Plain and Simple

Which parts of today’s process were a chore? Which were fun? There seemed to be no separation for them.

Time was full and generous. It was as if they uncovered a way to be in time, to be a part of time, to have a harmonious relation with time.

For me time was a burden.

There was never enough of it. In Berkley I ran around breathlessly rushing towards impossible goals — and to that vague ‘something out there.’ When I explained how split I was, loving to do certain things and hating others, the women laughed and tried to understand.

‘Making a batch of vegetable soup, it’s not right for the carrot to say I taste better than the peas, or the pea to say I taste better than the cabbage. It takes all the vegetables to make a good soup!’  Miriam said.

Their intention is to make things grow and do work that is useful. I couldn’t say exactly what the difference is, but I felt a difference. They work to work. Their work time isn’t spent ‘in order to do something else’ — to have free time on weekends, go to a restaurant, or save for a vacation or retirement. They do not expect to find satisfaction in that vague ‘somewhere out there’ but in the daily mastery of whatever they are doing.

–Sue Bender, from Plain and Simple

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The Way of Grace

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Mrs. O’Brien: The nuns taught us there were two ways through life – the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.

Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.

Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries.

The nuns taught us that no one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end. The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by.

–from The Tree of Life, written by Terrence Malick


Click here to see clips from the movie set to John Tavener’s beautiful Funeral Canticle, which is a piece of music featured in the movie.

Alice Munro

As long as you’re reading Munro, you’re failing to multitask by absorbing civics lessons or historical data. Her subject is people. People people people. If you read fiction about some enriching subject like Renaissance art or an important chapter in our nation’s history, you can be assured of feeling productive. But if the story is set in the modern world, and if the characters’ concerns are familiar to you, and if you become so involved with a book that you can’t put it down at bedtime, there exists a risk that you’re merely being entertained.

Meanwhile, as her narrative ambitions have grown, she’s become ever less interested in showing off…as her stories have come to resemble classical tragedies in prose form, it’s not only as if she no longer has room for inessentials, it’s as if it would be actively jarring, mood-puncturing — an aesthetic and moral betrayal — for her writerly ego to intrude on the pure story.

Can a better kind of fiction save the world? There’s always some tiny hope (strange things do happen), but the answer is almost certainly no, it can’t. There is some reasonable chance, however, that it could save your soul. If you’re unhappy about the hatred that’s been unleashed in your heart, you might try imagining what it’s like to be the person who hates you; you might consider the possibility that you are, in fact, the Evil One yourself; and, if this is difficult to imagine, then you might try spending a few evenings with the most dubious of Canadians.

–from a review of Alice Munro’s Runaway, written by Jonathan Franzen

 

The Thin Red Line

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Japanese Soldier: Are you righteous? Kind? Does your confidence lie in this? Are you loved by all? Know that I was, too. Do you imagine your suffering will be any less because you loved goodness and truth?

Private Edward P. Train: Where is it that we were together? Who were you that I lived with? The brother. The friend. Darkness, light. Strife and love. Are they the workings of one mind? The features of the same face? Oh, my soul. Let me be in you now. Look out through my eyes. Look out at the things you made. All things shining.

–from The Thin Red Line, written by Terrence Malick

Trailer here.

Don DeLillo

I find I’m more ready to discard pages than I used to be. I used to look for things to keep. I used to find ways to save a paragraph or a sentence, maybe by relocating it. Now I look for ways to discard things. If I discard a sentence I like, it’s almost as satisfying as keeping a sentence I like. I don’t think I’ve become ruthless or perverse—just a bit more willing to believe that nature will restore itself. The instinct to discard is finally a kind of faith. It tells me there’s a better way to do this page even though the evidence is not accessible at the present time.

There’s a zone I aspire to. Finding it is another question. It’s a state of automatic writing, and it represents the paradox that’s at the center of a writer’s consciousness—this writer’s anyway. First you look for discipline and control. You want to exercise your will, bend the language your way, bend the world your way. You want to control the flow of impulses, images, words, faces, ideas. But there’s a higher place, a secret aspiration. You want to let go. You want to lose yourself in language, become a carrier or messenger. The best moments involve a loss of control. It’s a kind of rapture, and it can happen with words and phrases fairly often—completely surprising combinations that make a higher kind of sense, that come to you out of nowhere. But rarely for extended periods, for paragraphs and pages—I think poets must have more access to this state than novelists do.

–Don DeLillo, from an interview in the Paris Review

Crazy Heart

MECHANICAL

“But as Bridges says it, that’s not what it’s about: For him, the line is a spontaneous leap of poetry, a strange and slightly awkward sentence that doesn’t even have the shelter and the protection of a song around it. Bridges is one of those acknowledged great actors who’s been praised so often that we’re almost sick of hearing it. But his performance in “Crazy Heart,” for my money the finest male performance of the year, reels us right back to understanding why: Instead of dressing up words, he sends them out naked. It’s everything he subtracts that matters.”

–Stephanie Zacharek, from a Salon review for “Crazy Heart”

Trailer here.

Spareness

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They shook hands and hers felt hot under sand like a sugar doughnut. Under her high brows she eyed him straight on and straight across. She had gone to girls’ schools, he recalled later. Those girls looked straight at you. Her wide eyes, apertures opening, seemed preposterously to tell him, I and these my arms are for you. I know, he thought back at the stranger, this long-limbed girl. I know and I am right with you.
–Annie Dillard, The Maytrees, P. 7

 

Maytree concealed his courtship. On the Cairos’ crowded porch, she steadied her highball on the rail. He asked her, Would she like to row around the harbour with him? She turned and gave him a look, Hold on, Buster. He was likely competing with fleets and battalions of men. Maytree wanted her heart. She had his heart and did not know it. She shook her head, clear of eye, and smiled.

–Annie Dillard, The Maytrees P. 9


 

I was twenty-seven in 1972 when I began writing Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. It is a young writer’s book in its excited eloquence and its metaphysical boldness. (Fools rush in.) Using the first person, I tried to be — in Emerson’s ever-ludicrous phrase — a transparent eyeball.The Maytrees shows how a writer’s craft matures into spareness: short sentences, few modifiers. The Maytrees are a woman and a man both simplified and enlarged. Everyone and everything represents itself alone. No need for microcosms or macrocosms. The Maytrees’ human tale needs only the telling. Writers’ styles often end pruned down. (I knew this happened; I did not know I was already old.)

–Annie Dillard, from the afterword to the 1998 edition of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Worship

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Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.

Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race” — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.

— David Foster Wallace, from his commencement speech to Kenyon College in 2005. Rest of the speech here. 

Enough Said

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Albert: So while you were, uh, being torn, she was poisoning our relationship and poisoning your perception of me. Now why would you want that?
Eva: I don’t know, I mean, except maybe I was trying to protect myself, you know, because, you know, we’ve both been married before. And you know how things can turn out.
Albert: What about us? What about protecting us?
Eva: I didn’t protect us.

–from Enough Said, written by Nicole Holofcener — Trailer here.