What counts as ‘writing’?

I suspect this post is more about my deeply divided psyche than about writing, but I ask the question nonetheless  – what counts as ‘writing’?

The question is precipitated for me by a comment made a friend and fellow author on a Facebook post. I was celebrating the acceptance of an education research manuscript to a good journal. What I wrote was ‘The simple joy of having a paper accepted’. My fellow author responded by saying ‘Well done! Writers’ sweat blood!’

The funny thing is, I agree with her. I think writers do sweat blood. But I don’t think of my academic outputs as writing. I don’t sweat blood over writing academic papers, so what is the difference?

Perhaps, for academic papers, the effort, or the space of risk-taking, is actually exerted elsewhere. For a chemistry paper, the effort exerted is in the laboratory. The frustration and challenges are usually over by the time you actually write the paper. Education is a little different, but again the ‘sweating’ usually takes place in the conceptualisation, or data analysis. Again, by the time I get to write the paper, the major challenge is behind me.

I know that writing an academic paper is not trivial, but to me it is a qualitatively different activity to other sorts of writing that I do.

This blog, or writing poetry serves a different purpose. It is more personal, more about my making sense of my world and my experiences. This feels more like ‘proper’ writing. In the process of writing I usually gain some personal insight.

Writing ‘Rooted in Love’ was more of a middle ground kind of space. Mostly, it was about teaching, but I did encounter a few internal shifts and insights along the way.

And yet, the writing which people do that requires sweating blood is still a step beyond where I am. That kind of writing, is a much creative process. I am a writer, but I am not quite that kind of writer.

I’ll accept that I am a writer because of the poetry and this blog and these kinds of writings. I’ll accept that I am a writer because the process of writing helps me.

But academic writing still doesn’t feel like it counts. Most of my academic writing emerges because it is the necessary last step of the research process (and it is what ‘counts’ as productivity in academia). The need to write academic papers is a systemic requirement rather than a personal imperative.

And once, through writing, I gain insight! Writing Rooted in Love was a personal imperative. I needed to do it. It emerged from a deep part of my being. So there is the useful distinction – what is the motivation. Writing which emerges from a need to write feels like ‘proper’ writing. For me, academic writing is more a means to an end.

I should hastily add – these are my personal distinctions – I know some for whom academic writing is much more of a personal imperative.

And where is Jesus?

I’m struck by the juxtaposition of two questions. In the gospel this Sunday we heard that familiar question – ‘And you, who do you say that I am?’ It is a good question to ponder on occasion. In that imaginative way, to allow myself to enter the scene and to see what my response is when Jesus asks this question of me.

Last week, in my own spiritual direction session, my director asked me – ‘And where is Jesus?’ I find that question to be a useful one. As soon as it asked, I normally have a pretty clear sense. Stopping and allowing myself to notice Jesus usually helps things shift a little. I begin to notice things which I had not quite seen before. Sometimes that is into a happier space, sometimes it calls forth an acknowledgement of pain.

For the moment, I am not so interested in allowing myself to explore the question of who I say Jesus is, as I am in sitting with Jesus. I don’t want to explore my theology, I simply desire the companionship. I have no doubt this season will pass, and in time, the former question will again rise in importance.

Noticing the difference in these two questions is important. Whilst both questions can lead to a conversation with Jesus, right now, it is the latter question which is providing balm for my soul. So it is this question to which I am returning again and again in my prayer – where is Jesus?

Which question is drawing you more today? Perhaps neither of these, but something else entirely. Where is Jesus? And what is his invitation to you?

Different flavours of grief

It’s been an interesting year (in that Chinese curse kind of a way!!). It has been punctuated by a series of deaths. There have been several deaths, but three have had a notable personal impact. As I consider these three losses, I realise that each one has a slightly different quality.

I mourn the loss of all three men. All three enriched my life directly in different ways.

Greg was a good friend. We shared many meals and many glasses of wine. We traded laughter and a particular way of relating. I miss his company. He was far too young to die, although, in the last weeks, his death was not unanticipated. In mourning his loss, I found myself projecting my rage onto others, and my deep need for comfort turned me inward.

Duncan was a colleague. I did not know him all that well, but, in some ways, I was the beneficiary of his professional legacy. He was cut short in early retirement by a stroke. The shock of his passing is the flavour I most recall. He had so much more life in him, so much more to give.

David was a soul acquaintance (yes, that is a phrase I just made up). By this I mean I didn’t know him well enough to call him a friend but we connected on a soul level. We met regularly for over a year, in the context of small faith sharing group. He was a wise, generous, reflective man, who was always willing to learn more. By the time I got to know him, he had already been diagnosed with the cancer to which he finally succumbed. His death was not sudden, nor, particularly untimely. But I regret that I did not get to know him better.

Three experiences of death, yet each qualitatively different for me. I find myself wanting to write of loss, sadness, grief in all three cases. And yet, whilst those are the only words I have and I think they are the right words to use, they conjure something just a little different in me when I picture each of their faces.

We humans are such complex beasts – it is a wonder we are able to communicate at all!

Where are the heroes of my generation?

I find myself reflecting this evening on the contributions of two different people. The first, David Russell, lauded for ‘taking a brave stand on many thorny issues to ensure that South Africa became a democratic society’ (you can find more about him here). David suffered banning, house arrest and imprisonment for his action during the apartheid era.

I knew of him when studying in Grahamstown (its hard to forget the Anglican bishop who has a wife who is practicing Roman Catholic!!), but it is only in the last few years that I have got to know David personally. My experience of him was profoundly positive. A reflective, prayerful and kind man. But, for the purposes of this post, clearly a man willing to take a stand for justice. He did so in the apartheid era and continued to take clear positions against all forms of prejudice well into his retirement. He was a man of principle.

The second person I find myself thinking about is Elizabeth Johnson. She is a world class theologian and religious sister. Following the publication of her book ‘Quest for the Living God’, she has found herself at odds with the local Bishop’s conference. It appears that their objections to her work are largely unfounded. The Leadership Conference for Women’s Religious in the United States (themselves struggling with a conflict with the Vatican) awarded Elizabeth Johnson their annual Leadership Award a few days ago.

The combination of this group awarding this particular theologian this award has ruffled some feathers in hierarchy. In her address (which can be found here), it is clear her own path has not been one unfettered by struggle.

I am not trying to equate the lives of these two people, they are just two that have stumbled across my radar in the space of a couple of hours. And the confluence precipitates the question: where are the heroes of my own generation? Where are the people who are truly striving for a better, more just world?

How many of us are too busy looking for comfort? Planning the next holiday; focusing on the next purchase; obsessing over daily minutiae? Perhaps it is that we are desperately trying to distract ourselves from looking up, because the bigger picture is too daunting, too overwhelming, too bleak.

Where are the heroes of my generation?

The response comes almost immediately ‘Stop looking around and step up!’

But I know that too may be a red herring, there is no sense in picking a fight if there is another way. I have no answers, just a dull sense of unease that far to few of us will be willing to get off couch when it counts.

The importance of discernment

I am spending a few days at a discussion forum on the global common good. There are some very interesting people here including three young people who are part of the Pathway out of Poverty campaign of the Goedgedacht Trust (If you are looking for a worthy cause to support look no further – link to their website is here).

On the first day these three young people shared their vision for ‘a good life’. All of them focused on family, community and good relationships. Many of us in the room were struck by this, especially coming from people who had grown up in poverty. But as I reflect on their responses and the responses in the room, I wonder.

I suspect that the vast majority of people would say that relationships are the most important thing. The problem is, that for far too many of us, our actions fail to support this. On a daily basis we make choices which compromise relationship rather than nourish it. And we always have a very good reason for making that choice. But we fail to notice the erosion of relationships over time. We fail to notice that we are not, in fact, prioritising relationships.

Of course, we do need to be wise here, we cannot prioritise all relationships. We have to single out the very small number (usually one’s nuclear family) who should receive such focus. But how often do we trespass on the good will of precisely those closest to us, in order to achieve some minor step up. Or, even worse, to keep up appearances for our bosses, church communities or charitable organisations. What are we doing?

We need to be discerning. We need to pay attention to the impact of our choices over time. It is far too easy to get distracted by the many many good things could be done, sacrificing the better along the way.

Luminescence

Last week Michelle Francl-Donnay, a fellow chemist and Ignatian spirituality enthusiast wrote a post on luminescence (you can find the orginal here). She writes ‘Luminescence is light that comes from within a material, photons shed as atoms and molecules change state’. In other words, the luminescence comes from within the substance. 

Hijacking that idea to use in spirituality, this would be an ‘inner fire’. An internal source of light. 

A day or so later, watching a lecture given by Philip Endean (found here) I stumbled into a sentence used by Gerard W. Hughes (in a paper found here). ‘The Exercises are not a battery-charging operation but a way of learning how to be self-charging in our ordinary occupations’

To me, these things seem closely related. Both authors are talking about a self-sustained, internal source of energy. As a person who has relatively little energy I find the idea quite compelling. I have begun to notice that there is a distinct difference between the areas of my life which are demanding but not draining, and those areas which are not particularly demanding but seem to be utterly draining. Of course, there the worst are those which are both demanding and draining!!

The idea of luminescence (and self-charging) has afforded me a new refinement tool in my discernment kit.

Conscious love

It is not often that a watching a single lecture, or reading a single book can completely stop me in my tracks. But this was my experience of watching Cynthia Bourgeault discussing her theory of Mary Magdalene and the Christian path of conscious love. 

(For Capetonian readers – it is on at the Labia Theatre at the moment. For everyone else, you can see a video of the lecture through this link (it requires payment).)

In this lecture she presents a vision for what she calls ‘conscious love’. That is, the possibility of intimate relationship to provide the vehicle for transformation of both partners. She speaks of agape being the fruit of eros distilled through kenosis.

I cannot do justice to her thought process because I need to spend more time with the vision that she presents. Her argument is based on the some of the writings of the early church which have been termed the Gnostic gospels. She draws explicitly from the Gospel of Thomas. And as a result the sources of her argument may be unpalatable to some.

Nonetheless, it is hard not to be enthralled by the possibility of vision of conscious love which she describes. There is also space for a rich understanding of celibacy, but she is highly critical of celibacy for its own sake.

The most powerful takeaway for me from this experience was her emphasis on kenosis. That is, the willingness not to hold anything to tightly. In my own language, this is Ignatian indifference. This is a radical freedom – the capacity to hold everything lightly. The willingness to set aside anything which draws us away from the primary purpose of deepening encounter with God, deepening encounter with self, deepening encounter with other.

As a single person, I confess I may well fall into the trap of idealising the possibility of relationship which Bourgeault describes. But at the same time, this is no romantic ideal. She refers frequently to Ken Wilbur’s book ‘Grace and Grit’ which is the autobiographical story of his brief marriage to Treya which ended in her death from cancer. The point is, this is no fairy tale, but rather a conversation of potential. One that takes into account the reality of life and death.

I can’t help but feel that there is something important at the heart of her message which we need to attend to, regardless of our state of life.