Saturday, April 23, 2016

Ten Years of this Blog: Progress?

Ten years from the week when I first posted to this blog, what should I conclude from the fact that the concerns I wrote about then are the same as my concerns today?  Aren't we supposed to progress on the road of life?  Maybe that's a bad metaphor.

This blog, at first, was to be a place for spontaneous notes, like a journal.  As soon as Blogger showed me that seekers across the globe at least glanced at my stuff, I put more time into it. But then I felt guilty for the time I spent in this space, remembering that John Updike eschewed journaling because it uses up life material that should go into something productive, i.e., publishable.

Eventually, I realized:  this blog is my garden.  It's a narrow plot, where I return weekly to weed out errors and to tend to subjects of perennial interest to me:  Episcopalianism, Updike, mysteries, and Stephen Sondheim.

While I've tended this garden over ten years, much has changed:  I lost Uncle Jack Maier in 2005; leafing through the hardback collections of my blogposts, I find references to the passing of all the grown ups of my youth:  Aunt Harriet, Aunt Blanche, Uncle Jack Smoot, and Dad; only Mom and her cousin Pat remain.  In 2006, my dogs Luis and Bo were vigorous companions, now gone. In 2006, I was riding my bike nearly every day from May to August, averaging 18 m.p.h.;  last summer, I averaged something under 15 m.p.h.   

But I'm in the same house, weighing about the same, looking about the same.  My car still travels the same routes all week, from home to church (choir, worship, meetings) or to school. (Since 2012, I've added Mom's retirement community, but it lies en route.)  My salary has barely budged since 2006.  Back then, the US was enmeshed in two wars, and I'd never felt politics to be so vicious; now we're still not not enmeshed, and political discourse has reached a new low.  I'm still listening to NPR, enjoying the Atlanta Symphony and occasional plays.

In my teaching, I'd say 90% of my time with students is as fun as ever, interacting  with them over literature (historical texts, then; fiction and poetry now; scripts, always).  There's always that problematic 10%, and I'm just as surprised today as I was the first year I taught when students don't want what I offer.

And on the tenth anniversary of my first blog post, when I sat to write about a wonderful short essay that had just made me laugh and cry, it turns out that it deals with essentially the same topic as the first one ten years ago, in which I responded to a preacher who boasted that his church was true to God because he treats the Resurrection as a "fact," not a metaphor (link).

Last week, I read an essay by Rabbi Bradley Hirschfield who tells of a taxi driver, ex-stoner and gung-ho evangelical Christian, who peppers him with questions about Jesus.  When the Rabbi explains his belief that Jesus was one of history's greatest human beings and teachers, the cabby asks how the Rabbi can have such respect for Jesus without believing Jesus is God. The Rabbi surprises himself with a neat formulation: "You don't have to be wrong for me to be right."  The cabby swerves off the road in his excitement.  Then he asks what to do about his wife, a non-believer who has stuck with him through years of rehab and turmoil; his pastor has told him to leave her if she won't accept Christ.  The Rabbi essentially repeats his earlier answer: both wife and faith are a blessing; the man should not give up either one.  The story ends in a tearful bear hug.

It's a beautiful story that illustrates a quote from Rumi (via Coleman Barks) used as epigraph for an essay in My Neighbor's Faith: "Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing,/ there is a field. / I'll meet you there" (228). (see more about My Neighbor's Faith.)

My earliest essay in this blog looks for that field, too:  Whether Jesus's resurrection is a hard historical fact or something else, it's all in the realm of literature and imagination, now.  What we do with the story, how it colors our responses to our world: these are what matter.

So, am I stuck in a rut on the road to life?  I prefer to think that I'm like my friend Bill L., who has worked the same property for years, building a house and then tending a garden.  Flowers and shrubbery come up, some die, some overcrowd the others, and he re-works that plot.

I'm working this plot of cyber-space, responding to literature, belletristic and otherwise.  I enjoy the writing; I enjoy knowing when others have seen what I do; I enjoy weeding out awkward phrases and mistakes when I catch them in old postings; but I most of all enjoy going back to read things I wrote long ago that strike me as fresh, even now (see personal bests).

So, should I be concerned that I see repetition in my blog over ten years?  Our Episcopal Church itself arranges time in recursive events, readings, and processes.  John Updike returned to his childhood experiences from first story to last poem, always finding life in them.  Stephen Sondheim's collaborators have pushed him in very different directions, but his music for each show builds on a restricted set of motifs.  Layers of memory and intra-volume references are part of what make Wendell Berry's novels wonderful, all concerned with the denizens of one rural Kentucky town.

There's nothing wrong with enjoying perennials.

Bradley Hirschfield, "Finding Faith on the Road: Where Deep Commitment and Genuine Openness Meet."  In  My Neighbor's Faith: Stories of Interreligious Encounter, Growth, and TransformationEdited by Jennifer Howe Peace,   Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2013. 

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