First I read Christian Wiman's "Love Bade Me Welcome," (reprinted from American Scholar in Best American Spiritual Essays), wherein Wiman (poet as well as editor of the preeminent journal Poetry) discovers, on the heels of finding true love and a subsequent journey to faith, that he has incurable cancer in his blood. It was perhaps this crisis that informed the next essay I read which appears in the 20th Anniversary Issue of Image Journal. It's one of those pieces of writing which causes you to pause and take stock of what you are doing, to evaluate your motives and expectations, particularly if you are an artist. I suggest you buy the journal and read the entire essay which alone is worth the price of admission (although the entire journal is packed with great stuff including perennial personal faves: Scott Cairns, Robert Cording and Franz Wright.) These are excerpts that made their way into my journal:
"All ambition has the reek of disease about it, the relentless smell of the self....
So long as your ambition is to stamp your existence upon existence, your nature on nature, then your ambition is corrupt and you are pursuing a ghost.
Still, there is something that any artist is in pursuit of, and is answerable to, some nexus of one's being, one's material, and Being itself. The work that emerges from this crisis of consciousness may be judged a failure or a success by the world, and that judgement will still sting or flatter your vanity. But it cannot speak to this crisis in which, for which, and of which the work was made. For any artist alert to his own soul, this crisis is the only call that matters. I know no other name for it besides God, but people have other names, or no names.
An artist who loses this internal arbiter is an artist who can no longer hear the call that first came to him. Better to be silent then. Better to go into the world and do good work, rather than to lick and cosset a canker of resentment or bask your vanity in hollow acclaim.
We come closer to the truth of the artist's relation to divinity if we think not of being made subject to God but of being subjected to God -- our individual subjectivity being lost and rediscovered within the reality of God. Human imagination is not simply our means of reaching out to God but God's means of manifesting himself to us. It follows that any notion of God that is static is not simply sterile but, since it asserts singular knowledge of God and seeks to limit his being to that knowledge, blasphemous."
Thursday, January 22, 2009
Sunday, January 18, 2009
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
which should really keep me in the right frame of mind (and a thick sweater) as I continue reading Barry Lopez's Arctic Dreams. It dawns on me now that far above the tree line, the tundra of the Artic Circle is the inversion of my beloved desert, the frigid version of vast, vacant and severely inhospitable terrain. Would you rather fend off heatstroke or frostbite? Rattle snakes or polar bears? Thirst or canyons of ice? Intense sunlight or no sunlight?
Lopez's vivid descriptions of the Arctic expanse with its "lamellation of snow," and its "irenic northern summers," is giving my avocabulary a workout as well as providing instruction in biology, ecology, history, anthropology, geography and the persuasive reminder that, "the world is oddly hinged."
Lopez questions what, today, provides us a sense of wealth:
"Is it to retain a capacity for awe and astonishment in our lives, to continue to hunger after what is genuine and worthy? Is it to live at moral peace with the universe?
It is impossible to know, clearly, the answer to this question; but by coming to know a place where the common elements of life are understood differently one has the advantage of an altered perspective. With that shift, it is possible to imagine afresh the way to a lasting security of the soul and heart, and toward an accommodation in the flow of time we call history, ours and the world's."
When even a few days of temperatures so low hitting zero seems luxurious, when fierce winds threaten to rattle the shingles from the roof and we are reminded of how small and vulnerable we really are, when we're forced to bundle up against the common elements of life, the behavior of which cannot be taken for granted, fresh perspective can blow in alongside blinding lamellations of snow.
Tuesday, January 06, 2009
My British Santa was good to me again this Christmas, filling my stocking with the several of the "Best American Series 2008." (Do they have a Best British series?) One of the gems of this year's Best Spiritual Writing is Heather King's short essay "The Closest to Love We Ever Get." After reading her piece, I googled her name and found from her bio that we both spent the 80's in Boston, but on opposite sides of the barstool. My loss. I'd like to get my eyes on some more of her work (she is also a commentator for NPR's All Things Considered.) On why she who loves quiet and solitude has lived in crowded, noisy Koreatown for 11 years King writes:
"Wending my way home with my books, my vision temporarily transformed, I'm not seeing the refrigerators abandoned on the sidewalk, the triple-parked ice cream trucks, the overflowing trash cans. I'm seeing flashes of colorful Mexican tile, the 98-cent-store mural of waltzing Ajax cans and jitterbugging mops, my favorite flowers: the heliotrope on Ardmore, the wisteria near Harvard the lemon on Mariposa. Or maybe it's not that I'm seeing one group of things instead of another but, for one fleeting moment, all simultaneously: the opposites held in balance a paradigm for the terrible tension and ambiguity of the human condition; the dreadful reality that we can never quite be sure which things we have done and which things we have failed to do, the difference between how we long for the world to be and how it must be a kind of crucifixion in the darkest, most excruciating depths of which we discover--the rear windows of the parked cars I'm walking by now covered with jacaranda blossoms--it's not that there's not enough beauty; it's that there's so much it can hardly be borne."
[This essay is reprinted from Portland Magazine, out of the University of Portland, edited by Brian Doyle. His picks litter the "Best of"s every year and are always among my favorite pieces. The above detail is Georges Rouault.]
Saturday, January 03, 2009
was not much different than the end of 07 or most other years. The frantic lead up to Christmas in this house begins at Thanksgiving which involves guests or travel, leading into a birthday and bonfire, an anniversary celebration and the mad scramble to secure the right gifts for friends and family as well as making sure Santa is on top of things. There are gingerbread houses to be made, cookies to be sprinkled and winter villages to erect. It's all quite wonderful and quite exhausting. This year we played with our shiny new toys for one day and then left them under the tree, unplugged the colored lights and headed to Texas.
We pulled onto I-70 and joined the thousands of others making their way to or from home, cars loaded with kids or 18 wheelers loaded with who knows what and settled in for a long day of driving. I discovered an app for my iphone which allowed us to tune into any NPR show we wanted. We listened to 3 months worth of Fresh Air on the drive down. Did you know there is a big difference between ultra pasteurized and batch pasteurized milk? That an African Gray parrot can do calculations? That Kit Kittredge, An American Girl was one of the top 10 movies of the year?
I love a good, long ride, this route in particular. We left Missouri in a downpour, traveled through snow, sleet and 28 degrees in Kansas and emerged back into bright sun and 50 degrees in Dallas. Between Emporia (where we religiously exit for JavaCat) and Wichita, we savor the Flint Hills in all their seasonal variations. This time the skies were leaden, the landscape sheathed in ice, the grass frozen sideways. But always the hills radiating their rich hues.
Our time in Texas was Christmas all over again: the Nasher Sculpture Museum, the discovery of the Bishop Arts District in Oak Cliff where we'd driven to find a book restorer (my mother recently unearthed my great 3x grandmother's 1859 family Bible rotting in my grandfather's garage in Florida) and discovered delectable pumpkin pancakes at Cafe Brazil, rendevouz with many of our closest friends, short but sweet time with my parents and brother's family.
We're back home. The tree is petrified, gifts are scattered around the house, my clothes are tighter. I'm reading cards that arrived in our absence, fending off another bout of Christmas card guilt (another year of good intentions and empty mailboxes.) I'm making my way through backed up email, catching up on friends' blogs and making note of who I need to write. Good intentions all around. Happy New Year, everyone.