Tuesday I thought, "Enough." And I called. "Oh, yes," she said calmly. "We forgot that you entered the program already having earned a Masters Degree. That was the difference in hours. I'm approving you for graduation today. Sorry."

Well. I feel better now.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Small Rituals

Rituals are actions that have symbolic value. They are a way of acting out in the physical world what we believe to be true in the spiritual world. They can focus our minds and direct our thoughts towards God. They can add beauty to our lives and comfort us. I wrote in an earlier post, Coveting the Metaphor, about how Sue Monk Kidd's conscious use of symbol and metaphor enhanced her spirituality and her life. I believe that the addition of small rituals can do the same.

To enhance my pursuit of intentional spirituality, I have added a few small rituals to my devotional time. First of all, I have set aside a certain place for my morning devotions. It's upstairs, just a comfortable chair in the corner of a bedroom, but it's a quiet place away from chores and TVs and the normal bustle of life. On one side of the chair is my Bible, the devotional/theological book I'm currently reading, and my journal; and on the other side is a table where I've placed a small candle. Before I begin, I light the candle. Next, I open my journal, date the entry, and then write down one thing for which I'm grateful. I don't make a huge list, although I could. I just wanted to establish a ritual that will encourage me to have a grateful heart. Next, I read a passage of scripture and choose one or two verses to copy into my journal, and make a few comments on these--why I chose what I did, the connection to my life, a realization I've just made, a prayer, anything I feel at the moment. Next, I read a chapter or so of the devotional book, copying any great lines or paraphrasing intriguing discoveries into my journal and commenting on them. Then, I pray. When I finish, I blow out the candle. Extinguishing the flame does not signal the end of my pursuit of God, but it is a ceremonial closing to a time of dedicated devotion.

The candle ritual works for me on several levels. It's beautiful and comforting. Because it signals a beginning and an end, it focuses my mind on the present and my purpose. The light of the candle has a metaphorical connection to God. The scent of the candle is reminiscent of the incense burned in the Old Testament, which symbolized the prayers of the saints. It is an intentional act performed for spiritual purposes.

If you have any rituals that you find beauty and joy in, I'd love for you to share them.

1 John 1:5 This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.

Psalm 141:2 Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense; and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.

From Marilynne Robinson's Gilead:

--I was struck by the way the light felt that afternoon. I have paid a good deal of attention to light, but no one could begin to do it justice . . .

--The moon looks wonderful in this warm evening light, just as a candle flame looks beautiful in the light of morning. Light within light. It seems like a metaphor for something. So much does. Ralph Waldo Emerson is excellent on this point. It seems to me to be a metaphor for the human soul, the singular light within the great general light of existence. Or it seems like the poetry within language. Perhaps wisdom within experience. Or marriage within friendship and love . . .

--I think sometimes of going into the ground here as a last wild gesture of love--I too will smolder away the time until the great and general incandescence . . .

Monday, July 6, 2009

Booking It-Celebrities?

Do you read celebrity memoirs? Which ones have you read or do you want to read? Which nonexistent celebrity memoirs would you like to see?

I do like to read memoirs, but only of people I really admire or whose lives intrigue me. Fortunately for me, celebrities (if you mean the kind that grace the tabloid covers) rarely make my list. One memoir that's on my nightstand right now is Valdimir Nobokov's Speak, Memory. I bought it after reading Lolita a couple of years ago, but I just haven't found (made?) the time yet to read it. I will, though. One of the books I just bought at the CSC is a memoir, Barbara Brown Taylor's Leaving Church. I'll probably get to it before Speak, Memory--no offense intended, Mr. Nobokov.

I think that the last two memoirs I've read were Ayan Hirsi Ali's Infidel and Larry McMurtry's Books: A Memoir. I'd highly recommend Ali's. It's a very intriguing memoir that I've thought about a lot. McMurtry's, however, was only occasionally interesting. I had to make myself finish it. There were just too many boring sections about when, where, and how he acquired certain books and not nearly enough of his thoughts about reading and writing them.

A memoir I really want to read is former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy, and the West, finished shortly before her tragic assassination.

Come to think of it, there is maybe one celebrity memoir I'd like to read--Meryl Streep's--but only if she analyzes some of her great roles.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

A Merry Heart

Proverbs 17:22 "A merry heart doeth good like a medicine: but a broken spirit drieth the bones."

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Inquiring Minds Want to Know

OK. So what were the other two books I bought?

After nine years serving on the staff of a big urban church in Atlanta, Barbara Brown Taylor arrives in rural Clarkesville, Georgia (population 1,500), following her dream to become the pastor of her own small congregation. The adjustment from city life to country dweller is something of a shock -- Taylor is one of the only professional women in the community -- but small-town life offers many of its own unique joys. Taylor has five successful years that see significant growth in the church she serves, but ultimately she finds herself experiencing "compassion fatigue" and wonders what exactly God has called her to do. She realizes that in order to keep her faith she may have to leave.

Taylor describes a rich spiritual journey in which God has given her more questions than answers. As she becomes part of the flock instead of the shepherd, she describes her poignant and sincere struggle to regain her footing in the world without her defining collar. Taylor's realization that this may in fact be God's surprising path for her leads her to a refreshing search to find Him in new places.Leaving Church will remind even the most skeptical among us that life is about both disappointment and hope -- and ultimately, renewal.

From Booklist
Collins is a jester and a double agent. A poet readers flock to, he gets the laughs and the applause, he paces and bows, concealing his weapons and serious mien. His self-portraiture is mordant, his drollery preemptive, his insouciance camouflage, his intelligence of the stealth kind, and his intricately constructed poems detonate as they blossom in the reader’s mind. Collins is fanciful and mindful, cocky and prayerful, blissful over ordinary things and intimate with dread and loneliness. Here he is morose in Paris, staring down a fish staring back on a plate in Pittsburgh, rain-harried in Dublin, awake and repentant at the fringe of night in a bright bathroom, loitering with intent in the kitchen. Collins’ seductive poems are decoys drawing us into deep waters where memories waft like tangled weeds and death lurks in the cold spots. Wryly philosophical, caustically whimsical, disarmingly beautiful, Collins’ covertly powerful lyrics deftly snare all that is fine and ludicrous about us, from the old habit of poetry itself to the spell of love and the long, rolling song of the self. --Donna Seaman

Friday, July 3, 2009

Functional Spirituality

Every time I go to a conference, I'm tempted by all the books there for sale, especially the ones I can have autographed by the authors who are plenary speakers. I restrained myself to three books at the CSC, and this is one of them--Barbara Brown Taylor's An Altar in the World.

Here's what the publishers have to say about this book:

From simple practices such as walking, working, and getting lost to deep meditations on topics like prayer and pronouncing blessings, Taylor reveals concrete ways to discover the sacred in the small things we do and see. Something as ordinary as hanging clothes on a clothesline becomes an act of devotion if we pay attention to what we are doing and take time to attend to the sights, smells, and sounds around us. Making eye contact with the cashier at the grocery store becomes a moment of true human connection. Allowing yourself to get lost leads to new discoveries. Under Taylor's expert guidance, we come to question conventional distinctions between the sacred and the secular, learning that no physical act is too earthbound or too humble to become a path to the divine. As we incorporate these practices into our daily lives, we begin to discover altars everywhere we go, in nearly everything we do.

In the Introduction, Taylor herself says this:

I have no idea what you'll see when you look at your life--but if you are tired of arguing about religion, tired of reading about spirituality, tired of talk-talk-talking about things that matter without doing a single thing that matters yourself, then the pages that follow are dedicated to you. My hope is that reading them will help you recognize . . . some of the altars in this world.

This is definitely my next read. See what I meant about synchronicity?

P.S. Happy Anniversary, Mom & Dad!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Yes, but How?

It's very easy to get caught up in the idea of being more spiritual, but if I am not intentional (there's that word again!), that's all it will be: an idea, not a reality. And that is not what I want. I know that I am an "idea person." I can easily live in the world of books and ideas and feel like I'm doing something or changing my life, but all I'm actually doing is reading about doing it, thinking about changing it.

I guess I should define my terms here. We've all heard the old saying "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." But I'm not talking about having good intentions. I'm talking about living with Intentionality. The dictionary defines "Intentionality" as "the quality or state of being intentional; having, or being formed, by an intention; doing by intention or by design, on purpose." So you see that Living Intentionally carries me past the state of forming good intentions into the realm of actually living them.

This, of course, is not a new idea. I'm always amazed at my own slowness to grasp concepts, to fully comprehend things I already know and sometimes even practice in certain areas of my life. When my youngest child started school, I decided that that was the perfect time to begin a regular exercise program. Knowing my own body clock and personal propensities, I realized that I must work out first thing in the morning or it wouldn't get done. I intended to exercise; I chose a time; and I carried through with my plan. I didn't allow myself to decide every morning if I wanted to do it because the decision had already been made. I didn't just intend to exercise--I wanted to be the kind of person who exercises regularly. Years later, I still am. And I know it's because I have a plan, a schedule, and I follow it. It's not because I have some vague idea of needing to exercise. It's a part of my life now, a component of who I am.

This, then, will be the model for my intentional spirituality. There are some really interesting parallels. First of all, I realize that my main time for Scripture reading, devotional/theological reading, prayer, and meditation must be in the morning. For one reason, this symbolically puts God first in my life. It sets the tone of my day. Additionally, just like exercise, if done early in the morning it can't as easily become crowded out by the normal busyness of the day. But there are other similarities. I haven't done exactly the same workout for all these years. I've changed and adapted my workouts as I've encountered new information and as my needs have changed. I fully expect to do this in my spiritual pursuits. I'll read different scriptures, and from different versions. I'll pursue different ideas in the devotional and theological texts I read. I'll investigate contemplative prayer and different forms of meditating on God and scripture. And, just as I've incorporated functional fitness (taking the stairs instead of the elevator, parking farther away and walking, etc.) into my life, I plan to incorporate "functional" spirituality, for lack of a better term, into my life. I don't want to put my pursuit of God in a box, relegating it only to corporate worship or morning devotional times.

But we'll talk about that tomorrow . . .

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Intentional Spirituality

It's hard to pursue a graduate degree in English without questioning your faith. We are trained to parse words, to analyze texts for multiple meanings, and to recognize the inadequacies of interpretations and translations. Throw into the mix extremely intelligent, well-spoken fellow graduate students who either regard the Christian faith as outdated and irrelevant or who are openly antagonistic towards it, and your uncertainty is intensified. And if, as I do, you have the type of personality that always searches for the answer, that must be certain, that has to know, well, you may be headed for a dark night of the soul even as you search for some small ray of light.

I was groping through that darkness. I think the physical and mental exhaustion of completing a PhD in three years (teaching full time one of those years and Honors Symposium all of the summers, driving so far back and forth the first year, living away from home and family the second) contributed to my spiritual dryness. I poured all my energy into completing the degree, slowly crowding out time for Scripture, prayer, meditation.

Life is funny, though. Right in the midst of my barren times came synchronicity. I guess you could also call it providence. First, I read a book called Dance of the Dissident Daughter by Sue Monk Kidd. This is a beautifully written book by a woman who left Christianity to pursue the Sacred Feminine, and while I did not agree with her journey into paganism, I did admire her intentional spirituality and was intrigued by her research into the nature and being of God. This led me to books on theology, where I encountered this appellation for God: The Divine Mystery.

Everything in me reacted to this name. How beautiful! And how freeing! Augustine said that if you have understood, then that which you have understood is not God. Elizabeth A. Johnson says that the "incomprehensibility of God [is] a mystery of free and liberating love, love that draws near, chooses us without our deserving it, accompanies and bears us, walks the path of struggle, promises victory, dwells among us to gather us in." This name for God, The Divine Mystery, allows us to not understand, to not comprehend completely, and to know that we never will. Yet, at the same time, it validates our pursuit towards understanding. It's almost as if this name gave me permission to believe and cling even through all my questions and doubts. It gave me permission to not have all the answers.

Then at the same time, because Marilynne Robinson was going to be speaking at the Christian Scholars Conference, I began reading her book Gilead. I have never read a more beautiful novel in all my life, and maybe I never shall. When I read the Twilight series, I said that I'd read almost two thousand pages without wanting to underline one sentence. This novel was the exact opposite. I wanted to underline every sentence of Gilead, and double underline some parts. I have never read a novel with so much Scripture and so little dogma, such holiness coupled with such humanity. It is a celebration of mystery and love, of the spiritual as well as the physical. Nothing I can say about this novel could do it justice. It is the story of a life lived in honor of The Divine Mystery.

Then, as I said yesterday, while at this conference I met some wonderful people who have chosen to live with such spiritual intentionality, searching for and worshipping God even as they realize that The Divine Mystery can never be fully comprehended in this life. I guess maybe all my life I've been drawn to this idea of God because I've always loved I Corinthians 13:12, especially in the King James Version: "For now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face: now I know in part, but then I shall know even as also I am known."

I want, though, for my pursuit of God to be characterized by love instead of fear, by the desire for relationship rather than oughts or shoulds or guilt.

Suddenly, my cup seems full.