Under Observation

The sky summons forth a cloud and
a watery angel – with fellows in tow – strides
across the sky purposely: ministering servants all.
This host (often portrayed as arrayed in white despite
their Prussian blue hues) shocks me.
Azure heaven meets verdant earth
in a horizon of promise.
I look up, and see
these angels
seeing me

From Author to Editor to Auditor

Patick Modiano, the 2014 Nobel prize winner for literature, expressed interest in learning what it was about his work that earned him this honour. He was quoted saying that “one cannot really be one’s own reader.” This aphorism, which seems at blush to be but a throw away line is anything but. It is an observation made by a writer who has honed his craft for many years. The line set my mind to thinking about reading my own writing.

Do I read my work? I certainly edit my work. Anyone who writes any amount knows that getting words on paper is but the tip of the iceberg that is writing. Below the written tip is an ice mountain of work: wrestling the right word into place; switching paragraphs hither and yon beyond the patience of the harshest editor of all – the self. But is editing a work reading it? Once again, yes and no seems to go as a best first stab at answering the question: yes our eyes scan the words and detect errors and distractions, but no too; no in the sense that I do not experience the same kind of dislocation I feel in reading other authors. And so while it seems that I can have the experience of entering my text as a reader, I do not have the experience of the text entering me – at least not in the same way that I experience that when reading the writing of others. When I read the work of others I have this gratifying sense of utter alienness; of being at sea as I ask what the author has in mind. When I write, by contrast, I struggle to get what is in me out, and onto the page. When I read my own work, this is what I read.

So it seems that I cannot really read my work, but it also needs to be said that I cannot but read my work: ignoring what I have put to paper seems impossible. Something of the self remains resident in my writing and so not attending to it is rather like ignoring a mirror: not impossible, but surely difficult. And as is the case with many difficult bits in life, asking why it is that I am drawn or repelled by this or that is surely a salutary experience. What is it about the mirror that arrests me? When I revisit what I have written I do not encounter someone vastly different (as can happen in reading your work) , but I do experience a sense of the self at a distance. Perhaps this is because writing, at least for me, is not so much an experience of saying what I think about this or that, but an experience of saying whom I am. This self, however, really comes to be known to me in my writing. What I had intuited becomes concretized in my text. And because it is hard to encounter the self on account of my proximity to my writing, I need others – I need others, other readers and editors. As I hear what you encounter in my texts, I am given a fresh chance to hear myself anew, to become my own “auditor” in the sense that the word auditor comes from the Latin word for “to hear”(and so someone who “audits” a course listens in on it). My readers make me an auditor, an observer of my own work because my readers hear me out and in their hearing I begin to see and hear what I have written anew.

In the end, while it might be the case I cannot really read my work, it surely is the case that I can “hear” it by grace of your reading. You become for me ears to hear and eyes to see my work anew and for that, I say thanks.

Views from the Gallery

Last Friday I made my way to Toronto. A handful of times a year I venture in to see what is on at the Art Gallery of Ontario. I was especially looking forward to its current exhibit on Alex Colville. For those unfamiliar with Canadian artists, Colville has been called one of our most influential. It isn’t easy to describe his art. His is a style that might be called realistic; some call it hyperreal, but that doesn’t quite catch it. You often hear the words “eerie” or “menacing” attached to his art. His style is dramatic, exploring the everyday in an uncanny way. He regularly introduces some unresolved narrative twist in an image, as if we are given a frame from a film spool – isolated and so bearing the burden of telling the whole story all on its own. The viewer is left wondering what the next frame will be. Colville’s art invite us to reflect on the phenomenon of searching for the stories needed to make sense of our experiences. Humans, it seems, are people attuned to stories, and are often on the lookout for occasions to unleash the imagination. But back to the story at hand!

I generally take the train for these trips, and so immediately enter a different world. I am neither in control nor accessible and so find the journey from home to the big city and back to be a kind of voyage deeper into the self. By the time I am at the gallery, I am in a different space and open to what might otherwise escape me.

I did not know that Colville, for instance, was a rabid fan of animals. I recall that animals often fit into his work, but I was not aware of his thought behind the images that I knew so well. At the gallery there were some interesting clips from a National Film Board interview of him some years ago, in which he spoke of animals as those not tainted by the many vices that mark being human. Their appearance in his paintings, then, strikes me as an especially interesting comment on our responsibility to attend to innocence. His work draws out the way in which animals invite us to see the world differently, and so draws us deeper into those residual moments of openness to the earth that paradoxically result in both joy and sorrow.

Colville points us to both our interest in the storied character of our existence as well as our sometimes muted yet never obliterated fascination with a more instinctive path of life. In the end, he invites us into a different world; a world where intuition matters as much as measurement, and passion as much as plans. Colville certainly cracks open a vantage point from which to witness a different way of being in the world – for those with eyes to see. May his tribe increase.

Here and Aloft

Another summer has come
undone; with undue
hurry, harried clouds
rush autumn along.

I sit unsettled
by this season’s evaporation:
time’s rising like water
now made mist, the
ungraspable ever
more evasive yet
grasping me.

Even so, squirreled away nuts and seeds
remind me of my pantry and that I too
am both root and fog, both
here and aloft.

A Wee Dram of Wisdom

While touring a Scotch distillery in Scotland this summer – which included the requisite tasting session – I learned much about the making of Scotch. There are a number of regulations governing the making and marketing of Scotch, such that the product you purchase with this name must have been produced in Scotland, aged for a minimum of three years in an oak cask and be a minimum of 80 proof. Cleverly, this precludes outsourcing production and so secures this important source of income for Scots. Of course, this was not all that I learned in the tour. I learned that grist comes from the mill.

Most of us, of course, are familiar with the phrase “grist for the mill” as a reference to a phrase that speaks to material to be used for profit, intellectually or not. The mill references the means by which the said material is turned into something that can be sold, leveraged, etc. But in a Scotch factory, the word grist references what comes from the mill in order to be made into the mash to be fermented and then distilled. So, which is right? Is grist the product of the mill, or a product for the mill?

Dictionaries give us both definitions as possibilities. But, as we all know, definitions are susceptible to convention, and so are slippery phenomena. My Greek teacher used to tell me that the producers of dictionaries look to texts to find words in context in order to establish a meaning, which the Greek student then applies to some text under consideration. It all sounds a bit circular. All the same, choices have to be made and the choices we make, make a difference.

So, one the one hand we can imagine grist to be what goes into the mill, while we can also imagine it to be what comes from the mill. At one level, this isn’t altogether disconcerting. What goes into the mill, does in fact, come out – albeit with the changes intended. Milled grains have been stripped of their husks, and ground to an appropriate size. But the kernel of the matter, the grain proper, both goes into the mill and comes out from the mill. Product in, product out: but more can and must be said. The mill effects a difference; a fundamental difference.

The mill facilitates a conversion, but not of the sort that destroys what was present. Rather the mill takes what is there, and molds it. This is, I suppose, a kind of metaphor for life. We, rather like bare kernels, are shrouded in a husky coats of various makings that are, most often I suspect, some form of self-deception. But when we are denuded of our shields, and opened to change, a marvelous thing happens. What was reticent, and recalcitrant, and stuck is rendered open, and creative and nimble. Yet the “who,” who is changed remains. Grace does not eradicate creation; and when I drink a wee dram, I can still discern the soil now made the soul of the spirit; I can still smell the peaty smoke; I can still quaff the Highland air that bears that peppery taste.

The mill, in the end, does not eradicate one understanding of grist in favor of the other. Rather, it provides a bridge between two ways to understand grist and mill, and the self. We are both grist for the mill, and grist from the mill.

And the miller? Well, the miller’s a mystery….

Thoughts from the I 90

Dear readers, be assured I have not abandoned you. I have made plans and then my plans have remade me. This past month has entailed a trip to the United (as of now) Kingdom, a trip to Copenhagen followed up by a week’s long conference in Chicago. In the midst of all of this, classes have started, and I have endured meetings that have not always been endearing.

Increasingly I have come to know life as the undoing of my plans. I am working at being at peace with chaos, even while I pine for a pause in life. But I have also come to know that peace is more often imbibed in bits: a poem here, a vista there, the vision of a child wrapping herself around her mother’s leg that takes me outside of myself and to a place I covet for all. When I least expect it, repose sneaks up on me. For instance, last Wednesday a generous young woman named Sarah agreed to ferry me and a Malaysian friend from Hyde Park in Chicago to O’Hare Airport. The organizer of the conference had wisely arranged for transport for all well in advance of normal departure times. Winds in 40 knot range were expected along side of the precipitation befitting such gales. As was expected, the trip was about double the time. This plodding commute gave me occasion to ponder the last week since I was not in charge of driving, not needing to be anxious about when to get on or off ramps and like. I was able to sit back and revisit the conference; meeting new and old friends from Indonesia, Nigeria, Germany, Brazil etc. I was at a meeting of the Lutheran World Federation, where we asked the question: How do Lutherans the world wide read the bible?

As you can expect, no easy answer emerged. Some had suggestions while others queried the wisdom of travelling down this path at all. After all, some argued, the empire upon which the sun never set was obsessed with uniformity, and we all know how that ended. But then again, that empire, like so many others, has not really ended. It lives on even if only in wistful wishes for an empire of no setting sun. But the sun insists on setting, even in the shadow of busy airports.

Here and here, in the midst of traffic crawls, and renegotiated flight departures pause is thrust upon us. This is really the tale of life: while we may struggle with the rudder, the wind is beyond our purview. We bob along, and hope for the best; at least the wise do so. In those pauses, welcomed or not, comes our very own opportunity to be welcoming: will we breathe when the opportunity arises? Will we take leave of our importance? Will we embrace those moments that arrest our constant, if not consistent, rushing about? Will we will Sabbath? Will we ache to become a deep breath in harmony with all of creation? Will we be content with the moment given us, to be grateful and so generous? Life is so astounding in so many ways; here an unexpected gift of time; there an opportunity to practice peace; and in the midst of it all – God, ever offering fresh starts, even on a Illinois Inter-state.

Sheep Safely Graze…

Sheep safely graze

Witnesses to the word heard not

Always in the parson’s parsing parables

But in the parable – now

Enfleshed in the coos of the muse in babe in arms,

(Shaped like Seraphim) and

The soft curve of the letter ‘S’ in 

Isaiah and Psalms, ansd even in the

Verse left unsung and so now so very

Loud, this laud protesting its being

Precluded: it a

Reminder that 

Sheep are never safe, at least

No safer than the ruminated grass;

No safer than the parable

That is the Kirk.