Mystic Connections

Those of us who find rationalism a bit too constricting sometimes find solace in mysticism.  My reading of late, which is mostly research for Nightmares with the Bible, frequently touches on mystics of the past.  This isn’t a new fascination.  All the way back in college, as a religion major, I mentioned to one of my professors that I found it appealing.  A frown settled across his academic face.  “Mysticism is dangerous,” he said.  He went on to explain that churches (he was Presbyterian, and I Methodist) had belief systems into which mystics—those who experience the divine directly—didn’t fit.  A direct experience of the divine could cast doubt on church doctrine and nothing, as you might guess, is more important to true believers than dogma.

That discussion at such an impressionable age set me aback.  Here as we enter (for the non-orthodox) the Triduum, or “Great Three Days” the faithful are hoping for some kind of divine experience, I expect.  Many of us will spend two-thirds of it working.  In any case, if nothing mystical happens why do we bother?  Mysticism is equally deplored by science since it suggests something that doesn’t fit into rationalism’s toy box.  A universe where the unexplained—and oh so subjective!—direct experience with naked reality threatens to undo all the neat columns and tidy formulas that describe the entirety of existence.  Conventional churches tend to agree because you never know what God might do if you open that box.

There are religions that welcome mysticism.  They recognize that human-built systems are only approximations—Platonic shadows, if you will, cast upon the cave wall.  Mystics are those who, temporarily unchained, dare to turn around and face the fire directly.  Who knows?  They might even catch a glimpse of the sun itself.  More conventional religions are run like businesses.  You come to a certain building at a certain time.  You perform prescribed actions on cue.  You place your money in this specific receptacle at this specific time.  Leave and forget it all until next week.  Our younger generations don’t find this engaging, just as they see through the lie of the inherent fairness of capitalism.  I can still see the frown of my theology professor.  The old systems are falling apart even as those not too weary after work will head to Maundy Thursday services for a slip of bread and a sip of wine.  The mystic, however, doesn’t know what might happen next.

Aging Tech

When I get an idea my first impulse is to grab an envelope and pencil and start scribbling.  I run around with an older crowd.  Many of my generation don’t appreciate how much a single “share” can do for a blog post, or what a simple link to a page can do.  I have college friends who have no email addresses and who are invisible on the web.  I guess this is a young person’s playing field.  I suppose one of my reasons for writing about horror is that it keeps me in the younger demographic.  I don’t know too many people my age who are fans of “the genre.”  Sci fi is a little more acceptable, I suppose.  Still, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about why I find horror so fascinating.  There’s actually something redemptive about it, at least in my reading of the material.  It’s also a coping mechanism.

One reason that people tell stories (and read stories), according to psychologists, is to learn how to handle situations they might encounter.  This is on a subconscious level most of the time, otherwise speculative fiction simply wouldn’t apply.  I can’t recall having been in a crisis situation and stopping to think what a Stephen King character would have done in such circumstances, but I suppose that might be in the back of my mind somewhere, along with information about all the things I’ve mislaid over the years.  The older you get, in a technologically rapacious society, the more things there seem to be worthy of horror stories.  I haven’t even figured out the last round of devices before the new generation’s introduced.  No wonder so much of horror has to do with being attacked by monsters that look innocent.  Clinically engineered in a clean room.

Image credit: Pattymooney, via Wikimedia Commons

Some of the horror comes from the inherent instability of a constantly upgrading tech.  My laptop’s a few years old.  While a little younger than that, the device that sits on my laptop is also not fresh from the factory.  The last time I tried to back up the contents, the external hard drive (new from the factory) refused to do what I commanded.  While I did eventually figure it out, I wasted a good deal of my scarce free time working out how a device I couldn’t control was in fact controlling me.  Younger folks grew up with this kind of problem solving drilled into them from kindergarten on.  Now I find myself in a world of devices I can’t comprehend and which don’t even react the same way they did last time I bought the exact same one.  I ask my fellow quinquagenarians what to do and I watch as they grab an envelope and pencil.

Looking Back

Image credit: David Hunter McAlpin Fund, 1944, via Wikimedia Commons

Like many I’m shocked and saddened by the fire at Notre Dame cathedral.  At the same time a recurring theme of this blog has been that modern people are disinclined to pay for the past, and some analysts are saying that lack of funds for regular upkeep of the cathedral over many years are at least partially behind the tragedy.  Monuments that have stood for centuries require constant care, but it’s so easy to take them for granted.  Cathedrals aren’t just religious buildings.  They are humanistic in the sense that they stand for our natural tendency to create great markers of our time on earth.  So very human.  Many human acts we wish to erase, but some represent a loss to the very soul of our species when they’re gone.

Even in this secular age the great cathedrals of Europe are on the agenda of many a traveller.  My own recollections of Notre Dame have grown hazy with the years—I do recall the stolid towers and flying buttresses.  Even the doubtless inauthentic but still ancient crown of thorns.  The famously secular French stood in the streets and sang hymns as the fire raged. 

My single trip to Paris was followed by a stop in Germany where we saw towers of cathedrals left standing even when the remainders of the buildings were gone—bombed out during World War Two.  Asking a friend about it we learned that the Germans felt these skeletal churches were appropriate reminders of the horrors of war.  No masses could be said in them ever again, but they stood, in their ruined majesty, as their own kind of monument to human folly.

We live in a post-cathedral world.  Symbols of the unity of a nation, demanding resources beyond what could really be afforded, cathedrals served to unite.  Citizens of London, it is reported, shoved bombs off St. Paul’s Cathedral during the Blitz.  Religion today has been turned into a means of dividing and conquering people.  It builds border walls rather than cathedrals where those of any faith might be allowed in and invited to wonder.  Images of that famous spire helplessly falling amid the flames suggest the shock of the twin towers collapsing.  Although the structure survives, much has been lost forever.  And if people react like they are wont to do, there will be outpouring of resources to rebuild and restore, but only for a while.  We tend to think that looking at the past is frivolous.  Yet, my photos of Notre Dame remind me that a life spent looking back may well be the only kind worth living.

Seeing the Future

Nine.  That’s the number of people before me in line.  It’s not yet 4:30 a.m., and our day began at least an hour ago, but work won’t start for another two.  As the bus pulls up to the stop, I think about work.  Well, like most people I think about work a lot.  You see, I’m often asked about how to get into the publishing business.  There’s a cosmic irony to this because I had never planned to be an editor and never undertook any of the usual training.  The anticipated trajectory of a doctorate in the humanities used to be teaching, which is what I did for many years, but when an educational career slips off the rails in a capitalistic society you have to be willing to learn real fast.  (Fortunately the long years of schooling do help with that.)

I’m sure that I’m not the only person whose career plans didn’t pan out as anticipated.  Back in seminary one night long ago, three friends and I had a “future dinner.”  We prepared a supper and each came as who we would be twenty years down the road.  I recall that I was a world-traveling professor and the author of several books.  “Come on,” my friends complained, “be realistic!”  It’s a bit beyond those two decades now, and I was a professor for many of them.  I have written several books, although so far only three have been published.  World-travel?  Well, that’s been a bit modest in recent years, I have to admit.  One of the other friends I’ve lost track of.  Another committed suicide after graduating.  We really can’t see far into the future.

Publishing is a challenging gig.  My rapid career contortions perhaps prepared me better than I think.  I have a kinship with those who ask about how to get started in it.  Generally we’re educated people who like books and wonder what kind of career you can find with that combination these days.  (There are more of us than you’d think!)  Compared to higher education academic publishing is a small world.  I’ve come to know many more academic colleagues since being an editor than I ever did as a professor.  I have something they want—a reputable venue for publishing their latest book.  Often I have to do a lot of educating since publishing doesn’t work the way that most people think it does.  It’s like being a professor without the status.  No, I didn’t see this in my future.  As I look for a seat on the already crowded bus I wonder how many of these other early risers planned their careers just like me.

Difficult to see where this is going.

In the Inn

One of those things that really bothers me is the concept of being forced out of a home.  It’s never happened to me personally, but that doesn’t mean I can’t fear it.  That idea works its way into more theoretical applications as well.  Lately both my phone and my laptop computer have sent me messages saying there’s no more room in the inn.  Now, dear reader, you may understand technology better than I (you almost certainly do), but I wonder just how much these weightless thoughts I store here can possibly tip the scale.  I back up my hard disc weekly—there’s no telling who’s going to get kicked out when all the room is finally gone!—but when I open my space manager I find all kinds of things I can’t identify.  Software that I’m not sure it’s safe to remove.  I have no idea what the function of many apps might be.  So I just start deleting.

No room for your data here!

And I keep deleting.  I won’t touch my writing, however.  It’s backed up on a high-capacity drive, but such drives fail.  I want to keep a copy here on my laptop where I can reach it.  The real problem is that this massive sorting exercise keeps me from doing the things that I’d rather spend my time on—writing blog posts, for example.  How can I relax to do that, though, knowing that there’s no room to store them when I’m done?  Why does iTunes take up so much space anyway?  I feel guilty deleting anything from it because of all those warning dialogue boxes with their dire notes that this action can’t be undone.  Occam’s erasure has its consequences, I guess.

I suppose this is related to my recent observations on how tech demands time.  I’ve got some big projects going.  One is to sort out and file all my browser bookmarks.  They are embarrassingly plentiful.  Then there’s the sorting of thousands and thousands of electronic photos into files.  When I first starting using devices there weren’t enough pictures or bookmarks to worry about.  Now each of these projects has been ongoing for months and neither is nearing the end.  I’m old enough to recall when office supply stores sent catalogues (print catalogues, no less!) to my employers stating things like, “We’re in the  midst of an information explosion.  You should buy folders in bulk.”  They meant manilla folders.  Were we ever so naive?  Now what about these ebooks that I also have in hard copy?  Which should I get rid of?  That choice, at least, is easy.  Even my manger has room for books.

Science of Compassion

It has been several years now since I’ve been directly (or indirectly) involved in robotics.  During my daughter’s high school years I was active in the FIRST Robotics program, spending some week nights and many weekends supporting the kids—far more clever than me—building and competing with the robot.  It was during this time that I came to know some of the mentors involved.  They knew I was looking for a job in a field not their own.  Instead of wringing their hands like my professorial colleagues did, they made concrete suggestions as to how to go about finding a reasonable position.  Unlike many religion professors, they were willing to go out of their way to help.  It’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten.  A somewhat well-known religious leader is known for having said “by their fruits you will know them.”  So it is.

One of these friends recently sent me a New York Times story about a disabled toddler.  Because of our government’s very compassion health care system, this boy was denied access to a wheelchair.  When the local high school robotics team learned about it they designed and built a motorized chair for the boy.  Again, my point couldn’t be more obvious.  This team did what was the right thing.  They didn’t stand around saying the family would be in their thoughts and prayers.  No, they did something about it.  While the story made me feel good, it also saddened me.  I’ve been part of the religious studies community for at least three decades now.  When I lift up mine eyes to the hills, however, whence cometh my help?

Please don’t get me wrong—I know probably better than most how difficult life and funding can be as a humanities academic.  I also know, however, that humanities are nothing without humanity.  How easy it is to forget that when a tenure-track position opens up!  There are creative solutions possible.  I have suggested them to those empowered to enact them from time to time.  Their response has generally been to explain why it can’t be done rather than giving it the old college try.  In robotics you try to see if it works before deciding it can’t.  Perhaps there’s a message here for those who hear.  Engineers find solutions while many academics find excuses.  There’s any number of reasons not to help the boy get a wheelchair: somebody’s going to have to pay for this, there are other things that demand the students’ time, there are government agencies who already do the work.  Or.  You can try because it’s the right thing to do.  Whose fruit tastes better, I wonder?

Receiver

Being a writer (I can’t claim to be an author since I don’t make a living at it) is like being a radio receiver.  You pick up signals, or so it seems, and it’s your job to try to make sense of them.  That’s why I always carry a notebook.  Specifically a Moleskine volant extra small plain notebook (I can’t abide lined paper).  I’ve been using them for years and I’ve got quite a little stack of them in my writing nook, battered, taped, and well-used.  There’s part of my soul in those little things.  But they’re getting increasingly difficult to find.  More than once I’ve come to the last page only to have searched in vain all the local bookstores and speciality shops without finding a replacement.  (Big boxes like Staples appeal to the lowest common denominator and writers demand special treatment.)

Tools of the trade

Sometimes they’re not even available on Amazon, surprising as it may seem.  You see, I’m particular about where I store my thoughts.  People have suggested to me that I use my phone, but by the time I get it out of my pocket, turn it on, type in the passcode, and open the app, the thought is gone.  They travel quickly.  My notebook, always with me, has a pen companion.  It’s refillable and I take great care to buy refills that write instantly, without having to scribble to get them going.  I keep careful note of the brands that are reliable.  There’s nothing more frustrating than watching a great thought flee as you’re furiously scribbling to get your pen to capture it in your Moleskine.  No, this is an area where there can be no compromise.  If only notebook sellers saw it that way!

The trouble with being a receiver is you have no control over when the signal comes.  You wouldn’t know it from my publication record, but I have many, many unpublished pieces.  Most of them, regrettably, have to be reduced to electronic form so they can be submitted and rejected via email or Submittable.  I would have nothing with which to build, however, if my zibaldone were absent.  After my brain this is the first filter.  And when they’re full it’s time for another.  The next time I find them in my favorite indie bookstore I’m going to buy them out.  I’ll store them in the attic—I can find space up there, along with my pen refills—against a time of need.  Somethings a writer just can’t do without.