What Matters to Me and Why

My sister says that what matters to me is to win. In her words: "I have an older sister who is by nature super competitive, always needs to 'win' (you can imagine how frustrated she is).... She's in a zero-sum game in her head--she either wins or loses.... And dammit, she's going to win." In fencing. In my career. In love. My sister hates this. Again, in her words: "She's happy now that she thinks she won, but I guess that's what's bugging me. This living business is not a zero-sum game. You win and the goal post changes." Which is something I told her I'd thought about (the goal posts moving), but never mind. In her view, winning itself is a distraction from "real" life; the point is the process, not the goal.

Which, again, I can totally get around. But, dammit, there needs to be a goal, a vision, something worth fighting for, right? Something that actually matters so that you get up willing to face the day. Not that winning is everything or even anything. Just that there needs to be a reason to care. Again, Northrop Frye has something excellent to say about this, but I still haven't gotten myself to campus to pick up the book and the pages I need aren't available in preview on Google Books. It's in his Baccalaureate Sermon about not taking thought for the morrow and what that means, and in it, he says exactly the thing my sister wanted to warn me about: don't spend your life trying to meet certain goals (numbers of books published, amount of money earned, competitions won) as this is a recipe for certain disappointment.

And yet, this does not mean that one simply gives up and stops trying. (That would be the win-lose scenario my sister thinks I favor.) Rather, according to Frye, one needs a vision of why one's work actually matters, as opposed to what effect it has on the world (i.e. "winning"). Absolutely. Touché. If only. This, I realize, is what I've really been struggling with these past twelve months or so, ever since I lost focus on what the point of it all was in trying to write yet another book. It's also why what my sister has said about me to her friend cuts so deeply: if all I really cared about was winning, well, I have. In more ways than one. I have a prestigious position at an internationally-renowned university; a talented, math-geek of a son; and, let's face it, the best husband in the whole world. But...it would be all too easy to consider any one of these achievements (if we count marriage as an achievement) as inadequate (those dreaded moving goal posts) if the point of life were to rack up, well, points.

Again, Frye (what I can glean from Google books): "A man may write a shelf of books and get a reputation as a formidably erudite scholar [as did Frye himself; he knows whereof he speaks], but he will know what he knows, and it won't be much." Indeed. How very true. I have spent my adult life studying devotion to the Virgin Mary, and the more I learn, the less I know. If I were in this for the points, I would be falling sadly behind. As I have. Not for me the long list of publications that some of my colleagues have achieved. I've bottomed out (we hope, only for the moment) with one book and a dozen or so articles (some still in press, to appear soon under my new name). The question is, why have I bottomed out when I still have so much to say? Indeed, I have barely scratched the surface with what I know or can see myself learning about devotion to the Virgin Mary. I even started (ha! it's been a busy spring) a new blog to give myself a context in which to explore some of this material. And yet, I am still struggling with what to write.

I think Frye has given me the answer: there needs to be a vision of why what I do matters. Not a goal (so many books published by such-and-such an age), but a point to it all, some reason to care. So, indeed, what matters to me and why? What do I actually care about? Full disclosure (just in case my sister is reading): yes, I like competition. I thrive on it. But not only to win, although winning is nice. Rather, because without competition, I am lazy, a veritable slug. Without competition, I really wouldn't get out of bed in the morning. Okay, that's not entirely true, but it is true that without competition, I would find it hard to move my body with as much energy and intention as I do when I fence. It is, indeed, one of the principal reasons (if far from the only one) why I fence: it's the only thing I've found that will make me exercise hard enough to be in anything remotely resembling "good" shape. (As the saying goes, "I'm in shape. Round is a shape.")

Likewise, with my academic work: the need to publish for tenure was a marvelous source of motivation. If no book=no job, you get up in the morning, even if you don't feel like it. So what do you do when you have tenure and the pressure is off? How do you tackle the writing demons (a.k.a., as Anne Lamott puts it, "Radio Fuck-you") without the motivation to publish or perish? Oh, how I envy writers who seem simply able to write. They get up in the morning motivated by...what? The importance of what they have to say to the world? The world hardly needs more books; nobody can read even the tiniest fraction of them in a lifetime, particularly novels. Nobody ever needs to read a novel. Well, not any particular novel. Nor is it clear that anybody ever needs to read a self-help or how-to book.

As Edward Gorey once put it: "All the things you can talk about in anyone's work are the things that are least important. It's like the ballet. You can describe all the externals of a performance--everything, in fact, but really constitutes its core. Explaining something makes it go away, so to speak; what's important is what's left over after you've explained everything else."* And yet, you know that that is what I really most want to write, vide "Fencing Bear at Prayer." No, I don't think it matters very much whether we (whoever "we" is, the tiny circle of medievalist scholars, the somewhat larger audience of Christians-devoted-to-Mary) understand the medieval devotion to the Virgin Mary qua the medieval devotion to the Virgin Mary. I suppose that makes me something of a scholarly heretic, but so what if it does? The point is, I do care about devotion to Mary, but I care more about...here it comes, what? What do I care more about? Not winning. Fuck winning.** I care about God and prayer and experience and understanding. None of which can be effectively put into words, and yet words are all that I have as a writer. Am I really a writer? Or just a wannabe mystic?

Aha. You know that's the case. I want God to write through me. I want to be Hildegard: turn forty-five, have visions and share them, at whatever cost to my career (um, is that true?) with the world because God matters, not me. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I believe it, too. But I do, I really do. Do you see how my prose has broken down at this point? Enough with the scholarly posturing, I want to write a how-to book about how to find God. Starting with this blog because otherwise nobody will publish it. Because what do I know about finding God? I can barely hold my foil correctly and I want to have God wielding my soul? (See sidebar quotation from Augustine, you know the one.) And I'm a chicken. I've told you that I'm on the verge of what feels like a spiritual breakthrough and yet I can't tell you what it is. Well, I am, but I am very nervous that you will misunderstand. Be freaked out. Not be able to read anymore because of what I've said.

I'm also, of course, nervous that I'm kidding myself. Who am I, Fencing Bear, to imagine that I have access to secrets of spiritual experience that others have not already discovered? Well, actually, I don't imagine that; I'm well-aware that I'm simply following a path others have blazed. I've read their books, after all; it's a large part of how I've gotten to where I am at the moment. But not just from reading. Practice matters. Again, it is one of the many reasons why I compete: to put myself at risk, to feel truly alive, not just a book-worm. So likewise with the spiritual practices that I have been reading about of late. Eventually, I'm going to have to tell you or else accept that I'm a fraud, not at all as daring and spiritually adventurous as I would like to believe. But not yet. Not today. Today it is enough to have admitted this much to myself.

*Alexander Theroux, The Strange Case of Edward Gorey (Fantagraphics Books, 2000).
**Well, okay, maybe I do care about winning. Just a little bit. When it really matters. You know.


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