Posts Tagged With: literature

Readings on Pilgrimage

photoThese past months many of the books I’ve opened have provided new views into pilgrimage – refining and rekindling my own vision of this type of journey. If you are looking for some ways into pilgrimage – whether a journey to a foreign land or a journey through life. Here are a few suggested readings.

In Search of Deep Faith: A Pilgrimage into the Beauty, Goodness and Heart of Christianity, Jim Belcher

Thus says the Lord: “Stand by the roads, and look,and ask for the ancient paths,where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls. – Jeremiah 6:16

After finishing the narrative of this pilgrimage to articulate faith, to rest, and to build a foundation for a family, I wanted even more to head out on such a journey. Quickly I was thinking about who to invite, where we would go, the focus of the time, and more. However, the journey that Belcher lays out is not only about going to lands away from home, but into the faith lives before us today. So this is where I left this book. Exploring my own search for faith – and in the back of my mind planning the next pilgrimage.

Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good, Steven Garber

This is not a head-in-the-sand, idealized view of vocation, but one of taking an honest look at the world around us – where God has placed us, with whom he has placed us, and who we are. Garber references Walker Percy’s concept of “pilgrim in the ruins.” In our lives we are on a sacred journey, but it’s not paved in gold with step-by-step directions laid out for us. Instead it’s through the reality of the brokenness of this world, including ourselves, that we find the grace of vocation.

Pilgrimage of a Soul: Contemplative Spirituality for the Active Life, Phileena Heuretz

“It’s a story of awakening, darkness and transformation. It’s a story of being born. It’s a story of striving to be free. As a Christian it is a story of ongoing transformation in the image of Christ.”

Phileena Heuertz’ contemplation of her sabbatical takes readers through the journey walked and the struggles and transformations that she entered along the way – through God’s grace. Don’t think you have time or need to take time for contemplation? Heuretz story shows how this seemingly quiet practice is essential, especially for those of us in the midst of an active life.

Wayfaring: Essays Pleasant and Unpleasant, Alan Jacobs

“I love the essay primarily because it is the genre par excellence of wayfaring.”  This book is an excellent example of wayfaring through writing and literature as Jacobs’ readings and musings open up new avenues of thought and adventure.

Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me, Karen Swallow Prior

“I have carried this book and many, many others, all these years. And they have made me who I am.” It was wonderful to journey with Prior through her life with books – Charlotte’s Web, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Madame Bovary, and more. So many people have been made by books and all the worlds they contain. This is a great way to get to know someone, even ourselves, and to set out on a journey.

Holy is the Day, Carolyn Weber

Carolyn Weber takes readers through a journey of living in the present, not because everything was going so well that she wanted to capture the unambiguous happiness of life, but because even in the pain – which she details through several physical and emotional struggles – there is something to realize as a gift beyond ourselves. I was drawn to her story – that of an English professor in the throes of tenure, sabbatical, publishing, raising a family, and seeking to follow God. Into this story she weaves poetry and prose – Chesterton, Lewis, Donne, Coleridge, Blake, Keats, Sayers – along with scripture – Daniel, Jonah, Jesus, Peter, Paul, Mary – providing a rich context for living.

 

So pilgrimages – journeys of transformation through stories of meaning. The paths can be through literature, our vocations, life challenges and more. Above all, God’s grace guides us as we are open and aware to see the steps before us. What readings have encouraged your thoughts on pilgrimage?

Categories: Readings | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Way of Literature

“Language does change our world.  It does make possible what we think and how we think it.  This is one vital reason to read and study literature, rather than merely to apply its strategies.” Marjorie Garber, The Use and Abuse of Literature

Much hand-wringing has been going on for years about the future of humanities, including literature, in the academy.  As a person on the outside looking in, I sense this frustration and would love to enter the fray, not because of the academic intrigue, but because the essence of literature may be a way to break through some of the staid thinking on college campuses. Instead of the ubiquitous bullet points and business models that can obscure the soul of the university, literature, with the complexity inherent in both narrative and poetic forms, can bring a new perspective to a student’s understanding of education.  Or, in other words, literature can bring a renewed process of critical thinking outside of the usual methods that employ models – since models don’t always pick up the nuances of life.

Marjorie Garber in her book The Use and Abuse of Literature ventures into the why of studying literature and examines reasons that it should return to the center of the academy instead of remaining on the margins (so says the jacket cover).  Her arguments focus on literature as a tool not to define meaning or settle a question, but in showing a way through questions and research.

“Literary interpretation, like literature, does not seek answers or closure.  A multiplicity of persuasive and well-argued “meanings” does not mean the death or loss of meaning, but rather the living presence of the literary work in culture, society, and the individual creative imagination.  To say that closure is impossible is to acknowledge the richness and fecundity of both the reading and the writing process.

The use of literature begins here.” (283)

Even though Garber speaks of the possibilities of literature, she also is attuned to the ways it as been abused.  Like so many things in our world of efficiency worship, literature has been reduced so that it’s often ineffective and useless.  In studying it we tear it apart, remove it from general education requirements, or ride on the wave of popular movies to draw students to classes.  In this process literature is debased, seen as something less than it is, and rightly marginalized.

However, even as universities seem to be moving toward efficient and practical means to prepare students to be productive elements of an economic system, there is also a growing desire to address some of the larger questions of life within a student’s career.   What is the importance of learning?  What are the meta narratives that drive our lives?  Why do I need to earn money (or why do I need the stuff I will buy with the money)?  What are the questions in society’s margins?   The tools of literature can provide a path into these questions.  Though it may be risky.

Maybe this is what draws me and others to literature – its attempt to ask and respond to the large questions of life, and not reducing them to a bulleted list.  A plot does not a story – or literature – make.  There is so much more within the language, the meaning, the reading.   Literary study looks at the way of meaning, how do the words, the images, the style, the structure draw readers through a way, not only at the what and they why.

Still, it is easy to want to derive a meaning for a given piece of literature and be done with it.  To show an answer.  To distill it into something that one can easily hold.   But if I look back at my experiences, it was the process of reading and encountering the work that made the difference.  Not knowing the ending of the book, but being part of the narrative.

Literature’s essence is in the experience of reader and words of an author coming together at a specific place and time.  Just like we can’t often neatly break down our lives, we can’t neatly break down a narrative without losing something in the process.   Even though students may want to compartmentalize their lives and find the most efficient way to land a job through a linear path of college course, the complexity of narrative analysis can help them see and interact with the other questions that frame decisions about a future career.

I’m eager to see how literature, and other fields in humanities, can change the world as they seek not to fit into the scientific and business models, but to engage them in conversation and more fully explore the narratives alive on college campuses todays.

[Just an aside – exploring the way things mean, at least expressed in this manner, is something that is so vital in biblical criticism as well.  Meaning is not merely a set of beliefs to hold – it’s a way of living.  God  brings us along this way – the Way – through the narrative set out in scripture and in our lives.]

Categories: Readings | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

Literary Pilgrimage – A New Look

Literary pilgrimage.

  • A journey to places of story related to literature and its writing.
  • A  memoir of reading and journey.
  • A narrative of place and story, parable and poetry.

The introduction to the draft of my forever-in-progress book on literary pilgrimage, Walking the Path of Story, describes what the book is trying to do – build a connection between pilgrimage, literature, and reader.  It even lists the books and questions approached throughout the chapters. Yet, something is missing.  However, it doesn’t really get to the heart of this writing, the why it’s important, a reason to read.  So what is that reason?

This book is not full on literary criticism or religious ritual.  Nor is it a random jaunt to a tourist site.  Literary pilgrimage could be a way of simply following in the practices of earlier pilgrims, the authors and readers who have trod this path before.  But it’s not a path of imitation that underlays pilgrimage.  It’s a path of guidance.  This guidance frees the reader’s own story to come out as she lives in the places along the journey – the novels’, the authors’, the sites’, the pilgrims’.  It opens up new paths into the original story and into the pilgrim’s life.

Sitting in a grove of olive trees across from the Acropolis in Athens, Greece, I could barely keep my eyes open.  Jet lag was pressing in on me even as the breeze of this land drifted across my body and I sat before ancient temples.  My first evening in Europe felt like a dream.  I didn’t know what to expect over the next twelve days on this Mediterranean tour, but I was ready to follow our guides as we heard familiar stories and were surprised by new ones. The growing connection of place and story slowly dissolved the dream and I was soon on an unexpected journey.  Each day one story led to others, drawing me on to the next place – whether the Aeropagus in Athens, the Forum in Rome, or this book on literary pilgrimage.

Many times the guidance on these journeys comes in the language of the book itself.  Readers engage with words penned in a specific time and place by a specific author.  The contemporary interaction of the reader with the authored words brings meaning to life in the practice of reading.  So, what happens when this contemporary interpretation includes places along with words?  How does the reader encounter these places?  Definitely not in the same way as the author.  This contrast is part of the richness of literary pilgrimage.  It puts one face-to-face with the uniqueness of both reader and writer and allows them to be in a multi-layered conversation.

On an overcast day in July I spent several hours on Cadbury Hill – a possible site of the fabled Camelot.  Through the trees I could see a lone piece of land rising out of the earth –  Glastonbury Tor, the Isle of Avalon, home to the Lady of the Lake, the grave of King Arthur.  The grass underneath and branches above grounded me in an actual place, yet there was more.  While sitting in this place numerous stories came together as I read Marion Zimmer Bradley’s novel, Mists of Avalon, and recalled other Arthurian legends.  Lives opened up.  Imaginations roamed.  A fullness welled up as I contemplated being in that place, at that moment.  Men and women had been walking across those fields for centuries.  Stories of kings and knights had been lived and embellished, given new life for others to retell.  In these connections I was drawn to the stories all the more.  Yet, many others had come this way before.  What difference did it make that it was new to me?

Similarly, what difference would it make for others to walk in the paths of stories that drew me on journey?  I had found connections that opened up the novels of Jane Eyre, Little Women, To the Lighthouse and The Girl of the Limberlost, but would others also find these connections inspiring?  Ultimately, these journeys shouldn’t only be about the pilgrim’s experiences.  Through the readings and the places, the writings will get into the heart of the journeys, the wanderings, the way of the initial interactions.  But, the should also provide pathways on which readers can start their own journeys.

On an overcast March day I was wandering through the ruins of Whitby Abbey on the eastern coast of England.  A storm rolling in from the sea made the place seem even more desolate.  Over the next days I also explored Bolton and Fountains Abbeys.  These immense skeletons of stone are all that remain of church buildings that were caught in the midst of a political and religious battle.  Grand architectural monuments now decayed.  Remnants of a religious legacy that people alternately romanticize and critique.  In these places men sensed the power of God; but, also abused human power in God’s name.  Now we only have the vestiges of these buildings calling us to hear their former stories and fill them with new ones.

Though the paths and stories encountered taken in this book are not through stone ruins, they do form a scaffolding that will hold a new story, a new community.  They can provide a path for others to understand these novels through new means.  This path won’t be in a stranglehold of rules and procedures for reading, but in the telling of stories.  It’s a journey into words, outside of the chains of expectations and into the grace of living a story.

What is such a book for?  To help other people engage in pilgrimage – first vicariously, and then on their own.  To relish literature, story, these types of journeys.  To show God’s story in the midst.  It’s not just about these authors, these places, one person’s journey.  It includes the readers.  It’s about their stories and our stories interwoven.  Through the chapters we walk down a pilgrimage path exploring the liminal elements of life – on a journey to stories and at home.

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

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

Encountering a Childhood Story Again – Little Women

On the other side of the kitchen door a dining room table was set for supper and a piano stood in the corner ready for someone to play.  Later in the evening four sisters would wait in the parlor for people to attend their weekly open house.  If the oblong pillow on the black sofa was vertical, then the second oldest sister would be in a mood to talk.  Otherwise, it was better not to approach her.  Listening to the guide as I stood in the parlor at Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts, it was easy to imagine the lives of the four Alcott daughters that had inspired Louisa May Alcott to write Little Women.  I was reliving scenes I had read as an eight-year old child who desperately wanted to follow in Jo March’s footsteps – getting up plays, going to the big city, and writing.

Over thirty years ago I first read the novel, and over twenty years ago I first entered Orchard House.  Since then I’ve been exploring how stories, novels, places, and journeys come together.  It is great fun to look back at favorite stories – and to follow in their paths when possible.  Each time I’ve re-opened Little Women or re-entered Orchard House I have similar feelings of wanting to re-engage with my dreams – whether of writing, teaching, or just playing better.  I leave the house or close the book, ready to begin.

These journeys have played a role in choices related to schools, graduate study, research, and even a renewed practice of writing.  This blog can even be linked to it.  Many other women tell stories of their connection with this story.  It’s one of those books that people read expecting a merely a story about young girls.  Something you can easily return to the shelf when finished.  However, this book refuses to stay on the shelf.

Quotes like the following from Little Women keep me coming back.

“Why don’t you write?  That always used to make you happy, said her mother once, when the desponding fit overshadowed Jo.

I’ve no heart to write, and if I had, nobody cares for my things.

We do.  Write something for us, and never mind the rest of the world.  Try, dear, I’m sure it would do you good, and please us very much.”

These and similar quotes provide for me a renewed imagination of what life can be.  Writing does make me happy when other things seem to be crashing in on life – but maybe for others it’s painting or building or teaching.  Whatever it is, being able to do it within a community – whether of family or a writing group – is a true gift and an opportunity for transformation.

Now I have an opportunity to share some of my ideas about the novel, the place, and pilgrimage with another audience – a small group who will hear me read a paper at a literature conference.  I wonder how this ‘little’ paper will be received in the midst of what I perceive as cutting edge literary work.  But does it even matter?  More importantly I would like my writing to be a conduit for people to find this or other stories and places that draw them to live more fully.

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

The Writing Life – Solitary or Communal?

What a solitary journey the writing life can be.  We create alone.  Only we as individuals can put pen to paper or fingers to keys to share the ideas that are in our minds.  We need time away from everything and everyone to reach the deep waters of creativity within.  Consider the image of a writer with well-worn clothes and crumpled paper at his feet, furiously working in an empty garret.  Or, within the walls of a beach house on an island looking out at the sea, typing away on the novel that has been welling up within her for years.

But do we have to be alone?  When working on individual projects it is necessary to spend time apart from others – sometimes many hours.  However, that does not mean that we are by ourselves.  We are surrounded by many who have gone before us – authors, teachers, family, or friends.  They are part of the community that has shaped and continues to shape us.  I can’t sit down to write without feeling a sense of the joy of reading.  That little girl who loved to hear her mother read books before bed is grown, but the comfort of those stories and of the people who shared them with me continues.

Walden Pond

In addition, as I write I am in the worlds of Jane Eyre and Heidi, Walden Pond and the Bible.  Books have and continue to be an essential part of my being.  I am drawn to the words and to the characters.  Sometimes I remember the plots and settings as if I had lived them.  I can return to them intentionally.  Along with their works, authors’ lives influence me as I learn about their inspirations, practices, and trials.  They are all part of this creative community.

Then there are those who are actively part of my writing today: teachers, writing groups, readers of blogs.  We sharpen each other’s art as we see how ideas play among a group.  To be honest, I’ve been reluctant to engage with such a community.  It’s safe to keep writing for myself and only dream about sending it into the world.  However, I’m more and more aware that writing is not only about putting words on a page in solitude.  It is also about engaging others with those words – and engaging with the words of others. The small writing group I’m involved with keeps me honest, provides thoughtful encouragement, and keeps me writing.  Through this blog I’m learning that there may be even more who are part of this community and who can hone this work.

Ultimately, that lone artist image isn’t so ideal or even true.  Writing and other creative endeavors do not need to be solitary practices. Why should they be?  The ultimate creator – God – created the earth in community as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and continues to even involve his ultimate creation, humanity, in this project.

Categories: Writing | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Piloting

Mississippi River

Lately I’ve been following Mark Twain down the river in the book Life on the Mississippi.  So far it’s not so much an adventure as a lesson in riverboat piloting, though Twain does introduce some great characters along the way.  I am struck by his comment that once a pilot learns every inch of the river – the placement of the bends, the height of the banks, the location of plantations – and how they will change as the course and flow of the river moves, he loses sight of the river’s glories: “All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river!” (95).  As a steamboat pilot in training, Twain’s place of dreams had become his office.  A note of sadness echoes through his words.

Even so, through his increased knowledge, Twain was able to relate his experience to his readers more fully and in a way that takes us with him on the journey, not merely paints a general image of the beauty he sees.  With this knowledge he tells of  “the alluvial banks [that] cave and change constantly, whose snags are always hunting up new quarters, whose sand-bars are never at rest” (97).    This path from pursuing a dream to learning the usefulness of the associated trade is a path many must take to grow.  Remaining at the awe-filled stage of wonder might provide an impetus to follow one’s dream. Who would ever become a doctor if the first thing they experienced was the grind of medical school?  However, some of that initial awe must be converted to actual work in the muck before any use can come of it.

Those initial images and passion may draw us to a new story, just as the river drew Twain.  And if we’re honest, the reality of what it takes to know that story more deeply does change our original understandings, often removing some of the sparkle as we see the under-workings.  But if we look well, we also see new riches.  I have often feared that if I know too much about a subject, it will lose its attraction.  This was the argument I had for not studying literature in college.  Professors would ruin the stories I loved and I wanted to hold onto the feelings of my first readings.  Yet, when I finally entered a literature class, theories of reading and interpretation did not destroy my interest, they provided a deeper understanding.  Furthermore, I gained a language to talk about what I was reading with others. Yes, some of the joy of just sitting down with a book without constantly thinking about it from a critical stance was gone.  But, I had gained a larger community.

So, in the spirit of Mark Twain, I would encourage you to go into piloting.  Learn the course of the river you are on and share it with others.

Twain, Mark.  Life on the Mississippi.  New York: Penguin Classics, 1986.

Categories: Journey Living, Readings | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: