Jobs

JOBS ARE WHAT people do for a living, many of them for eight hours a day, five days a week, minus vacations, for most of their lives. It is tragic to think how few of them have their hearts in it. They work mainly for the purpose of making money enough to enjoy their moments of not working.

If not working is the chief pleasure they have, you wonder if they wouldn't do better just to devote themselves to that from the start. They would probably end up in bread-lines or begging, but even so the chances are they would be happier than pulling down a good salary as an insurance agent or a dental technician or a cab driver and hating every minute of it.

"What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?" asks the Preacher (Ecclesiastes 1:3). If he's in it only for the money, the money is all he gains, and when he finally retires, he may well ask himself if it was worth giving most of his life for. If he's doing it for its own sake—if he enjoys doing it and the world needs it done—it may very possibly help to gain him his own soul.

-Originally published in Whistling in the Dark


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The Pains We Suffer Here

Godric is traveling to Rome.

ALL ROADS LEAD TO Rome, they say, and ours leads us a crooked way. Great cities come and go. In Tours I catch a flux. In Lyons Aedwen twists her foot so I must load her on my back again. In Genoa a man found murdering a maid with child is cruelly punished. We watch them rope his arms and legs to four hot horses, then drive them to a rage with rods till each pulls hard a different way. But the man is young and stout and will not tear until the hangman risks their flying hooves to hack him with a sword about the joints, whereat he comes apart at last, and Aedwen swoons.

Except that there they have no end, the pains of Hell can be no sharper than the pains we suffer here, nor the Fiend himself more fiendish than a man. Oh Queen of Heaven, pray for us. Have pity on the pitiless for thy dear Son our Savior's sake.

-Originally published in Godric


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Art

AN OLD SILENT pond. / Into the pond a frog jumps. / Splash! Silence again." It is perhaps the best known of all Japanese haiku. No subject could be more humdrum. No language could be more pedestrian. Basho, the poet, makes no comment on what he is describing. He implies no meaning, message, or metaphor. He simply invites our attention to no more and no less than just this: the old pond in its watery stillness, the kerplunk of the frog, the gradual return of the stillness.

In effect he is putting a frame around the moment, and what the frame does is enable us to see not just something about the moment but the moment itself in all its ineffable ordinariness and particularity. The chances are that if we had been passing by when the frog jumped, we wouldn't have noticed a thing or, noticing it, wouldn't have given it a second thought. But the frame sets it off from everything else that distracts us. It makes possible a second thought. That is the nature and purpose of frames. The frame does not change the moment, but it changes our way of perceiving the moment. It makes us NOTICE the moment, and that is what Basho wants above all else. It is what literature in general wants above all else too.

From the simplest lyric to the most complex novel and densest drama, literature is asking us to pay attention. Pay attention to the frog. Pay attention to the west wind. Pay attention to the boy on the raft, the lady in the tower, the old man on the train. In sum, pay attention to the world and all that dwells therein and thereby learn at last to pay attention to yourself and all that dwells therein.

The painter does the same thing, of course. Rembrandt puts a frame around an old woman's face. It is seamed with wrinkles. The upper lip is sunken in, the skin waxy and pale. It is not a remarkable face. You would not look twice at the old woman if you found her sitting across the aisle from you on a bus. But it is a face so remarkably seen that it forces you to see it remarkably just as Cezanne makes you see a bowl of apples or Andrew Wyeth a muslin curtain blowing in at an open window. It is a face unlike any other face in all the world. All the faces in the world are in this one old face.

Unlike painters, who work with space, musicians work with time, with note following note as second follows second. Listen! says Vivaldi, Brahms, Stravinsky. Listen to this time that I have framed between the first note and the last and to these sounds in time. Listen to the way the silence is broken into uneven lengths between the sounds and to the silences themselves. Listen to the scrape of bow against gut, the rap of stick against drumhead, the rush of breath through reed and wood. The sounds of the earth are like music, the old song goes, and the sounds of music are also like the sounds of the earth, which is of course where music comes from. Listen to the voices outside the window, the rumble of the furnace, the creak of your chair, the water running in the kitchen sink. Learn to listen to the music of your own lengths of time, your own silences.

Literature, painting, music—the most basic lesson that all art teaches us is to stop, look, and listen to life on this planet, including our own lives, as a vastly richer, deeper, more mysterious business than most of the time it ever occurs to us to suspect as we bumble along from day to day on automatic pilot. In a world that for the most part steers clear of the whole idea of holiness, art is one of the few places left where we can speak to each other of holy things.

Is it too much to say that Stop, Look, and Listen is also the most basic lesson that the Judeo-Christian tradition teaches us? Listen to history is the cry of the ancient prophets of Israel. Listen to social injustice, says Amos; to head-in-the-sand religiosity, says Jeremiah; to international treacheries and power-plays, says Isaiah; because it is precisely through them that God speaks his word of judgment and command.

And when Jesus comes along saying that the greatest command of all is to love God and to love our neighbor, he too is asking us to pay attention. If we are to love God, we must first stop, look, and listen for him in what is happening around us and inside us. If we are to love our neighbors, before doing anything else we must see our neighbors. With our imagination as well as our eyes, that is to say like artists, we must see not just their faces but the life behind and within their faces. Here it is love that is the frame we see them in.

In a letter to a friend Emily Dickinson wrote that "Consider the lilies of the field" was the only commandment she never broke. She could have done a lot worse. Consider the lilies. It is the sine qua non of art and religion both.

-Originally published in Whistling in the Dark


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Certainties

THERE ARE TIMES when I suspect the world may come to an end before most of us are ready to—which would have the advantage at least of our not having to leave, one by one, while the party is still going strong—but most of the time I believe that the world will manage somehow to survive us, and that has its advantages too. I suppose Judy and I will keep on living in Vermont because after all these years it's hard to imagine living anywhere else, and as long as the dreams keep being dreamed, I suppose I will go on writing books. They never reach as wide a public as I would like—too religious for secular readers, I suspect, and too secular for religious ones—but in the end justice is almost always done in literary matters, I believe, and if they are worth enduring, they will endure. Who can say? Humanly speaking, in fact, who can say for sure about anything? And yet there are some things I would be willing to bet maybe even my life on.

That life is grace, for instance—the givenness of it, the fathomlessness of it, the endless possibilities of its becoming transparent to something extraordinary beyond itself. That—as I picked up somewhere in Jung and whittled into the ash stick I use for tramping around through the woods sometimes—vocatus atque non vocatus Deus aderit, which I take to mean that in the long run, whether you call on him or don't call on him, God will be present with you. That if we really had our eyes open, we would see that all moments are key moments. That he who does not love remains in death. That Jesus is the Word made flesh who dwells among us full of grace and truth. On good days I might add a few more to the list. On bad days it's possible there might be a few less.

-Originally published in Now and Then


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Enter Leo Bebb

I WAS READING a magazine as I waited my turn at a barber shop one day when, triggered by a particular article and the photographs that went with it, there floated up out of some hitherto unexplored subcellar of me a character who was to dominate my life as a writer for the next six years and more. He was a plump, bald, ebullient southerner who had once served five years in a prison on a charge of exposing himself before a group of children and was now the head of a religious diploma mill in Florida and of a seedy, flat-roofed stucco church called the Church of Holy Love, Incorporated. He wore a hat that looked too small for him. He had a trick eyelid that every once in a while fluttered shut on him. His name was Leo Bebb.

I had never known a man like Leo Bebb and was in most ways quite unlike him myself, but despite that, there was very little I had to do by way of consciously, purposefully inventing him. He came, unexpected and unbidden, from a part of myself no less mysterious and inaccessible than the part where dreams come from; and little by little there came with him a whole world of people and places that was as heretofore unknown to me as Bebb was himself. I have no doubt that, as in my earlier novels, I had to do more hard work than I now remember. I had to figure out names for people that seemed to suit them and to explore possible relationships between them. I had to search my memories of the South where they lived so I could get the look and the feel of it more or less right and the country way they some of them had of talking. I had to worry about plot, about what scenes to put in and what scenes to let the readers imagine for themselves. All of that. But in the case of Lion Country especially—the first of the four novels I wrote about Bebb—what I found myself involved in was a process much less of invention than of discovery. I had never written a book that seemed so much "on the house." It floated up out of my dreaming so charged with a life of its own that there was a sense in which almost all I had to do was sit back and watch it unfold. Instead of having to force myself to go back to it every morning as I had with novels in the past, I could hardly wait to go back to it; and instead of taking something like two years to write as the earlier ones had, it was all done in just short of three months.

-Originally published in Now and Then


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