Reading Prompts

Perhaps it’s because maybe a half-dozen times in the past two years I’ve forgotten to click “publish,” or maybe everyone gets this, but WordPress started giving me daily prompts when I open the new post screen.  Everyday blogging questions such as whether you’re where you’d thought you’d be last year at this time, or what’s your favorite holiday food, or talk about your father or a father figure in your life (a loaded suggestion!).  I appreciate the thought, but I do strive for some measure of depth here.  Believe it or not, many of my posts are metaphorical, written about something that’s not the “obvious” subject of the mini-essay.  (Often when people criticize me it’s because I’m posting metaphorically.  Or maybe I just don’t know what I’m talking about.)  In any case, there have been times when a writing prompt might’ve been useful.  I haven’t used any, though.

Writing is a strange avocation.  These days many people make some kind of living as self-published authors.  The internet offers ways to minor fame—in some cases major fame—for anyone who has the time to put into it.  There’s always the question, however, of what to talk about.  This blog began, back in the days when I was fresh out of teaching religious studies, as a place where I could discuss the Bible and culture, or, more broadly, religion and culture.  That in itself limited the appeal.  People are fascinated by religion but really don’t want to read about it.  So it was that initially I had many followers—particularly among the biblical bloggers set—that eventually dropped off when I began writing about secular subjects.  Mostly I tend to focus on books.

There’s an irony to that as well.  As much as the internet helps some of us learn about books, it’s also a place that has diminished them.  Many people focus on social media to the point that there’s little time left to sit down with an actual book.  Interestingly enough, none of the prompts that WordPress now sets for me daily, has asked about what books I’ve been reading.  Perhaps books are the natural enemy of the online world.  If so, I seem to be caught between worlds.  I set aside time each day for reading, offline.  For those of us who write, reading is our food.  It often gives me the prompts I need for writing daily blog posts.  Even the days that I miss aren’t for lack of content—they’re simply forgetfulness because non-reading events crowd the rest of life.  It’s no wonder, then, that I try to engage others by asking, what books have you been reading lately?


Forgot Again?

I’ve noticed a pattern.  I’ve been posting daily on this blog for over thirteen years now.  During the past two of those, several days (including the day before yesterday) have gone without a post.  It’s not that they haven’t been written—no, I have a surplus of ideas—it’s because of the pattern I mention.  I know that early morning is a bad time to be active on social media.  Few others are awake and by the time they are many, many more posts come on top of my meager efforts.  So in my reptilian brain, I think, “Maybe I should wait until about 6:30 to post—you know, when people are awake.”  My reptilian brain tends to rise between three and four (sometimes earlier) and so I really do believe people are shaking off sleep at around 6:30.  I think this although my family repeatedly assures me it’s just not true.

In any case, I load up my daily post on WordPress before starting work, which I also do early.  The pattern for the days I forget to post is this: something sets off my early morning schedule and I forget to click “publish” before getting engrossed with work.  I guess I need a blog posting alarm clock.  For example, two days ago I had an early author call from someone in Europe.  I don’t mind early calls,  as long as they’re pre-arranged, but that meant I had to jog early so that I could get dressed in time—I don’t like meeting someone for business for the first time wearing sweats.  By the time I’d jogged, changed, and wolfed down breakfast, I’d forgotten to click “publish” for the post already loaded up and ready to go.  Any interruption to my schedule can do this.  Just last month I forgot because election results were coming in.  I need that alarm clock.

Posting daily is a happy part of my routine.  I’ve done in when I have a flight out of the country later in the day.  Or when I’m overseas, I make sure to post ultra early Eastern Time (presuming I’m flying east) to make sure I get one post in each day.  If I fly west I post ultra early local time so that I can keep it about the same time as usual, or else I post later than usual—time zones flummox me.  (So far those western flights haven’t been out of the country, I would note.)  When I forget to post, however, I’m home and something disrupts my morning schedule.  Those who live by the clock, I’m told, die by the clock.  And when that happens, I’ll probably have a post loaded but I hope I’ll be forgiven if I forget to click “publish,” even if my alarm clock does go off.


Picture This

For a writer with limited time, a blog seems like a good idea.  Years ago WordPress emerged as the premier site on which to host such a venture—it was free (but like all things in the tech revolution it would eventually start charging a subscription fee), easy to use, and friendly to your average Luddite.  Now that I’ve been doing this some dozen years you might think that coming up with daily topics is the difficult part.  Well, it is a challenge sometimes, I admit, but the hardest part is coming up with images.  Occasionally I have an image around which to base a post, but the fact is I’ve discovered several blogs because I was searching for an image.  So I started putting an image in each post.  So far, so good.

WordPress has evolved over the years.  It has become more and more commercial.  After so much space is filled on your site (I pay regular fees for both the space and for the domain name) you must upgrade.  The next upgrade available to me is “Business.”  This blog is purely an avocation.  Any writer who doesn’t offer online content these days, at least according to the marketers and publicists I know, will never write a break-through book.  From my own experience, agents won’t even touch you unless you’ve got a far larger following than mine (and I’ve been faithful for a dozen years).  Anyway, I don’t want to pay for a business plan, so I reuse a lot of images.  That is the most time-consuming part of posting on this blog. 

You see, I post each day immediately before work.  To search over twelve years of images is difficult on WordPress.  Many of my images are my own, and my phone names them “img” (which autocorrect wants to make “omg”).  Searching those in WordPress to find a specific image can easily take an hour.  Considering the time these pieces are posted, you get an idea of when I have to start.  Good thing I’m an early riser!  My relationship with technology is an uneasy one.  I appreciate content.  Producing it is an act of pure creativity and it’s important to me to do it every single day.  But work is non-negotiable.  Metrics apply.  Consequences for not meeting them can be significant.  Where is that image I thought would be perfect for the post I wrote?  I should’ve renamed them before using them.  But just this moment, work’s about to start.  Now, what am I going to use to illustrate this post?

Remember the early days?

The Persistence of Forgetfulness

It has happened twice this past week.  Maybe you’ve noticed, but probably I’m presuming too much.  Last Sunday and Thursday past, there were no posts on this blog.  Both days a post was cued up and ready for me to hit the “publish” button, but other things interfered.  To get a sense of this you need to realize that my blog posts are always ready to go by 6:00 a.m.  By that point I’ve been awake for a minimum of two hours and have already lined up my initial thoughts for the day.  I also realize that many other people are not awake yet.  Since my blog posts feed out to Twitter I worry (rightly) that a tweet so early will be dismissed along with other early morning bird calls.  I load up my post and wait.

In an abundance of caution, I begin my job at 6:30.  The reason is clear enough—I was let go from two jobs after being told I was doing great.  I don’t want that to happen again.  I’m one of those people whose best time is the morning.  I’m aware this is unusual, bordering on the freakish.  I have come to a compromise—I push the publish button just before I start work.  When I began working remotely (I was ahead of the curve, for once), I knew we’d need a house with a dedicated office.  That office is upstairs and is reserved for work.  My creative writing is done downstairs.  Since I go upstairs before actually starting work to settle in, I need to remember to click “publish” before I read the first work email of the day.  If I don’t, Thursday happens.  (It very nearly happened again yesterday!)

What about Sunday, did I hear you ask (in my imagination)?  Fair question.  Weekends I try to hold out until after 7:00 (so late!) or later to post.  But on Sunday I’m in charge of the adult education program in my faith tradition.  I schedule and run the Zoom meeting.  Since that program is early, I need to be ready early.  By 6:00 a.m. on Sunday my post was loaded.  Many Sundays, however, are about as busy as a workday although it’s all volunteer work.  I awoke Monday morning and found Sunday’s post still in the dock.  The world has been spared my musings for a day.  Ironically, WordPress had been sending daily streak messages “You’re on a streak!”  My streak struck out on Sunday, and again on Thursday.  Maybe it’s time for a new routine.

It’s like there are two minds at work here.

Remember This

Have you ever had one of those days?  You know the kind I mean—a day when you feel like you’re forgetting something.  Wednesday was like that for me.  You see, the first full week back to work after a long weekend (Martin Luther King Day) seems to stretch out like a desert road whose end you can’t see.  It always hits me on Wednesday.  The previous week the third day of work was the day before Friday (and I mean “Friday” metaphorically, as the last work day of the week).  The first full week you’ve been at it three days and on Wednesdays I realize, “I’ve got two more days to go.”  So, although it was sunny around here, I sulked all day feeling like I’d forgotten something.  I had.

I post on this blog every day.  I have for many years.  The way this works on WordPress is you get your post ready and you’re given an option to publish.  I get my post ready before going to work (which in my case means going upstairs to my office).  I delude myself into thinking I have regular readers and that they will be looking for the post at its usual time—around 6:30 (I start work early).  Wednesday I finished my post even earlier than usual and I thought, “I’d better not publish now, or my readers won’t see it.”  I trudged upstairs, however, and began to work.  Once work starts, all bets are off.  Even with the sun warming my chilly bones, I had a nagging feeling I was forgetting something.  I’d forgotten to click “publish.”  My post, which had been waiting patiently for publication (I know how that feels!) never got launched.  I didn’t discover this until Thursday.

You see, we’re not supposed to use social media at work.   Although I work remotely, unlike Republicans I play by established rules.  So I went through my day feeling I’d forgotten something, but not knowing what.  It’s not that I forgot you, my dear readers, I just forgot to click “publish” before heading up to work.  At the end of work, after staring at a computer screen all day long, I tend not to go online.  Most days I read a book, or get supper ready.  So I awoke on Thursday to find Wednesday’s post, well, unposted.  Some of us aren’t constitutionally compatible with the nine-to-five schedule.  My mind goes lots of places during the day.  Often those places are reminding me how many more days I have to do this before a break comes.  And some weeks, it seems, it never does.  If I recall correctly.


What I Meant to Say

So I try to illustrate each of my posts. I do this because in the days when the internet was young I often found blogs during image searches. I’ve grown more cautious over the years, regarding copyright. I try to stick to the “fair use doctrine”—and that’s what it’s called, a doctrine—or images I “own.” In the latter case it often means searching WordPress for a picture I’ve posted before. Since nobody has time to name all their photos, I use the assigned DSCN or IMG nomenclatures. There aren’t so many that a search won’t turn up an image in my library. Thing is, WordPress likes to anticipate what I’m looking for. What’s more, it “autocorrects” after I’ve begun scrolling through everything. DSCN becomes “disc” in its addled electronic brain, and IMG becomes “OMG.” Naturally, the image you’re seeking can’t be found until you manually correct autocorrect.

OMG has become very common shorthand these days. Growing up evangelical, there was a debate whether “o my God” was swearing or not. Those who like to hedge their eternal bets argued that this was taking the Lord’s name in vain, thereby breaking one of the big ten. This was to be avoided at all costs. Those with a little less fear (or perhaps a bit more courage) argued that “God” wasn’t “the Lord’s name.” God is a generic word and can refer to any deity, except, of course, for the fact that there is only one God. This led straight back to the conundrum. Exegetes tell us that technically this commandment isn’t about saying the deity’s name, but rather it’s a prohibition against using said name when you don’t intend to do what you say you’ll do. In other words, lying.

It’s truly one of the signs that evangelicalism has evolved that the world’s best known liar is unstintingly supported by this camp. When I was a kid, saying, well, OMG, could get your mouth washed out with soap. Lying could lead to other forms of corporal punishment, such as being, in the biblical parlance, smitten. Now it gets you elected to the highest office in the land and supported by all those very people who won’t spell out OMG, even when they’re busy cutting you off in traffic with their Jesus fishes flashing in the sun. When I was a kid presidents would step down rather than go through the humiliation of being shown a liar in the face of the world. Times have changed. And I have no idea how to illustrate such a post as this. What comes up when I search OMG?


Infinity

It occurred to me the other day that I will never read all the books on my list.  Only in my fifties, it’s not as if I’m knocking at death’s door, but who hasn’t been aware that that gentle rapping might come at any time?  Macabre?  Maybe.  Realistic?  Definitely.  Perhaps I’m a little old to be thinking about prioritizing, but it’s pretty clear that between work, writing, and the requirements of daily life (taking the car to the shop, scheduling a dentist appointment, trying to find time for a haircut, lawn care), that something’s got to give.  Work’s the non-negotiable since without it avoiding starvation (or perhaps getting medical coverage) becomes a full-time job.  Best to leave that sleeping dog slumber.  Then come the other three Rs: relationships, reading, and writing.  After that the time left to divide is pretty petty indeed.

My reading list grows almost daily.  Reading is a form of relationship.  I’ve recklessly written to writers after finishing their books, convinced that they’d written it to me.  I’ve also read material that, when done, makes me regret the time spent.  Still, I don’t, I can’t give up.  Writing is a form of giving back.  The other day an editor who’d accepted one of my fictional stories wrote that she couldn’t stop reading it.  It doesn’t matter that the magazine doesn’t pay—I’ve received back already what I’d planned for all along.  A kind of relationship with a reader.  If WordPress is to be believed, there are some followers on this blog.  Most think I write too much, and some, perhaps, too little.  Writing, however, like reading, is the formation of relationships.

Like relationships, reading takes time.  I carve out a spot for it daily but that doesn’t really make a dent in the growing reading list.  I can’t claim that it’s because I’m no longer a professor.  Except during the summer I read more now than I did when I was teaching (the professor’s life isn’t what most people think).  It is, I believe, that there are so many interesting ideas out there that one person simply doesn’t have time to think them all.  Reading and writing are a form of very slow conversation.  Of course, with technology the rest of life is speeding up.  Things seem now to happen instantly.  The world of books is slower, and the pace is far more sane.  I may never get through my list of books to read, but at least I have good conversation with those I don’t know, and that’s what really matters.


A New Look

I beg the indulgence of my regular readers as I post a public service entry today. As I noted a few weeks back, I have filled the allotted free space on WordPress. That meant I had to move to a paid plan and what with all the extra space in here I hired a professional web-designer to help me spruce the place up a bit. This note is to let you know that within the next 24 hours the appearance of this website will change dramatically. Don’t worry, Sects and Violence in the Ancient World will still be part of it. I hope that, if you subscribe, you’ll be willing to move that subscription to the blog page because I’ll continue to use it. The new home page will allow me to attempt to bring my books to the attention of the world while continuing to do whatever it is I do on a daily basis here at the blog. Since you’ve been kind enough to read this far, I figured I could share a little of my thinking about the blog in an exercise in meta-narrative.

First of all, the title. Why do I call the blog “Sects and Violence in the Ancient World”? As much as I’d like to say it was an intentional quasi-anagram involving my initials and other key letters of my full name, that wasn’t actually it. This blog began as a summertime conversation with my extended family while on vacation. I hardly knew what a blog was then (and some would argue I clearly don’t know what one is even now!), but but brother-in-law suggested it as a place to do some podcasting. (I did, until I started working in New York City, which ate up virtually all of my free time during the week.) One of my nieces said “What would you call your blog?” Off the top of my head I said “Sects and Violence,” well, you know the rest. I originally had hopes that my career teaching ancient West Asian religions would continue some day. Indeed, I still post in that area, but my interests have shifted a bit since then. The main theme of the blog has remained religious studies, broadly conceived. I don’t limit myself to that, but I do use it as a personal pole-star.

Writing is its own reward. And besides, WordPress told me I’d run out of space. The next time you check in here, things will probably look a bit different. The blog will still be there, but there will be some other pages and features. Thanks for coming at least part way on the journey with me. And when I run out of space again, we’ll see where it goes from there.


Pay No Attention

I’m not sure whether to feel insulted or flattered: apparently WordPress has deemed this blog worthy of enough hits to place an advertisement on it. The ad feels like a wart. Probably because religion is deemed an “embarrassing” topic, WordPress has not given much promotion to my persistent efforts; I’ve only reached the coveted features page only once. Yet I may be targeted for an ad. Those who actually read my posts will know that I find commercialization banal and trivializing. Doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. Sometimes it can even be good. I guess in this context, I’d like to find out why my little blog was singled out for such attention.

Maybe I’m over-thinking this. (Do I hear a gasp of astonishment from my readers?) I believe a blog should be a place of ideas and discussion. Of course, I believe the same thing about religions: they should be open to discussion about what they’re trying to do. They should also give truthful responses to those who inquire. Otherwise it is just false advertising. Perhaps I’m only annoyed since yesterday’s post (where the ad first appeared) was heart-felt and serious, while the ads I saw were light-hearted and funny. It is the price you pay for not owning your own server, I guess. I’ve trespassed into the realm of giving my words to a commercial vendor (not for any profit, I should add), and can I begrudge them their attempt to make a buck by my efforts? Only a writer knows how much of her or himself they put into their words.

I’ve just come into the great throne-room and I wish to say to my readers, “Pay no attention to the ads behind the posts.” I do not put them there. I gain nothing from it but a space where I might express my thoughts without having to pay fees for my own domain name. “Get a publisher,” the cynical might say. What publisher would pay for the observations of a highly trained specialist who commands no attention in the academic world? I guess I should be grateful that WordPress even allows me to scribble on their pages. What do I hope to get out of it? Open minds and free thought, and perhaps a small dose of sanity when approaching religion. I’m not selling anything, so please ignore the ads. Now, after this break for “station identification” I guess I can get back to my idealized world where no money is required for ideas changing heads.