The Time Value of Literature

“A classic is a book that has lasted more than 100 years.” –

Famous Person Cited by English Professor Too Long Ago to Remember

But the forgotten famous person has a point.

Today at work, I was talking with someone about a writing project she’s considering, and two books published several years ago came into the conversation. “Of course, they wouldn’t be published now,” I remarked. Times have changed, the publisher’s needs have changed, what the market is reading has changed…the list goes on.

My subconscious mind must have thought this was interesting because the topic recurred in another guise while I was scrubbing a saucepan after dinner.

It began with recollections of a picture book my mama read us often when I was a little girl. The book is called Supposings, by Johanna Johnston, Pictures by Rudy Sayers. See? That’s already something different. Picture books now say “illustrated by” on the cover. Why did that change, I wonder? Is the word “pictures” too specific, or not specific enough?

Everything about this book reminds me of my 1970s childhood. I remember it being read to us, I remember the sunlight inside the rooms of our house and that soft “nap-time-soon” quiet feeling of cuddling on the couch with wiggling siblings, staring at pictures, pointing at things at will, floating along in the sound of our mother’s voice.

The colors in the illustrations and the style of them remind me of the curtains on the landing and a wool plaid vest my mama sewed that still hangs in my closet, simply for love.

I love this book. But if Johanna and Rudy submitted it now, would it be published? Would it be hard-back? (I don’t like picture books to be paperback. Thin and flooooppppy.) Would this simple, childlike journey through an afternoon of daydreaming be considered a plot? The illustrations would be different, wouldn’t they? Even art for children follows trends. Are those trends set more by adults, or by the shifting landscape of a generation raised in front of screens?

Supposings was published by Holiday House, Inc., in New York, in 1967. There was no such thing as self-publishing in those days. That means a New York editorial staff thought this book was a good risk. Would they now?

What was the competition like back then? Were publishers swamped with submissions the way they are now? Perhaps they thought they were, but could their swamp compare with the tsunami made possible by personal computers, internet research, and the lure of social media stardom?

Years ago, my Daddy explained to me what he meant by “the time value of money.” He told me that even if I have a million dollars, if it hasn’t been paid to me yet (or it’s tied up in a trust fund or etc. etc.), then it’s value is changed. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

Is there a similar principle for literature? To me Supposings is a classic because it is lovingly bound to a host of childhood memories. My objective analysis of its literary worth will be quite subjective, no matter what. Love is not blind, but sometimes love is not seeing the same object that everyone else is.

Would it be easier to evaluate the lasting literary contribution of a book for adults? I’m not sure. Novels go out of style. So do self-help books. Medical advice? Goodness yes! But at some point in all this analysis, one must confront the reality that a change in criteria is not always a change for the better. Before we can finish judging a book that wouldn’t be published if it were submitted today, we can’t avoid asking whether it should be.

Putting Joy Into Practice: Why you need this book!

Putting Joy Into Practice

Putting Joy into PracticeHave you read Putting Joy into Practice: Seven Ways to Lift Your Spirit from the Early Church, by Phoebe Farag Mikhail?

This is an amazing book.

It reads like a conversation, the kind you might have on a tough day, sitting in a squeaky kitchen chair and cuddling the cup of hot coffee that’s going to keep you alive until bedtime. Christmas is coming, the world is sparkling around you, and you are exhausted by your attempts to be as happy as you expected to be. That’s why you need this book.

Reading it, I decided that most of us (including me) have no idea what joy really IS, let alone how to BE joyful. The book has many strengths, but one of the best is the way it uses clear, practical language to convey deep theological wisdom. You’ll read a sentence and think it’s simple, and then the floor will drop out of it and you’ll realize it has enough depth to keep you reflecting on it for the rest of your life.

Phoebe Farag MikhailPhoebe does a wonderful job of including the voices and experiences of the church fathers – AND those of human beings she has seen or known in modern life. She includes stories of both defeat and victory on the path to joyful living. The book is honest and hopeful. It holds you to a high standard, but gives you the tools and inspiration to meet that high standard.

I also appreciated the many ways in which the book was not “obvious.” You might think, even after a glimpse at the table of contents, that some of the 7 practices are things you’ve already heard or already tried, but as you work through the chapters, you discover their enormity. These practices are things a normal person can do in normal life. They are simple, but not easy. But even thinking about them, beginning to plan how you might attempt one or two, will stretch your mind and heart.


This book is available from Paraclete Press, Amazon, and the Ancient Faith Store. Go get it! Make it part of your devotional time in the new year, or get it for a friend who’s sitting in her squeaky kitchen chair, praying to God for a lifeline on the journey through this difficult world.


Thank you, Phoebe Farag Mikhail for putting this book on my path!

Wishful Thinking on Independence Day

Close up of the American Flag

On this 4th of July, I am pondering the complexity of military service and national identity. As with many human conditions, the outward show of military life is a fraction of its meaning. Because they are the “instruments of foreign policy,” service members are held up as symbols of what is most loved and hated by proponents of various ideologies in our country. They live on the receiving end of assumptions that are more often based on emotion than information.

The crux of military service is an existence that would be unnecessary in a perfect world. Armed forces are the painfully tangible proof that human beings do not treat each other as they should. Many would argue that July 4th is not a military holiday. It is the commemoration of our birth as an independent nation. At some level, we all rebel against the idea that this independence is impossible without military force.

Military life teaches you to engage what IS. You won’t last long clinging to what you WISH would be. Military life is predicated on the understanding that you control far less of your reality than a civilian does. But it also reveals the truth that civilians control far less than they wish to. If I have learned nothing else, I have learned that evil is both totally unnecessary and extremely powerful. Stand in that space for a few minutes today – the space in which you know that evil could be stopped if enough good choices were made, and in which you also know that actual human beings, many of them, would rather die than make those choices.

 

Photo by Samuel Branch on Unsplash

Mercy and Complexity

One of the blessing curses of being a writer is the refined ability to step inside another character’s worldview. You do this so that you can write the character, but the longer I live, the more my brain tries to hop worldviews in real life. To do it well, you must be able to envision motives and emotions for an identity completely separate from your own. But, especially if you’re going to do it in real life, you must complete the exercise without falling into the trap of believing you can actually read another person’s mind.

Although there are genuinely malicious people in the world, I don’t believe they are the majority, or even close to it. Most people, no matter how wrong-headed they appear to their peers, believe there is a valuable or at least necessary reason for their choices. If you are writing this wrong-headed person, or pondering them in real life, you will quickly discover that perception and empathy create confusion.

What’s the first dysfunctional human situation from your own life that springs to mind? (Don’t raise your hand or shout it out. Just think of one.) If you climb out of your own position in the situation and walk around the table, so to speak, it will become harder and harder to decide who is the “good guy” and who is the “bad guy.” It seems to me that the core of our human judgment of other humans rests in whether we think they meant well. Were they trying to do something they thought was good? Were they trying to do harm?

Our cultural paradigm is to solve or explain a situation by identifying a protagonist and an antagonist. We can then support the one and the condemn the other with an easy mind.

But the more you seek the details of human psychological and spiritual complexity, the more difficult it becomes to decide who is the antagonist. “There is no one who lives who is without sin.” We are all antagonists. But all creation is lifted up in Christ. We are all protagonists.

This is not an argument for relativism. There are good acts and evil acts, good motives and evil motives. But we have lost our desire or ability, as a culture, to accommodate the presence of spiritual tension in everyone around us, and in ourselves.

Perception, empathy, justice, mercy – all of these open us to unwanted depths of meaning and accountability. We are too tired and frightened to be attracted by the chance to understand and care for each other. And our weariness and fear are strengthened every day by the failure of our peers to understand us and care for us. That is the cycle that wants breaking, in my view.

-Photo by Akshay Paatil 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

Tree Change Dolls – Why We Care

Four days ago, I discovered Tree Change Dolls. When I discovered them, the Facebook page had 23,000+ likes. I checked again at intervals, during the day, and every time, there were about 10,000 more likes. Today, four days later, there are 87,193.

Tree Change Dolls are abandoned in thrift stores, or “tip shops,” in Tasmania, until Sonia Singh finds them and recreates them. They are old Bratz dolls, or Barbie dolls – the kind of toy that make you clutch your head and mourn because all the little girls you know are walking around in a world that does not welcome or cherish womanly beauty.

But then, there is Sonia.

She washes off their terrible makeup, paints natural faces on them, and dresses them in tiny homemade clothes, provided by her mother. The result is enough to bring tears to your eyes. Their little dolly faces are full of joy – even relief? – and they look just like ordinary little girls, ready to play in the garden.

Nearly 100,000 people have watched the news video about Sonia and her dolls (see above). The response to these dolls is fascinating — perhaps especially to an Orthodox observer. The comments on Sonia’s Facebook page are my favorite part – the dolls look happy, the dolls look like my children’s friends, and (the best) “The dolls look like you gave them back their childhood.”

The rapid, overwhelmingly positive (even emotional!) response to these dolls, world-wide, says a LOT.

A lot about toys – who’s selling them, and to whom? How could a Bratz doll possibly be a good idea? Who is the person who thought it was? Why did so many people believe this person and buy the dolls?

A lot about women – women are buying the Bratz dolls, women are hating the Bratz dolls, women are LONGING for Tree Change Dolls for their daughters and even for themselves. Women are still, after centuries, struggling against the disintegrating apathy of that losing fight to be equally human, equally valued in their natural state.

A lot about problems – what Sonia is doing seems simple and obvious, now that she’s thought of it and showed us how she did it. How can the weight of a cultural trend become so heavy? If we are so relieved to see it shattered, why did we allow it in the first place? Why didn’t we all think of this, on the very first day the very first Bratz doll came out?

But perhaps the most thought-provoking response came to me from someone I know, who said, when he heard about the dolls, that it’s not so easy when it’s a person — not a doll — that you’re trying to rescue. We all want the darkness washed away, don’t we? You’d think so, until you actually tried to help someone who needed the help.

I don’t argue that. Not at all. I don’t ever forget that if solving the problem were simple, the problem would already be solved.

I think that explains the powerful response to Sonia, rescuing one little doll at a time.

We wish it could happen for us that way. We wish we could heal our loved ones so simply, so gently, and so completely. We wish that we ourselves could be so well healed.

So we click on Sonia’s video and watch her do it again – watch her wash the make-up off the tiny face, paint the eyes, and the smile, and the freckles, watch her mom knit the tiny sweater and sew the tiny skirt, and we see the recreated doll sitting in the grass in Sonia’s garden. Sitting there for all of us who wish we could make it to that place ourselves. Clothed and in our right mind. In the garden.

Never confuse the person formed in the image of God, with the evil that is in him; because evil is but a chance misfortune, an illness, a devilish reverie. But the very essence of the person is the image of God, and this remains in him despite every disfigurement.

— St. John of Kronstadt