Sunday, May 29, 2016

Reading Proust



I read because I need information contained in a particular book. I read because it entertains me. I read in order to improve myself. I read in order to understand another person, situation, world.

Although reading Proust is certainly akin to escaping into another world, it is also a unique experience; he is truly like no other author I have ever read. When he wrote his 3000-page masterpiece, A la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time), it was a novel that publishers absolutely did not understand: it was "so different from what the public is used to reading," as one of them noted. Another sniped, "I don't see why a man should take thirty pages to describe how he turns over in bed before he goes to sleep," thereby demonstrating that he just didn't understand what Proust was doing. (I almost said "attempting to do," but Proust succeeded wonderfully.)

In most novels descriptions are there to support the plot. In Proust it is the reverse. Any plot, such as it is, is only a device upon which Proust can hang his marvelous descriptions: of a place, of a feeling, of a person. In order to read Proust you must savor the descriptions. You've got to take that thirty-page account of rolling over in bed (a slight -- but only slight -- exaggeration) and immerse yourself in it until you feel the sheet, the temperature of the room, you hear the voices in the garden below, see the light coming in beneath the door. That's what Proust IS. There is no shoot-'em-up, car chase, whodunnit plot (there ARE plots -- they are just insignificant when compared with the atmosphere Proust creates). Instead of action, Proust is spinning a world for you -- or for himself -- and is inviting you to experience it with him.

My favorite book is Pride and Prejudice. I have read it three times. This is either my fourth or fifth time to read Swann's Way, the first volume of In Search of Lost Time. I loved it the first time I read it, but that's not why I've gone over it so many times. I am DETERMINED to read the whole 3000-plus-page work and have in my head that I need to read it straight through. I don't know whether or not this is true, but it's in my head and I can't get it out, so there you go. I have started it multiple times and -- understandably -- gotten distracted by something and stopped reading it. (I think I have read the second volume, Within a Budding Grove, twice; I've not gotten through volume three, The Guermantes Way.)

So this will be the time, I am sure. (I have said this before.)

Something unexpected has happened during this reading. Proust is not exactly a difficult read -- not exactly -- but he does require attention. He is known for long (very long) and meandering sentences and it is easy to forget what the point is when you are two-thirds of the way through. This time, though, I am kind of sailing along. I have even laughed out loud a couple of times, which I've never done before. It's like I finally speak his language, so it is possible for me to pay more attention to what he says than how he says it. Or maybe vice versa.

I don't think I would recommend Proust to anyone; I think I would just tell them to read this and decide for themselves. He is not for everyone -- not for the impatient, certainly. And not for the plot-driven. Obviously, I have not even read half of this work, so it is kind of strange that I'm writing about it the way I am. But Swann's Way is not a short little novella; the version I have weighs in at 468 pages; Within a Budding Grove is a 784-page doorstop. (Versions -- more precisely translations -- is a whole 'nother topic of discussion.)

For me -- well, I am hooked. Reading Proust is like reading a meditation. He is the most "in the moment" writer I've stumbled across. He is my "Calgon take me away" author.

More later...

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Freeze This Moment


I want to remember. Left to right: Sadie, Isabella, Melanie, George, Evan, Judson, Carter, Emma Grace, Casey, Maggie, Daniel, Thomas, Addie.

Melanie started Heart's Desire at our church seven years ago. One of the kids up above -- Isabella -- started in kindergarten and is now finishing sixth grade (our last year of HD), so she is our veteran -- she should know more about the program than anybody else. Tonight was the last night of the year -- Mel's last night for forever because in little more than a month she is moving to Iowa. It is possible that I will see her again because one of her sons and -- most important -- a granddaughter live in Birmingham, but it is also possible that I will not ever be in the same room with her again this side of Heaven.

It's a strange thing to consider, and yet it's not uncommon these days. Mel has been a close friend -- my closest friend -- for a decade and very soon she will be relegated to that important but removed category of "Facebook friends." Honestly, what do people do who don't believe in God? I don't think goodbyes would be possible for me if I didn't know they were only temporary. (Except for the ones that are very, very permanent.)

But this picture -- look at this picture. Half of those kids were in my class this year: Sadie, George, Evan, Judson, Carter, Emma Grace. All of them -- and all the others -- so beautiful, so full of (lots of things) life, many of them making big decisions about God. A decade, two -- there will probably be a sadness associated with a picture like this because that is what life here on earth is about -- dodging sadness, keeping an eternal focus, hanging onto a Savior for dear life. One day I will look at this picture and wish I could go back to this moment. But the moment is gone, gone, gone forever and if we spend too much time looking back we'll miss the moments of today.

And -- let's face it -- very often change is a good thing. There are a whole passel of new mothers in my circle of friends and they post pictures of their babies with captions like, "Stop growing so fast!" But if their child actually DID stop growing that would signify a serious problem -- change is a good thing. When I consider that time is a created thing I wonder how we are to consider it. It's impossible to get outside of the concept because we are such temporal beings. But it flows, it drags, it whooshes past in a blur, it stops. I read that in God's presence one day is as a thousand years and a thousand years as one day (what is THAT about?). But always moving, changing, new things every single day. Praise God for that.

God made time and plopped us down into the middle of it. We are to redeem the time, we are to exercise patience, we are to wait on the Lord, we are to keep moving forward until our race is complete. Don't stand still -- we're like sharks, we'll die -- keep moving, working, learning. New adventure just around the corner. I can't wait.

More later...

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Decisions, Decisions



The Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote:

"We ought not to wait for our spare time to practice philosophy; rather, we should neglect other occupations to pursue this one task for which no amount of time would be sufficient … you might as well not bother with philosophy if you are going to practice it intermittently … Rather than reducing your encumbrances, you should get rid of them altogether. There is no time that is not well suited to these healing studies, yet there are many who fail to study when caught up in the problems that give one reason to study."

I don't think Seneca was exactly on the money with regard to philosophical pursuits (if I had to pick one category of study it would be theology), but the sentiment hits home for me. 

Then there is this from Dr. Johnson (about whom and whose works I must read more):

"When I look back upon resoluti[ons] of improvement and amendments, which have year after year been made and broken, either by negligence, forgetfulness, vicious idleness, casual interruption, or morbid infirmity, when I find that so much of my life has stolen unprofitably away, and that I can descry by retrospection scarcely a few single days properly and vigorously employed, why do I yet try to resolve again? I try because Reformation is necessary and despair is criminal. I try in humble hope of the help of God."

Anyone who knows me (especially via Facebook), knows my obsession with resolutions. Every New Year -- but every Sunday evening, too -- I resolve to be the kind of person I want to be. Redeeming the time, not wasting it. In these days when idleness and sloth seem to be the summum bonum -- the highest good to which our culture aspires -- I feel a special urgency. 

This particular train of thought -- not a new one for me -- was triggered by a lecture I was listening to the other night. The speaker was Larry Arnn, President of Hillsdale College in Michigan. He said, "You have to have the virtues. When you're young people can help you form the habits of virtue. Good laws can encourage virtue. But it can't be made because you have to do it. Aristotle says the way you become a good character -- and that word character is a very rich word -- it comes from a Greek word that means to etch or engrave -- and the way you get that is you etch or engrave that into yourself and you do it by making a thousand choices, and then a thousand more, and then a thousand more, and making them over and over for the right reason. And his claim is the voice of the good is talking to you all the time. Everybody knows. When you do something that's small, you're aware of it -- everybody does. And he gives an exemption of a case of people who live distorted lives because somebody victimizes them from their youth -- that can happen. But it's not -- it's rare that that happens. Most of us know and the thing is if you listen to that voice, even at pain and risk to yourself, even at the denial of pleasure, over and over again, that eventually that will become the way you are. It will be etched in you. You will have a -- character."

I love that. As a Christian, of course, I would word it a bit differently than Aristotle (mostly noting the reality of the Holy Spirit's role in our sanctification), but we still have to do it. We still have to make thousands and thousands of choices, every day, all the time. We must make thousands of choices before we have lunch! It's a very convicting idea for me -- all the time I waste, all the bad choices I make. I realize that I can't read Dante and Augustine and Plato 24/7. Every now and then you need to watch an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond, just to purely relax and be silly (surely occasional silliness can't be a sin). But I don't think I'm in any danger of too much industry!

Much to ponder. I think a wee, small voice is speaking to me.

More later...

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Christian Responsibility


Okay, this is me on my soapbox. I do this once a year or so, and this is my once a year. I will keep it short. More reports of NFL players suffering from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). A New York Giants safety, Tyler Sash, recently died from an overdose of painkillers and when his brain was examined it was found to have a level of CTE rarely seen in someone his age (just 27 -- but CTE has been found in the brain of an 18-year-old, too). Of course, CTE can only be determined during a postmortem examination, so what do they really know?

Junior Seau, who committed suicide, had CTE. Frank Gifford had it. And the list of living players who exhibit signs of CTE is long: Bernie Kosar, Jim McMahon, Tony Dorsett, Brett Favre are a few of the names on the list.

I used to watch football. All the time. Well, NFL stuff. I was never really into college. So this is not coming from someone who never cared about the game -- I get its appeal. But I don't watch it now. (To be honest, I do see some parts of games when the tv is on, but I turn it off when no one else is watching and I never watch it any other time, nor do I ever just sit and watch.) And the reason I don't watch is CTE. 

There are other issues, too -- players who can barely walk after their careers are over, permanent damage to bones and joints. But CTE pushed it over the line for me.

I know that the players are adults who willingly put themselves in harm's way. I don't think football should be outlawed or anything. But I wonder if a Christian should watch for entertainment something that causes lasting and irreversible damage to another human being. Just for fun. I think the answer is "no." Your mileage may vary. Here is a link to a thoughtful article that raises some questions that Christians should consider about the sport.

More later...

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

To-Be-Read



I've seen a number of "Books to Read in 2016" lists. Lots of titles that in five years no one will remember. I don't have anything (much) against contemporary novels, but do not neglect the classics. They have proved their worth and goodness and will make you a better person for having read them. I have a list of five books to read in 2016 (and four alternates). This is a completely subjective list that I did for my own amusement. I've read them all, so there are fabulous life-changing books that I didn't even consider because I haven't yet gotten to them. I picked most of these because I think many of my friends haven't read them (and, yes, I know some of my friends have). Here they are:

1) The Bible. Honestly, how can you consider yourself to be well read if you don't have THIS under your belt? If you haven't read the entire thing, front to back (you don't have to read it this way -- I never do -- I just mean that you've read everything in it), this is your year. There are a thousand "read the Bible in a year" plans that will make it easy. Of all the books on this list, this is the one that'll change your life. I read it every single day; I read the whole thing every year and the New Testament and Psalms twice every year -- and will until I die or just can't read anymore.

2) Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope. This is the first novel in Trollope's Palliser series (there are six of them). The entire series is one of my very favorites. Trollope handles his heroines well -- they are flawed but sympathetic and you alternate between wanting to smack them and embrace them. In this one, Alice (the eponymous "Her") has to choose between the bad boy and the Boy Scout. The course of true love never did run smooth.

3. Paradise Lost by John Milton. I read this just three years ago and its power still grips me. Two things: first read the short A Preface to Paradise Lost by C. S. Lewis. That book is based on a series of lectures given by Lewis and will help you to understand Milton, his theology, and epic poetry in general. Next, be sure you get a good annotated copy of Paradise Lost. I found that after a dozen pages or so I got used to the style -- it's not  an "easy read," but it's not inaccessible either -- and if you can read Milton's description of Satan, Sin, and Death without having nightmares you're a stronger man than I.

4. Persuasion by Jane Austen. It's no secret that I love Austen -- everybody does these days, I guess. Persuasion is one of my top five favorite novels of all time (I THINK I like Pride and Prejudice more, but flip a coin). This book has my favorite love scene in all of Austen's work. I get goosebumps just thinking about it. And -- bonus -- it's one of her two short books.

5. Middlemarch by George Eliot. Okay, no "short" bonus with this book -- it'll double as a door stop. But OH MY. It is SO GOOD. I almost wept when I was finished with it because the thought of leaving the characters just broke my heart. The heroine, Dorothea Brooke, is almost too good -- but she suffers so and her goodness is a part of her faith and never rings false. It's just a rich, lovely, beautiful, amazing book.

Alternates for overachievers:

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. It's fashionable to love Virginia Woolf and it's fashionable to hate her. She does have a particular way of writing that I can see not appealing to everyone, but I love it. This book is just beautiful -- it's atmospheric. I can feel the wind, smell the salt air. And it contains (right in the beginning!) the piece of prose that I think is the most beautiful of anything I've ever read.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. If you haven't read this yet, make 2016 the year you correct that oversight. Anna is a mess -- I did not like one single thing about her. BUT -- but, but, but -- Anna isn't the only thing in this wonderful book. The Kitty-Levin love story is, for me, one of the most beautiful stories in literature. Constantine Levin is the only fictional character I've ever fallen in love with. He's glorious.

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. If you want to sing "One of These Things Is Not Like the Others" -- well, this is the title in this list to point to. First of all, it's not very old -- the author is alive and kicking at age 68. It has sold more than 83 million copies and holds the Guinness World Record for the most translated book by a living author. Best selling means very little, of course -- think Fifty Shades of Grey. But this book is...special. I've given it to all sorts of people and they've all liked it (including a drug counselor who used it in his sessions). It's a mystical book, not like anything else on this list. And it's one of my favorites.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. Yeah, I know. The granddaddy of all doorstop books. And I already have a Tolstoy on this list. But it is just SO GOOD. Oh Pierre. Oh Natasha. Such beauty, such ugliness. Best of times, worst of times (oops -- wrong book).

Monday, December 28, 2015

2016, Ready or Not!



"The object of a New Year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul and a new nose; new feet, a new backbone, new ears, and new eyes. Unless a particular man made New Year resolutions, he would make no resolutions. Unless a man starts afresh about things, he will certainly do nothing effective." -- GK Chesterton

And that's it, really. That's what appeals to me about making resolutions. I like them so much that I sometimes make more in September -- the beginning of school always felt more like the beginning of the year to me anyway. I like having a reason to take stock -- to think soberly about different areas of my life and decide what I'd like to change -- or keep doing. They give me hope that the things I don't like so much aren't eternal Sloughs of Despond -- I don't have to keep repeating old patterns because I can make new ones. 


So -- here are my 2016 New Year's resolutions:

1. Eat plants, plants, plants. There's no reason whatsoever for me to have fallen so far, so hard. I LIKE eating a plant-based diet. And beginning today (no sense waiting), that's what I'll be doing. Whole foods as much as possible, just plants, almost no added fat.


2. Walk 10,000 steps a day. I did this most of the last year, took a break to rest my knee (that I hurt doing something else), started again, got sick and took another break, and am going to diligently begin again today.


3. I'm going to begin to learn Latin this year. I almost wrote "I'm going to learn Latin this year," but I imagine it's more than a one-year project. I got a textbook for Christmas (Learn to Read Latin) and by January 1st I will have created a schedule. The point is -- make it a weekly thing, whether it's a unit a week, two a week, whatever. My brain is old and creaky and there is -- of course -- a fair amount of memorization, so it's not like reading a book where you just devote the hours in a day and you can whip it out in no time. But -- steady, even if slow.


4. I want to reach out more regularly to the Herbitters in New York (my son, my daughter-in-law, my grandson). I miss them, I love them, and I want them to understand how much I think about them. The only real way to do that is -- to do it!!! So -- emails, small gifts, texts, whatever. Reach out at least weekly.


5. Work with Gilligan. He can be taught tricks, but I just don't do it. Stella -- we'll see. ;)


6. I am not focusing on dieting because I know that if I do resolution #1 I will lose. Once I'm down a bit (I'm not sure what "a bit" is, but -- some), I want to try kayaking. I've wanted to try it for years and THIS is the year!


7. I am very slap-dash about wearing makeup. I wear it to church and sometimes when I go out, but most of the time I don't. And I KNOW I look better when I do. This isn't actually about me looking better per se... Okay, maybe this will sound weird, but here goes. When someone looks nice it makes me happy to look at them. If they don't look nice I don't get all annoyed or anything -- it's more of a neutral thing. But when they look nice I get a positive feeling. And I want to create -- as much as it's possible for me to do -- those positive feelings in people. Obviously this is a kind of subjective thing and I'm not expecting to make people break out in song when I pass by -- it's just a little thing that I want to do more of. Not when I'm kayaking, though.


8. I think every year my hair ends up on the resolution list. And it's here again and it goes along with resolution #7, kind of. But my hair is dreadful. Figure it out.


9. A few years ago I made up three reading lists: fiction, nonfiction, theology. I'm actually very pleased with how that project has been going. I am just putting it here on the list as a reminder to not waste time with nonsense.


10. A friend of mine told me about a website called Fly Lady (she is/was a professional fly fisherman, but that has nothing to do with the purpose of the site). Anyway -- it's a strategy for getting your house cleaned and organized. Housekeeping is my WORST THING. I mean BY FAR. Nothing else that I have to do comes close. I hate it, so I don't do it. And then I hate the way my house looks. By using her routine my toilet and sinks have been company-clean for months. MONTHS. I can hardly believe it. Anyway, I do a very minimized version of her routine and I want to do more. I could make extra resolutions about getting my office set up, the family room looking like a family room, etc., but it will all be covered if I just do what the Fly Lady tells me.


11. I'm going to go to every single Shakespeare play that is offered by the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. This spring they're putting on The Comedy of Errors and A Midsummer Night's Dream. I'm going even if I have to go alone.


12. Pray better, more, more fervently, more directedly. Last year I read Tim Keller's book on prayer and it was awesome. I'm blessed to be planning to hear him speak on prayer in June and I'm going to re-read the book before then, but there's no sense in waiting on this project.


13. Be a better, kinder, more thoughtful friend. This is hazy and vague -- as goals should not be -- but I have some specific ideas in mind that don't need to be spelled out.


14. My dear, beloved, close, wonderful friend Melanie, is going to be moving to Iowa sometime this year. She does not see well, so I spend a certain amount of time in my life driving her around. I hasten to add that this is time that I love, time that I would happily keep spending for the rest of my life -- except I won't because she is leaving. Her husband -- my pastor -- is leaving at the end of January, but she is staying here with their dogs until their house sells. I assume she'll need me more than ever at that point because he won't be around to drive her at all. And I want to be available for her then if she needs me. This is all a prelude to my next resolution: I'm going to join Planet Fitness and start working out on the elliptical trainer. The reason I mentioned Mel at all is that I'm not going to do this until after she moves when there will be time on my schedule that is not there now.


15. J. I. Packer said that the purpose of theology is doxology -- I just love that. But when you come right down to it, the purpose of life is doxology. I want to focus on that more -- to think about how the things I do and say and even think bring glory to God -- or don't. It's a constant reminding that has to take place. I do it now when I start thinking I'm all that -- smarter than someone else, for example. I try to catch myself and remind myself about the evils of pride and the blessings of humility, and this is that sort of thing. Just creating a method of thought so that the idea of pleasing God is never more than one thought away. Habit. Resolve. Submission.


I think that's basically it. For now. See you in September.


More later...

Thursday, December 24, 2015

O Holy Night


I just got emailed this video -- a Christmas greeting from Hillsdale College. It's a beautiful performance.

This is my favorite Christmas song. I remember the first time I heard it: I was a little girl -- seven or eight years old -- and belonged to a club called Pioneer Girls at my church. Each girl had been assigned to an older lady to be her Secret Pal and we were having a Christmas party where our pals would be revealed to us. (Mrs. Bessie was my Secret Pal. She knew my grandmother and I remember she came to take me out for ice cream sodas a couple of times at an old Howard Johnson's down on Clearwater Beach. Sweet of her.)

Anyway, at this Christmas party a woman sang this song and I was just amazed. It's not a difficult song to sing -- until you hit that high "O night divine!" near the end. That's treacherous. To my young ears she sang it perfectly and that became the standard.

Another memorable performance of the song was also long ago -- twenty years or more. Our church in Florida had a Christmas Eve service at midnight. Churches either don't do midnight services anymore -- or maybe they just don't do them in Alabama. I would attend a midnight service every time if one was offered. The service is so beautiful and sacred and when you finish in candlelight -- it's Christmas. I love it.

Anyway, Lori Bean sang this song at that service in the old First Presbyterian Church building. I never heard Lori sing anything that I didn't think was breathtaking, and she sure didn't disappoint that night. It was a beautiful song and a glorious and mystical, mysterious night.

For nine or ten different reasons we have never once attended the Christmas Eve service at our church here in Alabama. Weird. It's at 5:30, which is an awful time if you want to have a dinner with family, and that's the reason we missed it last year. The year before we were in Florida. And so on. Tonight we might go, but I've been sick and I have a cough and if it's acting up we won't go. But Mel will be singing this song tonight and I sure would love to hear it.

Merry Christmas everybody.