The Eyes of the Heart

Frederick Buechner, The Eyes of the Heart (HarperSanFrancisco 1999).

  • When she is in her 80s, Buechner’s mother, who generally “refused to talk about death the way she refused to talk about a great many other things,” unaccountably asked “Do you really believe anything happens after you die?” After an unsuccessful attempt at a verbal answer (exacerbated by her partial and partially willful deafness), Buechner “tried to answer the question in a letter, I wrote her I believe that what happens when you die is that, in ways I knew no more about than she did, you are given back your life again, and I said there were three reasons why I believed it First, I wrote her, I believed it because, if I were God and loved the people I created and wanted them to become at last the best they had it in them to be, I couldn’t imagine consigning them to oblivion when their time came with the job under the best of circumstances only a fraction done. Second, I said, I believed it, apart from any religious considerations, because I had a hunch it was true. I intuited it I said that if the victims and the victimizers, the wise and the foolish, the good-hearted and the heartless all end up alike in the grave and that is the end of it, then life would be a black comedy, and to me, even at its worst, life doesn’t feel like a black comedy. It feels like a mystery. It feels as though, at the innermost heart of it, there is Holiness, and that we experience all the horrors that go on both around us and within us as horrors rather than as just the way the cookie crumbles because, in our own innermost hearts, we belong to Holiness, which they are a tragic departure from. And lastly, I wrote her, I believe that what happens to us after we die is that we aren’t dead forever because Jesus said so.” p. 14-16.
  • “[My brother Jamie] never went to church except once in a while to hear me, and he didn’t want a funeral, he told me [but] he did ask me if I would write a prayer for him that he could use, and . . . he had it there on the table beside him [when he died]. ‘Dear Lord, bring me through darkness into light. Bring me through pain into peace. Bring me through death into life. Be with me wherever I go, and with everyone I love, In Christ’s name I ask it. Amen.'” p. 163.
  • “Years ago when I first started giving lectures and readings here and there, I rather dreaded the question-and-answer sessions that usually followed them, nervous that I wouldn’t know what or how to respond and that the audience would see me for the impostor I more than half suspected I was. Now, on the other hand, it is the part of such junkets that I look forward to most, and I find myself responding to people I have never set eyes on before as though they are members of my own family. The risk, of course, is that I will make a fool of myself, or worse . . . . But it has been my experience that the risks are far outweighed by the rewards, chief of which is that when you speak to strangers as though they are friends, more often than not, if only for as long as the encounter lasts, they become friends, and if in the process they also think of you as a little peculiar, who cares? In fact it seems to me that I often feel freer to be myself in the company of stranger-friends than in the company of those with whom there is such a long tradition of reserve and circumspection that it is hard to transcend it.” p. 178.
  • “I have never risked much in disclosing the little I have of the worst that I see in my mirror, and I have not been much more daring in disclosing the best, I have seen with the eyes of my heart the great hope to which he has called us, but out of some shyness or diffidence I rarely speak of it, and in my books I have tended to write about it for the most part only obliquely, hesitantly, ambiguously, for fear of losing the ear and straining the credulity of the readers to whom such hope seems just wishful thinking. For fear of overstating, I have tended especially in my nonfiction books to understate, because that seemed a more strategic way of reaching the people I would most like to reach who are the ones who more or less don’t give religion the time of day. But maybe beneath that lies the fear that if I say too much about how again and again over the years I have experienced holiness—even here I find myself drawing back from saying God or Jesus—as a living, healing, saving presence in my life, then I risk being written off as some sort of embarrassment by most of the people I know and like. For the most part it is only in my novels that I have allowed myself to speak unreservedly of what with the eyes of my heart I have seen. . . .” pp. 180-81.

Misha on Depression

Talcott Garland:

  • “I am depressed. And I almost like it. Depression is seductive: it offends and teases, frightens you and draws you in, tempting you with its promise of sweet oblivion, then overwhelming you with a nearly sexual power, squirming past your defenses, dissolving your will, invading the tired spirit so utterly that it becomes difficult to recall that you ever lived without it . . . or to imagine that you might live that way again. With all the guile of Satan himself, depression persuades you that its invasion was all your own idea, that you wanted it all along. It fogs the part of the brain that reasons, that knows right and wrong. It captures you with its warm, guilty, hateful pleasures, and, worst of all, it becomes familiar. All at once, you find yourself in thrall to the very thing that most terrifies you. Your work slides, your friendships slide, your marriage slides, but you scarcely notice: to be depressed is to be half in love with disaster.”

Stephen L. Carter, The Emperor of Ocean Park 207 (2002).

Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem (FSG 1968, reprint ed. 2008).

  • Concerning “love” she writes “. . . everyone involved placed a magical faith in the efficacy of the very word.” p. 29, “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream”
  • “Joan Baez was a personality before she was entirely a person, and like anyone to whom that happens, she is in a sense the hapless victim of what others have seen in her, written about her, wanted her to be and not to be.” p. 47, “Where the Kissing Never Stops”
  • “I know something about dread myself, and appreciate the elaborate systems with which some people manage to fill the void, appreciate all the opiates of the people, whether they are as accessible as alcohol and heroin and promiscuity or as hard to come by as faith in God or History.” p. 63, Comrade Laski, C.P.U.S.A. (M.-L.)
  • “Howard Hughes is the largest single landholder in Clark County, Nevada. ‘Howard likes Las Vegas,’ an acquaintance of Hughes’s once explained, ‘because he likes to be able to find a restaurant open in case he wants a sandwich.’ Why do we like those stories so? Why do we tell them over and over? Why have we made a folk hero of a man who is the antithesis of all our official heroes, a haunted millionaire out of the West, trailing a legend of desperation and power and white sneakers? But then we have always done that. Our favorite people and our favorite stories become so not by any inherent virtue, but because they illustrate something deep in the grain, something unadmitted. Shoeless Joe Jackson, Warren Gamaliel Harding, the Titanic: how the mighty are fallen. Charles Lindbergh, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Marilyn Monroe: the beautiful and damned. And Howard Hughes. That we have made a hero of Howard Hughes tells us something interesting about ourselves, something only dimly remembered, tells us that the secret point of money and power in America is neither the things that money can buy nor power for power’s sake (Americans are uneasy with their possessions, guilty about power, all of which is difficult for Europeans to perceive because they are themselves so truly materialistic, so versed in the uses of power), but absolute personal freedom, mobility, privacy. It is the instinct which drove America to the Pacific, all through the nineteenth century, the desire to be able to find a restaurant open in case you want a sandwich, to be a free agent, live by one’s own rules.” p. 71, “7000 Romaine, Los Angeles 38”
  • “Going back to California is not like going back to Vermont, or Chicago; Vermont and Chicago are relative constants, against which one measure one’s own change. All that is constant about the California of my childhood is the rate at which it disappears.” p. 176, “Notes from a Native Daughter”
  • “It is not an unpleasant place to be, out there on Alcatraz with only the flowers and the wind and a bell buoy moaning and the tide surging through the Golden Gate, but to like a place like that you have to want a moat. I sometimes do, which is what I am talking about here.” p. 205, “Rock of Ages”
  • “[O]ne of the mixed blessings of being twenty and twenty-one and even twenty-three is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened to anyone before.” p. 226, “Goodbye to All That”

The workers are few . . .

d. Paul Farmer, physician (1959-1922). from @PIH: “Partners In Health announced that its founder, Dr. Paul Farmer, unexpectedly passed away today in his sleep while in Rwanda. Dr. Farmer was 62 years old. He is survived by his wife, Didi Bertrand Farmer, and their three children.”

  • “Little sleep, no investment portfolio, no family around, no hot water. On an evening a few days after arriving in Cange, I wondered aloud what compensation he got for these various hardships. He told me, “If you’re making sacrifices, unless you’re automatically following some rule, it stands to reason that you’re trying to lessen some psychic discomfort. So, for example, if I took steps to be a doctor for those who don’t have medical care, it could be regarded as a sacrifice, but it could also be regarded as a way to deal with ambivalence.” He went on, and his voice changed a little. He didn’t bristle, but his tone had an edge: “I feel ambivalent about selling my services in a world where some can’t buy them. You can feel ambivalent about that, because you should feel ambivalent. Comma.” Tracy Kidder, Mountains Beyond Mountains (2003) [Amazon].

And now the work falls to others, as it always does. Read the book if you dare.

Peggy Noonan, holdover from the Reagan Republican party (a compliment, that), invites Republicans to repair what was damaged by Mr. Trump.

  • “[A]n enduring party’s stands must reflect and address the needs and demands of its era. The pressing challenges America now faces aren’t those of 1970 or 1980. A great party must be in line with the crises of its time.”

“Republicans, Stand against Excess, Wall Street Journal (Feb. 17, 2022) [link]. I have more confidence in Alan Jacob‘s version of “Invitation and Repair” [link] which might be more significant to the One with actual authority.

But I have the most faith in those who determine to simply do the next thing with faithfulness, love and compassion:

  • “Mothering and writing are alike, I’ve found, and they are both like gardening . . . and gardening, well, it’s like all of life, isn’t it? With gardening, the essential thing is not so much to accumulate expertise, as to continue on in doing it. We do not become better and better gardeners. We are gardeners, and that is enough, for to keep the earth is to reckon every day with being yet so far away from heaven, and so the most important thing is to not lose heart.”

Sarah Willard Rowell, “February Morning,” Blind Mule Blog (Feb. 9, 2022) [link].

There is so much to be done.

Except for when you should

I’m good at science because I’m not good at listening.

I have been told that I am intelligent, and I have been told that I am simple-minded. I have been told that I am trying to do too much, and I have been told that what I have done amounts to very little. I have been told that I can’t do what I want to do because I am a woman, and I have been told that I have only been allowed to do what I have done because I am a woman. I have been told that I can have eternal life, and I have been told that I will burn myself out into an early death. I have been admonished for being too feminine and I have been distrusted for being too masculine. I have been warned that I am far too sensitive and I have been accused of being heartlessly callous.

But I was told all of these things by people who can’t understand the present or see the future any better than I can. Such recurrent pronouncements have forced me to accept that because I am a female scientist, nobody knows what the hell I am, and it has given me the delicious freedom to make it up as I go along.

I don’t take advice from my colleagues, and I try not to give it. When I am pressed, I resort to these two sentences: You shouldn’t take this job too seriously. Except for when you should.

Hope Jahren, Lab Girl (2016).

capriccio

Dan Liu, “Capriccio of Cardiff Coal Exchange”

I had seen this some time ago, and truly envied the skills of artist who did it. I was not sure how I had come across it, but began to look for it on the web, and found it in several places. At the One Drawing Challenge 2021 [link], I learned that it was not the interior of a ruined church, as I had supposed, but of the abandoned Cardiff Coal Exchange in Wales. (A capriccio is an architectural fantasy.) As I followed the thread, I found that this capriccio was part of Dan Liu’s 2014 Master Thesis Project (which better explained why I had seen it before). A 26-page presentation on the project is available at issuu [link] where Liu posted it in 2014. His BSc portfolio is also available on issuu [link].

AJ

You should visit Alan Jacob’s blog regularly or have Snakes and Ladders (blog.ayjay.org) on your newsfeed. You know this, because I write it all the time. Of course you will not find everything he writes (or reads) interesting, but many things are quite striking. Four recent examples:

  • In “hubris” (Aug. 26, 2021) [link], Jacobs revisits the question of whether it might just be better to opt out of social media.
  • On August 25 [link], Jacobs points us to his January 6, 2021 piece “School for Scale” in The Hedgehog Review [link] and reminds us why it is really, really important to understand decimals.
  • Jacobs refers us to something Oliver Burkeman wrote long ago in the Guardian: “Everyone is totally just winging it, all the time” (May 21, 2014) [link]. Eerily reminiscent of observed reality!
  • “Tolkien and Auden” (Aug. 16, 2021) [link] concerns the two famous writers who were good, though unlikely, friends. Jacobs wrote a delightful short play (“Sandfield Road”) about the two men. You can read it in 15 minutes, here [link].

Jacobs has twenty eight posts since August 15, so you have some catching up to do.

Separable skills

I once took some education classes, and heard the unpleasant aphorism, “There are those who do, and those who teach, and those who teach teachers to teach.” The implication was that each successive group was less valuable than the prior one. Perhaps no one who has had an excellent teacher would think this.

I was talking with a friend over the weekend about teaching, and agreed that teaching seems to be something that some people can do, and that that the skill seems to be more or less separable from the subject matter. (My friend is a skilled raconteur, and has taught on such disparate things as running a restaurant, singing in parts, mold removal and the Bible). If you can teach, you can teach anything you yourself are willing to learn.

It seems to me that writing is another “separable skill,” and a good writer can write about almost anything — think of John McPhee writing about oranges, canoes, geology and fish; or Michael Lewis writing about football, baseball, the technology of markets and disease; or Tracy Kidder writing about Haiti, contracting, computers and Burundi. This is strongly true of writers of nonfiction, though I concede that not all nonfiction writers can make the leap into fiction, and poetry is another thing entirely.

We hear of people who are “book smart” and the ability to learn from books may be its own separable skill, but not all separable skills are intellectual — we all know people who are sufficiently athletic that they would be picked for any team even in a sport they have never played before. Some people have mechanical ability as a separable skill. Musical aptitude may be a separable skill.

Are there others?

18 for ’21

Old and new friends.