On Reading Deeply

The speed at which we do life (and isn’t that the strangest expression? “Doing life” in exchange for “living”) has increased so significantly and rapidly that we are only now beginning to see its effect upon the human soul. We live in a world that moves at a quick pace, that values productivity to the detriment of quality. We are a culture offended by waiting, by silence, by intimacy, and rest. The irony is that in all of that hustle, a significant amount of time is wasted; the mind is so scattered by multitasking it takes much longer to get work of value completed. I do my best to push against this in my own life, and in my home. We cut a lot of things that are fillers- by that, I mean things that tend to fill any and every empty space- such as TV or social media. Instead we read, I write, I sit and think, we play outside. But even in this, productivity as the ultimate pursuit trickled in. Rather than reading for pleasure, I came to read for information (not a bad thing) or for completion (enter the Goodreads Reading Challenge.) As soon as a book was closed, I was on to the next, like catch-and-release reading. But the absence of reflection robs the book/article/essay of having its effect upon the reader. At times, the language was so beautiful or the thought so provoking, it beckoned me to sit with it a while. But I was too hasty, and lost the full depth of the experience.

Speed of living inherently reduces quality of life, with little regard for the activity. To feel this physically, set a timer for one minute. During that minute, take rapid shallow breaths. When the minute is up, take a few slow deep breaths. The body is finally getting what it needs. In both cases you are breathing, but what a difference breathing deeply makes! Though in that minute you are working hard to bring oxygen to all the parts of your body, it does not satisfy. That frenetic feeling you get near the end of the minute is the same thing that happens under the surface of a perpetually busy life.

I knew if I wanted to read well rather than read much, I was going to have to make some major changes, and they would begin by slowing down. I came across the centuries old practice of commonplacing, or keeping a commonplace book. With the glut of information available due to the printing press, people used commonplace books as a filter for the overload, allowing the drossy information to fade away while saving the gold. Every commonplace book varied according to the life and personality of its author, but in general, it was a catch-all of information they wanted to keep: to store away for later use or to commit to memory, such as quotes, equations, speeches, recipes, poems, observations, etc. Studies show that writing things down helps to lodge information in the long-term memory, rather than the short-term. Commonplacing, then, is the practice of taking what is beautiful and worthy and letting it become a part of yourself. Then the commonplace book becomes the history of your intellectual (and even spiritual) development; an autobiography of sorts.

The most wonderful and yet difficult aspect of commonplacing is that there are no set rules. The book is whatever you make of it. And here, too, productivity can rear its ugly head and sap all the goodness from this habit. With both these things in mind, here are a few tips and examples to guide you so that joy and depth remain at the center of your activity, should you choose to begin your own commonplace book:

1. Begin with the end in mind.

Intentionality separates the commonplace book from other kinds of journaling, which are primarily reactive. A commonplace book should be thoughtfully proactive. Think of yourself as a curator. What do you want filling the walls of your mind? This not only helps you to know what to put into your commonplace book, but it works before that in guiding you in what to read. After all, your commonplace book is only as insightful as the snippets you put into it. Here’s what that looks like for me: I aim to keep my book focused on displaying the very best of what I come into contact with. I want it to be a place where I interact with what I am reading by writing responses to what I read. Finally, I intend for it to be a tool of growth, which means that while I do not love everything I read, I do not use my commonplace book as a means of criticizing works. I do, however, include passages that are thought provoking that I may disagree with. My response to them though is one of wondering out loud. In other words, my commonplace book is a place of testing; one of perpetual inquiry- and sometimes discovery- rather than final solution.

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You can see here that I don’t respond to every passage. It’s important not to set up rules for yourself that force you to do more than you need. It is fine, here, to let your interests and desire direct you. These excerpts are from Simone Weil, and they were particularly challenging because many of her ideas were strange to me, yet worthy of consideration. I do not feel the need to boundary my commonplace book with only information I whole-heartedly adhere to. This is a place to wrestle.


2. Let things sit first.

Don’t commonplace as you go. Read something in its entirety, underlining and making notes in the margins as you read. When you’re done, leave it to sit with you for at least a  week. Do not move on to reading something else during this time, though it will be tempting. Your mind will continue coming back to certain parts and you will have an idea of what had the greatest influence on you. This allows you to return to it with a holistic perspective and you’ll be able to filter through what to keep more easily.

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With this book (Karen Swallow Prior’s Fierce Convictions) there were several lengthy passages I had highlighted. By finishing the book and letting it sit, I was able to look back to see that many covered the same topic. I could then pick the one that best expressed what I wanted to remember or consider. Waiting also gives you the opportunity to have a response to what you’ve read. The first question of my response was initially jotted in the margin and then developed more in the following week’s reflection.

3. Use pen and paper. 

Of course it would be easier to make this digital. This is not a practice in what is easy but in what is lasting. Cut/paste will not make the information lodge in your long-term memory. It also doesn’t act as a filter. Knowing each passage is hand written will prompt you to really consider whether it’s worth it or not. Many people also think that writing it out with your own hand allows you to feel the rhythm and flow of good writing. It is slow and methodical, giving you the chance to notice every word in its place, to meditate on the details, and come away with a deeper understanding of what is being expressed and how it is imparted effectively. Using pen and paper also elevates the value of the information. If you have the means, choosing a high quality journal and making the pages as beautiful as you can through neat penmanship and attractive title pages convey the value you place on what is enclosed. (My favorite so far is the Confidant by Baron Fig.)

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I give the titles their own page, which more clearly separates one reading from another, gives credit to the author, provides some context, and corresponds with the Table of Contents.

4. Utilize a system of organization.

You can be as minimal or tedious in this as you choose. I knew that if I used a very complex and thorough system, it would bog me down too much. I may find that later on I can begin incorporating more to archive the passages, but as it is now, I use a Table of Contents at the beginning of my book and I use two different colored pens: black for quoted passages, and blue for my own responses. You don’t have to tag everything, have a detailed index at the back, or have a digital database it all gets sorted into if you don’t want. (Though if this is how you roll, there are plenty of methods you could research by googling “how to organize a commonplace book.”) No matter what method you use, it ought to include numbering your pages. Some people find blank pages or dot grids more helpful than lined pages, especially if you will be including charts and graphs or you are one who responds visually rather than verbally.

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Quoted passages are in black with my responses in blue. This allows me to more quickly find what I’m looking for and removes confusion about who the writer is.

I hope this is helpful to you. I have only been commonplacing for a few months, but it has made such a difference in the way I have interacted with my reading, making connections between different authors and subjects, and in the cultivation of new ideas. I will often be responding to a passage from a book I read and will look back later and think There’s an essay here. For writers especially, commonplacing is that bridge between the reader and the writer within you. If you know me in real life, I’d love to help you get started. If not, and you have more questions or you already commonplace and want to share about it, send me a comment. I’d love to hear from you.

Ron Mueck at the Modern

Years ago, while going through the permanent collection at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, I came across a miniature of an elderly woman. Her hands were clasped, her back hunched as she sat, weariness marking the lines around her eyes which were tinted a dark pink at the edges. She took my breath away. Had she been rationally sized, I would have mistaken her for a real woman, so lifelike was everything about her, from the complexion of her skin, to the wrinkles, the grey hair, the expression of her face. I loved her, and had I been able to place my hand over hers, I would have done so, and whispered hope into her ear, for despondency was chiseled in all her features.

BN-XT456_MUECK0_1000V_20180306173549Untitled (Seated Woman), 1999

On February 16, the Modern opened its second exhibit by the fantastic Ron Mueck, whose sculptures are realistic in every way except in scale. Born in Australia, but residing in London, Mueck’s career began as a puppeteer for children’s television shows, such as Sesame Street. By the mid 90’s he was transitioning to fine art. He is incredible, not only for his realistic detail, but for his ability to convey emotion and thought in subtle ways. Take, for instance, this larger-than-life couple at the beach:

Ron-Mueck-Fondation-Cartier-photo-Thomas-Salva-yatzer-12Couple Under An Umbrella, 2013

So much is expressed by the way he held her arm- in an affectionate, familiar, and leisurely way- as if after all the years, it was his nature to reach for her, rest on her. And yet, this resting he does on her points to another of the subtleties of this exhibit, which includes six sculptures completed over the last ten years. Five of the six consist of human subjects: two male, two female, and this couple. I couldn’t help but notice the antithetical activities between the sexes: work/leisure; struggle/enjoyment.

Notice the disparity between these two figures:

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Woman with Shopping, 2013

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Drift, 2009

One feels the weight she carries between bags and baby, while he floats, buoyant on the water. Her hands are full while his, adorned and empty, rest at his side. Even the weather surrounding them seems a signal to the radical differences in their environments. She is dressed against the cold, bundled and pale. He is slick and tan and enjoys a cloudless sun.

The next figures also pair together in my mind, possibly because they are both nude and holding sticks:

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main_1200Woman with Sticks, 2009

Ron Mueck 07Poke, 2017

While she is carrying a load, burdened by the back-breaking work, he holds a singular pole, fashioned himself, for an unknown purpose. However, looking at the title, one can assume it is for a laugh, for pure enjoyment.

All of this is speculation; Mueck is silent, allowing his art to speak for him. After seeing the marvelous woman bent backwards, I wanted to know the title. What more could Mueck tell me about this woman? Why did he make her? What is he trying to say through her? I found the placard and it simply stated the obvious: Woman with Sticks. The next figure was the same: Woman with Shopping. He says nothing more, but the women themselves disclose enough. After viewing the man in the pool, I expected to find the title similar, perhaps “Man with Float.” Instead, Mueck wrote something entirely different- Drift– and leaves the interpretation up to us. He does the same with the other man. Rather than “Man with Pole,” we see the title Poke.

In addition to the six statues, (of which four are miniature and two on a grand scale) there is a video of Ron Mueck at work. Like his figures, it is silent for the most part, and yet it proclaims persistent toil as he gives all of himself over to these masterpieces, most of which take over a year to complete. He is fully concentrated, deep in thought, in a world all his own as he forms these characters he knows in the profound way only a creator does. I left in awe, grateful for Mueck’s ten years of dedication to his craft, invigorated by the myriad of ways to communicate and the intrinsic value of art for its ability to touch the soul of a person and make them better for it.

This exhibit is on display until May 6, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. See it before it’s gone. P.S. Sundays are free, so bring the whole family! (Note: exhibit does contain nudity. Use your best judgment.)

The Civic Society

I have been introduced to James Baldwin this year and I find him to be such a compelling voice, both in his time, and surprisingly, now: both within me and within the culture I live in; a culture seeming to carry around remnants of past sins as it plunges into a future of unprecedented darkness. This is not what I mean to write about, but I think part of me needed to say those words, make them concrete, see them in black against a white screen. Now I have, and a space that was occupied with tension inside me is eased slightly and I can move on to what I mean to write about. Baldwin writes:

Any writer, I suppose, feels that the world into which he was born is nothing less than a conspiracy against the cultivation of his talent- which attitude certainly has a great deal to support it. On the other hand, it is only because the world looks on his talent with such a frightening indifference that the artist is compelled to make his talent important.

As I have begun writing this past year (I think I will always say that I have just begun it) I have noticed some interesting and perplexing effects. The one I anticipated was isolation. To read and to write are occupations of retreat, though I suppose it depends on what type of writing and reading it is. But for the most part, the reader retreats into the mind of the writer, either to the writer’s thoughts or to a world within the writer’s mind. The writer does the same. In writing, he retreats into his own mind. Even if the writing is nonfiction, even autobiographical, the writer leaves the world of reality to enter only his own reality. At this point, two lives are being led: the extrinsic and the intrinsic. Moving between one and the other is one of the hardest things for me to do; maintain a life of balance. John Steinbeck wrote his friend and editor, Pascal Covici, about this very thing as he was writing one of my favorite books, East of Eden:

When I work on a book to this extent and with this concentration, it means that I am living another life. As it goes along, increasingly I give to the second life more than to the first. Then I must be very hard to live with in real life, not because I am mean but because I am vague. Things ordinarily done are forgotten. My expression must be one of fogged stupidity- my responses slow.

I believe this is why I stopped writing when I had children and why I was so resistant to taking up the pen again some years later, which I wrote about in an earlier post. Soon after I started writing, I noticed how my body interacted with the real world around me- doing dishes, giving a bath, having dinner with my family- while my mind was still in retreat. All of a sudden, having everyday conversations when I picked my daughter up from school became a difficulty. In fact, engaging with others in general became something that required intentionality and anomalous effort.

What I wanted to do was blend the two lives; bring my inner life out into the open. I quickly found that the outside world was not in a place to receive my second life. When asked the question, “What’s new with you?” I would answer with opening the door to the inner life of my mind, by talking about what I was reading or what I was trying to write. This was mostly met with a concentrated brow of confusion or encouraging nods as the other person pretended to actively listen as they occupied themselves with other things. Either way, the conversation was ended, usually awkwardly. I cast no blame in this- they just didn’t know how to respond. After a while, I closed the door, answered “Nothing really,” and the gulf that separates those two worlds grew larger.

For a whole year I continued in this, relying heavily on one or two friends to bridge that gap. The evidence of my life has proven to me time and again that despite being introverted, I require community. I have an innate hunger to interact with others. The connection between author and reader via text is a treasure to me, but it is surpassed by the interaction between author, reader, and other readers. The discourse that follows from that group collectively takes the text further than any one of the individuals can carry it. This is why book clubs abound. We are a people hard-wired for community. Our joy in reading something reaches its height when we praise it to the point that someone else reads it and returns to us praising it as well. Pleasure leads to worship which culminates in corporate worship. (Look to sports fans and one will see this clearly.)

The world seems to be growing more and more “frighteningly indifferent” to the arts, but I am young and have a history of only thirty-four years. In my naivety I can assume rarity in our culture that is no stranger to the past. The pendulum always swings. But as Balwin notes, the very indifference of the many raise the passion of the few. I began my search for “the few” and have found some of them. I am a member of the Fort Worth Women’s Chapter of the The Civic Society and have joined a writers group with Art House Dallas. In my time with these two groups, I have been gifted with encouragement and fellowship. At these meetings I am galvanized by the ideas of others and valued for the work I do. The door between my two lives is left open and the people, and I, walk back and forth.

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The next Civic Society meeting is Saturday, February 17, and we will be discussing George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language.” If you are interested in joining me there, send me a message.

The Art that Pours In

Everyone gets asked the question: What is your favorite album of all time? And we always want to set some parameters- am I stranded on a desert island? Is it all I can listen to for the rest of my life? Because even the best can get old.

But I recently listened to an album the other day- my answer to the question- and realized that unlike most music I was obsessed with in my teenage years, this one has lasted through decades. I think, in fact, that if I had come across this music at any point in my life, I would have loved it, because it touches somewhere deep inside. This one doesn’t just connect me to one time in my life: it transcends people, place, and circumstance to continue to speak to me where I am. It spoke to me then; it speaks more to me now. The words are poetry. I learn something new every time I sing, and when it’s over, I’ve been seen and felt and understood. I have experienced connection, the foundational goal of art.

As a writer, I believe beauty has to be discovered before it can be created. We are not God. We don’t create something out of nothing. We discover something, and create something else. We require inspiration. This is why writers are readers. This album, along with countless others, but this album in particular, inspires me to create. I fill in the gaps of each song with a story, and then another, and another, because they give me the freedom to. The lyrics paint pictures enticing me to paint more:

When I think of heaven
deliver me in a black-winged bird
I think of dying
Lay me down in a field of flame and heather
Render up my body into the burning heart of God
in the belly of a black-winged bird

And this particular album is a two-disc live album in which the songs that are repeated vary significantly from one disc to the other. Our art is always shifting, and I am reminded when I hear these double versions, that my writing is never dead. I have watched, this semester in particular, the evolution of my work, and taken joy in its different facets. Revision can be a burden, but it is also freeing to know that there is no final destination in which the words cease to grow. We are, my words and me, never arriving. That is a humble and good place to be.

This album encourages the artist in me and the humanity. It sings me Beauty….enjoy.

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(Click the album to hear it for free on Spotify.)

The Kitchen Table Collective

I am flirting with the idea of going back to school. I love being a student and plan to be one for the rest of my life. There are so many things we take for granted while in college, because we’re too young to appreciate them: living in a well manicured garden, the library, the time to dive deep. But the greatest thing I took for granted was having professors. No matter where I live, however beautiful my surroundings or substantial the archives, I will not come into daily contact with experts in their field who are committed to teaching me what I do not know. And for the next few decades, I will not have the time I once had to sink into the material.

I make up for it in books, as best as I can. So when my friend Sarah approached me about  creating self-directed assignments and having checkpoints we could keep each other accountable with, I got really excited. We create two assignments for ourselves, one centering on something we are currently passionate about. Creativity can take you off on tangents, and we want to go with it when it does. The second assignment centers on something that is challenging to us. The third assignment we create for each other. It centers on an area of conviction. We know one another well and can spot things that are a bit off or that could be really fantastic if considered. This is a kind way for us to sharpen one another by saying, “Here is something I see. Dig in and get to the bottom of it. I am rooting for you.”

This is our first semester, and I am already seeing such fruit from this work. My assignments involve Theodore Roosevelt, letter writing from different voices and periods of time, assembling a group of people to critique selected poems and revising them accordingly, and journaling several times as I write a poem about a theology I believe with great difficulty. Both my challenge and conviction assignments have me well outside of comfort: asking people for help, deep vulnerability as I wrestle with a belief, and receiving good criticism of my work and pushing myself to make it better. My passion assignment rightly has me obsessed, curious, and imaginative. I am learning with each one and enjoying every moment of it.

My kitchen table is one of the few pieces of furniture in the house that I got just as I wanted it. A custom order- round, gray, simple yet varied. It is a place I gather with others, a place I find nourishment, a place where I’m pushed to my limit. It’s a place where ideas are begun, questions are asked, a place where people process their lives together. So Sarah’s name for our little enterprise, “The Kitchen Table Collective,” fit perfectly. If you live here in Fort Worth, send me a message and join us next semester. If you don’t and you want something like this, sit down at your own kitchen table, gather your people, and start a collective of your own. There are no professors here (I wish there were!), but we make the most of it. A mind is always better with another.

Music that Moves

I have three little girls. Two of them are extremely high-energy. (Read that how you want. It’s probably true.) And two of them love music. We try to use every part of life to teach them about the Lord, and music is an easy one. The Austin Stone will always hold a dear place in my heart. It was there for us when we desperately needed it. My mom gifted me their new kids’ album and we all love it. All of us. Their website has each of the songs available to listen to for free, or you can get it on iTunes or Amazon. For weeks now we have been belting out these songs with fists in the air, or hands clapping, bouncing in the seats of the car. It has been joy, joy, joy! Then I found that each song has an accompanying dance video! This morning we stretched, got it up on the big screen, and danced through the entire album! We talked about how this is one way we can worship God in truth with our voices, our bodies, and our minds. Every part of us participating in the glorifying of God. The kids had a blast. And so did I. Give it a try!

 

Besides the free content on The Austin Stone’s website, there are other great resources available like chord charts, the theology behind each song, and a family worship guide to go along with the album.

[I’ve written before about how we’ve used Dana Dirksen’s music to teach theological truth to the kids. Questions with Answers: Volumes 1-3 have been family transforming. The Village Church’s kids albums have also been huge in shaping their understanding of the Lord, both at home, and of course, along with the lessons at church. I would highly recommend them both to you!]

Missy Higgins: Forgive Me

Missy is one of my favorite songwriters. A gifted storyteller, she blends word and sound to create a beautiful and moving impression. She can excite me to action, rest me to sleep, or as in this song, kneel me down. It brings goosebumps and tears.