Category Archives: Memoirs

Personal reflections on a life spent in religious study

Becoming

It’s pretty difficult to summarize the feelings when watching your own child graduate from college. Of course, she’s not a child any more, but that’s always the way you’ll think of her. Binghamton University, a “public ivy,” is a competitive school to attend. Hard to get in, and hard to get out. And you know that there were serious struggles to get to this point. Courses conceptually impossible for a humanities ex-professor to understand marked the trail to this point. The academic robes, the positive energy, and the overall sense of accomplishment make this one of those joyous occasions that mark the transition from being the instructed to becoming the instructors. It’s a time unlike any other.

Most of my collegiate thoughts, despite my three degrees in religious studies, have focused on science and engineering. It’s not that the basis of truth has shifted, but the practicalities of “finding a job” have to take precedence these days. The STEM universe may be the only real one, according to those smart enough to know such things. It’s difficult not to feel that studying religion was chasing a chimera, if not a little deluded. Tomorrow, though, the college of arts and sciences will send forth even more graduates into a world where employment itself may be a reverie. Still, I can’t help but think these engineers from the Watson School are just a little brighter than their more humanities-inclined classmates. Parenting is its own kind of bias.

Commencement is a singular moment. Parents sitting in the crowd want to attract their child’s attention for just a moment. Each one down there is a star. You want to be seen by them, recognized if only for a fleeting smile or subtle wave. They’ve accomplished something and everyone is here to cheer them on. Your meaning is tied up in being associated with that person that you’ve coached through so many aspects of life, and you hope you’ve done it well. They’re ready to leave academia behind and experience a bit of the wider world. It’s a cycle as old as this planet’s first molten rotations as it revolved around a distant star. And as those walking across the stage are growing in magnitude, those of us cheering them on try to recollect what it was like to have so much loving goodwill focused on us. It’s difficult to summarize these feelings, but I’m pretty sure I’d call them religious.

Write or Wrong

Lots of people write for lots of reasons. Some love it. Some hate it. Some can’t help themselves. For those who know me primarily through this blog, it may not be obvious which of these sorts I am. After having read Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life I finally feel confident putting myself in category three. It’s not that I don’t like writing—I live for it. The kind of person Shapiro describes, however, is the one who defines their entire being through writing. Each day I post between 300 and 500 words on this blog. I’ve been doing it since 2009, which means I’m somewhere over the million-word mark. But those compelled to write will never be satisfied with just that. One does not live by blog alone, after all.

Once in a great while I get asked how many books I’ve written. Well, that’s not a question with a straightforward answer. Two of my books have been published. I’ve written at least ten. Some of them never made it from my desk to a publisher’s wastebasket. A few of them have. Like others who are addicted to writing, I can’t stop. Ironically, with a decade of experience working in publishing I’m not so good at getting my own work placed. Some of it is fiction. Some of it is non. Some of it is even poetry. If you’re a graphomaniac, I don’t need to explain any further. If you’re not, think of chocolate, or sports, or anything else you just can’t get enough of. That’s what it’s like.

Shapiro’s book, although not point-for-point, but more than not, is like wandering through my own gray matter. I had no idea that other writers—including a successful one like Shapiro—felt the same constant, nagging doubts and insecurities. I didn’t know that others considered staring off into the middle distance (there’s not always a window nearby) as work. Or that sometimes you write something and when you’ve finished it seems like it wasn’t you at all. Writers can be a trying lot. We tend to be introverts. We have odd habits (in my case, waking up at 3 a.m. to write on a daily basis). We tend to be able to spot one another in a crowd, but more likely as not we won’t say anything to each other. And strangely, we write even if we don’t get paid. With lifelong royalties somewhere in the low triple digits, economically it makes no sense to do what I do. Generally the world feels creative sorts aren’t terribly productive. It’s because we measure value differently, I expect. I’m glad to have met another traveler on this path although, as is often the case, our meeting will only be through writing.

An Elephant’s 100 Percent

When I walked out of that dissertation defense, still a little unsure whether I’d passed or not, I thought my testing days were over. My early memories of struggling with exams—I wrote that a sphere was a kind of weapon on one vocabulary test I recall—made me anxious for an end of the process. Hadn’t I proved myself time and time and time again? People are funny that way. We’re suspicious of those who pass. Are they really as smart as that, or have they learned to game the system? (Admittedly, with what’s going on in Washington these days doubts about intelligence have definitely earned their keep.) Tests, however, have become less common these days, at least in the fearful exam room context. Now we’re giving them to animals.

It has long been clear to me that animals are quite intelligent. When that mouse, cat, squirrel, or robin pauses in front of you, looks you in the eye, then decides its course of action, it’s clearly thinking. Of course, some animals are more on the GOP scale of intelligence, such as deer that bolt out in front of cars, while others—ironically including elephants—show up 45 in tests we assign. An article in The Independent describes how elephants are far smarter than we’ve given them credit for being. Jealousy, perhaps, makes the elephant’s own party withdraw protections from endangered species. We’ve got to be sure nobody shows us up. At least not while we’re on camera.

Animals have greater thinking abilities than we’ve been willing to admit. For being so highly evolved, we’re an awfully petty species. We don’t want to share our great accomplishments with others. We’ll call the amazing architecture of the bowerbird “instinct” rather than admit they can build homes better than many in the Appalachians can. We’ll kick over anthills rather than face the fact that a hive mind is a terrible thing to waste. We’ve known for decades, if not more, that all life is interconnected. Because we’ve got opposable thumbs and reasonable cranial capacity, we’re the best thing this planet could hope to evolve, so we tell ourselves. What has made us so insecure? Why do we find the prospect of animal intelligence so frightening? It’s terribly hard to give up the role of being lord and master, I guess. Or if we were to switch it to a classroom analogy, we always want to be the teacher, never the student. But after walking out of that dissertation defense twenty-five years ago I learned that the testing had only begun.

See Around Us

There aren’t too many people that I consider personal heroes. Those that I do have earned the sobriquet in odd ways, I suppose. That makes them no less deserving. Rachel Carson became a hero because of The Sea Around Us. Published over a decade before I was born, it was a book that I treasured as a teen—or even as a tween, had the word existed then. I was no literary critic, but her style and lyrical writing drew me in and my own love of the ocean I’d never seen was kept alive through her words. Mark Hamilton Lytle, I think, shares my evaluation of Carson as a hero. The Gentle Subversive: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, and the Rise of the Environmental Movement brought out much of what I admired, and still admire, about her. A woman in a “man’s world,” she became a scientist with a gift for literary finesse. She struggled, she believed, and she died far too young.

Lytle’s book builds up to the publication of Silent Spring, which appeared just two years before Carson’s untimely death. I picked up Silent Spring as a tween as well, but only read it within the last few years. I knew this book had nearly singlehandedly launched the environmental movement, but as the shame of modern life constantly reminds me, I’d been too busy to read it. Born the year it was published, and not terribly far from where Carson herself was born, I had an affinity with the book that strangely kept me from it. It isn’t easy to read, even today. Especially today. With a government ignorantly rolling away all the environmental safeguards that six decades of careful thought have put into place, we need Carson now as much as we did in the 1960s. Her modern critics, as might be expected, tend to be men.

Carson showed that a woman can change the world. Those who disparage her stunning work claim that her following is a religion, not science. Carson was a rare scientist who saw that everything is interconnected. There may be some mysticism to this, but for those willing to admit it, we feel it to be true. On the eve of environmental degradation that will, in a perverse kind of justice, possibly wipe us out, we need to return to the fine words and clear thinking of one woman who took on industrial giants to give a voice to the people. We do have a right to determine what happens to our planet. Lytle makes the point that Carson was like a prophet. For me the comparative preposition can be removed altogether.

Taking Time

Good writing is hard work. One of the mixed blessings of the internet is that it makes publication so easy. Get yourself a blog and nobody has to approve anything! Ideas come tripping across your fingers onto some electronic substrate and, viola! You’re an author! The problem is that being an author’s not the same as being a good author. Writing well (and I make no such claim for myself—after all this is just a blog) is hard work. A piece has to be written, and then read again and again. I’m reminded of the story of a convicted murder whose name I’m forgotten (call it a defense mechanism). This was early last century. The murderer was caught, initially after having been found wandering, disheveled, in public. As a respectable man (he was a doctor, I think) part of his defense was that he’d never have left his house without being presentable. He would have on a collar and hat. People would see him, and he had to convince them of his presentability every single time he walked out that door. (This isn’t an affliction that I share, by the way.) Writing for publication is like that—you need to take care to look respectable every single time.

I can’t speculate about how other writers do their thing, but for me the main requirement for this is time. Any piece that I want anyone else to see, has to be written. Read. Edited. Re-read. And probably edited again. All before the public sees it. This is just for the informal stuff. I’m currently writing a book (which is pretty much a constant state with me). The draft was finished months ago. I started thinking about a publisher. Then I read it again. I couldn’t believe I’d ever thought it was ready for a publisher. Several rewrites followed. I’m in the midst of another one at the moment. I think of it like my ill-used rock tumbler. You want shiny rocks, you’ve got to send them through with finer and finer grit. If you do it right, they’ll come out looking like they’re wet, and they’ll stay looking that way. Polished writing takes time.

Some things can’t be hurried. As a middle-schooler I had a summer job with the school district. One of my assigned tasks was painting bus shanties. Many of these were, as you’d expect, way out in the middle of nowhere. I’d be dropped off with a couple other teens and we’d paint the shelter inside and out. One day I got tired of the constant, boring, and repetitive task of filling a paint pan with white paint, carrying it into the shelter, using it up, and then doing it all over again several times. I decided to pour the paint directly on the plywood floor of the shelter. All I’d have to do would be to roll it out and who’d be the wiser? I only did it once. Little did I consider that the best painting, like the best writing, is a thin layer over the substrate. You need to go over it more than once, leaving time between layers. More importantly, I didn’t realize that you can’t gauge how much paint you need this quick way. The best thing is to run out and refill. Then you can pour the remainder from the pan back into the can. The floor took hours and hours to dry. Not only that, but the top surface dried first, so when I stepped in, I pulled up a thick layer of paint off on the bottom of my shoe. Tom Sawyer I was not. I had to redo it. What I learned that day, though, was a lesson about writing. Take your time. But you don’t have to take my word for it. I just write a blog.

Weather Vain

The other day I was awakened by a severe thunderstorm. It’s been quite a while since that’s happened. Unlike when we lived in the Midwest, thunderstorms in New Jersey tend to be widely scattered and somewhat uncommon. (It’s all a matter of perspective, I know.) My basis of comparison is how often I notice such storms. I’ve never been able to sleep through one. Thankfully this one came at around 4:30 a.m., past when I’m usually awake on a weekend. I’d forgotten the raw power of just how loud and bright such a storm can be. Danger seems all around. The feeling is primal and urgent. As I got out of bed and walked into the dark kitchen, windows filled with electric blue followed by and tremendous blast, I thought once again of Weathering the Psalms and the story behind it.

By the way, when I speak to young scholars about publishing I tell them this isn’t the way to go about finding a topic. That having been said, my book was born in the Midwest. Life at Nashotah House revolves around required chapel twice daily. Weather does not stop it. In fact, holding the daily office by candlelight because a storm had knocked out the power was not uncommon. Morning and evening prayer—indeed, all of the canonical offices—are built around the recitation of the Psalms. Reading the Psalter in slow, stately tones while thunder raged outside, rattling the ill-fitting stained-glass windows, left an indelible impression. It was only natural in such circumstances to notice how often the Psalms mention the weather. Thus a book was born.

I’m currently at work on a new book. I can’t say the topic just yet because someone might be able to beat me to it. (Knowing the way I come up with book ideas, however, I doubt it.) Sitting in my darkened living room, in my writing chair with the fury just outside, I was strangely inspired by the storm. Then it was over. Silence followed by birds singing, just like in Beethoven’s sixth symphony. The thunderstorm is one of nature’s psalms. As at Nashotah House, in the Midwest we had perhaps too many of that particular kind of psalm. Nevertheless, in the silence that followed I was left strongly in touch with my muse. These are the states that lead to poetry and song. Every great once in a while they might even lead to a book idea. As I tell students, just don’t expect that anyone else will get it.

Blood Brothers

Every once in a while I take a chance and write about music. I don’t do this too often since it’s a very personal thing, and as open as I may be on this blog, I’m not as accessible as I seem. We all need a place to retreat in this world, and Bruce Springsteen’s music is one of those places for me. Late last year, just after it was published, Springsteen’s Born to Run—his philosophical and revealing memoir—sold briskly for several weeks. Since it made its way into my stocking I’d been intending to read it since then. And putting it off. There’s something disillusioning about finding out your heroes are only human. The best among mine are heroes precisely for that reason. Gods need not apply. Overcoming my fear, I dove in.

Two things stood out in this autobiographical account: religious imagery looms large, and depression mingles liberally with it. I recall reading an early review where the writer expressed surprise that the Boss suffers from depression. I responded (perhaps out loud), “have you ever listened to his songs?” I became a Bruce fan because he sang about working class people. Bruce and I share that background. He knows that your roots never let you go. Indeed, roots are what keep you grounded. Many of my academic colleagues, I learned, were simply carrying on the family business—and a privileged business it is. Those of us who had to overcome poverty to get in the door were never really welcome in the ivory tower. You can’t help where you’re born, but you can sure be punished for it. Bruce understands that.

I’ve never been to one of his concerts. I don’t even like to listen to his music when someone else is in the room. There’s something deeply personal about communing with someone you feel understands you. Of course I’ve never met Bruce Springsteen. I probably never will. He won’t know the kind of influence he’s had on my life and I feel that I’m risking an awful saying so here on this blog. There aren’t too many heroes in my life. I’m not inclined to idolize people. In this memoir, however, Bruce won’t let himself become an idol. He’s not perfect and he takes pains to make sure that you know that. We were, nevertheless, raised in situations not dissimilar from each other. Unlike Bruce, I have no musical gifts. No, I’ll never likely meet him—and if I did I wouldn’t want it to be with other people around. Some things are just too personal that way.