What Transforms Us

Quill and ScrollI have a germ of an idea snaking through my consciousness; about writing, about transformation. Yet I cannot articulate it well unless I begin the process and tease out this idea which has come into being.

The process of writing is rarely talked about outside of academic classrooms or MFA programs. In college, I did not take the Creative Writing courses that many of my fellow students did because I tend to think of Creative Writing as narrowly encompassing poetry, fiction, and even some imaginative biography. Instead I chose to concentrate on Literature because we did no less the amount of writing that the Creative Writing student did, perhaps we did even more. I wrote 3 or 4 papers per class, per semester and I enjoyed every paper I wrote. The process of preparing for writing was the most fun, the most rewarding, and the most transformative act in my college career than any other projects we were asked to do.  I cringed at public speaking and quaked at the acting required in Medieval Drama, but I did them and cannot say they did anything for me except make me nauseous. No, the part that I enjoyed the most was research, research, writing, and more research. It was like digging for gold or discovering electricity or meeting up with another tunnel that one dug through those mysterious tunnels of ideas in one’s brain. No, I loved the writing process itself.

The sheer joy of reading and research is hard to explain. I think my earlier forays into fundamentalism inside the nuclear family unit to which I was confined in the 80s and 90s fed that need to read and research, even when one’s spirit in that religion was confined to the leather-bound pages of a book said to be the inerrant word of God. One did not have much use for knowledge outside this book, we were told. All we needed to know was in there. Protect your mind from other things, tainted sinful knowledge that had no truck with the bible. But the mind, the curious mind, cannot be confined to such as this. College opened a whole new world for me and truly transformed me far more than religion did. Here was a whole library full of research to be done! I was in my element. Oh I learned my scriptures inside and out as a religious fundamentalist, but when that proved increasingly unsatisfactory, I had to look elsewhere. And I think that what religion did for me in those early years of young motherhood, literature, history, and philosophy did for me later. I needed something to spur me outside my comfort zone. I needed to be pushed to limits not allowed by religion.  But once I had done that and soaked up the knowledge I so greedily feasted upon, then what? Did that transform me? And if it did, in what way was I transformed? I can say now that religion transformed me, but not necessarily in a good way. I needed something more.

Like going to a grocery store with far too many options to choose from and overspending, going to university tossed ideas at me in a similar fashion and left me just as bewildered and spent. There’s this to contemplate, but what about this? How does this relate to that? Some live and die by this ideology but others live by that? Defend this, but ignore that. It was, in some ways overwhelming.  There were far more “isms” to worry about and many more we weren’t supposed to question or offend the proponents of. Writing helped clear all the clutter from my brain when it got to be too much. Keeping a journal for over 30 years has been as transformative a tool as any amount of meditation has (or medication for that matter). Writing on blogs has similar purgative qualities. But are we only purging? What is the intentional writer and how can it be meaningful in a society full of those talking more than those listening, those writing more than those reading?

Susan Yanos makes a very good point in “Wielding Thor’s Hammer, What it Means to Write as Ministry:”

Because truth lies within each of us, the creative process is the discipline writers embrace in order to encounter the mystery of the truth of their experiences and of their beings.

In other words, I write to know myself. I read to reveal the truth in myself in sympathy with the author’s words. I write because I want it to change my own personality somehow, not just to be a better writer but to be a better person. Yet, I am so often discouraged not only by the sheer numbers of good writers out there, but by the outrage attached to much of it, especially in blogs and online news editorials.  I am hesitant to jump out there with an opinion because I feel there are those lying in wait to pounce on every opinion and rip it to shreds. It’s an attack that feels very personal and the armor instantly comes up. I feel like that poor water buffalo at the watering hole. Every other elk has hightailed it out of there because of the tiger crouching in the weeds, licking its chops and I’m left pondering to myself, “What? Where’d everybody go?” just as I get eaten or taken down by the throat. I leave my opinions unwritten and safe in my own head. Yet, the need is still there. Is this why some of the best bloggers sometimes wish to remain anonymous or to find safer blog waters in which to swim? Is this why they disappear? I think so. But I must slog on. Yanos writes:

What I do think Whitman meant is that when poets undertake the search for meaning, for truth, in such an intentional way, they not only write poems that capture that truth, they actually live the truth, they then become the truth themselves. When Abraham bargained with God over the outcome of Sodom, he discovered, not that God could be bargained with, but that good is far more powerful than evil. Even ten good men could transform and save a city. And whenever Moses complained to God about his inability to perform the ministry God had laid before him, he learned that God could transform his perceptions of himself as a murderer, as an inept prophet, or as a leader separate from the sinful actions of his people….

The Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno once said that we will be judged not so much by what we have done as by what we hoped to be. Now we may be tempted to reply to him that the way to hell is paved with good intentions. However, Unamuno is not talking about the difference between intention and action. If we truly hope for something, we will make every effort to achieve it. Our desire will be the center and motivator of our lives. Our desire will possess us until we become that desire. Whether we accomplish the goal is irrelevant because we have become the goal.

Assuming that there is a God to which we have to answer, this is comforting, to know that we turn into what we hope for to become the goal itself. If I hope to be a good writer, someone who will make a difference perhaps, then my striving to do so will accomplish the very purpose I so much want to see. Transformation will take place and so slowly I do not notice. I can only hope..


Lost in the Blogosphere

Are you addicted to reading blogs? Are you just addicted to reading like me? I am reading Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol right now and while doing that I’m reading blogs, finishing watching all four seasons of Battlestar Galactica and watching my favorite television shows like Project Runway and Mad Men. But, occasionally I find various oases on the internet; places where one can get lost clicking links until you’ve forgotten your way. Haven’t you ever done that? Here are some good links to get you started (if you’re not back in 15 minutes, I’ll come looking):

Arts and Letters Daily

Academic Blog Portal


Others’ Rooms and One’s Own

Yours and my own room might not be so eclectically pleasing or so richly furnished, but the Guardian book blog has got a revealing series about where writers write. These writing spaces range from richly furnished rooms to cabins. Looking at these brings back fond memories of finding such a place for myself.

Since I was a little girl I’ve wanted my own space to write and be reclusive. I remember that the books that resonated with me the most back then were books in which the main character had a secret place to go to in order to be alone. There was a book called Jenny about a young girl who made a place for herself among tall, tall grass in her backyard. I specifically remember a character of another book who found an old abandoned shed with a little desk in it and a large, metal key to lock it with. I don’t remember the title to the book now, but I vividly remember the picture in my mind of the shed, the drawer, and the key and the times she would steal away from her house and go there. She would carefully unlock the desk and take out her notebook and write. Oh to be able to shut and lock your own place! This image spurred a lifelong passion for diaries, journals, and locked books.

I remember another book about a girl who velvetwas a migrant worker’s daughter. She went to an abandoned house and found a tower room with windows on all sides and window seats with cushions against all the walls of the circular tower room. The cushions and curtains were pink. I just found out the name of that book after all these years. It’s The Velvet Room by Zilpha Keatley Snyder. I read this book in the 4th or 5th grade and have never forgotten it. The product description at Amazon.com reads:

Robin was always “wandering off” (her mother’s words) to get away from the confusion she felt inside her. It was not until Robin’s father found a permanent job at the McCurdy ranch, after three years as a migrant worker, that Robin had a place to wander to. As time went by the Velvet Room became more and more of a haven for her–a place to read and dream, a place to bury one’s fears and doubts, a place to count on.

A place to count on. Hmmm. Another of Snyder’s books was magical as well. It was called Black and Blue Magic and resonated deeply in my soul. It was about a boy who found some magical cream that he could spread on his shoulders and sprout wings. With those wings he could fly out of his window at night and fly over the city in which he lived. Wonderful All of these books were about children who find solace in solitude and being away from all that would intrude into a child’s need for privacy. They were all about a place they could count on to heal them.

When I fled the abuse in our childhood home, I tried to go anywhere I could to find such magical places in our un-ordinary household in our ordinary small town; a place of solitude, safety, and comfort.  A place to count on.  Like Jenny in the first novel I ever read above, I tried to find my own place out in the backyard amidst a small hedge of short pine trees. They were enclosed somewhat, but less than ideal.  I spent some time in there writing stories in my notebook. However, I could never find the perfect spot, that spot that you just KNEW was where you could be most private. The cellar of our house, accessed through a door outside, was too dank, musty, and spooky for that purpose, although my sister and I found a nice, big steamer trunk with old jewelry in it and a set of books about Egyptian methods of mummification. This set off a period of stealing spices from the kitchen cupboard with which to conduct “experiments” down below.  There was a shed out in the backyard, similar to the one found in the book (whose name I can’t remember), but it had no windows and spiders thrived. Ick. And of course I could not find a Velvet Room as their were few abandoned houses to retreat to that were in such good condition, nor was their magical cream with which to sprout wings.

I never did find that place of retreat. I think that my whole life has been spent trying to find that place of solitude that would allow me to think my own thoughts and to write. It’s every writer’s ideal. Virginia Woolf wrote of all those lost women writers who were never discovered because they lacked a room wherein to write and the means to support themselves. In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf writes,

When, however, one reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a very remarkable man who had a mother, then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, of some mute and inglorious Jane Austen, some Emily Bronte who dashed her brains out on the moor or mopped and mowed about the highways crazed with the torture that her gift had put her to. Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.

Yes, where might all the mothers be, trying to flee young children by locking themselves in the bathroom, if they had a room of their own in vw-monks-housewhich to write? What masterpieces might there be? Or, perhaps, what could we have learned from hearing how ordinary women lived ordinary lives and tried very desperately to carve out their own spaces amidst the duties designated for them? Woolf said that not only did women need rooms of their own but sufficient income to support herself doing it. It appears that one cannot have one without the other.

As a mother with young children I remember watching The Waltons on television while my kids napped. I remember that John Boy wanted to turn the small shed next door to his house into a room of his own where he could write.  I think Mary Ellen was rightly outraged about his claiming to be older and a boy and therefore more rightly entitled to the place. Similarly, in the television show The Brady Bunch, Greg and Marcia Brady had it out in a step-sibling brawl over the attic room and who rightfully could claim it. I remember thinking that the boys would always win that one. Men, it is assumed, needed their own places to be creative. Women had the run of the whole house after all, they reasoned! But they forget that so does everyone else and the whole house is not private for  women.

Having one’s own room is the beginning of claiming your own space for the first time AND asserting your right to have one. Until recently, I never did find a secret place of my own. Now I have such a place, albeit not secret. But it’s mine. Mine will never be photographed for the Guardian Book blog, but it is no less important in the grand scheme of things than anyone else’s space and it is certainly, if I just realize it, more than adequate to provide me with that place I need to write; that place I can count on.

I think the need to have a private place where one can go and think their own thoughts and perhaps paint or write or compose music is a necessary thing for everyone. Women however are notoriously selfless when it comes to asking for their own space. They need to be more selfish and unapologetic at the same time. They need to be more assertive about asking for space, or better yet, just taking  space and claiming it as their own.  It’s a universal innate thing to do; retreat to a place we can count on to heal us. So, do you have a secret room? I certainly hope so.


Nothing as Basic as the Love of Books, Unless It’s a Secondhand Bookshop

Theodore Dalrymple has written a lovely little essay for The English Review entitled “Of Bibliophilia and Biblioclasm.” He extols the virtues of secondhand bookshops, despite the grumblings of Orwell himself whose memories of working in secondhand bookshops left a lot to be desired. I disagree of course. Many long hours of mine have been spent in secondhand book stores. I remember a particular bookstore in Denver, Colorado that was not in the way of any significant traffic and never sported more than a couple of people (me included) at a time within the confines of its three rooms. But there was something about it that drew me there. Sitting on the floor in front of rows of books is one of my fondest memories; in bookstores and in the one library that I actually had the opportunity to work in. While working in that library, I think I checked out more books from the cart than I was instructed to put away. But that was the joy of working there. I came across any number of books that I would not have found otherwise.

I discovered the curiosity of “eavesdropping” on other peoples’ reading tastes. I found endless items tucked away inside books returned for shelving; bookmarks, love notes, pieces of homework paper, articles clipped and forgotten. I usually kept the bookmarks, but I’m sure I would have had a fairly decent eclectic assortment of other papers had I kept those; or at least the makings of a really juicy novel. Dalrymple writes of his love of collecting books with inscriptions by their previous owners. In some, the owners are known. In others, unknown, but telling:

In my copy of The Condemned Playground by the critic, Cyril Connolly, published in 1945, is a short inscription. It is in the cultivated hand that one very rarely sees nowadays: a comparison of inscriptions shows how coarse handwriting has become in the last half-century or so. My guess is that the inscription was written by a young woman, no more than thirty years old when she wrote it. Her words were few and to me of a great poignancy: To my beloved husband, Christmas 1945.

Why should these words have struck me as so poignant? Because I think that, though they are simple and could hardly be more direct, no one would use them to inscribe a book now. At any rate, I have not found so vulnerably tender an inscription in any book since. It is not so much that our use of language has changed, as that our feelings have changed. For all our resort to psychobabble and endless talk about ourselves, we are less inclined to lay ourselves open to others, even those closest to us. Power is more important to us than love.

He’s right on that front. No one would inscribe a book that way today. For the same reasons that no one wanders secondhand bookshops anymore, no one writes such lovely snippets anymore either.  People are not willing to peruse anything more than they absolutely have to and that includes the contents of their hearts.

LIke my finding scraps of paper inside returned library books, finding the detritus of human reading habits is also intertwined with my joy at wandering the shelves of secondhand bookstores today. Like Dalrymple says, these shops are fewer and fewer in number due to the internet and the reading publics lack of interest in dusty shelf perusal, but I still think that the finest way to spend leisure time is casually running my finger along the spines of used books on a shelf and picking one at random to leaf through. To me, that’s not time wasted.

Melancholy Baby

I’ve been particularly touchy and pensive lately. Nothing interests me but reading books, watching television, or playing Bookworm. Well, other things have interested me, but that only takes 10 minutes max and even my husband is getting tired of it! 🙂 I’ve finished the latest Stephen King novel. Ho-Hum. The only thing of interest is that I started the first Dresden Files novel by Jim Butcher called Storm Front. Now that’s gotten interesting! I foresee long nights ahead reading his novels. (clapping) Still, I’m feeling pretty underestimated at work and pretty disgusted at our political system and media. So what else is new? Rather than rant on and on about the latest bullshit coming out of election candidates or the latest “I hate America” crap we see constantly, I’ve turned them all off for the time being. And people wonder why we watch TV shows too much. DUH!

As I’ve said before, I work at a large (not huge) church. It’s no mega-church or anything but some prominent (i.e. rich) people go there. So as Administrative Assistant to a few pastors, I get paid a decent wage for what I do. Hell, if you worked for the state (the largest employer here) I wouldn’t be making as much and the atmosphere would be even worse. So why bitch about it? Because I feel dry on the vine, underestimated, and my self esteem is withering away. In academia, it’s pretty much standard that you will be called brilliant every time you submit a question, let alone a paper of some length. It’s pretty heady to work in a field where you can toss around ideas and hob-nob with professors. I miss writing, researching, and presenting papers at conferences. Yet, I couldn’t stand the politics and the lack of balance found there. Despite what people think, academia is pretty narrow in their political beliefs.

Where I work now, I have just as a high if not higher educational degree as anyone here but the head pastor (he has a doctorate) and it pretty much means nothing to anyone. Is it supposed to? Maybe. At least that’s what bill of goods we are sold when we sign on to get one. But I went mainly for the research and reading part of it, not the end product. At any rate, it’s from the pastor that I’m constantly running across problems. He’s a 70s Princeton Theological Seminary graduate whose wife typed all of his papers while in school and whose assistant (me) now does. He’s not good with computers and doesn’t know how to find things on the Internet. Simple stuff for me seems unreachable to him. Yet, he is a perfectionist who has to have EVERYTHING a certain way and after it’s been modified twenty times, there is still always something wrong with it which he has to tell me about even after it’s too late to fix it. Every year, my review is the same. I meet or exceed all expectations and he has no problem with any of my “work.” What’s also true every year is that he never says I’ve done a good job unless I find some tidbit on the Internet that he thinks is “unfindable.” My co-workers have the same attitude. For them, I’m nothing special. They might hate it that they’d have to do my job if I left, but I am not under the delusion that I can’t be replaced. ANYONE can be replaced pretty easily.

I’ve looked for other jobs, but there isn’t much out there right now. I’ve long been out of the academic world and trying to get back in isn’t quite so easy. Soon the contacts dry up and the networking needs reworked, but after a certain time, you’re forgotten. I suppose I’m wondering if perhaps I’ve missed my shot. Sure, I can stay here until I retire. It’s an easy job with an easy-going work environment. All I have to do is mindlessly go through the church cycle year after year for the next 18 years. Sure, I don’t hate my job. Sure, I have some lively conversations at work. But, lately, I’ve just been feeling blah. I don’t write anything interesting anymore and can’t drum up the energy to blog. I have nothing to say that isn’t a rant against something and, I suppose, like all women approaching 50, feel pretty much useless and past my expiration date. So, do I keep looking for another job or stay and count my blessings? Any cure for the doldrums out there?

Of Memes and Books

The River Lethe has tagged me! I will participate because it involves my favorite subject: books! Books, glorious books. What would we ever do without them??

1 – One book that changed your life

The Bible (one I also wish sometimes that I hadn’t read) and The Women’s Room by Marilyn French (Both opened my eyes to new levels of existence)

2 – One book that you’ve read more than once

Again, The Women’s Room. I read it in my 20s, my 30s, and I’ll tackle it again soon.

3 – One book you’d want on a desert island

Well, obviously a book about how to survive on a desert island! Doh!

4 – Two books that made you laugh

Lamb by Christopher Moore (I agree with Aletheia on this one. It made me laugh out loud!)

Any of the John Corey novels by Nelson DeMille: The Lion’s Game, Plum Island, etc. The sardonic wit of John Corey is priceless.

5 – One book that made you cry

No book has ever made me cry except for a sappy romance or two. I can’t remember what they were though. I need visuals, like films to accomplish the crying.

6 – One book that you wish had been written

Middlemarch by George Eliot

7 – One book that you wish had never been written

The Jewish and Christian Scriptures (commonly called the Bible) or the The Koran –without these two books, there would be more peace in the world. (Men always go to war over religion, power, or land. Without religion, we’d still have war, but it would be nice to downsize it.)

8 – Two books you’re currently reading

The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman

The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx

9 – One book you’ve been meaning to read

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

There. I have so many more categories that I could add, but I could go on and on. I’ll leave it at this list. I’ll tag Heather and Eileen.