Friday, April 29, 2016

George Eliot on Living a Good Life

A month ago, I'd have been finishing Middlemarch, a reading experience which took much of the month of March.

I first read Middlemarch long ago, in grad school, as a young woman, just 24 years old.  It was the last novel in our Victorian novel class, so I read it just after Thanksgiving, in a mad rush to get to the end.  I appreciated many things about it, but I most appreciated being a female in the 20th century, when I wouldn't have to marry to be able to fulfill my destiny.

Of course, I read it as a woman who had just gotten married 15 months earlier, but I saw that as a choice.  And I was sure that I would have a wonderful career, because after all, I was in grad school, in full control of my destiny.

Oh, the hubris that is special to the young!

And now, here I am, having just read Middlemarch at age 50, and seeing my young self in Dorothea, although my marriage choice has been a wiser one.  Honestly, none of the marriages in the book would make me want to be married, but what else was a woman to do?

When I was young, I saw the book as an exploration of how the world stymies women.  But at this  point, I see it as an exploration of what it means to live a good life--even if we're not exactly sure what that would look like.  Early on, Dorothea leads the way. 

I first saw this glimmer early, on page 392 (chapter 39) when Dorothea explains her philosophy to Will:  "That by desiring what is perfectly good, even when we don't quite know what it is and cannot do what we would, we are part of the divine power against evil -- widening the skirts of light and making the struggle with darkness narrower."

And at the end of the book, her life is held up as a model of the good life, although it may be a surprising model, not the traditional life we hold up as one that is true and good:

"Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."

I found this ending so moving that I almost wept.  For obvious reasons, I love the idea that we can live our faithful lives, and that even our unhistoric acts can be important, even if the scope of that importance is not vast.

I am now reading Rebecca Mead's My Life in Middlemarch, a true delight, with its mix of memoir and literary analysis and history.  And I came across this essay by Francine Prose.  Here is her wisdom:

"Even as our inner children are reading to find out what happens, Eliot's taking the grown-ups on a dizzying tour past the landmarks of adulthood: the uneasy truce between ambition and limitation; how we satisfy our desires for love, excitement, and money; the compromises we make with ourselves; how hard it is to admit a costly mistake.

Unlike a history book or tract, Eliot shows us what it was like, from the inside, to live in an era in which female intelligence was considered a serious handicap, and she tells us precisely what it's like to weigh the longing for simple happiness against the desire to be a good person and lead a meaningful life."

I didn't see all of these elements when I was a younger reader.  I always tell my students that you know that a piece of literature is good when it bears rereading.  By this standard, Middlemarch is great.

And those questions about what constitutes a good life--those shall always be with us.  And George Eliot has interesting answers.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Insights from a Retreat

A week ago, I'd have been starting another retreat journey, the third in a month (the earlier two happened on the same week, but they were very different, so I'm counting them as two:  Mepkin Abbey and Create in Me).  Before we get too much further away from that time, let me capture some insights:

--As we discussed the parables Saturday morning, one of the pastors said that God needs us as much as we need God.  That idea seemed revelatory to me, and I came back to it on Sunday morning when we studied ten maidens and their lamps (Matthew 25: 1-13).  We talked about the idea of judgment, but I tried to turn the conversation to God needing us to be ready, with our metaphorical sandals laced.

--From there, we went back to the barren fig tree  (Luke 13: 6-9) that hasn't been bearing fruit and the conversation about whether or not to rip it out.  The gardener fights for the tree, asking for one more chance to save it by giving it more manure.  A standard interpretation:  God is either the gardener or the landowner who wants to rip out the tree.  But what if God is the withered tree and humans are the manure?

--It seems an essential question:  how are we manure, for God, ourselves, and the world?  And what manure do we need to nourish ourselves?

--As I led the Bible study, I reflected on how much it was like teaching for me--the best part of teaching:  leading a conversation, being delighted in real time as we made new connections, guiding us as we discussed the implications.  No papers to grade!  If God needs people who are doing what makes them feel alive, then this activity is one of those things for me.

--I had this sharp memory of going to Jubilee Partners during my first year of college, and I particularly remembered that piercing yearning to go be part of that community.  I talked to a woman who is co-spiritual director of the Richmond Hill community, and I want to remember that being a part of an intentional community doesn't have to be a lifelong vow.

--During the Spiritual Journaling workshop, we talked about whether or not our Facebook practices could be considered journaling, and if so, how could we make it a more spiritual practice?  I'd like to explore this idea in more detail in a later post.

--Making cards is a great group activity, and we did it at the end of the retreat.  It worked, because it didn't rely on a critical number of people, and so, if people had to leave early, we could still do the project.  In fact, it might have been less easy to do with all of the people who were first there--not much room to move around the tables.  It also works because people of varying artistic talents can participate.  And it was a great way to prepare ourselves to go back to our "regular" lives.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, May 1, 2016:

First Reading: Acts 16:9-15

Psalm: Psalm 67

Second Reading: Revelation 21:10, 22--22:5

Gospel: John 14:23-29

Gospel (Alt.): John 5:1-9

As we work our way through the Lectionary again and again, I'm always intrigued by what leaps out at me. Usually when this Gospel comes around, I focus on the lines about not letting our hearts be troubled or afraid. But this year, I'm zoning in on the idea of God living with us, God making a home with us.

I think of all the roommate relationships I've ever had. Even when they've been less than optimal, I have to admit that I likely knew those roommates more intimately than all my other friends. In my younger, less content years, I'd focus on the bad traits. In my later years, I've tried to focus on the benefits to communal living while not getting derailed by the disadvantages. Now, I live with my husband only, which has a kind of elegant beauty, yet I miss having the more extended community we had when we lived in a communal household. I miss the community I enjoyed when I lived in college dorms. My mother-in-law enjoyed a similar sense of connectedness when she lived in a condo.

What would it mean to have this kind of connectedness with God? What kind of roommate would God be? I imagine that God would be the kind of roommate who would make delicious meals and would make sure that there was enough to share. I imagine that God would bring scruffy people home to dinner, but we wouldn't be afraid, because we'd know that it's always O.K. when God brings scruffy people home for dinner. I imagine that God would be the kind of roommate who would go to the trouble to arrange outings for us, thinking of what would delight us and bring us all closer together.

More importantly, this Gospel lesson points to the kind of homemaking intimacy that God longs to share with us. This Gospel doesn't present a picture of God as disapproving Judge and Jury. This Gospel presents God as roommate, who knows our hopes and fears, who shares our daily journeys. This picture of God is not a God-as-Santa-Claus. God doesn't promise to fix everything in this Gospel, at least not explicitly. But we have something that might be better. This Gospel shows us a God as partner, partner in our joys and sorrows.

The idea of God-as-roommate is probably a strange concept to most of the world's religions and perhaps to many Christians. And yet, if you go back to read the Gospels, it's an idea that Jesus returns to again and again. Maybe we would prefer to have a fix-it God. Maybe we would feel better with an absent God who returns only to judge us sternly for all our failings. That idea might be less scary than a God who lives with us and thus, sees us at our best and worst. Maybe we've spent a lot of time struggling to leave home (literally or metaphorically), so the idea of a God who wants that kind of intimacy might be offputting.

I admit that the idea of a wish granting God has more pull, especially on days when life isn't going well. I understand that people who have yearned for good parental relationships--or for those of us fortunate enough to experience a good family life--the idea of God the loving parent has appeal. But the idea of God as partner has a sturdiness to it. It's the metaphor that can last as life gets tough.

Life will always get tough, and just as spouses can't always fix everything, a God who grants us free will also cannot fix everything. When life gets tough, as it always does, the idea of God as Santa Claus will shake our faith, as life's dreadful turns of events don't support that view of God.

Jesus doesn't give us this view of a God who waves a magic wand to get rid of all our troubles. Jesus shows us a God that wants to be there with us, through all of life's events, both joyous and sad. Jesus shows us a God that will help us in our troubles if we ask, but not necessarily make them go away. Jesus shows us the idea of God as a partner, a partner with tremendous resources so that we need not be afraid or troubled.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Retreat at Richmond Hill

This past week-end, I was helping to lead a retreat at Richmond Hill, a fascinating retreat center and intentional community, in Richmond, Virginia.  A group of women from my mom's church, St. Stephen's Lutheran in Williamsburg, Virginia, had an overnight retreat, and they asked me to lead the Bible study plus to lead a workshop on spiritual journaling.  In days to come, I will likely return to the week-end to think about parts of it in more depth; let me give an overview today.

--The retreat center is really interesting--it was started by 6 nuns who came to start a monastery and a school for girls just after the Civil War.  Now there are people who live there in intentional, ecumenical, Christian community, and one of their missions is to pray for Richmond.

--Parts of the building felt very modern.  It's been retrofitted for handicapped accessibility in interesting ways, and the windows let the light stream in the main meeting room.  But every so often I'd go up a creaky staircase with steps that had been worn in the middle, and I'd remember how old parts of the facility are.

--The retreat started at 9:00 on Saturday morning.  I was amazed that the church had 39 women signed up for this retreat, women of all ages.

--It was a great group, very participatory and open to different approaches to the parables.  I was prepared for anything, but hoping for this kind of group.

--My journaling workshops went well--the first group had already been doing different types of journaling, and the second group hadn't done as much.  But both groups were interested in the subject, and both workshops went well.

--The schedule was intense--not much unstructured time, as is suitable for such a short retreat.  I told my mom that I could go at that pace for a day, but not for six days.  Of course, if it had been a longer retreat, maybe there would have been more down time.  I was impressed that the women were up for the intense schedule.

--In addition to Bible Study and workshops, we had a community service project, making cards that will be sent to various people through the coming year, a great group project for people with varying skills.  We had a hymn sing on Saturday night and worship opportunities throughout the week-end.

--We were welcome to meet with the intentional community to pray with them 3 times a day.  I found those times meaningful in a different way.  One of the community members gave us an introduction to the site and told us that the community had been praying for us for the week before we arrived and would be praying for us for the week after we left.  I found that idea very moving.

--In addition to praying with the community, we had two great services of our own, Compline and Sunday morning Eucharist. 

--I loved the sanctuary--very 19th century, with lots of stained glass windows.  But also contemporary.

--In short, it was a wonderful week-end of renewal.  I am so glad that I was part of it.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Meet Me at the Cemetery Gates

Long ago, in the spring of 1987, I made many trips across South Carolina with a cassette tape of songs by the Smiths as a constant companion.  A line from a song bubbled across my brain during my retreat week, something about meeting at the cemetery gates.

I'd have taken pictures of the cemetery gates of Mepkin Abbey even without the song in my head.  I'm not sure why I find them so striking.

The older cemetery on a bluff looks wonderful with an azalea bush in full bloom.

The African American cemetery is getting a sprucing up too.

But always, there seems to be a gate.

I can think of many reasons for a cemetery gate.  I suspect part of it is a psychic reason:  we need to remind ourselves that we have not passed through the gate permanently.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Creating Parables

This week-end, once again I have left my spouse to keep our South Florida homestead running smoothly, and I'm helping to lead a retreat.  Today, we will be studying parables.  Perhaps we will even write some.

If you want to play along, here's what inspired me, at a retreat in 2009--but I think it will work well with different groups and for people who are alone:

First, you will need to make lists:

6 natural objects

6 humanmade objects

6 ordinary actions

6 art materials.

If you're working with groups, you could give each group member the responsibility of one of the lists. Divide into groups of 4. Person #1 makes a list of 6 natural objects, person #2 makes a list of art materials, and so on. They number the list.

The team leader pulls a number--1-6--out of a hat. Let's say it's #4. Each group member says what the # 4 item on their list is.

So, in my group, we had canvas, coffee mug, autumn leaf, and sleeping. We started with the creating prompt: "The Kingdom of God is like ____________."

Now, we didn't need to use all the items on the list, although that might be a fun follow-up activity. We just started talking. "How is the Kingdom of God like a blank canvas? How is it like a painted canvas? How is it like a coffee mug?" We talked in our groups, then we talked as a larger group.

We had fun with this activity, and it was a great way to get to know each other. This activity would work better after the large group had looked at one of Christ's parables. Jesus took every day things/situations/activities and transformed them into stories that would help us understand God and God's purpose. We forget how strange those parables would have been to the audiences who first heard Jesus. But it's that strangeness that gets under our skin and makes us think.

We can do the same thing. We can create parables that will help us think about God and Kingdom building in new ways. We can create parables of wondrous strangeness that will get under people's skins.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Last Day to Order Chapbook and Influence the Size of the Press Run

Today is the last day for pre-publication orders of my forthcoming chapbook.  Have you ordered yours yet?  If not, go here to order your copy.  It will ship in June, and you'll have a lovely summer treat.

You may ask, why not wait to order until it's ready?  Because the press run is determined by how many books are ordered in this time period.  If the sales reach certain levels, more books are published, and since a second printing is unlikely, it would be great to make it to some of those higher levels.

Here's a poem to whet your appetite:

Sustainable Habitat
Since she has stuck to her diet for several days, she rewards
herself with extra cashews
for her meal of yogurt and raspberries.
She prepares a new pot
of shade-grown, fair trade coffee.
She thinks about the miles travelled
to bring her breakfast to her.

She sorts through a pile of manuscripts,
children’s stories, one of the few types of books
her publishing company will still print on paper.
She notices how many of them
are based on stories from vanished
cultures. She makes notes about illustrators
and thinks of her own paints
now gathering dust.

Later, she orders Christmas presents
for the children: plush
toys that turn rapacious predators
into cuddly comfort. Her purchase
supports a fund to sustain habitat.

She orders a holiday treat for herself:
a sparkly jewelry set crafted
by a woman several continents
away. It will perfectly complement
her holiday outfit that was constructed
in a factory on an island that will sink
under the rising seas by the end of the century.

To see how this poem interacts with others, order my forthcoming chapbook, Life in the Holocene Extinction, here. You'll find other poems of consolation and hope, poems that explore what elements of modern life give us hope in the face of all the stresses and calamities we face both individually, as a culture, and as a planet.