A New Year’s Routine Resolution

I’ve always been good at coming up with “big ideas”; no one’s ever criticized me for lack of ambition or vision. However, my eagerness to embrace and pursue new, big projects tends to be self-defeating. Eventually, I end up drowning under all of the demands that I’ve placed on myself. To make matters worse, I tend to “rescue” myself by simply throwing my energy into some new project. This tendency makes New Year’s Resolutions dangerous territory for me: I’m always ready to take on something new and, as a result, none of the old gets finished.

I have gotten slightly better at this over the years. Most notably, working on my dissertation has forced me to commit, with real accountability, to a single project. (This did not stop me, however, from recently submitting an abstract to a conference for a paper that dealt with an idea that I wanted to pursue precisely because it didn’t fit into my dissertation…) Nonetheless, I still really struggle to recognize that saying “yes” to some things also has to mean saying “no” to some other things.

As a result, this year all of my resolutions are going to focus on projects that I’ve already undertaken. I’ve learned the hard way that there are only two things that actually make me do things: deadlines and routines. Deadlines are all well and good and I’ve certainly got plenty of them, but I’d like the work that fills my days to be motivated by something beyond crushing fear and its corresponding adrenaline rush. Routines—once I’ve established them—work, but it’s always a struggle to make them in the first place. So this year I’m resolving to establish some routines to help keep the commitments I made to projects last year. I’ll get to what those are in a moment, but first I should explain why I find routines so difficult to begin with.

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To Seem The Stranger Lies My Lot

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TO seem the stranger lies my lot, my life
Among strangers. Father and mother dear,
Brothers and sisters are in Christ not near
And he my peace my parting, sword and strife.
England, whose honour O all my heart woos, wife
To my creating thought, would neither hear
Me, were I pleading, plead nor do I: I wear-
y of idle a being but by where wars are rife.

I am in Ireland now; now I am at a thírd
Remove. Not but in all removes I can
Kind love both give and get. Only what word
Wisest my heart breeds dark heaven’s baffling ban
Bars or hell’s spell thwarts. This to hoard unheard,
Heard unheeded, leaves me a lonely began.

-Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

I re-read the Hopkins poem reproduced above a couple of days ago, when I was in Barnes and Noble buying my mother a small copy of Hopkins for Christmas. While my dissertation writing has not yet reached the chapters addressing Hopkins, he’s still managed to haunt me over Winter Break. Hopkins wrote this poem during one of his recurrent depressive episodes, which became particularly acute when he left his native England to work as a teacher in Ireland. Born and raised in the Church of England, Hopkins’s conversion to Catholicism distanced him from his family and his native country. But Hopkins also felt removed from the national cradle Catholicism of Ireland—and the beginning rumblings of Irish nationalism further drove a wedge between the British Hopkins and his Irish students and colleagues.

I think it is this sort of existential homelessness that makes me particularly responsive to Hopkins’s work and to his biography. Hopkins’s queerness extends far beyond his sexuality: he was never quite in step with anyone but himself, a fact that even the strange rhythms of his poetry bears witness to. I also never quite fit at home: either with my parents (I’m an only child) or, more largely, in the varied Southern towns that I grew up in. I was always a touch too cosmopolitan, my parents’ house a bit too nice, and I far-more-than-a-touch too politically liberal to fit with the people I knew there. But when I went away to school (which, in the seemingly endless train of my higher education, has involved three schools), I never quite fit there either. In my current Ivied digs, I’m not quite well-rounded enough to fit, too religious, too conservative, and from too little money. Parts of me fit wonderfully into the little mini-lives I’ve managed to cultivate. There are folks that I can be quite comfortably “academic” with and there are folks that I can be quite comfortably “religious” with, but there are precious few with which I can be comfortably both. As a result, it’s difficult for me to fully articulate my relationship to either identity, since for me they’ve always been intertwined.

At one level, of course, it’s all very frustrating. At another level, though, I can’t help but wonder if there aren’t also benefits to inhabiting the inside-outside perspective. There are, perhaps, things that those of us who have always been “strangers” can both see and make seen that others can’t. As I’ve been mulling this idea over the past couple of months, a few items in the Catholic blogosphere have helped me along.

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In case you’ve never thought about the connection of Socrates and Dorothy Day…

You should totally watch this lively talk that Cornel West gave on Dorothy Day at the Catholic Worker in NYC:

 

Meanwhile, I would happily listen to Cornel West read the phonebook—and every time I see this clip of him from the doc Examined Life, I totally wish that this was my classroom presence:

In other news, I’m nearly at the end of the semester, so expect thoughts beyond YouTube videos to appear here in the near future . . .

7 Quick Takes, er, Quotes

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I’ve been MIA on the blog for some time now (though, on the plus side, I have managed to finish my dissertation prospectus, and I’m halfway through a draft of chapter 1!). But while I’ve been neglecting my writing, I’ve not been neglecting my reading. Thought I’d use this Quick Takes to share with you a few of the quotes that have been most haunting me over the past couple of months. I leave it to you, dear Reader, to trace their connections and inhabit their tensions.

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Flannery O’Connor’s Prayer Journal is short (the text runs a little shy of 40 pages), but still completely worth purchasing because, like O’Connor’s short stories, it packs a big punch in a short space. The following is one of its most powerful moments:

Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon. The crescent is very beautiful and perhaps that is all one like I am should or could see; but what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and that I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing.

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“I’m Already There”

I’m in the process of digitizing my entire filing cabinet (it’s amazing how many nonsense projects you devise when you’re trying to avoid writing your dissertation!) and I just found, filed away under “Catholicism,” the handwritten page that I’ve transcribed below. I don’t precisely remember when I wrote it, but I know I was in the process of becoming Catholic. As I’m now helping facilitate this year’s RCIA program at my school, it seems particularly appropriate that I’d come upon this letter from my former self.

It’s pretty obvious that I was already thinking about the connections that I’ve tried to trace in this blog, though I also realize—seeing it from the distance of about a year—that I’ve grown a lot in being able to, as the Jesuits say, “discern the spirits.”  These days I can differentiate better—not perfectly, but better—between authentic contrition and a “guilt” that is really just a combination of shame and self-loathing. Nonetheless, the piece is raw and interesting and I thought it worth posting in all of its rawness. I wrote it very shortly after having a conversation with an acquaintance, an ex-Catholic, who had suggested that my conversion to Catholicism was really just an exercise in masochism:

Catholicism, my friends insist, is an exercise in masochism: repression, penance, and a twisted aesthetic of sacrifice. Well I’ve still got gash marks on my bicep from when the razor slipped—and so do you, I suspect—so don’t talk to me about masochism. I’m already there. I’ve crawled on my knees across dorm rooms at the behest of digital masters just to get off. I’ve been slapped up the head until I saw lights just to forget myself. I’ve drug myself through every secular ritual of penance and redemption that I could find. What, then, could be any worse about confessions, chastity, and obedience? We’ve never stopped punishing ourselves all our lives—we’ve run ourselves ragged with our guilt. Is it such madness to ask for something, at last, that can expiate that guilt even if it also heightens our awareness of it? Is it so much to long for those words that no fuck buddy, no reflection in the mirror, and no amount of blood trickling out of my body could ever pronounce: I absolve you?

On quitting as a form of starting

A couple of weeks ago, I stopped running. I had made it through three of the four short running segments that were meant to make up that day’s run-walk; but, when I started the fourth one, I dropped almost immediately from a run into a walk. Since that day, the running has been going well—quite well—and I realized that my decision to stop actually represented the overleaping of a major hurdle. To explain why, I have to go back two years to the first time I decided to take up running.

In the first year of my PhD program, after years of a sedentary lifestyle and still in the shadow of pained memories of PE, I decided that I was going to run. I think I decided on running because I knew that any fitness activity that required me to go anywhere to do it was never going to happen—it was hard enough to get myself out the door. Thanks to all those sedentary years I was woefully out-of-shape and that, of course, was what the running was going to fix: I was going to be in shape. I was going to be thin. I was going to be desirable. I was, in short, no longer going to be the ugly, fat, and uncoordinated person that I thoroughly believed myself to be.

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7 Quick Takes—07/26/13

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closet

I can see the bottom of my bedroom closet floor! I realize that this is hardly news in the life of most folks, but I’m not most folks when it comes to cleaning. (I’ve written previously about my complicated relationship with squalor.) But after an entire week of schlepping a hamper full of laundry down to the ol’ laundry mat every day for a week, I finally dug myself out of a closet full of laundry—and produced four bags worth of clothes for the Salvation Army! I’m not sure if this newfound cleaning streak is the result of some late-20s crisis, procrastinating to avoid finishing the dissertation prospectus or what, but I hope it keeps up. I am much indebted to one of my commenter’s who pointed me towards “FlyLady”—I find the site’s penchant for self-help jargon to be cringeworthy, but I have to confess that the system does seem to work.

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 Now that I’ve actually got the closet empty-ish, I’m faced with those eternal questions that arise around clothes. Do I give away beloved clothes that are just a bit too tight, especially while I still nurse dreams of dropping a couple of dress sizes? What about the thing that’s just slightly too large, especially since that seems to be the direction that the weight generally likes to march? And am I obligated to keep clothes given as gifts?  (Actually, this question always haunts me regardless of what I’m decluttering: can you give away gifts? I’ve generally answered in the negative, but I’m starting to change my tune out of sheer necessity.)

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In other apartment news, my renewed decision this summer to stick it out and not buy an air conditioner has, at last, been rewarded by temperate weather. The midatlantic heat wave finally broke and now it’s so temperate that I don’t even have to run a fan. I’m pretty sure that my delight at this situation is magnified ten-fold in my very fluffy long-haired cat who, at the height of the heat wave, took up near-permanent residence under my bed.

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In news outside of my four walls, it’s World Youth Day! You might have picked up some of the oft-ill-reported buzz around World Youth Day, social media, and indulgences. James Martin, S.J. does a good job of separating the facts from the hype over at CNN with a blog post entitled “Sorry, retweeting the Pope won’t get you out of hell.” 

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This picture of Pope Francis in Brazil needs no commentary because it’s already perfect. However, I did much enjoy Elizabeth Scalia’s description of Francis, based on this photo, as a “big brass band of a pope.” 

PopeFrancis

 

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Is there middle ground between “I’m okay, you’re okay” and belligerence?

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Andrew Sullivan just posted some recent research that suggests that the stereotype of the “dogmatic, belligerent” atheist is largely false. A study from the University of Tennessee found that the largest group of atheists fit into the category that researchers “call ‘academic’ or ‘intellectual atheists’: people who are well-educated, interested in religion, informed about it, but not themselves believers” and these are nearly twice as large of a group as the more militant “anti-theist” group associated with prominent atheist figures like Bill Maher. None of this comes as a big surprise to me, since most of the atheists I know would probably fit into the “academic atheist” grouping. Just as most Christians aren’t the raving fundamentalists who seem to pop up in the news, so also most atheists aren’t chomping at the bit to end religious belief.

What was most interesting to me in the story, however, was that their place in or out of the “anti-theist” grouping had little effect on the degree to which atheism affected the study participant’s daily lives. Sullivan quotes Amanda Marcotte at Salon:

Only 15 percent of non-believers […] fit in the category of those who actively seek out religious people to argue with, and the subset that are dogmatic about it are probably even smaller than that. But that doesn’t mean that the majority of non-believers are just sitting around, twiddling their thumbs and not letting atheism affect their worldview. On the contrary, researchers found that the majority of non-believers take some kind of action in the world to promote humanism, atheism or secularism.

In short, it seems like most atheists face the same conundrum that most religious people do: how do you live out your beliefs authentically without simply turning into a jerk? I’ve posted recently on how tired I am of an academic setting in which no one seems to care enough about ideas to really and truly assert them; instead, it feels like a long, extended exercise in “I’m okay, you’re okay.” So, I’m all for open, serious, and thoughtful engagement with one’s own beliefs—which sometimes involves directly disagreeing with others about theirs. But how to do this without becoming a raving pundit (the only alternative our culture seems to offer to bland indifference)? And must commitment to one’s own ideas always take the dubious form of “seeking out people to argue with”?

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7 Quick Takes—7/19/2013

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First and foremost: ironists rejoice! For students of literature—and all pedants everywhere—someone has finally fixed Alanis Morissette’s totally un-ironic song “Ironic.”  If you haven’t already encountered it bouncing about the interwebs, here it is:

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If you’re not already aware of Leah Libresco’s “Ideological Turing Test” series, you should check it out—the most current iteration is happening on her blog right now. A “Turing test,” as you might recall, is a test to see if a computer can fool people into thinking that they’re talking to a human when they’re, in fact, chatting with a computer. The concept of an “Ideological Turing Test” was developed by economist Bryan Caplan; in the test, participants try to successfully pass off the positions of their ideological opponents as their own. It’s basically a way to check how well you really understanding the viewpoint of those you’re arguing with.

I’ve found that the “Ideological Turing Test” also makes a great teaching tool. I’ve done classroom experiments in which students were asked to write a paragraph defending a thesis they agreed with and the opposing thesis and their classmates then had to vote about which answer they thought was the “real” one. Freshman are terribly prone to strawmanning, and this is a nice way to get them break out of it.

On Leah’s blog, Christians and Atheists—whose true identities will be revealed at the end of the series—are composing both a “real” and a “fake” response to questions about the ethics of polyamory and euthanasia. Readers have the opportunity to vote on whether they believe each entry to be a true representation of the person’s position or not.

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