The Heart Aroused, by David Whyte

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Whyte is an English poet who has brought poetry to the corporate world to nurture the creativity needed in today’s fast-paced markets. I enjoyed his later book, Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity, which I read as I entered retirement. This early (1994) book, subtitled Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America, lays out his premise for combining the two worlds.

The poet needs the practicalities of making a living to test and temper the lyricism of insight and observation. The corporation needs the poet’s insight and powers of attention in order to weave the inner world of soul and creativity with the outer world of form and matter.

He speaks of “a veritable San Andreas Fault in the modern American psyche: the personality’s wish to have power over experience, to control all events and consequences, and the soul’s wish to have power through experience, no matter what that might be [italics the author’s].”

Failure is not only an option; it’s a necessary part of an honest life. If we are too busy being invisible, hiding our true selves in fear of ridicule or a false step, then we are not bringing our full capability to our work.

Using stories, myths, and poetry to illustrate the path, Whyte brings new meaning to even well-known lines. He uses imagery of swords and starlings, of fire and—yes—a fish to awaken our imagination and draw us in. Whyte asks us to bring our soul’s journey into our day-to-day work life.

Our lack of soul is our refusal to open to a full experience of the world. Work, paradoxically, does not ask enough of us, yet exhausts the narrow parts of us we do bring to its door.

This is no how-to book with a checklist of easy steps. It is an exploration of the complex ecology of our own self and our place in the world. It asks us to hold contradictory ideas and goals, to find our own balance.

Instead of giving answers, Whyte asks questions, including many in the User’s Guide at the end of the book. For me, an inveterate manager, one of the most challenging asks what would it be like to fully experience your life instead of trying to manage it?

I’ve also enjoyed his poetry in collections such as The House of Belonging, with the overlap between his prose and poetry increasing my appreciation for both.

Although I no longer work in the corporate world, I found much here that is still relevant to my work as a writer. I would love to pull together a study group to work through the ideas in this book.

What book have you read that has posed intriguing and compelling questions for you?

“The Tower”, by Andrew O’Hagan

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I subscribed to the London Review of Books for the book reviews. I liked that they were longer than the couple of paragraphs usually allotted to a book review, and that they often placed the book in the context of the author’s oeuvre. Sometimes the long-form reviews told too much of the story, but that wasn’t a deterrence if I was truly interested in the book. I also became adept at skipping over those parts.

Over the couple of decades I’ve been reading the LRB, I’ve been a little dismayed at the increasing number of political essays they’ve been including. Sometimes I skip over them, but others have been useful in delivering in-depth portraits and histories of what is going on in the rest of the world, sadly neglected these days in U.S. news sources.

Still, I was surprised to find that an entire issue (Volume 40, Number 11, 7 June 2018) was devoted to Andrew O’Hagan’s piece on the Grenfell Tower fire.

I’d heard of the fire, of course. Managed by the local council, London’s Grenfell Tower provided high-rise low-income housing. On 14 June 2017, safety measures intended to isolate fire failed, and a fire in one apartment quickly spread through the 24-story tower. Firefighters were unable to contain the blaze, and 72 people died.

Accusations came thick and fast. Most people blamed the council, saying that they only cared about the predominantly wealthy neighborhood and not the poorer people, especially those in the tower. Some residents had been complaining for years about various problems and, as a result, the council had conducted a major renovation, completed the previous year, 2016, that among other things installed new windows and a new composite cladding on the exterior of the building.

In England, local councils provide some of the functions of local government. Elected councilors are responsible for overseeing things like education, libraries, social services, waste collection, and housing; but hire contractors to actually perform the work.

O’Hagan’s piece, researched intensively for a year, tells the story of some of the people who lived there. With six flats on 23 of the floors, you would think people would be strangers to each other, but as resident Alison Moses says, “‘It’s a funny little community . . . Everybody knows everybody, at least by sight.’” It was also a remarkably multicultural community. O’Hagan says, “There was scarcely any floor on which more than two families were born in the same country.”

I found the individual stories which make up the bulk of the article fascinating: their backgrounds, their joy and pride in their homes in Grenfell. But what really struck me about this piece was the political fallout.

Activist groups immediately blamed the council, claiming that they had cut costs by having defective cladding installed; they hadn’t responded to tenant complaints, and they did nothing to help tenants during and after the fire. These cries were taken up by the media swarming the site and quickly became the dominant story about the fire. However, when O’Hagan interviewed these activists, they provided pages of accusations, but no actual proof.

When he interviewed council members, he found that they were on the ground immediately and in force, setting up shelters and getting people there. As one council officer said,

We were organising food, transport, data and donations, as well as accommodation. Our staff were in all day. And we had all gone home that Wednesday night exhausted and switched on the television news to learn that we hadn’t done anything.

The problem was that they hadn’t identified themselves as council, their philosophy being to just get the job done and not make a fuss about it. As a result, no one realised who they were. A senior council officer said,

The first full day after the fire, a survivor was being interviewed by somebody in the media, sitting beside one of our social workers who had been with her since she escaped The media were keen to press her about the council. “The council don’t care,” the woman said. “They’re not doing anything.”

And at the end of the interview the social worker turned and looked at her. “Why did you say that?” she asked. “I’ve been with you since the beginning.”

“Oh,” the woman said. “But you’re not from the council, are you?”

Similarly, the issue of the cladding—the culprit in the spread of the fire—was hardly the council’s fault. It is not their job to verify it met safety standards; that had been privatised to a company that “both recommends the standards and tests them in the marketplace, while also being entwined with many of the companies whose products they are testing.” The blame lies with the lack of industry regulations, the lack of independent testing, and the contractor’s omission of a fire safety inspection—it turns out the cladding had been tested “on a desktop, but never properly in situ.” Also, this cladding was already in common use, installed on many other low-income housing around the country.

The government, eager to distance themselves from the catastrophe, put the blame on the council as well. They made things worse by promising the public things that they knew the council couldn’t deliver.

I could go on, but the chilling thing for me, in this era of fake news and hollowed-out journalism, is how quickly a false story can become “the truth”, not just among the chanting crowds who ignore right-wing politicians’ lies, but among progressives as well. We need responsible journalism more than ever. And we need to attend to our social reputation, the only thing the council neglected. Your reputation is everything, as my mother used to say.

How can we best manage our reputation in this age of social media and devolved journalism?

Ex Libris, by Anne Fadiman

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An ardent reader who still remembers the glorious moment when I first decoded the black marks in a Golden Book and found a story waiting for me, I love books. And I love books about books.

This is the first of several essay collections from Fadiman, former editor of The American Scholar and a founding editor of the Library of Congress magazine Civilization. She will be speaking at the Brattleboro Literary Festival in October. The essays here are about books—loving books, living with them, building castles with them.

In the first selection, Fadiman describes the hilarious and tender process of marrying her and her husband’s libraries after five years of marriage. First they had to negotiate how the books would be placed on the shelf. Like Fadiman, I organize my books by nationality and subject matter, while her husband lumped all under the heading Literature. And George could have been talking to me when he gasped and said, “‘You mean we’re going to be chronological within each author?’”

But it was having to give up duplicate copies that brought home to Fadiman that they “had both been hoarding redundant copies of our favorite books ‘just in case’ we ever split up.” She realized that taking this giant step meant that they were “stuck together for good.”

One essay explores inscriptions in books given as gifts while another hilariously exploits the charm and eccentricity of footnotes. To me, the most moving selection is about her father’s library, evoking memories of my own childhood. My love affair with books started early and quickly grew from valuing them as transportation devices to appreciating them as physical objects.

Like Fadiman, I look at bookshelves in homes I visit. She says, “My brother and I were able to fantasize far more extravagantly about our parents’ tastes and desires, their aspirations and their vices, by scanning their bookcases than by snooping in their closets. Their selves were on their shelves.”

In the realm of Creative Nonfiction, personal essays have one foot in the province of memoir and the other in narrative nonfiction. By including personal details, they share some of the power of memoir and the way it welcomes the reader in. At the same time, they can convey bits of knowledge like tasty morsels hidden in a cake.

Fadiman is particularly adept at bringing in abstruse and amusing bits of information. Before now, I didn’t know that “Galileo compared Orlando Furioso to a melon field, Coventry Patmore compared Shakespeare to roast beef, and Edward Fitzgerald compared Thucydides to Parmesan cheese.” Nor did I know that William Gladstone invented the system of rolling bookshelves used in Bodleian Library’s Radcliffe Camera and other places, including some archives I’ve explored.

Most of all, though, the personal essay is a story and, as such, takes the reader on a journey. The journey may end in an epiphany or a comforting hug or a sad acceptance, but always in a satisfying way. Each of these small journeys rewards the reader with insights, images, and a chuckle or two.

What book about books have you read?

Home, Edited by Sharon Sloan Fiffer and Steve Fiffer

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A friend gave me this enjoyable collection of essays, subtitled American Writers Remember Rooms of Their Own. Each author takes a room as a starting point for remembering: the porch, the hallway, the dining room, the closet, and so on.

This structure is similar to a writing exercise I use in my memoir classes. I invite the participants to think about a room in their house, perhaps the living room or their bedroom. Then I ask them to stand in the center and mentally do a 360° turn around it, noting the pieces of furniture, the various objects on them, the pillows, the curtains, the pictures on the wall. Select one and tell the story of how it came into your life.

From there, I say, follow the trail of memories. Writing a memoir is like being one of those clowns pulling a silk handkerchief from your sleeve. It’s attached to another handkerchief, and that to another, and you keep pulling and pulling until you have a huge heap of linked hankies. Memories work that way. Once you start pulling on one, you’d be surprised how much it brings along with it, a bit at a time or all at once.

Here, for example, Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s recollection of his childhood living room brings with it the solidarity of seeing any person of color on television—each siting was an event to be yelled out to the neighborhood. And then the television brings the drama of the Civil Rights Movement into their lives: watching the news “to see what ‘Dr. King and dem’ were doing”, watching black children walking up to Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957.

Alex Kotlowitz uses “The Boys’ Room” to describe his relationship with his brother. It is a place apart in the first-floor apartment in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The boys make forts and play at war. They raise hamsters, gerbils and turtle doves. They wrestle and box, all without adult intervention. Through all their fighting, though, there is a thread of caring and protection. They watch out for each other in little ways and big.

Given the allusion to Virginia Woolf, I expected these brief memoir pieces to relate somehow to the author’s writing life. The introduction by Sharon Sloan Fiffer does, relating how she would hide on the sixth stair down to listen to her parents and sometimes her older brother talk and argue as grown-ups do when the little ones are in bed. Then she relays these stories to her five-year-older next-door neighbor Nora. Trying to keep the older girl interested and therefore willing to let Sharon hang around, she learns when to tighten up a story and when to embroider it. She hones her comedic timing. Most of all, she learns to listen, not just to her parents and brother to gather material, but also to Nora, her audience to see how her story is going over.

The other essays don’t seem to go in this direction, but it doesn’t matter. They are heartfelt and true. They tell stories of other times and places. Most of all they tell about the families with whom we share these spaces, the love that lurks in every corner, and the memories that bind us together.

Look around your home and select one object. How did it come into your life, and what does it mean to you?

Life Work, by Donald Hall

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This slim book is part memoir, part meditation on the role of work in our lives from Donald Hall, who died this week. He and his wife Jane Kenyon moved from Michigan to his grandparents’ farm in 1975, giving up stable teaching jobs for the uncertain income of freelance writers.

Like Seamus Heaney’s poem “Digging” where he describes his father digging in the garden outside the window where Heaney sits writing, Hall compares his beloved work laboring with words to the more physical work of his grandparents. One thing he finds in common is that they do different tasks all day, unlike those who labor at repetitive jobs.

Hall gives us engrossing accounts of this grandfather’s work in the fields and barn and his grandmother’s work in garden and kitchen. He himself moves from one poem to another, one prose piece to another. He runs errands and handles the myriad tasks associated with the business of being a writer.

Writers are often asked about their routine. When do you write? Where and for how long? Do you write longhand or on the computer? Hall gives us answers to these questions, for both good days and bad days.

More importantly he addresses the bigger questions. What are you going to do? What do you dream of doing? What would be an authentic life for you? As Mary Oliver says in “The Summer Day”:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

What his work and his grandparents’ work have in common is that they induce a particular state of mind. Asked by novelist Gurcharan Dar what contentment is, Hall answers, “Contentment is work so engrossing that you do not know that you are working.” It is Dar who comes up with a term for this state: absorbedness.

Leisure or a life dedicated to enjoyment is ultimately not fulfilling. As John Fowles noted in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the curse of the Victorian upper class was boredom. With no work to do, both men and women often entertained themselves to death—or near-death—through gambling, drugs, overeating, imagined illnesses, and so on.

Absorbedness is an answer to the question Fowles raises: When are we most free, when we are “working well within a harness” as Frost says or when we take responsibility for living an authentic life per Kierkegaard?

When asked by Hall about the secret of life, Henry Moore answered, “‘The secret of life is to have a task, something you devote your entire life to, something you bring everything to, every minute of the day for your whole life. And the most important thing is—it must be something you cannot possibly do!'”

Hall’s meditations on work are sprinkled among accounts of his childhood on his grandparents’ farm, his travels with Jane, the birth of grandchildren, the recurrence of his cancer, and his preparations for his possible death during surgery for that cancer.

I’m reminded of the Canadian film Last Night which follows several people on what will be their last night since everyone knows the world will end at midnight. The choices different characters make are funny and sad. Do you simply sit in despair waiting for midnight? Do you riot, or drink, or fulfill a longheld ambition to have sex with your high school French teacher?

I asked my son what he would choose for his last night. He described what was then a typical Sunday for us: sitting around the fire together reading and taking turns working the crossword puzzle. Similarly, Hall describes his best day as one filled with work and loving moments with Jane.

What would your best day look like?

Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, by Toni Morrison

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Published in 1992 but still relevant today, this work of literary criticism looks at how writers create characters different from themselves, specifically how white writers use black characters in their work. As a writer she must imagine others and, thinking about that process, she became curious as to how black characters are portrayed in the U.S. literary canon, which at the time was almost exclusively white.

Morrison also looks at the effect on the work of these white writers as they pretend that race is not a factor in their work. “What became transparent were the self-evident ways that Americans choose to talk about themselves through and within sometimes allegorical, sometimes metaphorical, but always choked representation of an Africanist presence.”

Applying this new critical approach, Morrison describes the deliberately constructed Africanist persona and how it functions in the American literary imagination, examining works by Faulkner, William Styron, Hemingway, and others.

She looks at the silence around race, for example, in Henry James’s What Maisie Knew and the lack of critical attention to the black woman who is the agent of moral choice in that novel. In Willa Cather’s story “Sapphira and the Slave Girl”, Morrison’s reading of race shows Sapphira not so much a cruel mistress as a desperate and disappointed woman whose social superiority is the only thing she has left to validate her self-image.

Examining American literature through this lens is fascinating. Morrison looks at the way authors such as Melville and Twain use the image of a slave population to investigate problems of human freedom and the fear of failure or powerlessness in white people. She shows how these authors relocate internal conflicts to slaves whose voices are silent.

These speculations have led me to wonder whether the major and championed characteristics of our national literature—individualism, masculinity, social engagement versus historical isolation; acute and ambiguous moral problematics; the thematics of innocence coupled with an obsession with figuration of death and hell—are not in fact responses to a dark, abiding signing Africanist presence. It has occurred to me that the very manner by which American literature distinguishes itself as a coherent entity exists because of this unsettled and unsettling population.

She also points out the troubling discrepancy between the fearful and haunted early American literature—Hawthorne, Poe, etc.—and the American dream of a city on a hill.

In addition to offering an allegorical foundation for major themes of American literature such as autonomy, absolute power, and freedom itself, Morrison suggests that this Africanist imagery “provided the staging ground and arena for the elaboration of the quintessential American identity.”

To me, her discussion sheds new light on today’s concerns about cultural appropriation. I am sympathetic to all sides : the writer’s need to tell the story she is passionate about, the importance of not preempting marginalized voices, and the necessity of having more diversity both in our reading and in our writers.

Have you read something or seen a lecture that gave you new insight into the books you’ve read?

Best books I read in 2017

As a writer, I learn something from every book I read. These are the ten best books I read in 2017. Please check the links to the blog archive for a fuller discussion of each book.

1. The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton, 1965-2010, by Lucille Clifton

What makes Clifton’s work so astonishing to me is the way she uses plain language in what are often quite short poems and yet addresses complex themes. Moreover, she packs her poems with music and emotion. What a privilege to be able to delve into a lifetime of work from this remarkable woman!

2. Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

We start with the story of a notary sailing from the Chatham Islands home to California in 1850. This story is followed by others that moved forward in time to the present and beyond. Part of the fun is detecting how the stories fit together. Each of Mitchell’s eras is written in a different style: a journal, an epistolary novel, a genre mystery, etc. It’s masterful writing!

3. Thérèse, by Dorothy Day

Social activist Dorothy Day was deeply influenced by St. Thérèse of Lisieux, also known as the Little Flower. Thérèse came from a humble background and lived what would seem to be an unremarkable life until her death from tuberculosis at 24. What sets her apart from other saints is her simple approach to spirituality, one that is open to all of us.

4. Dante’s Tears: The Poetics of Weeping from Vita Nuova to the Commedia, by Rossana Fenu Barbera

Sometimes you find a book that answers questions you didn’t know you had. This book roused my curiosity about many things, not just Dante and tears, but also silences, numerology, medicine, and religious beliefs during the Late Middle Ages. By tracing the way Dante presents his own tears and those of others, the author demonstrates how Dante’s philosophy and world view developed over the time he spent writing these works.

5. Bread and Wine, by Ignazio Silone

In this 1936 novel by an Italian who worked underground against the fascists and was exiled, the main character, Pietro Spina, much like the author, works against the fascists. Depending on who is talking, he is either a dangerous revolutionary or an admired freedom fighter. The meat of the story, for me at least, is not his political work but his own inner transformation.

6. H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald

In this memoir of training a hawk as she copes with her grief over her father’s death, Macdonald lays bare her emotional journey in language that is achingly precise, with moments of grace that left me breathless.

7. The Man Who Knew Infinity, by Robert Kanigel

Subtitled “A Life of the Genius Ramanujan”, this dual biography tells the story of one of the world’s greatest mathematicians and the man whose support made him known to the world. Their stories raise questions pertinent to today’s societies about prejudice, privilege and education.

8. The Noise of Time, by Julian Barnes

In this new book from Julian Barnes, we enter the world of composer Dmitri Shostakovich. We begin in the year is 1936 when Shostakovich is about to undergo the first of three “conversations with power” that will alter the course of his career, his life, and his self-respect.

8. Collected Poems, by James Wright

Before reading this book I had only read one poem by James Wright, his most famous one: “The Blessing”. I was drawn in and held by the gentle images, too specific to be sentimental, until the final image hit me like a fierce wind, lifting me out of this life. How lovely, then, to find this collection by the beloved and influential poet.

9. The Penderwicks, by Jeanne Birdsall

There is nothing like a good children’s book when you want to take a little break from the world. Jeanne Birdsall’s modern series about the Penderwick family is a delightful romp, reminding me of some of the best books of my own childhood. In this first book, the four Penderwick girls and their father take a cottage unseen for their summer vacation. It turns out to be on an estate called Arundel owned by a snooty woman named Mrs. Tifton, whose formal and conventional life is turned upside down by the influx of rambunctious girls.

10. Hélène, by Deborah Poe

In this chapbook of poems, a young woman, Hélène, works in a factory-convent in 19c France weaving silk. Gently, always leaving space for us to make Hélène’s story our own, Poe juxtaposes the beauty of the silk tapestries with the working conditions of the time. We cannot help asking ourselves what confines us and how we escape.

What were the best books you read last year?

Dante’s Tears: The Poetics of Weeping from Vita Nuova to the Commedia, by Rossana Fenu Barbera

Rossana Barbera

Sometimes you find a book that answers questions you didn’t know you had. This book roused my curiosity about many things, not just Dante and tears, but also silences, numerology, medicine, and religious beliefs during the Late Middle Ages.

Earlier this week someone mentioned a history professor she once had who hated the sentence: “Things were different back then.” When I read these works of Dante’s back in my schooldays, that’s probably why I didn’t question all the weeping that goes on in them. As it turns out, though, the cultural context for tears really was different from today’s.

I haven’t read Dante since then, though of course I’ve encountered references and bits and pieces of his work over the years. Still, I had no trouble following Dr. Barbera’s explanations of the various meanings of tears during that time and how this understanding illuminates Dante’s most famous works. (Full disclosure: I have known the author for over ten years, first as a teacher and then as a friend.)

By tracing the way Dante presents his own tears and those of others, the author demonstrates how Dante’s philosophy and world view developed over the 26 or so years he spent writing these works. In Vita Nuova, where he first meets Beatrice,:

Dante’s confused and distressed state of mind is not merely emotional or decorative. It embraces the very essence of the book, the writing of which seems to be motivated by Dante’s finding a new path in life, finding his new life . . . Vita Nuova is the stage on which Dante represents his struggle to define the truth of Love, to test positive and negative behavior. Vita Nuova was the occasion, in Dante’s life, to discover a new poetic; in a way, it is the paradise and wood where Dante gets lost.

The Commedia, in which Dante travels through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, demonstrates Dante’s evolution to a more nuanced understanding of love and death, sin and redemption, and to a new poetics to express them. He more subtly uses different kinds of weeping to describe whom he meets and what he learns during his time in Hell and Purgatory. For some he meets, tears are a relief or a means of atonement. For others, they are a terrible punishment.

For example, Dante reserves the ninth and lowest circle of his Hell for traitors, those who broke the political order or society’s rules, which to him meant betraying the community itself. I was struck by the current relevance of this verdict, centuries before Rousseau published The Social Contract, which describes how citizens are willing to surrender some of their freedoms to the government in exchange for protection of their remaining rights.

Confined with Lucifer in a frozen lake of tears, these traitors are not allowed to weep, and therefore not given any way to relieve their sorrow or to petition God for forgiveness. If they do cry, their tears are frozen in their eye sockets, their heads tilted back. By delving into the significance of tears and Dante’s poetic use of them, the author brings home the true horror of these punishments and the depth of Dante’s scorn for these traitors.

I was also particularly interested in the history and meaning of the sin of acedia, better known today as sloth. However, it is more complicated than laziness. What we now call sloth was understood as a medical problem related to melancholia and tristitia (sorrow) until the “first Christian thinkers . . . began to associate diseases with or to explain them as a product of vice and sin.” When first identified as one of the seven deadly sins, it was considered “an inertia of the spirit” seen among monks who shifted their attention “from spiritual aspirations to earthly appetite.”

The relevance to today is obvious. As massive problems beset our society—problems we feel powerless to solve—it is tempting to bury our heads in the sand, whether by binge-watching television shows, video games, retail therapy, or focusing on personal ambition. Even though Thoreau’s “To be awake is to be alive” has been my motto since my teens, I am not immune; the lure of my book-lined room is sometimes irresistible.

In Dante’s Purgatory, acedia is the middle of the seven plateaus, separating the sins “that cause harm to others (Pride, Envy, and Wrath)” from the sins of “excessive love of earthly goods (Avarice, Gluttony, and Lust).” It is “intended as the mother of all temptations”. The exploration of Dante’s uses of weeping helps us better understand Dante’s struggle in this crucial area, the centerpoint of the entire Commedia and how we ourselves might move forward with open eyes.

Drawing on over a hundred sources, the author summarizes research and scholarship. She goes further and adds her own conclusions, clearly expressed and supported by the journey she has taken us on through the beliefs and worldview of the late 13th and early 14th centuries. Like the most satisfying of jigsaw puzzles, the pieces of the author’s argument slot together and yield a fascinating new portrait of Dante, his times, and his works.

Nearly all of the academic writers I know loathe tangled academic prose. What makes this book such a joy is not just the breadth of scholarship and the shrewd conclusions, but also the clarity of the prose. Even if you are not familiar with Dante’s works, the liberal quotations here will bring it to life and perhaps inspire you to explore these two works armed with your new understanding.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Thérèse, by Dorothy Day

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The last couple of weeks I’ve been writing about books that inspired Dorothy Day, who devoted her life to working for peace and social justice. Always her focus was on ordinary people: working people held back by low wages and bad working conditions and those most vulnerable in our society such as people living in poverty. With Peter Maurin she founded the Catholic Worker Movement with the intention of actually living according to the precepts that the Catholic church and indeed all Christian sects preach.

While I am not a Catholic myself, I turned to this short biography because Day was deeply influenced by St. Thérèse of Lisieux, also known as the Little Flower. Unlike the other Teresa, St. Teresa of Avila who was an activist and reformer as well as a mystic, Thérèse came from a humble background and lived what would seem to be an unremarkable life until her death from tuberculosis at 24.

Upon entering an enclosed Carmelite convent at the young age of 15, she spent her time in prayer and performing the hard work necessary to the community of 20 nuns, such as the back-breaking work of washing clothes by hand outdoors in winter. Near the end of her life, she was asked by the prioress to write an account of her life, an autobiography that has comforted and inspired many people

What sets her apart from other saints is her simple approach to spirituality. What she called her “little way” consists of practicing the presence of God and offering each moment to Him by making it an act of love. If another nun teased her by splashing her with dirty water, she responded with affection instead of anger. If she was assigned some hard task, she performed it without complaint, even when she was in great pain from her illness. Day says that Thérèse described these “irritations encountered in her life with twenty others under obedience . . . to show of what little things the practice of virtue is made up.”

Not all of us are broken on a wheel or shot full of arrows. The stories of most saints are dramatic and heroic. Thérèse’s everyday offering, though, is something we can all do. We can all strive to be a little bit better in everything we do.

In his Introduction, Robert Ellsberg says:

From Thérèse, Day learned that each sacrifice endured in love, each work of mercy might increase the balance of love in the world. She extended this principle to the social sphere. Each protest or witness for peace—though apparently foolish and ineffective, no more than a pebble in a pond—might send forth ripples that could transform the world . . .

Thérèse’s little way, in fact, offers an essential key to interpreting the message of Day. In a time when so many feel overwhelmed by the vast powers of this world, she bore witness to another power, one disguised in what is apparently small and weak. Certainly, life at the Catholic Worker offered daily, hourly, opportunities for self-mortification—the little decisions to sacrifice one’s time, privacy, comforts, and cravings for the sake of others. It was the practice of these small, daily choices . . . that equipped Day for the extraordinary and heroic actions she performed on a wider stage.

These days I often feel “overwhelmed by the vast powers of this world” and take comfort in the idea of small actions: a call, a postcard, a rally. I struggle to find the right balance between resisting being bullied and responding with love. This account of Thérèse’s life helps me look at these issues a different way. Complete and unquestioning obedience like hers is not right for me, but I could be more compassionate.

In a novel by Elizabeth Goudge, I read of an elderly woman in rural England during the Blitz. Unable to help those being bombed in London in any practical way due to poor health and fortune, she did the only thing she could: she prayed. My practical nature resists the idea that prayer and good intentions actually help others, but they can’t hurt, and I certainly know that some small action can have huge consequences later. We don’t know how another person may be influenced by what to us is a casual aside.

It is Thérèse’s parents whom I’ll remember from this book. Both wanted the religious life but were rejected by the holy communities they sought to enter. Day says of Thérèse’s father that “he made up his mind to live a holy life in the world.” This, to me, is the essential problem: how to live according to your ideals in this flawed world where temptations abound and compromises are the norm.

For Louis and Zélie Martin, their way was to work hard—he as a watch and clockmaker; she as a maker of fine Alençon lace—and raise their five daughters according to their beliefs. Day says of Louis “It was through marriage and the bringing up of a family that he was to play his great and saintly role in the world.” The same is true of Zélie. To the joy of both parents, all of their daughters became nuns. All are remembered for their goodness.

We can each of us play a “great and saintly role in the world” even when our lives are quite ordinary. Whatever we call our practice—compassion, mindfulness, or the presence of God—we can pursue it as our gift to the world.

What book has inspired you?

The Courage for Truth: The Letters Of Thomas Merton To Writers, edited by Christine M. Bochen

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I’ve been looking to the past for ideas and inspiration about dealing with fascism and totalitarian regimes. I started with books by Dorothy Day, one of my greatest heroes, a woman who truly lived her ideals. From there, I’m moving on to the books that inspired her, by writers such as Simone Weil, Georges Bernanos, and Ignazio Silone.

Then Jeremy distracted me with this volume of letters. Of course, I loved reading the descriptions and commentary on his own and others’ works. Merton especially loved the work of writers from Latin America, and there are many here to whom he’s written and whose work I’ll want to look up.

But what fascinated me was a theme that has come up a few times recently. As Christine M. Bochen, the editor of this volume, says in her Introduction, “Merton sensed in writers a hope for the future of mankind. Merton believed, as the title of this volume suggests, that the courage for truth was their special gift.”

In November I attended a writing conference which ended with a workshop led by Donald Maass. He asked us, “How do you want your novel to change the world?”

Don’t laugh. Novels have led to social change. Think of how To Kill a Mockingbird contributed to the Civil Rights Movement or The Handmaid’s Tale to the Women’s Movement. Oliver Twist drew attention to child poverty and All Quiet on the Western Front to the reality of war. Poetry, too, has been a powerful weapon, whether written or sung.

I have for some time been clear about my purpose for writing. I can’t do much that will affect those in power. But I can tell stories, as I did in Innocent, my memoir of my time on welfare. Many people have told me that reading Innocent changed their view of welfare recipients. What I’ve learned in my lifetime is that big social changes happen when the minds and hearts of the people are swayed. And stories are the way to do that.

In fact, reading any fiction opens your heart and mind to the lives of others. Studies such as the ones described in this article have shown the neurobiological basis for how reading builds empathy. The same areas of the brain are used when we read about a character’s experiences as when we experience something in real life. It only makes sense. When we read a novel, we see the world through someone else’s eyes. Once we experience what life is like for them, once it has become our life too, our intolerance and prejudices fade.

In a letter to José Coromel Urtecho dated 15 March 1964, Merton writes:

. . . the poets remain almost the only ones who have anything to say . . . They have the courage to disbelieve what is shouted with the greatest amount of noise from every loudspeaker, and it is this courage that is most necessary today. A courage not to rebel, for rebellion itself tends to substitute another and louder noise from the noise that already deafens everyone, but an independence, a personal and spiritual liberty which is above noise and outside it and which can unite men in a solidarity which noise and terror cannot penetrate.

Of course, Merton recognises that there are risks involved when you take on the power structure. Still, in a letter to Boris Pasternak dated 23 October 1958, he says: “Both works (Dr. Zhivago and Vladimir Soloviev’s Meaning of Love) remind us to fight our way out of complacency and realize that all our work remains yet to be done, the work of transformation which is the work of love, and love alone.”

What novel or poem can you think of that has contributed to social change?