Turtle Life

On the theme of ‘doing less‘, and ‘doing other‘, comes this E. B. White (of Charlotte’s Web fame) New Yorker column, published on January 31, 1953.

Enjoy. Reflect. Preferably relaxing in the sun on a partly submerged log.

We strolled up to Hunter College the other evening for a meeting of the New York Zoological Society. Saw movies of grizzly cubs, learned the four methods of locomotion of snakes, and were told that the Society has established a turtle blood bank. Medical men, it seems, are interested in turtle blood, because turtles don’t suffer from arteriosclerosis in old age. The doctors are wondering whether there is some special property of turtle blood that prevents the arteries from hardening. It could be, of course. But there is also the possibility that a turtle’s blood vessels stay in nice shape because of the way turtles conduct their lives. Turtles rarely pass up a chance to relax in the sun on a partly submerged log. No two turtles ever lunched together with the idea of promoting anything. No turtle ever went around complaining that there is no profit in book publishing except from subsidiary rights. Turtles do not work day and night to perfect explosive devices that wipe out Pacific islands and eventually render turtles sterile. Turtles never use the word ‘implementation’ or the phrases ‘hard core’ and ‘in the last analysis’. No turtle ever rang another turtle back on the phone. In the last analysis, a turtle, although lacking know-how, knows how to live. A turtle, by its admirable habits, gets to the hard core of life. That may be why its arteries are so soft.

“A turtle, although lacking know-how, knows how to live.” Something to be said for that.

Resolving To Do Other

The need to do less is clear.

Those of us for whom “production = personal value” are compelled to be busy not necessarily by the inherent good in the thing we do, but by the fear of a perceived disvalue arising from our inactivity. Driven by a need for approval, by a lust for attention, by an insatiable interest in everything, or by a deeply ingrained ethic equating godliness and hard work, we apply ourselves to excel, or at least do more than the next guy.

So, for those of us so driven, the need to do less is clear. But the issue is not simply that we are doing too much. It may be that we are doing too much of the wrong thing and not enough of the right thing.

I’m a huge fan of (New College of Florida alum!) David Allen‘s Getting Things Done. (My first introduction to this came through this article.) More than anything else, Allen’s common sense approach to work flow and modern life has enabled me to keep whatever grip I have on my fractured life. I commend it highly.

Allen’s principle thesis is that we can reduce stress by getting all that clamors for our attention out of our heads and into some kind of orderly system. He’s right. Even though his promise of ‘stress-free productivity’ may seem an illusion, it is true that there is value in systematizing all of those competing commitments creating an undefined noise in our heads.

When we systematize all of our commitments, and carve away the fantastic which we know we’ll never accomplish (it’s too late for me to learn Greek well enough to read it without helps, you know), we begin to see two things clearly. First, we begin to see all that we are not getting done, which is a traumatic revelation. And secondly, we see that among those items on the list of tasks not being accomplished are some very, very important things. That can be very jarring.

The reality is that we may not need to simply do LESS in our lives, but OTHER. We may need to reorder what we do, striking from our plates some commitments which overly drain us or otherwise keep us from the important things. Allen commends making such assessments, and the end/beginning of the year is a good time to do so.

I labor (interesting choice of words) then to do less in order to find simplicity, and to do other, because it is important.

Resolving To Do Less

The end of a year is met with regret over resolutions never met and with hope in anticipation of resolutions yet to be made. But like it or not, this time of year is met with our minds tilting in the direction of those things we might (try again to) change.

Most of the time, resolutions commit us to doing more. More exercise, more financial frugality, and so forth. I need to find a way to resolve to do less. To do less, that is, of the things which distract and make life hectic so that I might do more of that which really matters. How to dissect my life in such a way that those distinctions become clear is the challenge.

J. B. Phillips in his insightful little book Your God Is Too Small challenges my constant anxious activity, as others have done in the past.

“If there is one thing which should be quite plain to those who accept the revelation of God in Nature and the Bible it is that He is never in a hurry. Long preparation, careful planning, and slow growth, would seem to be leading characteristics of spiritual life.

“Yet there are many people whose religious tempo is feverish. With a fine disregard for its context they flourish like a banner the text ‘The King’s business requireth haste,’ and proceed to drive themselves and their followers nearly mad with tension and anxiety!

“It is refreshing and salutary, to study the poise and quietness of Christ. His task and responsibility might well have driven a man out of his mind. But He was never in a hurry, need impressed by numbers, never a slave of the clock. He was acting, He said, as He observed God to act—never in a hurry.” (pages 55, 56)

Hmmm. And of course there IS that thing about his yoke being easy. I need to resolve to do less.

The Day After

Some people blog for a living.

I blog between the cracks.

So my timing is often off.

Like now.

I want to wish all a happy Thanksgiving Day. I can be cynical about a lot of things (like politics) but NOT Thanksgiving Day. It is good to take some time to celebrate the good things we have and to be thankful for them.

Many in the world are thankful, but are ambiguous about the one to whom they are thankful. They are happy for their life situation without having any to whom to credit for their happiness. There is an impulse to give thanks, but no ability to fill out the contours of the object of their gratitude.

That is the goal of the Christian preacher and the Christian church: to point people to the one to whom they are thankful; to pull back the curtain and urge them to see the one from whom all good things come.

Of all that I have read in the past few days regarding the giving of thanks, the wisest comes from someone who gives no hint as to whether she has a person to whom she is directing her thanks or not. Nevertheless, her thanksgiving is full of great wisdom.

If your life is in an uncertain place, if you are on an adventure, if you long to live more adventurously but are fearful, there is wisdom here.

A sampling:

1. Be thankful for the fact that you are not bored….
2. Be thankful for the limitless possibilities an uncharted path holds….
3. Be thankful for…all the help you get from those who support you….
4. Be thankful for the opportunity (read: necessity) the path you’re on gives you to be creative….
5. Be thankful for all you do have….
6. Be thankful for the moments of joy….
7. Be thankful for the gift of passion….
8. Be thankful for being alive….

I encourage you to read the whole. Even a day late.

Failure Is a Part of Our Stories

“One learns more from failure than from any success.”

Typically those who say this are listened to and quoted because they are speaking from a position of success. People are listening to them because they are assuredly not failures, but those looked up to and respected.

I love irony. And this irony leaves me to take such assertions with a bit of puzzled curiosity.

I conclude that if one learns more from failure than success, then at age 54 I am due to receive my well-earned PhD. at any moment.

But this all begs the question of what passes as success and failure. Herman Melville (ever hear of him?) died in obscurity working for $4/day as a clerk at the New York Custom’s House. Success of failure? Jim Baker at the height of his ministry success couldn’t keep his pants zipped. Success or failure?

Success can be a hard thing to quantify, and yet we all know what it is. Pastors who are NOT pastoring large churches or whose churches are not growing are called ‘faithful’. In my experience, ‘faithful’ is Christian code for ‘struggling’ or ‘unsuccessful’. One rarely hears that platitude applied to those with large, bustling ministries, faithful though their pastors may be.

Such platitudes must be taken for what they are worth. We all have a pretty good idea in our minds what constitutes ‘success’ and ‘failure’ in every field. Though one may learn more from failures, I know of no one craving such an education.

So it is with some interest that I read the literature of failure. I find strange comfort in the honesty which acknowledges that failure is a part of life. It is not a reflection on our character or our status. It is little more than an acknowledgement that we are indeed living.

To know the inevitability of failure is not to be defeatist. It is to acknowledge that in learning to walk every child first falls down, and of those who eventually do master the art, few will run 100 yards in 10 seconds. To know that the falling down and the hitting of limitations is okay and are a rightful part of life is to accept that failure comes to those who dream dreams.

The author of this piece, Lane Wallace, writes a great deal about ‘adventure’ – flying planes, climbing mountains, and the like. But she sees many parallels between the life of the adventurer and the life of the dreamer. The pursuit of dreams is by definition an adventure. It requires a vision, and an ability to change course, to back up, to redirect, to evaluate, and to plot a new course. It is always a risky thing. For those who dream, failure will be a part of our stories. And the simple reality of hearing that expressed does not make me long for success less, but it removes some of the fear of failure.

There is, of course, a gospel context for confronting failure – the knowledge that our acceptance before God is in spite of and unconnected with success or failure in our lives. I don’t discount that.

But I do take comfort in the reminder that failure happens. So, I’ve learned something yet again. Add it to my transcript.

The Lunatic, the Lover, and the Poet

Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact.
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
That is the madman. The lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt.
The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

– William Shakespeare, A Midsummers Night’s Dream, Act 5, Scene 1

Your Writing Won’t Save You

Writer Joyce Carol Oates, wrote recently an essay about her conflicted struggle to accept widowhood after the sudden death of her husband. It is a wonderful piece.

joyce-carol-oates-memoir-wide.jpgOne of the tasks she faced was that of cleaning up the aftermath of her husband’s editorial work on the Ontario Review. The pile of submitted stories all had to receive ‘rejection’ notices since the publication was shutting down.

In communicating this, she wanted to find some way to encourage these young writers.

“Even in my numbed state I feel an impulse to encourage writers, or anyway a wish not to discourage them. Thinking It would have meant something to me, years ago.

I think I would like someone like this who, even in her sorrow, is thinking of others.

But her concern for these up and coming writers runs deeper than this. She senses that what these writers are seeking in their writing is significance, purpose, a sense of place. Her trauma has brought everything into perspective. She continues:

“Though nothing means much to me, now. The possibility of being ‘encouaged’ has become abstract and theoretical to me — ‘encouraged’ for what purpose?

Your writing will not save you. Managing to be published – by Ontario Review Press! – will not save you. Don’t be deluded.

This is so poignant and so true. We fix our eyes upon a goal and think that if we only achieve that goal, we will be important, we will find significance, we will finally find meaning.

And we do, for a time.

But this voice of wisdom, loss, and reality says, “Your writing (marriage, business, childbearing, religion, morality) will not save you.”

Worth pondering.

Salvation by Starbucks

Needing a break from the fairly heavy reading of A Distant Mirror and The History of the Ancient World, I was glad to receive for my birthday from my son and daughter-in-law the book How Starbucks Saved My Life by Michael Gates Gill.

A friend had been recommending this book to me for some time. It is a book that could be enjoyed and tossed aside without much of a thought. However, there is more here of value than one might at first imagine.

The book’s subtitle rightly casts Michael Gates Gill as a son of privilege. His father was a writer for the New Yorker, his Yale education was a matter of course, and his rise to prominence in a major New York advertising firm partially due to the connections his background afforded him.

But at around age 60, it all fell apart. He was fired from his job (younger men were cheaper and just as capable) and he lost his marriage (due to an affair he now sees as foolish) and, in due time, his fortune. Trying still to maintain some semblance of success, he was sipping a latte at a New York Starbucks one day when the African-American manager offered him a job.

Being desperate he took the job. The story unfolds from there. He who in his previous life would argue against the expectations of affirmative action found himself working for a black woman whose mother had been a drug dealer, and alongside of men and women he would have barely noticed much less trusted before. And it all morphs into the happiest time of his life.

Starbucks was the context for Gill’s transformation, and much about the Starbucks culture contributed to his transformation, but the points at which his transformation occurred transcend Starbucks and expose tendencies many of us need to examine. One example will suffice.

Gill is honest about his elitist and arrogant treatment of those unlike him. He was a man who had in his life met the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Jackie Kennedy and was used to treating underlings as capital to be spent and cast aside. At Starbucks, however, he began to see those who were once ‘invisible’ and ‘dispensable’ as real human beings.

One night, he was closing the store with two African-American partners, Charlie and Kestor. When their work was done, they got ready to head to the subway together.

“Kester and Charlie were changing into their street clothes: do-rags, big caps, baggy pants, and boots. They were completely transformed from the smiling Partners in green aprons. They both had earphones dangling down their chests. When I went back upstairs, I was accompanied by two guys who I would have at one point typed as hip-hop artists or gangsters—probably both. But now I knew when I saw guys like these, they might be something else, too. They had lives and loves that were as full or fuller than mine.”

Gill had to fall to see what many of us do not see yet. We look at people and type them: gay, atheist, bitter, happy, homeless, buddhist, liberal, Republican. Once we type them, we fail to see them as real people. They are merely categories about whom we form blanket opinions.

It was no coincidence that I was reading this alongside my study of John 4, where Jesus crosses gender, lifestyle, racial, and religious barriers to do what no one else was doing: treating a sinful Samaritan woman as a real person. May his grace so infiltrate our souls so that we might do the same, see others as people having “lives and loves that [are] as full or fuller than” our own.

Not a Fluke

I stopped by Lov a Da Coffee to meet someone the other day and sat in a comfy chair near a speaker. As I worked and waited, my attention was captured by the music that was being played. The arrangements were classy and the singer’s voice was captivatingly pure and beautiful. She sang fascinating arrangements of the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses” and of the Monkeys’ “Daydream Believer”.

When she began to sing “I Dreamed a Dream” from “Les Miserables” my curiosity began to form a hypothesis, later proved correct. This was Susan Boyle. The frumpy, homely, Susan Boyle from “Britain’s Got Talent” and YouTube fame. The Susan Boyle whose singing silenced an auditorium full of mockers. If you are one of the three people in the world who have NOT seen her performance on YouTube, you must.

Her dream was to be a singer, and as unlikely as that dream might have appeared at one time, it is no longer. Her album I Dreamed A Dream is now available for download or purchase.

I know that much of the quality of this music is attributable to quality arrangements. But she handles those arrangements so well. How could she have remained in such obscurity for so long?

Later that night, I stopped by a friend’s house to take care of some things, and he had some music playing in the background. It reminded me so much of what I had heard earlier in the day that I plopped down at his computer to bring up the Amazon link to play some Susan Boyle samples for him.

“That’s good, Randy,” he said. “Sounds a lot like this” and he held up her CD. His wife had bought the CD for him and that is what was playing. No wonder it reminded me of her!

She’s good. In the end, I decided she was not $10.99 good. But she’s good nonetheless.

I watched the video again just to watch the judges’ jaws drop.

Priceless.