Monday, July 18, 2016

I Read Dead People

I bought this bumper sticker at Powell's bookstore. While I enjoy being amused and, more often, disturbed by other people's, I don't do bumper stickers on my car, so I will place this one on my office door.

It seems a good reminder these days as the news gets worse and worse. Almost every day brings word of another act of terrorism or violence.

Every other Facebook post asks me to give in to fear.

My conservative friends think the answer is more law and order and respect for authority.

My progressive friends think the answer is more honest discussion about the deep racial and economic divisions in our country.

It's so stressful, and it's so easy to allow myself to get sucked into the anxiety and negativity and hopelessness. It's easy to become obsessed with what's happening now.

It's at times like these it helps me to read dead people.

Here's a few of the things I mean by reading dead people--and a few reasons I think it's healthy to do so:

By reading dead people I acknowledge that this has all happened before.
C. S Lewis recognized an important tendency in Western society. He called it chronological snobbery and said it was the tendency to believe that our contemporary culture is unique and superior to all the cultures of the past. In technology, it leads to a preference for the latest device. In literature, it leads to a preference for the latest author and to a discounting of dead authors, which Lewis saw as an incalculable loss.

By reading dead people I acknowledge the many ways the authors of the past continue to influence me today.
T. S. Eliot, in "Tradition and the Individual Talent," noted how no contemporary author writes without the influence, either conscious or unconscious, of past writers. No poet can write without the shadow of Chaucer and Shakespeare and Dickinson over her. While this awareness can create anxiety for writers ("How can I ever write anything as good as Sonnet 30?"), it also fosters the humility necessary for creating great art. We are, in a sense, only able to write what we write today because of our literary forefathers and foremothers. Or as the Bible puts it: "you drink from wells you did not dig."

By reading dead people I may just discover wisdom I can use today.
Here's a little story about how reading literature works in mysterious ways.

A few months ago, I joined a book discussion at my church about Christian Wiman's My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. You can check it out here.

Wiman mentions that one of the authors who's been most helpful to him in matters of faith is Fanny Howe, in particular her novel Indivisible. Well, I'd never heard of either Howe or her novel but decided to make a mental note and read Howe's novel later in the summer.

Making a mental note was not a good idea since I promptly forgot about it (see reading too many FB posts, above). Then I was in Powell's the other day looking for something else and, miraculously, the Howe reference came back to me--not as Howe but as "that author that Wiman, I think, referred to in that book." So I found Wiman's memoir on the shelf at Powell's, found the passage where he referred to Howe's novel, and went to look for it. (Technologically savvy readers, please don't judge the fact that I'm not doing this search online.)

As fate, or the literary gods, would have it, Powells didn't carry the novel, but they did have a book of essays by Fanny Howe, The Winter Sun: Notes on Vocation, at a reasonable price--so I bought it. You can check it out here.

In one of Howe's essays, she tells the story of Jacques Lusseyran, a Frenchman I'd never heard of whose life story, And There Was Light, was translated by Elizabeth R. Cameron in 1963. You would do well to read Howe's account for yourself, but here's some highlights:

Lusseyran was born in Paris in 1924. As a child he was fascinated by light, but at the age of eight, a minor accident at school rendered him totally blind. Lusseyran was not deterred. He learned Braille in six weeks and rejoined his friends at school. Neither did he let his blindness eliminate his appreciation for light. Howe writes:

The first thing he discovered, soon after his accident, was that there was a source of light that was not the sun; it hid within his body; he was flooded by it and because of it, he felt the presence of others and objects through their colors.

Soon the Nazis occupied France, and he and his friends decided to form a resistance group made up of students. The group grew and thrived until they were betrayed to the Gestapo by an infiltrator. Lusseyran was beaten but refused to name names or cooperate. In July 1943 he was sent to Buchenwald.

In spite of this turn of events. he did not despair. Howe notes:

He formed friendships, became a leader in the French Resistance inside the camps through translation and the transmission of overheard news reports in German to other prisoners. In January 1944, there were sixty thousand prisoners at Buchenwald. Six months later there were ten thousand.

Now for the wisdom I gained from reading Lusseyran's story:

Near the end of his horrifying account, he tells readers how to get through torture, through imprisonment. There are three things to remember: 'The first of these is that joy does not come from outside for whatever happens to us it is within. The second truth is that light does not come to us from without. Light is in us, even if we have no eyes.' The third is friendship. If you can form close human attachments to those around you you have the possibility of surviving as a human being.

Aren't those three things to remember amazing? And this also amazes:

I would never have heard those three things in just that way had a blind man from France not endured the experiences he did and had he not written them down.

I would never have learned Lusseyran's incredible story had I not read Fanny Howe's book of essays.

I would never have read Fanny Howe's book of essays had I not read Christian Wiman's meditation about his bout with cancer and his struggle to find faith as a poet.

I would never had encountered any of these ideas had I not read dead people.

But since I did and do read dead people, with my newfound wisdom, I may be able to survive another day of FB posts.

I may even be able to survive the Republican and Democratic conventions--at least with Stephen Colbert's help, who, I'm pretty sure, also reads dead people.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

My Prairie Home Companion Prayer

Most Sundays at my church, there's a time set aside for sharing joys and concerns. Members who have something to share with the congregation come to the front, light a candle and place it in a bowl filled with sand, state their name, then say what's on their heart, concluding with "God in your love"" or "God in your mercy," to which the congregation responds "Hear our prayer."

It's one of my favorite parts of the service. Though many concerns center around health issues, either for self or a friend or family member, folks address a wide variety of of joys and concerns. One might share joy at a daughter's graduation or new job while another announces the birth of a grandson. One might relate grief at having to say goodbye to a beloved dog or cat while another mourns the loss of children caused by gun violence. Pretty much anything is fair game.

This past Sunday as I drove to church, I felt moved to share during joys and concerns time, but I wasn't sure the topic was appropriate. I'd been thinking about Garrison Keillor hosting the final performance of his long-running radio show, A Prairie Home Companion, on NPR, July 2, 2016, realizing I had probably listened to my first Lake Wobegon monologue over thirty-five years ago, and pondering how much pleasure the show had brought me over the years. That's a joy worth sharing, right?

As I turned into the church parking lot, I had pretty much convinced myself to do it. After all, I reasoned, though some people (likely the younger ones) will have no idea what I'm talking about, I know for sure we have a lot of NPR junkies in our congregation.  I was beginning to compose in my head the words I would say when I lit my candle for Garrison and his radio show.

But then I remembered today was communion Sunday, and we don't do joys and concerns on communion Sundays.

So since I couldn't share my prayer of joy in church, I'll light a figurative candle here at my blog and share it with any virtual congregants who care to join me.

I'm Gary Tandy, and I'm lighting a candle this morning for Garrison Keillor and the Prairie Home Companion radio show. I realize it may seem odd to pray about a radio show, but this one's given me lots of joy over the years, and it feels right to express my gratitude for it.

When I first heard Garrison Keillor tell stories of growing up in a fundamentalist religious family in the Midwest, I connected easily with the world he portrayed with words. As he talked about being a part of a small movement that saw itself as the "true Christians," as opposed to those liberal and heretical Lutherans and Catholics, I realized that his Sanctified Brethren experience in Minnesota was not far removed from my own, growing up in the Church of Christ in Kansas in the 1960s and 70s. Apparently, as children we heard many of the same warnings: it's a dangerous world out there, so be careful what you see and read and, of course, don't smoke or drink alcohol or play cards or, heaven forbid, dance.  Keillor said when he was a child he used to fantasize that instead of his own family, he had grown up with a modern family in New York where his parents encouraged him to smoke cigarettes and drink wine--and to call them by their first names.

Yes, Keillor poked fun at and looked satirically at the restrictive religious environment in which he grew up, but it was a gentle satire. Its tone was never hateful or dismissive. Though Keillor himself had changed, adopting radically different political and theological ideas than those of his family of origin, he was still able to speak of his family and the people of his town with genuine love and affection and to celebrate the many values they got right: hard work, loyalty, humility, compassion, common decency.

Above all, it was this tone that attracted me to Keillor and his storytelling because it was true to my own feelings and experience as I thought about my past, my family, my church. I admired this ability to look back and not to ignore the flaws or the damaging theology of his past but to continue to love and be grateful for the people who, as often as they made him feel guilty and shameful, made him feel loved and welcomed, valued and protected.

And it's precisely that tone, I think, that is missing in our current American society where we seem not to be able to disagree with people's politics or theology without demonizing them, where we seem not to be able to take an opposing position without denigrating those who hold a different position. Keillor has always provided a model of civility: he doesn't shy away from expressing his opinion, but he treats those who don't share it with respect. It's an approach that says we're still Americans, no matter how much we disagree. We still have much in common. We're in this together.

This is my prayer of joy for Garrison Keillor and A Prairie Home Companion. My intellectual, emotional, and spiritual life would not have been the same without them, and for that I'll be forever grateful.

God in your love.

Hear our prayer.