Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Flannery O'Connor: The Life You Save May Be Your Own

I have a lot of “favorite” Flannery O’Connor short stories.

Flannery O’Connor’s short story, "The Life You Save May Be Your Own," is included in The Complete Stories
This story is somewhat haunting, possibly because O'Connor freely borrows key images from a number of her other stories. For example, the image of the car as a vehicle of freedom and justification is used in Wise Blood (with its main character Hazel Motes noting that a man with a good car doesn't need salvation); and the notion of Catholicism as a dismissible un-advanced and "old" religion by a character who hasn't the patience to think deeply about spiritual things is used in The Displaced Person and other places. And, as is common, the story includes a widowed woman  with an invalid adult daughter who is unmarried. (It's interesting how often O'Connor uses this image since she was a physically afflicted, unmarried adult daughter living with a widowed mother. It's self-deprecating, perhaps, and brings recognition of her own need for grace to the forefront of her stories.)

I’ll try to explain my on-going response while reading the story. I read the story in two sittings: I started it in the morning and completed it the next evening. This story didn't settle easily with me: it took some thinking before it was "satisfying."

Back to the visceral response: As I began to read the story, I realized that I didn’t know it, which was a nice realization because I’ve re-read so many of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, I can’t remember all that I’ve read. I was pleased that to be reading something new. As I got into it, I wanted the story to get along. I wanted it to make progress. I had the impatience common to her characters. Also, as I read,  I found that I didn’t care for the two main characters, Tom Shiftlet (which appropriately rhymes with Shiftless , and he is a scoundrel) and Lucynell Carter, the widow-mother who owned the place that Shiftlet happened upon.

I Ididn’t like Shiftlet and I didn’t care for his long-windedness, although that’s a usual characteristic of Flannery O’Connor characters – they cover their brokenness by talking a lot about their all-knowing perspective on the world.

I didn’t like Lucynell Carter because she was scheming and selfish. Clearly she thought highly of herself by giving her daughter the same name, Lucynell Carter.

Sidenote: I think that I wanted the characters to be more humorous. Like the Grandmother in A Good Man Is Hard To Find, I wanted characters that made me laugh. None of the five characters in this story entertained me. I thought that they were uncomfortably odd.

Shiftlet is physically broken. Although he has skills, he is a carpenter and he fixes Lucynell’s car later in the story, he is a one-armed man, who early on in the story stretches out both arms in a way that signals the redemptive nature of where the story is headed: "He swung out both his whole and his short arm up slowly so that they indicated an expanse of sky and his figure formed a crooked cross." But the image is lost on Lucynell and her daughter:
“The old woman watched him with her arms folded across her chest as if she were the owner of the sun, and the daughter watched, her head thrust forward and her fat helpless hands hanging at the wrists.”

The story goes on with Shiftlet making references to deep things that disturb his thinking and that Lucynell thinks are plain foolish. For example, Shiftlet talks about a surgeon in Atlanta who had “taken a knife and cut the human heart” and “studied it like a day-old chicken.” Shiftlet is correct in concluding that the motives of the heart are beyond science. And he makes a reference to European monks who sleep in coffins, a reference O’Connor borrows from a James Joyce story, “The Dead,” but again the reference is lost on Lucynell who responds that “they wasn’t as advanced as we are.”

Later Lucynell has Shiftlet marry her daughter in a civil ceremony. But, although it’s "legal," it’s not satisfying to Shiftlet even though it “satisfies the law” as Lucynell tells him. Shiftlet responds that “it’s the law that doesn’t satisfy” him – which expresses a deeper spiritual need that he is currently not aware of.

There’s so much more to the story that I won’t cover here. Shiftlet immediately abandons his legally new wife in a cafĂ© called The Hot Spot – where he feels more uncomfortable, and later he picks up a boy (note: good deed to cover up guilt and sin), a hitchhiker, who quickly recognizes Shiftlet as a moral liar and calls Shiftlet’s bluff on his waxing and jumps out of Shiftlet's car in disgust. (Hint: The boy becomes the vehicle of grace in the story.)

I like reading Flannery O'Connor stories because they're like a mirror to the soul. I find it impossible to read these stories and not to think about how authentically or in-authentically the characters live their lives. Thus, these stories prompt me to think about deeper issues in my own life.

I hope that you’ll read this story. If so, let me know how you respond to The Life You Save May Be Your Own.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Join the Club and a Fourth Place

I heard an interview today with MacArthur and Putlizer Prize winner Tina Rosenberg on her book Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World. Rosenberg explores the positive role peer-pressure plays in bringing about social change. In the interview she talks about old ways of teaching, take for example the importance of an individual better health practices, often fail, but social pressure from peers can effectively foster change.

Hearing this interview fit perfectly with something else I've been thinking about - the Internet as a Fourth Place for community building, aligning with the three other anchor places for social interaction: home, work and community spaces, such as bars, coffeehouses, community parks and the like.

The Internet as "fourth place" allows a person to form a community of ideas that may not be readily available in one's geographic community. In a sense, the Internet created social interaction in the Middle East in recent months to bring together young activists that effectively changed governments. This is radical stuff. However, more intimately, there are social communities and societies gathering on the Internet that provide people a sense of community they might otherwise lack.

I'm inspired by bloggers and individuals who live passionately and who have big ideas. Over time these people create a community of readers who interact together on the Internet and share common interests.

These are people such as Chris Guillebeau and his motivation to master the art of non-conformity. Or Joel Runyon, who encourages people to do impossible things. And, Steve Kamb, whose Nerd Fitness site shares straight-forward tips on fitness, diet and life.

More recently I've been particularly inspired and energized by Hudson Taylor, a former All-American wrestler at the University of Maryland and wrestling coach at Columbia University. Hudson created Athlete Ally, an organization that inspires athletes to actively confront homophobia in their sports. He's put a video "playbook" on YouTube to give athletes tips on how to be allies in preserving the dignity of LGBT/questioning youth. Joining the community that supports the ideas and mission of Athlete Ally is making me aware of a social issue that I cared about but didn't know how to address. Now I have a resource to share with the students at my school. This came about through interacting with an Internet community. I feel part of the Athlete Ally community, and I'm inspired to action, even though I've not met a single member.

There are fourth place Internet communities organized around endless themes. The impact, however, is the same: people are able to find a "place" to connect with ideas that inspire them to accomplish things that they might not otherwise do on their own.

Perhaps my recognition of the Internet as a "fourth place" isn't original. Regardless, I like feeling that I'm part of communities that inspire me. This really is "social networking" even if I never meet the people who inspire me and help change my life for the better.

Monday, March 28, 2011


Monastic building in a small village.

I'll share my art with you from time to time. 

I hear the snickers across the Internet waves.  Yeah - this is what I call art - and it's MY art. True, I'm not trained and I'm certianly not a "natural." Nevertheless, I enjoy the creative process. This is one of only two actual "drawings" I have available. The few others surving pieces of my art are  paintings.

I posted this sketch to make a point. I was am, in essence, learning to draw. You'll notice that it took a couple of attempts to get the steeple set up properly. And, the front entry had to be redone. The first attempts at getting both on paper went askew. As I recall, I did this drawing as an attempt at teaching myself to express perspective. I am fascinated that lines can be put together to represent a point of view. 

Now, where am I going with this? I'm not sure. However, I have an "add on" story to tell.

This drawing is an imagined scene of a country village that is home to a monastic community. This is the monastery, or perhaps the abbey. (There is a difference, but I won't explain that here.)

I've been to a few monastic communities. Two stand out. The first is the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Kentucky. The other is the Assumption Abbey in Richardton, North Dakota.  My visit to Gethsemani was for a few hours; I stayed at Assumption for close to a week.

Even though the lenght of my stay varied between the abbeys, I left both profoundly affected. I found both abbeys to be contemplative - that's by design and purpose. I also found the monks at both abbeys to be some of the funniest (humor) people I've met. They live quiet lives, but those I interacted with at each abbey were engaging and energetic.

Abbeys are interesting places because most monks live at the same abbey for the remainder of their lives once they enter the community. The point is that the aspirations of monks is pretty simple: doing the daily labor of the abbey and living a life that revolves around the hours of prayer.

I took part in the cycle of prayer at each abbey, and I observed the daily labor at Assumption that involved baking, cooking, gardening, building maintenace and the like.

Getting back to the original theme of this post, retreating to a monastic community slows life down in a way that encourages forming perspective. I went to Assumption during a time when I was personally troubled. Spending time in a new place, a desolate place (North Dakota!), living and praying with strangers, who quickly became friends, provided a peaceful and beautiful respite.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Just Before Sunset

I thought I'd share a bit of my every day life in southern Orange County, California since I spend quite a bit of time at the beach, particularly at the end of the work day.

This video is in Dana Point, just behind Ocean Institute.

View Larger Map

Shock, Awe and Grace

I've thought about this before.

Suffering, calamity, misfortune, crime, hatred, ignorance – these realities abound in the world and fill the headlines.

When natural disasters occur, news vendors rush to count the dead. I fear that the news of intense events is creating a numbing effect in many. I don’t place blame. This is the way life is. Shock is hard to take, especially when it is often repeated. People look for relief from bad news in order to keep going.  

However, there is another view of shock.

Flannery O'Connor talked about "shock" as an instrument for instruction in her writing. Shock is often the vehicle of grace in O’Connor’s short stories that causes a character to examine her life and to make a change that leads to living a more authentic life. As O'Connor put it, “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.”

Flannery O'Connor had the sense that biblical parables were meant to shock with the intention of affecting the quality of how the hearers heard the stories.

Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose

Yet the question remains, what happens when people are numb to shock? Do they stop examining their lives? What happens to life, values, personal growth, caring and love when the shock of tragedy is no longer tragic, but commonplace "ho-hum" events? Do we hum “So it goes” along with Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim character in Slaughterhouse-five?

Slaughterhouse-Five: A Novel

In one of Flannery O’Connor’s more famous short stories, The Artificial Nigger, the grandfather character denies that he knows his grandson and is forgiven by the child, which bring the grandfather to point of shock and grace. The story goes, “He stood appalled, judging himself with the thoroughness of God, while the action of mercy covered his pride like a flame and consumed it. He had never thought himself a great sinner before but he saw now his true depravity had been hidden from him lest it cause him despair. He realized that he was forgiven for sins from the beginning of time, when he had conceived in his own heart the sin of Adam, until the present, when he had denied poor Nelson. He saw that some sin was too monstrous for him to claim as his own, and since God loved in proportion as He forgave, he felt ready at that instant to enter Paradise.”

Perhaps sad events in the world should shock us to the realization of grace and beyond – to a place where bad news does dull our senses, but rather awakens them to care even more deeply for those who suffer.

The Complete Stories

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Hudson Taylor: Athlete Ally

Wrestling coach Hudson Taylor started Athlete Ally.

Mr. Taylor's effort is important and timely, particularly as there is national awareness of bullying and teasing of LGBTQ/questioning youth. I'm sensitive to this, as an educator and as a person of faith who believes in affirming the dignity of all.

Here's an interview with Taylor describing Athlete Ally.

Lisa or Eddie

I haven't read Andrew Ferguson's Crazy U, but I did read his article "How to get your kid into the Ivy League," which was published in the March 18, 2011 issue of The Week.

Crazy U: One Dad's Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College

I read stuff like this all the time because "getting kids into the Ivy League" is what I do for a living. Or, at least that was people think/hope I do.

Actually, I'm a former admissions officer who worked at two hyper-selective and desirable universities. I'll post more on that later.

My take-away from Ferguson's article is at the end when he says that the highly competitive admissions process forces kids to eschew being Lisa Simpson. Rather, in applying to college, applicants become charmers, like the character Eddie Haskell in Leave It to Beaver.

I see it all the time and my heart sinks when a bright student comes into my office to discuss his college essays. He'll read the essay prompt and ask me, "What do they (meaning the college admissions committee) want to hear?"

My response to that question is, "What do you want to tell them?" That question usually draws a blank, hopeless stare from the student because like so many, the student sitting across the desk from me has spent his high school years trying to figure out "what looks good" to colleges. Thus, at the crucial point of applying to college, he has no idea what he thinks about anything.

Yes, there are exceptions. I do have some "Lisa Simpsons" coming in to chat. These are the students who get in to the Ivy League. The "Lisa's" aren't looking over their shoulders attempting to figure out their next move by imitating what others are doing. These students have passions and ideas; they have lively minds and are in possession of intellectual vitality. Not only do they read books and complete assignments and participate in class discussions and do interesting things outside the classroom, thinking about what things means comes naturally to these students.

Therein lies the difference between Lisa Simpson and Eddie Haskell.