Home

Syntax, Serenity, and Spiritual Ratiocination — Say *That* Out Loud Three Times

Leave a comment

If you tuned in last month, you read my ignominious blog, which happily was not as ignominious as I had feared. Stuck in my winter doldrums and with no creative burst in sight, I simply dashed off a stream-of-consciousness blog based on a word that was floating around in my head (ignominious) and hoped for the best.

Based on reader feedback, I need not feel humiliated by what felt like my lazy surrender to the doldrums. Since you guys liked it, and it’s still winter, and there have been no ensuing creative bursts, I’m doing it again.

Forthwith, a series of digressions about the word ratiocination:

Ratiocination isn’t a particularly fun word, not entertaining like ignominious or salubrious or sanguineous or serendipitous. It’s more like calibrated: a serious word. One who is engaged in ratiocination has no time for frivolity.

As you might know or guess, the word ratiocination means the process of forming judgments by a power of logic; reason. The process of exact, methodical thinking. How no-fun is that?

The word stuck out of May Sarton’s memoir like a logic puzzle lodged amongst lyrical poems. In Sarton’s book Recovering, one finds titmice and garden phlox and dogs and cats and poetry and people coming for tea or lobster salad. Not ratiocination.

In fact, May Sarton was actually talking about the opposite of ratiocination when she used the word: “That is the miracle, that my [ex]lover and I have come through together to a place of benign peace and light. Miracles cannot be explained, that is their miraculous nature. They are beyond ratiocination, so I cannot tell what has really happened.”

May Sarton Courtesy NY Public Libraries

May Sarton
Courtesy NY Public Libraries

Although I’m partial to miracles and tend towards the intuitive, I can indeed think methodically when absolutely necessary. As it happens, I’m currently engaging in a nightly process of painful ratiocination, which I am bound and determined to survive. Working with a master wordsmith, I am studying what amounts to syntax on steroids, breaking down lovely lyrical prose into nominative predicates and adjectival infinitive phrases so that I can put them back together into suspended sentences and braided metaphors. This goes well beyond what I studied at Hopkins, and that was difficult enough for me. Syntactical ratiocination — now that’s kind of a fun phrase.

047

Ratiocinating Serenity

Since the enlightenment, human beings have put most of their energy into ratiocination. Everything must be sorted out and put into its proper, logical box. “It just doesn’t make sense,” is the ultimate dis.

For someone like me who grew up in a dysfunctional home, the need to “figure things out” is even stronger. In order to stay safe and keep things from blowing apart, kids in such homes feel they must know at all times what everyone is thinking and feeling so that they can control what’s going to happen. All children have a sense of over-responsibility; they think the world revolves around them and everything is a response to them. This is complicated in a volatile home because figuring out how to control circumstances feels like a matter of survival and it sometimes is.

Of course you can’t *know* what other people are thinking and feeling, and you can’t control their emotions or actions. Which is why people from dysfunctional homes find so much solace and recovery in Al-Anon, the twelve-step program for friends and families of alcoholics. There they learn to keep the focus on their own feelings and actions through the Serenity Prayer:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

the courage to change the things I can,

and the wisdom to know the difference.”

What a relief to let go of the illusion of control and the need to figure things out!

The Serenity Prayer, which is used in all twelve-step programs, describes ratiocination from a God perspective. This might sound like an oxymoron. But if you believe in God, it makes perfect sense to rely on this Higher Power to help you sort out what you can and cannot change. Other people, places, and things are on the “cannot” list. But our baggage (history) may keep us from ratiocinating this out on our own.

Mind, Body, Spirit, Not Necessarily in that Order

I found the Oxford Dictionary’s two model sentences for ratiocination to be odd:

“One of his premises is that ratiocination is dependent on emotion, as mind is on body.”

And this: “One fondly imagines that one reaches opinions by personal ratiocination, but of course many of them one inherits.”

So underneath all of our pondering and “figuring out” are serotonin levels and cortisol rushes and veiled memories. We may think our minds rule supreme, that ratiocination is the highest function, but in fact we’re often ruled by heart and soul. Our gut, if you will.

And — dang if I didn’t end up back here again — it seems to me that there’s a God factor in this mix of heart and soul and mind. I just think there’s a higher power than the human mind. There is some higher Ratiocination going on in this ordered universe, and it includes the nudges and prompts and intuitions that guide our spirit life.

Stream-of-consciousness writing runs like a river; it really has no end. It spills into eddies and spins a while and then keeps going, sometimes riffled by the wind, sometimes calm and clear. I seriously did not mean to end up talking about God again, but most of my streams are going to eddy into God, unless they end up in climate change or maybe social justice.

Go figure.

For Book Lovers Only

2 Comments

This morning I was doing some housecleaning. Perhaps you felt the shift in the cosmos? I wouldn’t have been doing anything so drastic if it weren’t for the fact that I’m inheriting a new dining room table from some friends, and it’s much bigger than my old one. Rearranging is in order and that means digging out.

The first task in cleaning any room in my house, after gathering hundreds of papers into piles to do deal with later, is books. They accumulate around me like treasures in an archaeological site; when unearthed, they provide clues to how life was once lived in vaguely chronological layers.

Dusk mask in place and dust rag in hand, I offer a few fun finds you might like:

My New Favorite Author

The Shadow of the Wind, which I recently finished, was on top of the mound. Not only did this book expose me to my new favorite “undiscovered author” (who seems to be known by everyone else on the planet), Carlos Ruiz Zafon, it also opened a new world of book lovers to me.

A few months back, I queried my “friends” (or so I supposed) on Goodreads for recommendations of good novels in which I could completely lose myself. Much to my surprise, I got recommendations from total strangers all around the country!

Pretty cool.

Zafon’s book was recommended by a guy named Steve, I think in Seattle, with whom I’m now friends. I’m mining his reading list.

Sifting Through Spiritual Stories

This spring I co-led a spiritual practices group at my church, so I had hauled out many books in that vein and left them lying around.

Holy Silence is a quiet little Quaker book that I rediscovered when we studied meditative silent prayer in our group. I’m fond of J. Brent Bill’s books. They simply say “Quaker” — small, unassuming things with black and white drawings on the covers. The books contain nuggets like, “Quakers call the presence of the Holy Spirit working within us a ‘sifting silence.’ It separates the worthwhile from the worthless.”

I think we could all use a little more of this sifting silence in our lives.

In the same stack of spiritually themed books, I found one of my absolute favorites. It’s the first one I read by Father Richard Rohr, founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, N.M. I love, love, love this guy. I had lent my signed copy of Everything Belongs to a friend years ago and only just got it back.

I know everyone’s journey is different, but for me, this is one of the most profound books I’ve ever read.

Rohr talks about “spiritual capitalism,” trying to acquire new things and knowledge to attain spiritual growth. “In reality,” he says, “our growth is hidden. It is accomplished by the release of our current defense postures, by the letting go of fear and our attachment to self-image. Thus, we grow by subtraction much more than by addition. It’s not a matter of more and better information…Once our defenses are out of the way and we are humble and poor, truth is allowed to show itself.”

Another spiritual book that I just got a few weeks ago but which was already being buried under the detritus of my life is Anne Lamott’s new one, Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers. I never regret spending time with Anne; she always makes me laugh out loud. This one’s a very short book, so I’m waiting until the proper time to savor it. Maybe I’ll read it all in one sitting later in the summer when I have some time alone.

005.lamott

Me Giving Writing Advice to Anne Lamott

The Goddess and Mona Lisa

The Goddess and Mona LisaMy Friend Joe  B.

My Friend Joe B.

A friend of mine passed away last winter and his wife did a wonderful thing. She held a big party for all his friends and family at which she laid out his things and said, “Have at it. He would want you to have his stuff.”

Clothes, musical instruments, tools, houseplants….and books. Tons of books. I helped her shelve them in preparation for the party, so I got first pick. A couple I particularly liked were As Simple as Snow by Gregory Galloway, and Drowning Ruth by Christina Schwartz. I enjoyed thinking about Joe reading and reacting to them as I made my way through the stories.

Writing Books

I fear that I’m in danger of becoming one of those writers who spends so much time reading about writing that she never gets down to actually writing. I have a ton of books on writing, and I enjoy reading journals by writers about the writing life. I’m currently reading May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude, which I find eerie because she’s living and writing in a little white house in New Hampshire, like me, and her days are so similar to mine. Taciturn neighbors coming to hay the fields, same flowers blooming, black flies biting, raccoons gadding about in the trash.

I have several volumes of Gail Godwin’s journals on writing. I find her writing inconsistent, so she’s not one of my favorite authors, but some is quite good, and I like her “voice.” So I think I’ll enjoy the journals when I get around to them.

I was especially glad to find a Natalie Goldberg that’s been MIA for a long time. It’s my go-to writing book, called Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir. It has great writing prompts and is far better than most of those types of books.

One of her prompts led to a moving experience for me, writing about a bicycle I had when was eleven – it was olive green.

“Why would I get a green bike,” I wondered, “since I don’t like green?” I came to realize through my writing that in fact I had stopped liking green as an adolescent because it was my father’s favorite color and I was angry at him for his drinking. A simple but profound realization that is helping me redeem my relationship with my late father and also with the glorious color green.

Reading Books

Near the bottom of the piles was a book that I’m truly looking forward to falling into. For now I’m leaving it out of my boxing-up project so that I don’t lose track of it again. A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel is not the type of book I usually read. At almost 400 pages, it’s a dense tome of nonfiction. But ever since I first flipped through it in the used book store, I feel excited at the prospect of tackling it.

As Manguel writes, “We come to feel that the books we own are the books we know…to glance at the spines of the books we call ours, obediently standing guard along the walls of our room, willing to speak to us and us alone at the mere flick of a page, allows us to say, ‘All this is mine,’ as if their presence alone fills us with their wisdom, without our actually having to labour through their contents.”

This challenging read has been standing guard long enough – it’s time for me to labor through its contents!

I hope you get to enjoy some good reading this summer.

Any suggestions for me?

%d bloggers like this: