Tag Archives: Asheville

Faith in Literature: Contemporary Writers of the Spirit

faithinlit

This past weekend was one that was filled with gratitude and inspiration: gratitude for friends in my life and inspiration from listening to writers who use the written word as a way to express spirituality.

My friend Rick Chess is a poet and professor at University of North Carolina in Asheville, and he was one of the organizers of the Faith in Literature festival. He graciously invited my wife and me to attend some amazing sessions, including two conversations hosted by Krista Tippett that were recorded for possible broadcast on her “On Being” radio show, as well as an intimate luncheon with Krista and other distinguished guests. I am extremely grateful to Rick and thankful that he is a part of our lives.

The first conversation occurred on Friday evening, between Krista and poet Marilyn Nelson. One of the themes of the discussion that resonated with me was about the connection between poetry and silence. Marilyn explained that poetry taps into the silence within us, that it comes from silence and evokes silence. This strengthens the importance of poetry in an age where people are increasingly afraid of their inner silence and attempt to escape that silence through technology. Marilyn and Krista also discussed poetry as a form of contemplation and how poetry can help individuals rediscover reality.

On Saturday afternoon, my wife and I attended a luncheon at the chancellor’s house where Ms. Tippett and the other writers were in attendance. The food was delicious, and it felt nice to be included with such talented and spiritual individuals.

After lunch, we attended a conversation between several writers, which was very inspiring and prompted us to purchase several books and get them signed.

Finally, the closing event on Saturday evening was a conversation between Krista Tippett and Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson, discussing Wilkerson’s book The Warmth of Other Suns, which details the Great Migration through the lives of three protagonists. This was such a powerful conversation, particularly in regard to current racial tensions, the ongoing refugee crisis, and the need for “radical empathy.” I loved the way they described empathy as “not pity or sympathy, but the ability to get inside another person and understand how they feel.” I think if we all started practicing radical empathy, the world would be a different place.

Needless to say, my pile of books to be read has increased over the weekend. Here is the list of books I bought, all of which were signed by the authors. I hope to share my thoughts on these in the near future.

  • Tekiah by Rick Chess
  • The Beautiful Possible by Amy Gottlieb
  • Kohl & Chalk by Shadab Zeest Hashmi
  • Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living by Krista Tippett
  • The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

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Meaning of Abracadabra in “Midnight’s Children” by Salman Rushdie

MidnightsChildren

Not too long ago, I went to a lecture by Salman Rushdie at the University of North Carolina – Asheville. He was so inspiring that I ended up purchasing a copy of Midnight’s Children (click here to read my thoughts on his lecture). Since I was reading Infinite Jest at the time, it took a little while to get around to it, but I finally did so and finished reading it the other day.

Anyway, the book is amazing and rich in imagery and symbolism. I filled several pages of reference notes in my journal as I worked through the novel. So then the question became: What do I write about? I didn’t want to just write a summary, so I decided to focus on the word “abracadabra,” which is also the name of the last chapter in the book, and share my thoughts on how this word ties in to the overall story.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the etymology of the word, it is Aramaic in origin and roughly translates to something like “I create as I speak.” So the mystical power of this word is that magicians and occultists can use it to conjure or create with the use of a word, similar to the power of the Judeo-Christian god who created all existence from a word (see Genesis).

So here is the passage that I feel is key to understanding what Rushdie is doing on a grand scale with the book.

… yes, and Aadam heard it too, with his flapping ears he heard the rhythm of the magic, I saw his eyes light up as I accepted, and then we were in a third-class railway carriage heading south south south, and in the quinquesyllabic monotony of the wheels I heard the secret word: abracadabra abracadabra abracadabra sang on the wheels as they bore us back-to-Bom.

Yes, I had left the colony of the magicians behind me for ever, I was heading abracadabra abracadabra into the heart of nostalgia which would keep me alive long enough to write these pages…

(p. 519)

At this moment, the protagonist of the story, Saleem Sinai, realizes the mystical power of the written word, that words are magical symbols that can create connections between the past and the present and the future, and that through the use of words, he is creating a mythology that is eternal. These connections, or correspondences, are the building blocks of the myth, because mythology uses symbols to explain things on a grand or cosmic scale. And what I find most fascinating is that what we have here can be described as a meta-abracadabra, since we have Rushdie using the magical power of words to create a story that is a mythology of modern India, but within the story is another story about Saleem using words to write his own myth establishing the correspondences between his life and independent India.

Since I wove in the concept of correspondences, I want to add another quote from the book that elaborates on correspondences.

As a people, we are obsessed with correspondences. Similarities between this and that, between apparently unconnected things, make us clap our hands delightedly when we find them out. It is a sort of national longing for form—or perhaps simply an expression of our deep belief that forms lie hidden within reality; that meaning reveals itself only in flashes.

(pp. 343 – 344)

I firmly believe in the concept of correspondence. All things are connected, and sometimes those connections are obvious, and sometimes they are hidden, as in symbolism. But connections exist all around us, and the power of the written word can help us realize those hidden connections. Abracadabra!

Although this book is rich with symbolism, it is very readable, a terrific story, and has some of the most beautiful use of synesthesia I have ever encountered. I highly recommend reading it. As always, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below. Thanks for stopping by, and keep reading engaging stuff.

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Thoughts on “Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace – Part 10: Art and Being Hip

InfiniteJest

I live in Asheville, which is considered a “hipster” city. As a result, I see people who work very hard and spend a lot of money perfecting their non-conformist images. I like to say that these people “conform to the established idea of non-conformity.” Not that I am passing judgment. Everyone has a right to express themselves in a way that feels right, but I suspect that some impressionable individuals buy into the idea of non-conformity that is promoted through the arts and social media, especially young people.

With this in mind, I’d like to point out an interesting passage in Infinite Jest.

It’s of some interest that the lively arts of the millennial U.S.A. treat anhedonia and internal emptiness as hip and cool. It’s maybe the vestiges of the Romantic glorification of Weltschmerz, which means world-weariness or hip ennui. Maybe it’s the fact that most of the arts here are produced by world-weary and sophisticated older people and then consumed by younger people who not only consume art but study it for clues on how to be cool, hip – and keep in mind that, for kids and younger people, to be hip and cool is the same as to be admired and accepted and included and so Unalone. Forget so-called peer-pressure. It’s more like peer-hunger. No? We enter a spiritual puberty where we snap to the fact that the great transcendent horror is loneliness, excluded encagement in the self. Once we’ve hit this age, we will now give or take anything, wear any mask, to fit, to be part-of, not be Alone, we young. The U.S. arts are our guide to inclusion.

(p. 694)

This rang true for me on several levels. Certainly, the hipster “conforming to non-conformity” I mentioned at the beginning of this post, but also the need to belong, especially in one’s adolescent years. I was like that, and I’m sure we all were to an extent. I dressed the part of the crowd that I was hanging out with, listened to the same music, went to the same places, all to be a part of a group and to avoid having to be alone. Because what happened when you are alone? You have to face yourself, and that was hard for me as a teenager and I suspect it is difficult for others too.

Anyway, as I have gotten older, I am more comfortable with myself and no longer feel the need to be a part of a particular group. I do what makes me happy, and whether I do that in a group or alone, doesn’t make that much difference to me. But Wallace taps into something that is almost universal for people growing up. We all want friends and we want to be a part of a group, and we look to art to teach us what is cool and how we should be if we want to fit in with the hip crowd. It makes me wonder if we have some tribalism hidden away in our collective consciousness.

Thanks for stopping by, and have an amazing day!

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Salman Rushdie – Public Events, Private Lives: Literature and Politics in the Modern World

Rushdie_UNCA

I have a confession to make: I have not read any of Salman Rushdie’s books… yet. But this will be changing soon. Last night I went to see the author give a public lecture at the University or North Carolina – Asheville, and I have to say, he was one of the more inspiring writers I have had the privilege of hearing speak.

He touched on a lot of current issues regarding politics, social trends, and the role of literature in these changing times. He openly criticized Donald Trump, censorship, and the proliferation of misinformation, or “truthiness,” associated with the internet and the digital age. But there were two themes in his lecture that resonated with me on a deep level: the trend among students to attempt silencing ideas that challenge their established beliefs, and the role of the novel in bringing “news” to readers.

Regarding students silencing ideas, this is something about which I often think, particularly regarding the BDS movement (boycott, divestment, sanctions) directed against Israel. I have heard horrific stories about professors, speakers, artists, etc., being shouted down, threatened, and silenced on campuses for expressing their support for Israel, all under the guise of support for the oppressed Palestinians. What Rushdie asserted in his lecture is that this is essentially censorship, and it is censorship perpetrated by the group of people who should be most vehemently opposed to the censorship of ideas. Rushdie claims that it is the responsibility of artists and professors to challenge the established beliefs and to open for discussion ideas that are uncomfortable and sometimes contradictory to one’s personal beliefs. I’m paraphrasing here, but he basically said that students who claim they do not feel safe when forced to consider challenging ideas have no place in a university and should instead be in a pizza parlor, where they will be safely sheltered from having to listen to ideas that contradict their way of thinking.

The other part of his lecture I found fascinating concerned the role of the novel in presenting news to the modern reader. This puzzled me at first until Rushdie elaborated. He claimed that with the demise of print newspapers, the reading public no longer has access to legitimate news sources, that digital news sources have yet to be able to fill that gap. Instead, we get opinions as opposed to reporting. I would counter that print newspapers have historically been biased also, but I could accept that news media has become more opinion-centric as of late. Then Rushdie went on to explain how literature and the novel provide a side of the news that is lacking in usual coverage, which is the human side, the internal aspect of living in an increasingly smaller world. The way we can understand what it is like to be in situations is through literature. He used the example of The Kite Runner which provides a deeper insight into life in Afghanistan than any news story showing explosions and statistics of how many were killed. His words resonated with truth. My belief in the power of art and literature was validated and boosted.

I left the lecture excited to read, to write, and to discuss ideas. I also left with a newly bought copy of Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children tucked under my arm. And while the book has been temporarily placed on my sagging shelf, I suspect that I will be reading this one before the others that have been patiently waiting for me to open their covers.

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Back to the Future: Issue 1

BTTF

I picked this up at the Asheville Comic Expo (ACE) about a month ago and finally got around to reading it. As you can tell from the cover, it is a limited edition printed solely for the expo (the bag Marty is holding has ACE logo on it). I figured it was a cool collectible from the expo, but it is also a very well-written and nicely illustrated comic.

The issue actually contains two stories, or the beginnings of two story threads: the first tells the story of how Marty initially meets Dr. Brown, and the second begins a tale of Dr. Brown getting recruited to work with Robert Oppenheimer on the Manhattan Project.

I have to say that I was very pleasantly surprised by how good this first issue is. I was not expecting much. I kind of thought it would be silly and kind of a milking of the films, but there is really something creative happening here that augments the films. I would like to read the subsequent issues, but frankly, I am following more than my share of arcs right now. I can’t in good conscience commit to another series. So I will be content having read this one. That said, if you are a “BTTF” fan, you should check this out. I’m sure you will enjoy it as much as I did and likely start following the series.

Thanks for stopping by, and keep reading cool stuff.

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“Love America and March for Peace” by Umberto Eco

UmbertoEco

Image Source: The Guardian

 

This essay is included in Turning Back the Clock and for me highlights the issue of people’s tendency to see complex issues as clear and simple. There is a new paradigm where individuals are expected to support one side or the other, regardless of any grey area that may exist. Examples: If you do not support the US war on terror, then you are an ISIS sympathizer. If you support Israel, then you are a fascist that supports the oppression of Palestine. If you do not condemn the officer who shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, then you are obviously a racist. This is all a manifestation of what I personally like to call the “football team” mentality. People pick a team or side and support their “team” regardless of what they or the opposing side does. Nowhere is this clearer than in politics nowadays. Support for political parties is more polarized than it’s ever been.

As Eco points out, this mentality leads to deeper social divides.

At the heart of these painful but not yet bloody rifts, you hear statements every day that lead inevitably to racism, of the type “All those against the war are allies of Saddam,” but also “All those who think the use of force is justified are Nazis.” Shall we try to think about this?

(Turning Back the Clock: p. 32)

It seems that individuals love to label other groups as “Nazis” to emphasize that these opposing groups are crossing some moral boundary. The problem that I see in doing this is that it diminishes the memory of the atrocities that were actually perpetrated by the Nazis. For example, after a recent Supreme Court decision overturning a ban on gay marriage, the City Council here in Asheville displayed a rainbow flag to show support. Opponents of marriage equality immediately condemned the members of City Council and called them Nazis because they acted without their approval. Personally, I see no correlation between City Council’s hanging of a banner and the crimes committed in Nazi Germany.

This is all connected to the “with us or against us” mentality, where any opposition or questioning is immediately condemned.

These few observations are sufficient, I hope, to suggest that the situation in which we find ourselves, precisely because of the gravity, does not admit of clear-cut divisions or condemnations of the kind “If that’s what you think, then you are the enemy.” This too is fundamentalism. You can love the United States, as a tradition, as a people, as a culture, and with deep respect due to those who won on the field the rank of the world’s most powerful country. You can be deeply touched by the injury America suffered in 2001, but without denying the need to warn Americans that their government is making a mistake and that they should see our position not as a betrayal but as frank dissent. Not warning them means trampling on the right to dissent—the exact opposite of what we learned, after years of dictatorship, from our liberators of 1945.

(ibid: pp. 35 – 36)

I hope that this trend of vilifying those whose opinions differ changes soon. It’s very destructive and prevents human progress, and progress is essential. If we are not moving forward as a society, then we are most likely moving backwards.

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Naked Came the Leaf Peeper

NakedLeafPeeperAsheville, NC is a quirky place, to say the least. There is a saying here: “If you’re too weird for Asheville, you’re too weird.” But its home for me and I love it here. The unique blend of artists, musicians, writers, spiritual seekers, and fringe people of all sorts nestled within the Blue Ridge Mountains makes this the ideal place for me to live.

For the holidays, I was given a gift certificate to Malaprop’s, a local independent bookstore that I love to support. I knew before going there that I wanted to get a copy of Naked Came the Leaf Peeper. I had seen it on display for a while and it has been on my wish list. It is a collaborative work featuring twelve local Asheville writers each contributing a chapter.

The book is a riot! I burst out laughing multiple times as I was reading. Some of the scenes are so over-the-top that, even if you are unfamiliar with Asheville, you will still find them hysterical. For example, there is a scene where a vehicle gets stopped for reckless driving, and it is discovered that the woman driver is naked and shaving herself as her ex-husband tries to steer. And the craziest thing is, if you live in Asheville, it doesn’t seem that far-fetched.

So at this point, you may be wondering what it’s like in Asheville. Here is a quote that will give you an idea.

J.D worked his way downtown, pausing at a light straight across from the Asheville Civic Center so a man and his llama could cross the street in front of him.

A man and his llama?

J.D. turned off his auto-pilot and really looked around for the first time. There were llamas everywhere. Coming and going from the convention center, walking up and down the sidewalk, sitting on benches and parked cars. In the little park at the end of Broadway, hippies and llamas danced in a drum circle. There was even a llama standing with a tip bag tied around its neck while its owner played a guitar outside Malaprop’s Bookstore.

(p. 116)

So while this is a little bit exaggerated for humor’s sake, it’s not far from the truth. You’ll see all kinds of people with animals downtown, and there are always street musicians and people dancing around in drum circles. True story—I used to own an ice cream shop here in Asheville. One day a person came in with a goat on a leash and asked if it was OK to bring his goat in. I told him no, that the goat would have to wait outside. He seemed hurt. I couldn’t help wondering about relationship between him and his goat.

I had some neighbors once who told me that their friends would not come into Asheville because there were too many “wiggins.” It took me a few minutes to realize that he meant wiccans. Yeah, there is definitely a strong earth-based religious community here and the book includes a nod to them with a pretty accurate depiction of a pagan gathering in downtown.

The drummers began to beat their drums slowly, their rhythm increasing as Rowena’s voice grew louder, directing listeners to connect with the Divine within and to the spirits of the land, water, and sky. She called out to the spirits dwelling inside the rock and soil that formed the mountains visible in every direction; she called out to the spirits living in the rivers and springs that nourished the soil, the plants and the animals that drank from them; she called out to the spirits dwelling among the flowers and trees that also nurtured life and brought beauty and comfort. Holding a crystal wand in her hand, Rowena traced a spiraling pattern from above her head to the ground at her feet. She spoke to the dead, honoring those who had come before, and invited them to the circle, too. She undid the boundaries between the living and the dead, the animate and the inanimate, the earth and the cosmos. All were welcome at the gathering.

(pp. 169 – 170)

I don’t want to give away too much, but I’ll say that the rest of the book is filled with witty satire, parody, social commentary, literary allusions, and such. While the story is fictional, the depictions of Asheville and the surrounding counties are pretty accurate. I can also say that many of the characters in the book remind me of people I’ve met here over the years, from the conservative to the quirky to the just plain weird.

Yeah, I live in a weird city, but I love it. Honestly, I can’t imagine living anywhere else. And on that note…

Forget the Keep Asheville Weird bumper stickers. Asheville was weird enough as is.

(p. 116)

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