January 24, 2019 § 2 Comments
There’s a word that crops up frequently these days when one person praises another. That word: intentional. How many times have I heard one friend praise another with, “She’s so intentional,” or, “He seems so intentional about us.” Many, many times. Indeed, I’m fairly certain I’ve used it countless times myself.
But it wasn’t until recently, when I noticed the word tossed around over and over again in the course of a single evening, that I paused and wondered, what’s really so good about being intentional?
Why was intentionality, rather than any other virtue – say, courage, charity, humility, or faith – pointed at repeatedly?
According to a cursory look at Google trend data, which measures the prevalence of a word or phrase searched over time, the phrase “be intentional” has increased in use by threefold since 2004. While some of the related search items suggest a legal context to the phrase, others, including “be intentional quotes” and “what does it mean to be intentional”, suggest a cultural understanding. And this makes me wonder even more: is intentionality perhaps a kind of modern virtue?
Recently, I’ve enjoyed Judith Shulevitz’s lovely book, The Sabbath World. In it, she delves into the history of time, in part, how the rise in productivity thanks to the industrial revolution has shaped our modern understanding of time. Until the industrial revolution, people structured their days according to what is called task orientation: measurement by an activity rather than a clock. For example, “You nurse a baby until she’s full, whether that takes ten minutes or forty,” writes Shulevitz. In modern society, however, we structure our days around the atomic clock. You work for a certain number of hours, and are paid accordingly. You’re paid overtime if you work late. A pre-industrial, task orientated society required longer, more grueling hours to finish a day’s work, and many hoped that the rise in standardized production measured by the atomic clock would lead to increased productivity and therefore more leisure.
Unfortunately, as Shulevitz points out, while we are more productive, we are also more rushed than ever.
Why? Working off the theory of Swedish economist Staffan Linder, Shulevitz points out that the increased productivity thanks to industrialization caused each hour of work to increase in value as well. This, in turn, increased the value of hours spent not working. “Non-work time has a higher ‘opportunity cost’,” writes Shulevitz, “each minute not spent completing one’s work assignments equals more money squandered.”
How does this pertain to being intentional? While reading Shulevitz, it struck me: could we admire individuals who are intentional precisely because of the unconscious, high value we place on each hour of time? Is our exact measurement of each passing hour and the opportunity cost of that hour if spent not working, making us feel even more pressured to “spend our time well?” I doubt pre-industrial workers in a task oriented society thought about intentionality – they merely thought about doing what they needed to survive, however long that took.
Of course, all this begs a more important question: is intentionality a good thing? Should we adopt it as a modern virtue? Certainly, it could be good at keeping us from straying into bad things, as well as prompting us to be good stewards of our time. But, I wonder if there is a dark side to this pervasive word.
Recently, I suffered through a long and severe illness that kept me nearly bedridden for several months. During this truthfully horrific experience, I felt my days expand from the hourly divided regimen I kept while working full time into a protracted and diffuse duration that slid languidly by. I was far from intentional. I was messy. I left emails unanswered for months. I only talked to close friends and family. I didn’t worry about the growing pile of medical bills on my desk. In those days, when I wasn’t sure if I would ever be a healthy young woman again, there was nothing more important for me to do than sit on the living room couch with a steaming mug of hot tea, curled up beside my mother. It was horrible, but there was a sliver of bliss in the center of it that I hope to retain now that I am (thankfully!) climbing toward health again.
I’m not saying that I want to return to the task orientation of a pre-industrial society – certainly I enjoy the luxuries that the industrial world has brought, not in the least medication for my disease! But the indulgence of wasting time, of disregarding the opportunity cost of an hour, of assuming that there will be an abundance of time to do all of the things that are truly worthwhile (say, reading a good book outside in the sun or cooking a homemade meal with friends), this is something I crave, and I fear that it is antithetical to the supposed virtue of intentionality, which needlessly pressures us to “make every hour count.”
Instead, I want to be a bit thoughtless with my time. I want to be a bit like Martha’s sister, Mary, who sat at the feet of Jesus and listened to him speak rather than help her busy and distracted sister finish the housework. I want to be a little bit recklessly unintentional.
May 7, 2018 § 1 Comment
As some of you know, I’ve taken a hiatus from the world of writing since the beginning of the year. This wasn’t planned. If ever you think you know the trajectory of your life, think again. Someone once told me: Life usually turns out far better and far worse than you imagined it would. Since last October, when I first felt the dull edge of pain that would blossom into what I now call my “weird” illness, I’ve found this to be true.
My life took a turn: pain in my neck, my back, and my hands so excruciating I couldn’t use the mouse for my computer, sometimes couldn’t turn my head, most of the time wore heating pads stuck to my spine. Fatigue so extreme, I would go out to dinner with friends only to leave early because I feared I would be too weak to drive myself home. Strange muscle pain I described to my many doctors as, “burning in my arms and legs.” Aching in my knees and elbows. An inability to get enough air into my lungs. There is much more I could write about what’s happened; maybe sometime I will.
For now there is this: hope. Hope in the fact that today I can sit at my computer and type this blog post. Hope in the form of doctors who think they’ve landed on a diagnosis at last (could it be Lyme Disease? it seems likely). Hope in the fact that my energy ever so slowly has returned, the pain ever so slowly abated, that though my recovery may be long, there can be full recovery.
Also: in the midst of this, physical manifestations of God’s mercy. Maybe some day I will write about that, too. Suffice it to say, the far better part has been true also.
In the meantime, I’ve been meaning to share on this blog some of the stories I wrote before taking my hiatus.
And second, I wrote a few stories about classical music in the Dallas area. The Dallas Symphony Chorus celebrated their 40th anniversary this year and a new choral ensemble, Verdigris, appeared on the music scene. If you’re a Dallasite, I recommend them both to you! And even if you’re not, the stories of their successes and differing approaches to art inspired and intrigued me quite a bit…maybe they will you as well.
October 23, 2017 § Leave a comment
Over the last few months, I’ve had a blast interviewing and writing about a number of authors who’ve visited Dallas. For fellow bibliophiles, if you missed these stories on social media, here are links to my most recent books-related pieces.
I had the pleasure of interviewing children’s book author Carol Weston about her most recent book, Speed of Life. The book is a thoughtful, sweet and even humorous look at grief through the eyes of a teenage girl. Weston is the advice columnist for Girls’ Life magazine, so you can bet she has some real wisdom about how to suffer gracefully through loss.
I chatted with local Dallas author Samantha Mabry about her newly released young adult novel All the Wind in the World, which appeared on this year’s National Book Award longlist. The book is part love story, part dystopia and part Western. The narrative is steeped in poetry. Honestly, I couldn’t put it down.
And finally, I talked with debut author Brit Bennett about her acclaimed first novel, The Mothers. While the book addresses mature themes like suicide, infidelity and abortion, Bennett’s lovely writing softens the intensity. It’s a beautiful first book.
That’s all for now — more to come later, I’m sure. Until then, happy reading!
January 12, 2016 § 6 Comments
Lately, I’ve been enjoying reading and, on occasion, writing a bit of poetry. Right now, I’m smitten with the poems written by contemporary poets in Image Journal and Ruminate Magazine, two lovely quarterlies that explore the relationship between art and faith. I’m also flipping through Caroline Kennedy’s She Walks in Beauty: A Woman’s Journey through Poems, which is a wonderful anthology of poems about the joys and sorrows of being a woman.
Here’s a poem I wrote as a writing exercise several months ago. I discovered it on a crinkled piece of notebook paper while clearing out my closet, and thought I would share:
Sour, the taste of lemons,
Sweet, the taste of chocolate white,
Sacramental bread and wine is
something, but nothing you taste like.
Sorrowful, holy voices rising,
Sonorous, organ boom,
Saint-like, I kneel to listen, hearing only
silence from an empty tomb.
Soft, a child’s bare arm in summer,
Squishy, the wet sponge in my sink,
Sheep’s skin, dew-covered, a
sign nowhere near the brink.
Sunset, a golden-hued death.
Sunrise, a purple-streaked birth.
Son of God, haloed and holy-hands
standing, but a photo before the broken curse.
Steaming, bitter coffee in a cracked mug,
Scented, the candle on my porcelain tub,
Smell of blood and water flowing,
salient story, though crass.
December 1, 2015 § Leave a comment
As some of you may know, I rather like Advent.
Last year, on an impulsive whim, I wrote a blog post for each day of the season, a spiritual practice that proved healing and expansive for me.
This year, I’m not so ambitious. Instead of writing about Advent every day, I’m reading about Advent every day, using the wonderful book Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas.
May I suggest it to you? It’s chalk full of great writers like Thomas Merton and C.S. Lewis and Henri Nouwen and Madeleine L’Engle and so many many more. I’m only a day into the season, and I’m already smitten.
But despite my decision to read instead of write this go around, I can’t resist the urge to jot down a few minor thoughts about Advent, loving it as I do. So, here goes: a thought (or two) on Advent.
During Advent, people talk a lot about waiting. That’s because Advent, which means “arrival”, is the season in which the people of God wait for the arrival of God, both the celebration of His birth long ago and the promise of His return in the future.
We are all familiar with waiting. In fact, waiting makes up a good portion of our lives. We wait in traffic, wait at the doctor’s office, wait for emails, wait for packages, wait for dreams to come true.
Implicit in the idea of waiting is the belief that something is coming.
One doesn’t sit around waiting for someone who doesn’t exist to pop over for dinner. One doesn’t sit around waiting for rain in the desert. One doesn’t sit around waiting for money to grow on trees.
These things just aren’t going to happen.
But one does sit around waiting for a friend who promises to stop by after work. One does sit around waiting for the first snowflakes to flurry in Michigan. One does sit around waiting for the cherry blossom trees to bloom in spring.
These things will happen in a matter of time.
But what about God? Was God really born to a virgin in a manger? Was it really true when God promised He would come again? Should we wait for these things, or is that just so much insanity?
Part of me says it is. Part of me, the lonely part of me that has known God’s absence, the cynical part of me that knows promises are broken all the time, the hard part of me that says this is silly and can’t be true, those parts of me say it’s insane.
But another part of me, the peaceful part of me that’s been filled with God’s love, the hopeful part of me that knows God doesn’t make promises He doesn’t plan to keep, the warm part of me that’s moved by the idea of God making His way to Earth, those parts of me say, okay, I’m ready, I’m waiting. I may not understand it fully, but God’s mysterious and ineffable – it would be trite if I did.
So, how is this waiting thing going to go?
August 14, 2014 § Leave a comment
Until a few months ago, I’d never given The Giver much thought. That’s when a friend from work lent me her copy over a sunny weekend in June, and I was surprised to suddenly find myself curled up on the couch with my face glued to the page. The Giver might be found in the children’s section of your local library, but like all great literature, it sweeps away adults and children alike. It’s been almost two months since I ripped through that book, but the story – and the questions it posed – still buzz around my head.
In case you were deprived like I was, The Giver is about a boy named Jonas who lives in a supposedly Utopian community sometime in the future. In this community, order is paramount. People are genetically engineered so they can’t see colors, which could further racism. They take drugs to control their sexual impulses. The weather is controlled to appear the same all the time. There is no music or art or dance. Children are born by specially designated birthmothers, and then assigned by a committee to a family unit, a mother and a father who have also been matched by the committee. The kids attend school, where they learn strict rules that maintain harmony in the community, rules like curfew and precision of language. As they grow up, the committee watches each child carefully to determine where his aptitudes lie. On his twelfth birthday, the committee assigns each child a job. Some become birthmothers, others become teachers, still others lawyers and doctors. Jonas is singled out to be the community’s Receiver.
The Receiver is called such because he receives all of the community’s memories. The former Receiver, now called the Giver, passes on to Jonas good memories, like the memory of a home at Christmas and sledding down a hill, as well as the bad memories of war, of injury, of hatred, of racism. Jonas’ job is to keep all the memories inside himself so the community can live in ignorant bliss.
As I read The Giver, I couldn’t help thinking, “Gosh, who doesn’t want to live in a world without pain? A world without war? Without racism?” I know I do. Granted, I want to keep my ability to choose, to see colors, to listen to Mozart, to love. But the goal of the community in The Giver is one that I share: a world without suffering. And I’m not alone. Barring masochists (who are believed to be mentally ill), we all want a world without suffering.
And moreover, we should. A world without suffering is a world where we are happy, where we no longer groan under the struggle of daily existence, where we see in full what is invisible to us now, where we are human beings fully alive.
So why shouldn’t we try to manufacture perfection? And why doesn’t it work out in The Giver?
It’s not the goal of the community that’s wrong; it’s that they’re trying to construct perfection in a world where perfection is not yet possible. The attempt is doomed to fail from the start.
While thinking about this, I was reminded of Jesus’ parable of the weeds in Matthew. A man sows good seed in his field, but while he is sleeping, an enemy comes and sows weeds among the wheat, so when the wheat sprouts, the weeds grow as well. The owner fears that if he pulls up the weeds before the harvest, he may uproot the wheat with them. So he instructs his servants, “Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.”
The committee in The Giver try to entirely uproot the weeds of pain, of war, of racism, and as a result, not only are good things like colors, family, love, and music, lost, but evil things ensue: in particular, infanticide of babies who don’t meet certain weight requirements and senicide of the elderly when their health begins to decline.
As in all Utopian literature, as soon as man tries to perfect his world, he ends up destroying it instead.
But notice in Matthew there is a moment when the weeds are, in fact, finally separated from the wheat: the harvest. In Matthew, this signifies the moment when the world is fully redeemed.
I was struck by the difficulty of knowing the harvest will be a good time, of desiring the harvest, yet having to remain with the weeds until then. It feels a bit like the dream Jonas has after he first receives the memory of riding a sled:
“Always in the dream, it seemed as if there were a destination: a something – he could not grasp what – that lay beyond the place where the thickness of snow brought the sled to a stop. He was left, upon awakening, with the feeling that he wanted, even somehow needed, to reach the something that waited in the distance. The feeling that it was good. That it was welcoming. That it was significant. But he did not know how to get there.”
That’s where we are now: knowing there is something beyond, something we want but are unable to get right now, not knowing how to try – and living patiently among the weeds until then.
(P.S. I interviewed Brenton Thwaites, the Australian actor who plays Jonas in the movie, and he had some interesting thoughts to share. Read the story in The Dallas Morning News.)