"Keep your eyes clean and your ears quiet and your mind serene. Breathe God’s air.
Work, if you can, under His sky.
But if you have to live in a city and work among machines and ride in the subways and eat in a place where the radio makes you deaf with spurious news and where the food destroys your life and the sentiments of those around you poison your heart with boredom, do not be impatient, but accept it as the love of God and as a seed of solitude planted in your soul.
If you are appalled by those things, you will keep your appetite for the healing silence of recollection. But meanwhile—keep your sense of compassion for the men who have forgotten the very concept of solitude.
You, at least, know that it exists, and that it is the source of peace and joy
You can still hope for such joy. They do not even hope for it any more."
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.]
This past weekend my husband and I went to a retreat studded with silence. A communal silence. Yes, there was laughter and conversation, music and chit-chat, but the periods of silence were the most resonant. Silence after prayer, after reading of the Psalms, before lunch, around a bonfire (of course, after and not while smores were being made). Sometimes the silence was suggested by those leading the retreat and sometimes - such as around the fire, when the logs had burned down to embers - the silence arose organically, a mutually-given gift of peace. A shared comfort and understanding. A new friend said with a catch in her voice that the silence was so present she could touch it.
Towards the end of this weekend cycling of words and refraining from words, I led a short hands-on writing workshop. No words in the air but words spilling out on paper. Sometimes you have to stop the flow of the first in order to open the flow of the second. I loved the smiles breaking out as discoveries were made, personal messages that emerge when you fill pages and then sit with them for awhile. Even through this, though, we sat together at tables and the writing silence was communal. I’m quite sure the silence feeds the writing, and community feeds personal discovery. Paradox abounds.
[Photo: Taken on walk on said retreat; walk was in silence but I do admit to checking my email while walking.]
My husband and I have taken to saying “it’s always ten o’clock or Christmas,” meaning that the days and the years fly by so fast that it seems we are always either saying good night or scrambling to wrap presents. I’ve been reading Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer. Foer describes his research into, encounters with, and training by memory champions who can do feats such as memorize the sequence of one or more decks of cards in a matter of minutes and the sequence of a thousand random numbers in an hour. One of these champions, Ed Cooke, sheds some light on the reason why time seems to be speeding faster and faster with each year.
“I’m working on expanding subjective time so that it feels like I live longer,” Ed had mumbled to [Foer] on the sidewalk outside the Con Ed headquarters, a cigarette dangling from his mouth. “The idea is to avoid that feeling you have when you get to the end of the year and feel like, where the hell did that go?”
Cooke’s idea is that by providing more chronological landmarks of your life, you can make yourself more aware of the passing of time. “The more we pack our lives with memories, the slower time seems to fly.” Intentionally paying attention to, marking and remembering, moments in a day is particularly important as we age because our lives tend to become more and more routine and less memorable. Foer quotes William James who long ago wrote, “[A]s each passing year converts some of this experience into automatic routine which we hardly note at all, the days and the weeks smooth themselves out in recollection to contentless units, and the years grow hollow and collapse.” Hence, it’s always ten o’clock or Christmas.
Time for a wake-up call.
It’s easy to forget to pay attention to all the little thoughts and sensory events that make up a day, and I like this reminder to do so as well as the possibility of a pay-off in terms of slowing the perception of time. I’ve been experimenting with using a diary application called Day One. You can make entries in an electronic diary by day and time, but its genius is that it sends you a reminder at times you can schedule. Just jot something in the pop-up box that appears in the corner of your screen and you’ve created a new chronological landmark. Can’t think of anything to write down? The program gives you prompts to use as springboards.
This morning over at the Good Letters blog, Kelly Foster writes about pessimism and prayer, the murderous and the marvelous in “Reckoning the Marvelous.” Kelly is a good friend, an incredible writer and a beautiful person. Do yourself a favor and read her ongoing work at Good Letters, and this post in particular.
I could even see myself clinging desperately to my own vigilant anxieties as if they could buoy me or conversely, as if remaining anxious and vigilant would somehow communicate to God, as if he was unaware, my utter seriousness and desperation for the need for a happy ending in this case.
I could almost see myself physically holding the tension, grasping after it, squeezing it in my hands, clutching it to my chest. I could almost envisage my anxiety as a pulsating cloud, a more powerful force for good or for a solid outcome than God.
My boyfriend, who is about as gracious and empathetic a human as you will ever meet, made a simple but profound point when I confessed my panicked visions to him.
“Maybe we have to make space in prayer for the belief that good things happen too,” he said, kindly, kissing my forehead and putting his arm around my shoulder.
Read the post in its entirety here.
Ann Conway writes this morning in Image Journal's "Good Letters" blog, on the practice of noticing and collecting the wealth of images around us and making something whole in the process. There's much wisdom here, not just about writing, but also about life.
Here in central Maine, the world has come down to bone. The songbirds are gone and crows, which poet Mary Oliver terms “the deep muscle of the world,” have taken over my street. The landscape seems empty; the ground, a carpet of desiccated leaves.
One longs for the blanketing stillness of snow. The world, dark at four, appears grim.
I’ve started keeping a commonplace book in the hope of seeing better.
Keep reading "Commonplacing."
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. See more at The Livelihood Project.