Sometimes you just stumble onto a book that is not on any of your lists, not on any agenda. That I have the time to give time and attention to such books that come my way is one of the reasons I am thankful my time right now is not all scheduled up. No school, no classes, no lesson planning – just learning in the direction the Spirit leads. This may be my best September ever.

The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American PilgrimageThe Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage by Paul Elie

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage by Paul Elie was not on my reading list. In fact until I stumbled upon a review of the audio book last week, I had never heard of it. Yet the summary compelled me enough that five minutes later I was listening and kept on listening, sometimes re-listening, until I listened to all 22 hours of the audio text. The book, its title taken from a short story by Flannery O’Connor, tells the story of four 20th-century writers: O’Connor, Walker Percy, Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton, each of who followed a unique path to truth through reading classic literature as well as through their own writing, all under the big umbrella of Catholicism. None of these authors were on my reading list when I started the book, but you can bet I added several books before I finished. All but O’Connor were converts to the faith, and Dorothy Day is currently going through the process leading to canonization at the Vatican.

The Life You Save is quite an unusual book, a skillful interweaving of cultural history, biography, literary criticism, and an examination of the role of faith in all of these areas. The attraction to Catholicism is the force that unifies these four very different writers and is the unifying force of the book. None of their lives followed anything like a stereotypical or conventional pattern, so one thing I took away is that, far from being a rigid straightjacket kind of religion, Catholicism is able to accommodate a wide range of ideas and life choices.

O’Connor was a “cradle Catholic”, apparently somewhat unusual in early 20th-century Georgia, who remained solidly faithful to church doctrine throughout her life, but she filtered this doctrine in highly creative ways through stories uniquely adapted to the culture of the Bible Belt American south. Thomas Merton was a convert who became a Trappist monk and also quite the celebrity. Walker Percy, scion of an old southern family, became a doctor but had to quit practicing early after contracting tuberculosis. He then converted to Catholicism and spent the rest of his years, which turned out to be many, writing philosophic existential catholic essays and novels.

An avid reader from childhood, Dorothy Day started her adult life as a free-spirit Bohemian but felt attracted to Catholicism which she learned about entirely through books. In fact several years after converting she did not really know any actual Catholic people. Her faith was all a matter of mind and imagination and she longed for a way to act it out in the real world among real people. In 1932, at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington DC, she prayed fervently for God to show her a way to serve Him. Upon her return she found the fervent social activist Peter Maurin waiting for her at her home. Together they founded The Catholic Worker, a newspaper and organization dedicated to helping the poor, and an anarchist group in the sense that it had no formal government structure of its own and avoided any connection with U.S. or state government, refusing even tax-exempt status.

Elie does an admirable job of showing the connections between the four writers including their letters to each other, and how their work came to recognized as sort of loose literary movement, a something that Caroline Gordon , a mutual writer/editor friend envisioned as “The School of the Holy Ghost.” But there was never any formal meeting or club or organization. It was all a spontaneous mutual pilgrimage starting from different places but converging at the same destination.

I found the whole story fascinating – their lives and struggles, the changing culture of the mid-20th century, the colorful history – but what really attracted me to this book and kept me enthralled all the way through is the way these people used literature as their guideposts through life, repeatedly citing Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Dickens, Hawthorne, and many others as the messengers who lit their souls on fire with desire for truth and meaning. I have always found books to be my guideposts through life and there is nothing like getting that warm feeling of validation, 22 hours worth, finding out that rather than just being weird, you are in the best company.

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The edition I listened to: Elie, Paul. The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage. Narrated by Lloyd James. Published 2006 by Blackstone Audio.

For the rest of September I will be featuring my favorite poet, or at least, somehow working one of her poems into my posts. This is not difficult to do because this poet seems to have covered pretty much everything of importance in her 1700 plus poems. My excuse is that The Classics Club is hosting an event called Romantic Literature in September, but I hardly need an excuse to share the poetry of Emily Dickinson and love to do so whenever I get the opportunity. Once upon a time in a little colonial town called Williamsburg, Virginia, I was a student in the Masters program in Literature at The College of William and Mary. I completed all the classwork with a 3.8 GPA but then life started moving fast and I never did complete my thesis on Emily Dickinson. But who knows? Maybe, post by post, one of these days I will still finish that thesis.

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Back in my grad school days, before Age of the Internet (BI), I used to gracefully accept my ignorance. If I came across something I did not understand, I accepted in faith that in the fullness of time the mystery would come clear and would proceed peacefully to take in what I could understand. Later I would go to the card catalog and spend hours searching voluminous volumes of journals for enlightenment. But now in the Internet Era (IE) I read or hear and see on social media and immediately go rushing to Wikipedia as fast as my fingers can click. If the internet is down when I want to look something up I feel edgy and impatient. Gone is the humble patient faith that all will become clear in the natural course of things. I want that background knowledge and I want it now! Such is one sad example of how the internet can rewire a person’s character.

Sometimes the trail of clicks from one article to another leads me to a place I almost wish I had not gone. While reading Penguin Island by Anatole France I discovered the maddening details of the Dreyfuss Affair, and in reading a book about World War I followed a Wikipedia trail until I learned about the genocides in Greece and Armenia in the early years of the 20th century. This sort of thing leave me in a no man’s land where I am stuck between embarrassment that I did not know about the murder of millions so recently in history and regret that now I do know about it. I can’t absorb the reality of it and am not sure how productive it would be to do so. The earth is soaked in the blood of past horrors and perhaps the only way new generations can live reasonably happy lives is to mulch over the dirt, grow flowers, and not look back. I get the idea this was pretty much the working philosophy of many of the World War II veterans who returned from the horrors of war, got married, and never talked to their children about what they experienced during the war, and while I can completely understand that approach, I am not at all sure it is the right way to go. I think it would more painful but more healthy in the long run to go to some of these places of horror, meditate on the worst of human evil, and then think long and hard about how to personally avoid participating in any more of it.

A couple of days ago I saw on the Humans of New York (HONY) blog a picture of a young Tibetan monk living in exile in Dharamshala, India. Off I went to Wikipedia to brush up on what exactly happened in Tibet. I knew Tibet used to be this beautiful mountain place where they practiced Buddhism and lived in peace under the wisdom of the Dali Llama and that at some point the Chinese invaded the country, killed people, and destroyed thousands of monasteries, although I don’t even remember where I acquired even that much information.

So I Googled “Tibet” and read up about it on Wikipedia. The article has this picture of a woman bent over between two soldiers with a heavy sign around her neck. I had to click. The link led to a an article about struggle sessions, a practice straight out of Orwell’s 1984, and among the most horrible things I have ever heard of. I don’t want to post the pictures. You can click the link and look if you like. I don’t want to write about it either. I’ll just say it is about subjecting people to public humiliation in the worst possible way to get them to publicly renounce their lifestyles, thoughts, beliefs – basically their individuality and dignity – and say they are whatever the State says they are. Then some of them are executed. It was done as a spectacle that attracts thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of spectators, who get to participate in the procedure. Supposedly it was done a lot during the reign of Mao Zedong and is not done anymore. I hope not.

emily-dickinson-200x325Anyway, in choosing an Emily Dickinson poem to share today, I came across this one and immediately thought of struggle sessions and the woman in that picture. How a sheltered 19th-century lady living in Amherst Massachusetts could have known about struggle sessions I don’t know, but such is the power of a poet who can tap into the universal truth of things.

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MUCH madness is divinest sense
To a discerning eye;
Much sense the starkest madness.
’T is the majority
In this, as all, prevails.
Assent, and you are sane;
Demur,—you ’re straightway dangerous,
And handled with a chain.

What a strange September. The only September stranger than this was the September of 2001, that surreal September when my youngest son started kindergarten. This one is the first in 16 years that has not involved back-to-school rituals since the youngest son graduated in June from high school and has chosen not to start college this semester, preferring to work on his various enterprises and the older son found his dream job this summer and has sort of forgotten all about college.

This time last year I was embarking on a strenuous year of senior year homeschooling and now by contrast I find myself with stretches of time that seem to be all mine,– though like a blind person who doesn’t quite believe he sees and continues to tap his cane as he walks, I hesitate to believe it. I can do all the writing and artwork I used to lament I had no time to do. So what did I do this weekend? Some observers I know would say “nothing”, but I would disagree with that assessment.

Here’s what I did with that 48 hours:

1) Did some quality writing though what I will do with this writing I don’t know.

2) Thought about what to do with the kind of writing I am doing, how it might fit various forms.

3) Thought about this while shopping. A quick trip to the mall to see my son’s new store turned into an intense five-hour shopping excursion. I sort of got involved, something I don’t do often.

4) Listened to several hours of The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage by Paul Elie. It’s a bit of cultural history about a group of mid-century Catholic writers – Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton. I don’t know if everybody would love this book but I feel like it is speaking specifically to me, because I have been thinking about going back to Catholicism for a couple of years now and have been through a lot of the same thought processes and read many of the same books that influenced the subjects of this book.

5) Made a decision about my church and choir involvement. I decided that after Christmas I will give notice that I will leave Baptist Church where I am currently a member. I am giving them three months notice because I am one of two sopranos in the choir and they depend on me. But I have felt Catholicism pulling me back for a long time and the pull is not going way.

6)  Went to church where I sang “Make Me a Channel of Your Peace”, the hymn that sets to music “The Prayer of St. Francis.”

7) Did yoga. Took a two-mile walk.

8) Cleaned house. Pulled some weeds.

9) Cooked a reasonably edible meal for myself and my sons. Gluten-free spaghetti and sauce with sautéed zucchini.

So I made no progress of writing a great book per se and no progress on my artwork, not even per se. But I did not do nothing. Between the Book of Psalms and Emily Dickinson I can pretty much find the perfect expression for every mood, circumstance, and world event. Sure enough, I ran across this gem by Emily D. today. It supports my idea that heaping achievements into your resume is not what really is important:

IF I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.
Emily Dickinson

Over at The Classics Club they have designated September as Romantic Literature month, and since they list Emily Dickinson as one of the romantic poets, I will take that excuse to feature some of her poems here for the rest of this very unusual September. I have read a lot of Emily Dickinson because had I finished my Masters thesis it was going to be about her work.


After my foray into the roots of western civilization (The Republic by Plato) I decided I needed a break in my usual reading patterns – something entirely different. So I swooped from ancient Greece all the way to outer space and went with the 1961 science fiction classic Solaris by Stanislaw Lem. I have little experience with the science fiction genre so I thought it would be good to go with a well-known classic. Also, both the fact that the author was Polish and the year of its publication intrigued me. I am part Polish and have not read a lot of Polish lit and 1961 seems to me sort of the height of modern scientific arrogance. But that’s only my fanciful theory. Perhaps we are still climbing toward that height.

I listened to the audio book Solaris: The Definitive Version, which is beautifully narrated by Allessandro Juliani. My Goodreads review graphic apparently shows a version published in conjunction with the  2002 film of this book with George Clooney and Natascha McElhone. From what I have read this film version does not give much attention to the philosophical themes of the book. In fact I read this funny quote from the author himself (who died in 2006) on Wikipedia:

“…to my best knowledge, the book was not dedicated to erotic problems of people in outer space… As Solaris’ author I shall allow myself to repeat that I only wanted to create a vision of a human encounter with something that certainly exists, in a mighty manner perhaps, but cannot be reduced to human concepts, ideas or images. This is why the book was entitled “Solaris” and not “Love in Outer Space”.

SolarisSolaris by Stanisław Lem

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have to say up front that I am not an aficionado of science fiction. My science fiction reading is limited to C.S. Lewis space trilogy and this book, although I have watched some Star Trek and Star Wars movies. Those movies plus the snatches I’ve caught on the sci-fi channel always seem ludicrous to me because it seems no matter how many light years away humans travel they not only always run into human-like creatures with a head and four limbs, but the aliens usually speak English. Well Solaris blows that problem out of the water — or in the world of this book, out of the plasma. The theme is the futility of trying to make contact with a non-human intelligence.

The story begins with the arrival of Dr. Kris Kelvin to a research station that is orbiting Solaris. Expecting to be welcomed by his colleagues Kelvin finds that one of the scientists, his mentor, has just killed himself and the other two are acting secretive and fearful and sometimes outright insane. Somehow the intelligent ocean has figured out how to tap into the memories of humans and produce in human form their greatest shame. Kelvin meets his “visitor” upon waking after his first night in the space station in the form of a beautiful young woman who killed herself years ago after he broke off a love relationship with her.

The planet Solaris orbits two suns and is entirely covered by an ocean-like substance made of some kind of plasma. This giant plasma thing is able to build out of itself various types of formations that Earth scientists have trouble even describing and even more trouble classifying. One formation for example is an intricate colossus that is sort of like a machine and sort of like an organism, but really fits neither category as we think of these things on earth. Once a formation appears it is destroyed, usually with horrible sounds and great violence, by the ocean.

The ocean will sometimes respond to the presence of humans and sometimes will not and scientists have not been able to find a pattern in its response behavior. Yet it is almost impossible not to anthropomorphize the ocean – try to figure out its motivations, whether it friendly, unfriendly, or indifferent to humans. Despite a multitude of theories, no one really knows that it “feels” or “thinks” or is even “alive” in the way humans understand these concepts. The reader gets an overview of the decades of scientific “Solaric” research as the main character Kelvin scours the library in hopes of finding a clue to solving his immediate problems. As Kelvin reviews the voluminous literature on the various theories and schools of thought on Solaris we get a healthy dose of satire about the arrogance and politics of human science.

I liked the fact that this book brings up lots of questions about the limits of human ability to understand existence outside of our human frame of reference and also questions whether we ought to be looking for intelligent life in outer space when we have such an inadequate understanding of our own species. C.S. Lewis trilogy brings up similar questions but assumes that all life in the universe has a common creator. Mr. Lem does not assume a creator at all, although in the end he has Dr. Kelvin theorize a bit about the existence and possible nature of God, wondering if there might be a God who is prone to error.

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The RepublicBefore I get into the delicious details of The Republic by Plato (my pick for The Classics Club Spin #7 event) I must stop to wonder at two things. First I have to wonder at how long this work has been kicking around in the libraries and minds of the human race. Plato wrote in around 380 BC. It would have been classic literature for Paul of Tarsus, and I am pretty sure I detected several foreshadowings of the words he wrote in his New Testament letters. Surely someone has done a comparative analysis between Plato and Paul and I will looking for that analysis. Second, I wonder that it has taken me until middle age to get around to reading it.  As I finished my reading I saw my 18-year-old son squeezing grapes for juice in the kitchen and urged him to read the book as soon as possible. Surely between his organic food activism and reggae band photography he can fit in a little Plato. As with many classics, this is better read when one is young.  Still, as with all classics, better late than never.

The translation I read was one by Benjamin Jowett and published by Coyote Canyon Press. I would love to read it in the original Greek but unfortunately my ancient Greek studies are in the rudimentary stage – one more reason I really need to have an eternal life. But I found the translation to be clear, cogent, and pleasant to read. As C.S. Lewis says, “The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism.” (From his essay “On the Reading of Old Books”.) How true. I am the simplest of students and I found this dialogue to be perfectly comprehensible.

In this dialogue Plato, in the persona of the philosopher Socrates, conducts an inquiry into the nature of justice, whether justice or injustice makes a person happier and why, and the nature and development of the ideal state, defined as the kind of state that would facilitate the happiness of the greatest number of its citizens. I cannot deny that this is some high-quality reasoning and the step-by-step arguments are easy to follow. However, I do not like some of Plato’s conclusions – for example the idea that children should be raised and educated by the state rather than by their individual parents – but although I may not be Plato’s equal in intellectual intelligence, I do have the advantage of looking back on 2394 more years of civilization, religious and political upheavals, and social experimentation than Plato had the opportunity to observe.

But my gosh – the things that man was able to work out with only the power on his highly educated power of reason are astounding! You can easily recognize the foundations of various schools of thinking and theory throughout the ages. Let me summarize just a few of the compelling ideas discussed in The Republic:

  • The soul is an entity separate from the body. As disease is to the body, evil is to the soul. However, while disease eventually kills the body, evil, while it affects the character of the soul, does not kill it. This is because the soul is eternal. You can chop up the body but the soul will not be affected in the least because the soul is a different thing.
  • Not all minds/souls are equal. A few are capable of apprehending pure truth while most are only capable of attaining the middle or grey level – the level at which all variations, derivative expressions of the ideal truth exist. Plato calls those persons bestowed with the character and mind to know pure truth philosophers.
  • There are different levels of relationship a human mind might have to the truth. there is practical knowledge (it is true because it works), there is understanding (the ability to reason enough to see why an idea might be true), and then there is pure knowledge (the ability to encounter truth directly). This could be the basis of our ideas about occupational training vs. classical education, although our modern universities currently mix these concepts to the point of absurdity.
  • Although Plato refers to the “gods” he reasons that there must be a God behind the gods, an origin of all things including the diverse nature gods. He also reasons that the Homeric stories of the gods scheming, forming factions, and warring with each other are mythological because a real God must be both unchangeable and good. Monotheism was already long-established among the Hebrews (Exodus is thought to have been written in the 6th century BC) but Plato reached this conclusion by reasoning while the Hebrews reached it by revelation.
  • The arts including theater, painting, and especially poetry, are corrosive to young minds and do not contribute to the wellbeing of the State. The reason is that not only is art not truth, it is a copy of a copy. The things it portrays, whether beds or bodies, are only copies of their ideal form which exists in heaven or perhaps in the mind of God. And if that isn’t bad enough, the arts tend to cater to the changing sensual tastes of the masses and not to reason. This is one of Plato’s conclusions that doesn’t sit well with me. Toward the end of the dialogue, however, he partially relents and allows poetry back into the State, but with conditions. She must present a poem defending her value.
  • Plato describes the good and bad characteristics of five types of states: aristocracy, , oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny. He does not include socialism in his types but interestingly, his conception of democracy seems very like our modern concept of socialism – equality for all – and his democracy leads to tyranny very like Friedrich Hayek (The Road to Serfdom) says our socialism leads to totalitarianism. I think Plato’s analysis of the types of government is quite brilliant. Since all of these forms carry within themselves the seeds of their own destruction, Plato’s ideal state would emphasize the need to identify and raise pure and wise leaders from early childhood and instill safeguard to ensure that its leaders come only from this class.
  • The ideal leader is pure in character and has that rare ability to see pure truth. He is a true philosopher and not one of those false imitative pretending Sophists. Nor is he the popular wise guru whose wisdom consists in his observations in what works – what actions or methods are most likely to result in wealth and happiness for his particular class. This type may know what works but he neither knows nor cares why it works. He has observed the variables but has not seen the truth behind the variables, and is therefore subject to the winds of change and not worthy to lead the ideal Republic.

I found that the dialogue style presentation of this material made these and all the other ideas enjoyable to read and absorb. The tone is one of pleasant, friendly conversation with the implied freedom to agree or disagree, a tone that in our current politically hyper-charged climate of colliding ideologies I found to be delightfully refreshing. If you, like me, are an “idea” person you will find the The Republic to be a mental feast. And the best thing is, there are plenty of other dialogues by Plato that I can now look forward to feasting on.

I’ve spent the whole morning thinking about the plight of the human race: why after enlightenment, after a couple of centuries of astounding scientific discoveries that have led to better standards of living, better sanitation, miraculous technology, incredible advances in medical care, and longer life spans,  is the world such a wretched mess? So I ended up writing sort of a poem, really just an attempt to get my tangled thoughts into the simplest, barest form. Last week I wrote a political poem and sent it in to Rattle Magazine’s “Poets Respond” program but this one is not really about a specific event.  It is, however, inspired by news stories about ISIS planning a bubonic plague weapon and about ISIS training young children to be terrorists. These things strike me as so evil that I get a choking sensation like black coal dust in my throat and I need to write something down just to clear my head.

So this thing I wrote is about why we might be stuck is a system that results in so much evil – but I couldn’t just leave it at that. I don’t like to complain unless I can at least suggest a possible remedy, so I end with best reason for hope I have been able to find. I know people who are thinking about “living off the grid” and prepping for some kind of massive collapse. But even if we were to build the second Garden of Eden, a self-sufficient paradise hidden on the remotest mountain, evil would seep in the first time one of us decided to cheat a little and steal from someone else’s share of the potatoes. Earthly Utopias have been tried many times.

The Younger Memnon. Statue resides in the British Museum

The Younger Memnon. Statue resides in the British Museum

The Human Machine

At the top of the pyramid they co-opt the cause
and feed on its energy to fuel the power they desire.
Some of these come to believe they are the cause itself, or gods.

On the rung just below that brilliance are those who seek
to  embody the reflected light: the cabinets, the lackies,
the spokesmen, the spouses, and quite often, members of the press.

Below this are those who know they have no chance at power
or feel the cost – their soul – is too high so they
embrace the cause itself: Democracy, Communism, Islam, or
institutional Christianity. They are the true believers.
Their reward is that they get to feel virtuous and self-sacrificing.
How they sacrifice themselves depends on the idea of the cause.
From this rung come some of the suicide bombers and many
heroes of the state, such as those who give their lives for freedom.

Below this we find the very populous layer of the survivors,
those who do not think far beyond the acquisition of
food and shelter. Some of these are quite clever and
very observant and interested in learning what techniques
and strategies will bring them wealth and other things they
desire such as sex. They also like power, but not overreaching
power over everybody and everything as with the top,
but only the power to get what they personally want.
Not all on the survivor rung are rich. There are successful survivors
and the barely surviving.

And then there are the trusters, the innocents, those who believe
the authorities. These are akin to the true believers but too humble
to think they can understand the complex philosophy of the cause.
They look to the leaders and the educated pundits of wisdom to tell
them right from wrong. Most children fall into this category
but also many adults and from here also are made some suicide bombers.

And is there no hope of escape from this machine?
All of the levels within the machine are states of mind
so before the body the mind must be rescued.
If there is escape it must be through embracing perfect truth,
uncontaminated by human desire,
and therefore must come from outside the human system.
I do believe that the name of perfect truth,
joined indivisible to perfect love,
scaled to human terms is Jesus Christ.
The rub of course is desire:
desire for truth that sets you free must
surpass even desire for life as you know it.

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And that’s my simple working model of the body politic: the demigods, the parasites, the true believers, the survivors, and the innocents. I’m know these ideas are hardly new and I certainly owe something to Albert Jay Nock and something more to the New Testament Gospels. Without my feeble wisp of faith, I suppose I would either be a survivor who sometimes aspires to true believer or a true believer who often sinks to the survivor level. But with even a breath of faith, I can float outside the entire beehive and know that a better reality awaits, a reality in which our worth or survival does not depend on consuming the life energy on our fellow beings, one that runs on a currency of love rather than a currency of power. I cannot begin to know the details of that new model of reality, but just the faint aroma, the beckoning light in the distance, is enough to give me sweet hope.forestpath

Where do you fit in this model? Or do you not fit at all? Do you have your own model? Maybe somewhere in there is room for another layer. Perhaps artists could be their own layer or perhaps the artists are mixed into the bottom four layers. I don’t think you’d find an artist at the insatiable-for-power top; those guys are all consumed by their lust for power. Obviously there is plenty of room for adjustment the architecture of my political model!

juliet1This weekend was a typical one except that the weather was unusually beautiful for late August in southern Virginia. I cleaned house, visited the Suffolk Farmer’s Market with my son, caught up on my workouts, sleep, and laundry, did some writing, worked on a web graphic. One unusual thing did happen that ought to be at least a footnote in the history of my life: I got my first rejection letter! Actually a rejection email. Since I have just begun sending out some of my pieces I’m sure it won’t be my last.

It was for a single poem I had submitted only the previous day to the literary magazine Rattle. They have this new project called “Poets Respond” in which they choose one poem that responds to a news event that happened in the last week. I received my Rattle literary magazine in the mail last Thursday and when I saw the enclosed flyer for the “Poets Respond” project I thought it was the best idea I had seen in a long time. The news lately is overwhelmingly tragic and I often feel frustrated that these things are happening in the world and I can do nothing but watch and gasp in horror. I think that, perhaps other than prayer, there can be no healthier way to deal with the news than by responding to it through art or poetry.

So I wrote a poem about one of the events in Ferguson Missouri and sent it in.

As rejections go the email from the Rattle editor was about as about nice as a rejection can be. He wrote that they had received over 100 submissions and although mine was perfect for the spirit of the project, he ended up choosing another poem. When I went to the website and read the selected poem  I thought the editor made the right choice. I would have chosen this poem too: it is about the death of James Foley and is beautiful. You can see it here. You’ll also find information about the project and how to send in your own news poem.

Well here’s the poem I submitted. I figure I might as well share it here while it is still topical…. I love responding to the news through poetry and plan to do more of this sort or writing.

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The Attorney General Comes to Town

He arrives with raucous fanfare in a giant jet
and alights in his suit of glory in a Missouri town
where a scared cop has killed a boy and
the angry mob is looting and breaking windows which
of course we all understand perfectly or at least we
would if only humans were chemicals that explode when lit
or cornered animals void of reason
because anger inflames us to hurt people we don’t know
who never harmed anyone.

The attorney general comes looking for a crime,
“possible violations of federal civil rights statutes.”
Who knows the cogitations of the mind
behind the hard face, the purposeful stride,
but publically he says this visit to town is deeply personal
and one suspects, though does not know, that he is angry,
feels wronged, because of the way he tells the people
how twice he was stopped on the New Jersey turnpike and they
searched his car and we all assume they violated
his fourth amendment rights because he is black
and probably he has a case

but the attorney general was not arrested
and now is free to search not a car but a town
and if he wants to find a crime perhaps he will
because unlike guns or drugs crimes can be conjured
out of the smoke of wrath especially if
you are an angry attorney general
fighting institutionalized racism
with state power, power against power,
crush it down under the heel of a designer shoe.

I had to seriously question myself as to why I even wanted to read this book. A couple of days ago I was sitting there innocently reading The Republic by Plato and Socrates was talking about how, in the ideal city, they shouldn’t teach young people that gods did bad things or fought among themselves because these mythological tales were lies. Yes – apparently even in Plato’s time (somewhere around 428/427 BC  to 348/347 BC) they called it Greek mythology – or at least Plato called it that. He said that beings who did evil or fought or deceived or played tricks on each other were either fiction or something other than gods (his Socrates character had already established philosophically that a real god had to be the perfect good).

And then I suddenly remembered I had this book The Rite (published in 2010) in my audio library because I had gotten some deal on it several months ago. I don’t regret reading listening to this strange book because it did bring up some fascinating issues and made me aware of things I did not know. As a former and possibly future Catholic I was curious. After all, Christians worship a person who cast out demons on several occasions and told his followers that they would also have the ability to do so. The usual position is that in the past people mistook mental illness for demon possession, but I would suppose that God incarnate, creator of heaven and earth, would know the difference between mental illness and demons. This book devotes a whole chapter to  a discussion of mental illness and how it is said to differ from genuine demon possession or demon oppression. If that isn’t enough to make you curious I don’t know what else to say — except a word of caution: when it comes to this subject, try not to be too curious.

Here is the review I wrote for Goodreads:

The Rite: The Making of a Modern ExorcistThe Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist by Matt Baglio

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Considering that the touchy subject of this book, subject as it is to lurid public fascination on one hand and disbelieving scorn on the other, I think Matt Baglio does an excellent job in presenting the new wave of exorcism fairly and clearly. I am not generally attracted to demonic literature or movies. I have read The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis but have never seen The Exorcist with Linda Blair or any other exorcism film. In fact, only after I finished the book did I discover there is a 2011 film called The Rite based on it starring Anthony Hopkins. So I have to ask myself why in the world I would have picked up this book to read. It was not on my reading list. I guess I was as curious as anyone about the modern Catholic stance toward demonic possession and once I picked it up I couldn’t stop reading it.

By the late 1990s he Catholic Church in the United States had become increasingly secular in its views and had pretty much turned its back on the whole idea of exorcism and even the existence of demons. Many priests seemed embarrassed about Catholic history with its archaic practices and belief in medieval devils with horns and pitchforks. Even though the official Church rules specified that each bishop must designate at least one priest as an exorcist, in 1998 there were only 14 official exorcists in the United States. However at that time the Church both in the United States and other countries began noticing an explosive increase in activity related to Satanic cults and also a higher demand for exorcism. This book follows the experience of reluctant exorcist-in-training Father Gary Thomas who travels to the Vatican to take a course and ends up doing an intense internment with a veteran exorcist, Father Giancarlo Gramolazzo.

The book alternates between Father Gary’s story and background information that gives the reader context and some history of the subject. I especially liked the chapter that discusses the relationship between mental illness and demonic possession and the confusion that results from the comparison. It is certainly true that in the past mental illness was often attributed to demonic possession, and it is also true that in the vast majority of cases mental illness is not demonic possession. But according to the Catholic Church, this does not rule out the existence of demonic possession. Modern exorcists work closely with mental health professionals and diagnose demonic possession only with the greatest caution.

I also like the way the author throws the light switch on much of the sensational mythology around this subject. For example, the Church sees victims of possession as just that: victims. They are not blamed for the misfortune and are not considered evil or damned. Also I was surprised to learn that most often exorcism is not a one-time shot: often the victim will meet with his or her exorcist periodically for months or years. The job of an exorcist is akin to than to a healer. Exorcists are not paid for their services and are often scorned and persecuted. In addition they are vulnerable themselves to spiritual oppression. As Father Gary discovers, thorough training, observation, faith, and a discipline of prayer are essential to being able to perform the rite of exorcism with any success.

I ended the book with a better understanding of the Catholic rite of exorcism than I did when I began. The book includes many eyewitness accounts of the encounters with evil beings, and I believe the accounts well enough to hope that reading this book is as close as I will ever get to the subject.

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A few weeks ago my fellow blogger Gina Stoneheart honored me with a nomination for the Blogging From the Heart tour on her wonderful blog Dawning on a New Day. Gina is a writer for both children and adults who blogs about writing and real life as well as the places where writing and real life intersect. Her writing is the real thing: genuine, original, and excellent quality, and her a blog that is as honest and entertaining as a blog should be. I enthusiastically encourage you to check her out!

In this tour you answer a few questions about your writing process, a wonderful thing to share since there are probably as many writing processes as there are writers. Then you get to tag three of your favorite bloggers, who may then if they want, write a post to share their writing or blogging process and tag others. I want to thank Gina for nominating me for this tour, but even more I want to thank her for her wonderful posts and our many pleasant and deep online conversations. Making friends and connections like this is one of things I think blogging is all about.

Questions about process are always a difficult for me because organization is not my strong suite – like many creative people I find it difficult even to think me to think in a step-by-step sequence. I think that is one of the reasons I’ve been procrastinating about this post. I have a whole shelf laden with books on writing, all by successful or semi-successful writers who are happy to share their writing processes, techniques, and lessons learned. I have found these books inspirational and have picked up a tip or two, but I have never adopted wholesale any of their approaches. Not that I haven’t wanted to; I would love to find an approach to writing that supercharges both my creativity and productivity, but I can’t seem to stick to anyone’s approach except my own, as scattered, quirky, and inefficient as it is. So here are the “Blogging From the Heart” questions and my attempts to answer them.

What am I working on?

agile documentation cartoonI am working first of all on this blog post and a few more coming-soon posts. I have a few essays in the works that I am getting up the courage to submit to journals. I have a collection of poetry partially done and have sent some poems out into the journalsphere. Also I am working on some art and illustration projects – a line of cards, some products like mugs, some portraits. My art pursuits often conflict and fight for time with my writing pursuits, but I am working on ways to make them fit together. I’ve tried to give one up and then the other, because I know a creative art demands all of one’s attention and does not like to share creative energy with another art. But I have discovered that I am unable to give up either one. As soon as I give up writing all I want to do is write and as soon as I give up drawing all I want to do is draw. So in my case, I have to share my creative energy, even if it means I will never be fabulously successful in either one. Also I am working on purging and overhauling my house. And there’s my day job. But as of this moment I think the key to the rest of my life lies in the purging and overhauling project – I am feeling the urge to jettison everything unnecessary to make time and space for what I really want to get accomplish.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Well this question assumes I have a genre. About a year ago I made an effort to join a writing group and went to a group meeting at a local iHop. There were eight or ten other writers around the table who had been meeting there so long they had their own iHop waiter who “always” served the group. It seems like there was a core group and then others, like me, who would drift in and out of the group, so the first thing that happened is that everyone went around the table, introduced themselves and said what they were working on. One guy wrote historical mystery thrillers, one wrote paranormal gothic romances, another wrote paranormal eroticism, and still another wrote space fantasies. I had no idea there even were so many genres. I said I wrote essays inspired by classic literature and although I had a great time with these interesting people, I left feeling like maybe I didn’t quite belong in this particular writing group.

So I suppose if I have a genre it would fit loosely in the creative non-fiction category, a genre so that it would be difficult to figure out how any one writer is like another, let alone different. I also have dipped my big toe into the writing of poetry. In that genre I try to strike a balance between artistic integrity and clear connection with the potential reader. I will be posting something about my attempts at poetry in the near future.

nothing newAs for subject matter, my purpose is always to seek for some level of truth. I know fiction can be true, and maybe someday I will try that route, but right now I am exploring the history of human thought as expressed through its enduring literature for what the greatest of its minds has figured out so far. A friend and co-worker read my blog and recently commented that I was radical. I’ve been laughing about it ever since. Me a radical! I couldn’t be – unless it’s a case of being so non-radical that I’m radical, sort of like a creature “so ugly it’s cute.” I tend to stick religiously to the oldest most enduring of human ideas, and firmly believe Solomon’s statement in the Book of Ecclesiastes that “There is nothing new under the sun.”

Why do I create/write what I do?

contemplation with dogThere have been periods in my life, sometimes periods of several years, in which I was not writing and there have been periods in which I was writing. I have found that I am happier when I am writing than when I am not. It’s similar to my feeling about having a dog: I find I am happier with a dog than without a dog. But my current period of writing has lasted about four years and I think will last the rest of my life. I started down this path to bring my writing to a more serious level in 2010 after a lifetime of writing off and on in journals. The journals were numerous and lined up three feet long on a shelf, but the most of the writing inside them never saw the light of day. I suppose the catalyst was the death of my mother, who thought I was a good writer and always encouraged me to do something with it.

When she died I was sorry she had never gotten to see me publish anything, or at least much of anything. My first poem was published a couple of months after she passed away, and then I began a blog. I think I blogged for nearly a year before I had a single visitor other than spammers. Of course I was so lacking in confidence that I never promoted it. It was enough to see my writing in a public form and to get used to the idea of it being in a public form.



Whenever someone tells me they want to start a blog I always encourage them, give them some tips, and advise them to stick with it and be patient. But most of them get very discouraged by the feeling of writing into a void and the lack of readers. I suppose I was well equipped for this initial period by my background of writing for like 20 years with zero feedback. Also I had learned by other experiences to do my work with without encouragement beginning with eight years in Catholic school where I was very bored and the hours were long and where I learned to both entertain my mind and do my writing for its own sake. Also in my career as a technical writer I can write and edit for months or years at a time without ever getting a word of feedback about what I write. So writing for a blog with no readers was natural to me. Just the idea that I could write what I really wanted to write, and that the possibility existed that someday somebody, even one person, might read it, was kind of thrilling to me.

So from this humble beginning I slowly began to find my voice as a public writer and only now am I venturing to seek further publication for some of my pieces.

How does my writing/creating process work?

Well first I get that swelling-up feeling that means it’s time to go write. This often happens while I am doing mind of the makersomething physical like walking or driving and usually it’s just the wisp of a connection between one thing and another, a flying seed that has found a perch in my mind and begun taking root. Although I am also an artist, this seed is rarely an image but is rather a feeling or urge perhaps combined with a few words. It is hard to explain, because the whole reason I need to go and write is because there is something abstract growing inside me pushing to get itself put into a comprehensible material form. It is the idea wanting to be born as the Word. Once born it continues its life in the editing and reading process. This is the trinity of creation that Dorothy Sayers talks about in her book The Mind of the Maker. I believe her philosophy of how creation works because it is exactly what I experience.

Now I will tag a few bloggers I love:

Deborah Brasket at Living on the Edge of the Wild. I love Deborah’s writing because it is elegant, beautiful, and searingly honest. She is truly in the spirit of “Blogging From the Heart” because she has the ability to capture in words the most subtle degrees and shades of emotion. He latest post, Dialogue with Annie Dillard on “The Writing Life” is one the best things I’ve read in a long time about how writing fits into our “other” life with all its roles and necessities.   Also she shares my interest in poetry and I have so enjoyed exchanging interpretations of Wallace Stevens and others with her.

Angel Chavis at The Natural Lifestyle Show. Angel blogs and also makes videos with her husband about natural health. She is only of the sincerest and also most helpful bloggers I know. I have learned so much from her blog about simple practical low-cost things we can do to naturally improve our health and lives. He voice is direct and gentle, never judgmental, but always true to her Christian beliefs and desire to help others through her writing and videos. Click over to Angel’s blog and enjoy her wisdom and wonderful tips!

Cleo at Classical Cleo. I have recently joined The Classics Club, an excellent fit or the kind of writing I like to do, and through this organization I have met several wonderful classics bloggers. I have especially enjoyed the writing and reviews of Cleo. She is enthusiastic, generous, and she takes reading seriously! She is opening new doors into the world of literature for me and is also making me think about new ways to share and write about books. It’s hard to imagine anyone entering her blog and not coming out without some intriguing treasure to enrich them mind and soul.