Friday, October 24, 2003

Things That Took My Head Off Today

My former Edition colleague and master book reviewer Kathy Ewing (click here and here for examples of her writing) once wrote an especially memorable column about how serious readers often have the experience of reading something so good and powerful and evocative that it almost gives you the sensation of having the top of your head taken off. Your brain actually aches after reading it. Depending on how much good stuff you read, you can go days, weeks or even months between these experiences. And then there are days like today, when it happened twice to me.

The first came in the early hours of the morning, when I rise before dawn (pretty easy to do in Ohio in October, before daylight savings pushes it one hour earlier), let the cat out and fire up the family Dell for my first quick survey of the day's news. I happened upon Salon, as I generally do, and took in Annie Lamott's latest. I've enthused about her before, but I'm duty-bound to do so again. That's because I found her latest column--of all things about the necessity to surrender to motherhood--so rich and so emotionally powerful as to take one's breath away. Please take a moment to go there today, figure out how to click on the free one-day visitor's pass in the upper right corner (which my tech-challenged buddy in New York, Bill Gunlocke, can never seem to do, prompting him to occasionally ask me to cut and paste an article into an email) and read her column.

A little later, while making a quick scan of the blogs, I came across this amazing entry on Lois Annich's uniquely graceful Hearts @ Work blog. Sorry, Lois, but out of concern for the possibility that some of you won't take a second to click on a link, I'm going to ignore your copyright just this time and reprint the small item in its entirety:

Despair is the absolute extreme of self-love. It is reached when a man deliberately turns his back on all help from anyone else in order to taste the rotten luxury of knowing himself to be lost. --Thomas Merton

Inspector Javert, the antagonist in Les Miz, is the most tragic figure among an ample field of tragic characters in the play. He cannot face the implosion of his graceless theology when his prey and obsession, Jean Valjean, offers him the gift of life. His logic is so twisted. He can no longer appease his bloodthirsty God and cannot release his old world view and receive reconciliaton. He takes his life instead. Admitting that we have been wrong is a major blow to our egos. We must be humble. We must release any number of self-images we have built up over time. We must be willing to receive forgiveness and move forward in hope. We must accept the support of others. As Merton reminds us, giving into despair is no sign of greatness. Greatness instead depends on humbly receiving grace and living our way into the promise of new life, if only one uncertain step at a time.

Of course, the things that take our head off when we read aren't due solely to the beauty or the power of the writing or to the truth of the thoughts they convey--thought that's of course much of it. They also work so explosively on the brain because they deal so well, and in such timely fashion, with the questions or challenges we're wrestling with, as if the article or the passage was written directly for you, almost in the form of a letter from a friend. And indeed, each of these passages helped me think more clearly about very specific challenges/initiatives I've undertaken. The Lamott piece related so beautifully to a new monthly dad's column that I'm beginning in January (which of course means I'm now beginning to write). And in my struggle to communicate not just to other dads of teenage boys, but to all parents and maybe even non parents, and hell, perhaps even kids, about some important themes about families and really about love, her column was pure inspiration, a welcome reminder of the universal appeal of good, honest writing. Though I'm not a single mom of a single kid, living in libertine Marin County, California, I nevertheless connected so deeply with the advice she gave, because it was great advice, artfully served up. And because it really applied to anyone trying to live a better, richer life, even apart from parenthood, the proximate subject.

Similarly, the Merton quote about the need to put aside our pride and accept help (letting community become a dialogue rather than monologue) dealt so specifically with some networking advice and support I'm providing with a new friend named Jeff, whom a headhunter friend referred to me, and whom I met with again this morning. As he comes out of the focused shell of a high-powered corporate job in a billion-dollar-plus company, where networking mostly meant with internal colleagues, I think he's been overwhelmed (as a fairly new to Cleveland guy) by how many smart, connected people in this town have been only too happy to take time and help him think about what comes next in his career. And yet as I offered to him whatever small help I can provide--and most importantly the very large help that my network of friends and colleagues can offer--I was forced to admit that I'm impossibly bad at accepting the reverse, the generous and repeated offers from others to reciprocate. While I'm okay at the "humbly receiving grace" from God part which Lois writes about, I'm less good at accepting that a key part of that grace comes in the form of warm human figures who generously offer to help.

Whether it's stubborn male pride or 20 years of baked-into-the-DNA writerly independence, or an especially toxic combination of the two, it doesn't really matter. Merton's quote, and Lois's artful and knowing annotation, somehow combined to break through my hard shell this morning, as I read these grace-filled letters directed at me while my precious family slept one floor above me. And for that, I'm so very thankful...


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