A Begrudging Compliment

Recently, when I was in Santa Barbara, I wandered into the last, independent bookshop in the city. Chaucer’s Books is one of those delicious, old school institutions with towering stacks of volumes between which one must sidle while muttering incoherent prayers to prevent the piles from spilling onto one’s head. Alas, I have too many unread books as it is. For years, I’ve sworn not to buy another until all my neglected tomes receive the loving attention they are due, but I am an unrepentant book fanatic and go out there and buy more which languish in various corners and shelves across the country.


This time, a slender, deceptively simple volume beckoned to me. It had a photo of an open door and was titled My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. The author alluringly detailed that he wrote it while suffering a horrible disease and was forced to reconcile his years-long, academic lack of faith with the miracles he experienced over the course of his malady. While I am fortunate enough not to suffer from illness, the wrestling with doubt and hardship from the perspective of someone who described himself as a “modern believer” resonated.


Only I made a mistake. I was fooled into purchasing this book by the prose on the back cover. It didn’t take long to discover the author’s true agenda: mostly, he wanted to share his own, personalized mythology about how he arose from the West Texas desert and wound up a poet and religion lecturer at Yale! Whoop-de-do. If I had realized what this book was in advance, I wouldn’t have wasted my money. Poetry, Yale, and a sense of mystical religiosity do not a good book make. Trust me.


So, there I was in Santa Barbara, dismayed at having to force myself to plow through in order to get my money’s worth (this reminds me of Annie Hall and the joke/complaint about how measly the portions of really bad food were). First of all, his poetry is bad. B-A-D. Full of self-conscious references to Greek philosophers or maybe Gertrude Stein or whoever else this guy could look up in the stacks at Yale. Poems with no commas or recognizable structure, let alone point. That’s what mystical poetry is, you get it? It has no form or direction, just some ramblings of a self-indulgent, self-described struggling intellectual. You know what my crisis was? My crisis was whether to force myself to finish it or not. Mostly, though, I wound up snorting at it’s incomprehensibility—and I’m probably in the tiny % of readers who might, possibly, be inclined to try! Please do not send me any links, urls, pamphlets, or books by Ivy League mystical poets—EVER. I already made my mistake. I don’t need to keep reliving it.




Despite all this, the author provided me with one powerful takeaway, which has actually burrowed itself in my head and which I am struggling to reconcile within myself as I wrestle with this question of what to do with the rest of my life. “God doesn’t give a gift without an obligation to use it.” He’s right. Our talents are divinely inspired gifts and it is incumbent upon each one of us to use them. We use them to make the world a brighter place; we use them to comfort those around us; we use them to generate more creative energy; we use them to fulfill our personal sense of purpose. But use them we must.


My struggle stems from my inclination to diminish the value of my gifts. I tell myself that because something comes easily to me, it must not be valuable. What about you? What do you tell yourself about your gifts? And when you see someone you love diminishing theirs, how does that make you feel? Anguished, right? You want them to flourish, don’t you? Might you, somehow, extend that well wishing to yourself? You are obligated to shine where you can shine—even if doing so scares you! It scares the living daylights out of me, I assure you.


So, I will conclude this post thusly: yeah, the book was officious, annoying, and with many incomprehensible bad “poems,” but it also reminded me of something I needed to hear. So is our poor, beleaguered Yalie author from West Texas due some credit? Begrudgingly, yes, with my profound thanks.



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4 Responses to “A Begrudging Compliment”

  1. Julie Says:

    Gertrude Stein? Oh dear! Once went to a play that featured the words of Stein set to imagery by Picasso. DREADFUL….

  2. dignitarysretreat Says:

    Did you actually sit through the entire thing? What you describe is a good visual of what reading this book felt like…

  3. helenga Says:

    Oh great. Now I have to return your birthday present! 😉 Actually this reminds me of the saying that nothing that happens to us is a mistake–it is always something we need to learn. I’m just glad you did the learning for us on this one!!

    • dignitarysretreat Says:

      I’ll gladly accept your tribute but ONLY if you agree to perform a bit of interpretive dance. A bit of poetry in motion, so to speak. Maybe we can link your performance to the post for all DR readers to enjoy!

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