Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Meaning of Life?


photo by Anna Reavis
 
"We are not made to love immortal things.  Only what is irreplaceable, unique, and mortal can touch our deepest human sensitivities and be a source of hope and consolation."  Henri Nouwen
 
Reading authors like Henri Nouwen and Frederick Buechner reassure me because they remind me that I am not alone in my questioning, not alone in my doubt.  It has always been hard for me to realize how many thoughtful people of deep faith struggle with the same non-belief I often feel.  We seem to live in a climate of such thoughtless surety.  I recently re-read Turning My Mourning Into Dancing by Nouwen and finished A Room Called Remember by Buechner. This post is going to be some of my thoughts from the Nouwen book.
 
One of the most important issues most of us struggle with is the search for meaning in our lives.  At our low moments I expect a lot of us slide into some form of existential angst where we feel overwhelmed by the absurdity of our existence.  Our society has become so insular, so alienating; we are so closed in on ourselves.  The mindset that leads to such insularity is breaking us.  What if our goal, both personally and as a society, became as Nouwen hopes “[to] live in a world without zealously defended borders”?    Nouwen, along with many others, asserts that love is the meaning of life, that loving each other should be our purpose, that we should strive to be a vessel to carry love to others, to let love flow through us without attempting to hoard and clutch it for ourselves.  To make as our goal learning to love one another without suspicion, insecurity, or manipulation.  Love often means accepting, without impatience or judgment, what we have no ability to understand.  We must allow others to be just that:  other.
How difficult it is, though, to love others purely and truly when we aren’t able to love ourselves, when our own needs clamor for attention at every passing moment.  We need justification, praise, validation, attention, and on and on.  Seems like it should be easy to love and forgive yourself, but I think it is one of the hardest processes we struggle with every day. We try to earn love, forgiveness, salvation…from ourselves and from others.  We can’t accept that these are gifts born not of striving, born simply of grace.  We to try craft our own image from the praise and validation we get from others.  We use people to meet our own needs.  How hard it seems to be to see everyone as worthy of love, patience, and acceptance.  The homed and the homeless, the criminal and the judge, the addict and the priest, are people, flawed and broken, just like I am.  We seem to have no real ability to understand another’s pain and often no real ability to understand or accept our own.  Sometimes helping others becomes a method for manipulation and a way to avoid dealing with our own problems.  We make people into projects, objects for improvement, ignoring or bulldozing their personhood and their pain.  Loneliness and neediness create demand and disappointment and break, rather than heal.  What if we learned to love and accept without attempting to change or influence?  To listen without predicting or assuming.  What if we become a conduits for love to pass through, rather than receptacles for its landing?
Our openness to each moment as it happens is probably the most important indicator of our own happiness.  I would like to learn to ignore the compartmentalization and dictates of time and society and learn truly to just be in every moment, even if I am doing no more than sitting on the porch reflecting. I need to learn to be alone, open, honest, vulnerable and to listen for the voice of God, even if it comes back to me as the voice of my one true self.  It will be the voice that tells me to accept, love, and forgive myself without impediment, and to extend to others the same gift.


Sunday, August 17, 2014

Sometimes You Just Get Lucky

photo by Anna Reavis
 
"The sun was up when I awakened and the world was remade and shining.  There are as many worlds as there are kinds of days, and as an opal changes its colors and its fire to match the nature of a day, so do I."  John Steinbeck in Travels With Charley

I decided a long time ago that whoever I chose as a partner needed to be a reader.  Unfortunately, until now, I have never enforced that rule.  I had no idea what I was missing.  Since we started dating, K has read several books from my library, and we have consistently read aloud to each other.  A couple of weeks ago, after perusing my hundreds of titles, he came into the kitchen having chosen two of my favorites to read.  It was like a Magic 8 Ball coming up "All signs point to yes."  But what I have enjoyed the most about his interest in reading is our reading aloud to each other. 

Our first read aloud was Donald Miller's Blue Like Jazz.  It's been on my TBR pile forever, and I was so thankful to have an impetus for finally reading it.  Given K's profession (minister) and my own belief ambiguity, I thought it would be a good starting point for our discussions about faith or lack thereof.  It did serve that purpose somewhat, but the book was disjointed and lacking real depth and insight for me.  I did love reading aloud together and being able to discuss ideas and process our thoughts together. 

Our second read was Woodrow's Trumpet by Tim McLaurin.  I had remembered really liking this years ago and thought I remembered its being laugh out loud funny.  Isn't it odd how your expectations affect your experience of something?  We both did enjoy the story, but I didn't find it nearly as funny and entertaining as I had remembered it. 

Next up was Steinbeck's Travels With Charley, which I had read before and loved.  Here my memories were true.  I love Steinbeck's voice and outlook on life.  And what a dream to amble around the country with an old dog.  Travels is different from his novels, but an entertaining read and a nice insight into the mind of one of our greats.

K's love for Africa led me to choose our current read, Hemingway's Green Hills of Africa.  I read Green Hills maybe ten years ago and thought I remembered liking it, so here again my expectations were high. There is so much minute detail in the book about big game hunting that K and I are both having trouble getting through it.   To our pacifist, naturalist sensibilities the descriptions seem almost obscene.  We may have to abandon this one.

Funny thing about expectations...you go into something expecting marvelous and you get mediocre, but sometimes, when you get really lucky, you expect mediocre, and you get marvelous.   Read aloud with someone; it may change your life.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Sometimes Seeing Isn't Believing

NC Mountains from Elk Knob State Park
 
"Is there no pity sitting in the clouds
 that sees into the bottom of my grief?
 O, sweet my mother, cast me not away!"
 from Romeo and Juliet

What if this picture was a lie?  A complete fabrication?  I happen to know it's not because I took it about a month ago.  But in the world of Wool by Hugh Howey, it would be.  In the world of Wool, nothing like this exists any more...and it is all our fault.  Well, maybe not mine or yours specifically, but ours as a species.  And, as it turns out, the world as we know it disappeared for the most sinister of reasons.

This novel was a reality replacer -- one of those books that you fall into and emerge out of hours, if not days, later.  Once in a while, it's a relief to lose yourself in another place, another time, another world...to forget your own place, your own time, your own world, even if the replacement is not a desirable place to be.  Depending on the replacement world, this kind of forgetting can make you wistful, inspired, thankful, hopeful, and maybe even cautious and aware in ways you haven't been before.  A novel like Wool will make you pause and appreciate the sunset and savor the air you are still able to breathe.  But it will also make you aware of how deeply human we all are and how much we rely on each other for our very survival.

Monday, July 21, 2014

A Book Borrower I Be

photo by Anna Reavis

 
This summer I decided to try to read through some or all of the books people have lent me to read over the past few years.  The first of these reads was The Devil's Dream by Lee Smith, which I didn't enjoy as  much as I have her other work.  I think this is partly because it's a history of a country music family, and I don't like country music, but I think it's mostly because I felt no affinity for any of the characters, nor did I find them particularly interesting.  Or maybe it was because I recognized so many of the people I grew up around and didn't particularly like in some of these characters.  I don't like to be reminded of the pervasiveness of ignorance and general tackiness in my culture; I see enough of that as it is. I prefer my reading to be an escape from my life, not a reflection of it.

My next choice was The Paris Wife  by Paula McLain, which is about as far from my life in setting and surroundings as you can get.  I found The Paris Wife immensely readable and breezed through it in a few days.  I enjoyed it until toward the end where the marriage is unraveling and found that to be a little disconcerting to read.  Reading about Hemingway as a fictional character did make me want to re-read The Sun Also Rises and Green Hills of Africa, which are the two Hemingways I have read and possibly also delve into some other of his works.  He's never been one of my favorites, but I feel like I need to give him another chance now that I'm older. I still don't think I would have liked  him personally from what I know of him.






Monday, June 23, 2014

Noah Didn't Need A Compass


photo by Anna Reavis


Often when I finish a book that has truly engaged me, like Kafka on the Shore, I have a good bit of difficulty choosing my next read.  Last week after finishing my first Murakami,  I promptly ordered three more, but as they didn’t arrive for several days, and I wasn’t about to go bookless, I had to do something.  So I trekked down to the library to see what was new (to them) and found a copy of an Anne Tyler book that had been donated by another patron.  Noah’s Compass is a small volume in which nothing much happens, but I enjoyed it just the same.  I’d forgotten how approachable and likeable I find Anne Tyler’s voice.  



In Noah’s Compass, Liam is a 60 year old divorced man who has little contact with his family and who has just lost his job of many years.  After he is attacked in his new down-sized apartment and wakes up from a concussion, he begins to realize how much he has been coasting, out of touch with his own life.  While this was a small book and a quick read, it does touch on what I think is an important issue in our society:  the isolation and alienation born of the dissolution of marriage and family and of our loss of community.  Liam realizes that he, like Noah, hasn’t needed a compass, because neither of them was ever really going anywhere.   At the resolution of the book, though, Liam finds redemption in a way he never anticipated.  I do love a quick read with a happy ending.



And now the conundrum...do I keep reading Anne Tyler, or do I tackle my new Murakamis?  Any recommendations on favorite Anne Tylers?  

 

Monday, June 16, 2014

Is There a Kafka? Is There a Shore?


photo by Anna Reavis
 
 
"Memories warm you up from the inside.  But they also tear you apart."
Ms Saeki in Kafka on the Shore

The past, the past...is it ever truly past?  Does time even exist?  How about identity?  Does it exist?  Is identity stable, stationary, immovable? Or are our identities just part of a grand stream of being that temporarily break off and become part of the physical world, only to be reabsorbed and recreated at different times?  Does anything truly exist within the boundaries we understand? Being? Nothingness?

If you don't like pondering questions like these that can make your head hurt, don't read Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami.  I feel like I would have to read and re-read the book multiple times to grasp some of what it's saying.  Borrowing from one of the themes of the novel, the best way for me to describe it is to say that there is a labyrinth inside each of us and a labyrinth outside each of us, and they are one and the same, and we are lost in them both. And while it took me forever to finish this novel, I enjoyed being tangled up in its web for a time.








Sunday, June 1, 2014

Slices of Life

photo by Anna Reavis
 "Harmon realized by a shift in the girl's expression that this was what she feared--being without love.  Who didn't fear that?"  from Olive Kitteridge by Olive Stout


When I was younger and had more energy and more initiative, I thought maybe one day I would write a novel.  And if I did, I thought it would be set in a physician's waiting room in a small town and would take each person in that room and tell his story and then resolve back in the same waiting room on the same morning in the middle of the week, in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of nothing, after having revealed the high drama, beauty and tragedy of each person's life.   Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout follows a similar premise. (Obviously the details are different.)  The novel uses multiple short stories bound together to reveal the truths behind the lives of multiple people, including but not limited to Olive, in a small town in Maine. 


Usually I don't like short stories or novels made up of short stories, but in this case the structure worked very well to provide the "slice of life" revelations of the characters' lives.  I read Olive Kitteridge in January, so it's a little difficult to write about at this far a remove, but I do remember liking it as my favorite book thus far this year and would recommend it without hesitation.  It isn't a long book, but there is a lot of life, love, beauty, sadness, tragedy, and triumph bundled into its small package.