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 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.

The Vanishing American Adult

51etAA6pA1L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_My husband and I listened to this at the urging of a good friend as we drove to Colorado this summer. I was really interested in the topic: the cultural development of unending adolescence. I was nervous it would be too political- I don’t have the patience for that. What I was not expecting was the history and philosophy that would be entwined throughout the book. Had I been reading it and not listening to the audiobook, had I not been listening to Ben’s own voice, I could have forgotten he was a senator. He wrote as a historian, as a Christian parent, as a former university president. Those were the perspectives he wrote from, and I found so much of what he had to say as valid and absolutely necessary. As we drove, this book was fuel for a lot of engaging- and sometimes robust- dialogue between me and Hubs in the car.

It’s greatest downfall (besides the hypothetical commencement speech by Theodore Roosevelt) was the practical application of his points. I loved hearing the stories of how his family was instilling work ethic and raising their kids to be full functioning citizens benefitting the world around them. But his situation is different from most, and a lot of what he said wasn’t transferable from his life to mine. My kids aren’t homeschooled. I can’t pull them from school for a few months to send them to a cattle ranch. My husband has a Monday – Friday job he has to be at. We don’t live it multiple locations nor do we have the opportunity to do most of the things his family has the opportunity to do.

So it was one of those books that sets you ablaze, winding you up so that you can spring into action, but once you close the back cover and start thinking about how you are going to shake things up…a bit of frustration and disappointment sets in. Ben, we are working on it. Already, we are doing things differently and our kids are responding, and we are thrilled. And we will keep working on it- you gave us the holistic picture we needed, both of the grim result if we don’t, and the thriving end if we do.