Sunday, February 1, 2009

"A Door is Just an Idea"

I once took an undergraduate class in logic from a Catholic priest. I would think, I am learning about logic from a Catholic priest, and I would find that fact amazing and even amusing. However, I wasn't really learning anything, and it certainly wasn't the fault of the priest.

The class was in a very small lecture hall at a Catholic women's college. I always sat near the front, in the hope that proximity would help the learning process. I would lean forward in my chair, staring at the mouth of the lecturer. And this is what I saw, at least in my mind's eye.

Father Michael would speak. He would inform. He would elucidate. I would watch the words coming out of his mouth--wonderful words like quality, determinate, becoming, and dialectic. Lovely words like analysis, being, nothingness, syllogism, idealism, and rational. Even better ones like metaphysics and transcendental. All those amazing words coming toward me in a great arc and then--suddenly--crashing up against an invisible wall and sliding down in a great heap at the feet of the priest. I strained to receive those words, but they never got to my brain. I never understood a thing he said.

I would just watch the pile of words grow and grow, and I would feel more and more lost. Occasionally, Father Michael would stop and (very kindly) say, "Clair, are you getting any of this?" I would have to shake my head and say, once again, "No, Father." And he would invite me to stay after class once more for a bit of coaching that simply never helped. It was like a foreign language to me and I could not find the translation key.

That was all many years ago, but I never forgot that vision of the words sliding away from me and landing in a jumbled and inaccessible heap. A couple of weeks ago, I came across something in a book I was reading that, amazingly, almost replicated that vision, but went way beyond it. Let me share a couple of quotes with you--the first is the one about words, and I've put in the second quote because it is so memorable. I hope it will make you want to read the book, which was quite unforgettable. It has a smashing title, too.

From As Hot As it Was You Ought to Thank Me, by Nanci Kincaid

[When hearing a hard truth]:

Words are funny, the way they come at you full force, then just bounce right off you like bullets off the side of a steel barn. I saw those words coming, I saw the force of them, but they just slapped up against me and bounced away. Words need a place to enter. A lot of people think you got to let words in through your ears, but that’s not so. Words can get in other ways--harder ways. They can come in through your open eyes. You can breathe them in. They can work their way through your sweaty skin like ringworms do. They can enter a wound you are trying to heal up. They can just sit on you like a tick you didn’t know was there, attach themselves to you and sort of suck their way in.

Once words are spoken, then there they are. They don’t just vanish into thin air like some people think. They don’t just disappear. They are like parasites that become part of some larger organism, like a small idea that hooks into all your bigger ideas. Words are as real as anything, which is why speaking lies is so dangerous.


[When the hurricane was coming]:

The thunder was insistent, like door knocking that would not let up. It seemed about making us let something inside--and we didn’t want to. We refused. The early thunder was almost polite, distant and just as comfortable as hearing your name called at suppertime. But the later thunder had lost all patience, given up on convincing us and decided to threaten us, like a maniac who’d knock the door down by banging his head against it if he had to. It made me understand that we don’t always get to decide what we let in and what we keep out. A door is just an idea.


the7msn said...

Either I'm going to have to quit my day job or stop reading your blog - where will I find time to read all these great books you've been recommending? I added Martha Ballard's to my list yesterday, and now this one by Nancy Kincaid. Thanks!

clairz said...

Obviously, I've already quit my day job or I'd never have the time to read all these books. I've kept lists of "books to read" ever since those days when I was a young English major and despaired of ever finding time to read all the books on "The English Major's Reading List" that they handed out. 45 years later, I'm still working on that list. It starts out like this: 1. All of Shakespeare 2. All of Chaucer and goes on (and on) from there...

Linda said...

Just wanted to let you know I'm blogging again. Thought I could quit but couldn't. I did need to get free of some Texas family that were reading my blog. I'll be very careful from now on about who I invite to read it. You can find me at
'Ramblings of a Liberal'

Linda Hillin
Texas to Oregon