“I will not measure you out any more distress than you need to write your books. Do you want any less than that?”
It’s Friday again. Another long week perhaps? I seem to be on a music run and that's probably because the workweeks have indeed been long here lately. Try this song to close out the week, "The Once and Future Carpenter" by the Avett Brothers, from their album The Carpenter.
My son introduced me to the Avett Brothers about five years ago when he and his buddy played their album I and Love and You, including the title song with it’s line "Brooklyn Brooklyn Take Me Home," on repeat while painting rooms in our house to earn the money for their one-way plane tickets to NYC after college graduation. While the music played, I sat at my computer in the adjacent room, trying to work, trying to swallow down the lump in my throat. I like the Avett Brothers’ sound, and the thoughts and emotions in their songs, but they are always linked in my mind to those boys singing along on the threshold of adventure, that moment of leaving something behind and pursuing what’s next, of continuing to become who you’re going to become. This song speaks to that, to living the life you’re given.
The song’s refrain:
Forever I will move like the world that turns beneath me
And when I lose my direction I'll look up to the sky
And when the black cloak drags upon the ground
I'll be ready to surrender, and remember
Well we're all in this together
If I live the life I'm given, I won’t be scared to die
Click here to read an interview with the Avett Brothers from Entertainment Weekly about their album The Carpenter.
Cities have been on my mind lately, partly because we just helped my son and daughter-in-law move from one city to another. From Chicago here, to Minneapolis. I have a long history with both these cities. I went to college in Chicago and have loved it ever since. I have family and friends there and so have visited often over the years, particularly after my son also went to college there and then planted roots and stayed. As for Minneapolis, I’ve lived here, in the city limits, nearly all of my adult life. My other son went to school in Boston, but he now lives in New York City and has been our guide and teacher for understanding that overwhelming but glorious place. My husband is a student of skyscrapers and other city architecture. You could say we’re a city-type family.
The summer issue of Comment magazine is focused on cities (“The Other Side of the City”), and I’ve been reading it with interest. The essays in this issue are challenging my thinking about cities. Despite my confidence in getting on a subway or finding a restaurant, how much do I really know about the inner workings or social architecture of the cities I love? Coincidentally, the issue’s first page is Carl Sandburg’s poem, "Chicago."
Editor James K. A. Smith writes in the title essay,
[T]his issue also invites you to consider the unseen side of the city, the social infrastructure that undergirds it—the web of institutions and systems that make it possible, like the hidden girders and encased skeletons that hold up our skyscrapers. The city isn't just a mission field, a dense audience for Gospel proclamation; it is also a human cultural creation, born of necessity and desire, a way that humans seek to live together. But such a reality is not magic, nor is it merely "natural;" it is an astounding cultural feat that requires constant maintenance, renewal, and reform, especially in a fallen world. Infrastructure isn't sexy and doesn't get much press. Nobody moves to the city for the sewers, sanitation, or the municipal master plan. And yet these invisible skeletons of the city are what sustain its life.
You can read the complete essay here as well as an essay by Milton Friesen, “The City is Complex: Lessons from The Wire.” The rest of the issue is accessible only by print or digital subscription, which I recommend by the way. Comment is a quarterly magazine (tagline: “public theology for the common good”) and is always filled with themed and thought-provoking material.
What cities have you known and loved?
[Photo: Taken approaching Chicago's Gold Coast, southbound on Lakeshore Drive.]
Books often jump off the shelves at just the right time. I’m always amazed and grateful when that happens. This morning I found several pages of handwritten project notes I’d made some time ago about which I’d forgotten and the discovery encouraged me greatly. Despite the fact that I’d let these notes fall through the organizational cracks, I’ll count their reappearance just now as a serendipitous delight the same as one of those mysteriously launched books.
[Photo: taken on a tour of labyrinths in the Minneapolis area.]
A short review by John Wilson on the Books and Culture website tipped me off to this book, In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist by Ruchama King Feuerman. Set in Jerusalem, it’s a story in which the main characters orbit around the garden of a dying rebbe and his gifted wife, (i.e., rebbetzin), a garden in which people in need or in trouble gather daily for help.
There is a love-story too, as wonderfully improbable as it is commonplace, and a jailhouse gathering for worship, and much more. (In one of its aspects, the novel is a story of vocation, finally recognized and shouldered after long deferral.) Altogether delicious.
It’s Wilson’s last point that intrigued me. At the beginning of the novel, neither of the two main characters are who or what they hoped to be. Isaac. a Jew, once a haberdasher from New York’s Lower East Side had longed to be a rabbi but now finds himself only an assistant to a rebbe. Mustafa, a a Muslim, longs for a position of respect but can’t seem to rise above his janitorial job on the Temple Mount. There are good reasons each of them is stuck where they are: the circumstances of real life beyond their control, betrayals by people they loved, and physical limitations, among others. Throughout the novel, though, each of the characters sees things and calls out things in the other that trigger transformation. Other characters join in, seeing Isaac and Mustafa for who they are, who they can be. New circumstances shape them.
I think this is true to life, that we don’t become who we are meant to become in a vacuum. We need others to call things out in us, we need to look deeply at others as well. I think it’s also true that who we are to become may not look as we originally imagined it to be.
“You said I was like a kohein,” Mustafa explained. “But a kohein is very important, and I …” he trailed off as he glanced at his old work clothes. “Oh.” Rabbi Isaac was quiet. Then he began to speak. “He burned incense on the altar each morning when he cleaned out the lamps. He lit the lamps the night before. He swept up the ashes from the sacrifices. He maintained a plumbing system on the Temple Mount. This way it was easy to clean up the blood.” “Me too,” Mustafa said, tapping his chest. He cleaned the bathroom, he made sure to replace the burned-out bulbs. He swept and hosed down the place, just like the kohein. Mustafa gazed in wonder. “Now I understand. The kohein is a janitor.” The rabbi rubbed his parsnip nose. “I—” He scratched the side of his jaw. “In a way, yes. A holy custodian,” he assented. “The word kohein means ‘to serve.’ It says in our Torah, God chose Israel to be a nation of koheins, of priests—chosen to serve.” At these words, Mustafa’s head exploded with happiness. Picked by Allah! To serve!”
By day I'm a medical writer. After hours I do another kind of work. Creative writing, spiritual writing, essaying. This blog arises from those after hours. I write about work/vocation, meaning, hope, imagination, faith, science, creativity/writing, books, and anything else I feel the impulse to write about. I hope these short posts provide camaraderie for your own creative and spiritual life.
Many years ago I read Strength to Love, a book of sermons, by Martin Luther King Jr. It was published in 1963 just after the campaign in Birmingham and a couple years before the historic march from Selma to Montgomery. In honor of King on this day, here are some of the passages I copied out.
Here in the U.S., we’ve had a tumultuous week following a difficult election. In the midst of all the inner and online clamor, I read a social media post offered by artist and author Makoto Fujimura that struck me: "No matter what your reaction to this historic election, our response should be to cultivate the good, true and the beautiful.”
I've been thinking about the lines of the IRS Form 1040. The line for wages earned. The line for unemployment compensation. The lines for gains and losses, the line for deductions of multiple varieties (say, medical expenses or charitable giving). Check here for spouse. Check here for dependents. Has there been alimony? Social security distributions? A pension or loans or education? How succinctly these numbers capture a year in a life. Three hundred and sixty-five days knotted into odd and even numbers of variable digit lengths, with or without cents. Handle with care, I want to write across the top...
The November/December issue of Poets & Writers magazine featured a cover story on Marilynne Robinson. Her most recent books are the novel Lila and the essay collection The Givenness of Things. The piece gave much focus to her writing process. One of the photos was of a window in her home study that she sits near while writing long-hand in a hardcover notebook. Line-by-line, first sentence to last, she writes her books without revision. Let me say that again: without revision. While I can’t relate to the “without revision” aspect of Robinson’s writing process, I can relate to her distinction...
My point of view in Finding Livelihood resonates with Frankl’s. Losing sight of what lies beyond the work-a-day world, in terms of unseen reality, boundless and timeless, means losing your daily spiritual hold, means finding that only the is-this-all-there-is question remains. Without drawing a line too darkly between life in a prison camp and life on the job or life at any other daily post, I think the modern worker or modern person at any stage of life can learn much from Frankl.
At the upcoming Festival of Faith and Writing in April, I’ll be leading a “Festival Circle,” which is a small group that meets a couple times during the event to focus on a specific topic. My circle is on the topic of “How to Be A Writer with A Day Job.” If you’ve read my book Finding Livelihood, you will have felt that tension on the pages.
On a busy morning of a work-crammed week of a deadline-driven month, these words from Kathleen Norris in Dakota: A Spiritual Geography are like an island of calm. Taking two minutes to read them is act of guerrilla leisure, "guerilla" referring, of course, to an unconventional approach when you have little to spare or spend. Maybe reading them will be that for you too.
Lax was a poet who lived a reclusive life on the island of Patmos, Greece. He was a dear friend of Thomas Merton. He was a former circus clown (!) and writer for The New Yorker. I’m sure never before has circus clown and writer for the The New Yorker appeared on the same resume.
More good words about Finding Livelihood went out over digital space in the last couple weeks. It's not easy for books published by small presses and written by small writers to make their way in the world, and I'm so grateful when somebody spots mine and gives it a shout-out.
Last week Salon.com ran an excerpt from a new book by Allison J. Pugh, The Tumbleweed Society: Working and Caring in an Age of Insecurity (Oxford University Press). The excerpt is published under the title, “Your job will never love you: Stress and anxiety in our frightening new job world.” This excerpt nails it. If you didn’t feel stressed and anxious before reading it, you will feel that way by the end.
It would take lifetimes to do all I want to do. I’m just finishing a new online class; the stack of books to read grows; the list of books and essays I dream of someday writing grows; there are so many publications to which I’d like to subscribe and have the time to read. Multiple careers still intrigue me. Life is so exciting in this way. I worry I’ll never get it all in—and I won’t. Nevertheless, it makes me happy that I think this about life.