Saturday, August 25, 2012

Book Learning

Over the years I have collected so many books, that, in aggregate, they can fairly be called a library. I don’t know what percentage of them I have read. Increasingly I wonder how many of them I ever will read. This has done nothing to dampen my pleasure in acquiring more books. But it has caused me to ponder the meaning they have for me, and the fact that to me they epitomize one great aspect of the goodness of life.
Marilynne Robinson, When I Was a Child I Read Books, 19

He was an ordained clergyperson from another denomination who had left pastoral ministry to go into some kind of non-profit work. That detail has been lost to my memory. He had made an appointment to visit with me in my office in a church on the Iron Range. He was pleasant, friendly and out-going – a good conversationalist. As he was sharing his story he talked about his experiences leaving pastoral ministry and going out “into the world.” He had learned a lot in his experiences, and then came the line that I have heard others speak. “I’ve learned a lot, things you can’t learn from books.” He was a smart person, but to my mind he held a simplistic view of what books can offer the human person, and the relationship between learning from books and learning from life.
“You can’t learn that from any book.” The words have a condescending tone to them. In the United States, we have an ambivalent attitude toward education, a divided mind about it. On the one hand we praise learning and wring our hands when we think we are “falling behind” the rest of the world. We are pretty anxious about education right now in this country, and the proposed answers seem to gravitate toward more time in class, more testing, more results (by which we mean the acquisition of skills for the job market). By the way, students in Finland spend fewer hours in the classroom than their European counterparts and are ranked the best performing students in Europe (Harper’s Index, September 2012). Furthermore, I am very supportive of education for job skills and think we can do a much better job of offering vocational training. Yet it is important to remember that making a living and creating a life are distinct. I digress. On the one hand we praise learning, but on the other hand, we celebrate all those self-made successes, people who dropped out of school to make a lot of money. The underlying premise seems to be that if you can be rich without education, then go for it. Were some of our self-made millionaires inspired along the way by things they may have read? Might they have been taught some things along the way by people who valued books? We don’t seem to ask those questions.
To be sure, there are many things we don’t learn or learn as well from books. We recently replaced the walking belt on our treadmill. The old one was torn and we called the company about a new one. They said that one could be ordered, and individuals could install them, but it was not easy. It would take some time. Well, we got the belt put on, though I learned some things about how I would do it differently the next time. We learn by doing. Reading a recipe is not the same thing as cooking a meal. Reading a book about good communication is not the same as actually talking to someone.
Nevertheless, to say in a condescending tone that you can’t learn about that from any book sells both books and ourselves short.
I belong to the community of the written word in several ways. First, books have taught me most of what I know, and they have trained my attention and my imagination. Second, they gave me a sense of the possible…. Third, they embodied richness and refinement of language, and the artful use of language in the service of the imagination. Fourth, they gave me and still give me courage. (Marilynne Robinson, When I Was a Child I Read Books, 22-23)
Reading a recipe is not the same thing as cooking a meal, but it enriches our experience of both cooking and eating when we add imagination to the recipe and when we can formulate our experience in words. Language both describes what we feel and experience and shapes feeling and experience. Yes, we learn many things outside of books, but our learning and experiences are enriched through the language we learn by our reading, and by the imagination that is formed through words.
A well-formed imagination does more than enhance individual experience. I am convinced that the broadest possible exercise of imagination is the thing most conducive to human health, individual and global (Marilynne Robinson, 26). In her recent book The New Religious Intolerance, Martha Nussbaum makes a similar point about the importance of imagination for the well-being of society. Good political principles and consistent arguments work well only against the background of morally informed perceptions, and these perceptions need the imagination. Only the “inner eyes” can tell us that what we’re seeing is a full human being, with a range of human purposes and goals, rather than a weapon assailing our safety, or a disgusting piece of garbage. (187) When we imagine the lives of others as full human lives, we treat them as full human beings.
I remember another voice, this one not seated across from me in my office, but coming through the television on CBS Sunday Morning, though when I ever got to watch that program I am not sure. His hair was gray and receding, with a gray beard and round glasses. He was unafraid to speak with the full vocabulary of words he knew, and could string together images and references across a long spoken sentence, leaving the listener almost breathless. His name was John Leonard and he spoke about politics and books and society. He died four years ago, but recently a collection of his essays was published, Reading For My Life. In the title essay, Leonard writes about the reading he has done, its importance in his life, and about the writers he has championed. It seems to me that my whole life I’ve been standing on some tower or a pillbox or a trampoline, waving the names of writers, as if we needed rescue (1). He ends his essay wonderfully. So do they all, these writers I’m waving my arms about, these angels made of words. Watch out for them. They give you dreams. (8)
“You can’t learn that from books” – true about some things, but our dreams are nurtured by our imaginations and our imaginations by our language. About writers – watch out for them; they give you dreams. And who are we without our dreams?

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

Langston Hughes

I think I read that in a book.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Sunday, August 19, 2012


Surprise, surprise, surprise.
Gomer Pyle

Life is full of surprises, most of them bad.
Wilfred Bion quoted in Eigen, The Psychoanalytic Mystic, 134

New every morning is your love, great God of light.
United Methodist Morning Prayer

Life has its surprises. Sometimes the surprises are wonderful, sometimes horrible, and sometimes something in between. I disagree with Bion, that most of life’s surprises are bad. However, I find his words a helpful corrective to overly cheerful and optimistic assessments of life and the world. In today’s economy, for instance, one is more likely to be surprised by a raise than by a pink slip.
On our summer vacation, though, I found most of our surprises pleasant. We started our vacation in Cleveland, where I had attended the meeting of the North Central Jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church. We visited the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

We thoroughly enjoyed that, though it was not a surprise. It was planned. Our planned destination was Niagara Falls. The falls were beautiful, and I was surprised by how captivating they were.

Along the way, we spent the night in Mentor, Ohio and discovered there the home of President James Garfield. Garfield was elected in 1880, inaugurated in March 1881 and shot on July 2 of that year. He died on September 19. His home was a delightful surprise as was discovering more about this rather remarkable man.

Traveling we also visited two sites that were part of the Underground Railroad, one in Ohio and one in Ontario. The Ontario site was the home of one Josiah Henson, a man whose life was used as a basis for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s portrayal of slavery in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

While we had not considered this before our trip began, we (my wife Julie, our daughter Sarah and me) realized that we could put our feet in all five of the Great Lakes on our trip. We were surprised by the simple joy of doing this.

Life is full of surprises. When they are filled with wonder and delight and joy, I am grateful. It makes me think of a morning prayer I have used. “New every morning is your love great God of light.” Surprises can be a means of grace.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Tuesday, August 7, 2012


Health means maturity…. The life of a healthy individual is characterized by fears, conflicting feelings, doubts, frustrations, as much as by positive features.
D. W. Winnicott, Home is Where We Start From, 22, 27

Since I last wrote, I have attended the North Central Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church, went on vacation – including a trip to Niagara Falls (more about that in a future post), and I attended my 35th high school class reunion. I hope that is reason enough not to have posted for a while. I am committed to writing more regularly as summer moves toward autumn.
So I attended my high school class reunion. It was a lot of fun. I enjoyed seeing people, some of whom I have not seen since high school. Friday night we were at a local restaurant/bar and there were televisions. I have also been following the Olympics and asked if a television might be turned to the games. I can multi-task! I never said to anyone, “Nice to see you again but can you move a little so I can watch this swim.”
High school reunions push me to think about growing older and change. I also think about what it means to not only grow older but also to grow up, to mature. Chronological age does not automatically bring maturity. The Olympics have also helped me think a bit about maturity.
Winnicott is right. A healthy and mature person experiences fears, conflicting emotions, doubts and frustrations along with more positive things. I think maturity has something to do with being gracious amidst the ups and downs of life. It is not a shallow positivity, but a certain equanimity when things are going well and when they are not. I have been impressed by the maturity displayed by Michael Phelps – gracious in winning and losing. I have seen that kind of maturity in a number of places as I have watched the Olympics. I saw it as Aliya Mustafina gave a thumbs-up to fellow gymnast Aly Raisman who had bested her in the floor exercise. I saw it powerfully when gymnast Sam Mikulak watched intently as his opponents vaulted after him, and gave himself over to amazement at some of those routines. He hugged and congratulated those who medaled ahead of him. Graciousness. Equanimity. Maturity.
Life is not all gold, silver and bronze. Often it is disappointment, sometimes heartbreak. Often there is little of the Olympic drama. Instead we have on-going ordinariness. Maturity means something like recognizing that life will have ups and downs. It means enjoying the ups, the joys, the beauty. It means not being defeated by inevitable disappointments. It means knowing sorrow, feeling it, but not letting it take over.
At my reunion, I knew once again that I was growing older. I hope I am also continuing to grow up, to mature.

With Faith and With Feathers,