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Monk's Miracles

On Thursday night I finished reading the aforementioned Monk in the World: Cultivating a Spiritual Life and I was left disappointed and unfulfilled. While I appreciate the work that he set out to do (exploring the intersection of the world's religions through their shared mysticism, providing insight into the life of a monk engaged in the world), I think that the book's form and his approach to writing it are ultimately insufficient. The chapters seemed to be sloppily pieced together, with one completely different than the next and no sign of a segue in sight. In his description of life as a monk, I would have liked more insight and less instruction. When he turned to the Divine, his writing lacked the eloquence that I think the topic requires. In short, I wished for Thomas Merton and got something less.

On that note, the next book in my queue is The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton's autobiography. I will return to my philosophy and Russian literature shortly but for now I am inspired to walk along the monk's path a bit further. Maybe that's just the influence of Lent talking.

I know my writing here in the past few months has been more like a string of book reviews than anything else, but it is still an honest reflection of what I'm doing and thinking. I am reading more now than I ever have in my life and I love the intellectual engagement that comes with it. I feel a lot better (in every way) after a night of reading than watching the rubbish that's on television lately. I feel like I'm moving in the right direction.

February 28, 2004

Master of the House

Digby, ever vigilant

For the dozens of readers who have written in over the past several months expressing concern about Digby's well-being, fearing that he has been woefully neglected since Veronika was born, I am here to assure you that he is doing well. As I write this, he is curled up by my side on the couch, enjoying a winter evening's nap and dreaming of his own ferocity. Although there have been some trying times in the six-plus months since his sister was born (barking when she's asleep, etc.), Digby has generally been quite good and has grown into his new, self-imposed responsibility of defending his house and family with his life. He loves Veronika with all his heart and is very affectionate, gentle and patient with her.

To prove all of this to you, I present a new photo album of Digby's adventures of the past eight months, entitled "Life as a Brother and Country Club Member", which features pictures with Veronika as well as a few of his adventures at his country club with his friends. In addition to making new friends at the club, he is also exploring the possibilities of social networking on Dogster and you can check out his profile here.

So you see, there's no need to worry about Digby. Or the safety of our house.

February 23, 2004

Climbing the Mountain

On Valentine's Day, Stonefishspine posted a wonderful entry entitled "Love & Death" on aging and love in spite of mortality. As a tangent to that, I would like to reflect for a moment on some of my current reading that I found applicable. At the tender age of 24 (it's curious that he chose that age as an example), I am only beginning to grapple with the prospects of aging and death. I do not feel immortal, but I do feel the naïveté of my age in these matters.

In the first chapter of A Monk in the World, the author tells the story of ascending a mountain in Sri Lanka called Sri Pada (Adam's Peak), a pilgrimage site to four religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. Pilgrims begin climbing the mountain, meditatively, at dusk and reach the summit at dawn, where they watch the sun rise. Viewing this ascent as one's journey to God is perhaps an easy and obvious metaphor, with its difficult, dark and sometimes hidden path culminating in the splendor of a new day. The real substance of this example lies in the next step--the journey up the mountain as a metaphor for our lives.

So often we allow our concrete conception of time to dominate us when in many ways it is as arbitrary as any other measure. Who's to say that thinking of aging as progress in one's journey to God is any less accurate or meaningful than anything else? Not me.

February 16, 2004

Gogol Au Go Go (Sorry)

I just finished reading Dead Souls and with a completion time of three weeks, I believe I have set a new personal record. I was able to maintain the breathless pace of one chapter (twenty pages) per day, which is remarkable for a few reasons: 1) I read at the pace of an elementary schooler, 2) I often lose interest or get distracted and take a brief hiatus from books, and 3) I have a six-month-old daughter whose cuteness compels me to stop whatever I'm doing and nuzzle my nose into her belly. Nonetheless it was nice to be so captivated by a novel again.

At first I was intimidated by all the back cover talk of "solving the riddle of existence" and "capturing the riches of the Russian soul" but my concern was for naught; it is nothing but a lighthearted romp through the Russian countryside. I think the true strength of the book is its vivid characterizations, and the plot is really just a means to draw them out in a delightful procession. Gogol often mentions that the characteristics of these people are distinctly Russian but his insights are more universal than he may have thought. He crafts each character slowly, indulging in a little history where necessary and never failing to mention an idiosyncrasy, but the result is a perfect, archetypal character that anyone can identify with (and laugh at).

It is truly sad that the work was never completed (he destroyed much of the second part on the advice of a severe priest and died while fasting shortly afterwards) and my only disappointment was not knowing the end of his self-proclaimed epic poem. In the beginning of the second part, I began to feel that through Chichikov's journey he was driving toward some grand conclusion about the souls of men and the fate of Russia but sadly it will never be realized.

No matter--I am told that in a matter of weeks I will hear Dead Souls in all of its operatic glory and I am confident that it will comfort me and return me joyfully to the Russian countryside.

February 13, 2004

A Social Experiment

I made my first foray into the world of social networking software (Friendster, Tribe, Orkut and the like) this week and I was left a bit underwhelmed. I will admit that the concept is exciting and has potential but I'm not sure what it can potentially do. For instance, there are people that I know through weblogs or the Internet that I find very interesting and it would be interested in knowing something about their friends as well, but after I've read their profiles, then what? Should I send a bunch of messages saying "Hey, you know [person] and so do I, I also like [activity], will you accept my invitation and be my official 'friend' in this community?" I'm not trying to be cynical, I just want to understand.

Maybe it's the whole "friend" concept that adds to the awkwardness of the situation. With weblogs everyone is free to link to whoever they like with no implicit obligation. I link to people and things that I find interesting but the fact that I do so does not demand anything of the object of my link. But with social networking software (or at least the version I'm familiar with), people request and make connections that each side much accept. Someone says to me "Hey, I want to be your friend" and if I'm not a good sport/social butterfly and I decide to decline the offer, I think that clearly sends a negative message to the asker, who I never wanted to offend. But I don't want to just add people willy-nilly (how can you have 300 "friends"?!) because in doing so I am vouching for that person and I have to know more about a person than the fact that they are my friend's acquaintance to do so. I'm not concerned with protecting my own image, I just don't want to betray the trust of my friends by endorsing someone without knowing them. I guess I'm probably taking this all a little too seriously.

The last thing that my recent social adventure taught me is that you need to be aware of the information that you're presenting about yourself in a situation like this. This didn't occur to me until I located some people that I can barely count as acquaintances and found out way more than I wanted to know about them, which made me a bit uncomfortable. The problem is compounded by the fact that many of these sites try to encompass all types of relationships: friends, potential business partners, love interests, etc. Imagine if you showed up to a job interview and before anything else was said, you announced your name, marital status, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, political affiliation, drinking habits, passions, etc. No matter how good of a fit your data set may be with the other person's, it's strange to learn everything this way.

Maybe I'm just a bad candidate for this type of thing. Now Dogster, that's a concept I can get behind.

February 04, 2004 | Comments (1)