Thursday, July 17, 2014

In which George Washington Helps My Marriage...

Here’s a reason why I read: to be prepared for moments like this:

It’s 1:00 in the afternoon and my husband and I have a counseling appointment** in a few minutes and I don’t want to go. In fact, I’m seriously considering not going, because I’m meeting Sean there, and if I don’t show up, he can just go without me. I don’t want to go because it will be hard, probably even painful, and it will force me to sit and look at my problems and his problems and our problems.  I’ll have to deal with stuff that I would rather just… let be and ignore and sweep under the rug.

And then I think of George Washington, my hero of the hour. I’m reading 1776 by David McCullough and I can’t get over this man, who left the domestic comforts of Mt. Vernon to lead a ragtag army in a fight for liberty against the world’s great super power at the time. 1776 starts out successfully enough with American victories at Dorchester Heights and a triumph over the British army in the siege of Boston. And then things start to fall apart as the war progresses to New York, and fumbling mistakes, poor decisions, and lack of experience result in humiliating disasters for the Continental army. And there’s George Washington, in charge of it all, unable to sleep at night in the blackness of his despair, and why didn't he just give up?

That’s what I ask myself as I read—that’s what grabs hold of my imagination and won’t let me go: a man (and a soon-to-be nation) with all the odds stacked against him, most likely feeling foolish and desperate and like he’d gotten in WAY OVER HIS HEAD and WHAT HAD HE SIGNED UP FOR, ANYWAY? (That is, at least, what I would be feeling, and though his thoughts were, I’m sure, far more eloquent than mine, he does speak, in his letters, of the desire to escape to a backwoods wigwam and live out the rest of his days in blissful anonymity with no responsibility for the fate of a people or a country or the great cause of liberty in the world.)

But he rejected the temptation of the wigwam, and kept his word to Congress and his people. He would lead. He would persevere in the noble cause because he believed it worthy, and he knew it right to honor his commitment to his country. I don’t even care that he eventually triumphed (although I suppose that does satisfy my human desire for worldly glory). I care that he put his hand to the plow, knowing all that there was to lose, and did not turn away, even at the bleakest moments. Inevitably, pride and ambition must have been involved, but if that man was acting in pure self-interest he would've been long gone in the hills of western Virginia, never to appear on the dollar bill or anywhere else in Western civilization. He had character flaws and moral inconsistencies, to be sure, but he also had the courage and determination and sheer PLUCK to keep doing what he knew was right.

Needless to say, I went to the counseling appointment, and my marriage and my character are better for it. The older I get, the one thing I want more than anything is the courage to keep doing what I believe is right, and I’m fascinated by the people throughout history who have provided exemplary models of bravery and perseverance. What I love so much about reading history is that the people we spend our time with form us. So why not spend it in the company of the great? And by great I do not mean only the dead white men who founded our country, but the men and women and children who fill the pages of good books (fiction and non-fiction) and make us better, stronger, kinder human beings by their brave and generous examples.

 “After all, a person has to remember Colonel Travis and his line in the dirt at the Alamo; a person can’t forget the pirate Lafitte, saving New Orleans in the War of 1812 when fighting for the British would've made him rich. Without such acts what good is history?”  --Leif Enger, Peace Like a River, p. 126 

**I realized, as I was preparing to post this, that there was a part of me that felt ashamed to say that Sean and I go to counseling. And then I got really, really mad at that part of myself because I don't think there is anything shameful about it. In fact, when I really sit down and think about it, working on our marriage (which is what we are doing in counseling) is something I am very proud of. It means we are committed. It means we love each other. It means we are both willing to work hard to become better people. It means we are hopeful. What being in counseling doesn't mean is that our  marriage is on the rocks, or that we're unhappy, or anything like that. It means we've got our issues and we are so thankful for the safe space that our marriage provides to strive for healing and holiness together, knowing that the other person is not going anywhere. 

Friday, July 11, 2014

New Year's Resolutions in July

I realize that July is a bit late for New Year’s Resolutions, but here’s mine anyway.

Those who know me know I read—like crazy, all the time, anything I can get my hands on. That doesn't mean I read exceptionally fast, but I manage to plug away, always reading (or listening to!) something (usually procured from the public library where my life struggle is to keep my fines under $10 and therefore keep my account active), and I usually clock in at about 75 books a year. This is good, I suppose, and I am pleased with my post-collegiate self for continuing to learn and study and sharpen my mind. However, I‘m beginning to be concerned about the way I am interacting with all these books. Am I dialoguing with them? Am I letting them sit inside me and change/form me? Or am I reading them so quickly and in such a manner that they are “in one ear, and out the other”? I’m also troubled by the amount of retention I am capable of with this style of reading.

I believe that we read for a variety of reasons, and one of the most important is personal formation. Reading has always seemed to me equivalent with growing, if done properly, and it has always felt like the most important thing I do. So I’m troubled by the possibility that I’m strictly consuming books instead of interacting with themI want to have a record not only of what I've read, but of what I've learned and how it has formed my mind and my heart.

To that end, I present my reading project for 2014 (I've already been working on it, just not publicly):  I am going to write about the books I read.  So then, when I look back at what I read in 2014, I will have not just a list of books, but a collection of new thoughts, questions, ideas, insights, favorite memories and images, and a record of the way my life intersected with the books I was reading. I also think it will help me to read more attentively, with greater care and thoughtfulness. I don’t want to be a passive reader—it goes against all the reasons I find reading so valuable.

I think that whatever I write will look less like book reviews and more like reflections on whatever thoughts and questions the book stirred up for me. I also hope that it provides an environment in which to dialogue with others about good and great books because the absence of that dialogue is definitely the thing I miss most from college and assuredly the thing I feel most lacking in my daily life. Is there anything more meaningful and delightful than reading and talking about books? Yes, of course there are some things—but not a lot, so here goes. 

Oh, and I’ll always warn if there are spoilers, even for classics, because maybe you haven’t read Harry Potter yet, but certainly will one day.