On Tending Art, Heart, & Hearth:
Reflections from Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew
Ask what I’m learning in the Living School and I’ll blather incoherently, enthusiastically, and at great length about the Christian mystical tradition, the significance of contemplation, and a complete overhaul of my faith. I was doing just that at Easter dinner a few weeks ago. My father-in-law asked, and all eleven relatives at the table stared at me blankly while I answered. Afterward, my brother-in-law quipped, “You should say you’re studying an ancient wisdom tradition. Calling it ‘Christian’ just throws everybody off.” Well, yes. read more…
Recently I’ve been asking a literary version of the perennial question about a tree falling in the woods with no one around to hear: If a creative work is complete but unread, does it wield any influence in the world?
I’m curious because writers spend a lot of angst and energy wondering whether their writing has value. I feel confident saying that the writing process is valuable; if engaged with an open heart, writing transforms the writer. And we all know that stories with the capacity to move readers are valuable. read more…
Inveterate—confirmed, hardened, incorrigible, habitual, compulsive, obsessive: Yup, that describes me as a church-goer. I may lurk on the periphery, I may rail against the church’s (titanic) flaws, I may flinch every time I name myself a Christian, and yet I can’t help myself. Church has blessed me. So I show up.
Those of us who are inveterate church-goers are numb to scripture. We’ve heard the stories so much, our immediate reaction is, “Blah, blah, blah; same-old same-old.” A rare good sermon might shake us out of our complacency, helping us hear scriptural wisdom afresh or making it relevant. Every once in a while, a beam of sunlight breaks through the barriers of the text and lands, shockingly, on our bored hearts. Most of the time, for me at least, the Bible is flat, familiar, and, frankly, uninteresting. read more…
I read this story recently in Poets & Writers. It may be a parable about stick-to-it-iveness, or perhaps it’s an invitation to apply the vision of hindsight to our current ambitions. Bear with me.
Daniel Wallace, the author of six novels including a New York Times bestseller, has tried for more than thirty years to publish in The New Yorker. When he first began submitting work there in 1984, The New Yorker defined literary success for him. His stories landed on the desk of the fiction editor, Daniel Menacer, who eventually began jotting “a little something” on the rejected pages. “I had no idea who this person was,” Wallace writes, “and it didn’t really matter because at that time in my life, editors were all-powerful demigods whose approval would allow me entry into the world I hungrily watched from afar.” Over the first six years, Menaker’s rejections grew personal and encouraging. One story he even called “very good…as far as it goes.” He actually invited Wallace to continue submitting. Writers call such comments “good rejections.” read more…
Anxiety is my familiar and unwelcome friend. In my early twenties when I was teaching seventh grade, I’d stand in the shower first thing trying to breathe in the warmth, the heat, the calm, while my heart pounding uncontrollably in terror at the day ahead. Before book releases, twice I’ve landed in the doctor’s office, hooked up to an EKG. The second time, my doctor asked, “Have you tried breathing deeply?” I hadn’t. When my mother died my foundation crumbled; I struggled with high blood pressure for months; I’d wake up in the night, unreasonably panicked and sweaty. read more…
A few months ago I led a workshop at a church; only five people showed up so we sat around and swapped writing stories. One an older member shared has stuck with me.
Every Sunday morning while she curls her hair, she composes a haiku. Then she goes to her desk and fills out her offering check. She places it in an envelope, seals it, and writes her haiku on the outside.
In the past she’d been on the committee which tallied money after church. “It’s boring,” she told us. “I want to make those volunteers’ day a little brighter. They love it. They always let me know how much it means to them.” read more…
After Emily and I got an estimate to have a professional paint our stairwell ($10,000?!), we asked our neighbor Kurt who makes his living hanging wallpaper for his advice. Could we paint it ourselves? You bet. Kurt set us up with scaffolding. He even jumped on it, thereby proving it was trustworthy. He also examined the ceiling with its strangely peeling paint, the rim of painted-over wallpaper along the top edge, and the long horizontal crack running the length of our hallway wall. For ten grand the pros would have fixed these. Kurt waved them off. He ran his hand along the jagged split in the plaster. “Nope,” he said. “That’s your crack. It’s for keeps.” read more…
I’m haunted by a memory: Emily is enduring her second bout with cancer, this time preparing for extensive surgery involving her neck, chest, and leg. Like any cancer surgery, it might or might not be successful. The surgeons have warned her that, regardless of the outcome, she’ll likely lose the use of her right arm.
What haunts me isn’t the enormous stress of that time (Gwyn was six months old, still nursing; I drove my baldies back and forth to the Mayo Clinic all summer) but rather the tangle in my heart. With every cell of my being, I wanted Emily to be well. I prayed for this—make her well make her well make her well—all the while guarding myself against a bad outcome. The doctors were decidedly cautious, even pessimistic. I prayed for a miracle. I prayed that all five surgeons would be on their game. I bargained with God (“Okay, we can deal losing use of her arm so long as she can be cancer-free”). I tried praying “Thy will, not mine, be done,” but couldn’t.
And here is the crux, the bit that won’t let me go. I didn’t trust God. read more…
In my dream, I’m late for a radio interview. I’ve prepared but when I arrive at the studio I no longer have my book and notes, and instead am carrying a cast iron pan with a slice of bacon. This makes me panic. At the back of the waiting room, a lanky teenager guards the entrance to a hall which leads to the broadcasting room—soundproofed, protected—at the rear of the building.
What’s up with the bacon? Beats me, but the radio studio feels surprisingly accurate. All of us have this safe, padded space within. It’s a bit of a hassle to get there, especially since we never feel prepared or worthy. We have to get past the ego to enter. Beyond is the inner sanctum, the core, our essence, and it’s from this place our voices get broadcasted most effectively. read more…
Call me a spiritually obsessed literary geek, but the little spiritual wisdom I can claim I’ve gleaned from grammar. For example, take the memoirist’s point of view, first person singular. This is the “I” voice, the one every journal-keeper cherishes, as in “I do love grammar!” After memoirists’ initial honeymoon with the first person singular, during which the “I” is a magnificent, unfolding mystery, they go through a predictable period of discomfort. Alice McDermott described it this way: “The sight of too many first-person pronouns dribbling down the page tends to affect my reading mind in much the same way as too many ice cubes dropped down my back affect my spine.” “I” seems self-referential, self-obsessed. Innumerable memoirists try to eliminate the word “I” from there stories for fear of calling attention to themselves.
This discomfort isn’t limited to writers. read more…
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