Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Howl's Moving Castle

After seeing Spirited Away only once, I was deeply in love with Hayao Miyazaki's animation. Finally, someone who realized the medium's capacity to be surreal, magical, and transformative. "It's like spending two hours in someone else's deeply meaningful dream," said Janet. So Howl's Moving Castle, Miyazaki's 2004 adaption of a Diana Wynn Jone's novel, moved to the top of my NetFlix queue.

The two films have a striking number of parallels. Both feature young heroines who become entangled in magical worlds as the result of enchantments, who unravel the past of mysterious magical benefactors and liberate them by helping them find their true selves. But Castle is more grown up, a little darker and scarier than Spirited Away, but also with more complexity in the characters and the plot.

It is, more than anything, a story about transformations: every single character undergoes a physical as well as metaphorical reshaping. Sophie, a young woman cursed by the jealous Witch of the Waste, is turned into an old woman, and goes on a quest to reclaim her youth. Howl, a perpetual adolescent of a wizard, transforms into a giant bird in his efforts to avert a war, and struggles to regain his full humanity. Enemies turn into friends, friends into enemies, minor players become major players . . . and all their stories are linked together in a beautiful synchronicity.

The movie has some funny moments that struck me as very Buffy-esque in their mash-up of the fantastic and the all-to-human. In one scene, Howl reads a curse that has magically appeared during breakfast: "That is ancient sorcery, and quite powerful too. 'You who swallowed a falling star, o' heartless man, your heart shall soon be mine,' " Howl recites seriously. Then, after a beat: "That can't be good for the table." Or, when the enchanted fire Calcifer (voiced by Billy Crystal) is asked to cook breakfast: "No! I don't cook! I am very powerful and scary fire demon!" Or when ominous shadows gather around a despondant Howl, his apprentice Markl says, "He's summoning the spirits of darkness . . . I saw him do this once before, after a girl dumped him."

I could (and probably will) write a full-length essay giving a Jungean spiritual analysis of Howl's Moving Castle. Some college senior taking a graduate seminar in film studies will probably thank me for writing his term paper. Or maybe not . . . I found it interesting (and a little sad) that most of the links that I googled up on "Howl's Moving Castle analysis" were ads for term paper services. But among mountains of online reviews (many mixed in their reactions), only one pointed out that the heroine's name was Sophia, literally "wisdom", and saw it as a pointer to a larger allegory. In dream analysis a house is a standard symbol for the self, and moving castle of the title undergoes a continual transformation through the story, reflecting the wizard's own internal evolution.


Friday, June 08, 2007

Rite of Passage

My son graduated from kindergarten yesterday. I used to be mildly contemptuous of calling anything below getting your diploma a "graduation" -- it smacked of an overweening praise-everything-and-everyone parenting culture that watered down real standards and discredited real achievement. Surely we don't need pomp and circumstance for someone learning to tie their shoes and sit quietly in circle.

But that's why I send my kids to a Waldorf school. They are much wiser about these things than I am. The teachers understand that the work the kindergartners are doing is real work. The capacities they are developing for cooperation, self-control, consistent application of energy, and respect for others are the bedrock of a successful life. It is an accomplishment to learn those things.

The ceremony was simple. Miss Patricia told a story about a young princess who played in a garden every day, until one day she strayed through garden walls and explored the outside world, worrying the king at first but prompting him to let her explore the world some more. Miss Patricia handed each child an orange ("to sustain you in the work you have to do"), a stone ("for wisdom to always choose to do the right thing") and a flower ("to remind you of the beauty of the garden, and find beauty in the outside world.") And when the children went outside to join the other classes, the rising first-graders walked through a flowered trellis, to symbolism their transition out of the garden.

None of this would have impressed me particularly, except for the effect that I saw it had on Aidan. There was no visible effect at the time, other than him just enjoying himself. But at home, he asked if he could use a tool that were previously off-limits: a swing-blade for whacking down large weeds. And I let him. He accepted my instruction seriously and without argument. He was extremely careful in using it, and worked hard to make sure his little brother was never threatened by the blade. Later that evening he picked up all the toys, telling his little brother that, "You don't have to worry about it, I'll do it." He fed the dogs without the usual arguments and tantrums. He asked if he could make it his regular job: "I know I could remember to do it . . . I would just need help telling the time."

I never had to tell him, "Now that you're a big boy, you should be accepting new responsibilities." (I remember in my grade school, the teachers always bellowing, "Now, children, you're no longer (x) graders, you're (x+1) graders, so you should behave better." I always despised that for some reason, and it never worked, anyway.) I didn't have to have that conversation, because the ritual had already told him.

The logical, rational mind will always chafe at ceremony and ritual. There is nothing rational about ceremony. It smacks of superstitious magic -- the vain belief that saying the right words and doing the right symbolic actions will mysteriously make the world obey your desires. But the human psyche is not rational, and the will and imagination do obey the laws of magic. You will hear people say that something is "merely symbolic" or "only metaphorical" when they discuss religious practices, as well. The mistake is not to call them symbolic or metaphorical; the mistake is to say, "merely symbolic." In the context of the human mind, nothing is merely symbolic. The mind is just one huge cavalcade of symbols, "a mobile army of metaphors" as Nietzsche put it. Symbols have real power.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

What I'm Reading

I've got a new slew of books that I'm diving into this summer, any one of which would be a good book to discuss with a group. The nominees for book-of-the-summer-months include:
  • The Not So Big Life, by Sarah Susanka. After hearing Ms. Susanka on the radio, I sensed a kindred spirit who is putting spiritual truths into everyday language. The best-selling architect describes how constructing a satisfying life is not that different from building a good house: rather than piling on more and more stuff we don't want or need, we need to simplify, removing the unnecessary and focusing on what really matters. If this sounds like the blurb of every self-help book you've ever read, don't be deceived; Susanka is not merely spouting platitudes, but rather has some real sophistication and depth in her approach. The message is not that different from the via negativa that Augie Turak might describe, although the tone is significantly different. Augie's description's of spiritual life are unrelentingly intense, while Susanka is composed and relaxed. (500 words: Compare and contrast. Go!)
  • Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing, by Soren Kierkegaard. If you want to crank up the intensity, look no further than Kierkegaard, who got the "founder of existentialism" label for a reason. Kierkegaard has the audacity to take the Gospel seriously, and he deconstructs Christ's commandments with insightful psychology and an unwaveringly look at how demanding it really is. Kierkegaard, too, is calling for simplicity and integrity, but with no holds barred.
  • How the Mind Works, by Steven Pinker. Kenny Felder and Augie Turak turned me on to Pinker with The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, and I've moved on to get more of his solid cognitive science wrapped in witty and readable prose. Warning: Pinker is so persuasive in his thorough scientific-ness that he'll make a materialist if you don't pay close attention. But Richard Rose once defined meditation as "thinking about thinking," and that's exactly what Pinker does.
  • Software Testing Foundations, by Spillner, Linx, and Schefer. (Just kidding.)
  • I Am a Strange Loop, by Douglas Hofstadter. The Pulitzer-Prize winning Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid set the standard for really smart, really deep, really fun books that are not only worth engaging, but almost require a group of people to read it because there's so much stuff. Now Hofstadter is back, decades later, with a book focused solely on the question of consciousness. I'd love to have some help with this one.
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I mean, who isn't reading it? I've had enough intelligent conversations about Harry Potter with Kenny to convince me that it should be good fare for conversation, and will give you something to talk about with most of the literate world. And it might be slightly more upbrow than Stephan King.

What are you reading this summer?


Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Ready, Fire, Aim

The world is so fast-paced now that we actually publish stuff before we've written it. I've set up a new website, the next great nexus of spiritual energy: www.thedynamicground.com

Of course, if you go there, you'll see that there's hardly anything there. And that's precisely the point. In the past, I've nearly always succumbed to the temptation to craft something in secret, under wraps, and then have the "ta-DA!" presto presentation that amazes all. And it just doesn't work very well. At least, not for me . . . and not for every organization I've worked with that tried to build a website that amounted to more than brochureware.

Website design usually bogs down into inaction because:
  • Glitzy presentation is overrated. Especially in the dot.com days of yore, everyone wanted a website that looked great -- which was fine for that all-important first-impression. But after that . . . people cared about content. They wanted useful information, presented simply, as easily as possible. Nowadays the only sites that are heavily Flash-enabled are movie sites: one-time events with limited updates. And the king of all sites is Google, with the simplest interface ever designed: type what you want here, and here's a list of what we found. So, when it comes to making compelling websites, less is more. That is, less design, more content.
  • The perfect is the enemy of the good. Most of the time, the content doesn't have to be perfect. It just has to be good enough. But the amount of time required to get new content on a website was so long (what with hard-to-understand techie tools, or worse, hard-to-understand techies) that we would only ask for stuff to be posted once we knew it was perfect. But blogging has taught me that sometimes quick-and-dirty is just fine, maybe even 80% of perfect.
  • Collaboration is difficult, bordering on impossible. Most sites have one or two webmasters who can load up new content, so all changes went through a bottleneck that made rapid, timely changes almost impossible. Getting multiple people together to provide the necessary content either meant an exhaustive round of extracting material, or an equally exhausting round of could-you-fix-this from contributors after posting.
  • Websites are too much work for one person. No single individual ever had enough time to make a perfect website . . . not even a pretty good website. It usually requires collective effort. But since the threshhold for collaborating was previously so high, the good stuff rarely made it out to the web. I can't begin to count how many times I've heard people say, "That ought to be on the website," but it never made it there. The Wikipedia proved that if you can tap into tiny contributions from lots and lots and lots of contributors over time, you can have extremely rich content without someone dedicating their whole life to maintaining it.
  • Navigation and search design hampered availability. Even once you got good content online, it used to muster, unused and unappreciated, because it was buried beneath menus or orphaned by dead links. Google changed all that. Now, if your content is distinct enough, it will be found by somebody looking for it, no matter how deeply buried, or poorly promoted. Now people who have something to offer can focus on creating content, instead of designing navigation.

Hence, my current fascination with wiki technology. "Build it and they will come" has turned into "They will come and build it." Now, I'm not completely seduced yet by the promise of easy content -- "this time it's different" was the rallying cry of the dot-com boom, and the ironic scorn following the dot-com bust. Somebody still has to bust their hump to create content, direct vision, promote and cross-link the site, sustain the community, blah, blah. But now, at least, that someone is not alone.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Into kinda-good silence

The day after watching Into Great Silence Joanna commented that we didn't talk much about silence, per se. While asceticism, selfless, sacrifice, and isolation were all recognized, we didn't even hit on the title aspect of the film. So, ignoring for the moment the irony of talking about silence . . . what's so great about silence? And how could we have more of that in our own lives?

The film itself only made one reference to silence, by quoting a passage from I Kings 19:
The LORD said, "Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD,
for the LORD is about to pass by." Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

God manifests in the whisper, the "still small voice," and that we usually need to abide in silence before we are able to hear it. Nothing really new, there . . . a chestnut of spiritual traditions. Nor would I be adding much by talking about the opposite of silence, which is noise. Yes, these are indeed noisy times, with an exponential increase in the sheer volume of communications competing constantly for our attention.

I would add that silence is as much about energy conservation as it is about tuning into Grace. We grossly underestimate how much energy is consumed in communiction. When I was in a ten-day Vipassana retreat, we were forbidden to speak, read, write, or even make eye contact. As a result, I built up a tremendous amount of energy, so much that I could barely sleep at night. One the final day of the retreat, when we were allowed to talk again, I could feel all that energy go PSSSSSSSTTT right out of me again. It was a little humbling, as someone who had dedicated much of my life to spiritual conversation, to realize that talking used up so much power and focus. Nor did silence compromise intimacy, either . . . deprived of all small talk and personal stories, I found myself in rapport with all the others in the retreat. I knew who was sick and who was healthy, who was having a good meditation and who was frustrated. All kinds of subtle knowledge from unspoken cues becomes conscious when you are liberated from the gross.

Are we talking about literal silence, here? Do you need to take a vow of silence to realize the spiritual benefit of stillness? Or can you abide in stillness in your daily routine, as a gush of slim self-help books proclaim? Well . . . yes, I think we're talking about literal silence, or at least, minimal noise. Many teachers have witnessed to the capacity of maintaining stillness-amid-noise -- even, as Fleet Maull describes, stillness-amid-sheer-hell. But that only comes from becoming comfortable with periods of real silence, within and without. Like the monks, I'm a big fan of doing spiritual disciplines in the early morning hours, when the world is asleep and your own stillness has not yet been stirred up by the day.

And then, if you can establish yourself in some stillness at the beginning of the day, the trick is to not give it away. The Buddhists have a notion of "right speech," which really breaks down "don't say anything you don't have to say." If you eliminate gossip, complaining, and small talk, you could do away with 80% of all typical conversations. And if you could do the same with your internal dialog, you could probably cut out a similar percentage of distracting thought. That's actually an enormous challenge . . . and you may find it easier, as the monks do, to be completely still.

Monday, June 04, 2007

The greatest good

After we watched Into Great Silence, one young woman (who had only managed to watch half of the movie before giving up and waiting in the cafe next door) asked us, "How are those monks helping the world?" It's not an uncommon question . . . Augie told of another guest at Mepkin who said something to the effect of: "Those monks are really something . . . but I don't see what they're doing to move the ball down the field." I still find it one of the saddest and most infuriating of questions . . . where do I begin?

I suppose I should begin with the answer the monks themselves gave, in the only interview in the entire movie. "It is such a shame that the world has lost it's sense of God," the monk said. "If you remove the thought of God, then why even be alive on this planet? If you get as close as you can to God, then you are happy." If you truly believe in a transcendant God, whose timeless reality transcends all that will ever happen, what could possibly be more important than getting in touch with that reality? As far as the monks are concerned, we are the ones wasting our lives in futile, self-serving action.

"Well," said the young woman, "What are they doing to help others find God?" To my tremendous relief, three other SKS students had good answers for that question before I even had to open my mouth: they show the way by example. Prosyletizing is aggressive and usually unwelcome; but demonstrating a better way to live, for people to observe and emulate, is the most peaceful, most compelling ministry possible.

Besides . . . how many people do you have to help before you can claim to have "done some good in the world?" Those monks are helping the world -- they help each other. They have utterly dedicated themselves to helping each other lead a life of complete holiness. And they freely share that gift with any who will join them. The fact that few are ready to accept their gift is hardly their fault.

In fact, I would go so far to say that anyone who would accuse the monks of selfishness or self-absorption, does not truly believe in a transcendant God. I think that includes most people, even most Christians. They simply can't conceive of a good that is not manifest in the material world. Christ made it clear that there were two great commandments: "Love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart . . . and love thy neighbor as thyself." The monks are doing that. What more can you ask?

I could even answer the question on the terms in which it was asked. I could talk about how many of these monastics had already spent a full life in dedicated service to others as priests or monks in other orders, before retiring to the contemplative life. Or I could point to the enormous scholarship of the monks, and how they continue to contribute to the world of letters with their enormous understanding. But that would only perpetuate the basic misunderstanding. To a world that has lost its sense of God, the monastic life will not make any sense.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

The silence is indeed great

I sat down to Into Great Silence prepared for a very foreign experience. (Latin-chanting monks, speaking in French, subtitled in German, and sub-sub-titled in English . . . doesn't get more foreign than that, without leaving Europe.) And yet in the first few minutes, as we dwelt with a single monk in his cell, a saw a bunch of things that were surprisingly familiar to me. The young brother reached over to close the damper on his little wood-stove -- a stove almost exactly like the stove I used in a tiny little cabin in the woods of West Virginia, when I lived on Richard Rose's farm. And the wooden floors, the wooden doors, the crude masonry . . . a kept having flashbacks to the farmhouse where Rose presided over students.

And the beautiful monotony of it all . . . oh yes, that too. You have to be in a certain state of mind to watch someone in prayer, minute . . . after minute . . . after minute. You realize that his mind may be full of weighty questions of God, grace, redemption, penitence . . . but we don't get to share his thoughts, nor can we even read what he might be reading, or understand the prayers that he chants. So you have to fill in those gaps for yourself . . . and that drives you inexorably inward, and ironically takes you to the same place the monk is in.

When you have a film in which very little is ever spoken, and almost nothing ever happens, you are left with feast of mise-en-scene. And the film lets you do that, dwelling patiently on every sight and sound: a bowl, a piece of fruit, a cluttered desk, a snow-covered view through a narrow window. That, more than anything, reminded me of what it was like to live in contemplative isolation. No matter where your head is at, you spend long stretches of time with your eyes settled on a door, a window, a hole in the wall . . . until the whole world is contained within a few views. A casual viewer might think: "Geez, that film could have easily been an hour shorter; how many times do we need to see a darkened chapel?" But that misses the point entirely, which is to get you into the timeless rhythm of their office. It turns out it really does take about two and a half hours to get into that frame of mind.

The film has no plot, but that doesn't mean that there aren't threads of consistency that you can follow. Early on we see two new brothers make their Simple Profession, asking to be accepted into the community; one of them, Dom Marie-Pierre, happens to be the only black man there, which helps us follow him along in his path. We see one of the brothers making a new robe for him, and later helping him into it. We see the new brothers studying the liturgy, practicing the chants. We see his cell, at first bare, but gradually fill with books, and notebooks, and devotional pictures.

For those who have had some exposure to monastic orders before, there are some telling details. Once, when the brothers are discussing some finer details of a hand-washing ritual, one says, "At such-and-such a monestary, they actually have six basins, so you can properly wash your hands." And another monk quips, "Yeah, but their Trappists," and everyone laughs. When someone can cap on the Cistercians for being extravagent . . . now that's ascetic. Sadly, I saw some other all-too-familiar sights: more choir stalls than monks, an enormous monastary occupied by less than two dozen brothers, and the majority of them quite old. Their order, like most, is struggling to stay alive.

The film doesn't editorialize at all, but it does pause occasionally to repeat some passages from scripture on the screen. The most-repeated one was: "Unless you give up everything you have, and follow me, you are not worthy to be my disciple." The average Christian might start out thinking that these men are super-Christians, zealots, extremists . . . but the film reminds us they are only doing exactly, and completely, what Jesus commanded. They are not zealots; they just took Jesus seriously. We are dabblers in comparison.