Romance in Warren’s Flood

Ok, Ok so this isn’t about “romance” the way you might normally understand it. There’s no Valentine’s Day message, heart shape, or bow-and-arrow carrying babies. I’ll grant you that the title is a little (if not a lot) misleading.

Instead of “romance” as something syrupy sweet I will typically use the word in the Coleridge/Wordsworth sense: the awakening of the mind’s attention to the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us. In this manner as well, “romance” may take us into the darker places, the “twisted and turned” places, the surreal and the mess. More simply put (you can thank me later), “romance” in this way only points to those things that move us most profoundly and deeply. It creates an environment that opens the doors wide to possibility and opportunity, allowing us to see things–perhaps–for the first time at their rawest. It is pathos. It’s what William Wordsworth himself cited as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion.”

We’re picking up where I left off in the first in this series in a post some time ago called “The Case for  New Romanticism.” All this is sparked by the decision to pick up Flood by Robert Penn Warren to re-read. Bear in mind that, to date, I think I’ve only re-read one book – Faulkner‘s Light in August— so this is BIG! In this novel the town of Fiddlersburg TN is on the brink of being flooded as a part of the Tennessee Valley Authority project. This project ultimately led to the creation of the two largest man-made lakes in the nation, Barkley Lake and Kentucky Lake, and the Land Between the Lakes area we have today. Making this happen, of course, necessitated government buy-up of all the land that would be flooded to make the lakes. It stands to reason that within the scope of the TVA project there would be several actual and legitimate towns.

As Flood begins Hollywood screenwriter Bradwell Tolliver has returned to his ficticious hometown of Fiddersburg on the virtual eve of its flooding. He has returned for the first time in a generation. Maybe everyone isn’t like this, but in my experiences and the experiences of those closest to me, you are unable to be indifferent to the place of your adolescence, eg “your hometown.” You may love returning or you may loathe it, but rarely are you indifferent. The physical location of one’s childhood is irrelevant, right. It’s not about the place. It’s about what the place does to us. It’s about how the physical place opens up wounds, hearts, and minds. It’s about how these places drag the voices of the past into the new vernacular of a different stage in life. But through their sights and smells these places als0 remind us a day that was so pregnant with possibility, inviting us to recollect the days gone by and the journey of a lifetime, where it went, and where it is going. These are all strong moments. Romantic moments, if you will.

It’s no different for Brad Tolliver when he returns to Fiddlersburg TN with producer/director Yasha Jones for a movie project. Interwoven into Warren’s narrative–this is my favorite part–is an attempt to define the south and what it means to be “southern.” For Warren, the southern experience is one predicated on lonesomeness. But this isn’t the kind of lonesomeness that concludes in a trip to the physician and a prescription for anti-depressants. It’s more the kind of disembodied lonesomeness that leads to introspection and the kind of romanticism described by Wordsworth and Coleridge; the sort of lonesomeness that winds down a dusty gravel road to some decaying homestead with its little-used and blue-faded tobacco barns and a yard that’s seen a share of Fourth of July picnics. It’s a romantic lonesomeness. It’s what Tolliver describes as a “high lonesomeness” in Flood right before he makes his way to the bed chamber of his youth:

“Well, in the Deep South, in certain circles, upper-class circles—upper class, that is, by old-fashioned standards and not those of Dun and Bradstreet … It is the nearest even the State of Mississippi comes to Zen. It is the nearest even the State of Tennessee comes to Zen. It is the nearest Bradwell Tolliver comes to Zen, and he is coming there now because, in the flood of moonlight and memory, he is about to retire to the chamber where he, as a boy, lay and, while moonlight strayed across his couch and the mockingbird sang, indulged what the bard has so aptly termed the long, long thoughts of youth.”

And so the “high lonesomeness” works in the same way as the romance: it brings clarity. Melancholy is different from despair in that it can be both cathartic and redemptive. A lament is to be embraced, not avoided. It’s in these raw moments that we are able to see into the reality of things. Another character in Flood puts it this way, “… that moment when some place is just overpassed but still extant and waiting for the flood, that’s the time you can see its virtues and vices most clearly.”

For me this has only served as a reminder to remain in the moment, regardless of what sense of foreboding or euphoria I may detect. Life can be defined in a number of ways, but certainly one of those ways is a series of moments that are strung together like freshwater pearls on a necklace. Regardless of their shape or size, they are all pearls.

A Jacksonian Response To Current Affairs

Round about the time the calendar was being turned from 1829 to 1830, the issue of interior improvements broke out in Congress for the first—although not the only—time. The matter for the most part addressed the use of public funds, dollars generated through taxation, for internal improvements. At the heart of the rhetoric was the sale of public land in the west and how that money would be spent. The issue itself was big enough, but the debate in Congress took on a much broader level to include slavery, states’ rights, partisanship, and presidential power. I’ve read that one of the Founder Fathers’ greatest gifts to us was a perpetual revolution (American Creation, Joseph Ellis). That is, that our nation could continually re-invent itself—evolve as the times required, without moving too far into extremist territory. The system of checks and balances along with the bicameral legislature was enough to keep the perpetual revolution slow enough as to avoid all-out calamity. The debate of 1830 was a proper demonstration of said revolution.

But that’s more than anyone wanted to know I’m sure. I include all of this in order to setup the quote of the day. This I found in Jon Meacham’s American Lion and is attributed to President Andrew Jackson. As the debate over the use of public land continued, Jackson called upon the people to reason—and he believed they would. And I believe that the alarms that are sounding today from both the right and the left will ultimately be silenced with similar sentiment:

There is too much at stake to allow pride or passion to influence your decision. Never for a moment believe that the great body of the citizens of any State or States can deliverately intend to do wrong. They may, under the influence of temporary excitement or misguided opinions, commit mistakes; they may be misled for a time by the suggestions of self-interest; but in a community so enlightened and patriotic as the people of the United States argument will soon make them sensible of their errors, and when convinced they will be ready to repair them.”

I read this recently and thought to myself, “Yeah. That’s what I think.” (So grateful for these guys that can create my words for me.) For some crazy reason I believe in America. I believe in the American Experiment. I believe we still possess the mettle that drove prior generations to carve this nation out of the trees and the dirt. And like Jackson said, we are susceptible to being misled by the suggestions of self-interest and also vulnerable to our misguided opinions—for a time. For a generation or two. But only for a time.

Unlocking Desire

In his book Rules of the Red Rubber Ball, Kevin Caroll asks 6 very simple questions that ask us to probe the deepest places of our being:

What would you do for free?

What activities inspire you?

What in life do you find irresistible, a source of inspiration, a reason to get out of bed?

What dream do you chase?

What topics do you love to discuss and ponder?

What’s your primal source of joy?

The book itself isn’t significant here. But as I begin to get a few years under by belt (and come into a whole new appreciation of what is meant by “experience”), these introspective moments and times of longing become, to be honest, unbearable. The truth is that God wants us to be more. I’ve found these 6 questions to be the foundations for the “from this point forward” conversation that is beginning to take more and more of a center stage for me as I wrestle with greater intensity the haunts of yesterday and the calls from tomorrow. And why aren’t these questions easier?

The Strange and Fascinating Twists of Spiritual Formation

fictionI read in the last year or so that author Richard Foster said in an interview, “We are always being spiritually formed.” For whatever reason—and although a relatively simple idea—I haven’t been able to put this away nor have I been successful at fully unpacking the reasons why these words and this thinking continue to reverberate for me.

It’s my opinion that in the world of spiritual formation we have entered a time that requires next-level thinking. Although the integrated counseling movement has moved the flywheel, so to speak, we’ve yet to establish a definitive understanding of what it means to be spiritually formed. While not a student of spiritual formation, I nevertheless have been afforded the opportunity to consider what it means, how it happens, and the heart of the matter for the last several years.

I’m convinced that “story”— both the Larger Story that God is revealing, has been revealing, and will to continue to reveal as well as our own stories (that is, where we have come from and what we have experienced and what we have felt and what we have seen and the people that have spoke into our lives both functionally and dysfunctionally)—play a crucial role in how we are spiritually formed. In fact, taking Foster‘s words into account, I could say that “story” is the absolute means by which we are spiritually formed: at every second of every day we are being spiritually deformed, reformed, and transformed, one upon another like layers of the atmosphere, not really sure where one begins and the other begins until we’re either colder or warmer, breathing easier or heavier.

Its easiest to think of this process as a critical path for demolishing the false selves, (also understood in terms of strongholds quite possibly) we have created. We are born in Saving Private Ryan, as John Eldredge suggests, and as we storm the beaches of our own stories through our adolescence and youth we realize a couple of things: (1) the bullets are live and (2) the stakes are high. So as we make our way from point A to point B we are able to deflect some of enemy’s shots, while unable to avoid others as they hit their mark. We are wounded. And into these wounds the enemy, our antagonist and the villain of our stories, speaks lies. Over time, like a boxer receiving short blows to the body over the course of his bout, we agree with the paralyzing lies of the enemy. These agreements lead to vows, the “I’ll never” vows, that create the false selves that stand in immediate and direct opposition to the person we were created to be.

Unfortunately, these disorienting events take place before we have enough experience to place them into their appropriate context. So what we assume to be “normal” as a child, for instance, we begin to understand as something other than normal as adults—or do we? Inherent in this paradigm is the sentiment that, yes, we have fallen as a result of Original Sin and continue to be plagued with all the resulting circumstances, but with our new hearts we are also able to recover, to some degree, Original Glory as God’s image bearers.

The critical path for demolishing the false selves is the same critical path that also lights the dusty roads that point us back toward our Original Glory. And even though we can never completely overcome our depravity on this side of life, we can live out of it less and less, while living out of our glory more and more.

So why all of this now? Oddly enough it’s the result of a novel I’ve recently picked up. Even though spiritual formation continues to be a part of my internal dialog, being exposed to John Irving’s latest novel Last Night on Twisted River at least for me begs a re-imagining of spiritual formation. All his books tend to present childhood as a very dangerous, heavy-handed, and unwieldy place, but Last Night on Twisted River—so far—is chilling in exposing the pitfalls, land mines, and live ammo we all face in the earliest, most formative years.  In so many ways Irving is able to capture this leg of the “story” for all of us in that’s it’s messy, unpredictable, and even offensive. Perhaps his greatest gift, however, is his ability to articulate heartbreak without ever saying it. You’ve just got to be willing to go on the journey with him. (And also willing to suffer the first 100-120 pages. Pretty doggone dry.) And I would add that this—so far—is my favorite Irving novel since The Hotel New Hampshire and The World According to Garp.

Aborting Bleak House

51q2f2azsql_sl160_aa115_I tip my hat to those that have read Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. In a moment of hubris I bought it—fully aware of my failure to appreciate Dickens’ merit—thinking I’d read it over the holidays. Alas I abandoned the project only 10 pages into it. Even though it’s only been a week since I started reading it I am confident enough to make it official. Regarded by many as his greatest contribution to the literary world, the prose is heavy and over-descriptive while the story was very hard for me to engage due to the nature of the language Dickens employs. I can only recommend it to those of us that seek something along the lines of a “punitive read.” I’ll log this under “Book Review” nonetheless.

Whooo … Are You?

wandering-illusionsTo prepare for a new project at work I’ve tried to glean as much as possible from the current spiritual formation conversation. One of the books I’ve read recently–M. Robert Mulholland’s Invitation to Journey: A Road Map for Spiritual Formation— reveals some very helpful tools in helping us discover not only who we are, but why we are.

According to Mulholland, there are four essential preferences that shape the way we relate to the world around us and process the “stuff” (my word) we receive from the world:

Preferred Focus
• Introvert (inner world of self and ideas)
• Extrovert (outer world of persons, events, and things)

Preferred means of receiving information
• Sensing (physical senses)
• Intuition (inner urgings of the spirit)

Preferred means of processing the “stuff” received through sensing or intuition
• Thinking (cognitive process of reasoning)
• Feeling (reliance on stirring of the heart)

Preferred relationship to the flow of life
• Judgment (closure, completion, control)
• Perception (open-ended and laid-back approach)

Regarding one’s preferred focus, the differences between the introvert (I) and the extrovert (E) are not particularly insightful. The extrovert is a people person who not only enjoys company, but is energized by it. The introvert prefers solitude to fellowship, reflection to action. Keeping in mind that this is a preferred focus, or “default”, I believe I am an introvert.

Regarding the preferred means of receiving information, Mulholland distinguishes the intuitive person (N) as a problem solver that first solves the problem, then wants to move on to the next. This person does not like repetition and grows impatient with details. The sensing person (S), on the other hand, receives information primarily through physical senses. The sensing person likes routine and details and finds comfort there. Initially I thought I’d fall categorically into sensing, but after reading Mulholland’s description I am closer to intuitive as a preference here.

The third pair of preferences, thinking and feeling, suggest the means for processing the data received through intuition and sensing. Thinking persons (T) do not show emotion easily and tend to be uncomfortable around those who do. They are very analytical and logical and tend to make decisions in an impersonal way. Feeling persons (F), however, are very sensitive to how others feel. They like harmony. They have a need to please others and sometimes let their decisions be influenced by others’ likes and dislikes. This one was tough for me, but give myself an “F”.

The final pair, judgment (J) and perception (P), refers to our preferred relationship to the flow of life and is an easy distinction: closer, completion, and order vs. open-ended as a preferred way for dealing with the flow of life. I concluded my own assessment as an INFP.

Basically, a person’s non-preferred methods for shaping the world and processing information become his or her “shadow side”. Because Mulholland believes that to be conformed more and more into the image of Christ, we must not be allowed to habitually default to our preferences. We must put ourselves in positions that force us to exercise this “shadow side” in order for God to form us more holistically. In other words, we need to “get uncomfortable.”

But more than just getting uncomfortable, these shadow sides point us to a set of personal spiritual disciplines. In addition to the classic disciplines, my shadow sides suggest to me those areas that need unique, personal attention in order for me to become more Christlike. In other words, it’s in those areas where I am least Christlike that God most wants to work with me. I need to be more inclusive and engaged. I need to be more prayerful about showing emotion and, maybe even more important, being comfortable around those that do (instead of trying to “solve” their emotions). If allowed to default to my preferences time after time, my spiritual formation will become more and more self-referenced and less and less holistic. For instance, because I tend to be more introverted, my natural spiritual path is reflective. Because of this, one of my “personal” spiritual disciplines would being more engaged with the world around me.

Agonistes in Wonderland

95

Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland has been sitting on my book shelf since, well, since I can remember. To be honest, I don’t even know why I have it. I guess it is one of those college assignments that I never quite got to. (In college I ONLY read the British Romantics.) So, tired of seeing an unread book on the shelf, I picked it up earlier this week and decided to read it. Let me tell you, this story is weird. Crazy. We’ve all seen the Disney movie. We know about the Queen of Hearts and the caterpillar. We remember the White Rabbit and Mad Hatter (right?). Cheshire-Cat is the best. Like most cats, he’s arrogant. But he gets the best lines. Even thought the book is crazy, there are so many great moments. I’d also add that Alice is one of the coolest characters I’ve encountered in fiction. That’s surprised me a little bit. She’s strong without being overbearing. She’s inquisitive without being naive. Feminine without being wimpy. She’s the quintessential postmodern heroine.

I almost wish I hadn’t gone down that rabbit hole—and yet—and yet—it’s rather curious, you know, this sort of life! I do wonder what can have happened to me! When I used to read fairy tales, I fancied that kind of thing never happened, and now here I am in the middle of one!

But my favorite aspect of Alice: she’s fearless—except that she was initially afraid of the Queen’s soldiers before realizing that they were only cards from a playing deck. While in Disney World a few years back we ran into a great painting of Alice standing, unsure, in front of the cigarette-smoking caterpillar. In the worm’s puff’s of smoke was the question, “Who are you?” If it wasn’t for the $500 I would have bought it. But that’s not the point. The point is that the caterpillar’s question is THE question. And it was so profound to be asking a lost girl in a place called Wonderland. I think we would all do well to try a little harder every day to wake up in the middle of a fairy tale. There’s danger. Absolutely. And disorientation. But also life—enormous life. Alice in Wonderland is a great reminder not of what life ought to be, but what it is. Fraught with adventure, disorientation, surprises, strange and unexplainable circumstances, and villainy. There’s fear, but once a closer examination is made there’s the realization that it’s only a veneer. But sum effect of it all is more than a Wonderland of sorts—it’s a very real Wonderland.