that's what he said, by Frank Wilson

Life itself is grace

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I have lately found myself in a grand funk. The condition is well described by a sentence at the very beginning of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn: “There was nothing I wished to do which I could just as well not do.”

This doesn’t happen to me very often, and when it does I can never quite figure why. It descends upon me and envelops me, like a dense fog. This time it may have had something to do — I can’t say for sure — with a project of mine. I have been gathering the reviews I wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer with a mind to making a selection of them for an eBook.

I think of a book review as a kind of consumer report. I try to give the reader an engaging account of my reading experience. I don’t aim either at high art or profound criticism, just something worth about five minutes of the reader’s time that may help him figure out if the book under review is one he might like to read.

So far, in gathering up my reviews, I haven’t come upon any that I thought were bad, and a few I’ve come upon have struck me as uncommonly good. Most are decent and workmanlike.

I have spent nearly half a century writing book reviews. For a few years I was writing one every week. It’s actually a pretty pleasant way of earning a living and it’s something I had wanted to do since I was in high school. But last week I was working on one that was not going very well. Ordinarily, I would just keep hammering away until I got something that would at least do. But not this time. I can’t say I suddenly lost faith in what I had done all those years, but I had certainly, for the time being, lost my enthusiasm.

This grew into the aforementioned grand funk.

My wife is away on the annual trip she takes with her sister to the Outer Banks. Ordinarily, I make dinner for us, because I like to cook. I even like to cook for myself, usually. But not this past week. It was easier to eat a bowl of cereal in the morning than make an omelet. Since I live off the Italian Market it was easier to have a cheesesteak for dinner than make something.

Understand that my practice is to go with my moods. You can learn as much from a grand funk as you can from anything else.

I would try to read, of course, but nothing held my attention. I would flick on the TV, channel surf for a bit, then give that up. I would take a walk, but I wouldn’t go very far, and when I got back I’d feel just as lackadaisical as I had before I left. I managed to do the things I had to do, like put out the trash on Wednesday, but not much else.

I did bestir myself to attend the Philadelphia Orchestra’s concert presentation of Richard Strauss’s opera Elektra last night, and that was indeed thrilling. Maybe that’s what got me to resolve that, today, I would try to shake off this mood of boredom that had itself become intensely boring.

For that, I realize, is what a grand funk comes down to: being bored.

Of course, I woke up this morning feeling the same as I had the day before and the day before that. But in my mind I could hear some lines of Gerard Manley Hopkins, who seems to have experienced grander funks than I ever have. They were from “Carrion Comfort” — “… I’ll not … cry I can no more. I can; /Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.”

I hadn’t written a column for a couple of weeks because I hadn’t got an idea for one that seemed interesting, which is to say that I hadn’t come upon a quotation lately that had especially grabbed me.

But every day, on my blog, as I mentioned in my last column, I have a feature called “Thought for the Day.” So this morning I decided to search through those and see if I could find one that ignited a spark of interest in me.

I did. It is from the novelist Frederick Buechner (who is a Presbyterian minister):

Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.

Hopkins’s sonnet, which I looked up and read in full, made plain to me that my grand funk was a flirting with despair:

Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;

Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man

In me …

Small wonder the phrase “not choose not to be” is the one that I heard most clearly on awaking this morning. And small wonder Buechner’s quote grabbed me tightly when I came upon it.

I had got into a mood of wanting everything to be fine and dandy all the time in every way. Routine things that have to be done every day — making the bed, brewing coffee — seemed annoyances for some reason. I wanted that review I was having trouble with over and done with. Only I didn’t want to have spend my time writing it.

Buechner’s point — and I hope I never forget it — is that there are no downsides to being alive. Even a grand funk can prove a blessing.

Frank Wilson was the book editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer until his retirement in 2008. He blogs at Books, Inq.

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One Response to “Life itself is grace”

  1. I followed you here from Books, Inq. I am still waiting for a link to somewhere where you would have stated, in a nutshell, your theology. I have picked up snippets from various blog comments you’ve made, and am intrigued. You had an informal, Jesuit mentoring, as I understand it. And your views strike me as singular and intelligent. I’m a former missionary who has no real faith anymore…

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