Monday, August 13, 2012

this is why you should keep your closets full of secrets

I found my old prayer journal yesterday. Over the weekend I did much cleaning and culling and throwing away. While moving things around to fit more and different things into my closet, I found an old, beat-up, red, spiral-bound notebook. I thought, when I picked it up, that it was my high school poetry. That, it seems, must have been purged long ago. These were high school prayers. 

What a revelation those prayers were! It isn't the case that anger is a new struggle for me: it turns out that I have been struggling with anger for much longer than I remembered. It may be that I have always been quick to feel offended. That I was crazy about boys, however, was not at all a surprise. 

I am relieved to have found compassionate tendencies in that journal. And I am relieved to have learned that I thought much about and struggled greatly with questions about how to be a good friend. This is something I think about a lot these days and I thought that this might be a new concern. It isn't the case that I used to practice friendship with ease and fluency that I have since mysteriously lost. Instead, I found that it was hard for me then to know how much or little to say; when to offer advice and opinions and when to hold back; how much to share with friends and how to ask for help. This makes me feel a lot better now. 

I was happy to recognize myself in many parts of that journal. What surprises me a little is that it feels as though I am meeting myself again. That is, I see now and lately that I feel very angry more often than I would like. In high school I was also aware of my anger. But it seems to me is that there were years in between then and now during which I did not think of myself as angry. The same is true about my concerns regarding friendship. I am aware that other people have needs and boundaries and differences that I can't always see and I am aware of my tendency to hold back, assuming that others don't need or want my advice or opinions or perspective. And I was aware, at least to some extent of that back in high school. There seems to be more coincidence between my current self and the self I found in that journal than I expected and there seems (though I may be wrong in this) to be more coincidence of selves than there was a few years ago. 

What feels alien to me now, of course, is the intense longing for God. I've wondered if I had manufactured (somehow) that desire back then. I don't think I did. I think it was genuine. But I can't imagine being that passionately identified with anything in any way like that at all. 

I am left wondering, then, whether I have been broken or fixed. Or neither. Perhaps just different.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Lately I have been afraid to read. When I say that fear hasn't kept me from reading, you should not cheer me on: I can read the following with ease: 
  1. facebook status messages
  2. blogs
  3. in particular, food blogs
  4. self-help books
  5. magazines (the shorter the article, the better: I've even been avoiding the real articles)
  6. the Ikea catalog
  7. Etsy
There are many, many things I honestly want to read. There's that book on Kant's moral philosophy that I started. I enjoyed reading it (the 20 or so pages I accomplished) but have not returned to it. I started War and Peace one night. A bookmark about 15 pages in is all I have to show for it. I have several books on my shelf (free! I have them!) about fiction and literature. These would help me in my dissertation work. I might not even have to take notes on them. And their spines and covers are perfect, without a single crease or bend. I loved The Golden Bowl and I have two copies of The Ambassadors. Haven't started. And then, of course, there is the poetry into which I can't bring myself to journey; I run my mind lightly over their surfaces instead of plunging into their depths.

I just can't bring myself to do it. I am not even entirely sure what it is that I am afraid of. Unless it is that I am afraid to learn and know more than I do. I am at a stage of writing now where I am better able to see the holes in my work. I am also at a stage where I must prepare (much and quickly) to obtain a job, and I see the holes in my professional development. The reading I want to do and must do would certainly help to fill those holes. 

And that, I find, makes me very, very nervous. I see that I have used "I don't know that" and "my background is not very good" and "oh, but I'm not very well-informed about that" as excuses. I have used such excuses to keep myself from becoming competent. That way, when I fail, I can say "well, I didn't know X or Y or Z" even though I could have taken it upon myself to learn them. 

I am afraid, it seems, of being an academic. Of having any authority. Of pushing myself to work (sometimes) at my own limits. If I did that--if I explored and expanded my limits--I'd have to learn to tell new stories about myself. I'd have to develop stories about growth and accomplishment and achievement. And that is why I just cannot, these days, bring myself to read.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Things about which I care much less than previously:

1. Whether my skin stays matte all day
2. The fineness of my hair
3. Having perfectly groomed eyebrows
4. Visible pores
5. The paleness of my legs
6. Being considered "trendy" or "fashionable"
7. Not having a perfectly flat stomach

there are probably non-physical/non-vanity-related things about which I care less now than I did but I cannot think of any now. I am a bit embarrassed when I think of all the time I spent fretting over all the imperfections and flaws that I now see as features that reveal me to be a particular and real person. 

This seems to be part of a larger trend of letting go (which is, nevertheless, very hard!): as I cull my closets and my bookmarks and my blogroll; as I stick closer and closer to my budget and so shop and browse and desire less; as I let my magazine subscriptions go and as I think more carefully about the value of the books I read and the movies I watch—in all these things I am making space, both mentally and emotionally. 

So far I am not making good "use" of this space: I stay in bed too late (and go to bed too early). I still check up on blogs I have decided I no longer need to follow. I still waste time trying to decide the "best" way to make use of my time. I spend far too much time on facebook. 

Nevertheless, it seems that change is possible. And slow. And without grand signs from above. 

Saturday, August 4, 2012

in which it appears I am breaking a little in a very good way

I remember a time when I had what I would later refer to as disciples. These were women (now; we were all girls then) a year or two younger than I was who would sometimes ask me to pray with them, who asked me questions about God and faith and discipleship, and who believed I had insight, if not answers.

I certainly thought I had answers. Never since then have I tasted the ambrosia of certainty. I no longer know the flavor. Indeed, I have spent the last many years running away from anything that smelled of even a cheap imitation of that intoxicating illusion. I can, if I like, connect my discomfort with such things as opinions and preferences and decisions with my fear that I will believe too strongly in them--that I will take them for Real and for Right and forget to respect both the trivial nature of my preferences and the viability of other peoples differing preferences.

I am reading a memoir now. Surprised by God by Danya Ruttenberg. It is a terribly difficult book for me to read. The prose is lovely and the rigor is refreshing. It stirs so many things up and I don't know how I will come to respond to the book as a whole or to the way it reframes questions and problems and ideas around which my mind already circles.

She quotes religion scholar James Carse on page 160. In this quote, he describes what a great [spiritual] teacher is and does: a great teacher is unobtrusive. She clears the path so that the student can approach the source/thing/teaching/truth and the student comes away alive with her own thoughts ringing in her head, not the words the teacher spoke. The great teacher makes it possible for the student to experience something deeper than the particular words used to clear and reveal the (or a) path.

My very first thought, after I read those words (just a few minutes ago, really), was that I had no business posturing as any kind of teacher all those years ago. I have had many occasions to regret and to repent, after a fashion, having done so. I have just learned a new lesson in how very wrong I was. Just a little below the bit I paraphrased, she quotes a 17th century Benedictine monk about what spiritual direction is: "[A spiritual] director is not to each his own way,... but to instruct his disciples how they may themselves find out the way proper for them ... he is only God's usher, and must lead souls in God's way and not his own." I only knew my way and only affirmed and held up my way. I didn't know other ways and the possibility of other ways frightened me. In my narrowness, I hurt people who were trying to discover for themselves "the way proper for them."

I am humbled and sad because I have a new way to understand the harm I did previously. I am gladdened, though, when I think of how I have come to value, without being quite aware of it, standing aside so others can learn things in ways proper for them. I am now taking this from a strictly religious context into a broader one, but the gladness and humility both still hold. I had the opportunity to learn two new skills this summer: I taught my very first class and I indexed a book for the very first time. I did these two new things simultaneously and, although this increased the pressure for a few weeks, I got to learn the same lesson from two otherwise unrelated experiences. In my class, the point wasn't to demonstrate to my students how well I could read the texts. I wasn't there to dazzle them with my brilliance, wit, incisive commentary, original interpretations, or mountains of scholarship or research. The purpose of my being there was to clear the path so that they could approach the texts and the ideas and meanings within in a way that would do justice to the discipline, the texts, their contexts, and also to the students' situations and abilities. Nothing in the class was about me or my abilities. My goal was to step aside so that my students could learn the material I taught and not just remember what I said about the material I taught. With the index I learned a very similar lesson. The index was not a text of how well I read the book. I learned a lot from the book and found it very interesting. But that wasn't the point. The point was to make it possible for other readers to find their way into the text and to learn from it according to their needs and situations.

My students did, of course, spend much more time than I would have liked trying to attend to the exact words I used and trying to reproduce them in their papers and exams. And the index, being my first, probably reflects more about me as a reader of that book than I hope future indexes will. Nevertheless, I can see now--right now--that I have finally taken to heart a lesson I didn't know, twelve years ago, that I needed to learn. I can now see, and really, deeply understand, the value in stepping aside and being an usher for others to approach something bigger than I am, whether that bigness is philosophy or God. It no longer needs to be about me and it no longer needs to be done in just my way. I still get in my own way. I still have a difficult time being flexible or being able to richly imagine the many ways other people see and feel and experience and need things. Nevertheless, I am encouraged that a part of my person that was harmful to others has broken a bit and shifted to a smaller corner, even if it might never quite be shaken out of me. For now that can be enough.