SABBATICAL LESSONS

As I said at the time …

When I was 38, several developments occurred in a way that allowed me to give myself a year of unemployment, drawing largely on savings. Rather than travel the world or undertake some related activity, I hunkered down in a writing spree [that resulted in the novels now (finally) being published]. The sabbatical meant that for the first time in my life, I had a period of uninterrupted concentration on this work. The writing itself. Three fast novels, now to be revised, and thud! skidding to a crash or whatever. Enough to expand to a dozen, in the hours of revision after I went back to the paying work. Looking back, I know it had to be done. And done then.

Nevertheless, in my struggle between practicality and art, there’s been a longstanding sense of guilt in spending time on myself. To my surprise, a resolution came through a workshop on prayer, when we were divided into smaller groups and then asked to write out a prayer request. Not for what others might need or a social issue, but for something we needed individually. “Ask for something for yourself,” which the others would then pray for.

Of course, each of us works differently. I’m not one for the blank sheet writer’s block syndrome: I’m usually springing from notes jotted down earlier. (Pacing is another matter: just where is this going? And why?)

In contrast, I recall a poet friend who was also a public school teacher; he was quite prolific during the busy school year, yet during the summer, could produce little, though he could never quite figure out why. (He could also stare at a piece of paper for five hours and then turn out a sharply focused gem.) The other friend, having all the leisure in the world, could produce only disconnected flashes. Could it be some juggling or resistance is also essential to the practice?

TWO YEARS OF BLOGGING NOW

Before the month ends, I’d like to note that the Red Barn’s been open two years now, and I’d like to thank all of you who stop by regularly – especially those of you whose comments have created a conversation and deepened and brightened the line of inquiry. I’m still surprised how many nationalities are represented in those who are, in effect, visiting my little corner of Dover through these many rounds of postings.

Let me also confess how good it feels to be sharing these pieces, some from deep in my filing cabinets and others fresh off the keyboard, and to hear that so many of you enjoy them. Sometimes we seem to be swapping letters, like pen pals around the world, which may be pretty accurate when I think of the many bloggers who form this growing circle.

I promise there’s still much more ahead.

In the past year, the Barn’s three sister blogs – As Light Is Sown, Chicken Farmer I Still Love You, and the Orphan George Chronicles – have presented related materials in much longer entries, and you’re always welcome to check in there as well. In effect, I’ve been serializing book-length manuscripts on personal finance, genealogy, New England’s legendary foliage, and Quaker history and thought – and that will continue, along with some added twists. I have to admit being fond of some of the slide shows that are up and running there, too.

~*~

While we’re at it, let me give you a preview of some of what’s ahead in 2014.

Here at my primary blog, I’m departing from the usual merry-g0-r0und routine just for the month of January. Instead of the usual rotation of categories, the Red Barn’s entries will all be under the Arts & Letters header – mini book reviews, for the most part, even though they’ll probably cover all of the usual fields we hit in a month. In February, we’ll be back to our usual format. Consider it a book festival of sorts, one I planned even before my own ebook novels began appearing at Smashwords.

As Light Is Sown will feature a year-long Quaker Daybook series with a daily scriptural passage, something by me, and a quotation from the early Quaker Elizabeth Bathurst, a most remarkable and little known voice. The blog will also present a daily photo daybook, perhaps just to keep our feet on the ground.

In late February, Chicken Farmer I Still Love You will begin a series of reflections on the hippie movement. Again, this was something I planned before Smashwords began releasing my Hippie Trails novels, yet its timing couldn’t be better.

At the Orphan George Chronicles, the chapters finally turn to my Hodson/Hodgin/Hodgson surname line after examining many of the maternal lines and a few unrelated ones. It’s an alternative American history.

In many ways, I feel we’re hitting high gear – and we’re ready to roar. Hope you delight in the action. And, as always, the barn door’s open for your quips and additions.

HEALTHIER BALANCE

For most of my adult life, I’ve tended to load up on the fresh vegetables, but fruit’s been another matter. Maybe if you stuck a piece right in front of me, on my plate. Yes, I love blueberries and, with breakfast, a grapefruit. But even after living in an orchard (cherries, plums, pears, peaches, and varieties of apples), I rarely went out of my way for that end of the dietary spectrum. Until I retired.

Maybe it was a sense of reclaiming some of my ashram experience, but once I left full-time employment, I found myself in a routine of setting down for a midmorning meal of fresh homemade toast (with homemade jam or jelly, meaning fruit), fresh homemade yogurt (with fruit), and (in season) an orange I’d just peeled.

And then there are all the goodies from our garden, much of it eaten fresh and the rest, frozen for later, such as the strawberries, blueberries,  and raspberries. That’s even before we get to the trips to the pick-your-own orchards, where we focus on the half-price drops on the ground, such as peaches and apples, or the crab apples we pick from the strips between the sidewalk and some city streets. Add to that a daughter who revels in canning, as well as making jams and jellies.

It may be deep cold outside, but on my table these days, I’m reliving summer. Now, what are we having for dinner?

HOLIDAY GREETINGS

We’re in that time of the year when we receive cards and letters. Personal ones, I mean, rather than direct-mail advertising.

Each year, I find myself reflecting on differences among generations regarding this custom. My dad’s circles, for instance, would send out and receive about two hundred cards apiece – keeping touch long after their high school and Air Force years, and trailing off only with illness and death. My generation, in contrast, falls away quickly. Each year, more lost connections, often with a pang of disconnection. There are, of course, a few who cling on, often with nothing personal included. There are also some older friends of my parents or a handful of relatives, in some sense of duty. (Only one of my first cousins has kept in touch). There are even a few correspondents who have reconnected, after years of silence. My wife and kids, being of a practical mindset, figure the folks we see regularly know what’s up with us (and so there’s no sense in mailing greetings), while those we don’t see, well, they’re history (so what’s the point?).

I think a lot of my dad’s era was a continuation of an earlier awareness, before cheap long-distance phone calls and then email. Those connections were special. My kids, on the other hand, don’t send letters of any kind, but they do have a wide range of online correspondents and texting. (Should we ask what will happen to the timeless art of the love letter?) What all this says about American society is another matter.

Quakers in some measure maintain an ancient practice of epistles, typically sent from one Meeting to another or even from a Meeting or “weighty Quake” to individuals. Some of our most powerful expressions survive there, and not from George Fox exclusively. Still, in an email world, how do we extend our faith? What efforts will survive? What will be read over the years? How do we reach out with something personal and special? Suddenly, I notice how many people are buying candles, especially at this time of year! Candles, in an electronics age. Remarkable! A spark of Light in the dark!

DEAR MISS W, MOST LIKELY NOW MRS. WHOMEVER

When our paths intersected, you had no way of knowing the compressed range of hopes and desires you unleashed. Nor could I have articulated them at the time.

Yes, I was very much hoping for a companion who could share activities, both intellectual and playful, as well as a girlfriend who could allow many of my repressed relationship desires to blossom. Those included sensuality, but also those many nuanced interactions of being together, often seen as the flowers and chocolate variety. To me, this is more than romance.

Somehow (and now I have no way of knowing why) I sensed in you a deep faith, one that might correspond to my yearning for a spirituality that was imbedded in an open and richly supportive daily practice. A discernment of the presence of the Holy Spirit, especially. You were apparently unaware of the depth of my own religious activity, or of the hollowness I was sensing in our congregation and denomination or, in turn, in my own comprehension. Especially, my heart.

I could spend a long time going into the psychological dimensions of where I was at the time, or the conflicts I was facing. Let us say simply my mother’s rules and values would never work in the dating scene, much less real romance.

As a consequence, you had no way of knowing what you triggered. For me, there was something very close to a psychological breakdown: deep, nearly paralyzing depression. I realized I could no longer believe any of the religious teaching I had received. Indeed, as president of the largest youth fellowship in our denomination, I realized I could neither resign (not in my household) nor lead prayer and similar devotions; in response, months later, our youth pastor said to me, “I don’t know what happened midway through your administration, but everything really picked up.” Nor, after graduation, did I set foot in that building again, except for the remarriage of my father after my mother’s death and perhaps another occasion or two.

What unfurled from our last communication was a pathway into agnosticism and logical positivism to the saving teachings of yoga and then my residence in an ashram leading to my ordination as an American swami. All of this is so far from your grounding as a fundamentalist, and so far from where I’ve landed.

The Christ I’ve come to know and love is so different from what I’ve heard proclaimed in your circles. The practice, as a Quaker, unknowingly returning to the faith of my paternal ancestors, or with Mennonites, hewing closely to many of my Dunker ancestors, is also radically different, one that rejects military service, for starters.

So in a curious way, I want to express my gratitude to the Southern Baptist who inadvertently liberated me from the constraints of my religious and courtship expectations.

Much of the journey along the way, of course, you will never be able to appreciate – the hippie scenes, drugs, or sexual freedom. Nor the ongoing tensions, of course, even after a fabulous night of sensual pleasure.

All I can say is I’ve come a long way from that deep winter, in some part because of you and your small motions.

CHOOSING, IN THE END

As I said at the time, considering …

The matter of burn-outs, too. I have a long list, from those who’d been close. The ones who self-destructed at the brink of fame, largely through misplaced sexuality. One who achieved fame while still in high school, but then pursued a tangled life more than the fact. A common story, really. Perhaps the sex, like liquor, is the cover for much deeper wounds that need to be confronted and healed – but are instead allowed to fester.

We could also look at charisma in public figures, and how so often it comes by consuming in flames those who surround you. Witness Clinton and Lewinsky. (Which also raises questions about the kind of marriage the Clintons have agreed upon – obviously, not the usual white-picket fence variety but something far more Continental. Marriage blanc?)

Yes, there are reasons for fears. Actually, before I shift gears in a moment, I should recommend Camille Paglia’s controversial but seminal Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence From Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, a great overview of art and literature and human sexuality in the course of Western Civilization. As she convincingly titles her chapter about Dickinson: “Amherst’s Madame de Sade.”

Then there’s the whole realm of intrigue about fetishes themselves – and even whether they remain more powerful left in the imagination than in reality. Columnist Bob Greene toured the Playboy Mansion before it was torn down and was disheartened to discover how small and dingy the indoor swimming pool was compared to all the photo layouts he had worshipped in his adolescence. Maybe the potential of doing X, Y, or Z has more hold than no longer being able to do the tattoo differently now that it’s there. Ditto so much else!

The paradox, actually, that choice doesn’t exist until you choose one – and rule out the others. Guess that comes into place here. You can believe in marriage in general, but in the end it’s going to be with a blonde, a brunette, or a redhead – or for her, possibly with a baldy. Go for them all, and you avoid going as deep into the experience, or so they say. From my experience, it gets tiring investing all the effort and time in what is essentially the early stages of a life journey – I’d much rather be much further along with a reliable companion. Hope this doesn’t sound moralizing, but I’ve been making the decision to move forward on some other fronts of my life the past few years rather than jumping into another relationship that pulls me away from my life’s direction. And, yes, there are many moments of weakness in that, when the loneliness can become paralyzing.

MEMORY LANE OF DESIRES

As I said at the time …

Looking back through the yearbooks, I’m surprised to admit how few of the girls were as sexy or mysterious or genuinely attractive as they’ve remained in my memory. This is not what I would have thought earlier.

I can also wonder why I didn’t move on KK or why nothing connected with MM, despite the youth pastor’s encouragement. What were the astrological factors? Anything else I might have noticed later?

Of course, most of us guys, well, that was another matter. Some things never change.