Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Mid-week Muse: What cows can tell us about inspiration

Image by Vladimir Lytvak - stock.xchng
Where does inspiration come from? More specifically, how does that lightning-in-a-bottle ah-ha-moment happen? I think the answer might be found in the connection between cows and goddesses. Seriously.

Bear with me a moment. Let’s muse a bit on, well, musing:


verb (used without object)

1. to think or meditate in silence, as on some subject.

2. Archaic . to gaze meditatively or wonderingly.

3. to meditate on.

4. to comment thoughtfully or ruminate upon.


(Thank you,!)

The verb form of the word provides four definitions that to me seem more a series of four sub-actions that define the overarching action of “to muse.”  You first meditate in silence, gazing with wonder (with inner and/or outer eye) on a thing or subject, considering it meditatively, just long enough to then comment on it (for self, internally, or for others, externally) thoughtfully. Ironically, the starting point of inspiration is silence, since many ground-breaking ideas end up making a lot of noise (so to speak).

But we are a busy and noisy people. How can anyone find the silence or time needed for the reflection that leads to anything resembling an original thought? (I get this question a lot.) The only real answer is you have to want it badly enough. However, the sort of silence that leads to meditative wonder is less a lowered decibel level for any given span of time than it is a stillness of spirit cultivated with practice that creates space for rumination. It takes practice and intentionality.

But where does that new thought come from? From whence the muse? I believe the answer is hidden in the rumination. And here’s where the dictionary is once again helpful.


verb (used without object)

1. to chew the cud, as a ruminant (a cud-chewing quadruped, like cattle).

2. to meditate or muse; ponder.

I have rarely seen a cow do much of anything but stand and chew. Slowly. Occasionally, they sit. Standing or sitting, they appear to be looking at you or the fence or the grass and sky at the same time, taking it all in, or none of it, with a certain amount of pondering disinterest. And they do all of this while they chew, and chew, in magnificent silence.

To chew on, over and over again, to ponder, ruminate, like a cow… interesting. It is thinking, but not the type of thinking we are much taught how to do in school (particularly not business school). It is an “inefficient” kind of thought, one that does not start with the end in mind, but simply starts with the one chewy subject and allows itself to be led by that starting point. And after a first round of chewing, of going down the uncharted pathway, the thinking goes back to the beginning and starts chewing again, tasting the topic all over again, allowing for alternative paths.

I tend to do this type of thinking through my pen or keyboard. I write it out and follow the path the words mark out for me. Conversation can also provide this perfect pondering, if the participants are patient with the silences, tolerant of non-linear thinking, and not looking for an instant solution to a particular problem. Some of my most memorable moments of friendship – and inspiration – have occurred through such perfectly messy banter.

So, back to the beginning of our muse at hand. Let’s now chew on the noun form of Muse for a moment:


1. Classical Mythology .

a. any of a number of sister goddesses, originally given as Aoede (song), Melete (meditation), and Mneme (memory), but latterly and more commonly as the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne who presided over various arts: Calliope (epic poetry), Clio (history), Erato (lyric poetry), Euterpe (music), Melpomene (tragedy), Polyhymnia (religious music), Terpsichore (dance), Thalia (comedy), and Urania (astronomy); identified by the Romans with the Camenae.

b. any goddess presiding over a particular art.

2. ( sometimes lowercase ) the goddess or the power regarded as inspiring a poet, artist, thinker, or the like.

3. ( lowercase ) the genius or powers characteristic of a poet.

The noun embodies the action of musing. Goddess, power, or genius, it is that seemingly mysterious THING that inspires and characterizes the poet, artist, or creative thinker.

I love that there are nine sister goddesses called muses, representing a range of domain expertise from epic poetry to astronomy. Even comedy gets its own muse! What it tells me is that there are certain core disciplines that feed inspiration across all disciplines and stimulate the musings of artists, poets, musicians, choreographers, comedians, and scientists alike.

I like to think of it as the discipline of inefficient thought. It is the patience of cattle that allows for the silence and the open spaces and the chewing on over and over again. It is the genius that fearlessly explores the inherently messy mind, not to put it in order, but to discover yet another crumb to nibble.

So what about the lightning-in-a-bottle moment? I believe it is a mystery we may never fully solve, but there are clues we can pick up along the way. Surely it is magic, but a magic that comes to those ready and waiting. And chewing.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Failing to Find Words: Reflecting on C.S. Lewis’ The Apologist’s Evening Prayer

All Nine contributor-muse Dr. Holly Ordway finds grace, if not words, in the poem “The Apologist’s Evening Prayer” by C.S. Lewis. Holly is a poet, teacher, and friend, as well as an apologist exploring the intersection of literature and faith, reason and imagination. Follow Dr. Ordway's reflections on the practice of living a holy life at her website at or on twitter @HollyOrdway


Failing to Find Words: Reflecting on C.S. Lewis’ The Apologist’s Evening Prayer

by Dr. Holly Ordway
I struggled to find a poem to write about for this piece; having chosen one, I found I had nothing good to say, so I tried again, and then again, and ended up with yet more deleted drafts for my pains. Eventually, I found myself circling back to a poem I had considered, and then set aside: C.S. Lewis’ “The Apologist’s Evening Prayer.”  

From all my lame defeats and oh! much more
From all the victories that I seemed to score;
From cleverness shot forth on Thy behalf
At which, while angels weep, the audience laugh;
From all my proofs of Thy divinity,
Thou, who wouldst give no sign, deliver me.

Thoughts are but coins. Let me not trust, instead
Of Thee, their thin-worn image of Thy head.
From all my thoughts, even from my thoughts of Thee,
O thou fair Silence, fall, and set me free.
Lord of the narrow gate and the needle’s eye,
Take from me all my trumpery lest I die.

It's an odd choice, in a way, because it's not one of the poems of Lewis’ that I particularly like as a poem. There are others that I enjoy or find compelling and beautiful as poems, like “What the Bird Said Early in the Year,” “Five Sonnets,” “The Dragon Speaks,” “Reason,” “Re-adjustment,” or “Pilgrim’s Problem” to name a few. In contrast, “The Apologist’s Evening Prayer” feels flat.

But in its very flatness it speaks to that feeling I get at the end of a long day of talking, teaching, writing: as if my words fall lifeless. It's a poem of poverty of language, in a way... of being unable to say what I want to say (or even to think it).

As a teacher, a writer, an apologist, I find that it is too easy to think that words and more words, arguments and more arguments, ideas explained and defended, are all that matters. “All my lame defeats” loom large, and at the end of that long day, or week, of defending the faith, of teaching and talking and writing, even “all the victories that I seemed to score” can feel hollow. I enjoy writing and know that I am good at it, yet when I tried to write this piece, the words that came on the first, second, third attempts were facile, shallow, and pathetic. I read them and was depressed in spirit.  

But wait - am I even seeing the problem correctly? Lewis’ phrase got under my skin: “From all the victories that I seemed to score” -- what I think of as victories and defeats may be something else entirely. Certainly, Lewis says, what may pass as victory could be its opposite: “From cleverness shot forth on Thy behalf / At which, while angels weep, the audience laugh; / ... deliver me.” But if the world’s idea of victory is unreliable, so too is the world’s (and my) idea of failure.

“Thoughts are but coins” -- and words, too -- “Let me not trust, instead / Of Thee, their thin-worn image of Thy head.” I must remember to look to the Source of the image, not to the image... but I am reminded by Lewis, here, that even while I remember that the coin is not the original, and has no value of its own, yet it still has value in its use. And when my own words feel like a debased currency, I am reminded to take refuge in the liturgy that has rung true over centuries, in words of prayer that the saints have spoken before me and will speak after me.

“From all my thoughts, even from my thoughts of Thee, / O thou fair Silence, fall, and set me free.” Fair Silence is a gift indeed: the hushing of the over-busy mind, not to say ‘no’ to my work of words and arguments and ideas, but to say ‘peace; rest.’

“Lord of the narrow gate and the needle’s eye, / Take from me all my trumpery lest I die.” The OED defines “trumpery” as “worthless stuff, rubbish, nonsense” with an additional meaning of “showy clothing; worthless finery.” Words and arguments and ideas can become ‘trumpery’ if we mistake the words themselves for the Truth they point toward. Yet I find it significant that Lewis nonetheless describes God in Scriptural phrases that are themselves metaphors: the “narrow gate” and the “needle’s eye.” As human beings, word-bearers, we cannot express ourselves other than in words, we cannot think without images, even while we know that all our images and words are “trumpery” if we think they are true in and of themselves.

It’s a narrow path, a delicate balance. No wonder Lewis ends in a plea. And that honesty, that empty-handed, exhausted prayer for grace, is what in the end makes this poem ring true for me. It is possible to over-think everything, and that includes reflecting on one’s own inadequacy. Lewis reminds me, here, of the depth of God’s grace, always renewed; by that grace, I can rest in being present in the moment as it truly is.
C.S. Lewis, “The Apologist’s Evening Prayer,” in Poems, ed. Walter Hooper (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1964).