EVIL TONGUE OR PATH TO REFLECTION AND HEALING?

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Cynthia Ozick was given front page real estate in the New York Times Book Review, with a devilishly catchy title, “The Novel’s Evil Tongue” (12/20/2015). Her essay refers to the Book of Genesis, where Eve listens to the serpent and is persuaded to eat the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, as is Adam, her companion. God has threatened that they will die (by which He could have meant lose their immortality), if they eat this fruit. The crafty serpent seems correct when he says they won’t die for eating it (in the sense that they won’t drop dead on the spot).

So our two primordial ancesters are ejected from Eden, suddenly aware of their nakedness and need to be clothed. They are also unequally cursed, as feminist interpreters have noted. Eve and women after her will be afflicted with pain in childbirth, but will desire their husbands. Adam and men after him will have to sweat in hard labor for a living, with no mention of desiring their wives. It is one of two incompatible creation stories that the ancient compilers of far more ancient Hebrew oral traditions placed at the beginning of the Bible. Christians refer to it as The Fall, the beginning of evil among humankind, putting us in need of redemption in the form of a Savior. Others have read it as a parable of human choice to obey God or not, and the consequences.  Interpretations abound.

Ozicks’s unusual perspective sees the first humans’ eating the forbidden fruit as marking  not only humankind’s fall into sin and gossip, but also the beginning of all storytelling and, she implies, sexual desire.  If Eve hadn’t listened, “Eden would still be…a serene and tedious nullity, a place where nothing happens: two naked beings yawning in their idleness, innocent of what mutual nakedness might bring forth.” Ozick and many others assume that Adam and Eve did not make love before they realized they were naked.

One of the Ten Commandments forbids us to bear false witness, and elsewhere Scripture tells us not to be “going up and down as a talebearer among your people.” Without Eve’s original listening, Ozick opines, there’d have been no Cain and Abel, crime novels, Hitchcock thrillers, no great writers like Chaucer, Boccaccio, Austen, and Henry James. It’s a fascinating premise, but rather disturbing in regard to what the ancient Hebrews meant by bearing false witness and tale-bearing.

In early Hebrew culture and law, false witnessing referred specifically to lying in a legal matter—such as claiming that X stole ten of your sheep so that you could take ten of his, when in truth your sheep were killed by wolves and you’re falsely testifying in order to replace them with ten of X’s sheep. Likewise, tale-bearing in such an early context almost certainly meant slanderous rumor-mongering rather than entertaining others with fanciful but harmless stories. Some of the first tales, about heroes and their bravery, were clearly meant to inspire.

I believe this piece of nitpicking is important. Storytelling, minus the motives that boil down to malice, should be defended for its potential, in fiction and nonfiction, to open doors that no benevolent Creator would want closed. The chance to learn of, and be inspired by, the acts and feelings of other beings, real or imaginary.

Of course we are all swayed by the immediacy of a personal truth. Who can surpass Augustine’s confession that he begged God to free him from sexual sin, just not right away? But what if we are obsessed with unrequited passion for the spouse of a close friend? Would we not do better to assume the cover of fiction, removing our story to a different setting and changing everyone’s identity? The philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch wrote of literature as an art form that permits people to explore all kinds of experience, including terror and evil, from a safe distance. It was her belief that fiction could explore life’s nuances and complexity better than philosophy, thus the duality of her career.  She was not alone in this view.

I’m tempted to agree when Ozick writes, “Not unlike the philosophers, the gossiper strives to fathom the difference between appearance and reality, and to expose the gap between the false and the genuine.” But not quite. Gossipers with malevolent intent do not strive to clarify true from false. They use craft to make the false convincing, as do all con artists, in order to steal from them their right to make an accurate choice.  Storytellers who seek to inspire or draw people’s attention to troubling aspects of existence are trying to bring about healing and growth.  Very big difference.

I know a man who lost a well-earned promotion because his rival had planted rumors about his physical frailty. The gossiper won the promotion. The one who deserved it, who’d been in good health until he learned of this betrayal, declined toward a premature death. The gossiper does harm by distorting the truth. Altogether different from the craft of a writer-thinker who ponders the meaning of life and tries to differentiate good from evil. In the case of the stolen promotion, both men had records of achievement, but one of them lied about his rival in order to tip the scales.  We acknowledge his cleverness, but sense the evil of it.

Going back to the person who wants to protect his/her identity as tormented by desire for a close friend’s mate. If you fictionalize the story, you redirect your attention into a different space, a lifeworld that frees you a precious bit from the hard reality of personal anguish. It puts your powers of imagination and attention into creating characters similar but not identical to yourself and those close to you. It even increases your compassion for those imaginary characters, and allows you as a storyteller to think beyond your circumstances. In this way fiction lets us express pain and anguish in ways of healing rather than harm.

The problem with Ozick’s compelling take on Eve’s listening as the symbolic origin of people’s capacity to be moved by storytelling is her—probably unintentional—compression of entirely valid biblical warnings against lying and gossip that do harm, with the liberating and healing uses of attention and imagination.

Perhaps the myth of Adam and Eve made it into the Book of Genesis as a creation story because it speaks of the immediate and longterm consequences of having to choose how we listen and act. Evil, for all its surface appeal, can be identified for the harm it does—sometimes not readily apparent. Goodness, however, always exudes an ineffable sense of joy in life, be it through increased understanding, compassion, friendship with real or imaginary characters, or a shared laugh at the ridiculous. Who was it who said the devil hates to be mocked? A wise storyteller.

SHOCK AND HORROR AT 50TH YEAR CLASS REUNION

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It happened this summer, on a seemingly innocent trip to the ladies room.

The 50th was my first ever class reunion.  I’d brushed aside notices for earlier ones, but when the invitation came, with a warning that it might be our last, I thought what the hell.  Give it a shot, though I’d been less than two years at East High, transferring from another high school in Washington State.  My stepfather had been promoted and we were settling into our best-ever home when he had a bad accident, lost his sanity, and was institutionalized indefinitely.  My mom, a licensed practical nurse, found us a small rental unit within walking distance of the school, barely affordable on her tiny salary.

In my mind, the only people who’d visited us in that spartan little place were a few family friends, my brother when he was on leave from the Coast Guard Academy, and my only boyfriend before college—a fellow nerd who came to do homework together when he was competing with me to get straight A’s.  I couldn’t think of anyone else, having assumed the place wasn’t presentable like the home we’d been forced to leave.

At the reunion memories were jolted by name tags that reproduced our high school yearbook photos.  One stylishly dressed woman peered at mine, shouted my name and gave me a hug.  I quickly scanned her name tag, pulled a blank, but greeted her as though we’d been pals.  Another woman remarked cooly that I used to teach her younger brother to play the drums. At once a buried memory arose of a series of determined little boys who’d come for drum lessons with me in the tiny living room of that modest rented home. How could I forget?  But I almost had, having given up playing drums to study the piano and survive in a tough college.

The most fun was standing in line for the cash bar, shooting the breeze with folks who did not recognize each other.  This required us to gamely summarize what was noteworthy about our lives.  We looked out over the room and concluded that, all things considered, we’d held up pretty well for our age.  Pretty soon all class members were called to assemble outside for a group photo. Several amateur photographers appeared besides the one hired for the occasion, so it took time.

After the group photos I headed straight for the rest room in a cluster of unfamiliar women.  Two of us were washing our hands at the sink when one caught my gaze in the mirror and said, “I know you.  You invited me to your house one day with two other girls. When I slid over on your sofa to make room for them I accidentally sat on my glasses and broke them.  You said to me, ‘You’ll pay for that,’ and none of us could think what to say. I was never in your place again.”

She walked briskly alongside me as we left the restroom, looking into me for an explanation.  This was clearly unfinished business, as raw and deep for her as it had been half a century ago.  Honestly, I could not recall the episode, but was stunned to hear about my ancient gaff.

“Wow,” I said, glad to be five decades removed from it.  “What a DUMB thing to say!”

Instantly, she responded as if to console us both. “We were children.”

Well, I said to myself, 17- or 18-year-old children, not toddlers.  For her sake I tried to sound upbeat, stretching toward philosophical.  “Life sure is amazing.  I have no memory of this, and you’ve remembered it for 50 years!”

Unsatisfied, she looked back expectantly, as though we both knew it was our only chance to settle the matter.

“It’s true we were children,” I said, “But I don’t know why I would say something so stupid.  I would not have wanted you to feel bad about breaking your glasses.”

She nodded, and made a guttural sound. “Maybe,” she suggested, “you were attempting some kind of humor?”

I recognized the truth.  “Yes, that had to have been my intention.  Obviously, I failed.”

No comment, but affirmation in her silence.  I wanted to know who she was, but couldn’t bring myself to cheapen the exchange by looking at her name tag.  We’d been walking briskly, and before I could think of anything more to say she disappeared into the ballroom.

Within a few days the episode and the mortification I’d felt afterwards had resurfaced. I wished I could have told her: “I was so horrified that I’d dropped that bomb, I was sure you’d want nothing more to do with me.  So I avoided you and didn’t have the nerve to ask you over again.”  But it takes time for such thoughts and words to form.

Still, I want to believe that this frank soul got what she needed from our brief encounter.  Chances are, it was not by chance that we met in the ladies room.  She must have seen me leaving the photo shoot and seized her only opportunity to solve something she’d puzzled over for 50 years.  It could have been the reason she’d attended the event.

This person drew my attention to something that had caused her pain and made her feel rejected.  I didn’t catch her name, but she knows mine, and by some miracle I hope she reads this.  So that I can thank her and say it was my loss that we did not become friends.

When Attending To Something Is a Puzzlement

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Attention can be a puzzlement. (‘Just saw a revival of “The King and I” and couldn’t resist.)

M-J, a close friend, recently confided that within the past year she—not a fan of whodunits—saw a cheap copy of a John Grisham mystery at a recycled book shop and got an inexplicable urge to buy it. She only dimly recognized his name. But the book was only a couple bucks, so she indulged the impulse. In a day or two she’d finished it, and found herself returning to the shop for another. Then another. In almost no time she’d bought and read all the pre-owned Grishams at that place, and was determined to find everything else he’d written at other spots around town.

At this stage in her strange quest M-J began to wonder if she ought to feel guilty. She had more serious books to read, and what about her devotion to Bible study?

Funny thing, M-J noted: even when she’d more or less invited guilt to rise up within, none did. What arose instead was a hunch that her obsessive consumption of bestselling thrillers was for a purpose yet to be identified.

So in one year M-J plowed through all twenty-seven of Grisham’s oeuvre! Twenty-six novels and one non-fiction whodunit, “An Innocent Man.” She also learned that the initial print run of Grisham’s first book, “A Time To Kill,” was only 5,000 copies. The author—a practicing lawyer at the time—had been rejected by many publishers before one took a modest chance on him. But those 5,000 were not selling well, so Grisham spent his weekends drumming up readers at garden parties and county fairs, hawking copies from the trunk of his car. People took a chance, liked what they read, and word got around.

Finally I had to ask M-J, “Why do you think you were drawn to this guy’s books?” She was sitting at my kitchen table at the time. As she answered I noticed goosebumps on her arms.

“Eventually I realized that what I was learning was what it takes to write a page-turner…and that I’d need to know this if I was going to be any real help to you.”

Now it was my turn to get goosebumps!

In truth, a year before M-J’s marathon of crime thrillers, she’d read a previous draft of my memoir, and noticed that she was simply checking for typos and marking the occasional unclear reference. Anyone could do that, she thought. If she wanted to provide more useful feedback—something to increase my chances at getting an agent and a publisher, she told herself—she had to get a feel for pace, flow, and punch.

I’d seen Grisham interviewed by Charlie Rose, and recalled him saying that he relies on his wife—who reads everything he writes—for just this kind of advice.

When M-J read the manuscript I planned to submit to an agent, she scrutinized it like a seasoned editor. The shorter chapters flowed better than the longer ones, she said—pointing to lines she thought packed enough punch to end right there, not pages later.   She circled telling phrases in the text that could serve as chapter titles, drew arrows to connect paragraphs that belonged together or elsewhere. In short, she functioned as a pro, with no previous background in the field—except for Grisham’s 27 thrillers.

You can bet I’m taking M-J’s advice, because I know how smart and good a friend she is. Which is to say: I value the quality of her attention.

Which brings us back to puzzlement. Here is someone who followed a weird (for her) but not harmful inclination, though clueless where it might lead. All she really knew was (1) she had no desire to waste her time, and (2) somehow her time would not be wasted.

Do you have an urge to attend to something that is a puzzlement? Do you wonder if you ought to feel guilty for indulging this impulse, but no guilt seems to arise?

Well, if you’re not harming anyone or anything, why not go with that odd inclination?

High quality attention does not always indicate why it’s happening. The fact that you want to pay keen attention to anything is promising and mysterious in itself.

The reason you’re being drawn to it may be a puzzlement, but if you don’t allow your powers of attention to focus where they wish, how will you ever find out what purposes lie waiting to be identified?

 

 

ATTENTION LEAPING FROM THE MODERN LOVE SECTION OF THE NEWS

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Hundreds of comments, millions of hits and Facebook shares resulted from the New York Times Styles Section piece called “To Fall in Love with Anyone, Do This” by Mandy Len Catron.  Tons more responses resulted from the paper’s followup publication of the 36 questions Catron used to test whether she could fall in love with the man she agreed to try the psychological experiment with.

Catron admits she fell in love with this man, without confirming that it was due to the series of Qs.  Many responded that they definitely did not fall in love when they tried the questions, but that is not my point.  I want to refocus the discussion on the source of attention—and motive—of the originator of these questions so carefully crafted to induce feelings of love.

The first 12 Qs are more catchy than invasive, a gently powerful hook.  They show exceptional focus on what is entirely particular about the person questioned.   Whom would you have as a dinner guest if you could invite anyone in the world?  What for you would constitute a perfect day? Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?  and, If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?

The Qs probe progressively deeper once the door has been opened:  Why have you not done something you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time?  What is your most treasured memory?  Your worst memory?  How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?  When did you last cry in front of someone, or alone?   –  No wonder one commentor planned to use the list to increase her number of meaningful interactions in a day!

This list is no idle compendium, but the product of an extremely high quality attention arising from a professional study of human nature.  As Catron acknowledges, it was  compiled over 20 years ago by the psychologist Arthur Aron, who used the Qs successfully to make two strangers fall in love in his laboratory.  Although Catron’s piece received much feedback from people who failed to fall in love after answering the questions, certain factors stand out that might have triggered the love interest of those who found themselves “falling.”

First, the questions are not mere pretexts to put forth one’s own views, mainly because each participant has to answer the same questions.  They are also crafted to induce two people to become more open, honest, and vulnerable to each other—in a challenging but not too threatening way.  They do not ask, for example, about income, past sexual relationships, politics, or people the subjects hate.  They are also a primer for how to draw someone out while paying respectful, truly interested attention to them.

Still, you don’t need a clinical psychologist to give you a fine tuned list of inquiries.

Sometimes an opportunity arises that does not lead to falling in love, but a lasting bond gets created anyway.  One such opportunity arose when I was in college, when I found myself sitting in a car full of students driven by a Caltech professor named Max Delbrück.

Carl, my date, was a Caltech student who sat in front next to the door, with me in the middle.  The back seat held three or four more students, chattering loudly as we traveled toward a social event I’ve forgotten.  But I never forgot my quiet exchange with the driver, whom I’d never heard of.  (He was quite an influential biophysicist, I learned later.)  I didn’t feel comfortable sitting next to the driver in silence, or ignoring him by talking with Carl.  I was curious about his accent, so I asked where he grew up.  Germany, he said.

It went on from there.  Did he have any siblings?  He was youngest of seven.  Did he get along with them or were there conflicts?  What were his parents like, and what brought him to the States?  He answered everything with a no frills, eloquent candor.  I don’t remember what he asked me, except that I replied just as frankly.  He was not a professor at my college so I had nothing to lose, and I was terrible at small talk.  Carl told me afterward that he couldn’t hear what Dr. Delbrück and I were saying over the din in the back seat, but he knew it was special because he’d never heard Max—who was known for a rather gruff manner—speak so personally.

After that outing Carl reported that Max made a point of asking him how I was doing.  When Carl told me that Max was always helping others with their research—offering ideas that won them win Nobel Prizes while never winning one himself—I sent up a fierce prayer that one day Max would get the recognition he deserved.

Years later, when I picked up the New York Times and read that Max Delbrück had received a Nobel Prize, my heart glowed with joy and pride for my once and ever friend.  That is the power of simple, honest attention.

THANKFUL FOR MARILYNNE ROBINSON’S LILA

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A week before Thanksgiving the National Book Award winners were announced. Previously I’d paid little attention to this event. Then I heard that Marilynne Robinson was being nominated for the year’s best work of fiction—her third nomination. So I was hoping the third time would be a charm. Sadly, Robinson was passed over again for an award she richly deserved. As luck or topicality would have it, the award went to a collection of short stories by a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

No disrespect to this year’s winner, but it goes to show that there should be no winners or losers in the realm of great writing. In my view, Robinson’s work goes beyond the scope of a National Book Award. Hers is Nobel Prize material.

I’d no idea of Marilynne Robinson when I bought a copy of Gilead in 2005. The title caught my eye. I wondered whether it referred somehow to the mysterious balm of Gilead mentioned in the Bible. Instead I was entranced by the voice of a country preacher, 77, with heart disease, writing a long letter to his seven-year-old son who would not grow up knowing him. This old man, Rev. Ames, had fallen in love with the boy’s mother when she appeared one rainy Sunday at the back of his small church. Here was the kind of literary figure considered impossible to make interesting: a sincerely good man. Even worse in terms of narrative challenge, he was a man of the cloth, with no checkered past, no addiction to booze, no action-packed city or frontier life to pepper the plot. Except that as a young man he’d lost his wife and son in childbirth and we find him after he’s spent 40-odd years a lonely widower. Ironically, his best friend, whom he has tried mightily—and at a crucial moment fails—not to envy, is a fellow preacher with a loving wife and eight children.

The most inspiring moment for me is when Ames tells his son how he fell in love with the boy’s mother, his much younger wife, who had stepped into his church simply to get out of the rain. She was a total stranger, and he didn’t even know if she was married. He admits that he flushed shamefully, lost track of what his sermon was about, and was only too well aware that he was doing everything in his power to hold this woman’s interest. If there is anything greater in modern literature about the mystery of love and the surrender of all pretense and dignity to the gaze of the beloved, I haven’t seen it. I wasn’t surprised when Robinson won a Pulitzer Prize for that novel.

Then came Home, set in the same place and time, but told from the perspective of a peripheral character in Gilead. This inimitable character is the youngest daughter of Rev. Boughton, Rev. Ames’ best friend, who—unlike her father—never passed judgment on her beloved youngest brother, Jack, the alcoholic black sheep of the family and godson of Rev. Ames.

Jack Boughton is a different kind of prodigal son. He comes home to the little town of Gilead no longer young, only to find that his father is frail and dying, and his godfather likewise. He’d been hoping to ask Rev. Ames to marry him and his common-law African American wife, whom he’d met after completing a ten-year prison sentence for a crime he had no memory of—perhaps it happened during a drunken black-out. He’d dared to hope that his wife and child might be accepted there, since the state, unlike its neighbors, had no anti-miscegenation laws. But he quickly finds that the community still holds him in deep suspicion, that his father cannot understand why the colored people have to riot in Birmingham and elsewhere (this is the fifties). And while he is there he gets a letter from the woman he loves, that seems to say she has succumbed to the wishes of her father—also a clergyman—to marry a black man who has promised to adopt the child she conceived with Jack.

Both Jack and Rev. Ames’ wife are present when the two old preachers discuss the topic of greatest torment to Jack: the religious doctrine of predestination—whether or not a person is doomed from birth to be destined for hell, no matter how mixed his or her life is with both selfish and goodhearted acts and intentions. The same conversation occurs in both Gilead and Home, and in both cases it is Mrs. Ames who ends it by declaring, “People can change.” In each case her words come as a shock, because she is a person of few words. All they know is that she arrived out of nowhere and that Rev. Ames loves her and respects her completely. If anything, she and Jack are almost equal in their isolation and outsider status. In fact, the only time we hear her name is when Jack says, “Thank you, Lila,” after she utters that resounding truth.

The high point of Home for me is the awkward, soulful talk Jack finally manages to have with Rev. Ames, when his godfather, who has long judged him as a disgrace to his family and his own name (he was baptized John Ames Boughton), sees that his seemingly ne’er-do-well namesake is actually a good man. He has given his whole heart to a good woman who loved him and bore him a son, whom he won’t be able to marry given the prejudice of society.  They both have sons who will grow up not knowing them.  Ames’ bitter disappointment in his godson is washed away in a flood of compassion and regret that he won’t live long enough to help Jack reconstitute his family. In that regard there will be no balm for them in Gilead. But there may be some when the reader pieces together the possibility that Jack was not doomed by God, but by the judgments of his own family and the secretly animosity of the man chosen to be his godfather. No wonder Rev. Ames longs to rechristen Jack as he leaves Gilead for a life of exile.

Lila is a novel written from Rev. Ames’ second wife’s point of view, and it is a masterpiece.

Why? Hard to say without sounding superficial. You see, this Lila is about as homeless as a person can be. She doesn’t know her real name, first or last. As a child she was stolen away from her natural family by a homeless woman called Doll who’d survived a near-fatal knife fight with a man. Doll may have done some housework for the girl’s family, or simply noticed that they had a daughter who’d been allowed to starve, whose legs were too spindly to walk on. Doll, by kidnapping her, saved the girl’s life, pulling her out from under the table where she slept in rags, carrying her away one night.

Over several years Doll had protected this girl, naming her Lila after the deceased aunt of a lady who’d let them stay with her while Doll nursed the child to passable health. Eventually they joined a small group of migrant workers, making their own campsites and sleeping out in the open or staying in occasional work camps, picking up whatever farming or other jobs they could find. For almost a year Doll took a job cleaning house so Lila could attend school and learn to read. With Doll and the others Lila learned the dignity of solitude, hard work, honesty, and not to trust anyone. In time the group disbanded, Doll got into another knife fight and this time killed her attacker, was badly cut herself, and probably went off somewhere to die. Lila was sent to work in St. Louis, unaware that the job was in a house of prostitution. It was after she’d left that place and went on the road by herself that she passed by the town of Gilead and stepped into Rev. Ames’ church to get out of the rain. She has no religion, no understanding of why people bother to go to church, and cannot understand why this kind old man (she does recognize that he is kind) would think twice about her.

What a love story.  She can’t believe or trust Rev. Ames’ love, and wishes she could be free of her love for him. They can hardly talk to one another. Lila carries an ocean of sorrow and untold indignity and destitution within her. Yet she has built a ship of self-reliance and inner dignity on which to navigate it.  She gives honest work for fair wages–cash or food–and when she feels overpaid out of charity she finds a way to work extra, unpaid. She catches her own fish and guts them with the knife she inherited from Doll.  She washes her body and her clothes in streams. There is deep beauty in how she sees things. I’ll offer just one quote:

She liked to do her wash. Sometimes fish rose for the bubbles. The smell of the soap was a little sharp, like the smell of the river. In that water you could rinse things clean. It might be a little brown after a good rain, soil from the fields, but the silt washed away or settled out. Her shirts and her dress looked to her like creatures that never wanted to be born, the way they wilted into themselves, sinking under the water as if they only wanted to be left there, maybe to find some deeper, darker pool. And when she lifted them out, held them up by their shoulders, they looked like pure weariness and regret. Like her own flayed skin. But when she hung them over a line and let the water run out, and the sun and the wind dry them, they began to seem like things that could live.  (p. 60)

Lila had been taught to walk past shop windows in towns, not to look inside, because Doll had told her not to want what she couldn’t have. She hated charity, and people’s pity. What she liked best about Rev. Ames was that he was well acquainted with loneliness. It was something they could share. Barely able to read, her vocabulary is modest, and she has to ask Ames what he means by “existence.” She quickly understands that it is something she knows from the ground up.

I could go on, but words are failing. Read Lila. It’ll give you a whole new dimension of the art of paying attention.

 

 

“How do you like to go up in a swing?”

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 “Up in the air so blue…”  Robert Louis Stevenson put it so well, in a verse many of us older children grew up with.  As a child I absolutely loved going up in a swing, so much so that I wanted to go even higher.  In a moment of great exhilaration and trust that the forces of nature would fulfill my desire, I let go of the ropes, spread my arms and took off.  Miraculously I landed on my stomach, no bones broken, just the skin under my chin split open on impact.  Two small scars hidden from view are the only proof that I was once so filled with joy that I’d catapulted into the sky.

As I got older I noticed that most swings in playgrounds are too low to the ground to accommodate taller kids or adults.   Some parks even have signs telling grownups not to use the swings.  So heartless.  But to return to the subject: attention.

Swings being magical to me, I had a rude shock a few evenings ago walking past a set of swings in a park.  A young boy was being pushed by—given the family resemblance—his father.  Instead of looking up at the gorgeous sunsetting sky, awash with the joy of swinging, the boy’s face was turned up and back, joyless and tentative.  He was clearly waiting for the fun to happen, and if anything he seemed posed on the brink of sorrow.

As I passed in front of them, I noticed that the man was pushing his son on the swing with one hand, while reading his smartphone in the other!!  His real attention was directed at what he was reading, with a fraction vaguely reserved for giving his boy a shove.

What is more, this guy had a martyred set to his jaw.  A grim scenario popped onto the screen of my imagination.  He was a busy important professional who resented sacrificing time he would have otherwise reserved for himself—if only the child’s mother hadn’t nagged him to take his son out to the playground before the last scrap of daylight had faded.  There were no other children on the swings at that hour.  But, dammit, he’d salvage his personal plans at least partially—thanks to his trusty handheld source of news updates, transmitter of memos that can’t wait.

The scene put a whole new twist on attention for me.  Going up in a swing, that simple and great joy of childhood, now threatened by technology!  Or, shall we say, susceptible to technology’s means of dividing our attention from those who need to feel it fully–our children, who sometimes die, literally and figuratively, without it?  [See Introduction post.]

My heart went out to that little boy.  Unless his dad wised up and put his whole self into pushing that swing, the kid might want to jump out of it for a reason far different than mine.

 

INTERVIEW WITH MARILYNNE ROBINSON

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Some of a great writer’s deepest thoughts might pass under the public’s radar simply because they appear in an academic journal.  I hope this won’t be the case with the eye-opening observations of Marilynne Robinson that appear in a special issue on her work of the journal Renascence, published by Marquette University (Vol. LXVI, No. 2, Spring 2014).

Robinson is a renowned, prizewinning novelist (Gilead, Home, Housekeeping).  She is also a serious and challenging essayist, author of Mother Country, The Death of Adam and When I Was a Child I Read Books.  My interview for Renascence focuses on her nonfiction.

In the interview, Robinson offers readers a challenging insight about today’s culture—our tendency to undervalue ourselves as souls.  You might suppose that her perception—given her essays on the Calvinist faith tradition—would apply only to people who believe in souls.  Hardly.  I find it purely metaphysical at heart, because it is all about what kind of attention we give one another.

In When I Was a Child I Read Books, Robinson comments that we have “a painful and ongoing history of undervaluing ourselves and exploiting one another.” I asked her by what means this takes place, and how we could counteract this influence.  Robinson answers, in part, that “the great world tells us that life is all a matter of marketing,” and that “shoddy cultural goods are supposedly justified by the fact that people buy them.”  The same goes for shoddy political goods, she says, and when the public accepts and perpetuates “these condescensions” they “endorse cynicism,” which is “a kind of damp shadow that blights the flourishing of the better things we want and need.”

Shoddiness in culture can be anything from tv shows and commercials to rap lyrics, movies, magazines, pop art, and unverifiable cyber commentary.  It ends up being shoddy to the extent that whoever generated it did not give it full attention, which implies respect for its subject matter.  When rap lyrics refer to women as sexual objects to be violated and tossed aside, the men who write and sing them are not, of course, applying their attention to the humanity of women.  They are selling macho swag at the price of women’s dignity.  And that blights our culture by casting a damp shadow on women’s hopes for better relationships with men, and those men’s relationships to the children they father.

Cynicism is the driving force behind politicians who disparage social programs that help the poor and provide educational opportunities, among other government efforts of clear benefit to society.  Their distorted and often fabricated claims are part of a cynical agenda to reduce taxes on the wealthy at the expense of the poor and middle class.  No need to argue how far this blight has spread in today’s world.

The shadows of cynicism hang over billionaire industrialists whose factories and refineries pollute our environment.  They try to pour millions anonymously into political campaigns whose goal is to remove government safeguards against industrial pollution.  If they were publically identified, the people whose lives are harmed by such pollutants could apply the powers of their own attention to these cynical machinations.  Result: such condescension to the wellbeing of others would be thrown into the light of justice.

In the world of religion, the blight of cynicism is associated with sin and evil.  In the secular world, let’s just say it’s an enemy to be reckoned with.  Today the reckoning has to consist in not only paying full attention to the threat, but speaking out and exposing it to the light of others’ attention.

As any attending metaphysician would tell you, personal attention has the power to change personal lives, culture, and politics.