Poetic Faith: Embodied Reading

The blog has been a bit quiet lately. The reading has been a bit less intense as well. This is because reading is not merely a mental activity. It is also an action of the body. And my body has had other things to tend to this week.

Not least of these things was a bat that I found yawning above our dining room door at about 11pm Tuesday night. After panicking, trembling, flinching, and posting myself on our stairs with a large plastic bin lid to keep the poor thing from venturing upstairs, I watched the bat soar through the open front door into the night. And I spent the rest of the night not sleeping. (I have found that I don’t do well with bats.) 

This is what not reading Wednesday looked like.

 After spending Wednesday in a fog—partly cleared by two meetings (one scheduled, another not) and a glorious three-hour conversation with a former student about…well, as it turns out, many of the topics associated with my “seminar,” I had an indifferent night’s sleep and woke on Thursday feeling much more exhausted than I had the day before—and with a serious of family chauffering duties ahead of me. By the end of the day, I was feeling a bit better, but still quite tired, and the 8-mile “ice cream ride” I went on with my kids along the Lehigh River that evening didn’t get me in a better place for academic rigor.

Today, I’m mostly recovered, and I celebrated my recovery with a 10-mile bike ride down a canal towpath along the Delaware River. This proved to be a much more benign encounter with nature, as the weather was just about ideal for riding. After a few more hours of daddy time, I had almost three hours left in the day to do my reading. This is what reading in my body looks like this week: freaked-out, wiped-out, weak, parental, and parceled-out. 

This is what not reading this morning looked like.

This half-comical series of distractions, commitments, accidents, and open-eyed choices puts my seminar work, and my larger sabbatical work, into a larger context for me. For my first several years on the tenure track, I put work first while insisting on making time for family. I wore myself very thin, slipped a disc in my back simply from too much desk time (with bad posture), and made things harder on my wife than I realized at the time. Then, as I’ve shared before, we found out she was pregnant—and had cancer—the same week the “book that broke my back” came out. That week in April 2012 launched a nearly two-year-long cycle of distractions, commitments, accidents, and open-eyed choices, with a lot of anxiety, resentment, and exhaustion to boot. Being pulled away from work became the norm for me; I learned to take better care of myself, to care for myself in new ways such as insisting on the refreshment of getting outdoors. Even when it meant that some work, that likely had already been delayed by a medical appointment or parenting or housework, would have to wait longer.

I’m realizing that part of the value of the Poetic Faith seminar for me is in confronting those patterns, good and bad, that came to redefine my life three years ago. By the grace of God, I have a healthy wife, a quartet of kids that amaze me daily, and two years ahead of me to develop a book—maybe more than one—and to nurture patterns of thought, work, and life with a level of control the professorial life rarely allows (recognizing already that the professorial life at least potentially offers considerably more control over these choices than many other lifestyles do).

And yet I still don’t have control. Not over everything. Sometimes, not even over most things. Balancing the push-and-pull of living in a body and a family and a social world with the pleasures and rigors of the life of the mind is itself, I think, an act of poetic faith. One of my readings this week (I did read something!) was Romand Coles’s Rethinking Generosity (1997). Coles, a political theorist who, like many of my other selected authors, has been deeply engaged in debates over the nature of post-secularity, puts forward a densely argued, richly footnoted argument for the inadequacy of secular, self-based notions of generosity. (He criticizes rather than critiques Judeo-Christian notions of generosity, dismissing in his introduction what sounds like a straw man but is never explained enough for me to know exactly what it is he doesn’t like about how God gives—and then he gives Kant fifty pages to make his case and then take it apart. But anyway.) The key, he argues, is learning how to give within receptivity to the other—don’t just give someone you think is good for them or something that you will like giving, but also don’t just give what it seems they want just to please them. The goal is sharing in another’s joy while still recognizing that there is a difference between how the giver and the receiver experience joy. He develops this argument through a beautifully generous and illuminating reading of Theodor Adorno, one of the more difficult theorists a typical grad student will have to wrestle with and a man with a reputation for being a tough-as-nails, anti-consumerism elitist. Coles shows the hope in Adorno’s often dark critiques of modern society, particularly in the possibility of opening the self, and in effect rebuilding the self anew, by giving with receptivity and receiving with generosity. For Adorno and for Coles, giving at its best leads both giver and receiver into greater freedom because of greater openness to others.

This beatific vision of human relations as they can be was just the reading for my Friday afternoon. After working dutifully through various writings earlier this week (I’ll post on those soon) and having my self-made plans derailed, I learned not only the truth of reading being an embodied practice but also the insight that giving to others, whether my wife and children, to students dropping by for reference letters or existential guidance, and even to the authors whose words I encounter, digest, and judge: this is the best way I can give life in the day-to-day I’m in right now. This is living, this is ministry and grace and faith. I didn’t always feel kindly toward those I encountered this week (least of all the bat!), but being in that uncomfortable, dynamic place Adorno would call the “negative dynamics” (St. Paul might have called kenosis) is the holiest of holies in my embodied, everyday life.

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