Winged Energy, Midsummer 

 

Taue, “TaWooWeh”, the rice planting, is complete. The water in the paddy fields is clear and footprints, the farmer’s deep impressions, and the wading birds’, can still be made out. Delicate green stalks sprout above the silvery surface, making rTaue (1)eflected clouds look whiskery. I hear a rice-planting song being softly sung in my inner ear, effortless invocation, as instinctive as breathing. The drains gurgle, a living frame around each neatly laid out field. The open lock nearby thunders white, roaring of recent rains and swollen hillside streams.

 

Patrolling the rippling mirrors of the paddy fields there are dragonflies and swallows by day, and bats by night, darting with magnificent vigor, night and day, hither and yon. These are the fields at play. The fields at rest seem to be hanging with a different crowd. In the distance I see them giggling in their raggedy state, tickled by small flocks of tumbling sparrows, that fall and rise in concert, and the slow flickering of butterflies.

 
A giant dragonfly momentarily alights beside me on a fence post but we simultaneously and quite suddenly draw back from this mutual inspection. Had I just come into focus? ‘You’re soooo big,’ I remember thinking, ‘I’ve never seen anything like you before!’ The creature, might well have uttered a choice Kurtzian phrase*, but likely as not, was not quite as surprised by me.

I remember the wonder of learning that dragonflies’ vision is 3 to 10 times more powerful than mine. Not only can a dragonfly see in all directions at once but it has 30 000 individual facets which create an image, and 8 pairs of visual neurons which compile those thousands of images into one picture. They see things on the light spectrum that I can only dream of.

Quite right you were, too, Dragonfly, flying away. It is your nature. And, as you flit away on those extraordinarily intricately woven wings, you and your honeycomb peepers, I’m thinking of human nature, of the soul magnifying God, and I’m thinking of those lines in Rilke’s poem:

 “Take your practiced powers and stretch them out

 until they span the chasm between two

contradictions . . . For the god

wants to know himself in you.”

 §


*From Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness: ‘The horror, the horror.’ 😆

Pick up lines (Part Two, 2016)

I read like a farmer: more when there’s less light and the leaves of the trees have fallen (an absence made up for by the leaves that are pages of a book?); less when the sun is high. During cherry blossom season, young minds enter the University and my cultivating duties commence. By Lammas, the feast of the first fruits is in, the semester done, and my summer teaching hiatus begins shortly thereafter.

Here, below, are my reading notes from the second quarter of the year. Two are authors I’ve never read before, their books translated from Afrikaans and from Russian. The short stories are translated from Brazilian. In non-fiction, three are originally in English and one is translated from French.

I have, in keeping with my earlier post, made a record of the first sentence of the books I’ve read . . . the so-called Pick Up Line.

(See part 1 from the first quarter of the year, here.)

Fiction

Icarus by Deon Meyer begins

Heaven and earth’s conspired to expose Ernst Richter’s corpse, the universe seemingly intent on reaching out a helping hand for justice.

This was my first Deon Meyer novel. I loved the familiarity of it; it brought back so many memories–of winelands and gorgeous scenery, for starters. I was so taken with the recognisability of the characters and the ‘sounds’ of speech, in particular, which powerfully reminded me of home. There is a warmth and generosity to the characters that is so totally southern African; it’s hard to explain but you know it when you feel it (and when you’ve grown up with it, but don’t have it anymore, it’s all the more nostalgic.) It brought also a kind of relief – to ‘see’ characters one doesn’t see, neither in life, nor, too often, in fiction, nor on telly. There’s really something to that need to see oneself reflected and I’m trying to figure out what it is . . . ?

Daniel Stein, Interpreter by Ludmila Ulitskaya. (Trans. Arch Tait.)

The epigraph reads:

“I thank my God, I speak with tongues more than ye all: Yes in the church I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that by my voice I might teach others also, than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue.” (1 Cor, 4: 18-19)

The first sentence reads:

I always feel cold.

I’m on a bit of an Ulitskaya binge presently. As much, that is, as one can binge on Russian literature! This book, I loved. It’s very good on one level on interfaith, on in-culturalism (catholicism!), on (novel to me) Jewish Christians and the relations between these two traditions. I’ve been delving into Margaret Barker’s Temple Theology a bit lately (thanks to Maggie Ross’s Silence) and found a lot of resonance in this novel. Finishing this fictionalised bio, I felt bereft. I was also grateful–to the subject and to the author–that such quietly profound intelligence & sensitivity are available in a world of shouters and sound-bitten media.

Tracker by Deon Meyer

Ismail Mohammed runs down the steep slope of Heiliger Lane.

Reading Meyers’ books is great fun and I gobbled the first two thirds of this one in a couple of days. Something odd happened in the last section – like someone had put the brakes on and changed lanes and it kind of fizzled for me. Still, as noted of the first Meyer novel, there is something deeply satisfying to encounter the rich languages and idioms of people who sound like home and to recognize place names and landscapes. Reading Meyer is like eating comfort food for a person far from home.

The Big Green Tent by Ludmilla Ulitskaya. (Trans. Polly Gannon.)

The epigraph reads:

Do not be consoled by the injustice of our time. It’s immorality does not prove our own moral worth; its inhumanity is not sufficient to render us human merely by opposing it. (Boris Pasternak, letter to Varlam Shalamov, July 9th, 1952)

The first sentence reads:

Tamara sat before a runny omelet on a plate, the vestiges of sleep still clinging to her.

“Russian novel” has become shorthand for a kind of emotionally rich, intricately-plotted, doorstop-sized work of fiction. The BGT fits this profile, weighing in at almost 600 pages. I’m about half way through it and am thoroughly enjoying it. Ulitskaya is sooooo good. I’m reading slowly because I can’t absorb it properly otherwise, and the story and its details call for a kind of attention that I want to give to it. It’s not hard to read. You want to savour it all up. You want it to go on and on and I have known that, after the first chapter, I’d be sad when it was over.

Also, on the bedside pile is also

Clarice Lispector’s Collected Short Stories, Ed. Benjamin Moser (Moser writes a good intro,”Glamour and Grammar”. I was even more fascinated by the afterword by Katrina Dodson, the translator. There is an interview with Dodson in the Asymptote journal.)

Non Fiction (On the Go …)

• Hope Sings so Beautiful: Graced Encounters across the Color Line, by Christopher Pramuk

For much of my career as a teacher in Jesuit Catholic institutions, I have had my feet in two very different worlds: the world of privileged, and largely white, Jesuit education, and the world of black Catholic worship.

This book was a welcome gift from a trusted friend who had found it inspiring. While my personal history of race relations is different from Americans’, and is quite different now, living in Japan, the book has been calling to me. It has an intriguing table of contents. I haven’t gotten to the meat of it yet. Mr Pramuk and I went to the same graduate school, and so I have a sense of where he’s coming from, if only from the pictures he has used. (I keep opening the page with the picture of Thea Bowman because it makes me so happy to look at.) The foreword is by Shawn Copeland so you know this is a work of integrity.

(In connection with the book, I recently came across this article by Fr. Charles Curran, “Facing up to Privilege requires Conversion,” which I found very compelling.)

• The Intuiton of the Instant, by Gaston Bachelard. (Trans. Eileen Rizo-Patron) This slim volume is helping me to think through some ideas forming for an essay I hope to write.

• The Rhythm of Being, by Raimon Panikkar. Started this on Trinity Sunday 2016. I noticed Panikkar’s preface was written at Pentecost, 2009. Not much progress made with it yet.

• Temple Theology, by Margaret Barker. A third of the way through this and, honest to God, have had moments of feeling scales were falling from my eyes. This is radical research!


 

Collective Fictions

OR, ‘The Case Against Spiritual Agoraphobia.’

Collective fictions matter, writes Marilynne Robinson*, because they have ‘the profoundest influence on what we know and see and understand’ (77). They matter because collective narratives determine, in greater and lesser ways, the expanse and expandability of our imaginations, of our hearts.

These are things that should have a place in our imaginations: the value of life; suffering as part of life (for everyone); the guarantee of change and the assurance of death. These constitute the very bones of Reality. Questions that are always in the process of being worked out include things like: what are the boundaries between the individual and society? What is the common good? (Is coherence on this question possible?) For whom does public discourse exist? (Who is speaking and who is silent and why?) How are we to judge what is significant? Authentic?

If we have not (metaphorically) gone to sleep (disavowing of the power we do hold; or, trying to escape from personal responsibility, or, perhaps, attempting to create a space apart to envision something else), many have allowed fear a foothold. Fear in the collective narrative seems to ‘have something like an organic life, in the way [it] invades experience and transforms it to the uses of [its] own survival.’ Robinson’s insight is prophetic:

‘When they make fear the key to interpretation of history and experience . . . nothing contains a greater potential for releasing all the varieties of destruction.’ (78)

We have given our collective fictions the status of Reality and this spectre can be seen haunting election cycles and legislation. Who can argue with the fact that it is often it appears to be ‘a work of grim and minor imagination’, ‘such a poor contrivance that we would not believe in it for a minute if we did not want to . . . .’ (77). And we must wonder: Why do we play so small?

We play small because we are, in Robinson’s view, ‘spiritual agoraphobes’ (86). To counter this phobia a number of remedies are offered (elegantly, of course, and not in the brevity I will present them below.)

REMEDIES AGAINST SPIRITUAL AGORAPHOBIA

Wake up & own & use your power to act for good. We are living in a complex and interdependent world. Acts are shaped by beliefs, and acts demonstrate beliefs more reliably than talk does. Do good. Do good any way and anyway.

Be reasonable. ‘We are not taking responsibility for keeping ourselves reasonable, individually or collectively — we no longer admire or reward reasonableness because it has lost its place in our imagination’ (78). Think slowly and well.

Give. Hone your skills in humanity. Give more. ’It is because we hope to acquire rather than to achieve … to receive rather than to give … that the good we imagine can truly be taken from our hands’ (85).

Be open to judgment. ‘What if, in important numbers, we believe there is a God who is mysterious and demanding, with whom one is not easily at peace? What if we believe there will be a reckoning?’ When people stopped believing this ‘we adopted this very small view of ourselves and others, as consumers and patients and members of interest groups . . .'(86). Adopting narrow and intense fictions, which both comfort and distract us, reveals that we have forgotten the seriousness of the gift and the call of being large-hearted humans.

Cultivate a compassionate imagination. (Courtney Martin puts it well, here.)


* See, Marilynne Robinson’s “Facing Reality” from the collection entitled The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought. (1998).

The Brutal Instant

‘… is experienced when we are faced with the unexpected death of a loved one, or the sudden daunting realisation of personal responsibility for the recurring errors and habits that rule over our thwarted lives or collective world views . . ..  Only such a tragic realisation may be capable of cutting deep into the heart of reason . . . a power capable at a given moment—if we heed and assent to it—of absolving the élan that otherwise seems to drive existence onward, relentlessly hauling the cumulative detritus of our past’ (xii).

Intuition of the Instant, Gaston Bachelard. (Trans. Eileen Rizo-Patron)

Before the Plum Rains began . . .

 

Hawks, herons and hydrangeas accompanied me across the fields, along the stream and into the woods at the foot of the hill on the last of the early summer walks before the Bai-u (梅雨, rainy season). I headed out for a little forest therapy, a little—as the locals say—‘Green Shower’ (森林浴 [しんりんよく [shinrin’yoku]). The colours were magnificent, all the crisper for the light and the breeze against the bluest of skies replete with white puffy clouds. There’s something so right and so nostalgic about such days.

Mea culpa: I gave in to the temptation to play hooky for the afternoon.

I walked through the patchwork fields, some bare and awaiting their rice seedlings, others flowing golden with spikey-eared barley. Wildflowers were bopping in the breeze, bamboo clacked a soft percussion and a loose piece of corrugated roofing on a shed banged asynchronously, a tone- and rhythm-deaf enthusiast it seemed. The fig tree, brutally pruned some months ago, is again miraculously flourishing. The loquat bushes’ dark lute-shaped leaves make way for little fairy-lantern orbs of golden-orange fruit.

My mind sounded an owl’s call, “Who? Who? Who?” What was it fishing for? Of course: Mary Oliver’s poem, ‘A Summer’s Day’! (“Who made the world? / Who made the swan, and the black bear? /Who made the grasshopper?”) Not so much, who?, I decided, but why? – where was Everyone?! Why were they indoors and not out celebrating—this day, this light, these colours?

The Baiu, or Plum Rain season, a word which sounds like ‘bayou’, introduces a swampy feel to our world, heavy and humid, and it hangs about for around 5 weeks before the ‘real’ summer begins and the temperatures ignite. The grass was long, though the paths had been cleared. I’ll admit I was a little wary of encountering a snake – there’s only one poisonous kind here – and was sending out little protection requests to St. Paddy (!) and the herons wading about in the streams and ponds.

Suddenly I remembered that I’d heard tell of fireflies in these waters, but it would be a few hours before twilight and then darkness settled, and I needed to be home before that.

Heron

 

The Poetry of Thought

It was my very great pleasure over the past weekend to listen to two different podcasts each featuring a great thinker and liberal artist. Almost six decades separate their ages. George Steiner is close to his ninth decade and Maria Popova has just entered her third. Both were born in Europe and emigrated to the U.S. Where Steiner’s thinking has been characterised as ‘doom laden’ (I think that is laying it on a bit thick, myself, but I can see how people might subscribe to this view), the interview with Popova revealed her as a bright and hope-centred person. Both seem to enjoy very fruitful relationships with the dead. Popova was born and raised in communist Bulgaria, and Steiner’s European childhood was marked by flight from Nazism. For each of them, intellectual life was and remains a form of spiritual revivification, one in which literature and poetry, reading and writing are not only not taken for granted but serve as mooring points for the orienting of the human person.

I was particularly drawn by the wide-ranging thoughtfulness of each of the speakers and link the podcasts below.

George Steiner on Intelligence Squared (March 21, 2016)

Maria Popova on On Being (May 14, 2015)