Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

<a href="https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/23156040-those-who-leave-and-those-who-stay" style="float: left; padding-right: 20px"><img border="0" alt="Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (The Neapolitan Novels, #3)" src="https://i.gr-assets.com/images/S/compressed.photo.goodreads.com/books/1411338052l/23156040._SX98_.jpg" /></a><a href="https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/23156040-those-who-leave-and-those-who-stay">Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay</a> by <a href="https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/44085.Elena_Ferrante">Elena Ferrante</a><br/>
My rating: <a href="https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2916968536">4 of 5 stars</a><br /><br />
I am so engrossed in this series. The second installment wasn't as strong as the first but I really liked this one, the third. And now I'm salivating for reading the fourth, which I may have to bump up my list and read soon.<br /><br />I felt that this novel was very similar to Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook in the explorations of gender issues and politics. Ferrante did a nice job of showing the awakening of feminist consciousness, yet complicated by continued attraction for a man who may not be good for Elena.<br /><br />Some of the developments in Lina's character I found more difficult to understand, but this time I was less engrossed in her character.
<br/><br/>
<a href="https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/2239289-e">View all my reviews</a>


The Hunchback of Notre Dame

The Hunchback of Notre DameThe Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When Notre Dame burned this spring, I realized that I had never read this novel, despite owning a copy since I was an adolescent. So it seemed time to finally read it.

The novel took me a long time to get into. Like many nineteenth century novels there is so much else going on besides the central story and much development and scene setting before things really get going. When they finally do, the story is good, even if Hugo can go off on strange tangents (like the long section on the history of architecture as opposed to the written word).

But there are marvelous aspects and Quasimodo is such a fascinating character.

View all my reviews

Knowing What To Do

Knowing What to Do: Imagination, Virtue, and Platonism in EthicsKnowing What to Do: Imagination, Virtue, and Platonism in Ethics by Timothy Chappell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

First, I must correct a Goodreads error, for they have this book's author listed under her former and incorrect name. The author is Sophie Grace Chappell.

I heard Chappell lecture at Creighton University here in Omaha a few years ago and put this book on my "list" to read because I was impressed by her creative thinking.

I had wondered if this is a book I might use as a text in teaching Ethics. I think not, as it is more technical in places than my sophomores would enjoy, but the book will definitely shape how I approach teaching ethics.

Chappell criticizes all the dominate ethical theories for getting ethics wrong, primarily by trying to be THE way of living the good life. She rather thinks that the major theories give good, but not final and conclusive advice, some working better in certain situations than others.

What she instead advocates is a cultivation of the moral imagination which is accomplished through contemplation. In this view she draws upon Plato and Iris Murdoch.

Chappell has a rich undertanding of philosophical history and contemporary debates, including drawing on important aspects of other philosophical fields such as philosophy of mind.

A number of the chapters are necessary but technical contributions to recent arguments in analytical philosophy. I hope she will in the future write a book that more fully develops her positive ideas from the latter half of the book.

View all my reviews

I Listened

I Listened

“At the River Clarion” by Mary Oliver

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

21 July 2019

 

 

Last week I spent beside a river.  The North Loup River, to be exact.  I was at Kamp Kaleo, our United Church of Christ campground here in Nebraska, for Faith and Fine Arts Camp.  I was teaching the writing group.

The first morning, I was awake early and so I wondered down to a bench beside the river and watched the sunrise play off the fast flowing water.  The river was high, from all the spring and summer rains.  All the sandbars were covered and the banks were not exposed.  The river was rushing by on its journey through the Sandhills. 

Later in the week we tubed on the river, always a joyful experience.  The high point was either shooting some mild rapids, when I squealed with childish glee, or when we rounded a bend and there was a big, red, Angus bull standing in the river.  We all promptly paddled our tubes to the other side.  Fortunately, the bull seemed confused but not alarmed at the loud tubers floating by.

 

Back in June I also spent some time beside another river.  Our family camped at Pike’s Peak State Park in northeastern Iowa.  Yes, there is another Pike’s Peak than the tall mountain in Colorado.  Apparently explorer Zebulon Pike enjoyed naming places after himself. 

This Pike’s Peak is a tall hill along the Mississippi River that overlooks the confluence with the Wisconsin River.  Our first night we walked to the overlook and were stunned by the natural beauty—the rich green forested hillsides, the many islands dotting the river at that point, the sunlight on the water.  Over the next four days I walked to that overlook two or three times a day and every single time the view and the river were different—the light changed, the colors were shifted--sometimes dominated by blue and another time by pink—and then the final morning a thick fog blocked any view of the river below.  Standing at the overlook I felt as if I was in the Caspar David Friederich painting Wanderer above a Sea of Fog.

 

According to Lauren Krauze, “[Mary] Oliver’s work often invites readers—by way of her own example—to gaze upon their grief, despair, and loneliness.” 

Krauze continues, “but she does not belabor those aspects. Instead, her words encourage readers to turn toward something larger. This shift in focus from an intimate, personal experience to the interconnected movements of the wider world appears throughout her work as an element that seems both elemental and mystical.”

That occurs here in the poem “At the River Clarion.”  Oliver, sometime after the death of her wife and more immediately to this poem, the death of her dog Luke, sits on a rock in the river in order to grieve and in her grief she listens to the river so that she might learn from it.  “We do not live in a simple world,” she writes. 

Death and suffering and pain grieve and afflict us.  Mary Oliver is right to teach us both to gaze at these realities and then also how to live with them. 

Consider these lines from “I Go Down to the Shore,”

 

I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall--
what should I do?  And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.

 

            Or these lines from the poem “Flare,”

 

Nothing lasts.

There is a graveyard where everything I am talking about is,
now.

I stood there once, on the green grass, scattering flowers.

 

            The poem “Flare,” from which these lines come, is partly about her parents.  She grew up in a “dark and broken” home where her father abused her.  She writes of her father as “a demon of frustrated dreams” and “a breaker of trust.”  She writes of her anger, her refusal to carry her parents’ baggage forward, of crying out with the voice of child in misery, disappointment, and terror. 

            And yet, she closes the poem,

 

When loneliness comes stalking, go into the fields, consider
the orderliness of the world.  Notice
something you have never noticed before . . .

 

Let grief be your sister, she will whether or no.
Rise up from the stump of sorrow, and be green also,
like the diligent leaves. . . .

 

Scatter your flowers over the graves, and walk away.

 

 

            How could she do this?  How did she survive her trauma, find healing and wholeness, and become an inspiration for others.  In a profile from The New Yorker, Ruth Franklin writes, “Walking the woods, with Whitman in her knapsack, was her escape from an unhappy home life.”

            She learned to pay attention to nature, to listen.  In the poem “At the River Clarion” she wrote, “all afternoon I listened to the voices of the river talking.”  In “I Go down to the Shore” the sea speaks to her grief. Throughout her poetry she hears the creatures of the natural world speaking to her and she learns from them.

            In the poem “Hearing of Your Illness” about her fellow poet James Wright, she writes of lying down in a field near a “black creek and alder grove” and talking to them about his illness and coming death.  She writes,

 

I felt better, telling them about you.
They know what pain is, and they know you,

And they would have stopped too, as I

was longing to do, everything, the hunger
and the flowing.

 

That they could not--
merely loved you and waited
to take you back . . .

was what I learned there, so I

 

got up finally, with a grief
worthy of you, and went home.

 

            Debra Dean Murphy writes that this intimacy with the created world is “in keeping with the kinship of creaturehood described in the opening lines of the Bible.”  And she quotes theologian Douglas Christie on the contemplative life:

 

The capacity and willingness to become small, to acknowledge the primacy of the living world, to open oneself completely to the life of the world, and to do so without any aim beyond the simple pleasure of the gesture itself: such unselfconscious simplicity and innocence can become the foundation of a more responsive and reciprocal way of being in the world.

 

           

            One of the oldest of human questions is “Where is God when we suffer?”  Mary Oliver is not a philosopher or theologian; she develops no robust theodicy, no logical defense of the goodness of God in the face of human suffering.  No, she is a mystic, who provides no final or sufficient answer to this question; “I don’t know who God is exactly,” she writes. 

Instead she speaks to us by her example.  She models a type of life that gazes at our suffering and yet finds a measure of healing by listening to the natural world.  For by listening, she encounters God.

            Jason Oliver wrote in the review America, that Mary Oliver is a type of panentheist, which he characterizes as “her ability to see God in all things and all things in God. In a spider under a stairwell and a favorite pond, the flowers along the beach . . . , a cleaning woman in an airport bathroom and a young man with a gift for constructing with lumber but not with language, Oliver sought and saw revelation. It is this quality that gives her work the luster of the eternal.”

            In “At the River Clarion” she encounters God in everything—in the river, in butter, the lilly, the forest, the leaf of grass, but also the ghetto, the dying ice caps, the hands of those desperately preparing their weapons, and the tick that killed her beloved dog Luke.  She writes,

 

Yes, it could be that I am a tiny piece of God, and
each of you too, or at least
of his intention and his hope.
Which is a delight beyond measure.

 

For her, consolation arrives in discovering God all around us.

 

            Mary Oliver teaches us—in the midst of our grief, if we but listen, we can hear God speaking to us.  And so the poem ends,

 

And still, pressed deep into my mind, the river
keeps coming, touching me, passing by on its
long journey, its pale, infallible voice

singing.

           

            So, find your river this week.  Find your place to sit and listen.  For only if you listen, can you hear God speaking.


Pay Attention

Pay Attention

“The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

7 July 2019

 

 

On January 17 of this year, Mary Oliver, America’s most beloved poet, died.  Oliver was not only the nation’s most popular poet, she was also a deeply spiritual writer.  Her collected works, for instance, is entitled Devotions.

And so last winter Katie and I decided that in Oliver’s memory, we wanted to spend a month of worship focused on her poetry and the spiritual and theological ideas it conveys.  We launch that series today, with this, one of Oliver’s most popular poems, “The Summer Day.”

 

 

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean-

the one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don't know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

 

 

            In a 2017 article in The Christian Century entitled “Why we need Mary Oliver’s poems,” Debra Dean Murphy wrote, “Oliver’s poems are not religious in a classic sense, but they do have designs on their readers. They are occasions for transfiguring the imagination and a summons to wonder and delight.”

            For example, here’s a segment of a poem entitled “Humpbacks” about whale watching off the coast of Cape Cod.

 

We wait, not knowing
just where it will happen; suddenly
they smash through the surface, someone begins
shouting for joy and you realize
it is yourself as they surge
upward and you see for the first time
how huge they are, as they breach,
and dive, and breach again
through the shining blue flowers
of the split water and you see them
for some unbelievable
part of a moment against the sky--
like nothing you’ve ever imagined--
like the myth of the fifth morning galloping
out of darkness, pouring
heavenward, spinning

 

            Yes, Oliver’s poems are a summons to wonder and delight, and there is a deep theological connection to this idea.  As Debra Dean Murphy points out, “the gift of wonder, of a posture of receptivity that Christians sometimes speak of as part of our vocation—the calling to live more fully into our humanity as persons bearing the [image of God], to mirror the divine dance of mutual presence, mutual receptivity, mutual love.”

            The summons to wonder and delight is a summons to be more fully human, to be more like God, to fulfill our calling.

 

            Which is why I paired today’s poem with the eighth psalm, that lyric to the glories of humankind.  The God who created all things has made even us, with mindful attention and care.  We are crowned with glory and honor and given power and dominion.  God desires that we flourish.

           

            A key theme in my own theology and in my preaching is this idea of living our best lives.  It is contained in the ancient Christian idea that “the glory of God is a humanity fully alive,” and the reformed idea that the chief end of humanity is “to glorify God and enjoy God forever,” and the claim about the resurrection that we Christians “are the eternal beginners.”

            But in the last couple of years I’ve been reading more about trauma and resilience.  One of the things so many writers in trauma studies tell us is that the traumatized person continues to carry their wounds with them.  That some possibilities at human flourishing are forever cut off.

            Maybe Mary Oliver helps us to connect these two disparate themes.  For all the inspirational quotes drawn from her writings, they acknowledge darkness.  The dangers and violence of the natural world.  And the great harms inflicted by human beings.  As a child she was sexually abused by her father.  In 2005 her spouse of over forty years, Molly Malone Cook, died of cancer.  Pain and suffering are themes of Oliver’s poetry.  Consider, “The Fish.”

 

The first fish
I ever caught
would not lie down
quiet in the pail
but flailed and sucked
at the burning
amazement of the air
and died
in the slow pouring off
of rainbows.  Later
I opened his body and separated
the flesh from the bones
and ate him.  Now the sea
is in me: I am the fish, the fish
glitters in me; we are
risen, tangled together, certain to fall
back to the sea.  Out of pain,
and pain, and more pain,
we feed this feverish plot, we are nourished
by the mystery.

 

 

            So, how does a woman who experienced pain and trauma end up writing inspirational poetry that summons us to wonder and delight?

            By teaching us to pay attention. 

            The primary spiritual and human practice revealed in Mary Oliver’s writing is to “pay attention.”  For instance, it’s there explicitly in the final line of her essay “Upstream”—“Attention is the beginning of devotion.”

            Debra Dean Murphy writes that Oliver’s poems point “readers to the gift of presence—reminding us, in poems that are often deceptively simple, of what it means to attend to what is before us in any given moment.”  She teaches us to attend to our natural world and the myriad creatures and happenings around us.  She also teaches us to attend to our own inner states, our physical bodies, and the body of our beloved.  We cannot begin to wonder at or to love that which we have not noticed, carefully.

            We notice this in the poem “The Summer Day” when she draws our attention not to grasshoppers in general but to a particular grasshopper, the one in her hand.  She can speak with affection for it because she has taken the time to attend to it. 

 

            Which makes her a powerful poet of our time, when we can be so easily distracted.  Franklin Foer wrote about this in The Atlantic after Mary Oliver’s death. 

 

In the age of surveillance capitalism, the biggest corporations redirect the gaze, exploiting the psyche’s vulnerabilities for profit. Even silenced phones light up with notifications that break eye contact and disrupt concentration. YouTube plays videos in an endless loop, queued on the basis of intimate data, so that the emotional rush of one clip stokes the desire to watch the next. Facebook, the ultimate manipulation machine, arrays information to exploit the psychic weaknesses of users, with the intent of keeping them on its site for as long as it can. The hand touches the phone upon waking, even before it can rub the eye or reach across the bed to wake the spouse.

 

He pointed out that Oliver herself was not directly criticizing these developments, but her writings teach us to live differently. 

 

            What are we going to do with our “one wild and precious life?”

            Will we be distracted?  Will we fail to enjoy the world God created?  Will we miss a chance to love and be loved? 

Or will we heed the “summons to wonder and delight” by attending to what is before us at any given moment?  And thereby fulfill our call “to live more fully into our humanity as persons bearing the [image of God]?”