Writing Around the Ten Commandments

Consider the following plot (a real plot, from a novel I’ve read, but with names changed to prevent a spoiler). Abigail is engaged to Bert, and Christopher is engaged to Danielle. Abigail and Christopher meet at a house party at a country estate, and of course, they fall in love. But because they live in a bygone era, honor takes precedence over emotion. Abigail returns home and marries Bert. Christopher returns home and marries Danielle. Years pass, events conspire. Bert suffers a terminal illness that terminates him. Danielle has the misfortune to be directly under a German bomb.

Drum roll, swelling tide of romantic orchestral music. Abigail and Christopher meet again, and to the great delight of all their friends and relations (who never liked either Bert or Danielle very much), Abigail and Christopher marry.

Is something wrong with this picture? What’s going on here for the reader? What about the writer?

As the reader, I’m being urged to hope for the breakdown of two marriages, and when Bert and Danielle die, I’m encouraged to heave a sigh of relief and cheer on Abigail and Christopher as they move toward their reunion.

As the writer, what would I be doing? The author of this novel happens to be long dead, so there’s no way of knowing what she was thinking as she wrote. But it is fair to state that she arranged her novel in such a way that the eventual marriage of Abigail and Christopher is what every right-thinking character (and reader?) hopes will occur.

One voice in my head says, “Oh, come on already. It’s just a story, and at least they didn’t commit adultery.” But the other voice says, “Isn’t there something faintly adulterous about writing this story? Deliberately killing off the intentionally unappealing spouses so the two attractive people can marry?”

I wonder at what point our fictional acts as writers touch on our real-life morality as human beings. Does it matter if or how the story argues for an ideal?

At what point could a fictional creation become a real-life trespass, a figurative breaking of the commandments? Are the characters and events part or not part of their literary creator? Is there no moral connection between fiction writing and real life?

What do you think?

-Photo by Ben Rosett on Unsplash

The “To Don’t” List

Closeup of cherry blossoms with blue sky behind them

I am a close friend of the “To Do” list. My work space is home to assorted spiral notebooks, paper scraps, and post-its, and it gives me great satisfaction to outline my tasks – all of them, as many as I can think of – and march through them, crossing them off as I complete them. Although I recognize the value of online task managers, and use them professionally, it will never be as much fun to click a check mark on a digital list as it is to carve a check mark into a paper list and then scribble-obliterate the item beside it.

But today, the sun is shining, the house is mine alone, and I am observing a pause in the domestic and creative frenzy that is my daily life. Today, it is time for the “To Don’t” List.

On such a day, my instructions to myself, in no particular order, are as follows.

  1. Don’t wake up in time for anything.
  2. Don’t eat lunch at your desk.
  3. Don’t vacuum. Don’t.
  4. Don’t get a jump on Monday. If you must jump, go outside and jump in the grass.
  5. Don’t make telephone calls. Your telephone is also observing a “To Don’t” Day.
  6. Bless it.
  7. Don’t sort closets, coffee tables, kitchen drawers, desk tops, or book ideas.
  8. Don’t read a single page you can’t get through without exhorting yourself to pay attention.
  9. Don’t forget to feed the fish. [Not everything can be part of a “To Don’t” list.]
  10. Don’t read the news.
  11. Don’t enter any space, virtual or real, in which you might read the news by accident.

Of course, a “To Don’t” list is more apophatic than the human activity it’s meant to inspire. I can’t cease existing for the day, nor do I want to. It is only an exercise in removing myself from the deep ruts of habit and responsibility. I need and respect these ruts. But I also need the space outside them.

Because I exist even when I lay the ordinary aside, I replace everything I’ve removed with that “To Don’t” List. Yes, that means I am writing a “To Do” List, but as you will see, it is not the kind you’ll find on the paper pile around my desk.

  1. Sleep until you wake.
  2. Eat when you are hungry.
  3. Go outside.
  4. Write.
  5. Look out of windows.
  6. Daydream.
  7. Enjoy the deep quiet.
  8. Be present, but remember this, too, will pass.

It will pass. I am an energetic adult. I am responsible for work, and I love my work. Work is part of my meaning, and I treasure that. A “To Don’t” List can never be permanent, in the way that a “To Do” List can. If I’m responsible for painting the deck or submitting a manuscript, the tangible outcome of those accomplishments will make a mark on my world that I will see for days to come. Whereas I can only look out the window for a time. That moment will end. I will step away from the window, release the day dream, open the door to the returning voices of my household. I will stop saying “don’t” and begin again to “do” the parts of my life I took exception to for this set of hours.

But the effects of this day I’m spending in the peaceful sunshine of imagination and stillness will linger with me. I will have strength for the journey, food for the thought, creativity for the tasks that return to me, because of this day I spent away from the working world.

 

-Photo by Amy Luo on Unsplash

Memories of God

When you convert to a new faith, you leave everything behind. You are not a refugee, with $200 and two pieces of luggage. You weren’t forced to leave a country you love. You chose to leave a country you could no longer love. You are gone.

No doubt, everyone’s conversion is different. Life has taught me, in hundreds of big and little ways, that people are like snowflakes – there really are not EVER any two exactly alike. So I won’t speak for your conversion, or their conversion, or any other conversion but mine.

Conversion never ends. At first, it’s a decision. There’s a long road to the decision, and a long road away from it. You can’t see ahead on this road. You can only see the two footprint-sized parts of the road you are standing on right now, this minute.

My piece of road right now is about memories. Hymn fragments, remembered feelings. I thought I had left everything behind, and at first, this was true. But life flowed on around and through me, and now I discover the pieces of my faith that belonged to me then and are still with me now.

Is this possible? If it is, it has nothing to do with dogma or canon. It’s the fact that God does not wait for us to check the right box and join the right group before He decides to get in touch.

Was He always there? I remember asking my priest, after my conversion, “Who am I talking to when I pray now? Is it still the same God I was talking to before?” I wasn’t sure then, but now, I am.

Sometimes, time is like water. You wash something in this water, and it comes clear. At first, I didn’t want to love anything from my pre-Orthodox spiritual life. I was too concerned with building this new faith life, and I didn’t want to contaminate it.

But now, time has washed my heart, and I can see patches of gold in those old shadows. My longing for them now is not unlike my need for them then. They can still belong to me. They can still comfort me.

Wherever I find it, light is light.

 

-Photo by John Jennings on Unsplash

Becoming Invisible

Light comes through an open window in a dark room

It’s a cultural flaw, observed and decried by many, that the marks of a woman’s increasing maturity reduce society’s belief in her sexual appeal and thus render her invisible. We lose our value, apparently, as our skin wrinkles and our tolerance for superficial thinking deteriorates.

I deplore this trend, but it is not what I am writing about this evening. There is another kind of invisibility, one that manifests itself gradually along the slopes and valleys of our spiritual journeying, and I believe it is the reward of dogged perseverance.

First, we must agree that visibility is a complex thing, and I am speaking here only of that type measured by the human eye’s ability to perceive it. It is a manifest thing, approached with lens, pupil, retina, nerve.  What is visible can be detected on the skin, on the page, outside the window. What is invisible cannot. But I hope you will stretch a point and let me gather audible, tangible things under this useful word. Eyes, ears, nerves in the tips of our fingers – these are the managers of our outer world.

If we live vigorously, seeking to discover and perfect ourselves, our reality shifts across time so that where once it was mostly visible, mostly outward facing, it becomes mostly invisible, perhaps inward facing, perhaps upward. I don’t know that this journey is linear. In my experience, its facets develop at different times, on different levels. A child’s play may begin with a round, red ball, mostly understood with the eyes and fingers, and in just a few years, the same child may stumble into the wilderness of imagination and spend hours engaged in intricate games that will remain invisible to everyone but herself. But the same child may have no patience, and her lack of patience may be completely visible for decades after she has learned to rely on the invisible people and places of her imagination.

A person living in this world will never be completely visible or completely invisible. But the trend is there – the chain of insight. There are milestones on this path that I was pondering tonight, washing the dinner dishes with my hands, talking to the puppy with my voice, sorting words and impressions in the quiet of my own mind.

Patience

Patience is an intangible thing, but impatience is not. Our impatience is often loud and always visible – our faces change, our voices grow shrill, our hands and feet move quickly and irritably. Patience is the invisible thing. When you are patient, you are not grimacing or raising your voice. Your hands and feet are under your control, and so is your irritation. If your patience is visible, it’s not patience. It’s impatience with a mask on, struggling to make a point.

It reminds me of something my father said the summer he refinished the picnic table. When he began the project, the table looked bad. The finish was peeling off and the wood was discolored. After hours of labor, sweat, and persistence, the table looked wonderful. “Now you don’t even notice it,” he said, ruefully. “It just blends in.” The eyesore stood out; the result of his effort looked normal and unremarkable.

Patience is like that.

Self-Awareness

Like patience, this is a gift most visible in its absence. A person who speaks his words without hearing them, who can’t stand outside his opinions, will commit one solecism after another. He will be the target of frustration or disgust, but he won’t receive these incoming signals.  Ironically, a person is much less visible when he can “see” himself, when he can hear what others are saying to him and about him and believe that it might be accurate. He is an integral part of the human whole, not the sore thumb protruding from it.

I think humility is part of this awareness, humility and perception. You need perception to understand what the world believes you are contributing to it, but you also need humility to accept what you perceive when it isn’t attractive or simple to repair.

Moving Inward

Much of what disappears from the visible world only moves into the invisible world. This is literally true in the case of death. A person leaves the physical world and enters the spiritual world fully. We bury the body, and cling to love and memory, but nothing that remains to us is visible. But what are we removing from sight when we become patient and self-aware? Has something died in us? Are we burying ourselves in the stifling grip of self-control?

It happens. But I think it happens in error, or as a forward, but not final, step. Patience becomes possible when we are able to relieve our own irritation, when we can soothe or readjust ourselves internally without producing visible signs of the process. We can talk ourselves out of reacting, and actually heal the aggravating feeling behind it. Self-awareness depends on a parallel skill – it’s the ability to believe what we perceive from others, where patience is the ability to believe what we tell ourselves.

Instead…

Because patience is the most elusive of the gifts I seek in my own life, my meditations at this point left self-awareness behind and focused to a finer point. From visible to invisible, from outer world to inner world, what is the power behind the shift? The silent words that bring me peace and stamina now were not effective, or even available, to me at earlier points in my life. Why are they now?

You answer that question with your own experience, as you must, and I can answer it with mine. For me, it all comes to an upward spiral of imagination, a circular stairway deeper and higher into the mind. Where once imagination was a plaything, or a comfort in loneliness or distress, I believe it’s evolving into the currency of my spiritual existence. It is the reason I can experience the substance of my own thoughts. Imagination makes what I learn visible to me. Yes, visible! Imagination is the inward eye, the sights and songs and memories that are deeply personal, deeply spiritual, essential as air and water are essential. But only because it is no longer fictional. Instead of creating what is not, imagination clothes the bones of truth. If we are experiential beings, imagination is the first small leap into eternity. It is our first experience of the life beyond life, outside of eyes and hands and bodily impressions.

We become invisible only in one dimension. In another, we begin, finally, to appear.

-Photo by Jon Eric Marababol on Unsplash

Seasons

Sprout growing in fine sand casting a shadow

Seasons of the year are practice. That’s what I think. We practice death and resurrection over and over again.

The natural world changes to show us that time is in motion. Summer will come. You can’t stop it. And winter will follow. But spring follows, too.

None of the seasons are permanent. The motion never ceases, and motion is one of the signs of life.

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Life Un-Simplified

Circular tunnel made from carefully stacked books

It’s startling to realize, suddenly, how often we strive to understand a situation by limiting it. We plunge in hastily, drawing lines, cutting off examples, offloading data we can’t integrate, collapsing tension we can’t handle. We hunt for stereotypes to cling to or condemn, until even our encounters with stereotypes become stereotyped.

The nature of the Trinity, the afterlife of pets, the differences between men and women, the psychology of politics – is there an end to the list of things we try to understand by making them as small and simplistic as possible? We’re rarely satisfied until all the evidence has been distorted.

Life is not simple. Not even in its smallest detail. God is not simple. Death is not simple. Is even a molecule simple? Can it be? Continue reading

Paradox

Diamond wedding ring surrounded by more diamonds

“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

That statement is backwards, isn’t it? Don’t we treasure things that are near to our hearts? It’s harder to believe a treasure could be something we have to journey towards.  We keep our treasures close, don’t we? It’s paradoxical to imagine moving our hearts toward something and deciding to treasure it.

Yet, how many times does Jesus ask us to do something paradoxical? How many Bible verses can you remember that are like this one – sounding “backwards” at first until you grasp the loving truth they contain? Jesus Himself is a paradox. He conquered death by dying. He led by serving. He spoke to illiterate people in a tiny conquered nation thousands of years ago, and His words are heard today in every corner of the earth.

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Expected Hazards

Wooden hangers on a rack at a clothing store

Clothes shopping is a hazardous business.

[Muttering to self]: “Sneakers. Sneakers. Where are the sneakers? There are some – OH! Shiny silver! Designer! Italian! These are shoes to go with dresses I cannot remotely afford. They should be worn at sunset, in Rome. At that fountain where people make wishes in the Audrey Hepburn movie…was it Audrey? What did I come in here for? Why did I not bring someone with me who remembers what I came in here for?”
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