Myth

As the quarter closes this week, the writing process continues at full speed, with half-finished thoughts and some consolation. There is never enough time, but perfectionism impedes creativity and progress. I’m realizing that my three classes all revolve around narrative this quarter, so making sense of how stories dictate values is on my mind.

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Photo by Jonas Jacobsson on Unsplash

One of the projects I am working to finish is an essay about myth and interfaith dialogue. In my circles, I don’t need to stress the importance of dialogue (preaching to the choir) but I do think it’s important to complicate what actually happens when people are vulnerable and share how their own experiences lead them to convictions. More wisdom is better than less, but what if that wisdom promotes conflicting values? This seems a necessary question as not a day goes by without someone noting “how divided our country is.” We are living by irreconcilable myths, and we cannot deny that a selection of these myths intentionally ignores or legitimizes pain and dehumanization.

Northrop Frye, a literary critic, and Wendy Doniger, a professor at the University of Chicago, both deal with myth in their work. Both stress myth as narratives that deal with human crises, especially finitude. Comparing myth across cultures and traditions is dangerous if we are not careful to acknowledge context and particularity. What I find compelling about myth, especially as a process for dialogue, is how we pull meaning from stories that have no historical or logical basis. I think our ability to do this speaks to creative expression as one of the highest forms of spirituality. I also think this process of meaning making is the closest we can get to a universal human experience, which is living with inevitable change. We are constantly attempting to make sense of “why things happen.”

This quarter has been tough, not just because of the rigor and caliber of work required, but because moving to a new place heightens the knowledge that meaning is obscured. I always enjoy learning through a variety of channels- reading interesting texts, lively discussions, and especially making connections to my own work in the field of interfaith studies. But as a person who enjoys nerding out about baseball statistics and marveling at bright, obnoxious fashion trends as much as writing papers and discussing medieval saints’ lives, finding wholeness has been a real challenge. I think the process of living by a new story takes time and struggle before the narrative truly emerges. Communities are struggling to incorporate old stories into new problems. When the stories generate no meaning, it’s time to start telling new ones.

One thing all the stories have taught me this quarter is that crisis never leaves the human experience. It’s false to believe we will ever live without the apprehension of some kind of challenge, and there is plenty of wisdom from various times and places to aid us in remaining present and to let go of attachment to a particular outcome. Still, there is something comforting in the fact that a benchmark of the human experience is grappling with narrative and meaning-making. I think this is important to remember, especially when we need to reflect on how we participate in narratives that cause harm.

Nightmare

I woke up screaming at 2 am after experiencing a nightmare.

This certainly was not the first time I’ve had bad dreams- often when I am stressed or anxious about a meeting, a test, even the amount of work ahead of me, my sleep has been fitful or disturbed. My dreams include strange and weird images. But this was different. This was terrifying darkness and powerlessness. This was screaming in sleep and out loud. For the life of me, I can’t figure out what this dream means.

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PC: James Stamler

I’m in a dark room, laying on a bed. Someone outside the room is keeping guard. I’m shouting to let me out- please! But the person doesn’t respond. I realize I’m dreaming within a dream, and try to wake up. I’m paralyzed, just lying on this bed. Wake up, wake up! Until finally, someone shoves me and I am, in fact, awake.

I have never been so happy to see my room in Boston, dimly lit from the moon peeping in through the curtains, my stuffed animals strewn about the sheets. After a few deep breaths, I felt a little calmer, but disoriented still. I clutched my penguin Plush and tried to fall back asleep.

This weekend I revised about 25 pages of my memoir. Revision may indeed be harder than writing in the first place. After receiving feedback from my classmates, I was forced to grapple with the questions they posed to make my narrative clearer.

“Why did the narrator (me) say she didn’t believe in God when this is a memoir about faith?”

“What made the narrator hide the fact that she was traveling by herself?”

“Why does the narrator feel so guilty about almost everything?”

I kept writing and deleting, writing and deleting. I found myself scratching my head.

I don’t know why.

Just as nightmares illuminate possible emotions we are hiding deep within, perhaps these questions led to a stir where there has long been no movement. The only way for me to understand this terrible, terrible dream is to wonder what came up as I faced these questions, trying to honestly tell the story of my life and my journey. Darkness. Paralysis. As if stirring kicks up dust we are forced to inhale, sneeze, and clear away.

Why Writing Brings Me Joy

It seems like all I can talk about these days, besides my moving woes and the storm that is Welcome Week at a large urban university, is my writing. What joy writing has brought me! Someone asked me recently: “Have you always been a writer?” I have always written papers and blogs and reports, yes- but it has not been until this summer that I have mustered the courage to call myself a writer.

A few weeks ago, I shared my experience at the Kenyon Institute seminar on spiritual writing on this blog. The seminar pushed me to make writing a priority, because of the joy and healing the process evokes. As soon as I returned from Gambier, Ohio, I decided to enroll in a GrubStreet class (a Boston non-profit dedicated to providing resources for writers of all ages), mainly for the accountability to write every week. A six-week Online Memoir Generator was about to begin, so I signed up and began to think about my memoir.

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The first week, my classmates and I discussed the topics of our memoirs in the online forum. Death, heartbreak, illness, leaving a life behind to start another- these all made the list. I struggled to describe my story- struggles with faith, growing up, finding community. My eyes rolled as I typed these words, they seemed so overused. Was I whining? I submitted a scene about losing a wiffle ball over the fence that separated my family’s back yard with our neighbor’s house and our quest to retrieve the ball, knowing full well our neighbor lived with dementia. The story provided a little humor and demonstrated the relationship between childhood me, my sister Mallory, and my dad. As words filled my page, though, something else happened. My soul transported back to that scene, that moment, and I remembered walking home after our quest, unsuccessful in retrieving the ball, and having my first encounter with a religious ritual that was not my own. The meaning is in these small details, I decided.

In the next weeks, my classmates shared their work and we commented on each other’s pieces. I found myself cringing to open their submissions on my computer. Am I ready for this? I wondered. Every time I read about the death of my classmate’s sibling, the struggle to raise a child, the reality of living as a gay man, the feeling in my chest resembled a shame as if I had taken off all my clothes to strut my far from perfect body in a room full of people. How unworthy was I to witness these life experiences with the people who lived them, and then to critique their writing about them?

“Work is love, made visible,” wrote Khalil Gibran, in his famous work The Prophet. The course continued, we completed our assignments, and I began to find joy in the work. I wrote about my struggle to feel like part of a community my whole life. I wrote about the car accident that totaled my big red Jeep and my childhood. I wrote, though didn’t submit, a short piece about my cousin who died far too young by her own hand. She was 28, the same age as me. Through the pain revisited on the page, my classmates took me in, and we held each other. I cried at their losses, their love, their pain. And I began to heal, or at least to feel what healing feels like. “Work is love, made visible.”

The love I felt through this process illuminated the source of the joy that I call writing. The source is the community. Writing is such a personal process- we know our story, we own our methods and tactics for telling it. Yet we write to share (if only with our future selves), to connect with our readers. Finding community has been a real challenge for me my whole life, and yet, it only took a website and some discussion forums to find a group of seven people willing to be vulnerable and intimate, willing to put love into the work.