Book contracts make me happy. After slipping from higher education into the limbo of editing, it took a few years before realizing that not all books have to be academic monographs. For the past couple of years I’ve been silently writing a book intended for general readers. The subject will remain hidden for now, but a contract for the book has arrived and I’m happy. As my friend Marvin says, “for a man being published is about the closest you can come to giving birth.” There’s a bit of truth to that. Several months of thoughts growing in your head finally culminate in a full developed form, capable of surviving outside the confines of your protective mind.
The motivation for many academics to write is “publish or perish.” In my career track I both published and perished. The thing is, I write because I read. It seems unfair to read so much and not to share a bit of what I’ve learned. If you read this blog regularly you know that I have a restless intellect—the kind of thing that in the old days would’ve made you a professor. I no longer have access to university libraries with their arcane journals and massive collections, but reading on the bus is its own kind of research. (Anyone who’s tried to write notes on a bus, however, knows that the research is limited strictly to what can be remembered after a wearisome 90-minute-plus ride in stop-and-go traffic.) A few years back I decided to start writing up what I’d been observing. Slowly a book was formed. The process is not a swift one.
Many people question the ability of editors to write books. No, seriously. Agents are generally only interested in professors, celebrities, and journalists, not those who may have been one of the above once upon a time. That’s why this book contract feels like a small victory. Weathering the Psalms was written for other professors while I was still one myself. A lot has happened since then. I’ve read hundreds of books in the intervening years. Slow study that I am, it took some time before I realized I could begin to analyze all of this and write it in a way the average educated reader could find engaging. Agents declined the project, but now I’ve found a publisher who believes. When you work on your own, like many authors do, finding just one believer is sometimes all that it takes.
How do you capture a true and abiding fascination in words? That’s a thought that comes to me once in a while when I think about the sky. It’s so hard to define, yet it’s always there. To quote myself: “To understand the weather is somehow to glimpse the divine” (used with permission). I waited for The Imagined Sky: Cultural Perspectives, edited by Darrelyn Gunzburg, for years. I think I first saw an ad for the book two years in advance of publication (yes, scholarly presses can do stuff like that). I kept stopping by the Equinox booth at AAR/SBL to see if it was available. It was the same kind of drive that led me to write Weathering the Psalms. That hope of grasping the intangible. To hold the sky itself. One of my early creative writing club stories was about a boy who wanted the sky. I wanted this book.
Like all books of essays from different authors, it’s a mix of fruits and nuts. There’s some very interesting pieces in here while others seem to have been made to fit only with some difficulty. Still, the sky. I admit to being somewhat disappointed as I read along. This wasn’t for research—my book on the topic is already done—it was for pure intellectual curiosity, what passes for pleasure among academics. Many of the pieces were mired down in detail. Written bout the sky, they refused to soar. Then I came to Tim Ingold’s essay. Here’s what I’d been looking for. Someone who knew the sky could only be approached in terms that contradict themselves at every turn. There is something to say about the daytime sky. It has to do with the nature of light. And of the sky seeing us.
The sky, by definition, is larger than this rocky substrate we call home. It encompasses everything above us. I work in a cubicle with no access to outside windows. I wilt daily like a plant deprived of sun. (Although the wonderful article on light pollution by Tyler Nordgren gave me pause over even that.) I need to see the sky. When clouds block my view, my outlook begins to suffer. It’s that ethereal cerulean I crave. Without it I am but a troglodyte eking out a minimal survival on toadstools and lichen. The sky is our orientation. It is our timepiece. It is eternal. Of the things we do that are evil, polluting the sky is one of the most unforgivable. The key may be in the word “imagined,” but if we could only understand the sky we will have found true religion. They’re called “the heavens” for a reason.
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.
Posted in Books, Environment, Higher Education, Memoirs, Posts, Publishing, Sects, Weather
Tagged Beethoven, daily office, Nashotah House, New Jersey, Publishing, thunderstorm, Weather, Weathering the Psalms
The dangers of prognostication were well known in antiquity. Most prophets, who didn’t so much tell the future as warn about probable outcomes, weren’t the most popular of people. They knew that feeling of walking into a crowded room and announcing their career had something to do with religion only to have the place fall silent. Cricket chirps. We all have our secret sins we’d rather not have some stranger judge. So it is with the weather. Something like this must’ve been in the back of my mind as I was trying to write Weathering the Psalms. I lived in Wisconsin in the days before Paul Ryan and, like said Ryan, tornados could strike at any time, unannounced. My family and I spent an anxious afternoon or two in the spider-infested basement based on the inherently uncertain predictions of how a nearby tornado might move.
Those of us in the northwest are sitting here wondering about this monster nor’easter. It’s been in the making for several days and the forecasters, unlike the prophets of old, have been hedging their bets. If this massive cold front from the midwest fails to meet up with the intense storm off the east coast we could end up with only a smattering of snow. If the two collide, well, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel together can’t help us. It’ll be like the book of Revelation. Only colder and with far more snow. Oh to be able to predict the future! It would certainly help when it comes to deciding whether to climb onto that bus or not. I mean a simple rainstorm can add two hours to the homeward commute without the threat of a meteorological Trump coming our way. I thought Punxsutawney Phil didn’t see his shadow.
Although predicting the future wasn’t really what prophets did, it didn’t take long before people thought that’s what they were up to. People have always wanted to have the advantage of being able to see disasters before they arrived. Wouldn’t it have been helpful to know the results of 11/9 before Thurston Howell the President was elected? We could’ve bought our Russian grammars and dictionaries before there was a run on the local Barnes and Noble. At the same time I politely dispute the saying that hindsight is 20/20. If we could see anything that clearly we would be such Untied States at the moment. Right now the glass seems to be falling and the wind’s picking up from the northeast. What does it mean? Nobody really knows.
Posted in Bible, Current Events, Memoirs, Natural Disasters, Posts, Weather
Tagged 11/9, Nor'easter, prediction, prophets, Weather, Weathering the Psalms
It was recently announced that Fox has renewed Sleepy Hollow for a fourth season. Please! No spoilers in the comments (as if)! I’m running a season behind so I want to protect my innocence. The announcement coincided with the happy news that my article on the Bible in Sleepy Hollow has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture. I’m irrationally chuffed about this since my past publications have been primarily textual explorations of documents in languages nobody reads any more. Having something contemporary accepted for publication felt—dare I say it?—cool. As if I were part of the supernatural television crowd. It also affirmed my decision for which book to pursue next. When I say “pursue” I mean “write.”
You see, as a young scholar I struggled trying to decide what direction my research would take. After writing my book on Asherah, I was a bit sated with Ugaritic goddesses, although I started a book on Shapshu, goddess of the sun. The sun gave way to the weather and I wrote Weathering the Psalms. I lost my job in the midst of my revision of that project and it has taken a decade to find my way back to academic publishing. Research, however, takes on a vastly different form when you’re not hired to do it. Colleagues say, “I can get you access to my university library.” Such a kind thought, but my mind always says “when?” When would I have time to visit a library? I get up at 3:30 for my commute and get home in time to go to bed so that I can wake up again at 3:30 the next day. Research reading on the bus is dicey at best. Weekends are for getting the things done that are neglected all week long. Research has to be squeezed into the interstices.
That’s why I’m pleased about Sleepy Hollow. Watching television, even if on DVD, can be research. I’ve got decades of backlogged reading upon which to draw. When my tastes for light horror integrate with what I’m interested in researching it is a happy day. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” captured my imagination as a child. It was probably based on the Disney version, but even so, I never lost the fascination. Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow is still one of my favorite movies. Watching the episodes of the Fox series takes time, but now I know that time is not just simple relaxation. No, it’s research. Now to find the time to write that book that’s brewing in my head. Inspired, perhaps prophetically, by a Headless Horseman.
Posted in Higher Education, Literature, Monsters, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged Asherah, Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, Sleepy Hollow, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Tim Burton, Weathering the Psalms
One of the unspoken prompts for writing Weathering the Psalms was the unscientific idea that God is somehow associated with the sky. To my mind this has more to say about what religion is beyond the recognition that Anu, El, Nut, and kin were primordial deities of the celestial sphere. We’re all drawn to the sky. One of the earliest fictional pieces that I polished had to do with our desire for the sky—it’s something we deeply crave but cannot control. We dream of flying. Although flight seems almost casual these days, it is anything but. We still refer to satellite photos as being “God’s eye view” of the earth, knowing full well that the ancient cosmology of the three-tiered universe was simply a misconstrued view of how nature really works. Still, we want to embrace the sky.
Perhaps the cruelest aspect of work in the commercial sphere is the prevalence of “workstations” with no outside views. I’ve held two jobs since leaving academia where my “cubicle” was/is in a windowless room. Cut off from the sky, I’m supposed to focus on the glowing screen in front of me as if that could ever inspire me like a mountain sunrise or the silent crescent of the moon gracefully arcing across the sky. It could be night or day, snowing, raining, or brilliant sunshine, and for eight hours of each day I would never know. We call it efficiency. I think back to that story I wrote as a child about wanting the sky. If there are gods anywhere, it’s up there.
The perspective from above can change everything. On a small plane tour at 7000 feet, you can get a sense of what you’d never expect from the ground. Sharing the view of gods and angels, the land is laid out before you. “Distances,” our pilot says, “are very deceptive from up here.” Indeed, a few minutes aloft and it’s easy to forget what things looked like on the land. Pedestrian. Street-level. Quotidian life. Up here, isolated in a different way, I am seeing what the ancients could only imagine what the gods might see. For the moment I’m one with the sky. For the moment the world of everyday life is far away. That dark and gloomy cubicle no longer exists. In fact, from the sky I cannot see it in its windowless dungeon. We can’t own the sky. Being up here I start to suspect that neither can the gods.
A used book sale is like a box of chocolates, if I may abscond with a simile that fits many scenarios. After all, you are there to buy books that others have discarded. Some of them show their age rather blatantly. Keay Davidson’s Twister: The Science of Tornadoes and the Making of an Adventure Movie is one such title. Those who know me well know of my fascination with weather—I wrote a little book on the subject based on that obsession. Although the weather informed and formed me long before I was ever near a tornado, these particular terrors were so exquisite that I couldn’t help but look. Although I grew up in Pennsylvania—not exactly tornado alley—one night when I was away from home a tornado swept by less than ten miles from where my family was. It toppled trees down one side of a hill and up another. It was eerie and uncanny and in many ways shook me out of the feeling that I never had to worry about them. Then when I went to Ann Arbor for a weekend with my fiancee the sky turned bronze. Rain was whipping past horizontally. Later we learned that a tornado had passed maybe four miles from where we were. Living in Illinois and Wisconsin, we experienced many tornado warnings. I never saw a tornado, but somehow thought I should.
It goes without saying that if I see a book on tornadoes that is reputable and cheap, I can’t pass it up. Davidson is a journalist whose work appears (as of the two decades ago when the book came out) in National Geographic. Some of you may not have been living in tornado alley twenty years ago, and therefore may not have felt the excitement that Twister, the movie, promised. By the time it came out I had already been thinking about Weathering the Psalms, at some level. I was a bit disappointed in the film itself, but it does mention that an F5 tornado is “the finger of God.” Davidson’s book picks up on this as well. At several points witnesses, and even scientists, lapse into divine language to describe tornadoes. One person even says that a tornado is an image of God, or that the storm is God. That’s a very natural way for people to think. The power of a Midwest storm has to be experienced to be believed.
The divine represents the highest echelon of language. The tornado fits because it is the most powerful wind on the planet. Concentrated, raging, and fickle. One can’t help but think: I was raised Protestant, what if the Catholics are right? Substitute any religion in either half of the equation. The weather simply does not do what we want it to do. It reminds us that humans can’t comprehend our own atmosphere that we so blithely pollute. The book may look dated—who remembers Twister anymore?—but it is a forceful reminder. When you need a metaphor for the most intense experience the weather will always be waiting.
Posted in Books, Deities, Environment, Memoirs, Movies, Natural Disasters, Posts, Religious Origins, Weather
Tagged Keay Davidson, Midwest, tornado, Twister, Twister: The Science of Tornadoes and the Making of an Adventure Movie, Weathering the Psalms