An Audio Version of PURE ACT Is Coming Soon

I’ve just learned that an audio version of my book, Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax, is in the works–five and a half years after the book was published. This rarely happens this late in a book’s life, so I’m very pleased. It should bring the book to a whole new audience.

I’ll pass on more information when I have it. 🙂

 

Dipping My Toe in Translation

In order to insure the first German edition of Robert Lax’s 33 Poems would be as accurate as possible, I recently helped the translator and publisher, Thorsten Scheu, with his translation. My contribution consisted primarily of matching the German to the English and, with my intimate knowledge of Lax’s work (and improving knowledge of German), suggesting where the translation might be improved. It was a small part of the overall work, but it was enough for Thorsten to list me in the book as an editor, which delighted me.

My relationship to German is long and spotty. My grandmother’s parents were German and she grew up speaking German in the U. S., but I don’t remember her ever using more than an occasional German word in my presence. My first real encounter with the language was in grade school. I went to a Lutheran school with German roots and the only foreign language we could study there was German. If I remember correctly, I was forced to learn it from the 4th through the 8th grade.

I didn’t love the language, possibly because of how it was taught, but when I went to high school I took two more years of it to fulfill a language requirement and then did the same thing in college. One reason I never embraced it more fully was I never thought I’d be in a position to use it.

But then, just five years out of college, I started leading tours in Europe, including in Germany, and, for the next decade or so, found myself needing to use German every year. To my surprise, I started to like it and I did some studying of it on my own.

During those same years, I met and then married my wife Sylvia. Her mother was German and Sylvia herself spoke German exclusively for the first five or six years of her life. It was a sad day for her mother when Sylvia told her she had to be careful because this new man in her life knew their secret language. Being with Sylvia and her mother improved my German immensely.

But even then, I would never have had the confidence I’d need to help with a translation from English to German if I hadn’t decided in April of 2020 to take on a “pandemic project.” While clearing books from a shelf, I came across a Bible written in “heutigem Deutsch”: contemporary German. Sylvia told me a friend had given it to her years before. Since I had never read the entire Bible and I’d already thought about spending some of my pandemic time furthering my knowledge of one language or another, I decided to kill two birds with one stone.

To keep my new task from seeming onerous, I told myself I didn’t have to read every day but I had to average a chapter a day. I struggled a bit at first but eventually I enjoyed the work more and more, and two weeks ago I celebrated a full year of reading the Bible in German. At that point, I had read 40% of it. Which means I still have a year and a half to go!

When I first started reading the German Bible, I had to look up words in almost every sentence, but now I can cruise through several sentences at a stretch without looking anything up. It was that growth in my knowledge of the language that gave me the confidence to attempt translation work.

One interesting byproduct of my German Bible reading and translation work was I found more in Lax’s poems than I knew was there. Because translating slowed me down, I paid more attention to every word and saw how very carefully Lax had chosen each one. Because my German teacher was the Bible, I saw how strongly Lax’s work was inspired by Biblical rhythms and language too.

These good experiences with a language I once disliked have me thinking about maybe someday trying my hand at translating a German work into English.

Meanwhile, though, I have the rest of that Bible to read.

33 Gedichte (33 Poems) by Robert Lax (trans. by Thorsten Scheu) is scheduled to be published in a limited edition of 100 copies by Sprachlichter Verlag in June 2020.

The image at the top of this post comes from  Roman Kraft on Unsplash.

A Year in the Woods

I’m nearing the end of what I expect to be the final revision of a memoir I’ve been working on for a number of years. It’s focused on a year my wife Sylvia and I lived in the woods on an island off the coast of Washington State. I was on my first sabbatical as a professor and was hoping for a peaceful year dedicated to writing and living simply. But that year turned out to be something else entirely. It was, as the book’s subtitle says, A Year In the Wilds of Nature, Death and Art.

With its meditations on solitude, simplicity, living a life of meaning, and the healing power of nature, I’m hoping the book will resonate with people who have spent the past year contemplating those kinds of things.

Here’s an excerpt from the introduction:

As I neared the fawn, it settled down, not in a conscious way but in the manner of dying. A leg twitched. Then its jaw. Then it lay still. I studied the white patch on its side, the way its sable hair gave way to its black hooves. The eye I could see was still open but I didn’t want to look at it. I didn’t want to see the dimming, the dullness, the loss of lucidity I’d seen in the deer that grazed around the cabins. In the end, I looked anyway, and what I saw moved me deeply. The eye looked limpid, liquid, and peaceful, like water I could see to the depths of, and it had a quality to it I hadn’t seen in the living. There is this, at least, in death it seemed to say: an absence of pain. Of fear. Of worry. It seemed the kindest eye I’d ever seen, the kind I wished to turn myself toward animals and trees and people.

Kilian McDonnell Fellowship Supports Work On A New Writing Book

In addition to my two weeks as a writing coach at the Collegeville Institute this summer, I’ll be there for another six weeks in the fall as a short-term resident scholar, recipient of a Kilian McDonnell Fellowship.  The fellowship will support my work on a book about writing for a broader audience, intended primarily for those who write from a spiritual perspective but with plenty for anyone who wants to write well for the general public.

The genesis for this book is my summer writing coach work, particularly my presentations to those attending my Writing Beyond the Academy week the past two years.  Of course, my 22 years of teaching creative writing to both graduate and undergraduate writing students have given me plenty of material too.

If you’re interested in attending either of my summer weeks this year, go to the Collegeville Institute Summer Writing Workshops home page.  There’s still time to apply for these all-expenses-paid weeks but the deadlines are in February!

A New Thomas Merton Book on Mysticism

Liturgical Press has just released a new Thomas Merton book, A Course in Christian Mysticism, edited by Jon M. Sweeney, with an introduction by me.  Here’s a description from the book’s Amazon page:

“Thomas Merton’s lectures to the young monastics at the Abbey of Gethsemani provide a good look at Merton the scholar. A Course in Christian Mysticism gathers together, for the first time, the best of these talks into a spiritual, historical, and theological survey of Christian mysticism—from St. John’s gospel to St. John of the Cross. Sixteen centuries are covered over thirteen lectures. A general introduction sets the scene for when and how the talks were prepared and for the perennial themes one finds in them, making them relevant for spiritual seekers today. This compact volume allows anyone to learn from one of the twentieth century’s greatest Catholic spiritual teachers. The study materials at the back of the book, including additional primary source readings and thoughtful questions for reflection and discussion, make this an essential text for any student of Christian mysticism.”

If you’re interested in learning more about the history of Christian mysticism or want to go deeper in your own contemplative experience, this book is for you.  Here’s a quote from my introduction:

“Although these lessons are heavy with intellectual content, with history and reasoning, what they are leading to is simple.  Therein lies the dichotomy at the heart of the Christian mystical tradition: training leads only to being.  As Merton writes in his essay The Contemplative Life in the Modern World, ‘Contemplative wisdom is then not simply an aesthetic extrapolation of certain intellectual or dogmatic principles, but a living contact with the Infinite Source of all being, a contact not only of minds and hearts, not only of “I and Thou,” but a transcendent union of consciousness in which man and God become, according to the expression of St. Paul, “one spirit.”‘”

Available directly from Liturgical Press or from Amazon or from your local independent bookstore..

A Note from A Canadian Reader

I recently received the note below from a Canadian reader.  It expresses so well the kind of response I would hope for–to my book and to Lax–that I had to share it.

“Thank you so very much for writing Pure Act! Like Robert Lax’s poetry it’s a welcoming place to go to as the competition, chaos and anxiety of the 21st century become ever-more overwhelming. At 66, I don’t think I’ve ever read a biography or memoir that is both so enlightening and comforting—one of which I can say, ‘This is thoroughly necessary.'”

I’ll Be a Visiting Professor at St. Bonaventure University in March

I’m pleased to announce that I’ve been selected to be the Spring 2017 Lenna Endowed Visiting Professor at St. Bonaventure University in Olean, New York.  I’ll be on campus for the last two weeks of March, giving talks, visiting classrooms, meeting with students, and chatting with the Franciscan friars.

I’m especially honored to receive the Lenna Professorship because the first recipient of it, when it was established in 1990, was Robert Lax.  St. Bonaventure is in his home town and, as those who’ve read my biography of him know, he and his mother went there often.  The friars were an important early spiritual influence on him.

The dates for the public talks haven’t been set yet but they should be soon.  I’ll post them in the Talks section of my website.  If you’re in the area, I hope you’ll come!