Monthly Archives: October 2012

The Weight of Mid-Terms

It’s mid-term again – more than half way through the fall semester at the University of Cincinnati.  Really.  With a change from quarters to semesters I had a false sense that we had an endless amount of time.  But now the mid-term is upon us and it’s time to reflect on what I have finished, and what is before me.

This semester I have had more contact with individual students.  Whether it’s at some of the planned activities or in one-on-one conversations, there is a longer list of connections than in past years.  Yet, as I look at this list I am also anxious about how to strengthen these relationships – especially mentoring/discipling relationships that help individuals draw closer to Christ.  My MO is often just let come what may and then respond.  But there is also something to be said about planning to meet and study scripture with students.  By this time I had wanted to have 4 small groups going.  Well one is.  But I haven’t done much with the others.  Perhaps a 4 week study to get things going for 2 groups?

I have also put off setting up the registered student organization – and the deadline is November 15.  Okay, so this week we’ll get the frame build and then ask students to fill it in the next week.  Nothing like a deadline.  As part of this task I also want to invite students to lead, even in small ways.  To take on ownership of small parts of the groups.

And then there are the larger events ahead – pumpkin carving, an international meal, giving a paper at the SAMLA, attending new staff training, and then all the Christmas stuff.  It’s piling up.  A month ago I thought I had all the time in the world to finish everything.  Now everything is upon me and time – well it’s quite limited.

It’s difficult to write out of a place of giving and grace when I feel so tied up and always behind.  I want to talk of others, make connections with community, go on pilgrimage, and stop this uber-individualism, but I don’t feel I can.  There’s so much I need to do and for which I am responsible to other people.

Often I don’t get to the new things because the backlog of the old keeps weighing on me.  I have to finish the previous work before getting to the new.  At least that’s what my adult self seems to be saying.  After I finish the work, then I can play.  It seems like I will never get to the new, even if that new is just planning for next semester.

Then I see a sunrise as I drive in to work.  A brilliant red blaze.  This is a new morning.  I can grasp Christ, even if my world doesn’t seem to be falling into place.  Perhaps after seeing, really seeing, enough sunrises, I will turn around and get on with the new and leave behind some of the heavy tasks.  I also know that finals are ahead when all this hurrying will be over for a semester.  There will be time to breathe more freely.  Maybe even to see the life that existed in the midst of mid-terms.


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Putting Life in a Spreadsheet

Rows. Columns.  Cells.  It’s all so neat and organized.  What’s not to like about a spreadsheet?

A few weeks ago the writing group I’m in challenged me to submit my writing life to a spreadsheet.  This practice would be a means to prioritize all the projects I want to do and which are greatly outpacing my can-do’s.  For a long time I’ve rejected setting priorities and choosing among all the good opportunities and ideas before me.  But as the list has grown, I’ve only succeeded in being overwhelmed, not in getting anything done.

My first response to this ever growing list has been to break down projects into tasks – manageable activities to accomplish in a given day that will direct me to the eventual end product.  A seemingly sensible way to respond.  However, I’m finding that I see these tasks as void of the meaning of the project as a whole.  Afraid that I may get too enamored and lose myself in the work – or be lost focusing too much on the end product – I create a utilitarian list of work and lose the heart and enjoyment.

In this place of frustration, I submitted my life to a sheet.  Each row was a project and each column was a pro or con response.  In each cell, the intersection of the project and the possible responses, I made a check or left it blank.  Tallying up the pros and cons, there are clear patterns.  I would like to say that now all my scheduling problems are objectively solved.  They aren’t.  But a larger picture of what and why I’m doing started to emerge again.  It is definitely subjective, but at least it reveals the subjectivity driving my decisions instead of hiding it behind a mushrooming task list.

It became quite clear that I most enjoy engaging with content – travel, reading, study, pilgrimage.  These are life-giving practices that I often set on the back burner until everything else is done.  This is the stuff in which I can get lost.  Yet this is the heart of why I want to write and teach – to share what has encouraged me and help others discover their better stories.  In my current mode of working, I fail to see how this is part of my current life and how to incorporate it in the future – whether in my life or that of others.

It’s time to write and teach out of these interests instead of trying to take on someone else’s methods.  For example, instead of looking around at what others are doing in campus ministry and attempting to copy methods that ‘succeed’ or that I think others expect, I could more fully incorporate ideas of story and pilgrimage.  I could also do some exploring on UC’s campus in the areas of literature and travel to discover ways to be a part of this world on campus.  Now to find a pilgrimage/study adventure with others.

Community is important to me as well, whether it’s built through the internet or in local groups.  It probably needs to be both.  Though this is scary as I think about stepping out.  I’m so used to being cautious, hiding behind limits posed from external and internal sources, making excuses for not being involved, and then fading away as I return to safe havens.  But there is much more to true community.  I want to go honestly into these groups, no pretension or hiding, but with a joy of living as the image of God that I and others carry.

Editing this darn book on literary pilgrimage is close behind building community.  Why is it so painful?  Why do I continue to put it off?  It’s in a place of limbo.  I don’t really know what it wants to be, yet haven’t really done research to see where it’s going. There is so much of me within it I am fearful that it/I will be rejected.  But I’m also afraid that it will die away.  It is almost a decade since I went on the adventures.  Oh, I just need to take time to dive into it again.  Maybe I need to integrate the pilgrimage of publishing within the other pilgrimage work.

This is not the end of the spreadsheet – the neatness of the rows and cells still call me.  Ironically, the stark gridlines have emphasized that something was missing from all this prioritizing – the heart, enjoyment, and life of work.  It’s not that these haven’t existed in the work that’s on my list, it’s primarily that I’ve forgotten them under the weight of planning to finish projects.

Heart.  Joy.  Life.  Who wouldn’t want to jump into work where these are found?

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News from the Writing World

Today Mo Yan, a Chinese writer, won the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature.  Every year I listen for the name – and often quickly forget it.  Attaining such recognition seems so foreign to me that it barely registers in my mind.  It’s just another piece of news and affirmation that literature still matters.

But did you also know that The New The New York Public Library is recreating Charles Dickens’ library of fake books. and Patti Smith visited the Brontë parsonage and Sylvia Plath’s grave.  Now these may not be life changing events, but they do show that writers, and their related items and places, continue to engage people in tangible spaces.  There is a life of reading and writing that goes beyond the covers of a given book.

Both of these news bits came from a website I recently discovered – Writers’ Houses.  As you will see, this site contains archives descriptions of a number of writers homes along with a weekly update on upcoming events or other connections to these houses.  It’s a virtual place to gather with others who continue to find importance in visiting these homes and other literary sites.

This could be dangerous for me.  Reading the list from two weeks ago I’m ready to go to Manorbier House, a Welch haunt of Virginia Woolf’s, that is still used as a writers’ retreat or find a way to live in one of the castles in the UK used for movies and television shows.  Who knows where I will be drawn to go over the next weeks as I return to the site.  Some of the ventures will be doable, others not so much.  But merely reading about the opportunities and getting a glimpse of the actual lives lived by these authors have inspired me to sit at the keyboard once again and get to writing.

In my research on literary pilgrimages to writers houses, I have found that such journeys don’t only or even primarily draw people to follow in the steps of the authors, mimicking their styles and attempting to recreate what had been.  Such visits also encourage people to step into their own life, and possibly writing, journeys on a more engaged level. There’s something about knowing that it’s been done before in a given place, with all its attendant difficulties, that makes writing or even another activity seem possible.

Now I may or may not purchase Mo Yan’s latest writings in which he merges “folk tales, history and the contemporary” with hallucinatory realism.  But I do know that I will return to a writer’s house soon to explore the places and surroundings that inspired them.  But even before that time, I will make my own journey into the practice of literature – both reading and writing in the places that surround me today.


Categories: Literary Pilgrimages | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Being Careful with Words

Creation started with words – Let there be light (Genesis 1:3) – and by the God who has been called the Word (John 1:1). So why have we as a culture become so lax with them? We use them all the time as a necessary and mundane tool to get through the day to order coffee, share news, or present an idea.  But they are also so much more.

Marilyn Chandler McEntyre provides beautiful reflections on words in her work, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies.  In this book of twelve reflections she encourages readers to take time to honor words and more clearly examine how we use them.  Through these reflections she encourages us to play, pray, converse, practice poetry, read well, share stories, and more.  Ultimately hers is a vision of stewardship of words.

I’m familiar with stewarding money and time, but words?  Why not?  They are a part of our lives that word shape us for good or ill.  I’ve never liked the kid’s rhyme sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.  In my experience, words can hurt immensely no matter what some well-meaning teacher may say about ignoring them.  Yes, we can decide how to respond to the words around us.  However, I’m not sure if we have complete control over words’ ultimate affects as they come at us from all directions.

With this in mind, I welcomed this book as a way to slow down and consider how I use words and the delight that they can be.  Here are just a few ideas that struck my imagination:

  • That the role of the writer may at times be analogous to that of priest as we take seriously the authority writing can imply 65
  • That guides are needed to open up the spaces in story where author and reader meet 78
  • That good conversation is life-giving as it inspires and invigorates 90
  • That play comes from loving life and play with words comes from loving language 191
  • That our work in prayer is to make our words an offering and let God make them worthy 222
  • That we need times of silence where we lay down our pens and swords and take our rest 234

As I finish this post I again find myself fighting to find words to say and frustrated that they are not readily available.  But I’m also eager to see what new conversations may come from these words.  Furthermore, I’m reminded that they are a precious resource to share with others – even in quick e-mails.  Who knows what new creations will come from the words I hear and share in the coming days and weeks?

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