New This Fall: Women Mystery Writers!

8 Apr

ENG/WGS 337: Women Mystery Writers
Instructor:  Jacqueline Zeff
W: 4-6:45 p.m.

Women have had a complicated relationship with detectives and detective fiction, depicted frequently as victims or femme fatales.  But not in their own tales of murder and mayhem. While “horsing around,” women writers of crime fiction dominate the best-seller lists and expand this most popular form of fiction reading, transforming and destabilizing the traditional male detective and enriching our discussion of social issues such as female independence, gender and crime, racial justice, power and the amateur, and environmental activism.  Three short papers, a midterm, final take-home exam, and an original five-minute mystery.

“It’s fun to horse around with danger.”—Sue Grafton

Baker Street Calling . . . Again!

8 Apr

Holmes Lecture

Happy Birthday, John Updike! (March 18, 1932)

18 Mar

John-Updike

Born in rural Pennsylvania, and spending most of his life in semi-rural eastern settings, Updike originally hoped to become a cartoonist, edited the Harvard Lampoon, then worked for The New Yorker, but became one of the greatest and most prolific interpreters in fiction of the experience of ordinary, middle-class American men. His “Rabbit” Angstrom series of novels (1960-90) traces the life of a one-time high school basketball star from early adulthood to death over three decades and are probably his greatest achievement, chronicling American life and concerns over that time.

Couples (1968), set in the early 1960s, examined what Time magazine called “The Adulterous Society,” as traditional American values butted up against post-World War Two affluence. The Witches of Eastwick (1984) controversially linked women’s liberation and the supernatural in a satirical novel eventually made into a movie starring Susan Sarandon, Michelle Pfeiffer, Cher–and Jack Nicholson as the Devil.

Outstanding among American novelists of his time, Updike won every major and minor American literary award. He was notable for his beautifully written prose and his lifelong religious faith.  (post by Fred Svoboda)

Happy Birthday, Charles Dickens! (February 7, 1812)

7 Feb

Dickens at Work 2 dreaming

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today is the 212th birthday of Charles Dickens, novelist extraordinaire.  Dickens wrote 14 novels between 1836 and 1865, in the process becoming one of the most famous writers in the world.  His novels have never been out of print, his name has been transformed into an adjective for describing complex, multi-layered narratives, and he had more than a little to do with the modern conception of Christmas.  If all you know about Dickens is that he invented Ebenezer Scrooge, here’s a bit more.

  • Despite his reputation for happy endings, Dickens’ novels can hold their own against anybody’s for psychological darkness.
  • Dickens was fascinated by altered states of consciousness and learned how to hypnotize his friends.
  • His novel David Copperfield was Sigmund Freud’s favorite, provides the stage name for a popular illusionist, and contains a character, Uriah Heep, who is the source of the name for a British band of the late-sixties.
  • Henrik Ibsen’s famous play A Doll’s House takes its title from words used by a character in Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend.  Speaking about her marriage, Bella Wilfer says “I want to be something so much worthier than the doll in the doll’s house.”
  • Our Mutual Friend also contains dialogue that provided an early working title for T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”: “He do the Police in different voices.”

Charles Dickens – he’s in the middle of everything!

Karen Davis Receives Sterling Staff Award!

5 Dec

Sterling ribbonEnglish Department Administrative Assistant and CAS Staff Coordinator Karen Davis has been recognized for her excellent work with a Sterling Staff Award.  As Karen’s anonymous nominator wrote, “Karen works tirelessly to make CAS a better place to be. She has such institutional knowledge and is the ‘go-to’ person for answers for questions. I admire Karen’s professionalism, her ethics, and her efforts on behalf of the CAS personnel.”  We in English heartily agree.  There’s much, much more to what Karen does, always drawing on her energy, her wisdom, and her dedication.  Congratulations, Karen!

 

Congratulations to Maize & Blue recipient, David Linden!

19 Nov

The Department of English is proud to announce that David M. Linden has been named a Maize and Blue Distinguished Scholar.  Dave, who is graduating with a BA in English with a Specialization in Writing, has been demonstrating academic excellence at UMFlint in every semester he has been enrolled since 1997. Dave is also an empathetic leader who has committed to using his talents and education to serve others. Faculty, students, and community members know Dave to be smart, talented, hardworking, high-achieving, thoughtful, kind, humble, and giving. Inside and outside the classroom, Dave has been a leader and best committed to the betterment of self and to the service of others. Dave Linden is well deserving of the university’s most prestigious honor.

Congratulations to all of the Maize and Blue recipients!

Baker Street Calling!

12 Nov

Sherlock Holmes Adult Flier

ROBERT HAYDEN: A CENTENNIAL CONFERENCE AND POETRY TRIBUTE

18 Sep

robert-haydenNOVEMBER 1, 2013
The Department of English at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor has announced plans for a one-day conference on November 1, 2013 in honor of Robert Hayden, the distinguished poet and educator who received an M.A. degree from the University of Michigan in 1944 and returned to teach at the university in 1970 as Professor of English until his death in 1980.

Hayden has emerged as a major figure in American literary history. He is the leader, along with Gwendolyn Brooks, of the generation of African American poets that emerged in the 1940s to achieve widespread critical attention and a massive presence in anthologies and textbooks. He served as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress (the position now known as Poet Laureate of the United States) from 1976-1978. The U.S. Post Office issued a postage stamp in 2012 to honor his achievement.

The keynote address of the conference, to be held in the Rackham Amphitheater, will be delivered by Harryette Mullen, Professor of English and Creative Writing at UCLA, a Guggenheim Fellow (among other honors), and a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her volume of essays and interviews, The Cracks Between What We Are and What We Are Supposed to Be, appeared in 2012.

Professor Mullen will be introduced by A. Van Jordan of the U-M faculty. A panel discussion in early afternoon will include Mullen, Linda Gregerson (of the U-M faculty), Lawrence Joseph, a Detroit native and the preeminent Arab-American poet of our time, and Frederick Glaysher, editor of Hayden’s Collected Poems and Collected Prose. Robert Hayden is a character in Glaysher’s recently published epic poem, The Parliament of Poets. Laurence Goldstein, Professor of English and co-editor (with Robert Chrisman) of Robert Hayden: Essays on the Poetry (University of Michigan Press, 2001), will serve as panel moderator.

In late afternoon, MFA students will read from and speak about Hayden’s poems, along with other participants in the conference.

November 1 Timetable:
10 a.m. Keynote address by Harryette Mullen
12-1:30 p.m. Lunch at various restaurants around campus
1:30-3:00 p.m. Panel discussion
3:00-5:00 p.m. Readings and remarks by audience members

“…utterly a source”: Seamus Heaney, 1939 – 2013

3 Sep

So there we were, a couple of farm kids (him for real, me simply surrounded by farmlands and a one-time professional hay baler) having a giggle over being the only two males in the Harvard Faculty Club at lunchtime not in blue blazers, watching the parade of what appeared to be an endless line of Episcopalian ministers. He was in a rumpled almost white suit and a check shirt. I had, fortuitously, decided at the last moment on a tan corduroy jacket in preference to my own blue blazer. We were both wondering aloud what on earth had happened that we were in such a place where we clearly didn’t belong. Except that he did. He was Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory, a position first held by John Quincy Adams, and future Nobel laureate. I wasn’t. On the other hand, I was his guest. So we amused ourselves by watching the succession of navy blazers above gray slacks—with a single exception of khakis worn, no doubt, by the campus rebel—and comparing notes about growing up in the country. That was the beginning of my day with Seamus Heaney.

I was in Cambridge to interview him for what I hoped would be the fourth book on him, although it turned out to be the fifth. It’s exciting to be in on the first wave of studies of an emerging artist; at that point, almost anything you say will be original, and the earlier works are guaranteed to not cover the newest works by the subject. We concluded lunch, strolled campus for a bit on a beautiful May afternoon in 1987, and retreated to his digs in Adams House, an on-campus residence for new or part-year faculty. I peppered him with a series of obvious and sometimes insipid questions, which he bore patiently and to which he gave back answers so smart as to make them seem almost intelligent. Then, the interview concluded, he announced that he needed a shower before he could face supper, and he handed me a book—his not-yet-released The Haw Lantern, which would hit bookstores, or at least a few of them, the following week.  I have no idea how long he was gone. Somewhere between ten minutes and two hours, although I suspect nearer the low end. I can’t say for sure, though, because during that time I vanished into the book, devoured by and consuming something new and astonishing.  I had had that experience before with his 1975 volume, North, which is about the Troubles in Northern Ireland (those almost thirty years of violence and mayhem between Unionist and Nationalist forces beginning in 1969), Vikings, Early Iron Age people buried in bogs, Anglo-Saxon half-line verse, and words no one else uses. I know it’s poetry if the top of Emily Dickinson’s head blows off, and this stuff had that effect. But those poems, with all their history and politics and verbal archeology, require some real work on the part of the reader, work bordering on struggle. This new volume came easier, asked less, if only a little, of us. It was more personal, warmer, more approachable. Soon enough, the great man returned, bathed and dressed, and we went on the prowl for steak. For the next six days, I walked around with the delightful fantasy that I was the world’s foremost authority on Seamus Heaney.

The poem that had the most profound effect on me that afternoon, as I suspect it has on every reader, was “Clearances,” an eight-sonnet cycle on the death of his mother. It can blow the top of everyone’s head off.  He imagines her sudden arrival at the celestial version of her parents’ house, catching them unawares. He recalls his closeness with her, but also the tensions necessarily present in what he terms “our Sons and Lovers phase.” In another sonnet, he describes folding sheets with her, the paradoxical way that partners in that dance come together by pulling away from one another, “just touch and go, / Coming close by holding back / In moves where I was x and she was o / Inscribed on sheets she’d sewn from ripped-out flour sacks.” I made a comment about how the sense memory of the poem reminded me of his earlier “Churning Day,” from his first volume. Ah, he said (I’m paraphrasing here), but that one is about textures, where this one is about lines of force. In that instant I understood what I lacked that poets have to have.  And he writes in the final sonnet of a chestnut tree planted by a maiden aunt who lived with the family to commemorate his birth, a tree cut down by subsequent owners of the farm, and of what absence feels like, of “walking round and round a space / Utterly empty, utterly a source.”

We returned to mundane matters, to food and drink and literary gossip. We drank some highly aged Jameson whisky, stuff one couldn’t buy in this country, that fellow poet Michael Longley had brought him at St. Patrick’s Day. We strolled some more. He couldn’t walk a block without someone hailing him. I bought all the poetry books I thought my suitcase could handle at the Grolier Bookshop on Plympton Street. He recommended a Spanish restaurant just off Harvard Square, chiefly because they served actual potatoes, “real spuds,” he said. If you keep the vowel sound you believe lies within “spuds” and mix it with the one in “books,” you can come close to the way he pronounced it, but let’s face it, neither you nor I can ever match exactly the value of a short “u” for those born in County Derry. As it turned out, while they did indeed have real spuds and excellent beef, their chief item of fare was garlic, which was present in every item, and I’m not sure I’m excepting the wine in the charge. After dinner, he begged me to have a cigar: he had recently given up smoking but longed for the smell of tobacco to round off the meal. I had to decline, which has always troubled me a little, but he got over the craving soon enough. When we parted that evening, I did my best not to become abject in my gratitude, which would have embarrassed him, for he was notably modest in person. I wrote to thank him, but we never met again. I often thought to write at his birthday, just a week before mine; perhaps I could have remembered in time had the two dates been reversed. I did see him at a distance a number of years later in Ann Arbor, but I was part of a crowd in Rackham Auditorium that was giving the Fire Marshall the vapors, and he was being pulled along by his university chaperones. Our eyes met momentarily and he nodded and smiled, as did I. I had the sense that the mental rolodex was spinning, but even I don’t have enough vanity to think he recognized me. More probably, he knew he had seen such a person once, somewhere, if only . . .

What sticks with me most after all this time is that he didn’t need to do all this for me. After all, he was already Famous Seamus, the envy of every other young Irish poet, capable of commanding five-figure speaking fees when the rest were hoping for travel fare, while I was nobody from nowhere. I didn’t even have a permanent academic appointment, although that would change that autumn, when I would join the faculty of the Harvard of Genesee County. But aside from being a great poet, Seamus was famous for his kindness and generosity. He helped scores of younger poets as they made their own way. He ran a regular meeting of young poets in Belfast, taking it over from Philip Hobsbaum, who had begun it when Heaney himself was just starting out. Some of those poets he assisted, people like Frank Ormsby and Michael Foley and Paul Muldoon, went on to become notable in their own right.

heaney

Seamus Heaney’s attic office, now silent, Dublin
Photo: Eamonn McCabe, courtesy of The Guardian

Heaney was a great elegist, writing memorial poems about the famous (Robert Lowell, conductor Sean O’Riada) and the unknown (Louis O’Neill, an eel fisherman of his acquaintance who was blown up in an IRA reprisal after Bloody Sunday in 1972). I don’t know if he will find his own elegist, a poet to do for him what W. H. Auden did for William Butler Yeats, or indeed, what he did for Lowell.  I hope he does. In any case, I suppose it doesn’t really matter; he lives in his poetry, “The words of the dead man / Are modified in the guts of the living,” as Auden said of Yeats. On Friday, 30 August 2013, again quoting Auden, “he became his admirers.”  But then, it was always becoming to admire Seamus Heaney. Just now, I’m performing my own mental shuffle around and around a hole in the world, where someone, like his coeval chestnut tree,  whose “heft and hush” have “become a bright nowhere, / A soul ramifying and forever / Silent, beyond silence listened for.”

-Tom Foster

Howling in the Voice God Gave Me

25 Aug

No one was making me go to church when I returned except, perhaps, John Milton, the English poet, revolutionary, and blind composer of Paradise Lost. I had been an undergrad at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts, and was nearing the end of a Ph.D. at Boston College—another Jesuit school to round off my Catholic higher education. The Jesuits at both colleges said Mass many different times throughout the day, and I attended sporadically, bingeing but not feeling the obligation to get up on Sunday morning or to adjust my schedule around Mass on Holy Days of Obligation. I guess you could say that I went through a mild rebellion—a phase of tasting my own freedom. I would even spend the year after completing my Ph.D. teaching in Ankara, Turkey. The parish priest at Our Lady of the Annunciation in Glens Falls, New York urged my mother to dissuade me from this plan since “she won’t be able to attend Mass.” I ignored the warning, went anyway, and found mosques wonderfully meditative places for private prayer. I was not on the run from my faith. In fact, traipsing around the world confirmed what I’d decided with intellectual conviction during my Ph.D. work that autonomy is an illusion and freedom is a matter of consciously and conscientiously choosing or creating our own constraints—those orders to which we bind ourselves. At a time when I was still in grief over my father’s death, I had unconsciously chosen a fitting subject for my dissertation—trauma in narrative: specifically, how female characters in Renaissance literature re-make themselves after world-shattering experiences of rape, war, famine, and political powerlessness. The solution, proffered by great and small authors alike, seemed to be articulation, complaint, the artful attempt to connect with others. In Milton’s retelling of the Genesis fall story, Adam and Eve re-connect as a couple because Eve voices a moving complaint in which she accepts her share of responsibility for a quarrel that culminated in separation, temptation, and finally breaking God’s single command. She admits to being a rib crooked, a fragment broken from a whole; and her vocal humility creates the conditions for the first true conversation between Adam and her.
ulucami

I would walk all over Boston, meditating on stories like this one from Milton’s great epic. Living in Roslindale, at the time, I walked regularly from the edge of Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum up to the top of a very high hill and into the basement of an old brick, totally uninspiring yet clearly serviceable, Catholic Church. The religion of my childhood was suddenly illuminated by the religious literature I’d been studying; and I knew once again, in a different key, that I was not free. I, too, was a fragment, broken from the whole host—a white sun-like orb—raised at the consecration as pure and perfect as I hopefully imagined my soul. What relief and release there was in realizing that, no matter what dunghill I cried from, something could come of what I cried. Religion—an ordered spiritual drama like the Mass—actually supported the major writing project I’d undertaken. I understood then that it was the absolutely essential supportive framework for creativity in general because it helped me believe in all that I’d not yet spoken. Committing to religion—like committing to love—is a way of freeing what waits within us so that what no one has dared to wish for may for once spring clear without my contriving.

I am more skeptical than Jan Worth-Nelson who, in a recent editorial in the East Village Magazine, praised secular society for the freedom it gives us to “quest for authenticity.” Like Jan, I teach at the University of Michigan-Flint; but, I was not a natural teacher. First, I was a rebel child, a school-phobic crazy who hid in the woods, thinking lessons an interminable waste of time and a distraction from what was real. My wild rebelliousness happened long before puberty, and I grew into a very inward girl—the kind of student who never spoke out in high school, college, not even graduate school. I learned to speak only when I had to teach. All terribly shy people will know the intense build up of an almost erotic energy when we so badly want to throw our words out into the current of life like a fly fisherman but tangle ourselves in the endless loops of anxious questioning: What if they think I’m stupid or awkward? What if the teacher doesn’t listen? What if I can’t remember my idea? And we don’t allow ourselves to ride the words, the thoughts, crafting the experience in mid-air. I felt very early in my life that school damages us because it ties articulation to self-image. It is, as I perceived from my childhood “forts” in the pinewoods, a place for fakers who are good at self-presentation. School, academia, secular society all reward schmoozers—those who, in one way or another, excel at self-presentation. Masking as self-actualization, self-presentation is the business of some writers and artists—even teachers. They care more about how they are being perceived than about the content of what they are saying or the students they are addressing. But I think the real job of writers and teachers is to free the secret inner voice within each person, but first we have to find ways of dropping our own self-presentational mask. This is not easy since almost all institutions reward slick talkers and self-promoters—all institutions but one … the true church.

My mother was a lot like the mothers in Flannery O’Connor stories—sweet, well-meaning, concerned about neighborhood gossip, often platitudinous and sometimes bossy. Now that I am a mother, myself, I see that these traits are part of the role. But kneeling next to her in the pews at our small church, imitating the way she cupped her hands over her face when she prayed, having time to examine her spotted hands and sterling silver charm bracelet with a medallion engraved with the serenity prayer, hearing her sing off-key, I felt that she, like me, was just human. I sensed that she might have an inner life and wondered what she believed and what she prayed for. Richard Rodriguez, a Hispanic American makes an argument in his controversial autobiography, The Hunger of Memory, for monolingual education as necessity for successful assimilation. But this is his argument. All the poetry of his beautiful memoir is in his nostalgia for lost languages and secret voices, and Rodriguez longs for the Latin Mass as much as he longs for the revoked birthright of his mother tongue. He is grateful to the Catholic Church—the liturgical Church—for treating his laboring parents as thinkers—persons aware of the experience of their lives, and he writes a heartfelt paean to the “holy tongue” of Latin that enabled thinking because it encouraged an “aimless drift inward.” When I first read and taught Rodriguez’ book in freshman English at Boston College, I knew from experience that he was right about the value of a “holy language.” I, too, had sought the peace of foreign churches and traditions where I felt the vibrations of my own soul: in the dark around a wood stove in the women’s room of the Greek Orthodox monastery in Newton, Massachusetts; participating in the Latin liturgy at a Catholic church in London; barely understanding the thick brogue of the priest in an Irish parish in North London where the congregation reconvened in the pub after Mass, the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Semey, Kazakhstan where my daughter and I wandered from icon to icon, lighting candles and praying in whispers, lifted on the waves of human voices chanting adoration. I have prayed on carpets in mosques to the sound of interior fountains and even beat a tambourine to the rhythm of an ecstatic preacher at a revival on Asylum Street in Flint—“If we can’t praise Him here, ain’t no need to go up there. Heaven is a prepared place, and right down here is where we prepare.” AMEN! Each face, beaming more brightly than the red velvet carpet inside the “Hands of Love, City of Refuge Church,” was, in my estimation, ready to enter heaven if the rose-colored clouds of evening opened.

When we pray the Mass in English, we may lose poetry, music, rhythm, time to say the rosary and whisper our own prayers; but, church is still better than school. Even my eleven year old daughter thinks so. Education over-trains our sense-making faculties. As soon as we’re given anything to read, we focus on “getting it” and, in the process, fail to attend to the nerve of our own most intimate sensitivity. But the liturgy in any language has its own dramatic rhythm, its own cryptic symbols, its own lights and darks; and if we give ourselves to the hour-long drama, the rhythm will loosen our minds from sense-making tasks, engage our subconscious responses; and each congregant—involved in his or her own spiritual reality—will be set free to express needs and longings, sorrows and joys. I attend St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Flint. The visiting priests (most of whom are retired) all speak English, and yet, I still feel that I am one of a group of individuals who are together without masks. I can easily tell from body language when people are having trouble; it is written on their faces, the tears trickling from eyes, the bent shoulders, the oxygen tubes, the limps. Church is a place where we really are free to be human. When I am having a hard time physically, I think of John Paul II who insisted on functioning as the pastoral leader of the Church even through illness because he believed it was important to demonstrate that every human being had a valuable contribution to make. He was making a point about not having to be perfect, and it is one I consciously emulate on those days when insomnia leaves me feeling raw and unfit to appear before my students. “Focus on what you have to say … on what you feel passionately about,” a kind friend once said. I do.

I believe each human being has some kind of wild strength, and the mess we’ve made of the planet should be all the proof we need that we have been set down here to tend or destroy our garden. Supposedly living the American dream, we are not so different from the imperfect Israelites in prehistoric Canaan—a world of perpetual warfare, violent words, and political corruption. The central story in Judges is that of Samson, the strong man who, through aggression learns about his own strength (he can kill lions with his bare hands and slay thousands of Philistines with the jawbone of an ass) and who, through acting on his profound desire for Other women, is driven straight into the mystery of his own identity. Read his story in Judges 13-16, and you will see that Samson is much more than a superhero but a wise fool and poser of identity riddles who intuits that men must come to the limits of their strength to taste sweet waters of God’s mercy from a desert wadi. I am reminded of Yeats, the magnificent poet of age declining into decrepitude, who, when looking back over the efforts of a lifetime from the end of his own strength, wrote in “A Dialogue of Self and Soul,”

I am content to follow to its source
Every event in action or in thought;
Measure the lot; forgive myself the lot!
When such as I cast out remorse
So great a sweetness flows into the breast
We must laugh and we must sing,
We are blest by everything,
Everything we look upon is blest.

Doesn’t the warm sun feel so awfully good on cool days in late summer, especially after a brave swim in a cold lake? We did nothing to make the sun appear, but it does. It is like that with Church and with God; the feeling of being blessed despite our flaws teaches us that we can only be ourselves when we acknowledge that, whether we like it or not and despite the ebbing and flowing tides of our human relationships, we can (each one of us at any moment) experience the ecstasy of being passionately in love with One who seeks us quietly in a still, small voice that we can hear only if we turn down the volume of our presentational voices. “Hallowed be Thy name.”

Instead of going to church on Sundays, Jan Worth-Nelson remembers walking the streets and imbibing freedom. Walking can certainly be a form of prayer, especially in the more unpretentious and mixed up neighborhoods of Flint—like the East Village—where homeless men and women collide with students, professors, factory workers, alcoholics, and no one is made up or made over or trying to make an impression. Flannery O’Connor, defended herself when she was accused of writing too much about “freaks and poor people,” explaining that writers love the poor because “they live with less padding between them and the raw forces of life.” What I notice everyday from my own front porch is that those who live hand to mouth are often the people with a freewheeling energy, generous with pick-up lines, hugs, and all the time in the world to observe this stage-play world sidewalk-side in cheap plastic seats. The tiniest act of human kindness, a moment of shared humor in public, seem to set things right again as if any sign of human contact releases an unwanted tension.

But I think each of us needs friendship, special supportive friendship—not the casual kind, that encourages us to think, breathe, dream aloud—to unroll the pictures in our minds to the music of our spirits. We need an audience of one that gives us some approximation of what we had (if we were lucky) once upon a time, “Look, Mom! Watch this!” Fear squashes a voice, and, as anthropologist, Kirin Narayan, reminds us,”professional training narrows the color and range of possible tones. Too many outer demands brick up a flowing voice, forcing it so far underground you may forget its sounds.” How then is it possible to remain true to yourself as a writer while also attending to all the complications of a life involving other people’s expectations and demands? Get thee to church, take a walk, cultivate a friendship as if it were a garden bed for seeds of ideas. In any way that you can, turn inward and feel the current of longing for something. That is your self. Live in that current for a while and you speak from it to make the music more intense.

Thankfully, I found in middle age one friend with whom I’ve been reading the Bible from the first chapter of Genesis. Accustomed to hours of solitary study in preparation for teaching, I have been stunned by how much farther two people, working together, can go in the pursuit of meaning. Why is that? Perhaps this is why in all three monotheisms, there is a tradition of studying in pairs. For example, the foundation of all Sufi orders (Sufiism is the mystical sect of Islam) is the relationship between the teacher and disciple, cultivated through conversation and chanting or reading spiritual poems. This practice of composing and chanting poetry (nefes or “breath of spirit”), the feelings and devotion toward one’s particular teacher are endlessly evoked and elaborated. It seems fitting that the way to spiritual discovery and discernment be linked to its actualization not by man or woman working in isolation but as part of a pair. Even when I read the Bible alone in my room, I know that my friend is wrestling with the same stories wherever he is and perhaps is finding different things. My attunement to him heightens the feeling of encountering a vastly different world—in the biblical narratives, yes, but also that of my friend’s mind and his religious traditions. When we meet, the atmosphere is charged with hope, support, and attention. It is a pressurized and rarified atmosphere in which discoveries are more apt to occur. The shared bond of attention and mutual respect is a useful elixir in the creative process. Sometimes our meetings feel like coming face to face with a burning bush—frightening, confusing when we disagree, demanding, but most always illuminating. Coming to spiritual understanding through the human medium of conversation reminds me that, since my baptism, I have been in a covenantal relationship with YHWH. Covenant—human and divine—is another word for binding love that changes the world. Without an awareness of it, spiritual life becomes another playground for the solipsistic imagination—a woods for adult fort-building. I have learned from my friend’s Jewish tradition that the true expression of covenant love (hesed) is “doing before knowing.” This is not a childish. Neither is it an abnegation of intellectual freedom. Rather, it puts us in touch with the source of human strength which really is beyond us. “We will do and we will hear,” say the Israelites at the foot of Mount Sinai in the pledge to be forever engaged and attentive to God’s voice.

Here in mid-Michigan where there are no mountains and we are probably not going to hear God’s voice in clouds and thunder, we can seek places, relationships, and practices that relieve us of the burden of having to be presentable, where we can hear and speak in our secret voices, whispering intimate truths with a resonance we recognize as music, not of our making alone. Chekhov’s homelier metaphor may get closer to the way most of us feel about our voices: “There are big dogs and little dogs, but little dogs must not fret over the existence of the big ones. Everyone is obligated to howl in the voice that the Lord God has given him.”