Reading Your Way Through Life: Still More Responses

by Matthew Sitman

Readers continue to tell us about the writing that’s meant the most to them along life’s way. One nodded along with my description of Marilynne Robinson’s prose:

I had to smile at your explanation of why you reread Gilead, “just to immerse myselfGilead in the rhythms of its prose.” That is exactly why I regularly reach for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. I often feel embarrassed that sometimes I don’t take much meaning from the words themselves; but there’s a certain zen to be found just in their tempo and cadence, and that’s what brings me back each time. I’ve always likened it to riding a wave. As I start in on a particular Tale, for a page or two it’s like swimming out to the crest of that wave. And then if I’m lucky, if I’m able to really let myself be pulled in, I can get up on that wave and ride it for awhile. Its exhilarating on a spiritual level to allow my mind to go on that journey, free of distraction. Also, it’s marvelous that the words a man wrote so many centuries ago can take me there.

Another reader finds a beautiful passage amidst the rather dry confines of academic philosophy:

This isn’t a passage from a novel, or a poem, but almost reads like one. The last lines of John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice. I read the book many years ago, but the passage has acquired new meaning for meA Theory Of Justice after I became very involved in climate activism. I don’t know why I find it so touching and calming, or why I know it by heart and occasionally find myself reciting it.

“The perspective of eternity is not a perspective from a certain place beyond the world, nor the point of view of a transcendent being; rather it is a certain form of thought and feeling that rational persons can adopt within the world. And having done so, they can, whatever their generation, bring together into one scheme all individual perspectives and arrive together at regulative principles that can be affirmed by everyone as he lives by them, each from his own standpoint. Purity of heart, if one could attain it, would be to see clearly and to act with grace and self-command from this point of view.”

This reader points to a memorable poem from Milton:

One poem that stayed with me 11 years after finishing high school is John Milton’s Sonnet 23: Methought I Saw, written after his wife’s death during childbirth, and all the more poignant as he had been blind when they married. The passage:

Mine, as whom wash’d from spot of child-bed taint
Purification in the old Law did save,
And such as yet once more I trust to have
Full sight of her in Heaven without restraint,
Came vested all in white, pure as her mind;
Her face was veil’d, yet to my fancied sight
Love, sweetness, goodness, in her person shin’d
So clear as in no face with more delight.
But Oh! as to embrace me she inclin’d,
I wak’d, she fled, and day brought back my night.

Another reader finds these religious poems remain a consolation:

I would like to offer Naked Song by Lalla (translated by Coleman Barks). Lalla was a 14th century kashmiri mystic poet. These poems are beautifully written, and express an element of the divine that can be found in Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism or Islam, or any other religion. They were an incredible solace to me when I was young and struggling with my identity and faith.


I traveled a long way seeking God,
but when I finally gave up and turned back,
there He was, within me!

O Lalli!
Now why do you wander
like a beggar?
Make some effort,
and He will grant you
a vision of Himself
in the form of bliss
in your heart.


Dying and giving birth go on
inside the one consciousness,
but most people misunderstand

the pure play of creative energy,
how inside that, those
are one event.


To learn the scriptures is easy,
to live them, hard.
The search for the Real
is no simple matter.

Deep in my looking,
the last words vanished.
Joyous and silent,
the waking that met me there.

Another reader writes:

Little, Big by John Crowley.  A multi-generational epic of magic realism, rendered in prose that feels both totally immediate and totally timeless.  It’s not super well known, but it is still in print, and a great work of American fiction.

Another reader can’t get enough of this ode to wearing shorts:

I feel like I could give you so many selections, but I’ll limit it to just one poem. It is easily my favorite poem, and sometimes I feel like it was written just for me. It’s called “The Dream of Wearing Shorts Forever,” by Les Murray. He takes such a relaxed, casual garment, and turns it into the sublime.

To go home and wear shorts forever
in the enormous paddocks, in that warm climate,
adding a sweater when winter soaks the grass,

to camp out along the river bends
for good, wearing shorts, with a pocketknife,
a fishing line and matches,

or there where the hills are all down, below the plain,
to sit around in shorts at evening
on the plank verandah –

I can’t select just one part…

shorts and their plain like
are an angelic nudity,
spirituality with pockets!
A double updraft as you drop from branch to pool!

Ideal for getting served last
in shops of the temperate zone
they are also ideal for going home, into space,
into time, to farm the mind’s Sabine acres
for product and subsistence.

Now that everyone who yearned to wear long pants
has essentially achieved them,
long pants, which have themselves been underwear
repeatedly, and underground more than once,
it is time perhaps to cherish the culture of shorts

I re-read it regularly, and it gets better every time I read it. You can read the full poem at the Australian Poetry Library here.

Another poetry-loving reader writes:

This love poem by e.e. cummings (1894-1962) never fails to haunt – one knows this is what he lived:Somewhere I Have Never Travelled

somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
any experience, your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully, mysteriously) her first rose

or if your wish be to close me, i and
my life will shut very beautifully, suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility whose texture
compels me with the colour of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens; only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands

And one more poem:

When I was 17, this poem by Carl Sandburg helped me through a difficult time (leaving behind my best friends and my first love); it also inaugurated my love for poetry. Its effect for me has something to do with the way it begins so gently and ends on a note of defiance:

Yellow dust on a bumble
bee’s wing,
Grey lights in a woman’s
asking eyes,
Red ruins in the changing
sunset embers:
I take you and pile high
the memories.
Death will break her claws
on some I keep.

You can read the entire thread, including previous reader selections, here.

Where Have You Gone, Reinhold Niebuhr?

by Matthew Sitman

Oh how I remember those heady days when everyone was writing about and discussing Reinhold Niebuhr, the American theologian famous for books like The Nature and Destiny of Man and The Irony of American History, the preacher who taught us how to think about the Cold War. As a graduate student immersed in Niebuhr’s work around this time – the “Niebuhr moment” probably peaked in 2007 or 2008, but his specter loomed over many of the arguments about the invasion and occupation of Iraq – I had the rare pleasure of feeling like my labors in the stacks really connected to contemporary debates. For once, a preoccupation with theology was cool. In his 2007 Atlantic essay, “A Man for All Reasons,” Paul Eli aptly summarized the Niebuhr-love that seemed to be everywhere:

[T]he Niebuhr revival has been perplexing, even bizarre, as people with profoundly divergent views of the war have all claimed Niebuhr as their precursor: bellicose neoconservatives, chastened “liberal hawks,” and the stalwarts of the antiwar left. Inevitably, politicians have taken note, and by now a well-turned Niebuhr reference is the speechwriter’s equivalent of a photo op with Bono. In recent months alone, John McCain (in a book) celebrated Niebuhr as a paragon of clarity about the costs of a good war; New York Governor Eliot Spitzer (at the Chautauqua Institution) invoked Niebuhr as a model of the humility lacking in the White House; and Barack Obama (leaving the Senate floor) called Niebuhr “one of [his] favorite philosophers” for his account of “the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world.”

Seven years after Elie could compare him to Bono, we seem to be hearing much less about Reinhold Niebuhr, a fact that I was reminded of while reading Dale Coulter’s short essay this week marking sixty years since the publication of Niebuhr’s The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness. Coulter lays out the book’s basics, but there’s no real attempt to connect Niebuhr to present days concerns. That’s not a criticism, but it was telling, given all the previous attempts, noted above, to make Niebuhr a sage for our times. And even more, this was the first time in quite awhile I had read anything at all about Niebuhr aimed at a general audience.

I have a theory about why the Niebuhr moment has passed – and why it matters.

Part of Niebuhr’s post-9/11 popularity, I would argue, was the compelling way he connected Christian theology to modern political problems. He could use original sin to diagnose American democracy, or discuss the coming of a world community as embodying Christ’s love. He wrote about war and peace while drawing on figures ranging from St. Augustine to Abraham Lincoln. Niebuhr was no mere pundit; his writing had a depth and seriousness notable in his own day and even more rare in ours. And when we found ourselves struggling to understand how to make our way in a newly terrifying world, we turned to Niebuhr as both a model and a resource.

But as Elie points out, there were elements of Niebuhr’s thought that seemed to support, or could be wrenched into supporting, nearly every imaginable position regarding the war on terror and, especially, regime change in Iraq. Which is another way of saying we found in Niebuhr what we wanted to find, all while enjoying the heft he gave our own ideas. The way we read him confirmed our preexisting inclinations more than it provoked us to think deeply and creatively – his work should have been, but wasn’t, a mirror in which we were forced to take a long hard look at ourselves and confront our fallibility and pride, to question our assumptions and cherished certainties.

The more I’ve considered Niebuhr’s work the more I’m convinced that’s what he calls us to, and what we resist. Once we had rummaged through his work for polemical purposes, we left him behind, refusing to grapple with the most enduring elements of his thought. Niebuhr saw the self-interest lurking behind every argument, understood self-deception to be perennial, grasped that nothing in this world was pure. He should have been used not to endorse this or that particular position, but turned to as a prophetic figure who calls all of us acknowledge what, in a different time, we’d have called our sinfulness. As he wrote in The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness:

Democracy therefore requires something more than a religious devotion to moral ideals. It requires religious humility. Every absolute devotion to relative political ends (and all political ends are relative) is a threat to communal peace. But religious humility is no simple moral or political achievement. It springs only from the depth of a religion which confronts the individual with a more ultimate majesty and purity than all human majesties and values, and persuades him to confess: “Why callest thou me good? There is none good but one, that is, God.”

Niebuhr asked us to see ourselves as the flawed beings we are not to encourage pessimism, but to brace us for the hard work of engaging political life aware that there are never simple or easy answers. We are called to pursue justice, but there always will be a tragic element to that pursuit. Our “moral ideals” are never unmixed with the narrowness of our own perspective. This is less of a political program than a political sensibility, one perhaps best summarized in these oft-quoted words from The Irony of American History:

There are no simple congruities in life or history. The cult of happiness erroneously assumes them. It is possible to soften the incongruities of life endlessly by the scientific conquest of nature’s caprices, and the social and political triumph over historic injustice. But all such strategies cannot finally overcome the fragmentary character of human existence. The final wisdom of life requires, not the annulment of incongruity but the achievement of serenity within and above it…

Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore, we are saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we are saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as from our own; therefore, we are saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.

Niebuhr doesn’t leave us with mere doom and gloom – he is not merely a realist or cynic. He holds out the hope that realizing the ways we all, inevitably, are caught up in a sinful world might prove the precondition for learning to love each other. Humility and repentance can lead to forgiveness. This approach to the problems we face has very few takers in American life. Which is another way of saying that, like all great prophets, he has no honor in his own country.

(Thumbnail image: Reinhold Niebuhr by Ernest Hamlin Baker. Photo by Nostri Imago)

A Short Story For Saturday

by Matthew Sitman

Since starting our Saturday short story feature, readers occasionally have written to us suggesting we use this or that story. Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” (pdf) is one of them, and when it arrived through our “Reading Your Way Through Life” thread this week, I thought it was time for a reader-contributed story to make an appearance in this space. Here’s how it begins:

With a clamor of bells that set the swallows soaring, the Festival of Summer came to the city Omelas, bright-towered by the sea. The rigging of the boats in harbor sparkled with flags. In the streets between houses with red roofs and painted walls, between old moss-grown gardens and under avenues of trees, past great parks and public buildings, processions moved. Some were decorous: old people in long stiff robes of mauve and grey, grave master workmen, quiet, merry women carrying their babies and chatting as they walked. In other streets the music beat faster, a shimmering of gong and tambourine, and the people went dancing, the procession was a dance. Children dodged in and out, their high calls rising like the swallows’ crossing flights, over the music and the singing. All the processions wound towards the north side of the city, where on the great water-meadow called the Green’ Fields boys and girls, naked in the bright air, with mud-stained feet and ankles and long, lithe arms, exercised their restive horses before the race. The horses wore no gear at all but a halter without bit. Their manes were braided with streamers of silver, gold, and green. They flared their nostrils and pranced and boasted to one another; they were vastly excited, the horse being the only animal who has adopted our ceremonies as his own. Far off to the north and west the mountains stood up half encircling Omelas on her bay. The air of morning was so clear that the snow still crowning the Eighteen Peaks burned with white-gold fire across the miles of sunlit air, under the dark blue of the sky. There was just enough wind to make the banners that marked the racecourse snap and flutter now and then. In the silence of the broad green meadows one could hear the music winding through the city streets, farther and nearer and ever approaching, a cheerful faint sweetness of the air that from time to time trembled and gathered together and broke out into the great joyous clanging of the bells.

Joyous! How is one to tell about joy? How describe the citizens of Omelas?

Read the rest here (pdf). The story also can be found in Le Guin’s collection of stories, The Wind’s Twelve Quarters. Previous SSFSs here.

Reading Your Way Through Life: Even More Readers Respond

by Matthew Sitman

The popular thread continues, beginning with reader-love for one particular John Cheever short story:

I have returned to the work of John Cheever—especially “The Death of Justina”—more than that of any other author in my reading life. He is so alert to the spiritual potentialities of life and yet so understanding of our failure to fulfill them. The world he writes about John Cheeveris decidedly fallen yet can be  illuminated by sudden flashes of grace—as real and rare as lightning strikes.

I guess you’d call “The Death of Justina” a serious comedy about death that touches on chaos, commercialism, nasty bosses, zoning, the necessity and challenges of loving America, and, last but not least, morticians: “The priest was a friend and a cheerful sight, but the undertaker and his helpers, hiding behind their limousines, were not; and aren’t they at the root of most of our troubles, with their claim that death is a violet-flavored kiss? How can a people who do not mean to understand death hope to understand love, and who will sound the alarm?”

Of course, with this story, it is Cheever who sounds that alarm.

He can be heard reading it (rapidly, with his faux Brahmin accent) here.

A second reader on the same Cheever story:

For me, it keeps coming back to Cheever.  (And, Thorton Wilder, but perhaps that will be another entry.)

There are better Cheever passages than this, but I’ve been obsessing about this story for a while now, so here it is – from “The Death of Justina,” in the Collected Stories.

“We buried Justina in the rain the next afternoon.  The dead are not, God knows, a minority, but in Proxmire Manor their unexalted kingdom is on the outskirts, rather like a dump, where they lie in an atmosphere of perfect neglect.  Justina’s life had been exemplary, but by ending it she seemed to have disgraced us all.  The priest was a friend and a cheerful sight, but the undertaker and his helpers, hiding behind their limousines, were not; and aren’t they at the root of most of our troubles, with their claim that death is a violet-flavored kiss?  How can a people who do not mean to understand death hope to understand love, and who will sound the alarm?”

How can a people who do not mean to understand death hope to understand love, and who will sound the alarm?  Indeed.

The story continues – an advertising executive keeps writing a commercial for “Elixircol, the true juice of youth.”

“I went from the cemetery back to my office.  The commercial was on my desk and MacPherson had written across it in grease pencil:  Very funny, you broken-down bore.  Do again.  I was tired but unrepentant and didn’t seem able to force myself into a practical posture of usefulness and obedience.  I did another commercial.  Don’t lose your loved ones, I wrote, because of excessive radioactivity.  Don’t be a wallflower at the dance because of strontium 90 in your bones.  Don’t be a victim of fallout.  When the tart on Thirty-sixth Street gives you the big eye does your body stride off in one direction and your imagination in another?  Does your mind follow her up the stairs and taste her wares in revolting detail while your flesh goes off to Brooks Brothers or the foreign exchange desk of the Chase Manhattan Bank?  Haven’t you noticed the size of the ferns, the lushness of the grass, the bitterness of the string beans, and the brilliant markings on the new breeds of butterflies?  You have been inhaling lethal atomic waste for the last twenty-five years and only Elixircol can save you.

Another reader offers more praise for Joyce’s “The Dead”:

I first read “The Dead” in high school after my grandfather gave me a weathered book of selected James Joyce works. Gabriel Conroy’s no good, very bad Christmastime party has the feel of nearly every one I’ve attended. You can feel winter’s draft against buttoned coats through the pages, and it takes little effort on my part to understand the awkward dance of Gabriel’s anxiety and confidence. The final passage where Gabriel is looking over his sleeping wife has to rank among the most beautiful in the English language. I pick a cold night to read it around Christmas every year. It reminds me of my grandpa and all the past Christmases that have turned into shades.

This reader also points to a favorite short story:

A short story by Jorge Luis Borges, which he referred to as perhaps his best work, has stayed with me for almost 4 decades. In my opinion, “The South” is not only the most perfectly crafted short story ever written, it is an amazing examination of the complete relativity in which we live every moment of our lives. A relativity which is only realized at certain rare points when events and thoughts crystalize in unexpected ways.

The arc of the story is relatively simple. Dahlmann, a proud Argentine of German descent, obtains a copy of the Thousand and One Nights. In his eagerness to read it, he rushes up the stairs to his apartment gashing his head on an open door. He develops a fever which requires an extended and awful stay at a sanitarium where he is subjected to horrible procedures. When finally better, he leaves Buenos Aires for a convalescence at his ranch in the South.

When Dahlmann finally arrives by train at a small town near his ranch, he goes to the local general store to arrange for transport to the ranch and have a bite to eat. Some local farm workers are drinking and begin to toss small spit balls of bread at him while he reads. He ignores them, but when he gets up to leave the shopkeeper addresses him by name and tells him to ignore the drunks. Since he has been identified, Dahlmann feels compelled to confront the drunks – one of whom hurls insults at him and draws a large knife. The shopkeeper protests that Dahlmann is unarmed. An old peasant suddenly sends a knife across the floor which Dahlmann instinctively picks up. He prepares to leave the store even though he knows nothing about knife fighting.

The last lines of the story cannot be summarized. They are as powerful a statement of the basic relativity of our perception of our lives and the human condition as I have ever read.

“They went out and if Dahlmann was without hope, he was also without fear. As he crossed the threshold, he felt that to die in a knife fight, under the open sky, and going forward to the attack, would have been a liberation, a joy, and a festive occasion, on the first night in the sanitarium, when they stuck him with the needle. He felt that if he had been able to choose, then, or to dream his death, this would have been the death he would have chosen or dreamt. Firmly clutching his knife, which he perhaps would not know how to wield, Dahlmann went out into the plain.”

Another reader writers:

I studied literature, philosophy & comparative religions in college, yet the passage I turn to again and again is by an astrophysicist, of all people: Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot. It is a humanist statement, one of both hope and sadness. He uses our scientific knowledge to inspire a better, more compassionate understanding of each other, showing how the two great disciplines of science and humanities can inform each other. Being reminded of the tininess of earth is like a Total Perspective Vortex – thoroughly humbling. I’ve had the chance to hear Neil deGrasse Tyson recite it live, and it was just as moving. Thankfully, Sagan read it for the audiobook.

Another recommends Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift from the Sea, which the reader first read at age 20, and keeps returning to:

As I grow older, it resonates differently. But it always feels meditative.

“With a new awareness, both painful and humorous, I begin to understand why the saints were rarely married women. I am Gift From The Seaconvinced it has nothing inherently to do, as I once supposed, with chastity or children. It has to do primarily with distractions. The bearing, rearing, feeding and educating of children; the running of a house with its thousand details; human relationships with their myriad pulls–woman’s normal occupations in general run counter to creative life, or contemplative life, or saintly life. The problem is not merely one of Woman and Career, Woman and the Home, Woman and Independence. It is more basically: how to remain whole in the midst of the distractions of life; how to remain balanced, no matter what centrifugal forces tend to pull one off center; how to remain strong, no matter what shocks come in at the periphery and tend to crack the hub of the wheel.”

This love story, inextricably connected to a favorite novel, is pretty wonderful to read:

One text that I have returned to many times is Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. As a young, closeted gay man growing up in a small coastal New England town in the late 70s–early 80s, I was often stricken with a terrible fear that I would never know true love. Or even love of any kind. Wuthering Heights is a rather depressing book where things end badly for just about every character in it, but the all-consuming, haunting love that Catherine Earnshaw had for Heathcliff took my breath away and gave me hope that maybe someday, I too would feel a love like that.

I must have read my tattered paperback copy a dozen times in the course of a few years. And then one day, I met Peter. At 23 years ofWuthering Heights age, I now knew exactly the kind of love that Emily Brontë had painted in words. Hard, crushing, devastating love that made it difficult to breathe at times. And Peter returned that love. As young romances often go, it only lasted around two years with Peter moving to the West Coast for a job he couldn’t turn down. In the aftermath, I was a shell of myself for a long time. But I had felt it. I had experienced what Catherine Earnshaw had experienced, and I figured that even if that kind of love was only a once-in-a-lifetime phenomena, it was worth every hot, bitter tear I shed missing him. To this day, Peter and I are still friends. I don’t believe anyone can ever forget that a love of that intensity and we find ways to hold on to it, even long after it’s gone and there are thousands of miles between us.

And as it does, life went on. A few more relationships — the longest at 14 years — was tremendously comfortable and we’re still best friends after amicably going our separate ways. But suddenly finding one’s self single at the age of 48 years is a bit disconcerting, to say the least. However, it did give me a lot of time to reflect, remember and to eventually revisit an old friend named Catherine Earnshaw. After about a year of being a suddenly single middle-aged man, I found my old tattered, yellowed, paperback copy of Wuthering Heights up in the attic and immersed myself back in a time when I thought love was something ethereal and entirely unattainable. This time around it had a completely different effect. The wishing, the longing, the intense wanting that I felt at 23 had been replaced at 48 with a quiet, dull ache of loss — and gratitude. Gratitude that I had not only experienced an all-consuming love once many years ago, but also a warm, supportive, comfortable love that helped me become the man I am today.

I hadn’t read that book in 25 years and returning to it was like running into an old friend. What I did not expect was that like having read Wuthering Heights at 23, suddenly, there was Patrick. He had already been right in front of me for four years as a friend. Frankly, I thought he had absolutely no interest in me, especially because I had been in a long-term relationship for the first three years of our friendship and because well, he’s ridiculously adorable and I thought I simply didn’t have a chance with him. Then one Sunday afternoon over beers, he blurted out something that I could not get out of my head. So I asked him what he had meant by that comment the next time I saw him, and he just said it plainly, sweetly, and with a smile that could melt an iceberg.

That was a year and a half ago and I am crazy, madly in love with him. It is the same hard, crushing, devastating love that makes it difficult to breathe that I felt at 23. And Patrick returns that love. I had truly resigned myself to the belief that a love like that could only happen once in a lifetime but Patrick has taught me that it can, and does, happen more than once. With marriage equality spreading across the country, it’s just a matter of time until we can be legally married in our state of residence. Not long after that day comes, I plan on doing what Catherine was never able to do; marry him and make that love last for the rest of their lives.

Thanks for bringing back such memories by asking what novels, poems or stories have been our companions along life’s way. It’s been a hell of a journey so far and with Patrick as my companion, the future looks pretty darn bright.

Another reader writes:

Michael Chabon has a way with words, but this quote from The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is the one I like best. It reflects one of the Yiddish Policemens Unionbest Jewish traditions, in which we thank God for daily miracles, things like the sun coming up, the earth being beneath our feet, being able to move, and reflects the miracles we need, the basic human kindness, the realization that we each of us have divinity in us. In the context of the novel though, it also reflects how as humans, we quash that divinity through violence driven by greed and ideology:

“There was something in Mendele. There was fire. This is a cold dark place Detectives. A grey, wet place. Mendele gave off light and warmth. You wanted to stand close to him. To warm your hands, to melt the ice on your beard. To banish the darkness for a minute or two. But then when you left Mendele, you stayed warm, and it seemed like there was a little more light, maybe one candle’s worth, in the world. And that was when you realized the fire was inside you all the time. And that was the miracle. Just that.”

Here’s another poetry selection:

I completely agree that literature is therapeutic. The poem I always go back to in difficult times is “The Laughing Heart” by Charles Bukowski:

your life is your life
don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.
be on the watch.
there are ways out.
there is a light somewhere.
it may not be much light but
it beats the darkness.
be on the watch.
the gods will offer you chances.
know them.
take them.
you can’t beat death but
you can beat death in life, sometimes.
and the more often you learn to do it,
the more light there will be.
your life is your life.
know it while you have it.
you are marvelous
the gods wait to delight
in you.

After a particularly bad breakup, when I had just moved to a new country, away from all of my family and friends, I remember repeating to myself there are ways out/ there is a light somewhere to get through the day. Works pretty well.

Another reader writes:

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving is a perennial re-read for me.  This passage well summarizes my own anxiety each year during Lent (and Irving gets away with four semicolons in one paragraph):

“I find that Holy Week is draining; no matter how many times I have lived through his crucifixion, my anxiety about his resurrection is undiminished – I am terrified that, this year, it won’t happen; that, that year, it didn’t. Anyone can be sentimental about the Nativity; any fool can feel like a Christian at Christmas. But Easter is the main event; if you don’t believe in the resurrection, you’re not a believer.”

Here’s a heartfelt note from a Tolkien fan:

My go-to book is The Lord of the Rings. It’s been a lifeline when I needed it most.

I first read it at age 12. I was a fat, awkward, unfeminine girl transplanted in mid-semester from a small, urban parochial grade school to a concrete block suburban middle school. It felt like being sent to prison. I desperately wanted to escape. So I read, voraciously, everything I could possibly get my hands on. And then I found my dad’s paperback copy of The Lord of the Rings. I devoured it in one Tolkinsitting, plowed through all of the appendices (including the ones on runes, Tengwar script and calendars), then immediately started again at the beginning.

I didn’t want to leave Middle-earth.

I loved the book’s sense of adventure. I imagined the rural charm of the Shire, the vastness of the empty kingdoms of the North, the cosiness of the Last Homely House, the grandeur of the forests. I already was familiar with the tortured ugliness of Mordor and the Dead Marshes. They were the industrial landscape of the Rust Belt (where I live) and served as a bleak point of contact between my world and Tolkien’s. The One Ring became my metaphor for the suffocating social conformity that kids specialize in creating. Orcs were far more straightforward opponents than catty, clique-y middle school girls.

Life got much better after I hit high school. I made friends, slimmed down, went to college, started a career, got married, had children. But I kept returning to The Lord of the Rings, re-reading it and listening to the BBC’s wonderful radio adaptation every few years.  And my understanding of it changed.

What strikes me now is the novel’s sadness.  Loss underpins the entire story.  The old order ends in war and flame; although the good guys win, much is lost and the world is forever diminished.   Death haunts the story, climaxing in the departure of the Last Ship into the West.  This understanding of loss helps me deal with death and loss in my own life, most recently that of my dad — the one who introduced me to The Lord of the Rings in the first place.  It has been a touchstone for how to handle grief — “I will not say, do not weep, for not all tears are evil.”  I can’t help crying every time I read Frodo’s word to Sam at the very end: “I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.”

Beyond that, the Lord of the Rings has led me to sympathize with the underdogs and value the little people, the unlikeliest ones. It’s made me extremely wary of those who seek power at the expense of others.  It’s showed me the importance of friendship and the small pleasures of life.  And it’s taught me the value of mercy and kindness. I’ve tried my best to pass these values on to my children.  There are far worse ways to live your life than following the advice of wizards and Hobbits.

Another reader joins the Marilynne Robinson fan club:

I love this topic. As a literature professor, the number of texts that I’ve lived with for years and through major life changes is considerable. Often something will happen and I’ll find a sentence or a fragment of a description rattling around in my head that Housekeepingseems a fitting commentary–but I’ll have no immediate recollection of where it came from. I’m in my 30s and so didn’t grow up memorizing poems and speeches from Shakespeare and that kind of thing, as people once did, but at this point I might as well have. Sometimes I think what a loss it is that our culture no longer has that kind of shared textual intimacy.

If I had to pick one work outside my own area of scholarly expertise that both haunts and consoles me, it would be Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. Here’s one passage:

“Cain murdered Abel, and blood cried out from the earth; the house fell on Job’s children, and a voice was induced or provoked into speaking from a whirlwind; and Rachel mourned for her children; and King David for Absalom. The force behind the movement of time is a mourning that will not be comforted. That is why the first event is known to have been an expulsion, and the last is hoped to be a reconciliation and return. So memory pulls us forward, so prophecy is only brilliant memory–there will be a garden where all of us as one child will sleep in our mother Eve, hooped in her ribs and staved by her spine.

Keep up the good work! I always have mixed feelings when Andrew goes on vacation, but I’m loving all four of the Dish’s guest editors this time around.

Another read writes:

Reading has been a crucial part of the way I understand the world since before  I can remember. I honestly don’t remember learning to read. I’ve always read.  Trollope’s Barchester Towers, Bronte’s Shirley, and all the Austens are no surprise, perhaps, for a middle class white baby boomer woman. They help me understand who I am. But I reread Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red because it helps me understand a completely different way of imagining perfection and the sacred. But to choose just one, I will always come back to the Odyssey, and the Robert Fagles translation for preference.

I read it first as a child, in love with the Greek gods. It’s a fabulous adventure story.  Now I read it in amazement for the characters.Odyssey  It was conceived before almost everything in our culture that has shaped us, before Christianity, before reading and writing, before democracy. It is on the very far edge of who we are, and yet, I intimately recognize those characters, relationships, hopes and fears. The main characters are wonderful but even the minor ones reach out to me across the millennia. Who hasn’t met Nestor, the garrulous boring old geezer repeating all his favorite stories, surrounded by his loving family and embarrassing the hell out of them in front of the guests at the family gathering?  Menelaus and Helen are the original celebrity couple, tied to each other by self-interest and despising the other, snarking and sniping in their luxurious hall, amid a fug of bitterness and misery. Competing for attention from the assembly, they create their hell together. The swineherd is another one. Tied to memory and grief but with a very pragmatic foot in the moment, he slips easily between the past and the present, the memory of the dead king, and the need to get a pig down to the hall in good time.

I can’t even really express why the recognition of those characters as the people I meet and know every day gives me such comfort. But it does.  To recognize them from across the far side of human culture, I feel anchored to some baseline of humanity, in spite of all the tumult in between us.

And this seems like a good note to end on, at least for today:

Thanks for this thread. I love and often recommend A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving as a great meditation on faith, reasonA Prayer For Owen Meany and doubt. I re-read it this summer and it brims with sly good humor, jeremiads on the corrosive effect of war on US culture, and odd yet essential set pieces, such as an armadillo without its front paws. It also juxtaposes Frederick Buechner’s graceful theology with conversations by 10 year-olds about rating the breasts of the mothers in their small New England town. The opening lines draw one in:

“I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice. Not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God. I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.”

I also love it because it speaks to the Christian I’d like to be but am not. Or better put in a quote from Leon Bloy in the foreword: “Any Christian who is not a hero is a pig.”

Read the entire thread here.

What Is Christianity For?

by Matthew Sitman


That’s the question Rod Dreher asks in a searching reply to my thoughts earlier this week on Christianity and modern life. Some of Rod’s response is a gentle correction to my characterization of the “Benedict Option,” which, in his original essay, he summarizes as “communal withdrawal from the mainstream, for the sake of sheltering one’s faith and family from corrosive modernity and cultivating a more traditional way of life.” To take one example, I described Eagle River, Alaska, as a remote village, while it’s actually in suburban Anchorage – I regret getting that wrong. More importantly, Rod argues that I created something of a straw man, portraying those who pursue the Benedict Option as running for the hills while the world burns. My rhetoric did slip in that direction, and there are nuances to the ways the Benedict Option can be pursued I didn’t capture in my original post. Not all who favor it, and certainly not Rod, argue for “strict separatism” as a response to modern life.

The deeper issue Rod raises, however, goes beyond haggling over this or that detail of the Benedict Option and its various instantiations. Really, arguments about the Benedict Option amount to arguments over the place of, and prospects for, Christianity in the modern world – how Christians should try to live faithfully in our day and age. Here’s the gauntlet Rod throws down:

The way a Christian thinks about sex and sexuality is a very, very good indication of what he thinks about living out the faith in modernity. The reason it is so central is because it reveals, more than any other question now, how a Christian relates to authority and moral order. Matt is a kind and honest interlocutor, and I sincerely appreciate his attention, so please don’t take this in any way snarky or hostile towards him or Christians who share his viewpoint … but the questions have to be put strongly: Where is the evidence for being hopeful about Christianity’s place in modern life? Why should anyone think that the message of Jesus will retain its power in modernity if a Christian experiences little conflict between his faith and the world as it is?

To get to the heart of it: What is Christianity for? 

Those obviously are very big questions, but at least a few points can be made to clarify how I approach these matters.

One reason I reacted the way I did to Rod’s essay is because it’s premised on assumptions about modern life I don’t share. It’s not hard to misconstrue those living out the Benedict Option, taking them to perhaps be more separatist than they are, when descriptions of what they are trying to do are prefaced with references to Alistair MacIntyre and suggestions that we are “living through a Fall of Rome-like catastrophe” or worries about “signs of a possible Dark Age ahead.” I’ve never quite bought this line of thinking, never understood modernity as being a rupture or break from a virtuous past. Instead, the formulation I use is that things are getting better and worse at the same time, all the time. The dazzling achievements of modern life are real but also can have a dark underbelly, which means it’s not always possible to clearly separate out what is “good” from what is “bad.” I resist narratives of decline because they seem to miss this, which means the task of discerning the signs of the times, thinking through them as a Christian, is a complex and difficult task. I reject both optimism and despair about modern life.

It’s worth mentioning here that I never argued for full assimilation into modern life, for Christians to be uncritical of what they see around them. I do experience conflict between my faith and the world as it is. But that tends to take the form of deep sadness at the loneliness so many feel in our society, our callous indifference to suffering, and the rampant materialism and worship of power and wealth characteristic of our times, to name just a few examples. And yet this incomplete list betrays the tension I noted above – were there not real problems with more traditional forms of community that, while largely free of the individualism and mobility that contribute to loneliness and neglect, sometimes were repressive and too averse to change or difference? Isn’t our materialism at least partly a function of an economic system that has pressing problems, but also lifted many out of a life of mere subsistence? I don’t mean for these examples to seem trite or too easy, but they get at why, even when I feel conflicted about modern life, it doesn’t take the form of viewing it as a catastrophe or a new Dark Ages.

I admit, too, that I differ with Rod on the question of homosexuality – I hope that even conservative churches come to bless gay relationships. But as the preceding shows, I don’t think that accounts in full for my attitude toward living as a Christian in the modern world. I see it as one more issue that’s of a piece with the complexity of the world around us. The increasing visibility of gay people is a fact that must be dealt with by the Church, and even many traditionalist Christians, like Rod, would be happy to concede that they are glad gay people face better prospects, in society at large, than they would have decades ago. Sexual modernity has made many people, even traditional Christians, more attentive to the ways in which gay people and women, to take the two most prominent examples, suffered in previous eras. Traditional Christians themselves, even when holding the doctrinal line, often understand these matters in ways quite different than they did just a few decades ago, showing more sympathy and humaneness than in the past. I would go so far as to say that Christians have been taught, through the changes brought by modern life, how to be more genuinely loving and decent in these areas than they have been in the past. That is not to dismiss the deep challenges modern life poses, for traditionalists like Rod, to a conservative sexual ethic – I understand, even if I do not fully share, his concerns. I just can’t view the coming of sexual modernity simply as the triumph of hedonism, if for no other reason than that it has led to grappling with real injustices.

The word that I used to describe my approach to these matters is hopeful, and Rod wonders at my use of that term, at least with regard to Christianity’s place in the modern world. I’ve gone on at length – perhaps too long – explaining how I think about modern life because I believe it goes some way toward suggesting an answer. Living hopefully, in light of this, amounts to patiently, humbly sifting through the complexity I described. It means trying to see the truths revealed by modern life as well as working to restrain it’s excesses and problems. And I’m not sure Christians can best do this by withdrawing from the mainstream, rather than critically engaging it.

When we do engage the modern world, joyfully and without rancor or fear, I still believe Jesus’ message of grace and mercy will resonate. To see the good in modern life is not to deny the need for real, costly love in the world, a love that reaches out to the poor and the lonely and the marginalized, a love that looks with compassion on all who suffer and struggle. What is Christianity for? To teach us how to do that, which sounds awfully pious, I know. And that’s certainly not all that can be said about the Christian faith. But when I look around me, I can’t help but see both the remarkable achievements of modern life and, despite those achievements, a world still fraught with injustice and pain. My hope is that we can sustain and extend the former while struggling to embody Christ’s love in the midst of the latter.

(Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus, 1601, via Wikimedia Commons)

Reading Your Way Through Life: Even More Reader Reax

by Matthew Sitman

Readers continue to respond to our thread on the books, poems, and stories that have meant the most to them. One reader sent in the above video of Mary Oliver reading her poem “Wild Geese.” Another wryly appreciates this poem:

This makes me chuckle even when I’m in that emotional black hole called depression. It was also one of my late mother’s favorites. From the irrepressible Dorothy Parker:

Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

Another holds close a poem from Jack Gilbert:

The following poem is one that I come back to often for solace during dark times. I studied International Aid in grad school and I think it has given me a good perspective on suffering across the world: on the one hand, there’s more extreme poverty, disease, oppression, general hardship out there than most Westerners ever dream of, and on the other hand, most people across the world find ways to get by and squeeze some joy and meaning out of life anyway, even in the direst of circumstances. This poem reminds me of that.

“A Brief For The Defense” by Jack Gilbert:

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.

Another reader’s go-to poem:

The poem I find myself returning to over and over is Mark Strand’s “Keeping Things Whole”:

In a field
I am the absence
of field.
This is
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.

When I walk
I part the air
and always
the air moves in
to fill the spaces
where my body’s been.

We all have reasons
for moving.
I move
to keep things whole.

It’s no escape in hard times or corrective of melancholy. It’s a companion. A reminder that, while I may be as alone as the poem suggests, I am not the only one.

Another turns to a famous memoir:

I have frequently delved into Ulysses S. Grants Memoirs, as they are triumph over adversity. Written nearing the end of his life, whilst being poor and suffering from incurable throat cancer, the book is a testament to a human’s ability to endure. He went from being ill-educated shop keeper to a masterful commander, and then to President.

Facing financial ruin, compelled by Mark Twain, he wrote a magisterial memoir to secure his family financial future. Sitting on his porch, writing away, being unable speak and to produce a piece that is both lucid and concise, that a young man (myself), nearly one hundred and thirty years later could read it and draw inspiration, at times of personal hardship, is nothing short than remarkable.

Another reader writes:

John Steinbeck once wrote, “It’s almost impossible to read a fine thing without wanting to do a fine thing.” I’d add that a book’s value is no less if you fail to act on the impulse. Like you, I continue to seek solace in literature. It eases loneliness and alienation and allows me to carve out what amounts to an alternative dimension free of market dictates and a soul-killing public discourse.

Twenty years after I first read the books, I still find great comfort in [Hemingway’s] Nick Adams’ stories and McCarthy’s Border Trilogy and their wholly estranged characters. I find that literature is my one true escape from a life of quiet desperation. Most of us cannot express our innermost feelings in the office or even to our loved ones—either people don’t want to hear it or you don’t want to depress them. Thus we struggle on, constantly fighting the sense that we’re alone in this fight. Literature lets us know that we’re sane after all.

Now in my mid 40s, living in Asia, with no western friends or colleagues, literature has taken on an even more profound role, standing in for an entire culture that I’ve consciously separated myself from. Billy Parham, Silas Marner, Thomas Fowler—they may not be real men, but I find them essential to my understanding of the world and my capacity to withstand it.


My absolute favorite since age 12 (I’m now 57) has been The Lord of the Rings. I can’t narrow it down to any favorite passages because they’re all favorites. Part of it certainly has something to do with the many years over which I’ve read and reread the book (it’s just one book, not a trilogy, regardless of how it was published). I can still recall the delight with which I read the first words “When Mr. Bilbo Baggins . . .” in the summer of 1969. I certainly don’t remember anything else I read that long ago with the same fervor, unless it was The Hobbit which I read a few months before LOTR.

But Tolkien’s masterpiece has more to offer than just long term familiarity. Beauty of language, certainly, but even more important are the emotions. I still tear up when I read the cheers in various tongues for Frodo and Sam after they awaken from their long ordeal at the Field of Cormallen, and again when Frodo boards that ship at the Grey Havens. When Treebeard first speaks to Merry and Pippin I’m always just as amazed as they are. I laugh every time Gandalf catches Sam eavesdropping, and when Tom Bombadil first comes singing through the Old Forest, and when Bilbo disappears with a flash at the Farewell Party. It’s just a magnificent experience every time I read it.

Another reader shares a personal story:

Your post concerning readers’ favorite passages triggered an obvious choice for me. I am bipolar, and in times of acute depression I have reached for this one snatch of translated prose more times than I can recount. Something about it feels primal; by turns I hear a howl or a whisper, but somehow always a prayer. To this day, it delivers a visceral punch. In any case, since I first encountered it eons ago in the marginalia of a high school history textbook, it has been like a worry stone in my pocket, there for me when my unquiet mind is groping for some purchase.

“Elpis (Hope) is the only good god remaining among mankind; the others have left and gone to Olympus. Pistis (Trust), a mighty god has gone, Sophrosyne (Restraint) has gone from men, and the Kharites, my friend, have abandoned the earth. Men’s judicial oaths are no longer to be trusted, nor does anyone revere the immortal gods; the race of pious men has perished and men no longer recognize the rules of conduct or acts of piety. But as long as man lives and sees the light of the sun, let him show piety to the gods and count on Elpis. Let him pray to the gods and burn splendid thigh bones, sacrificing to Elpis first and last.”

This reader celebrates a favorite poet:

I wrote my PhD dissertation on Adrienne Rich and still find her poetry coming back to me when contemplating memory, loss, and grappling with inequality and injustice in the world. Been a good summer for that. She is at the same time a brilliant nature poet and evokes beauty in language and landscapes.

Here is an except from the final section of “An Atlas of the Difficult World,” the title poem of her 1990 volume. The poem surveys a variety of American people and places, coming back to Rich’s sense of obligation to work with “the materials” of life, however difficult or wretched. Lots of echoes of Whitman here and throughout:

I know you are reading this poem
late, before leaving your office
of the one intense yellow lamp-spot and the darkening window
in the lassitude of a building faded to quiet
long after rush-hour. I know you are reading this poem
standing up in a bookstore far from the ocean
on a grey day of early spring, faint flakes driven
across the plains’ enormous spaces around you.

I know you are reading this poem which is not in your language
guessing at some words while others keep you reading
and I want to know which words they are.
I know you are reading this poem listening for something, torn between bitterness and hope
turning back once again to the task you cannot refuse.
I know you are reading this poem because there is nothing left to read
there where you have landed, stripped as you are.

More on Rich from my tribute to her after her death in 2012, plus a photo of me in a Dr. J jersey holding up a stethoscope to one of her books.

Another reader offers two favorites:

I’d have to start with Dragondoom by Dennis McKiernan – how could someone not be stirred by the lines of a song: “Would you fight to the death, for that which you love? In a cause surely hopeless, for that which you love?” This is high fantasy in the Tolkien style, but unique and wondrous in its own right.

Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot has done it for a lot of people I’m sure, but I’m hopeful some leader has thought twice when they read this,”Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the ‘Momentary’ masters of a ‘Fraction’ of a ‘Dot’.” Or at least some 18-year old reading this like I did so long ago when his dad died took some solace in the infinite wonders of the universe and the beauty that everything has as Sagan described ice volcanoes and hurricanes many times the size of Earth on other planets.

Can’t wait to build my library with a bunch of the suggestions from other readers.

This reader notes a poem that’s made him a better man:

I have read and re-read this poem so many times, and yet, even as I read it now, I feel like I might start crying. I am a man and try hard, really hard, to be the kind of feminist that would make my girlfriend proud. I fail all the time. But, I know it is this this poem that convinced me that I must keep trying. The last line gives me goosebumps.

“What’s That Smell in the Kitchen?” by Marge Piercy:

All over America women are burning dinners.
It’s lambchops in Peoria: it’s haddock
in Providence; it’s steak in Chicago:
tofu delight in Big Sur; red rice and beans in Dallas.
All over America women are burning food they’re supposed to bring with calico smile on
platters glittering like wax.
Anger sputters in her brainpan, confined but spewing out missiles of hot fat.
Carbonized despair presses like a clinker
from a barbecue against the back of her eyes.
If she wants to grill anything, it’s
her husband spitted over a slow fire.
If she wants to serve him anything it’s a dead rat with a bomb in its belly ticking like the
heart of an insomniac.
Her life is cooked and digested,
nothing but leftovers in Tupperware.
Look, she says, once I was roast duck
on your platter with parsley but now I am Spam.
Burning dinner is not incompetence but war.

Another reader turns to a classic from T.S. Eliot:

I am probably older than most of the Dish’s readers (71), but the poem that struck me in 1962 when I was a nineteen-year old freshman in college was Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Like a patient etherized upon a table? Never had I read a line so real and shocking in the poems I had devoured in my high school textbooks. I shivered with the discovery of something totally new … the sentiments, the images, the mesmerizing rhythms. It felt to me so wonderfully sophisticated to empathize with a world-weariness I was beginning to experience not so much as fact as aspiration and to aspire at the same time to a social class I did not belong to. I still read it with pleasure, with a frisson of ironic recognition that “I grow old … I grow old … I shall wear the bottom of my trousers rolled.” Which on occasion I do. I read the poem with excited admiration in my youth; now I read it with a smile and love it all the more in the bittersweet glow of nostalgia.

Another reader:

Gilead has been sitting unread in my to-read pile for years. I adored Robinson’s novel Housekeeping, and there is a page-long paragraph that shifts back and forth in time that still takes my breath away.

“Where he was, was still. Somewhere else, wind whined.”

But the book that has been my companion since I first read it in high school is Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren. Starting to recognize my homosexuality in an upper-middle-class, very white suburb where the illusion of unfailing heterosexual monogamy was carefully cultivated and maintained as the only possible reality for ordering your life, the comfortable bisexuality of Delany’s unnamed narrator, the models he presented of unwed casual but caring relationships, and the racial and cultural diversity he deployed across the landscape of Bellona realigned my mental world: Somewhere there was a place for me, even if not in this suburb scrubbed to monochrome brightness.

But as It tried to weave among systems of thought and ideologies all trying to claim me, all trying to convince me of their foundational reality, and all incongruous with one another, and none of them feeling real or authentic to me, I was drawn repeatedly to the denouement of a story the character Lanya, and it would help me keep skipping lightly and never settling:

“But I realized something. About art. And psychiatry. They’re both self-perpetuating systems. Like religion. All three of them promise you a sense of inner worth and meaning, and spend a lot of time telling you about the suffering you have to go through to achieve it. As soon as you get a problem in any one of them, the solution it gives is always to go deeper into the same system. They’re all in rather uneasy truce with one another in what’s actually a mortal battle. Like all self-reinforcing systems. At best, each is trying to encompass the other two and define them as sub-groups. You know: religion and art are both forms of madness and madness is the realm of psychiatry. Or, art is the study and praise of man and man’s ideals, so therefore a religious experience just becomes a brutalized aesthetic response and psychiatry is just another tool for the artist to observe man and render his portraits more accurately. And the religious attitude I guess is that the other two are only useful as long as they promote the good life. At worst, they all try to destroy one another. Which is what my psychiatrist, whether he knew it or not, was trying, quite effectively, to do to my painting. I gave up psychiatry too, pretty soon. I just didn’t want to get all wound up in any systems at all.”

And, finally, Virginia Woolf makes her first appearance in our thread:

I recently discovered Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Because of this novel, more specifically because of the quoted passage below, I purchased a fancy leather-bound notebook that I try to carry with me while I’m reading so I can write down great quotes. The act of physically picking up a pen and writing down these words has been a wonderful experience for me as a reader. It has forced me to slow down and ponder what it is about what I’ve chosen to transcribe that grabbed my attention. Over time, I’ve come to realize that this notebook says a lot about not just what I read but what I find interesting, funny, insightful, beautiful, maddening. It says a lot about who I am. I don’t know if I’ll ever have it in me to write a story of my own, but I feel that this little notebook (and hopefully future notebooks if I live long enough to fill this one up) will in some strange way tell my story.

In this passage, our protagonist, Mrs. Ramsay, begins to come to terms with her sense that a friend of the family, an opium-using poet whom she generously allows to stay at her house every summer, doesn’t seem trust her:

“It injured her that he should shrink. It hurt her. And yet not cleanly, not rightly. That was what she minded… the sense she had now when Mr Carmichael shuffled past, just nodding to her question, with a book beneath his arm, in his yellow slippers, that she was suspected; and that all this desire of hers to give, to help, was vanity. For her own self-satisfaction was it that she wished so instinctively to help, to give, that people might say of her, ‘O Mrs Ramsay! dear Mrs Ramsay … Mrs Ramsay, of course!’ and need her and send for her and admire her? Was it not secretly this that she wanted, and therefore when Mr Carmichael shrank away from her, as he did at this moment, making off to some corner where he did acrostics endlessly, she did not feel merely snubbed back in her instinct, but made aware of the pettiness of some part of her, and of human relations, how flawed they are, how despicable, how self-seeking, at their best.”

What Do-It-Yourself Funerals Can’t Offer

by Matthew Sitman

It’s an interesting question, how we’ll handle death and grief as religion’s place in our lives declines. I don’t mean that the old answers about what “happens” when we die will need to be reworked, exactly, because it seems clear that, no longer believing in the afterlife, most will just acknowledge that nothingness awaits us. There only will be the “sure extinction that we travel to,” as Larkin put it. But that still leaves the issue of how to mourn the dead, in the very practical sense of what to do when a loved one dies. Emma Green looks at Candi Cann’s recent book, Virtual Afterlives: Grieving the Dead in the Twenty-First Century, on how this post-religious dilemma is being handled:

For most of human history, religious ceremony has helped people deal with death, providing explanations about souls and the afterlife along with rituals to help the living deal with their grief. Not all religions do death the same way. “There are certain denominations within Christianity and certain religions in general that do a better job of remembering the dead,” said Cann. “Like the Catholics: There’s a very set calendar for remembering, and it’s still tied down to the religious calendar.”

Tattooing yourself with a dead person’s remains is one new way of memorializing death in the absence of faith, she said. “As society becomes more secular, and people are more and more turning to that ‘spiritual but not religious category,’ they’re forming their own do-it-yourself ways of remembering the dead.”

Green goes on to describe other trendy options, from personalized caskets to “theme” funerals to arranging the deceased in scenes taken from their actual lives. I find all this fascinating, and, especially if a family isn’t religious, don’t begrudge them personalizing the funeral in whatever way they’d like. I do, however, wonder how this changes the grieving process, and would like to say a good word for the old-fashioned religious rituals.

Perhaps the most attractive feature of the do-it-yourself remembrance of the dead is how it allows for a celebration of the deceased’s life, in all its idiosyncratic particularities. I certainly get that. But I also would argue that depersonalizing the grieving process, if that’s the right phrase for it, offers solace of a different sort. To fall back on the patterns of religious liturgy, to feel that it’s not up to you to conjure the right way to honor the dead, to turn to words and rituals handed down for centuries – all this can be powerfully comforting as well. It allows for a sense of participation in the ongoing human drama of life and death, of not being the first to experience the pain of loss. You aren’t grieving from scratch. There’s a relief to knowing your experience is not unique, a consolation from the solidarity doing what so many others have done before you, and will do after you are dead too. Green cites a funeral director who describes ritual as “mindless,” and not in a pejorative way, which is another way of saying that religious ritual allows you to get out of your own head in a way that can be a relief.

There’s also the beauty of certain religious funeral rites that can’t easily be replaced, beauty which provides its own salve to the grieving. A friend of mine once said that as you’re dying, you want to be Roman Catholic, because the priest can be counted on to come and give you the sacraments, to be predictable and orderly as the end nears. But after you die, then you want to be an Anglican, such is the beauty of the Book of Common Prayer’s Rite I funeral service, with it’s psalms and prayers in the language of Shakespeare and the King James Bible. I think he’s right about that. It’s how I want my funeral done – you can read it here.