If you’re adding film titles to your 2013 must-see list, here’s one to consider: Longford, an HBO drama telling the true story of British Lord Longford, played by Jim Broadbent. I’ve recommended it many times since I first saw it in 2009 and did so again a week or so ago. Few films still have me thinking about them years afterward.
A devout Christian, Longford visits prisoners as part of his spiritual practice. In the beginning, the film shows him in an interview saying that the greatest achievement in his life is visiting and helping prisoners. Then the story begins.
A notorious criminal asks him to visit her, a woman convicted of a heinous crime involving the most vulnerable and precious members of society. They begin meeting regularly, and he helps her over many years in her legal battle. His long-term relationship with her becomes the greatest achievement of his life’s greatest achievement.
Yet his efforts collapse in complete and utter failure. If I told you why it would be a spoiler, yet your guess probably comes close. Lord Longford is devastated and broken, an object of public scorn.
Time passes and he eventually writes a book on another topic. In an interview about this book, the subject of his visits with this prisoner comes up. The interviewer asks him if he regrets helping her. Longford pauses and says no. (Disclaimer: I don’t have a transcript of the film and so this is my memory + paraphrasing kicking in.) He says he is grateful to her. He says that deepening his faith is what his spiritual journey is about and that his experience with her helped him at that. The film doesn’t end there and I won’t say anymore about the plot lest you plan to watch it and think I’ve spoiled it enough already.
I like the word "intention" better than "resolution." It implies something to work toward, move toward, rather than something at which you either succeed or fail.
Here's what I'm intending for the new year:
Experiment more. Create more; consume less. Trust more; worry less. Read more; write more; watch less. Write more of what lasts longer. Waste less time. Spend more time in "creative idleness". Spend less; save more. Pray more. Use more paper, lots of paper. Use a pen more, a keyboard less. Find an agent; find a publisher; deliver a manuscript worth publishing, worth reading. Love more. Talk less but say more. Figure out how patience and urgency co-exist. Hope always. Cook more; eat less. Start sewing again. Play the piano more. Pursue truth, beauty, and goodness at every opportunity; realize every moment is an opportunity. Stand up straighter. Speak more often in the strength of my own voice. Find the way to do what needs to be done; sit quietly and wait for the Lord. Accept paradox. Pray more, pray without ceasing. See the signs, ask for signs; be more willing to step into the unknown. Use less; have less; give more away. Shorten my to-do lists. More intentionally be a conduit for the flow of God's grace to the world. Be silent more often. Pray more fervently for safety coast to coast but live less fearfully. Remind myself as often as needed where true hope lies. Start fewer projects but finish more of those I start. Be encouraged. Be excited. Be more attuned to the burdens of the people I pass on the street as well as those with whom I share a table or a home. Love God with ever more of my heart, soul, strength, and mind. Thank more. Eat less sugar but more dark chocolate.
I’m a fan of the writings of Josef Pieper, a German philosopher who tried his best to convince people with noses to the grindstone after WWII to introduce sabbath-like leisure into their lives. (See a blog post here and here.) In fact, I have an essay coming out in the next issue of Under the Sun (its last print issue) in which Pieper is a key player. His seminal essays are compiled in the book, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, but this morning I’m thinking about another slim companion volume, Only the Lover Sings: Art and Contemplation.
In this collection of essays, he again begs us to take seriously his call to leisure, “For nothing less is at stake here than the ultimate fulfillment of human existence.” A key component of this brand of leisure is contemplation, which he equates with seeing, meaning having the “spiritual capacty to perceive the visible reality as it truly is.” We can boost that capacity, wrote Pieper, by fasting and abstaining for periods from daily visual noise, and through artistic creation. In the book's last essay he expands the definition of contemplation beyond that of seeing to include also loving,
"Eyes see better when guided by love."
So the question that arises on this weekday morning with work projects stacked on the desk and writing projects hovering all around is how contemplation--that is, seeing in love--can be woven into a work day, or said another way, into the everyday life of a working person, such that one's gaze is toward reality and guided by love?
I’m of a mindset that nothing is wasted. I believe this. Not prudently, as in “nothing should be wasted,” but confidently, brazenly. Metaphysically. Nothing is.
Annie Dillard shares a similar view, only she calls it "a crackpot notion," a "little ghost story" she never tires of telling herself:
Imaginative acts--even purely mental combinations, like the thought that a certain cloud resembles a top hat--carry real weight in the universe. A child who makes a pun, or a shepherd who looks at a batch of stars and thinks, 'That part is a throne and that part is a swan,' is doing something which counts in the universe's reckoning of order and decay--which counts just as those mighty explosions and strippings of electrons do inside those selfsame stars. This jolly view soothes the Puritan conscience; it gives the artist real work. With his thumb in the dike he is saving the universe. And the best part of it is he need not find a publisher, or a gallery, or a producer, or a symphony orchestra. Thoughts count. A completed novel in the trunk in the attic is an order added to the sum of the universe's order. It remakes its share of undoing. It counteracts the decaying of systems, the breakdown of stars and cultures and molecules, the fraying of forms. It works. (from LIVING BY FICTION)
In Irving Stone’s biographical novel of Michelangelo, The Agony and the Ectasy, there is the line: “Inside himself he had to grow as his sculpture grew and matured.” Each sculpture required not just time but his own internal growth. I think it’s that way with writing. Not necessarily the writing of blog posts, which will move off a blog’s front page within a week or a month’s time, but the writing of work that both stands on its own and stands the test of time. This kind of writing needs the writer to attend to it daily or nearly so.
It seems to me that if I go more than about three days without attending to a piece of writing, key connections about that piece that have been forming in my brain, even without being aware of it, become lost, conferring a much greater setback to the project than the question, Now where was I?, might reveal. But the line about Michelangelo takes the need for regular and ongoing attention a deep step further.
The lasting kind of writing requires the writer and the work to grow simultaneously. If the writer isn’t spending time with the work, then she can’t grow along with it and it can’t grow and mature with her, no matter how many tweaks or edits are made.
I think about this ideal as my calendar fills and my other “noncreative” writing work (although hopefully still creative in a sense) also requires time and attention to become something solid and good. It feels like an unattainable ideal, but the value in such an ideal is that it keeps you striving after it in at least some capacity. I assume this tension is there for anyone pursuing a creative endeavor. Even reading a book that has formative potential can take that kind of daily attention and growth.
This was the subject line of a group e-mail I received. The gist of the e-mail was that the sender--a well-known self-help writer whose newsletter I subscribe to--wanted to find people for whom her writings have helped with food and diet and who might might be able to give endorsement in an television infomercial. Of course, the carrot of being on TV may be exactly the right impetus to trigger men and women to give the “right” answer to any sort of survey question, but I’m quite sure that most of this writer’s readers would give her high praise without need of a reward for doing so.
That e-mail did make me wonder, though, about the prospect of an average person sending out an open-ended query asking, “Has my work helped you?” Say for example, the woman slicing cheese at the grocery store down the street or the man laying new asphalt on the road you take to work. Or the woman who cleans your hotel room bathroom or the man who checked the landing gear on the plane you’ll fly on tomorrow. I’m imagining an e-mail from one of them. “Has what I do helped you?” If it were possible for an average person to send out such an e-mail to those with whom his or her work intersected, an open-ended question like that with no reward for answering, a person-to-person e-mail and not a corporate survey, would responses be forthcoming? How might the surveyors’ lives be changed by some affirmation from an end user? How might the recipients be changed by being asked to look at someone that was before invisible?