Category Archives: life and literature

Finding Your True Self

I’ve posted before about Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward, which explores the two halves of life, represented by the false self and the true self. If you’ve ever found yourself wondering, “Is this all there is to life?” then you’ve probably succeeded in creating your false self — which isn’t bad per se, it just doesn’t go far enough — and are ready to seek your true self.

For me, reading Falling Upward was like having a conversation with a wise, beloved friend. The pithy book is over much too soon, however, so I went looking for more.

In Immortal Diamond, Rohr carries on the conversation. The content makes clear that Falling Upward left readers wanting more — more tangibles in the form of explanations and practical guidelines (which are actually not necessary once you’ve discovered your true self). Immortal Diamond describes key concepts, such as the false and true selves, in greater depth than Falling Upward does, and the end matter includes six appendixes (or appendices, if you prefer — the Canadian Oxford lists both as acceptable) replete with diagrams and a list of personal practices to implement.

But these concessions to readers taking preliminary and tentative steps away from their false selves don’t diminish the book one bit. The fact that Rohr felt the need to write a second book on the subject fills one with only comfort and hope that such demand exists.

Any writer who synthesizes the world’s knowledge — as Rohr does — is a must-read. Rohr is a Franciscan priest, but trust me: you need not be religious to benefit from his work. That’s the thing about truth, it’s too big for any one tradition — religious or secular — to contain.

“Healthy religion,” Rohr writes in Immortal Diamond, “should be the most inclusive system of all, making use of every discipline, avenue, and access point for Big Truth.” It is this inclusiveness that, unlike in mere personal therapy, allows the spiritual teacher to identify false problems and wrong frameworks, in effect zeroing in on the big — and it is big — picture.

Ultimately, both Falling Upward and Immortal Diamond are about claiming the good news of the Gospels: you can have life and have it abundantly. That’s right: you can. And no, it has nothing to do with Jesus of Nazareth dying on a cross for your sins — at least not in the way you might think, not in the way that many Christian churches would lead you to believe. In fact, there’s nothing to believe here at all. Rather, there’s something for you to experience, and my hunch is that you already know that.

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The Charm of Ali Smith

I’ve posted before about enjoying Ali Smith’s writing, and here I go again.

There’s no pleasure that compares to curling up with great writing. Some writers express ideas so well that they seem to know what you’re thinking and feeling before you do. This sentiment is expressed by one of the main characters in John Green’s Fault in Our Stars, another book I’m currently reading (quite the long wait for that one at the public library). I love experiencing that kind of connection with writing, but that’s not how I feel about Smith’s writing.

Instead, Smith has charmed me with her subtle creativity: Both the overall structure of her novels and that of her individual sentences break convention without being annoyingly “capital C” creative. There’s no “look at what I can do” literary gymnastics.

But what Smith can do is impressive. She captures character voice so thoroughly it’s as though there’s nothing separating the character’s thought from the reader. For example, in The Accidental a teenager feels responsible for a tragedy, and Smith gives the reader a front row seat on his mental roller coaster: The stark facts present themselves again and again between other frantic thoughts of what-might-have-been and if-only-could-now-be, and the whole thing keeps going round and round. (Okay, yeah, maybe it’s a stream of consciousness thing if stream of consciousness weren’t some kind of writing style — and that’s just it: I’m not thinking “oh, stream of consciousness” while I’m reading Smith.) Who doesn’t know that wrenching place where regret is unbearably palpable?

I’d love to have a conversation with Smith’s editor, and I’d love to see the original manuscript. It appears as though Smith’s been given (rightfully) plenty of free rein. But for all I know, maybe the ride was a whole lot more wild before Penguin took over the controls.

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Falling Upward: No Editing Required

I attended a book study on Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward this afternoon. (I wrote a post about Rohr’s book previously.) Group members discussed “Chapter 4: The Tragic Sense of Life.” The tragic sense of life results from the realization that life is more about disorder and flaws than it is about order and perfection. Accepting the world’s disorder — embracing it, actually — is a necessary skill for personal growth in the second half (or spiritual half) of our lives.

We try so hard to impose on the world our desire for order. We want things to be perfect; we want to make progress, to be productive. We want to be in control. The end result isn’t pretty — not for us personally and not for the world (think war and violence and just about every “ism” you can come up with).

There was lots of good discussion at the book study, but the tragic sense of life won’t be managed or grasped or contained by any words I can string together here, and I know it.

Hey. Did I just give up trying to instill a little order around here? A little of my own point of view, my thoughts, my analysis? It feels good, actually, to simply accept what is.

In Acts, Jesus asks Paul why he is “kicking against the goads.” It’s time to stop kicking, because life is unravelling exactly as it will: no editing required on my part.

Trees 001

Is this tree rooted in place or falling upward?

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Words: Discovery and Depth

I love writers who introduce me to new words (I’m looking at you, Rex Murphy and Conrad Black).  I recently discovered the word irenic (“no irenic third way”) in a well written and well researched article by Reverend Joe Boots in Jubilee, a local magazine. (Sorry about the magazine cover — it’s absolutely execrable.) Irenic means “aiming or aimed at peace.”

I once came across crapulous and thought it was the new craptastic, but I was wrong. It means “drunk.”

Recently The Millions published an article on the personal discovery of new words — and on the depth of meaning in ordinary words used by author Ali Smith, in particular.

The author of the article begins the piece by listing several words he learned from reading great authors: assiduous (Salman Rushdie), pulchritude (Zadie Smith), fantod (David Foster Wallace), mendacity (Tennessee Williams), phalanx, faradic, tesellate, and hysteresis (all from Thomas Pynchon). He goes on to discuss how Ali Smith can mine a banal word to uncover a multitude of connections that pertain to an individual character as well as to the wider world of ideas.

The excerpts of Smith’s works left me wanting more. She’s been on my reading list for awhile, and it’s time she made it to the top. Although I’m no fan of wordsmithing for the sake of wordsmithing (yeah, I turned that into a gerund), I’m a big fan of language and its capacity to intrigue, explain, connect, and transform. Which means I’ll probably be a big fan of Smith, too.

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Falling Upward

Some books are like comforting, wise old friends. That’s how I feel about Falling Upward by Richard Rohr, the book I’m reading right now.

The book is about the further journey some of us take after the survival concerns of the first half of life have been successfully wrestled with — things like earning a living, mating, and child rearing.

Rohr is wise, incorporating a lifetime of knowledge into this little book. Isn’t that what the best writers do? They see connections everywhere and synthesize them for us; they put the human experience — our experience — into words. In this way, they leave us enriched, wiser, and comforted with the knowledge that we are not alone.

(On the topic of “little book,” the trim size is 4X6. I’m always a sucker for a trim trim, so to speak — it makes a book a pleasure to hold. And the jacket is well designed with nicely contrasting typefaces, beautiful neutral tones, and lots of great blurbs. One person calls Rohr “prophetic, pastoral, practical.”)

Rohr establishes rapport right away: He demonstrates inclusiveness and openness at the beginning of the book — sure indications of a wise soul. I find myself anticipating the moments I’m going to spend with this book.

Unfortunately, with only 167 pages, those moments won’t last long enough.

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Copy Editing Commandment #9: Thou Shalt Make an Art of the Query

When editing copy, sometimes a lot of questions come up — about usage, clarity, consistency, etc. It’s often necessary for the editor to ask the author to clarify something. Sounds like a simple enough process, right? Ask a question, get a response.

Wrong.

I bet you’ve received an email that rubbed you the wrong way or put you on the defensive. That’s exactly what editors must avoid when making queries to authors. Heck, I recently wrote a short story, and when my husband and daughter didn’t understand what I was trying to convey, I hit the roof. What was wrong with them? Were they too stupid to see the brilliance of my words, my sentences, my ideas, my characters?!

The act of writing is rife with vulnerability, you see. The writer has pored over the piece, and they want the work to be appreciated, understood, enjoyed. Maybe a ton of time-consuming research was involved. At the very least, time was indeed involved, and that’s a precious commodity.

To get positive responses to queries, editors should appeal to the author’s readers. When changes are needed, editors should explain why and offer suggestions (without bogging a writer down with explanations about small changes).

Here is a sample query: “Your ideas here are important for your readers to grasp; what about making this transition more apparent by moving paragraph 9 here?”

Remember the book “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten”? Well, I didn’t attend kindergarten, and I don’t know what the book says, but all I really need to know I learned from the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. In other words, do a great job while being sensitive and empathetic with queries.

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Here’s to Landing on Our Feet

I just returned from dropping my daughter off at the local subway station, where she and her fellow Girl Guides are selling cookies. They do this every year, and I was struck by the memory of walking her to the station last year.

I tore my ACL last October, and walking was excruciating. The subway is three blocks away, and every step hurt. By the time I returned home, I was crying — crying from the pain as well as from the fear. Was I going to get better?

Today I read the following lines in Meg Wolitzer’s Surrender, Dorothy:

Immortality was the vehicle that transported me, every summer, to the squalid little house we called our own. Immortality was the thing I rode in, barely noticing. I was like a member of the ruling class being held in the spindly arms of a rickshaw, never once looking down at the long bamboo joints, or thinking to observe the nape of the neck of the boy who bent to hold the conveyance aloft.

I was content merely to stay aloft, imagining that the ride would go on and on like one of the lengthy dinners we used to have in the house. I was held aloft for so many summers that I took the ride for granted…

… I was held aloft and shimmering for years, never knowing that this in itself was an impressive feat, an anomaly, until one day, at age thirty, I landed.

We can all relate to the moment when we “land.” For me, it was tearing my ACL at age forty-two (both a literal and figurative landing). Before that, I was still feeling youthful and invincible. There was no can’t in my vocabulary.

But how lucky am I? How lucky am I to have had access to a great surgeon? How lucky am I to live in a country with universal health care? How lucky am I to have insurance for physio? How lucky am I to have time to devote to rehabilitating my knee? How lucky am I that my family was willing and able to do without my help for several days? How lucky am I that this is the first bad thing I’ve personally had to deal with?

I’ve  been doing my physio exercises these last 7 weeks since surgery, and I’ve got a ways to go. The exercises are a blast from the past, because I was doing these same exercises last year when I got injured. For the most part, it’s been like being injured all over again.

But today my physiotherapist said, “You’ll be doing some running and jumping in a couple of months.” And it hit me for the first time since those first few euphoric hours post-surgery: I’ve got myself a new ACL, and soon I can use it. And soon after that, I can forget all about it.

How lucky am I? Very, very lucky.

I have landed, but I got back up (with a lot of help) — like I’ll get to do many, many times in this life if I continue to be lucky.

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