What's Tony Thinking

At Week’s End: Reading and Readers, Summer Storms and Sermons


The Underground Network for Goodness. Friends gave me George Saunders’s newest book, A Swim In a Pond In The Rain. It is the book version of a course Saunders’s teaches on the short stories of four Russian writers: Chekov, Turgenev, Tolstory and Gogol.

But here’s the note/ excerpt I want to share at this point, Saunders tribute to readers. On one page of the introduction, “We Begin,” Sauders writes, “We live, as you may have noticed, in a degraded era.” But a two pages later this:

“Over the last years I’ve had a chance to give readings and talks all over the world and meet thousands of dedicated readers. Their passion for literature (evident in the questions from the floor, our talks at the signing table, the conversations I’ve had with book clubs) has convinced me that there’s a vast underground network for goodness at work in the world — a web of people who’ve put reading at the center of their lives because they know from experience that reading makes them more expansive, generous people and makes their lives more interesting.

Lord knows, we need news of this “underground network for goodness” since the stuff and people that dominant the news, in our degraded era, are — well — often themselves degraded.

By the way, and as an antidote to the degradation, there’s a wonderful interview with Saunders’s done by Ezra Klein. Definite worth listening to this very humane man.

Why Are We Reading? Saunders’s paen to readers made me think of something Annie Dillard wrote in her book on The Writing Life.

“Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed? Can the writer isolate and vivify all in experience that most deeply engages our intellects and our hearts? Can the writer renew our hope for literary forms? Why are we reading if not in hope that the writer will magnify and dramatize our days, will illuminate and inspire us with wisdom, courage, and the possibility of meaningfulness, and will press upon our minds the deepest mysteries, so that we may feel again their majesty and power? What do we ever know that is higher than that power which, from time to time, seizes our lives, and reveals us startlingly to ourselves as creatures set down here bewildered? Why does death so catch us by surprise, and why love? We still and always want waking.”

“We still and always want waking.” The best writers, and artists, are in that business. Waking us.

Summer Storms. This is the time of year, here and elsewhere, for summer storms, which are a unique species of storm. They are symphonic, having several or more “movements. First there is the stillness. No wind blows. There’s a heaviness to the air that feels as if something is pushing you down. This may last an hour or it may last days. It is the bass, the oboe and the cello’s time.

The second movement of the summer storm is heralded with wind picking up, sometimes with such force that everything laid out for a picnic just hours before is flying, escaping fevered grasps. The sky has darkened now as if the gods are angry. On the lake, sudden whitecaps storm the shore like an invading army. And then the rain. A few drops at first, before a torrent. Now, we have the kettle drum and tympani, the brass, and organ.

In the third movement, the rain has ceased to drips and drops. The sun is, remarkably, shining, making the rain wet earth glisten. The air has that wonderful after-the-rain smell, which has something to do with electrical factors, I’m told. And the heaviness is gone. You’re lighter. The world is lighter. Violins and woodwinds sing an Ode to Joy.

We had such a storm yesterday. For us, it was delightful. Others in the County weren’t so fortunate and didn’t fair so well with other storms this week. In the town of Wallowa, about twenty miles west of us, baseball-sized hail broke car windows, killed livestock, and brought down structures. In retrospect, people suspect it was a tornado.

So far none of the storms, to my knowledge, have led to lightning-caused fires. Knock on wood. The first fire and smoke free summer in some years.

And Sermons, Summer Sermons. Tomorrow (8/14) and the two weeks following I will be preaching at Enterprise Community Congregational Church. I’ll probably carry these sermons here, at my blog, in the coming weeks. People think that semi-retired folks like me reach into their “barrel” of old sermons on such occasions. For me, that has never worked. The word is alive and must be shaped by the time and place of its proclamation.

Tomorrow’s gospel text, from Luke, certainly qualifies as among the “very hardest sayings of Jesus.” “I have come,” he shouts, “to bring fire on earth, and how I wish it were kindled already . . . Do you think I have come to bring peace, no but division.”

It makes me think of the late John Lewis’s fondness for, in his phrase, “good trouble.” There’s a time for the trouble that tells the truth, and though it creates conflict, leads to healing and hope. Alas in our “degraded era,” a lot of present trouble seems far more destructive than redemptive.



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