10 Observations for Right Now

It seems to me that there are so many great teachers out there. It’s why TED is so popular. There are just so many people that are pulsing with wisdom and creativity. It isn’t a select few that have these great ideas but something that is shared across disciplines among all different kinds of people.

For years, I’ve been safely tucking ideas from great teachers into my files on Evernote. I save them for some future date when I might be able to use them in my ministry. Maybe they’ll become a sermon illustration or maybe they’ll work their way into some of my consulting work or maybe I’ll use them for some small group resource I’m writing. Among those things saved in my files on Evernote are actual assignments that teachers assign their students that have caught my interest including Paul Thek’s “Teaching Notes.”

On my walk today, with Krista Tippett in my ears, I heard from another wise teacher and while I’m tempted to file the idea away on Evernote, it grabs my attention enough to know that it’s something that I should probably attempt to practice right now. In OnBeing’s “The Power of Words to Save Us,” the poet Maria Howe offers this assignment that I’m feeling nudged to practice. She explains:

I ask my students every week to write 10 observations of the actual world. It’s very hard for them… They really find it hard…

Just tell me what you saw this morning like in two lines. I saw a water glass on a brown tablecloth, and the light came through it in three places. No metaphor. And to resist metaphor is very difficult because you have to actually endure the thing itself, which hurts us for some reason…

We want to say, “It was like this; it was like that.” We want to look away. And to be with a glass of water or to be with anything — and then they say, “Well, there’s nothing important enough.” And that’s whole thing. It’s the point… And then they say, “Oh, I saw a lot of people who really want” — and, “No, no, no. No abstractions, no interpretations.” But then this amazing thing happens, Krista. The fourth week or so, they come in and clinkety, clank, clank, clank, onto the table pours all this stuff. And it so thrilling. I mean, it is thrilling. Everybody can feel it. Everyone is just like, “Wow.” The slice of apple, and then that gleam of the knife, and the sound of the trashcan closing, and the maple tree outside, and the blue jay. I mean, it almost comes clanking into the room. And it’s just amazing.

There’s an added dimension to this assignment. Not only are these students called to pay attention to the thing in front of them or even the world around them, they are not supposed to use any metaphors.

Jesus loves a good metaphor. He invites people past and present to imagine the kingdom of God in all of these fantastic illustrations. It’s like treasure hidden in a field. It’s like a merchant in search of beautiful pearls. It’s like a king who wants to settle all of his accounts or perhaps like landowner who goes out early in the morning to hire laborers to tend to his vineyard.

This great teacher, Maria Howe, advises against it. No matter how much Jesus might love a metaphor, Howe says to avoid it. Don’t compare the thing. Don’t illustrate it. Don’t try to connect it to anything else. Just describe the glass of water as it is.

Right now, it feels like there is so much happening in the world and even in my own life. It feels like are moving fast and slightly out of control and perhaps what I need most is just to slow down and pay attention and notice what’s in front of me. Every day, just write 10 observations of the actual world.

It feels like enough for such a time as this.

A Blasphemous Question Just For You

Before I officially became Mrs. Cook, I went to a writing conference. This is, of course, what everyone does in the last few days before they get married, right? They go to a four-day conference. Well, it’s what I did.

Before we hopped on a plane and flew off to get hitched, I went to the Frederick Buechner Writer’s Workshop at Princeton Theological Seminary where I got all kinds of wonderful insight and advice from Philip Yancey, Jonathan Merritt, Jeff Chu and Kathleen Norris. As you may know, I’ve been writing a book. I’ve been staring at a blinking cursor for a really long time and let’s just say it’s a slow process.

It’s a really slow process. And then, on the very last day of this conference I heard Kathleen Norris say, “people of faith are afraid to encounter what they presume to be blasphemous — and so we are quick to cut down what makes us uncomfortable.” I may be misquoting her but that’s what I have written in my notebook. And it hit me like a ton of bricks. She just described my whole writing process. I have been afraid to put down the words because I’m afraid that I’ll be labeled a heretic. I don’t want that label. I might be one but I don’t really want the label stamped on my forehead. Or worse, on whatever published work I might offer the world.

Jeff Chu said something the day before that I was still thinking about. He said, and again I might be misquoting, “we are never ever telling one narrative, but it is always a weaving of different stories.” It was then that I realized that I’m writing a memoir. I’m weaving my stories with other stories in a first person narrative of my own grief. They say to write what you know. Well, this is what I know.

I am writing every day. I put my butt in the chair and try to get down 1,000 new words every day. Or almost every day. But, I have a terrible time with editing. I want to reread what I’ve written and I get lost in my edits. This is made worse by the fact that I have realized that it’s a memoir. And so, the whole voice has changed. Everything needs to be rewritten! Ah!

What I want to share with you is a snippet of this work in progress but I learned at said writing conference that blog posts really shouldn’t be that long. Blog posts should only be 750 words. So perhaps I’ll save that for another day. Today, instead, I want to ask you something. I want to ask you about something I heard Krista Tippett say yesterday. On my way home from a meeting, I listened to OnBeing and heard Krista say this:

There is this great puzzle about life that things go wrong, right? Perfection can be a goal, but it’s never a destination. And this has given rise across history to the whole theodicy debate. If there — how could there be a good God, or how could the universe, the balance of the universe be good when there’s so much suffering? And so that question is there and it’s real, and reasonable.

But then there is also this paradox that we are so often made by what would break us. And I think this is where our spiritual traditions, where spiritual life is so redemptive and necessary, because this is the place in life that says — that honors the fact that there’s darkness — but also says “And you can find meaning right there,” right? Not — it’s not overcoming it. It’s not beyond it. It’s not in spite of it. What goes wrong doesn’t have to define us but, I mean, again, to come back to what wisdom is, as I’ve seen it, it’s people who walk through whatever darkness, whatever hardship, whatever imperfection and unexpected catastrophes or the like, the huge and the ordinary losses of any life, who walk through those and integrate them into wholeness on the other side. That you’re whole and healed, not fixed. Not in spite of those things, but because of how you have let them be part of you.

What do you think? Is that true? That’s the big blasphemous question because I’m realizing I need to hear your story as much as I need to write my own. Jeff Chu is right. It’s never just one story. Moreover, right there — in hearing those words — that is where my imposter syndrome shows up. There it is announcing that I am not actually whole and healed. I have so long defined myself by this hard thing, this grief. I’ve felt it was who I was, who I am. So, I want to know: does your grief define you? Or are you wise enough to have integrated this grief as Krista suggests? I hope you’ll share your wisdom with me.