DEVOTION CAN MEAN MANY THINGS. Sometimes we don’t realize we are devoted to something until we see how much time we give to it.
That’s how I would describe the steadfast quality in Booker Taliaferro Washington. Beginning in the 1880s, on almost every Sunday evening at Tuskegee Institute, Washington collected his students, teachers, and visitors to speak to them. The gathering wasn’t called a chapel service nor a Bible study, simply Sunday Evening Talks. His devotion to education and to the people who surrounded him in his work was clear. As Washington said,
Unless you have got truth, you have failed in your purpose to be educated.”
In these talks, Washington speaks of practical education, the trades, and working with our hands. He addresses qualities and virtues such as self-reliance, obedience, justice, and responsibility in order to study the nature of man. He mentions disappointments, homesickness, difficulties with people, and the danger of success but adds that we must always be aware of opportunities, even seeing life as a series of opportunities:
And so you will find it all through life, especially for the next fifty or one hundred years, that those persons who are going to be constantly in demand, constantly sought after, are those who make the best use of their opportunities, who work unceasingly to become proficient in whatever they attempt to do.”
On February 10, 1895, Washington illustrated the position of his students this way. He explained coming out of slavery as coming out of a sickbed where a man had been for a long, long time. The sick man would recover given time and opportunity, but he would have to learn again how to use his muscles, how to eat, how to function and work. Placed side by side with a healthy man, the sick man has a long way to reach his full strength. It is a process. The metaphor extends to equality between the races.
By 1902, a collection of these talks was published by Doubleday as Character Building: Being Addresses Delivered on Sunday Evenings To the Students of Tuskegee Institute. The booklet reads, “The speaker has put into them his whole moral earnestness, his broad common-sense and, in many places, his eloquence. Many of Mr. Washington's friends have said that some of these addresses are the best of his utterances.”
In the talk “Helping Others,” Washington speaks to all of us:
This institution does not exist for your education alone;
Johnston, Frances Benjamin, photographer. Booker T. Washington, half-length portrait, seated., ca1895. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2010645746/.
AS I HAVE reread lots of C.S. Lewis for the past two months, I was delighted by his many timely suggestions in An Experiment in Criticism. Lewis truly shuns critics and their systems. He would have us ask what benefit literary criticism offers if each theory presents but one angle. But more than that, the critics have spent so much time developing their critical theories that they just might have forgotten why they began writing about reading in the first place.
Tongue-in-cheek, Lewis says we are to leave them, the critics, to their own (now better informed) reactions because “When I inquire what helps I have had in this matter [in understanding what I read] I seem to discover a somewhat unexpected result. The evaluative critics come at the bottom of the list.”
I had to laugh aloud at that. Let's all boot the critics!
More than anything Lewis reminds us that the value of what we read lies with the reader alone--
For me it stands or falls by its power to multiply, safeguard, or prolong those moments when a good reader is reading well a good book and the value of literature thus exists in actu.”
He wants us to think for ourselves and think of what we really derive from our reading. “If we take literature in the widest sense, so as to include the literature both of knowledge and of power, the question ‘What is the good of reading what anyone writes?’ is very like the question ‘What is the good of listening to what anyone says?’ Unless you contain in yourself sources that can supply all the information, entertainment, advice, rebuke and merriment you want, the answer is obvious. And if it is worth while listening or reading at all, it is often worth doing so attentively. Indeed we must attend even to discover that something is not worth attention.”
Simply put, if something is worth reading, it is worth our full attention.
More than understanding and discernment, though, what we read can reach us in deeper ways than we know. Whether we get out of ourselves or dive more deeply inward, Lewis says that one reason we happily read fiction is because we delight in the stir of our imaginations--
We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own. We are not content to be Leibnitzian monads. We demand windows. Literature as Logos is a series of windows, even of doors. One of the things we feel after reading a great work is ‘I have got out’. Or from another point of view, ‘I have got in’; pierced the shell of some other monad and discovered what it is like inside.”
A night was near, a day was near,
Between a day and night
I heard sweet voices calling clear,
I heard a whirr of wing on wing,
But could not see the sight;
I long to see my birds that sing,
I long to see.
Below the stars, beyond the moon,
Between the night and day
I heard a rising falling tune
I long to see the pipes and strings
Whereon such minstrels play;
I long to see each face that sings,
I long to see.
Today or may be not today,
Tonight or not tonight,
All voices that command or pray
Shall kindle in my soul such fire
And in my eyes such light
That I shall see that heart's desire
I long to see.
CELEBRATE ALL FOUR SEASONS with memoir, poetry, and short stories
In the vein of Thoreau and Walden Pond, William Paul Winchester recounts his life on twenty acres in rural Oklahoma as simple and poetic. Nothing is diminutive. Embrace each blade of grass, the cow Isabel, the harvester ant, the sycamore, and the relics of the Dutchman's property.
As he labored to build a house on a century-old foundation and strove to live off of the land, Winchester fully details the intricacy of each season with simplicity. Consider a summer scene—“Lightning bugs and glow worms, their bioluminescence dependent on phosphorus, were drawn to my twenty acres in such numbers that walking out on a still summer evening is like passing through the center of a meteor shower.”
Winchester's memoir is just as much a commentary on contentment as it is a call to perspective. He writes, “To live in the country in a house I built for myself, with meaningful work and a margin of leisure, free to create a little universe of my own making—this was my idea of happiness.”
You don’t have to be a Transcendentalist to enjoy Emerson’s delightful observations of “Earth-song.” Choose a season, and Emerson will regale you. From the “burling, dozing humble-bee” to his odes on Nature, his rambles and travels through the seasons are equally detailed in appreciation:
Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,
I leave you with the words of our final author, Washington Irving, and his commentary on the passing of seasons in “Christmas” from his Sketchbook--
We derive a great portion of our pleasures from the mere beauties of Nature. Our feelings sally forth and dissipate themselves over the sunny landscape, and we ‘live abroad and everywhere.’ The song of the bird, the murmur of the stream, the breathing fragrance of spring, the soft voluptuousness of summer, the golden pomp of autumn; earth with its mantle of refreshing green, and heaven with its deep delicious blue and its cloudy magnificence, all fill us with mute but exquisite delight...But in the depth of winter, when Nature lies despoiled of every charm, and wrapped in her shroud of sheeted snow, we turn our gratifications to moral sources.”
originally published November 18, 2018
MAN IS THE REAL ALIEN.
I reread a few classic short stories this week, one by an American and one by a Frenchman. In each story, man was this dissatisfied creature who couldn't find himself whether on Earth or Mars or Minerva. He tainted everything he touched.
Through science fiction as a genre, this avenue of thought is prevalent. It's the best of social criticism, albeit a veiled philosophy--
CAUTION! MAN IS CAPABLE OF MASS DESTRUCTION.
It's a disturbing but simple pattern. Humans introduce music or a virus or a bomb and a civilization is forever changed. Consider Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank, a seminal apocalyptic work from 1959. Yes, it deals with the effects of a nuclear war on the small town of Fort Repose, Florida, but it began with an inciting accident in Syria. Post-war life shows the natural and realistic breakdown of society amid its plucky and frequently criminal citizens.
The genre is a simple yet provoking tool. The stories may explore new places and settings but really they depict man's true nature and often the consequence of choice. I have many favorites including Orson Scott Card's series and Isaac Asimov's short stories, but I most frequently recommend the list below:
Share your favorite short or long science fiction reads in the comments section, especially why you love a particular story!
Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies
Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!
Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like wither'd leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,
Scatter, as from an unextinguish'd hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawaken'd earth
The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?
In Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” the wind of autumn is no longer accused of bringing a permanent death. Winter is not an evil. Yes, the seeds that the wind blows will die and be buried for but a season because the warm spring wind will certainly return to bring life.
As much as I thrill to the autumn Keats describes in “To Autumn,” I find a deeper, more intense awareness in Shelley’s poem. Both poems are personal, yet Shelley’s feels like a prayer by the fifth and final stanza.
With great earnestness, he asks the wind to play upon him, that he would be the harp just like the trees of the forest are strings for the wind to play upon. Shelley’s plea extends to his heart. Would that the wind could drive his dead thoughts away like nature’s seeds and bring those dead words to life. He commands the wind to do so, to scatter his words across the earth. I know, I know. Shelley may have been prompted by thoughts of glory and fame, but what if the spiritual parallel goes further?
What if Shelley knew of David’s words in Psalm 49:4-5?
My mouth is about to speak wisdom; my heart’s deepest thoughts will give understanding. I will listen with care to God’s parable. I will set his riddle to the music of the lyre."
How unique that Shelley’s earnest determination parallels David’s. A similar passion drives them as both desire to make a mystery known through lyric.
Their expressions continue to resonate with me, and my hope remains—that I too can echo Shelley’s words in prayer, “Make me thy lyre.”
I read so much this summer that it was hard to choose what to include this year. And I almost added a new category titled BOOKS I HATED but thought that might be too much! Hint: They are excoriated (ahem! listed) on my Goodreads account.
I have many, many more books to read (and a few to write), but do share your own favorite summer reads in the comments below. I'd love to hear what brought you delight or simply got you thinking!
Dictionary and thesaurus apps.
Etymology and word roots.
Language study and Interlinear Bibles.
Writing tools in this century are at our fingertips. Yet as I work on my first novel, the most unusual resource has resurfaced—a 1929 Hartrampf’s Vocabulary Builder. I call it my fat word builder.
I admit it’s been abandoned for a while on our bookshelves, possibly for ten years, but now—now it’s a rarefied gem in my eyes. Yes, it’s a single book. It has only been recently digitized, and there are many newer editions.
Its genius resides in the collection of associated meanings, not just straight synonyms.
Let me give you an example from my summer editing work. In my novel's first draft, I have definitely overused certain words like come, wind, were, and a most heinous repetitive phrase--began to. Apparently my heroine Carina likes to begin things. She began to sit or stand. She began to crouch. She began to laugh. Goodness. I promise she finishes things. Really.
Now for the edits with Hartrampf's help. I look up the word "begin" in the back index. I'm delighted to find an entire page devoted to its use. The top of this page says to see other possible connections for "start" or "commencement." A handy list with additional pages is right there: birthplace, excite—rouse, change, opening—foreword, musical beginnings, time preceding, or cause. Which kind of "begin" do I want? I could flip to any of those or look below at the parts of speech:
And this is just one-eighth of the page. The word wonder continues with many family and neighbor words for "begin." For my character, though, I found that many times she was not truly beginning something. Instead of "With knife in hand, Carina began to crouch..." I realized she wasn't beginning anything. "With knife in hand, Carina crouched..." was more accurate and less wordy. Of course, I could have said, "She prepared herself." In reality "crouched" became the best fat word. Yes, fat. These words contain action and image and power.
As a writer, I can say in all sincerity that I have finally found a happy and pleasant use for the word fat.
Jane Eyre is a perennial novel for me. Yes, I teach it every year, but more importantly, I reread it every time. Not just a skim. A full read. And this is why.
photo by Margarida C Silva on Unsplash
HAVING GROWN UP IN MISSISSIPPI, I have a weakness for Southern fiction. My curiosity was especially piqued by a friend’s gift and this Southern claim. I do confess to admiring many of John Grisham’s novels, particularly Sycamore Row, but I I rarely read a bestseller unless a better-read friend attempts it first. I shun New York Times’ bestseller lists simply because they are popular. Forget the press and the hubbub.
Case in point. I made the mistake of reading Gone Girl a few years ago and have always regretted the hours I lost. I found I intensely dislike amoral stories without one character to savor or cheer for. Thankfully Delia Owens’s Kya Clark is not that character, though she appears a pitiful orphan in every way. How forlorn to hear young Kya’s thoughts—“What she wondered was why no one took her with them.” Yet this read is more than character-driven.
In Where the Crawdads Sing, Owens steeps her readers in a thoroughly engaging marshland setting. In fact, I would go so far as to compare her land to a living character much like Willa Cather does in her immigrant novels.
The land is ripe with paradox—safe yet dangerous, shining yet muddy, life amid decay.
Like Cather, Owens’s language fills us with every sensation and plants us firmly in Kya’s world of loss and hope. The land indeed nurtures her into and through her adult life with a “yearning to reach out yonder.” In her younger years, nature is a place of solace, a companion. But once her heart is awakened to human love and to the real relationship of years, creation cannot fill the void in the human heart—--
But just as her collection grew, so did her loneliness. A pain as large as her heart lived in her chest. Nothing eased it. Not the gulls, not a splendid sunset, not the rarest of shells.”
And there is a void. More than a century before, Cather writes of this too. Within O Pioneers!, the land is characterized more by its strength than by its vastness. Like a human personality, it can be overbearing or supportive. Alexandra Bergson understood this. She too was intimidated at first as “the land wanted to be left alone, to preserve its own fierce strength, its peculiar kind of savage beauty, its uninterrupted mournfulness,” but as decades passed, the land appears an empathic friend as it “responds in kind.” More than personified, the land becomes a rounded character in full relationship with man.
Like Alexandra Bergson, Kya possesses a faith in the land that others lack. The land is wholly human to her in relationship. And, if she has a faith, then it is no wonder that creation responds to her and reveals its treasures. It is there that she finds friendship with the marsh’s creatures, safety from prying eyes, relationship with her first love Tate, inspiration for the work of preserving nature in art.
More than eco-fiction, this novel doesn't preach of preserving the marshland, at least not overwhelmingly like a smarmy salesman. The story is one of relationship. Where the land could have been seen as a trap that limits, it is ultimately a place of rescue for Kya.
Photo by Timothy L Brock on Unsplash