By Melanie P. Moore
During this in-between week of late December, when the old year is still ticking along and the new year is so close I can already populate my 2023 calendar, I find myself sifting through words and stacking up books. So what, right? I’m a writer and editor. What did I expect to be doing?
But this week I’m sifting through words to select my “word for the year,” a tradition we have with our friends. We spend time around New Year’s Eve together at our lake house and we each share a word—a sort of intention—for the coming year. My words have been selected with great care each year and yet, as the months go by, just like any word, it begins to seem arbitrary. That’s what words are, after all, an imperfect codification of signs and sounds to convey meaning—in completely arbitrary attachments such that we have to learn, by rote, that “blue” is the color “from Old French/Germanic (bleu), related to the Old High German word “blao” (meaning ‘shimmering, lustrous’).” (“Blue”)
My book-stacking activity is to clear space on my bookshelves which have become an avalanche hazard. I can no longer put off removing the 24 volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica and 15 volumes of Childcraft—the books that taught me to look things up, that sat on the shelves of every parsonage we lived in when I was growing up. The books that saved me when I forgot a term paper was due the next day. And, alas, books that no longer have accurate information—countries have changed, maps are different, all the entries now read like history.
For example, the “Cost of Living” entry begins: “The term cost of living is often employed in ordinary conversation without a clear conception of its meaning. …the use of this term was replaced in the United States in 1945 by ‘consumer price index’ and in Great Britain in 1947 by ‘index of retail prices.’” I must note that these two empires are the only nations mentioned in the entry. Commodity examples include only: bread, coal, cloth, and housing.
Showing my age as well as the age of these books is the 3.5-page entry on Computers which has a section distinguishing “Scientific versus Business Machines,” because those were the main uses of computers, and ends with a brief paragraph on new technologies that promise continued rapid advancement. “For military and space use, digital computers the size of shoe boxes … in the 1960s had capabilities comparable to computers that filled an entire room only a decade earlier” (emphasis mine). The “Business Machines” section notes authoritatively, “Bills, checks, and address labels can be automatically prepared at extremely high speed.” Hilarious! Venmo sends money from my account at extremely high speed, from an app on my iPhone—more than 56 of which would fit into a shoe box. (Yes, I measured my phone and a shoe box to calculate this. I also once weighed my head because I was worried about stress on my neck—it’s 9 pounds, smaller than average which may explain a lot, but I digress.)
As much as I love reference books—and I do—I must let these go, for so many reasons. It saddens me that their only value now is to interior decorators—or “book curators” as Gwyneth Paltrow’s is called; people who say things like “You can turn any bookshelf into an artistic masterpiece.”
Artistic masterpieces not withstanding, I’m replacing the encyclopedia volumes on my shelf with a growing collection of books by and about contemplative mystics. The Cloud of Unknowing is an apt one for these shelves. According to John Boswell in Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, one factor that almost certainly played a large role in the narrowing of social tolerance was “…the rise of absolute government. Perhaps the single most prominent aspect of the period from the later twelfth to the fourteenth century was a sedulous quest for intellectual and institutional uniformity and corporatism throughout Europe. … Theology was fitted into systematic formulas and collected in comprehensive compendia—summas—of such formulas. … Secular knowledge was gathered into uniform approaches, encyclopedias, which attempted to unite all of contemporary learning into one book or system.”
Limiting knowledge to what can be meted out into words and sentences captured in the finite pages of a book is one way to feel certain, to be right—to be able to prove rightness—and to feel safe. The alternative, the unknowableness of the Divine, the absolute lack of control we have over most outcomes, is too scary. Throughout history, humans have strived to know, to define, to codify both laws and language in order to have a sense of control, to make life make sense.
Scott, a friend of a friend here in Austin years ago, had a letterpress in his kitchen on which he published poetry chapbooks by local poets. The name of his micro-press enterprise was “Effing Press.” I have always loved the pithy truth of that name. The experience of connecting with the Divine is not something that can be captured (trapped?) in human-created words; it has been termed “ineffable.” And yet, from the press in Scott’s kitchen, poets were speaking, effing, if you will.
Encyclopedias, documentation, words were created for communication among humans, in this realm. But the printed page, like my set of Encyclopedia Britannica and every User Guide ever created, can outlast its relevance in time. And concrete collections of “comprehensive compendia” of theological and secular learning, used for “intellectual and institutional uniformity and corporatism” can stray toward authoritarianism and fundamentalism. But none of our words or compendia of human knowledge are needed in the spiritual realm.
I am early in my walk along the path toward spiritual maturity. Fortunately, I found The Abbey and am learning each week from a community of seekers who are ahead of me. Much like walking a labyrinth, we are all at different places, turning this way and that, toward a center we all cherish. And yet, I still try to find my word for the year, to name (to eff?) something that might be a touchstone as I move through all the unknowns of 2023.
Maybe that’s what I’m to get from my word searching and shelf clearing this closing week of December—that part of “engaging without attachment” is recognizing that my life right now is between realms, this human imperfect, effing realm and the Divine, the mystery, the light all seekers aspire to. One way or another I will figure out my word before Saturday night and I will move forward in this imperfect world—full of imperfect people and institutions, imperfect religions and creeds—trusting that the Divine light in all of us will find its way into the places where we engage and the people we meet.