"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

31 December 2010

Hopes for the New Year

Seeking something thoughtful for the beginning of a new year, I turned to Mary Oliver and found these excerpts to be excellent reminders of who and what I wish to become. (Apologies for the lack of indentions from the original; I can't seem to get them to work in this venue.)

from "Six Recognitions of the Lord"
(section 5)

Oh, feed me this day, Holy Spirit, with
the fragrance of the fields and the
freshness of the oceans which you have
made, and help me to hear and to hold
in all dearness those exacting and wonderful
words of our Lord Christ Jesus, saying:
Follow me.

from "On Thy Wondrous Works I will Meditate"
(section 6)

I would be good -- oh, I would be upright and good.
To what purpose? To be shining not
sinful, not wringing out of the hours
petulance, heaviness, ashes. To what purpose?
Hope of heaven? Not that. But to enter
the other kingdom: grace, and imagination,

and the multiple sympathies: to be as a leaf, a rose
a dolphin, a wave rising
slowly then briskly out of the darkness to touch
the limpid air, to be God's mind's
servant, loving with the body's sweet mouth -- its kisses, its
words --

from "Messenger"

My work is loving the world.
[. . .]

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,

which is mostly standing still and learning to be
[. . .]
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,

which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.

24 December 2010

Christmas Eve Musings

Last night we drove around town looking at lights. There aren't as many as usual this year, but still we saw some beautiful displays, and the toyland folks aren't stinting: on the roof a blinking-red-and-green train filled with toys, Santa waving alongside it, the yard filled with gingerbread men, a creche, a tree and a star, candy canes and lollipops blazing in a garden, reindeer pulling a sleigh, the house and fence outlined in bursts of color, and 10-foot toy soldiers guarding the scene -- a display that makes me sigh with delight every Christmas at its extravagance of joy. Yet just as moving were the white-lighted trees framed between golden curtains in bay windows and the simple wreaths on front doors, quieter celebrations of the same joy.

I missed my parents -- I would like to be with my mother looking at the lights in her town, and it's hard to think that I'll never look at the lights with Daddy or with my beloved mother-in-law again. But the beauty doesn't change for the sorrow; it only takes on a greater poignance in its promise of eternity to come because of the One we celebrate this season. And I rejoice to know that I will see them again and that day not so far distant as it may seem.

We missed the lunar eclipse the other night because of cloud cover; Phoebe hasn't been spectacular for me for a while now, but rather teasing with the occasional glimpse of a sliver or so. This morning, however, as I was leaving around 9:00 to do some shopping, she showed herself uniquely: still near the full, she floated among the softly mottled, gentle cirrus clouds in a light blue sky and matched them precisely in color, only her perfect shape distinguishing her. I'm still here, she seemed to remind me; just keep your eyes open. And I rejoiced in her quiet, demure beauty in the daytime sky.

In the parking lot, loading the bags into the back of the car, I heard the cries of geese and looked up to see them forming into v-shaped flocks, celebrating flight in the clear sky, and I rejoiced in their patterns of beauty and fellowship and teamwork and freedom.

On the way home, a squirrel with some huge prize in his mouth ran across the old ferry road in front of me, making it safely only because the traffic was light and I could I lift my foot from the gas and let the car slow just enough to offset his miscalculation. A few yards on, another started to enter the road directly in front of me and then jerked back just in time; I like to think that his neighbor dropped his precious burden long enough to squeal out a warning. And I laughed aloud at the thought and rejoiced in not taking even a squirrel's life on this lovely, anticipatory day.

photo credit: Daniel Impson

16 December 2010


We are considering a new house and have been driving around seeing what's available. The other day we saw a lovely one which happens to have a swimming pool. I had noticed in the ads that the pool has been maintained by a professional company, and as I was thinking about the house as a possible new home, I thought, "Well, that's good, but we can just call Daddy . . ."

When they lived in South Texas, my parents had a lovely swimming pool in back of the house, above the bay. We all loved it, but the kids almost lived in it. Our oldest took apart the pool vacuum once, and when his granddad caught him at it explained, "I was going to put it back together." The second son got his one spanking from his granddad when he refused to leave the pool one afternoon, though his lips were turning blue and his teeth were chattering. Being sufficiently mechanically minded, Daddy did the pool maintenance himself, at least for the most part as I recall, learning what chemicals were needed in what proportion and when, how to clean it, and so on. The kids helped whenever they could and loved to glean leaves and trash from the water with the vacuum (when not taking it apart to see how it worked).

So Daddy knew pool maintenance, and when I thought about possibly having a swimming pool, I automatically thought that we could just call him to learn how to take care of it. But he hadn't remembered the swimming pool for a long time, and now I can never call him for anything again.

I didn't know how sharp and physical grief can be.

06 December 2010

As I drove home tonight, the clouds flamed rose-gold linings "between-pie mountains." By the time I approached the driveway, the clouds above reflected the deep rose of the setting sun. Loveliness to stir the heart to praise and lift the burdens of the day.

(The picture, one K took, is actually a sunrise and much more spectacular than what I saw tonight -- but it's got the same color that so moved me on my way home.)

20 November 2010

Finishing Well

The semester is winding to its inevitable end. Thanksgiving break next week, two more weeks of classes, then finals. It doesn't seem possible, and there's certainly not time to get all done that needs to be done -- or so it seems.

Of course, it always does get done. That's the glory of academia. Kill yourself for 16 weeks, then you get to take a break and start it over: but it's not just the same old, same old; it's new classes, different mixes of students, another chance to do it better.

One does always wish to finish well. But it's harder to keep that focus when the new start is just around the corner. When exhaustion sets in, when one begins to wonder if teaching were a bad career choice, when committee and administrative work wears down time and patience and energy . . . I could start planning my Shakespeare class, or read the books for my new 411, or rework the 211 schedule . . . so much more satisfying than walking through the messiness of the end of a semester, the discouraged mind insists. The new to come draws the interest, sparks new energy.

But that's not the call. Looking ahead sufficiently to make plans for the future is right and good, but trying to live there, to make it come faster, is foolishness. Responsibility lies here, doing the best one can in the present to love God and neighbor -- to give all one has to the task at hand for His glory. Making that commitment and trusting Him to make one's work count (it's never we who accomplish anything eternal anyway; why do we get so caught up in how we feel?): that is the call, and that is the key to finishing well.

Lord, remind me to trust You where I am, to live for You where I am, now, today, not looking to some future day while letting this one limp to an inglorious close -- a future day which in any case will only be the same as this one when it arrives, one which itself will require trusting and serving You in the moment. Let me live it now so I will know the better how to live it then.

13 November 2010

Christendom Review

The latest issue of The Christendom Review is online.

Millie Jones has her first publication: two of the lovely poems she submitted as part of her senior thesis, which won our first thesis award, last spring.

My review of John Gardner's On Moral Fiction is also in this issue.

Many other poems, some fiction, beautiful visual arts: please check it out!

22 October 2010


What I read at Daddy's memorial service: some of you have asked for this, and I've finally had time to get the changes completed. Thanks for caring!

Harold Eugene Blitch

3 August 1919 – 19 September 2010

“Dad has always been the strongest man I’ve ever known,” my brother remarked one day, and it was so hard to see him physically decline, after a lifetime of never slowing down.

Yet even now, Daddy’s strength is not really gone, not the important strength that has shaped, and will continue to shape, our lives. This strength cannot ever change, because it is the strength of love: love that derives from the love of God and has sustained his family and flowed out to friends and to innumerable people known and unknown.

Love of country led Daddy into the Air Force during World War II, and around the world flying transport. I grew up on stories of his flying “the Hump,” buying sapphires in India for Mother, dropping a monkey he’d adopted over the ocean because it insisted on trying to fly the plane, and the forced landing in a Brazilian jungle, where he spent his wedding day being paddled down the Amazon to a rescue ship . . . “It’s just what one does,” he said – serve your country in time of need.

That same sense of responsibility in his love of humanity led him to search for survivors in a massively destructive tornado in Waco and also to Mexico to help a sister church in their building and farming, as well as to his support of various charities over the years.

I’ve heard it said of many people that they never met a stranger. It was true for my daddy. There was never a person he couldn’t talk to, couldn’t develop a conversation with, couldn't make laugh. And so he had many friends over the years, friends he played bridge with, hunted and fished with, worked with, helped when they were in need.

But his love for us, his family, is of course the love that I know the best and that has been most important for all of us. Nearly 58 years of memories, plus the stories from his years before my birth, create a flood that is hard to choose from.

One of the few times I saw him cry was at his mother’s funeral, after helping his sister take care of her in her last years. He made the time and effort for fishing and camping trips with his younger brother, and was teasing and joking with his “baby sister,” as he always called her, into his final days.

Of course, I know him best as a daddy. The time he gave to Mike and me – hunting and fishing and Scouts and all those manly things he and Mike did together (most of which I couldn’t make myself love), but for both of us – setting up hay bales for archery and teaching us to shoot, flooding the garden for winter ice-skating, taking us to campus for sledding and skating when the pond froze hard enough, canoeing and camping trips, reading to us, playing croquet on summer evenings, chasing fireflies . . . simply being with us. As the consummate “daddy’s girl,” I shall always hold the memory of sitting curled up in his lap when he came home from work, and the knowledge of complete safety which has made it easier for me to trust my heavenly Father in my later years.

Oh, so many memories! But the most important gift Daddy gave Mike and me was his love for our mother. For 67 years, he made his wife the center point of his earthly loves and in so doing showed us what love is. I am sure I received my fair share of childhood spankings, but the only one I remember is the one that resulted from sassing my mother at the dinner table; the only time he ever spanked any of my children was for the same reason. He could tolerate a great deal from us – but absolutely not disrespect for the woman he loved. That was never tolerable.

He adored his grandchildren and great-grandchildren; even when he began having trouble remembering all those names, he knew them as family to be loved – just their pictures drew great joy into his eyes.

I am sure my daddy must have had his faults – he was human like us all – but this I have before me as clear as a cloudless noon: my daddy loved my mother, and therefore all is well in the world, no matter the suffering and brokenness that plagues us. Because nothing else, however pressing or difficult, is as important as this; only if Daddy could stop loving would the world end, and he cannot stop loving – even now . . . no, especially now, now that his love has been perfected in his Savior’s. What a privilege we have had.

03 October 2010

Singing with the Angels

My daddy's name is Harold Eugene (he went by Gene). Every Christmas he would remind us, "My name's from the Bible, you know."

Eye rolls all around.

"Really. It's right there: 'Hark, the herald angels sing.'"

Groans and laughter and out the door to the Christmas Eve candlelight service.

We sang "What Wondrous Love is This" in church this morning as the closing hymn. When we got to the last verse, about singing through eternity, I started laughing so hard I almost choked. I leaned over to K and whispered, "I bet Daddy's singing with the herald angels right now!"

I keep trying to think of a spiffy line to end that thought with, but all I keep doing is laughing some more.

29 September 2010

Morning Beauty

When I was driving to work, the loveliness of white clouds damasked against the still-black sky brought a smile and a thought -- I'd like to see the moon this morning. Getting out of the car in the parking lot, I felt more than saw bright light above me and looked straight up to see a quarter moon brilliant in a cloudless space. Gems of joy wherever we look, if we only look.

27 September 2010

"High Flight"

Daddy was a WWII pilot, and he especially requested that this poem, a favorite of pilots everywhere, be read at his funeral. It was written by John Gillespie Magee of the Royal Canadian Air Force, who was killed in action on 11 December 1941.

High Flight
Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings.
Sunward I've climbed and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds - and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of - wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there,
I've chased the shouting wind along and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I've topped the windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew.
And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

26 September 2010

Quick Update

Daddy's memorial service was lovely, and Mother is surrounded by friends who love her and will walk this journey with her (many have already made it, as men tend to die before their wives).

Thanks so much for the sustaining prayers of all of you. We appreciate your loving concern so much.

I will try to post a bit about the service and the week when I get caught up at work.

19 September 2010

Death be not Proud

My beloved daddy passed away this afternoon while we were on our way to Texas. We are stopped for the night before continuing in the morning.

It's not real yet, of course, and I know the grief is going to be crushing at some point. But I know this too: death indeed has no reason to be proud, because he is nothing in the face of Christ's victory on the Cross.

I will see my daddy again, and meanwhile he is breathing freely once more, no longer bound by arthritic and stroke-riddled limbs, able to speak clearly his praises to his Saviour. What joy!

06 September 2010

No Wonder . . .

. . . my eyes feel like they're being stabbed. They are.

I hate ragweed.

25 August 2010

Harvest Moon

Driving home from opening convocation last night, dusk not quite yet falling into dark, I rounded a curve on the old ferry road to be greeted by a harvest moon, just above the horse pasture, huge in the sky and a pale coral I've never seen before. Back home, I ran onto the porch to see it again, although, higher in the sky now, it appeared only its normal size and darker in color. Still, so much beauty to begin the semester, such a lovely reminder of our place in the world as reflected light. This morning, Phoebe still sailed in the sky, lighting the scudding clouds with her faithful glow, blessedly marking the day at just-dawn.

23 August 2010

"A love that is above 'flesh and blood'"

What with teaching half the summer and prepping for this semester the other half, I find myself tired and out of sorts, not ready for the new semester that begins on Wednesday. What I really want is to become Emily Dickinson, talking to people through the door, if at all, and dropping little notes out my window to encourage the neighbors.

Looking back over the opening chapters of Thomas Merton's The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation reminded me tonight of some excellent truths to carry into the new school year, in light of this mood and tiredness. In Chapter 3, "Society and the Inner Self," Merton writes about the relation between contemplation and love; contemplation is the work of love, and love needs an object -- not only God but the neighbor as well. This love is "above flesh and blood": "not something pale and without passion, but a love in which passion has been elevated and purified by selflessness, so that it no longer follows the inspiration of mere natural instinct. This love is guided by the Spirit of Christ and seeks the good of the other rather than our own momentary interest or pleasure. More, [. . .] it rests in love for love's own sake, and attains, in Christ, to the truth not insofar as it is desirable but above all insofar as it is true and good in itself. This is at the same time our own highest good and the good of the others, and in such love, 'all are One.'"

Merton continues, discussing the solitude necessary for contemplation: "Solitude is necessary for spiritual freedom. But once that freedom is acquired, it demands to be put to work in the service of a love in which there is no longer subjection or slavery. Mere withdrawal [from the world for contemplation], without the return to freedom in [. . .] action, would lead to a static and deathlike inertia of the spirit in which the inner self would not waken at all." Solitude should lead to "the freedom and spontaneity of an inner self that is entirely unpreoccupied with itself and goes forth to meet the other lightly and trustfully, without afterthought of self-concern [. . .] ." Writing a little later of the Desert Fathers, he says they went into the desert "not to study speculative truth but to wrestle with practical evil; not to perfect their analytical intelligence but to purify their hearts. They went into solitude not to get something but in order to give themselves, for 'He that would save his life must lose it, and he that will lose his life for the sake of Christ, shall save it.'"

This is a reminder I need. In my sometimes desperate need for quiet, for solitude, for space to reflect, I find myself desiring these for their own sake, not for the sake of service. I must remember both to set aside time to be quiet -- for contemplation is a necessary part of the life well-lived -- but to be mindful that such time leads to renewed desire to serve others, to put myself aside, to die in Christ so that I can live for Him.

And there is a related idea Merton reminds me of as well: the need in my work of service for "detached activity -- work done without concern for results but with the pure intention of fulfilling the will of God." It is not I who will "save" my students, in or out of the classroom, for the Lord or for effective writing. I can only give myself to Him, do as He directs, and be unconcerned about myself and about that which is beyond my control.

My prayer for all my colleagues, here and across the country: May we remember and learn to live in these truths more faithfully every day.

19 August 2010

The Pursuit of the Absolute

Here's a piece I wrote to help my freshmen understand the final chapter of Annie Dillard's The Writing Life a few years ago. I ran across it today and thought some of my readers might enjoy it.

We can live comfortably, coming to very little harm, Annie Dillard tells us in Chapter 7 of The Writing Life, or we can risk our lives for the freedom and exhilaration of seeking God in His creation.

Dillard attended the Bellingham air show “with a newcomer’s willingness to try anything once” – not because she likes air shows, but merely to try out the local culture. Several pilots did some interesting stunts – then Dave Rahm flew. Dillard first noticed him, as she might a book on a subject in which she had little inherent interest, “idly, paying scant attention,” then found herself interested “reluctantly” – until at last she was drawn completely into Rahm’s “inexhaustibly glorious line” and “[began] to learn about beauty.”

What so impressed her was not merely the quality of the individual stunts Rahm performed – the other pilots had done these too, and well. It was, rather, the way he did them one after another without pausing to straighten out the plane between them: “he never quit,” she writes; “the music had no periods, no rests or endings; the poetry’s beautiful sentence never ended; the line had no finish; the sculptured forms piled overhead, one into another without surcease.” Rahm was using the plane as a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe, to explore the limits of beauty that can be created in his form of art, even as master composers, poets, writers, sculptors use their tools. He was not content to do the same things that others do in the same safe way; rather, he combined the stunts he had learned from others in original ways in order to “move back the boundaries of the humanly possible.”

When Rahm took Dillard up in the plane, she discovered the depth of physical pain and disorientation a pilot experiences, the fact that this work, this art is not one that “feels good.” Yet Rahm chose it and pursued it with a passion that made him the best there was; he became the master that could inspire the very swallows to imitation.

As the writer uses the line of words to discover meaning and articulate for others something of the vision he finds, Rahm thought of the air as a line which he followed from end to end, paying attention to the light so that his audience wouldn’t have to stare into the sun, considering the effect of the plane’s line on the audience’s senses. Dillard describes him as reticent, a “figure,” a stereotypical “strong, silent type” who appeared perfectly ordinary, maybe even boring – but, she adds, “the machine gave him tongue.” His art allowed him to express beauty as he could not with words, and that expression was worth the risk of the fiery death that ended it.

This, Dillard implies, is the task of the writer. Anyone can keep out of harm’s way by refusing risk, by staying on the surface of life and thought. But there is gain – for both the artist and his audience – in taking the risk.

Why are we here? Dillard asks, and answers: “for the sake of the choir” – to offer praise. We cannot praise what we know only superficially; we must “penetrate the universe,” “ride the point of the line to the possible,” seeking truth, seeking beauty, following the vision where it leads us. And that vision we follow, that truth we seek, is, ultimately, the “Absolute” who “fills the world” – the knowledge of the Creator whose life and love are evident in His creation. The pursuit of the Absolute is the only life worth the sacrifices, worth the risk of danger and death – because these are a small price to pay for the exhilaration of that freedom available only in the glimpse of Truth offered us along the way.

15 August 2010

Falling in Love Again . . .

. . . this time with Hilaire Belloc. An essayist I should have known long ago, and so I see the utter inadequacy of my education once again.

Atkins refers to Belloc's "The Mowing of a Field" often, and I enjoy it, but in the collection On Nothing and Kindred Subjects, arrived from amazon recently, I discovered the perfect essay. The problem with essays, of course, is that they are like poems -- in that you can't just summarize them, because the craftsmanship is part and parcel of the meaning -- but they are longer than poems and do not lend themselves to being copied full text. You can, however, find this one in the book I linked to above (just search the contents): "On the Pleasure of Taking up One's Pen."

Belloc notes the controversy over whether there is a "tangible pleasure in the mere act of writing: in choosing and arranging words." But this, he goes on, is not his subject: he is writing on "the pleasure of taking up one's pen, which is quite another matter."

"You are alone," he writes, no matter where you are, the moment you lift your pen, "and that is the beginning." He then writes that you are going to "create" -- which leads to a delightful digression on how we cannot create, followed by "anyhow [. . .] you are going to do something devilish pleasing: there is a prospect before you. You are going to develop a germ: I don't know what it is, and I promise you I won't call it creation -- but possibly a god creating through you, and at least you are making believe at creation. Anyhow, it is a sense of mastery and of origin, and you know that when you have done, something will be added to the world, and little destroyed [only a bit of paper, ink, and quill]."

Then another digression as he imagines his audience exclaiming: "Affectation! Affectation! How do I know that the fellow writes with a quill? A most unlikely habit!" And the admission that he actually writes with a "Waterman's Ideal Fountain Pen," whose gold nib leads to a lovely sally into describing Charlemagne's throne and his journeys with it, ending with wondering if the reader has read these stories: "No? You must read about these things."

Next a blessing on the pen, which he promises that he will write a poem with someday, or at least copy out someone else's with it, because the pen is deserving and will someday "live in a glass case with a crowd of tourists round [it] every day from 10 to 4." He ends, logically, with the lovely thought that you may lay down your pen any time you choose. You cannot stop whenever you please at bridge or public speaking or conversation or life itself -- but to lay down your pen? "At any moment: without remorse, without anxiety, without dishonour, you are free to do this dignified and final thing (I am just going to do it) . . . You lay it down."

Well, go read it, and you will see. Why is it perfect? Because it carries the essay form -- its loose structure, its sense of exploring a topic and inviting us to come along, and yet everything really to the point -- perfectly. Because it has what Phillip Gerard calls the apparent and real subjects intertwined perfectly: in writing about the simple act of picking up a pen, Belloc is really writing about the power of the written word. Because every "digression" is not really digressing, but is integral to both the apparent and real subjects, if we attend carefully. Because he obviously took delight in it, delight in which we share with every word.

Where were you, Mr. Belloc, in my misspent youth?

07 August 2010

Angioma Alliance

For those who are interested, here's an excellent site for information on cavernous angiomas:

This page in particular explains symptoms:

06 August 2010

Doctor's Appointment

DeeDee is waiting right now to see the neurosurgeon. Prayers are always appreciated, and I will update this post after I talk to her.

UPDATE: So she saw two neurologists who looked at the MRI/CT scans she had sent (from a year ago, when she had severe seizures, and a month ago), and decided they wanted an updated one to see if the angioma is bleeding now -- they put her at the head of the line to get it done so that she could do it today and not have to take yet another day off work; also because they have deemed that it is urgent to decide what to do. They did tell her something we hadn't known before, which is that a major blood vessel is feeding the cluster, which makes surgery more of a risk. They confirmed that it must be the occasional bleeding of the angioma that causes her seizures, and that it could be causing her headaches, though they are not as certain about that.

She will go back on Monday to consult with another neurologist, when he has had a chance to read the new CT scan and compare it to the one from a month ago, about how to monitor the angioma and whether/when/how they should treat it. She did find there is a slightly less invasive surgical procedure, where the skull doesn't need to be laid open, but it would still mean a lot of trauma to the brain, of course.

Thanks to all for continued prayers!

29 July 2010

Energy Boost

The other day I started down the stairs from my third-floor office, on my way to lunch in the cafeteria, moving slowly from fatigue and aching muscles, feeling a little sorry for myself to be working in the office in July. As I reached the the second floor, little N, the son of good friends, happened to be racing in my direction, laughing and squealing, his goal the next flight down; mom grabbed him up a few feet from his destination. He struggled happily in her arms, still laughing, happy as I've ever seen a kid just being a kid.

I walked up to them, grinning at N, and said to him, "Why don't you just give me one-tenth of that energy? You'd still have plenty left; come on, just a tenth?"

He laughed out loud and responded to my obviously facetious request for something or other with his favorite nearly-two word: "Noooo!!!" His face crinkled with the joy of being able to say that word without rebuke, with the sheer joys of being alive and a little boy with the affectionate and laughing attention of all the adults surrounding him and rejoicing with him.

I'd never be a kid again (because kids grow up and who would want to go through that more than once), but I wish I could recapture that sheer joy of living now and then.

18 July 2010

Some Good News

Our daughter was able to get into the Chicago clinic this morning and get a referral. Now she is waiting to hear about an appointment time. Grateful to you all for your concern and prayers!

06 July 2010

Update on My Daughter

See comments in the post below for an update. Thanks for prayer -- and continued prayer!

Saturday 17 July: Update to the update: DD plans to try to get into the clinic in Chicago Sunday morning to get a referral to a neurologist through them. She has not been feeling quite up to par. We would appreciate prayers that she would get in to see the specialist in a timely fashion -- thank you all so much.

04 July 2010

Tracing the Essay

I have just finished reading G. Douglas Atkins’ history and description of the “fourth genre” – Tracing the Essay – and I hardly know where to begin. Certainly I won’t do it justice in this brief review, but I can at least offer you some of the ideas that most excited me. I selected it for a class in creative nonfiction after a quick skim; I knew it would be excellent because of the author.

Doug was the graduate coordinator in the English Department much of the time I was pursuing my M.A. and Ph.D. I never had the privilege of taking classes with him – at the time he mostly taught courses in areas I was not pursuing, such as literary theory. But he was a good advisor and I enjoyed the occasional conversation with him. On one of my return visits to KU, I stopped by his office for a few minutes to catch up, and he mentioned that he was no longer “doing theory” (he had written what I believe was the first “layman’s guide” to deconstruction in English), but had turned his attention to the essay. I knew that attention would be detailed and accurate and worthy.

I did not, however, come across any of his books when I first began teaching creative nonfiction – the essay. I found helpful texts and anthologies, and I loved the form and the class. Then I received the yearly department update last spring, and there was mention of a new book he'd written. I hit the web and found four on the essay, all of which I immediately ordered, two of which I then put on my course list for fall. I am joyfully making my way through them this summer. (Titles: Tracing the Essay: Through Experience to Truth; Reading Essays: An Invitation; On the Familiar Essay: Challenging Academic Orthodoxies; and Literary Paths to Religious Understanding: Essays on Dryden, Pope, Keats, George Eliot, Joyce, T. S. Eliot, and E. B. White.)

I can’t begin to summarize Tracing the Essay, a book which you must read if you love this form. You will learn to value the essay all the more highly as you delve into its origins and its tensions and its potential, all explored and explained with a deep love and respect for the form that does not preclude criticism of its excesses and shortfalls. I fear that my underlining and marginalia are not as helpful as they might be: there is more marked than unmarked. Here is a taste of what Atkins explores about the essay (in a list of its qualities near the book’s end): it is “exploratory, experiential, ‘lay’ [amateur] in texture, un- (and even anti-) dogmatic, modest in approach, conversational in tone (and address), personal and brilliantly artful, deeply reflective and intensely moral, and celebratory of the via media [. . .].”

Atkins makes much of the need for contemplation, reflection – time. Time to observe, time to read, time to reflect, time to write. We live in a culture which prides itself on its efficiency, and we take in that world through sound-bytes and google searches and think we know it – and ourselves. Yet we cannot know without reflection. Against this frenetic pace of “efficiency” the essay works, both in the writing and the reading, because it demands that we slow down, attend, explore, listen. “In providing reflection,” Atkins writes, “essays remind us of the urgency to slow down and savor life, certainly, but also to measure and weigh it, to try it and test it. Understood this way, reflection comprises an essential aspect of our ordinary living, part of the whole rather than addendum or supplement, and an aspect without which our lives are sorely diminished.”

Tension is a byword of the book, and much of it is an exploration of how the tensions Atkins describes are resolved (or not) in many different essays. Neither merely personal nor academic, neither fiction nor philosophy, the essay “hangs between” such “sturdy poles.” Because the essay begins with experience, one danger of it is self-absorption; because it teaches, another is the complete loss of self and experience in abstract theory. The self, Atkins explains, becomes the mediator of experience, not the subject of experience. He most highly values the familiar essay, because it moves farther “away from the perceiving self and toward the perceived world” than today’s more celebrated personal essay. “The familiar form of the essay,” he writes, “edges more than the personal toward the meaning the writer extracts from experience. Because the focus rests ‘on’ books or morality or friendship, self-consciousness is tempered and the temptation toward self-centeredness is challenged.” Elsewhere he says that the essayist “becomes the crucible in which experience is tried and tested and meaning extracted. The essay’s subject is not, then, the self, contrary to popular opinion, although the essay’s soil, or laboratory, is nothing but the self.”

Another byword of the book is incarnation. The essay, Atkins explains, is incarnational in form. It embodies – incarnates – experience in order to offer meaning, and he notes often the connection between incarnation as a universal principle and the Incarnation which is its ultimate example. In the final chapter, he addresses the tension inherent in exploring and celebrating the Ordinary at the risk of idolatry, of beginning to worship the creation, the Ordinary, instead of its Creator. The Christian understands that “the Extraordinary [. . .] appears in the person of Jesus Christ, God become man.” This does not, however, make the Ordinary and the Extraordinary equivalent, he warns us, “[any] more than meaning is identical to (mere) experience. There is an extra dimension to which experience, including experience of the Ordinary, gives us access. The trouble is, essays often do not [. . .] reach for that dimension [. . .]. Essays derive meaning, all right, but it is that meaning that remains on the level of the Ordinary and so does not attain that transcendent level, meaning that, in other words, does not transcend the Ordinary. Meaning is, in such an instance, etiolated and falls short of its potential – it is reduced.” Later, he adds, “Through this world we are – or should be – led upward to God.”

If you love the essay, read this book. If you wonder why the rest of us love it, read this book. If you write the essay, let yourself be challenged by this book in matters of form and subject and purpose.

01 July 2010

For Julie: Rest in Peace

I stood in the shabby third-floor corner office, the ill-fitting door creaking slowly shut, surrounded with boxes of books and file folders and office supplies, pretending to decide which books needed to be behind the desk for easy access, which could be nearer the door – and where any particular thing might be in the chaos. In reality, I was trying to calm a rapidly rising panic: new to the college, I had been hired as interim chair of the department, and had just found that the only continuing member had just bailed for another job, leaving me with four extra classes to fill, no network for adjuncts, and the only other department member, also new, not moving to town for another month.

But into that chaos stepped several junior and senior students to help us out, including a young woman with long fair hair and a welcoming smile. At every turn, Julie appeared: helping to move files from one office to another, explaining department policies and registrar’s rules, giving us inside scoops on colleagues and administrators, becoming a friendly and familiar face. She set a tone not always easy for older students with a new professor; they often feel they’ve been robbed of someone they’ve come to know and love, and, no matter what the reason for the change, that the new professor is a usurper, an interloper. And these young folk had lost not one but all the professors they had known; they had to become used to an entirely new department – and one run ragged with overloads and unfamiliar classes picked up at the last minute to fill the abandoned slots.

Julie did much to make that year bearable for us. I never knew her well, but I learned to depend on her wisdom and knowledge and smile, so freely offered to a stranger whom she had chosen to trust. I am sure she was in several of my classes that year, but the one I remember is creative writing – because she was an extraordinary poet for one so young. Her work was not pedestrian, not mere exercises; it was poetry born of a wisdom and maturity rarely seen in college students. I wish I had kept copies.

We didn’t stay in touch; I knew she had gone to another local college for graduate work, but nothing more. Yet when I heard that she was gone, I felt a void in my world, in the world at large. She has left behind an emptiness that cannot be filled – but she has also left behind a witness that cannot be erased. Rest in peace, Julie; you will rest in the hearts of your friends for all their lives.

29 June 2010

Writer's Meme

Stolen from LuCindy

1. What's the last thing you wrote? A course syllabus, sad to say.

2. Is it any good? It has to be; it’s a contract.

3. What's the first thing you ever wrote that you still have? I still have a couple of pieces from grade school, for what it’s worth (which isn’t much). I have been a bit startled to see how many of the same themes have arisen in my work in later years that were there in my K-12 years.

4. Favorite genre of writing? Creative nonfiction.

5. How often do you get writer's block? It would be easier to tell you how often I don’t.

6. How do you fix it? Depends. Sometimes I just pretend that I don’t want to write anyway, which has the advantage of not having to fix the block. However, when I begin to go so insane that no one can stand to be around me, I will usually try to write a post for Inscapes that has at least some merit; sometimes just quoting someone else helps get the gears grinding. Of course, the main problem is time . . . or, rather, the lack thereof. One needs time to reflect to write anything truly meaningful, and that time is exceedingly hard to come by. There is also the most annoying phenomenon of being exceedingly busy and sitting in a meeting somewhere and the ideas suddenly flowing like lava . . .

7. Do you save everything you write? Unfortunately, yes. I fear dying before I’ve gone through it and gotten rid of at least the worst. LuCindy, I hereby appoint you my literary executor, with strict orders to get rid of at least 99% of it, and perfect freedom to get rid of 100%!

8. How do you feel about revision? “Writing is rewriting.” Getting words on the page is a great feeling and a good start, but if those words are not revised and edited with great care as many times and for however long it takes, then they are nothing more than that – words on a page, useless for any worthy purpose. Any writer who wants to make a mark takes the time to serve his readers by revising and revising and revising again, until he gets it as nearly right as is humanly possible.

9. What's your favorite thing that you've written? Probably my tenure essay, on the value of literature to life.

10. What's everyone else's favorite thing that you've written? I haven't a clue; not enough people read my work to get a take on it!

11. What writing projects are you working on right now? Course syllabi and comments on student essays and exams – ooh, lovely! A review of John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction for The Christendom Review (on spec). A book(let) for possible use in our composition classes on the writing process. Ongoing notes for a takeoff from the tenure essay.

12. What's one genre you have never written, and probably never will? The romance novel or its sanitized Christian version called “inspirational fiction.” It seems to me fundamentally untrue in its premises and conclusions and thus a disservice to readers. I love mystery novels, but haven't the mind to plot one out myself, as I lack the imagination to create a sci-fi world of the sort I also love.