Not Other Than Earth

On a long plane ride yesterday I skimmed the magazine-length New York Times article about how we could have stopped global warming forty years ago. We didn’t, and now the planet’s prognosis is grim. Heck, the present is grim. We’re seeing extreme storms, wildfires, drought, and all the consequent disruptions for people, mostly poor, who are effected. My daughter will know a significantly harsher, less-trustworthy earth than the one I know. I closed the magazine, feeling sick. There I was, looking down on shimmering Lake Michigan with its glorious, populated shoreline—looking down on my beloved, fragile planet, from a plane spewing exhaust and contributing to its demise so I could visit my father. My despair was immense.

From the air, borders between countries are meaningless, divisions between people seem silly, and our earth is stunningly united. (more…)

Praying Like a Novelist

The most well-known fiction-writing exercise comes from John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, in which he asks us to describe a barn as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war—but without mentioning the son, war, or death. The goal is to inhabit a character so completely that you see how they see, and you bring to bear on your seeing their history and loves and losses. It’s a great practice. When I’ve used the exercise in classes, I add other scenarios as well: Now describe the barn as seen by a teenage girl who’s just developed her first crush. Now describe it as seen by a weary farmer who’s recently gone bankrupt. Now by a weary cow…

Fiction writing is an exercise in empathy, or perhaps a state beyond that—a thorough imagining our way into the lives of others. (more…)

Merton’s Adam

IMG_1786God makes Adam and Eve, places them in the garden, and tells them not to eat from the tree of knowledge. They screw up. God kicks them out to spend their lives toiling the fields and suffering in childbirth. To this day we bear Adam’s curse—our inclination toward evil.

Or at least that’s the story most of us know, and rebel against accordingly. At the Re-Imagining, the feminist theological revival that happened in the nineties, women proudly chomped on apples as a symbol of their willful embrace of knowledge. Liberal Christians reject the doctrine of original sin, replacing it with Matthew Fox’s “original blessing.” All of us Christians struggle to overcome millennia of unnecessary shame about human nakedness. There’s even a movement to reinstate the good reputation of snakes. (more…)

Why I Write, Part 2: Because it’s worthwhile.

Yesterday I was yet again talking with an emerging writer about her first steps into publishing and ran up against that all-too-common resistance to self-publishing: “I just want to know that someone other than myself thinks this story is worthwhile,” she told me.

There are many arguments for and against self-publishing, none of which I want to tackle here. Instead I’m interested in her (and our) bare desire to receive external affirmation for our creative work. We seek it from agents, from publishers, from an audience. This is not necessarily bad. We’re human. We want to know we matter. We want to do good work. We want to make a difference. (more…)

A Fresh Look at Writing as a Spiritual Practice

Karen Hering’s new book, Writing to Wake the Soul:  Opening the Sacred Conversation Within, hits the bookstores next week, and I want to encourage everyone interested in writing as a spiritual practice to get a copy.  In her role as literary minister at a Unitarian Universalist congregation, Hering developed what she calls Contemplative Correspondence, a practice of writing from prompts around theological themes like faith, prayer, sin, grace, and redemption.  If this sounds heady or dull or too religious, hold your horses.  This book is far more than what you might expect.

Karen’s reflections and prompts are meant to exercise our metaphor muscles—our capacity to make connections between disparate images or ideas, and therefore our ability to communicate across differences, resolve paradoxical problems, and relate to mystery.  Her choice of tough theological terms is deliberate.  We need to reclaim the language of mystery; we need to remember language’s capacity to connect humans to our sacred source.  So we take hard words that have been used to drive wedges between people and soften them.

How?  By listening deeply; by exploring memory; by writing stories.  “What makes some writing a spiritual practice and not others,” Karen writes, “is less a matter of form than it is an orientation and intention. Writing becomes a spiritual practice when it serves as a personal correspondence with “the still, small voice within,” a way of listening to one’s inner voice and truth, and to the sacred source of that truth.”  Karen’s exercises help us connect the dots of our experience to see what Thomas Merton calls “a hidden wholeness.”  She chooses big words because our small stories are windows onto universal truths, and she wants us to remember this.

“But the practice does not stop there. It also insists that our story is only powerful and meaningful to the degree that we are willing and able to engage it in conversation with larger, open‐ended narratives. It calls upon us to listen for the stories and the presence of others.”  What I most love about Karen’s book is its insistence on our connectedness.  Rather than framing the spiritual practice of writing as simply a private conversation with the holy, she pushes us outward, into dialogue with others, with voices present in religious teachings, and with the emergent, collective narrative of our culture.  She understands the Sacred as both personal and corporate, in and through history, within and beyond language, and still emerging in our life experiences.

I am infinitely grateful for this book.