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.
October 19, 2018 § Leave a comment
On a Thursday afternoon I drive north from Dallas, snaking my way through the tangle of concrete dividers, oversize billboards, and fast food restaurants that beleaguer both sides of the highway until I reach the flat plains of Oklahoma and, at last, the dry grasslands of southern Kansas. The grey sky intermittently spits on the windshield. To the west, pale blues and blush pinks smear the horizon. I listen to the wipers rub the glass and drink scalding coffee purchased at a McDonald’s in the middle of nowhere.
What is it about long, quiet road trips, sailing over the flat land, that allows space for thoughts, little scraps of consciousness, to drift into attention? I sip my coffee as the spare country flies past, and think about — what? God, a little. And a memory from the week before, when I awoke in a frigid Colorado campsite to see the mountains encircling the valley crowned with snow. And this time last year, of course, when I first felt the unusual intimations of what would, a few months later, blossom into a full-out illness: Lyme Disease.
I think about how happy I am to be alive, how thankful I am for my health, even as I continue to recover (compared to earlier this year, I am a new woman with only lingering discomfort in my hands, an occasional pinch of pain along my spine). I wonder about the wildness of a world where microscopic bacteria can invade my tissues and make my life a living hell, which in turn causes me to consider God’s place in this beautiful yet dangerous creation. I think about how much I love the book of Job because it acknowledges our human frailty and the ultimate absurdity of our attempts to understand God’s ways — how much more I trust Scripture because of Job’s place in it! Then, I am thinking about suffering, and how reading about Christ’s compassion toward the sick and debilitated while I myself was laid low evoked in me an unadulterated desire for Him to move in me with such healing power.
Lofty thoughts, I suppose, if they were a little more fully-formed. Really, though, they are nothing more than fleeting speculations mixed with a sense of awe at my littleness in the vast expanse of amber and chestnut land extending on all sides, the drizzling rain, the stormy grey clouds, and the God who made it, calling it not just good, but very good.
Good, but certainly not safe. Or perhaps safe in some ways — in the ways that matter (I am thinking here of the lilies of the field). I make my way forward along the dusky road (metaphysical and actual, as the sun sets and I near Wichita). I ease forward with dim understanding, my flakes of consciousness amassing to so much more.
September 20, 2018 § 1 Comment
For the past few years, I’ve accumulated a variety of potted plants. Sea green aloe vera. Flat-leafed jade. Spindly fire sticks. Some were gifts from friends; others, clippings from the cacti in our backyard; and still others, splurges bought at Home Depot and the local nursery when my soul was hungry for something green.
I am fairly good at tending them — so far, I’ve only killed one, and that from overwatering. Lately, though, I’ve realized that almost every single one of them needs repotting. They’ve outgrown their old pots, heavy leaves drooping over the lips onto my windowsill, long stems jutting up, up toward the window and the sky. Some of them are three times the sizes of the pots they call home.
It’s high time for repotting.
It is still hot in Texas in September. Sweating, I haul a large pot from the tangled mass of unused pots in our backyard, along with a bag of fresh dirt and rocks to line the bottom. First up: my zz plant, also known as a Zamioculcas Zamiifolia. It lives in a tiny, round, grey clay pot, five thick stalks covered in glossy flat leaves. Sturdy. Healthy. An easy first go.
Easy, I think, until I attempt to remove it. The plant won’t budge, and soon I know why. When I finally manage to pry the zz plant from its pot, I realize the whole bottom half of the pot is thick with fat roots wound tightly around each other in a massive ball. Finally freed, the roots hang down a bit too much like ropy worms than I would like, the roots nearly as long as the plant is tall. There was hardly any dirt in that pot at all, I realize. Mostly, it was just roots growing steadily in closed darkness.
A longing stirs in me as I stare at the zz plant held in my hand, white roots dangling above its new pot half-filled with fresh dirt. I feel my own limitations, the constraint of my own tight space pressing against my metaphorical thick ball of roots. How many of you, like me, need a new pot? Space to spread our roots, to sink deeply in rich soil, to stretch ourselves toward the sun? How many of us are cramped deep in dark spaces?
Like the zz plant, we grow substantially, faithfully within our limitations. Like the zz plant, when we’re set in our big, new pots, we will be ready, ready to prosper, flourish, ready to thrive. In the meantime, we grow quietly.
I set the roots of the zz plant deep within its new pot, giving them room to lengthen, to widen. I imagine the plant is happy because it can suddenly breathe deeply again after its many years of constraint. I wonder what it is like to have space to be fully what it was meant to be. I set the zz plant in a prominent spot in my room, a green reminder of what’s to come.
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!
September 18, 2017 § 3 Comments
Lord, have mercy on the artists.
Have mercy on the ballet dancer who’s memorized the steps for her upcoming audition so perfectly she dreams the movements in her sleep, her toes pointing and flexing beneath the sheets. She arrives early to the audition, her tired pink leg warmers drooping along her calves, her worn point shoes tied at the ribbons and slung over one arm, her eyes shining with the hope that maybe, just maybe, this time she will get a part in the dance.
Have mercy on the painter who wakes early every Saturday morning to catch the golden light at the dawn of day. She arranges her paint brushes, canvas, and easel at the edge of the water, listens as the birds begin to chatter, watches as the sunlight first touches the lake. During the week, she works as a waitress, balancing trays of ice water and fried fish with a strong arm that now holds her palette, but when people ask her what she does she lays claim to her true nature and in the face of their skepticism (How do you make a living painting landscapes?), she answers boldly, I am an artist. It is a labor of love.
Have mercy on the pianist who’s taken private lessons in the living room of an elderly lady with shock white hair since she was three years old. She volunteers at her church now, playing old hymns that still tingle her nerves, her fingers flying across the chipped black and white keys. She dreams of one day playing on a Steinway at Carnegie Hall. And why not? Her parents always told her she could do anything. And it isn’t out of vanity or ambition that she practices arpeggios and scales day after day, but because she loves the clear and complex sound of the chords as they progress gracefully. She only wants an audience for her music, an audience who appreciates the great composers like Beethoven and Shostakovich. She wants to perform well, for the music to transport those who listen.
Have mercy on the actress who cannot decide whether she should stay in her small hometown where she teaches acting at the local high school and performs starring roles in the community theater or move to Los Angeles where she might attend audition after audition and never receive a single callback in ten years. She fell in love with theater when she was thirteen years old because the theater kids were weirdos too, and she thinks she has real talent, thinks she might actually be somebody someday. Her motivations are mixed: she loves theater, enjoys it for what it is, but she also wants to be rich and famous, a true Hollywood star. She doesn’t move because she’s afraid of this monstrous ambition hidden deep within her, and yet, she probably is talented and hard working enough to catch the eye of any producer.
Have mercy on the writer who wakes every day before the sun, brews strong black coffee, lights several candles and a stick of sweet incense before sitting hunched at her laptop, stringing word after word, spinning stories out of smoky air. On her good days, her imagination carts her off to magical lands where she meets strange and interesting characters who come to life on her computer screen. But on her bad days, she is full of fear, a fear that keeps her from that other land, a fear that says, Nothing you create is worth anything. It is all the vanity in Ecclesiastes, words dispersing like fine blown dust.
Lord, send your grace upon these your people. In their failures, in their ambitions, in their needs, remind them that You love them. Remind them that You are pleased whether they do anything or not. Remind them that the tasks set before them are worthy. Remind them that You bear their disappointments with them, that they are not alone. Remind them that they have something to offer. Remind them that they are, simply, children of God.
August 23, 2017 § Leave a comment
The Lord is a fly, black, fat, and buzzing. He bites. He is mean. I am in my bedroom, lying in bed, waiting for the fly. Will you come to me, fly? Bite me? Let the blood run thin? God is a baby, yes? But he is also a fly. A pesky nagger. A nuisance just out of reach. Go away, fly. Go bother someone else. Go find a pile of crap to land on. I’m not your garbage heap.
Fly, fly. You mean, vicious bug. Why do you love lights so? You hit them – bzt bzt bzt – and each time get a little shock. Can’t you see I’m trying to concentrate? Can’t you see I have real, practical things to address? My most recent bank statement. That email to a friend. Maybe even, a prayer.
You circle my head – Lord, why do you come at me as a fly? There are so many better, nobler, sweeter creatures you could have chosen. Maybe my cat, black and furry, purring on my bed. Or the dog, who, yes, barks in the mornings, but is otherwise docile. Fly away fly! You’re a bother! What do you want from me?
Only absolute attention. Only observation of what is small and annoying. Only the end of laziness and the beginning of quick action. You win Fly-God, okay? You’re under my skin.