"As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; / [ . . . ] Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves -- goes itself; 'myself' it speaks and spells, / Crying 'What I do is me; for that I came'." --Gerard Manley Hopkins

30 September 2007

The Gist of Things

We are reading Annie Dillard's The Writing Life in freshman composition this semester. A student the other day challenged my insistence that one needs to understand the meanings of key words and concepts to understand a writer's work. He had gotten the gist of the assigned chapter without knowing the meanings of the words I'd brought to the class's attention, he said, and wasn't that all that mattered, after all?

Of course, we all read books and articles with words unfamiliar to us, and we don't necessarily sit with dictionaries at our elbows. We learn much by context, and "sort of" know many words we might be unable to define articulately at a moment's notice.

But the comment struck me, still, as somehow wrong; it's not about learning from context but about getting the gist of something without attention to detail. My first reaction thus was simple: "But this isn't casual reading to get the gist of things -- this is reading for the purpose of study." The job of the student is not to be casual; it is to be intense, focused, detailed, desirous of learning all one can. Casual reading lends itself to casual learning -- or, more likely, no real learning at all. That may be fine in its place, but is its place the readings assigned in a college classroom?

But the more I've considered it, the more I'm convinced that the real issue lies still deeper.

I am not in the least opposed to casual reading. (After all, I read detective novels all summer.) But how much of our reading should be merely casual; how often is the "gist of things" enough? And, in fact, if one does not know the meanings of key words, images, concepts, how is it possible to know if one has actually gotten the "gist of it" and not misunderstood altogether, reading oneself instead of the writer, as we so often tend to do?

And if the reading is for some purpose beyond relaxation, why would the mere gist of things satisfy? It isn't the gist of something that challenges and changes us -- the depth and profundity, the compelling force, of the idea lies in the careful building of detail to drive it home. Otherwise, why not just say "writing helps me discover what I think" and skip the first several paragraphs of The Writing Life altogether, condense the whole chapter into one paragraph, the book into a short monograph?

The gist of things often makes me shrug, or yawn. I very likely already knew it, or, if not, I find it mildly interesting, or a little odd, or, perhaps, "stupid" or "worthless." However, when I attend to the details of a well-crafted work, I find that the idea may be truly powerful, compelling, even life-changing -- or, perhaps, truly horrific, to be rejected and actively battled. But never "mere," never casual, never mundane . . . not when I attend. And how can I attend if I have no idea what some of the key images, words, concepts mean?

When I think of the time and energy Dillard must have poured into this book, searching for the exact metaphors, the most precise words placed in syntax painstakingly created to carry her meaning, I wish to honor her by attending to the work as she did herself. Literary critic F. R. Leavis likens the good reader to "the ideal executant musician, the one who, knowing it rests with him to re-create in obedience to what lies in black print on the white sheet in front of him, devotes all his trained intelligence, sensitiveness, intuition, and skill to re-creating, reproducing faithfully what he divines his composer essentially conceived."

I want my students not to be satisfied with the gist of things. I want them to be challenged, to challenge themselves. I want them to find ideas compelling and never casual, to become so well-read, so familiar with words and ideas, that even casual reading will no longer be truly casual, even when it seems to be, because the heart takes in depths of which the mind may not be consciously aware. (Those detective novels make me think about justice, love, betrayal . . .)

And here I find myself back in sympathy with Dillard, as I often am, when she says of her writing students after one of her passionate rants about what it takes to be committed to writing as a career: "They thought I was raving again. It's just as well."

21 September 2007

Criminal Minds Reprise

Last night was the repeat of last season's Criminal Minds finale, in preparation for the new one to begin. I discovered that I was too kind to Hotch's supervisor, who I said was firing Hotch and putting Prentiss in his place. Instead, she tells Prentiss that Hotch needs to lose his job -- and she expects Prentiss, out of gratefulness for having been placed on the team over the objections of others, to now ensure that this happens. In other words, she is asking Prentiss to be not just a mole, but an active agent of dissension and destruction to her team.

Most interesting. It will be interesting to see how she negotiates this.

In other news, I am absolutely heart-broken because Mandy Patinkin is leaving the show. It just isn't right. Who else could ever play father and confessor to the others as well as he? Criminal Minds without Jason Gideon . . . ? Unimaginable. He set a remarkably high bar for the actor who will take his place.

Early Morning

Ebony clouds sweep across an indigo sky and a blush of pink on the eastern horizon. Hope rises, new every morning; moon and stars hold despair at bay in the long night.

20 September 2007

Musing on the Muse

The last couple of mornings, I've missed the moon on my drive to work. A few late stars show in the darkened sky, but too far and too faint to compete with the glare of the streetlamps and blinking bus lights and blinding advertisements that conceal more than they reveal. I'm too lazy (or busy, by your leave) to find out if Phoebe's rising too late or too early these days for my early morning delight, but the sky seems lonely without her, though never without beauty.

The moonlight at night has attracted me from the time I can remember, but when we got a second vehicle and I began driving to work a couple of years ago, I began to notice her more often in the early mornings, as I was focusing on the road and my surroundings instead of talking with others in the car. About the same time, I also found myself wanting to improve my ability to see and describe the physical world.

(Most of you know that this physical world generally only comes to my attention when it impinges upon me in some abrupt and usually painful way. This is a distinct liability for a writer, even one who writes about the life of the mind.)

And so I began to observe Phoebe more closely, and her moods and phases fascinated me: how she could be so warm one morning, so cold another, how her light could fill the sky or barely light herself, and how this did not seem dependent on whether she were a mere sliver or at the full. As I thought about these vagaries, I thought too about the one constant -- she is reflected light only, useful only in the darkness.

Thus Phoebe became my muse, because I see myself as reflected light, subject to phases I can't always control, offering more or less light on any given day, but startled by the way the True Light can use even the tiniest sliver to illuminate someone else's way. It's never me; it's always and only the Son in me. There's humility in that, a good humility that gives hope and joy because I don't have to constantly strive to be approved, and when the clouds come, the clouds that He has created and allowed, I can be at peace, too, knowing that His light has not failed and never will.

And what joy to know that ultimately I will know Him for who He is, as I stand in His actual presence, subsumed by His brilliance, and yet, too, become fully myself, knowing at last my created nature revealed in His Light, the darkness forever gone.

07 September 2007


A brilliant sliver of moon lit the cirrus clouds into a light blue against the indigo sky this morning, loveliness to make one's heart ache. I wish I could paint.

03 September 2007

On Mother Teresa Again

Another wonderful post from Tony Esolen about Mother Teresa's dark night of the soul.

Home Again

In the summer, I mostly stay indoors because of severe allergies, and I sleep till long past dawn so that I can sleep at all. And so I miss seeing the moon except for the occasional night my son calls me in to see its beauty through his bedroom window.

Since the term has begun, it's been hazy skies when I've left in the early morning dark, and I've missed Phoebe lighting my way down the old ferry road. Instead, there is only the harsh, blinding glare of the neon lights by the side of the road, more distracting than helpful to barely woken eyes.

This morning, I thought it must be cloudy again as I drove to work and saw no sign of her. Then I got out of the car in the parking lot behind the library and looked straight up into a crystal clear sky -- to see a perfect quarter moon glowing in alabaster beauty. As I walked across campus toward my office, her brilliance heightened the garish look of the man-made lamps surrounding me and I kept looking up, risking a stumble on the concrete, feeling that I was being welcomed home.