To Enjoy the Journey

Visual images are of course common for weblogs and in today’s culture.  However, I use visuals only infrequently for a reason:  I am a writer and I believe that words should, as a general rule, stand on their own.  I don’t do sites like Pinterest or Instagram . . . these things have their place, but not in my world.  (I encourage my lit students to find images of that which they have never encountered – say, a kingfisher when they are reading Hopkins’ “As kingfishers catch fire” – but this is to gain the necessary knowledge to envision the words, not because the picture is essential to the work itself.)  I’m not very visually oriented myself, but I find that there really are others, even in my students’ generation, who also are not enamored of visuals; I also don’t do Twitter and find the same:  many others are not enamored of messages that say next to nothing because they are undeveloped and unsupported.  Again, such media has its place, but not in my world, and especially not in the genre I am trying to learn and practice here.

The familiar essay is meant to take its time, to develop a theme or themes by indirection and reflection.  Its message can’t be stated in 140 characters; like a poem, its whole is far more than the sum of its parts.  A paraphrase or summary will never capture the essay’s meaning as it might for an academic article or a business report; the artifact itself is the meaning.  Like poetry, the essay describes in words, expecting the reader to use his imagination to see; like fiction, the essay offers narrative, expecting the reader to envision the story in his mind.  The essayist takes a line out for a walk and invites the reader to come along, to enjoy the journey without impatience for the conclusion.  This requires words, words that slow us down, help us to think, to reflect, to wonder, not to rush in search of the gist of things; it cannot be achieved by images or sound-bytes that bypass that process.

Assaying my World

I’ve been posting here awhile just for myself and a couple of friends as I’ve been experimenting with the familiar essay.  I’ve removed a few posts because, in revised form, they’ve been published in an online journal, certainly a satisfying achievement.  I’ve come to love this genre of writing, and it’s a special privilege that I can teach a class in it at the Christian college where I am a professor of English.  

I started blogging elsewhere years ago because I found it to be an excellent mode of “finger exercises”:  I don’t have to totally perfect something, but I do have to work on it, not just rant or be otherwise thoughtless, because it might have a real audience.  I must take care for style, but needn’t feel that it must be the absolute best prose I can possibly come up with.  In other words, it’s practice with a purpose which allows me to muse but with accountability for the product — and it keeps me working with words.

In the end, maybe some of the musings will come together and be the seeds of work that is worthy of more time spent to perfect for publication.  We shall see.  It’s a goal, but not as important as thinking things through, hoping to sort and understand my own thoughts, attend to the world around me and the words that I have to assay that world, and offer a bit of insight now and then that might be of interest to others.

Surprised by the Muse

(written in April 2011)

Yesterday I left home at 6:45 a.m. and returned at 9:45 p.m. – one of those long days that exhaust me to numbness. The evening’s activity was worth the consequences: honoring our senior thesis award winner, some time to chat with his family and other students. But it was a long day.

When I left in the morning, the horizon was just turning its morning pastels, the sky lightening to a darker shade of its approaching day-time hue. The morning star greeted me cheerfully in the blank expanse, promising a sunny day at last. I wondered where and when and what phase the moon might be.

During the drive and several times during the day, I found myself considering that question. I could have looked it up, but never considered doing so; I didn’t really want to know, I only wondered.

Next spring, I will have a sabbatical, my first one ever. My goal is to create a book-length collection of familiar essays; one of those essays will address why the moon has become my muse. And it is because the moon is my muse that I don’t study her phases and the times of her rising and setting.

A muse by definition is not predictable. She comes and goes at her own pleasure; mine teases with her appearance in faculty meetings and church services, refusing to show her face when time abounds. She offers brilliance that leads to pages of helpful words, or she might barely peek in, if I am fortunate, to offer the revision of a single phrase. As Flannery O’Connor said about her strict schedule of writing, working at her desk during the same hours each day, “If inspiration wants to find me, she knows where I am.” One cannot in any other way prepare for her wayward appearances, and so I have no desire to spoil the illusion of my muse’s lack of predictability with charts and graphs.

Still, my muse is not solely, or maybe even primarily, about the inspiration she now and then grants. She is more importantly about the reminder that I do this work not of myself – I am, as is she, merely reflected light. When I try to shine by my own power, I have only darkness to offer; I must do my work where I am and as I am directed, and let the One who is the Light decide what He will reflect of Himself in that work.

And so I never know where the moon is until she surprises me with her presence, in a noonday sky or on an eastern horizon, at the full or as a merest sliver. And so, turning onto the street of my home after my exhausting day, she lights my heart and spirit with her sudden, unexpected, and brilliant crescent directly ahead of me – and I am glad I was not looking for her.

Mockingbird in the Rain

My husband is working under the house, adding support under the floor before ordering a pool table.  It’s been raining — well, mostly sprinkling — off and on all morning.  I went out in it to get the last college errands taken care of before leaving tomorrow to spend several weeks with my recently widowed mother in another state.  It was cold and grey, and for once I didn’t care — the school year’s over and I’m happy just to have a break.

Back home, I’ve been taking care of emails, browsing the websites I enjoy reading — oh, glory, to do so on a Monday mid-morning! — and listening to the sounds of drills and hammers and moving lumber beneath me.  The sky began to lighten, so I decided to go outside and call an “I love you” under the house.

As I reached the corner where the hackberry tree stands, a huge raven lifted heavily from the grass and flew off in slow motion.  Good riddance.  Then I heard a bird singing above me, first one song, then a second, and I looked up and around for the mockingbird he had to be.  There he was, on a nearly bare branch high up on the redbud tree outside the crawl space entrance.  I watched for a couple of minutes as he went through one repertoire, sat silent for awhile, all the time looking all around the sky, then began another repertoire, completely different.  Sprinkles fell from the sky and he didn’t even shake his wings, just continued to sing while keeping watch over his territory.

The rain began to fall a bit more heavily and I moved slowly around the corner toward the shelter of the eaves, reluctant to frighten him and yet more reluctant to get soaked.  He continued to sing until I was nearly underneath, then off he flew, no doubt indignant at the interruption.

As I sit inside now in my corner room study, I hear him again, singing from the same spot, celebrating the returning sun.

Squirrels

{Just some fun stories for now, without any “deeper meaning,” but I think I have an inkling where this one might go, with a revision of perspective . . .}

Back when I taught at SMSU in Springfield, the campus was overrun with squirrels; they were everywhere, into everything, expecting and receiving free handouts along with the leftovers in the dumpsters. I wonder if any of them even ate nuts or other natural squirrel food.

It’s beginning to look a bit like that here. I don’t think they’re getting handouts yet; I do see them nibbling on acorns and such in the triangle, that grassy tree-filled space between the library, the student center, and the ad building. However, they are becoming much too comfortable with our presence. A couple of weeks ago, one did run from the sidewalk to a convenient tree as I approached, but I looked back to see him clinging to the trunk only a couple of feet above the ground and staring directly at me to see if I’d come any closer. Surely a natural squirrel would have been in the branches by that time.

Then there was the one that loped down the sidewalk just ahead of me last week, keeping only a three- or four-foot distance and glancing back now and then to make sure I wasn’t gaining too much. He had plenty of cover he could have chosen, plenty of trees he could have climbed . . . but no, he just bustled along the walk like a student not quite late to class.

The one that still bothers me, however, is the one I saw last Friday. Walking to class, enjoying a breezy cool day, I saw him on the walk ahead of me. He stopped, looked at me, stood his ground. I kept walking. He didn’t move. His beady little eye stayed fixed on me, and I was unpleasantly reminded that squirrels are just rats with prettier coats and fluffier tails. I stopped two feet from him and we locked eyes for several seconds, his glossy with malevolence. When I took my next step, he gave in and ran across the walk in front of me into the grass, putting perhaps three feet between us again. Then he stopped and watched me go on, waiting, I suppose, for me to get out of his territory.

His territory? Since when? The sidewalk’s mine, buddy. You ought to be in the branches above me, scolding if you must, but safely out of the way of any moving object so many times your size. Just who do you think you are?

All this has led me to recall my friend Jenny’s close encounter with a squirrel back in grad school. She called me at our shared office at the university one early morning and asked me to tell her students she would be a bit late and to wait for her because she couldn’t get out of her apartment. Every time she tried to open the screen door, she said, a squirrel hurled itself at her, intent on entry or on attack. She had called animal control and was waiting for them to remove it before she could get to campus.

I nearly died laughing that morning at the image of my gutsy friend held hostage by a rabid squirrel.

Yesterday, watching from the window of our house, I saw a much more natural squirrel. Relaxed at first as he wandered in the yard between ours and the neighbor’s house, looking for something worth eating, he began to be on guard as he approached the house fronts. The dogs next door hadn’t even barked yet when he sprang off, leaping two or three times his own length (including his tail), headed for the safety of a telephone pole. No dummy, he. The Yorkies barely outweighed him, but he wasn’t going to wait around to see if they were friendly. Nor did they offer any quarter; Maggie sat beneath the pole for at least twenty minutes keeping him at bay, letting him know who was in control.

True Stories

Gathering material . . .

A couple of weeks ago, reading in the living room, I heard a crow cawing loudly and angrily.  I turned to look out the window and found a mockingbird sailing to the lawn, not a crow anywhere in sight.

Last week, I parked under one of the bright parking lot lights when I got to campus.  As I got out of the car, retrieving my bags and books, I heard a chorus of birds welcoming the coming dawn.  The longer I listened, however, I began to realize no two birds were calling at once.  Sure enough, there on top of the lamppost sat a mockingbird, singing his heart out, offering me an exclusive spring-time concert.  I wonder if he was the same one on the roof that day we stared each other eye to eye . . .

Sabbatical

I have been approved for a sabbatical for Spring 2012, an opportunity to spend concentrated time writing.  Here’s what I wrote for the application to describe my goal for the time:

My intention [for the sabbatical] is to complete a book-length collection of familiar essays. For many years I have explored this genre: reading, studying, and teaching it; creating bits and pieces, starts and half-finished attempts. I have published a few reviews that fall to some degree within this genre, but would like to revisit some of these to make them less “reviews” and more “essays.” Since 2005, I have written nearly 400 posts at my personal weblog, well over half of which are actually beginnings and drafts of full-length familiar essays which need only development for breadth and depth to be complete. My recent discovery of G. Douglas Atkins’ work in the familiar essay genre reminded me yet again of its value and potential and of how I long to become adept in its achievement. Atkins in particular notes how the familiar essay can transcend the merely personal and earthly, how it can become incarnational in nature, ultimately suggesting to its readers the reality of the Incarnation itself. Whether I have the ability to do this, I don’t yet know . . . but I believe the trying – the essaying – is in itself work of value, both as it changes and challenges the writer and as it offers thoughtful considerations for the reader.

The topics on which I write are widely varied, but all circle back to themes of seeking what it means to live well, day by day, moment by moment, in this fallen world. Because I am a writer and a teacher of writing and literature, my essays often arise from and address works of literature and reflections on the writing life, as well as concerns about education and the lives of young men and women struggling in an increasingly chaotic and relativistic world. Because I am a woman and therefore a daughter and sister, a wife, mother, and grandmother, my essays also often derive from these roles and relationships, as well as from the sharpening iron of friendships forged over the years. Inevitably, my sufferings and trials underlie my writing choices and perspectives as I seek joy and hope in their midst. Since the familiar essay uses the particulars of the writer’s life to connect with, comment on, and illuminate the universality of human experience, this personal approach places my work solidly within that genre. I wish to bring these varied subjects and perspectives together under the concept of reflected light: as the moon has no light of its own but only reflects the light of the sun as their separate positions dictate, we should strive not to create our own light but to reflect the light of Christ in all we do and are.

I plan to spend this summer and fall gleaning from the work I’ve started those idea drafts that look best suited for this project, beginning to organize them, and starting the reading that I’d like to do alongside the writing.  It’s an exciting and scary prospect, certainly, and I’m anticipating learning as much (or more) about myself as about anything else.

cross-posted at Inscapes