I am sitting on a bus with the low thrum of the engine idling as we wait for the last sleepy passengers to amble in to catch their ride to Cambridge. A week ago I stood on the Oxford platform, strangely alert with that pre-jet lag wakefulness, adrenaline in a surge as I savored my return to a town that “stabs my soul awake,” as Robert Louis Stevenson said.
Oxford. Honeyed stone and hidden gardens behind the massive old oak doors and people in a bustle after learning and books and friendship every hour of the day. Evensongs echoing in the many chapels at each sun’s setting. Crammed streets and rambling bookshops, beehive pubs in a hum of revelry and conversation, and Port Meadow stretching it’s green serenity just beyond the borders of town with the river a silvered thread tying meadow and heart together.
What I have always loved about Oxford is the life that aches and yearns in a bright flow through the veins of it’s streets. And how it draws and livens me as well. I’m here for the C.S. Lewis Foundation’s Summer Institute, a conference that happens every three years for a week in Oxford and a week in Cambridge. Centered around a theme from Lewis’ work – this year it’s “Reclaiming the Virtues: Human Flourishing in the 21st Century” – the conference is a gathering of speakers and writers and thinkers and curious souls here to consider what it means to embody the rhythms and habits of faith.
I’m typing this on my iPhone and have decided I was a bit ambitious to attempt a whole post, so I shall save longer contemplations in the talks for later. But the effect if it all in my soul seems encapsulated to me in the words from Lewis’ “Weight of Glory” sermon (which we heard passionately preached again from the very pulpit in which it was first given):
“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which,if you say it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilites, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – These are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”
Convicting stuff, eh? And that is the theme of this time really, how do we choose and create the formative practices that begin that everlasting splendor in our own hearts and in our education, leadership, love, and art?
That’s what I’m pondering in this dear old city with its “dreaming spires.” And in between I’m wandering my old tea shop and bookstore haunts, strolling over Port Meadow at dusk with the rest of my family, and every single day feeling the pulse and music of this place and the thoughts it’s atmosphere provokes as it bring me to a fresh and thorough life. I hope you are finding the same in whatever summer corner you read this. Over and out for now, from Oxford.
I could burst with delight and relief and pride and… many other things too. Storyformed.com is finally live!
I’ve been working on this website (and an accompanying book) for the last eight months. With the help of a brilliant friend, the website has become a online literary world and I am so happy to finally present it to the world.
It’s definitely still in progress as I will be filling out all the various pages with book reviews and research, but the bones are there and it’s explorable.
The heart of the Storyformed venture is simple: to get great books into the hands and hearts of children everywhere. My goal is to help parents and educators discover the best children’s books to be found. I’ve created Storyformed.com as a place to celebrate, and defend, the soul-forming power of imagination, story, and beauty to form children to love what is right, hunger for what is good, and grasp what is true. Because to read a great story might just be to start living one too.
To that end, Storyformed.com is both a literary online resource, and the home of a new publishing imprint, Storyformed Books.
We’ll be republishing excellent out-of-print classics, releasing new fiction by contemporary authors, and publishing a series of essay collections on reading and imagination. My book, Caught Up in a Story, written largely to explain the Storyformed worldview, is the first to release with the imprint. We’ll follow it soon with Just David, one of the favorite children’s classics of my childhood.
The website, meanwhile, was designed to be richly stocked with book reviews, research, quotes, and reading lists, countless resources to guide parents and teachers as they enter the world of children’s books. If I could, I’d have every single reader into my library for a cup of tea, but for now, a ramble round the literary rooms of the website will have to do. Here’s a quick tour of what will be on the storyformed.com:
- The BLOG is an ongoing quest and conversation in the realms of imagination and story. You might find book reviews, quotes, pictures from my literary travels, featured artists, thoughts on imagination, or any number of other tidbits. Check back often.
- The LIBRARY is a searchable database of book reviews and recommendations. If it’s in there, it’s good. This page will be continually updated. You can search by categories and tags.
- The BOOKSTORE houses the newest releases from Storyformed Books.
- The BOOK LISTS page, also continually updated, will offer families various top ten lists for easy reading ideas.
- The RESEARCH page will be continually updated with resources specifically for parents and teachers. From studies and statistics on reading, to essays on imagination, to books on education, to websites of children’s classic illustrators, this is where parents can find their own source for education and delight.
Anyway. I’m just bursting over here and couldn’t bear not to let the world know the website is up. There will be an official launch in August (along with the release of my new book Caught Up in a Story), complete with giveaways and all that good stuff. But for now, it’s an open house for exploration. If you know any interested friends, please pass on the word about the new website. Read on!
One swift summer month has passed since I deactivated my Facebook account.
I’ll admit, I made the decision with a mind split evenly between resolve and reluctance. The flint-faced half was the stronger, that crisp, unbending inner voice reminding me how often I’d fretted over my busy brain. My mind had become so raucous that even the quietest of moments founds my thoughts racing with fears, worries, images, headlines, articles, ideas, many of them rooted in things I’d seen or clicked through online. Inner hush is something I think I was born to need, so native to my soul and my creative capacity that when I cannot command it, I get rather panicked. And resolved.
But the reluctant half of me felt a little lonely once that easy outlet for action and interest was shut. I felt disconnected from things. Life still felt hectic and busy and my mind raced right along. Except that loneliness cut deeper than usual. The long afternoon hours that occasionally make me regret the solitary nature of the writing life set me yearning to sing or dance or just talk to someone. I wanted to hop on Facebook. And I wondered, as I often do, if this was yet another instance in which my ideals were out of all proportion to normal life. Who was I to think that I could opt out of the social network? FB didn’t seem so evil in those first few days, but for sheer pride, I stuck it out a month.
I logged back in a couple of days ago, my month mark being passed, thinking perhaps my break hadn’t made much difference. I was rather excited. I scrolled for five minutes.
And I promptly deactivated my account again.
The sudden gallop of my thoughts, the five posts that made me anxious over everything I’d missed, the two that made me insecure at who hadn’t missed me, the next ten that set my thoughts spinning over a provocative headline, and the three after that sparking the old mix of restless desire and wistfulness that comes when I am confronted with too many good possibilities. I was so swiftly gripped by it all that I barely had a choice. It was self-preservation to close my computer and take half an hour to calm back down.
In the gradual quiet, gathered back to me second by second like raindrops gathering in a glass, I realized the difference that a month of hush had made. The sudden return of an inner cacophony made me aware of the quiet that had grown in my soul all month, a thing so humble and still I hadn’t noticed it until the contrast of the uproar made it plain. Returned to it, basking in it that afternoon, I began to examine the changed air that had come to my soul in my chosen quiet.
A quiet in which I could read my Bible in the dawnlight without the pinprick impulse to check my computer accosting me every five words. A hush that beckoned me to look out my window, learn again the different moods of the pines in the dawn and dark and halflight instead of turning to Facebook the minute I sat down, hungry to catch up with everything missed. A silence of possibility, in which loneliness or longing were channeled into letters written and spaces ordered and stories sketched instead of submerged in the painkilling run of the FB feed. A silence that slowed me, forging a safe inner space from which I could weigh my thoughts, consider my choices, know my emotions, before the press of the outer world provoked me to action.
That quiet was, I realized, a choice of mental sovereignty. A reclamation of the direction, rhythm, and source of my thoughts.
Facebook debates often center around the inherent good or ill of social media. I won’t claim either because I think that Facebook (and all social media and the Internet too) can be used profoundly for both. What I won’t go on to say, however, is that the online social world is a neutral force, a tool like any other to be employed without consequence to the person who uses it. Rather, I believe that Facebook, whether used for good or ill, is a profoundly formative presence because of the way in which it trains our minds to a certain rhythm, substance, and habit of thought.
Every time I use FB, I am submitting my mind to the rhythms and patterns of its universe. The realm of social, technological media is a kind of world, a space separate from the confines of our material existence. The rhythms of earth and body require me to sleep. The limitations of my physical sense mean that I can only hear so many voices, so many words at one time. But the online world is unresting. Rest, pause, stillness are antithetical to the nature of the internet which is to produce “new” information every hour of the day. So are moderation and even mental limitation. I can scan an almost incredible amount of information in an hour on the internet, and I need never rest on one page for long. There is always the next thing to scan, check, discover.
But every time I dwell in that universe, submit my mind to its laws, I am trained to its swift, unresting pattern of information. Facebook teaches me to desire constant surface stimulation. Formed by the thought patterns of machines, my own mind cranks along, unable to rest because it has been formed by a disembodied, unresting online atmosphere. But the constant stream of information isn’t forming me to think more deeply, to deeply contemplate, to have the long considered knowledge that becomes wisdom. Rather, its teaching me simply to glean information and then move on. As author Nicholas Carr wrote, “The Internet is an interruption system. It seizes our attention only to scramble it.”
How do I apply a scrambled attention to the command to “pray without ceasing?” How do I reconcile the constant mental activity online with God’s ringing directive to “be still and know that I am God?” How do I choose the “one good thing” of sitting at the feet of Christ, listening, while giving my brain to the thousand articles and opinions paraded online? Really, how do I travel to that inner realm of my own, that place in which every story I have ever told, every poem written began, when my consciousness is held hostage to ever-changing feed on a screen?
It was questions like these that prompted me to experiment with a Facebook break in the first place. The longer I ponder them, the more I am convicted that I cannot use the online world without great control and inward caution. The internet may be a primary medium of influence in my age, but if I am shaped by it, submitted to its disembodied, distracting rhythms, I won’t be able to obey the central rhythms of godliness described in Scripture, rhythms that seem always to describe an inner silence, a rest, an attention without which it is difficult to encounter the voice and presence of God.
That inward quiet is mine to command. God waits to meet with me. Ideas for new creation seed and grow in the ever fertile earth of my imagination. But the choice of where I will send my thought and on what patterns I will form the atmosphere of my brain is up to me. I rule my mind. And at the moment, I feel that I must guard that sacred inner space against the unresting distraction of FB. It’s mostly because I am not yet strong enough to dwell often in the FB world without being profoundly formed by it. When I can sojourn there, shaping it to my own goals and desires for relationship, holiness, and beauty, then I will return.
But for this moment, here in my chair, with the candles lit and another cool, misty day staring in at me over the mountains, I’m glad for the quiet.
A dim, shadowed day has finally come after the long cacophony of hot ones. The air is like cool, still water, the clouds silken grey, a canopy under which the birds cry in the windless quiet. My candles flame and my oldest Celtic music is playing – that first set of Irish songs that stirred my blood and quickened the breath of my sixteen-year-old soul. This still, dark, eerie day, feels like the shelter of God’s wings to me, a hidden room of a day in which to hide and rest my weary mind.
I want to remember, or somehow even to inhabit again the unfettered wonder of that sixteen-year-old self. I need her calm eyes, her ability to trust in the goodness of coming days. I need her surety. Today, I wonder if past selves can sometimes be a mental presence to which we can return and shelter from the busier, confused selves we have become. I wonder if those past selves can somehow counsel a current self, speak again of the vital things forgotten in the intervening years.
Sometimes, of late, I stop an instant and wonder when I grew up, when my days took on, so completely, the cadence of adulthood with its work and bills and constant deadlines. When did the mass of people – friends, connections, partners, acquaintances, peers, mentorees - grow so great around me and when did I accept the work of their many holy demands? It’s not ungratefulness or impatience that asks, its my inmost self taking stock as my outer self increases in action. It’s the girl in the inmost room of my heart, the girl who does not change however many years slip by, holding the woman I have become to her oldest ideals, her ancient faiths.
For many years I have pondered and defended the keeping of a quiet heart, a childlike wonder, a cultivated innocence. For me, to live in awe, to walk outdoors, to roam imagination was simply to be as God made me. If I spoke or wrote about them as work, it was only because I wanted others to join me in the joy I knew within the realm of wonder. So when, I ask my older selves today, did those natural gifts become my battlegrounds? When did wonder and inmost hush become the illusive, fleeting, pearl of great price treasures I now must fight and seek and wait with holy patience to attain?
I am aware of the world in its work and hurry rising up around me, challenging me each day to greater action and work, discipline, love, and sometimes, suffering. My limited spaces of time and thought begin to be crammed with the many demands of the active life, the working, loving, giving life required of those who love God in this world. Dreamer, writer, free-souled girl though I be, I cannot deny those burdens. To do so would be, not creative, but cowardly, a squandering of all the richness I’ve been given by love and training. And so I work hard, write, travel, clean… give. And my present self has become quite capable.
But today, in the dim light, I know that my work will be empty, my labor vain, if it echoes with exhaustion. If all that I accomplish bears the tang of bitterness because somewhere along the way, I lost that inmost, essential quiet. My temper is quick these days. My words too swift, too sharp. I scorn rest. I forget to wonder. Until I stop, as in this darkling morning moment with the candles like eyes staring down my soul and the music a road I walk back to my inmost self. And I know that I have forgotten to live in love, love that is the only sustainable basis for action. Love, that drove me to work and give in the first place as I saw it at play in all creation. I settle into the hush around me. My old self draws near with her innocent, eternal ideals.
I find myself thinking about Mary and Martha. I ponder them because Mary was the woman who embodied the hush and wonder I wanted for myself from the earliest days of my faith. I wanted to be the woman who chose the one good things, not the busybody who bustled and fretted right in the face of her Savior. Now, though, I often wonder about Mary, because it seems her choice is impossible to any responsible adult. I would love to slip away, even as I write, I would love to set this computer down, ignore the emails, the deadlines, refuse to notice the dirty dishes and hungry hearts in need of my touch. To do so would only be to burden someone else, to heap a weight of strain and need upon the other good people in my life, to refuse the work of loving as God loves me. So I work, and hurry, and get awfully fearful at how swiftly my thoughts move and my mind races.
But there is always that core self, the real self, the old self, alive below the bustle, seeking a place of quiet, fighting toward the inner, silent room of my heart where a great Love dwells in unchanging presence. A ceaseless hunger accompanies me throughout the day, that truest self fighting to dwell in peace, to find rest, to live in wonder. And I begin to ask myself if choosing the one thing, like Mary, the one great task of sitting at the feet of Christ, has very little to do with outer action at all. Perhaps that work is more truly the choice of an inner orientation. A choice to remain in the inmost room of my heart with my Beloved, to sit at Jesus’ feet in my interior self, even as the outer bustles about to accomplish all that truly is necessary.
I begin to think that the wondering life of my youth is something separate from circumstance, but crafted in spite of it. Perhaps the contemplative life – that disciplined way of prayer and quiet, wonder and love that has always fascinated me and of whom Mary is the traditional representative – has little to do with outward quiet. I even wonder if my conception of the contemplative life as a luxury of isolated prayer and unbounded time is a falsehood, a conception essentially centered on self rather than God. The hard, Christ-like, heroic virtue of true contemplatives lies not in the degree of their separation from the work and care of life, but rather in their disciplined inner pursuit of Christ. Their ceaseless choice to dwell in the inner room, whether they work or rest, in crowds or hush, in action or stillness. True contemplation is learning to dwell – that abiding in Christ that Jesus said was the secret, vital life to those who loved Him.
To abide in God is to live Mary’s choice while doing Martha’s work.
And in that understanding, the wondering self of my past, the working self of my present, are united.
But God knows that is a lifelong, excruciating work. Which is why dim, darkling days of angel-wing quiet like this one are always his gift. I do wholly believe in days of rest. I begin to think of them almost as spiritual discipline, a chosen quiet that must be claimed in the very face of incessant worldly action. For rest can be just as vital a work as action. For it is only an inward hush that allows me to travel back to the inner room of my heart when I have strayed, shake off the demon hands trying to keep me away from the door of the room where Christ waits to give me all good things.
So I revel today in every grey, song-haunted minute. I walk in soul, and I will keep on walking until I reach that room in my heart where Christ dwells, until I sit down at his feet, rooted once more in the Love that keeps me quiet amidst every clamor in the world.
In the past year, I have been so proud of my brother Nate as I have watched him create and craft his new movie, Confessions of A Prodigal Son. Nate was always a storyteller with an inborn love of a good tale even when we were growing up. Nate and I were read-aloud friends who savored great books, and when he began to write books himself, I knew he would spin a great yarn. Words poured out of his vibrant mind into stories of courage and bright swords and adventure. It’s no surprise to me that his work now is to make stories come to life. But it sure is a delight to watch.
So here’s the teaser trailer for the movie, complete with music by my other brilliant and oh-so-artist brother Joel. If you enjoy this glimpse of Confessions, it would be the best favor in the world if you would share and post the trailer so we can get the word out as Nate begins to promote this film. And here’s the FB page in case you’re curious.
I’m sitting in a coffee shop, supposed to be busy as a bee at about a dozen different and deadlined tasks, but I’ve just begun a marvelous book and I’m momentarily rebelling against responsibility in order to tell you that I think you should read it too. It’s called Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, by Anthony Esolen. My lovely friend Lancia set this in my hands two days ago, and though I’m only into the first chapter, the book promises to be a lively and convicting exploration of what imagination is, why it’s so precious in childhood, and what exactly we are all doing to kill it. Yes, kill it dead. I’m assuming it will also suggest how we might spark it alive as well.
I knew I would like this book when the author began by describing a college librarian who discarded thousands of “outdated” books (like medieval Latin grammars and guides to Anglo-Saxon language – you know, the kinds of books that founded Western culture) as a vandal. I don’t think this writer is going to pull any punches. And ah, how good that is for us in our busy, dazed state of modern existence.
I get excited by books that offer a rallying cry to all of us who believe that imagination is a precious thing, our gift and birthright, a fragile, but powerful force that will shape every aspect of interior self and outer action. The blood in my veins quickens when I find an advocate for childhood wonder, for innocence, for a life in which imagination has room to run and play and beckon us toward eternity.
I’m just doing to you what I did to Joel and Joy, my ever-patient siblings, when I demanded a few moments ago that they cease their work and listen to this passage in which the author suggests that, when it comes to children, we might be in danger of becoming vandals ourselves:
Books are bulky and inconvenient – like rocks, and trees, and rivers, and life. It occurs to me that everything that can be said against the inconvenience of books can be said about the inconvenience of children. They too take up space, are of no immediate practical use, are of interest to only a few people, and present all kinds of problems. They too must be warehoused efficiently, and brought with as little resistance as possible into the Digital Age.
If you read it, let me know what you think. Cheers on this blustery June day! Back to work I go.