My Life with Words, Images, and Acts

Words, images, acts. They constitute the three-legged stool of my life. This is a matter of not only where I sit but of how I express myself in the world, see the world, and seek to change it. Yet, as Roger Cohen points out in his recent New York Times column, “Smartphone Politics,” of February 22, the connection between word, image, and act has become strangely unsettled, not only in our public life, but in how to proceed in my own. The way we combine them to form communication in a digital age is reshaping our deepest relationships.

I grew up in words, the building blocks of sentences. Each sentence helped build a paragraph, each paragraph an argument. Words and thinking were the engine and the car, inseparable in navigating a human life. The words I learned to use were lawyerly, realistic, scientific—the kind you saw in the mail-order catalogs or the hardware store describing articles to buy and use. They were the words of prose that filled my National Geographics, even while I imagined I was climbing Everest or descending into the ocean’s depths.

But as a child I also heard and used words that spoke beyond the hard and fast reality of common sense. They spoke of flying dragons and of my imaginary friends, whom I named Friends, Corners, and Britches. They existed in my mind and were my closest companions, but they weren’t, my mother said, “real.” With them I knew that words could build a fictional world. And so, I have written some fiction, but that isn’t the main way I seek to go beyond the conventionally “real.” That came with words the poets use.

It was in my teens that I found the world of poetry, where words could conjure up realities existing only in the spiderweb of connotations and images they constructed in strange juxtapositions, jarring expectations of ordinary logic and perception. They argued without arguing, created worlds without a formula, evoked emotions without visible instructions. Poetry is how I plumb the emotional depths to find a way between perception and action.

While I have learned to use all three types of words and writing, I still find it hard to enter into one type without giving up the others for a while. So now I am working back in prose as I decipher the meaning of old photographs and correspondence by my grandparents. Poetry and fiction scuttle to the sidelines as I strive for clarity about what “really” happened a century ago on Cyprus at the copper mine of Skouriotissa.

With that book on its way to find a publisher I have turned to another work of recollection—assembling photos of Sylvia’s thirty years of artistic production so we can create a complete catalog for a revised version of our website, WisdomsTable.net. So I am once again absorbed in a world of images—images that are not recording people and places of a land, but images of works in cloth, mosaic tile, yarn, paper, and found materials that take us beyond our everyday world to one of more transcendent meanings. It is the world of the “ineffable word” intimated in this stitchery from her Wisdom Series.

The Ineffable Word, by Sylvia Everett

The Ineffable Word, by Sylvia Everett

Just as I am absorbed more deeply into working with these images, I am buffeted, as are you, with shocking images pouring from the electronic devices in our living rooms, our pockets, on our desktops, in our waiting rooms and restaurants. Raw images of politicians bellowing for our loyalty, of catastrophes off the shores of Greece as people flee barbaric atrocities of war, of seductive blandishments by manufacturers and marketers. Images, as Roger Cohen says, short-circuit thought—the thought that comes in words, sentences and paragraphs. As images overwhelm our political process, thought and reason recedes, the demagogue holds sway, conflicts seek their resolution in violence rather than negotiation and persuasion.

Perhaps this unease between image and word is what has turned me increasingly to the importance of rituals—the acts that seek to form the disciplines of living in our world without being reduced to it. In particular it is the rituals of listening, praying, speaking, gesturing, and walking through the choreography of worship. These are the kinds of acts that form the third leg of my stool. They create a still point where I can let my words wrestle with my images, discover and assess their meanings, and evaluate their truth or import for my life.  In all the distractions of smartphones, TV, radio, and breaking news, these times of ritual come to be my central nervous system for response, for judgment, for genuine expression, and for relationships that endure.

As Sylvia and I sort through the many images of her work we sometimes have to re-assess their proper names, when they were created, where they might now reside. Even as we name, explain, and locate we know that it is the image itself which is speaking in its own way. It is a work of image and word, but it is also a work of providing a space for rituals in which to integrate them in a life that is whole and healing. Many of these works have been created to shape times of worship—in  churches, at the Lake Junaluska Peace Conference, and in workshops over many years. Others are for personal meditation and illumination, as is the process of creating these works itself. These images lead us to connect word and act in new ways.

In the cacophonies and distractions of the present I am aware of my need for a balance among the work of words, of images, and rituals. I think we all need some sort of stool like this. How does this process look from where you are sitting? Let me know, by whatever image, word, or act you want to use.

Posted in Arts, On Writing, Public Life, Worship and Spirituality | Tagged | 1 Comment

The Gaul of Grace: Thoughts at Lent

It’s Lent again. It’s the season of the Christian year looking for a suitable practice beyond Mardi Gras and ashes. Do we give something up that’s “bad” for us? Do we take on a service project? Do we pray more? Study more? Our church puts out a booklet of brief meditations by our members that everyone is asked to read, providing something common to think and talk about for forty days that is not consumed by the daily deluge of media incitements to groan, purchase, desire, or flee.

"Stations of the Cross (2004), by Sylvia Everett

“Stations of the Cross (2004), by Sylvia Everett

When I was asked to contribute something this year, I was given the Scripture passage in St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians, chapter two, verses 15-21. Here’s today’s academic note: Galatia was a region in modern Turkey named for the Gauls that the Romans brought there as soldiers when they took over. I couldn’t fit that in my little meditation because they told me I had 500 words or less. It was the passage that turned around the life of Martin Luther in the early sixteenth century, igniting the Protestant Reformation. I had been over this ground before, but not in 500 words. Here’s some of what I said:

We know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.” This simple sentence turned Martin Luther’s life around and began the Reformation of the 16th century. In his time it meant the overturning of the monastic disciplines of penitence and good works, the end of a celibate clergy, and the radical transformation of a church establishment that had grown rich by extorting money from Christians with the promise of heavenly bliss. But what might it mean for us today in a society that has lost most of the conditions that Luther rebelled against? Yes, many of us are still trapped in a religion based on rigid rules and doing good things in this life in exchange for an eternal life of blessedness. This message is still a liberating one where Christian faith has been reduced to obeying the law, doing good works, being nice, and upholding community life, even when our hearts are mired in fear, anxiety, and bitterness.

Even if we feel liberated from this strait-jacket of moral self-concern, we can see that there are other “works of the law” that seek to command our inner souls: the feverish idolatry of economic growth and its accompanying ecological destruction, the anxiety of trying to be famous in a celebrity culture, the endless temptation to seek security through violence in response to violence, and the daily struggle to live up to the standards of others. Many of us are crushed by the demand to live up to some false ideal of “womanhood” or “manhood.” Many of us cannot buy the things that can tell the world we are OK. We all can name the “works” through which we seek to justify and secure our existence, even as they cannot heal the deep alienation and anxiety within us.

That’s not all I wrote, but these thoughts have kept reverberating in my noggin ever since. Through conversations with family, friends, and myself I thought of how much we are struggling between moral exhortations to do the right thing and our soul’s inner need for confirmation beyond moral perfection and for expressions of our hearts beyond mere obedience. Some of us struggle with obsessive self-demands to be perfect in every way, controlling our anxiety with rituals that diminish and enslave us. Others live in constant fear that such an imperfect world will collapse around us in an apocalypse. Others are paralyzed by the enormity of the moral crises of ecological destruction and mental illness and addiction. Still others are driven to deception and violence to bring in a lost Eden or a promised land.

The very good that we would do (and ought to do!) becomes the source of the fear and anxiety that enslaves and destroys our sense of worth as human beings. The prophets of Goodness, including the ones in the pulpits, become the bearers of our psychic death.  But not only our psychic death: In our frantic desire to do good, we fail to realize that our own well-intentioned acts can yield destructive consequences.

Once these realizations pile on, I start really living in Paul’s dilemma. But Paul experienced release from this prison of anxiety. In his experience, he simply gave up, dying into the life beyond death he experienced in being blinded by the light of what he called the resurrected Christ and being resurrected by living into this new life, with its vision of loving grace.  While this new life was still “in the flesh,” he wrote “I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” In the deeply frightening act of letting go, Paul is captured and upheld by the underlying love of God—the Creator and also the Redeemer of all creation.

All this has been rumbling around in me, trying to slough off the barnacles of two thousand years of pious verbiage and open the kernel of Wisdom here. It is not just a matter of finding some practice that can alleviate or shield us from the pain inherent in the gap between our world and a “perfect world,” whether it is meditation, diet, or massage. It is in finding within the power of forgiving love the budding of a new way of living. For Paul it was simply to feel the “love of God.” The life of gratitude, of love, and dignity and power that confirmed his soul could now be the lattice of a new ethic, a new way of life that arises from loving embrace of the Giver of Life rather than fear of failing to do the right thing.

Well, it was radical in Paul’s day, radical in Luther’s, and equally radical in our own. As we are crushed in so many ways beneath the enormity of moral failure in our world, it still seeks to present itself as the “Way” into a life beyond the deaths we fear. Well, in Paul’s day they called it simply “the Way,” sort of a Tao of new life. This may not have helped you take another step, but that’s the one I’ve been thinking about. Maybe I’ll even take a few more baby steps. Let me know about yours. I’ve included a mosaic Sylvia put together out of broken beer bottles as an image to take with you.

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Identity and Conversation

Let’s see. now. L G B….T…Q?… I??  I.  I’ve been thinking a lot in the past few years about the alphabet of identities. If we haven’t been struggling to articulate our sexual identities we have been thrown into our even longer turmoil about “race,” with the muddled colors of White, Black, Colored, or into the ethnographic kaleidoscope of Euro-, Afro- African, Asian, all the way to Tiger Wood’s “Cabalinasian.” I just worked my way through a long and somewhat jumbled account of Yale University’s controversy about offensive Halloween costumes, identity, and civility in the University’s Alumni Magazine. I was struck that the authors emphasized how the real underlying issue was how people could engage in respectful interchange and conversation out of the welter of their differing faces, bodies, historical experiences, and ways of communication. The problem, they seemed to say, is this: How can we articulate our different identities in a way that leads to genuine conversation about the world we share?

As I engage in my quadrennial effort to minimize exposure to mass media during an American election campaign, I am struck even more by how our much-vaunted means of communication have failed us in this regard. First, because of our low level of attention, they resort to the clumsiest categories to identify the actors in a story—Liberal and Conservative, Black and White, Gay and Straight, and so forth. Second, because this “communication” is a one-way transmission of images and words, it cannot occur between and among real people in all their complexity within a particular group, community, or organization. Instead of eye-contact, body language, and immediate means for confirmation or correction, our media resort to polls and anecdotal interviews. Even the fact-checkers are always a day late and a megabyte short. Without the civility of conversation the media end up tyrannizing over our perceptions, our understanding, and our behavior.

Along with many others I have been struggling to move through a statement of identity to participation in conversations about the world and the conflicts that permeate our effort to cooperate in finding the common good we need for a more abundant and sustainable life. While there aren’t twelve steps to this journey, I can point to a few that have appeared. I begin with the affirmation that the struggle for “identity” needs to be seen as a struggle for recognition and confirmation. We don’t simply want to be recognized and have a label pinned on us. We want to be recognized in a way that confirms or at least speaks to our own self-understanding. Now, our self-understanding is always somewhat confused and incomplete. Who we are is also who we will become as well as who we and our ancestors were. So even the search for our own identity requires that we engage in real exchange and conversation with others who are struggling with our identity as well as their own.

Thus, the struggle over our identity requires that we move to conversation, indeed, face-to-face conversation. The mass media engages in a constant and searing assault on our capacity for this conversation, even as people are naming every exchange of words a “conversation.” Is the Republican primary of Trump and Cruz a “conversation”? Clearly, it is not, but we need models of genuine conversation to correct this parody.

I have believed that circles of perhaps a dozen people constitute a core of genuine conversation from which springs the wider public dynamic where our struggle for identity, confirmation, and community finds its pivotal place. In these circles there often arises a “holy moment” when a wisdom greater than that of any individual’s reshapes our understandings and emotions. It is in these moments that we can sense a revelation of who we are and who the other person is. It can be a revelation that transforms us. And so, I have been involved over the years with others who put this process at the center of a worship practice we call Roundtable Worship. The conversation at this round table requires a covenant of mutual respect as well as rituals that help us remember the equal dignity of all. Conversation is more than just a free for all of verbal expression. It is a listening more than a speaking, a speaking of the heart more than simply of the mind, a silence that provides a space for contemplation of a wider mystery.

In that conversation we can discover that the other person is far more a mystery than we thought. We can understand that we participate in the same mystery about ourselves, our ultimate destiny, and the nature of the world we share. Such a conversation cultivates a humility which is not self-abasement but respect before the mystery of the other person and of ourselves, of the world we share.

Tasting this mystery of identity and conversation helps me claim a center in a world that is mired in the chaos of egotism and narrow ambition. It is also an experience which the powers of this world seek to crush or to seduce in order to defend their own legitimacy.

The search for our identity requires conversation, just as every drama has a plot as well as a cast of characters. We used to call it the “Dramatis Personae,” which reminds me of the long history of the concept of a “person,” from the Persons of the Trinity to the person before the law and finally to the cult of personality in our own time. Bubbling beneath the surface of our present turmoil you can see this deeper plot that presses for a new revelation and a new transformation. I have begun to look for it more persistently and patiently. It is very fragile and evanescent, like the Spirit. But it is also the underlying source of genuine identity and relationship. Let me know what you are finding with this lens.

Posted in Ethics, Public Life, Roundtable Ministries Project | Tagged | 1 Comment

Fragments

As I near completion of the text of “Mining Memories on Cyprus,” I turn to the task of reflecting on what it means to try to recover a dimly-lit past for the sake of future generations. I do this in the midst of the horrendous forced migration of people from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and central Africa to Europe’s beckoning peace and relative prosperity. I write with a sense of deep connection to the island that sits in the midst of this tragic struggle. I seek to remember my own family’s connection to a mine on this island that must sail like a small boat on an enormous sea of global markets it cannot control. With each photograph I have repaired and enhanced I enter into conversation with my grandparents who took it and with those who reach out to me from the photos with their smiles, their hard-worn features, their flowing dress, the beasts of burden they employed.

It has not been merely a task of reconstructing a past but of reconstructing my own self and the way I move in the present. A dialogue with our past is a conversation with ourselves in the present. It is rehearsal for the next step we take in our lives.

A distorted past can distort our future. I am thinking of the people who have taken over the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon, not far from where my wife Sylvia grew up. They are re-enacting a mythic past of rugged ranchers wresting the land, not from their original inhabitants, but from a national government. Armed with rifles and threats, they step out of a Western movie into a world they seek to remake to fit the errant script embedded in their memory.

I think of the continual reconstruction of the narrative of Africans who were forced to come to this country as slaves. Over and over again, as European Americans erected new roadblocks, they persisted in the task of recovering the people whose identity and dignity could never be extinguished by the slaver’s lash, the Jim Crow laws, the prison gulags of America. And now their past—our past— will soon contain a First Lady in the White House and a son of Ireland, Kenya, and America.

With each birth the work of memory begins again. With each death we add another chapter. But every chapter we add to the story, every brick we add to the edifice of understanding, is but a fragment. We have to add the mortar of imagination to fill in the cracks, bring the pieces together, try to make a coherent whole out of the materials at hand. We are fragments working and reworking fragments, working with the hope that we can make a contribution to a whole we cannot see.

 Our parents

            and their parents

            and their parents

live as fragments

            in muddy layers of our minds.

Buried,

            broken,

            some go missing.

Some have jagged edges

            slicing at our fingers

            if we probe too deep,

            disturbing them.

If they rise to lie within the furrows of imagination

            sometimes we can see connections

            see forgotten lines

            where things once worked together.

If we’re lucky

            and are patient

            we can mend them into faces, forms, and fantasies,

Put mosaics back together,

            form a plate that people ate on

            craft a pitcher pouring wine,

            piece together pictures of a meal,

Put our fingers on the pulse of life that petrified

            and broke

                        and was buried

                                    and emerged again

                                                to form the lattice of our lives.

 

Posted in On Writing, Poetry and Songs | 2 Comments