Be Not Afraid (of Virginia Woolf)

The Rev. Becky Zartman, Christ Church Cathedral’s Canon for Evangelism and Formation, invites us to spend the summer contemplating a literary masterpiece and bringing fresh perspective into our own lives.

Thought lingers, love plays

I remember exactly where I was, and what I was doing, when I read Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. I didn’t quite understand what was happening at first, because it was clear that although Mrs Dalloway was about preparing for a party, this book was actually not at all about preparing for a party. Somehow, I was invited into a world of different perspectives, illuminations, and striking observations of human existence. I read the entire book in one sitting. 

I didn’t understand Woolf (or Mrs Dalloway, for that matter) but I knew that I loved her. She came at the truth sideways, which is perhaps the only way to tell these sort of truths (perhaps this explains Jesus’ fondness for parable?) What I learned was to let myself be in each moment as Woolf presented it; and in doing that, I learned how to better let myself be in each moment of my own life. She gave me license to see, really see, right now, how the light drifts through the live oak, revealing the dust mites in the air, a moment in time. Woolf showed me that even when the right now is hard-edged, it is only the right now that holds wonder and joy.

So this summer, I am inviting you to your own summer, to your own life. To experience a book (one does not exactly read Virginia Woolf) as practice for experiencing the wonder and joy of the present. Our theme is “Thought lingers, and love plays.” This is my hope for you, that you might linger with your thoughts, and experience the love in your life. 

I know this isn’t an easy book, and I know it generates deep and meaningful questions and discussion. So we’ve created a “you can do the thing!” Cathedral Reads this summer.

We will have two lectures with Emma Ridder, a twentieth-century literature scholar. Emma is  passionate about helping non-academics interact with “challenging fictions.” She will introduce us to the modernist movement, talking us through why these works are written as they are. For instance, if you’ve ever tried to read T.S. Eliot’s The Wastelandyou were probably left disoriented… which means, that piece of art worked the way it was supposed to. Emma will orient us to To the Lighthouse so that we can be with the work fully. She will be with us on Zoom on June 12th at 2:00pm and June 23rd and 6:30pm. 

We will be hosting online small groups, a weekly “Loose Canons” discussion, and of course Dean Thompson’s Cathedral Reads Dean’s Hour on August 7th. One other thing worth noting – since the book is so experiential, we’ve planned a “Lily Briscoe Painting Party” at the Art Cellar in River Oaks; we will be painting a piece inspired by Woolf and To the Lighthouse. That event will be July 21st at 7:00pm

I very much hope you can join me and others in talking about this extraordinary book. You can do the thing! we can do the thing! and more than that, we can experience the thing.

~The Rev. Becky Zartman

For more information on programs and small group discussions, click here.

Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.
~Virginia Woolf

The Underrated Art of Chatting

At the bookstore, we believe that there are meaningful rewards to a good chat.

The Underrated Art of Chatting

Until recently, everyone was in a hurry. There were important things to do, deadlines and commitments to meet, brands to be built. Books and puzzles were nice in theory: though some people—older, more traditional, or perhaps wiser—remained dedicated to them, the modern world went on and on about podcasts, video games, cable series, and other electronic entertainment that could be consumed in the nooks and crannies of time—on the elliptical, while walking the dog, or in lieu of talking with the old ball and chain over supper. We were, after all, important and in a hurry.

Not so much anymore. For a while we tried to stay in a hurry, on Zoom, with masks on, until we were slammed so repeatedly by the waves of Covid restrictions that we fell back—into our natural introversion, into sour dough starter, into closet cleaning, into news-obsessing, and sometimes into lethargy and despair. The filler articles that surrounded the news tried to prove their relevancy by casting everything in units—units of education lost, units of weight gained, alcohol consumed, and many other darker, sadder measurements.

Beached by the waves and exhausted by opinions, we began to have time to think about something beyond our important projects. We remembered that no matter how fast we hurry, we can’t out-organize, out-run, out-schedule or even out-vaccinate what we fear the most. Kate Bowler reminds us beautifully, there is No Cure for Being Human. But, slowed down by our current reality, we can see that there are perks. Chatting, following the winding rabbit holes of small talk, is surely one.

People come in and out of our bookstore at the Cathedral. Some are regulars, some are visitors, and there are even a few long-time parishioners who have just discovered that we have a bookstore. Some are looking for a book, others want to work peacefully at our puzzle table, but some just want to chat. And we are happy to oblige. We believe that taking the time to share a story with another human being—friend or stranger—is one of the most rewarding and soothing ways to pass the time we have, however limited it may be. 

As stories are shared in the store, we begin to notice connections. “That’s your favorite book? Why, it’s mine, too!” “Your cornbread/coleslaw/carrot soup recipe is just like the one my grandmother/mother-in-law/uncle used to make.” “You lived in Ireland/Iceland/Indonesia? I’m going this summer. Please tell me all about it.” It goes on and on. We are all so different, and the more we talk with each other about nothing important, the more we discover the myriad things, small and big, that we share. Chatting is like placer mining. You never know what gems it will reveal.

On Sunday, chatting provided two notable discoveries, among others. First, at the puzzle table, struggling with a thousand pieces of a picture of multi-colored teacups that has been cursed more than once for its difficulty, an older gentleman and a young woman discovered that their families are both from the same tiny town in East Texas. In fact, they were cousins. That discovery led to conversation about Teaching a Stone to TalkOutlander, cherries soaked in moonshine, and Mormon traditions. 

Later, a chance inquiry about a Christmas trip to New Mexico led to a discussion of how beautiful the Cathedral’s live-streamed services are, what a gift they are when you can’t make it downtown, because you have Covid, or are in New Mexico, or perhaps just want to keep your pjs on and connect via Facebook chat. The conversation wound around to the dean’s Christmas Eve sermon, which included a wonderful story about a pilot in New England, in the days before radar, being led by lighthouses through a raging storm on Christmas Eve. The message had been perfect for all of us stumbling around in the dark, running up against Covid restrictions and the pain reflected in the news, and unable to find many units of joy to measure. Just recalling that sermon would have been a rewarding result of our chat.

Today, I received the rest of the story in my email. It turns out, the goodness and strength of that one pilot featured in the Christmas Eve sermon went on to spark goodness far and wide, for decades. The details made me cry, in a happy way, for a nice change. 

If you’re looking for a good way to pass the time, come see us. We’ve got shelves loaded with books we’d be glad to recommend. We’re also delighted to just sit and visit. If you’re in a more contemplative mood, you can commune with the stacks or help the new cousins with those teacups. 

If you can’t make it in—because you’re under a flood watch, you’re in New Mexico, or you want to stay in your pjs today—you can still connect. Here’s the sermon, and here’s the longer story that chatting unearthed. Enjoy them both. 

Live, printed, or electronic, stories weave a wonderful net that connects us. Or perhaps sharing them just brings to light the connections that are already there. Take a few minutes today to chat with someone. You might find a new cousin or discover that you still have some tears of joy left in your tired eyes.

The future belongs to a different kind of person with a different kind of mind: artists, inventors, storytellers-creative and holistic ‘right-brain’ thinkers.
~Daniel Pink 

photo: Plymouth Historical Society