Monday, February 28, 2011

practice, practice, practice.

I don’t think I’ve savored a book more than I have An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor. Barbara Brown Taylor is a critically acclaimed pastor, writer, and teacher, and this book is a memoir of sorts all about spiritual practices. She begins her first chapter by describing how one gains wisdom: not by simply knowing what to do, but by practicing and living life fully enough to see the consequences, both good and bad. Here’s one quote I loved that explains the whole idea: 
“Wisdom is not gained by knowing what is right. Wisdom is gained by practicing what is right, and noticing what happens when that practice succeeds and when it fails. Wise people do not have to be certain what they believe before they act. They are free to act, trusting that the practice itself will teach them what they need to know...Such wisdom is far more than information. To gain it, you need more than a brain. You need a body that gets hungry, feels pain, thrills to pleasure, craves rest. This is your physical pass into the accumulated of all who have preceded you on this earth. To gain wisdom, you need flesh and blood, because wisdom involved bodies--and not just human bodies, but bird bodies, tree bodies, water bodies, and celestial bodies. According to the Talmud, every blade of grass has its own angel bending over it, whispering, ‘Grow, grow.’ How does one learn to see and hear such angels?”
That’s beautiful, isn’t it? This idea that we learn by doing and by practicing has been a recurring theme in my life in the past couple of weeks. It was especially on my mind a few weeks ago, when I went to the prayer room every day that week. Even though those moments in the prayer room weren’t always the most profound, being intentional about prayer kept my mind on God. Since that week, I’ve found it easier to just stop during the day and say a prayer or a praise. It doesn’t have to be thirty minutes or even ten, but allowing myself to stop the craziness of life and focus on something outside of myself is something beautiful I’m learning to appreciate more and more everyday. 
We’ve been talking a lot about practices in my Communication class this semester, too. Cultural Communications scholars see the everyday practices we carry out as extremely significant ones. Everyone wakes up, gets ready for the day, eats or gets hungry, goes from place to place, and communicates with others, and the basic fact that we all do these things shows that there is some primary connection between all human beings. But the way that we live out these realities is very different. Even the simple things I do every day, like drinking my morning coffee, checking my email, making a call on my cell phone, going to class, reading, giving a hug, brushing my teeth, whatever it may be, these practices make up a life, my life. Even though they may be similar to my friends, family members, or someone on the other side of the world, the sum of these practices is entirely unique to my life, and therefore incredibly significant. 
Barbara Brown Taylor talks about a ton of practices that can become spiritually significant, and they aren’t all about doing daily devotions or fasting. I particularly loved The Practice of Paying Attention, which talks about seeing God working in everyday life; The Practice of Getting Lost, where one learns how to be a stranger and how to trust; and one I really need to hear, The Practice of Saying No, which is just what it sounds like. 

Whether you believe in God, whether you’re spiritual, or whether you’re still figuring out what you believe at all, I encourage you to pick up this book. I firmly believe that we grow wiser and learn how life is lived in this world by doing just that--living it. This book teaches you how to live life intentionally, filling it with exactly what will make that life beautiful. 

This week's read: The Life of Pi by Yann Martel. You've been on my list for years, Pi. This week's the week!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Her Fearful Symmetry

Her Fearful Symmetry is one crazy book. I’m not even going to try to describe it for you, because that would just ruin it. It’s just spooky, wild, beautiful, true, dark, and thought-provoking. If you’ve got some time or are looking for a good travel, vacation, or spring break book, this is a great one you won’t want to put down. But in all honesty, it was a bit overkill for a school week (especially when you don’t start until Thursday). Thus, the late and short post, but I’m sure you forgive me :)

This book made me think a lot about secrets and truths. I can’t really go into too much detail about the book or about my own life, but it really made me realize the importance of honesty. I think it’s pretty easy to get wrapped up in our own thoughts and emotions that we feel like we can’t talk about the things that bother/frighten/scare us. Maybe this isn’t true for everyone, but I often feel like society’s telling me that I need to put on my game face and head out into the world this bubbly, cheery person with no cares in the world. But in reality, we’ve all got stuff going on underneath the surface that we’re not letting on about. I’ll be there first to admit that I get my thoughts, worries, and emotions all bottled up and don’t talk about them until they seem to explode. And I bet I’m not the only one. 

I’m going to try to be more open and honest with people. Whether I’m frustrated or sad, giddy or gleeful, I’m going to try to talk about it. In the book, a lot of problems could have been avoided or solved if people bothered to share what they were feeling. Yes, I know it’s fiction, but fiction has a way of getting at those things we all know deep down to be true. And this honesty, this openness, this need to speak and have our fears and desires heard and acknowledged, is something that I know to be true.
Next week I’ll be reading An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor, which teaches all about spiritual disciplines in a really holistic way, with chapters on waking up with God, paying attention, getting lost and more. I started reading it for a class about a month back, but only got a few chapters in. So I’m going to go back to the beginning and read a few chapters a day as my daily time with God, because I just feel like I need that this week.  

Monday, February 14, 2011

our ever-changing language

I’ve spent the last week reading The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson, which is an humorously detailed account of the English language and how it got that way. The first thing that fascinated me about the book was how early in time he needed to start in order to properly explain how English came to be; first by explaining the descent of the larynx into the throat, which is why we can talk but other animals cant, and then starting about 30,000 years ago when the Neanderthal man was replaced by the Homo sapien, who not only produced astonishing artistic and cultural advancement, but whose lifestyle indicates some sort of linguistic progression that allowed man to communicate differently with others. 30,000 years ago! Crazy. 

What’s ironic is that even though the story of the English language takes requires a 30,000 year span to tell, because the book was written some 20 years ago (1990) it can be, in some ways, dreadfully out of date. Certain words the author used carry very different, often derogatory meanings for us today, and much of the geographical and political landscape has changed since the time the book was written. What surprised me most is how very little Bryson dealt with the idea of globalization and the spread of English worldwide. Sure, he talks about how many students are required to study English to compete in the world economy and the embarrassingly small number of Americans who bother to learn another language other than their own. But what I’m most curious about is how technology is changing the landscape of language, something Bryson barely touches on. Rightly so, since he was writing at a time when the World Wide Web as we know it was just being invented. Words like blog, Facebook, IP address, e-book, and countless more we use every day hadn’t even been invented at the time this book was written. What’s so fascinating is how rapidly the words we speak, the syntax with which we employ them, and the amount of people worldwide using the same words are changing. There have been a number of times in history that language has gone through a rapid shift or upheaval: the invasion of three Germanic tribes into Britain in the 400s, the arrival of the French during the time of Chaucer, Shakespeare’s some 1,685 newly invented words, Gutenberg’s printing press, and the spread of English to the New World. But I have a feeling that we’re living in a time of upheaval as well. The way we communicate with each other, the speed at which information is transmitted, the far reaches to which our language extends, and the increasing global presence of American language and industry all has the possibility to change our language in ways we never thought possible. 
Chaucer, Shakespeare, or Gutenberg would have never thought it possible that I could write down words as I’m doing now and that, seconds later when published, anyone in the world could see them even comment on or ‘like’ what I’ve written. I’m just so fascinated by languages and the ways that we communicate, and I can’t wait to see how our language continues to change in our lifetime! 
Next week I’ll be reading Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger. Some of you have probably read The Time Travelers Wife (wonderful book, horrible movie) by the same author. I’m excited for what I’m sure will be another page turner! Also, I think I might abandon my fiction/non-fiction rule, at least for the time being while I’m still in school. I’ve got great profs who are assigning some interesting non-fiction reads, but I end up getting overwhelmed at the end of a night of homework and just about the last thing I want to do is pick up a book that feels like it could be for school. Hopefully this change will help me get more excited about doing my reading every week instead of waiting until the weekend. Don’t get me wrong, I’m really glad to be doing this challenge, because there is something beautiful about deciding you’re going to do something and actually following through. I always feel so accomplished at the end of the week, have learned and thought about so much, and am excited to share it with all of you, both online and in person! 
Happy Monday everyone!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

living intentionally, racing without fear.

If you’ve been looking for the perfect book to get you back into reading, this is it. It’s the type of book you can’t bear to put down, but you’ve got to pace yourself in order to savor each and every page. It’s the type of book that makes you want to hunker down under the covers with a cup of tea and never come out (well, over two feet of snow can do that too, but having this book is a bonus!). And if you’ve got a book but no tea, try Honey Vanilla Chamomile by Celestial Seasonings. I promise you won’t be sorry. 
The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein is a fabulous read that reminds you how to fight for something you care about deeply. I don’t want to go into too much detail about the plot because I really want you to read the book, but the story is told by a dog named Enzo whose owner Denny must fight tooth and nail to keep his family together. Now, for those of you who know me well, I am NOT an animal person, so the thought of reading a story narrated by a dog was a bit of a strange concept for me. Except that this dog is the most loyal, the kindest, and the wisest of all animals I’ve ever ‘met’. At one point, Enzo speaks about Denny’s character and strength, and when he spoke, I had to immediately jot down what he had said: 
“There is no dishonor in losing the race. There is only dishonor in not racing because you are afraid to lose.”
What a beautiful thing to say. In our culture of winners and losers, of gold-medalists and benchwarmers, of those who get promoted and those who are left behind, it’s good to remember that there is no dishonor in losing the race, but that dishonor only comes when we are afraid to race at all. Whatever it is that you’re going through, whatever you’re fighting for, whatever you’re considering but haven’t yet committed to, remember not to be afraid to lose. If it’s something you are passionate about, the race is worth running, no matter the outcome. 
For me, the race right now is getting out there and finding a job. I’m scared of the race because for the first time in my life, I don’t know what the next step is. I’m scared because I’m still learning how to go out there and start searching, and I’m scared that I won’t love my job, live up to my potential, or find anything at all. But the race is out there, ready to be run, and it’s time. I’ve watched some wonderful friends put themselves out there in big ways in the job market in order to find their dream job, and now it’s time to emulate what they’re doing. What’s your race? What in your life is so worth it that you’re willing to race, even if you fail? Let’s get out there.

A couple more thoughts...A big part of why I'm doing this reading challenge is because I want to live my life intentionally. That surely means planning my time so that I can accomplish my reading goals, but I want it to be so much more than that. My good friend Casey is one of those people who lives life intentionally, and right now she's dedicated to spending time each day in the prayer room on campus. This week, I'm going to be in the prayer room with her, supporting her challenge and learning from her how to be more deliberate in my prayer life. I am so blessed to have such wonderful friends who are passionate about living an intentional life, like Liz who's reading with me this month (were going to give The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson another try this week). If you've got something you're doing in 2011 to live intentionally, I'd love to hear about it and be a part of it!