Variations on a theme
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Issue Date:  October 13, 2006

Raw materials

“It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.”

This opening paragraph from Chapter 5 of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein captures the rawness of “raw material” -- the basic elements of life, of creativity, that must be shaped somehow into a result we cannot foresee.

We asked NCR readers to share their thoughts on raw material in our sixth “variations on a theme” feature.

* * *

Most of my life I have worked with raw materials.

When I was in college, I worked with cardboard tubes and plastic shields. As a research assistant, I worked with slides of spinal cords and visual cortexes of animal brains. As a clinician, I worked with blood and body fluids. As a chef, I worked with raw vegetables and meats. As a writer, I worked with words and phrases.

But as a person, I had to face the awful image reflected in my mirror. I had to see myself for who I was, if I was ever to be able to see beyond me. I tried to envision how God looked upon me, too: heavy down below, too out of balance up above. I did not like what I saw, yet I could not deny what I felt -- and that was that I was loved for who I was, not what I did.

Learning to discriminate between raw material and finished product is not all that difficult. The challenge exists in learning to discriminate between raw material and garbage. Garbage flows in and out of our lives more than we are willing to admit. Finished product, in the eyes of God, is an evolving phenomenon -- more of a way than a thing. In many ways, I hope never to be a finished product, because if I am, then that is all I am. And I would rather be more of I Am Who Am, than who I am.

Bluefield, W.Va.

* * *

My desk faces Lake Superior, with its ever-changing moods and awe-inspiring countenance.

When people come to visit, especially for the first time, they inevitably ask, “How do you ever get anything done with a view like that?”

My answer is often just as predictable. “That view is my anything.”

For example, yesterday, as I sat at my desk pondering this topic, a deer passed directly in front of the window. This is not unusual. What was unusual was the rectangular piece of grayish cloth (a pillow case? a kitchen towel?) hanging from its head.

My husband had seen this creature a few days earlier. From the distance it resembled a white-tailed buck with two tails, one at each end. A closer view revealed a frantic deer trying to dislodge a cloth stuck on its newly sprouting antlers. When he told me about this deer, I was reminded of the young elk we’d seen several years earlier while traveling through Alberta, Canada. Eyes rolling in terror, the elk raced toward the road with a length of rope swinging from its massive antlers, the end twisting like a writhing snake.

Yesterday’s deer did not race past my window in terror. Stately slow is how I’d describe its movement. The cloth now hung like the veil over its right eye rather than over both eyes as it had when my husband saw it, making me wonder if the deer had learned that walking slowly made the swaying veil less scary.

How had these poor creatures gotten themselves into such predicaments? Had it been a quest for food that betrayed them? The deer perhaps raided a bag of animal feed and netted its fibers in its budding antlers. Had the elk, browsing on marsh grasses and lowering its massively antlered head into the water, encountered a piece of tenting rope carelessly dropped by a camper?

The deer with the antler-anchored cloth, the elk with the antler-tangled rope are the raw materials that lead me to ponder the often calamitous intersection between the vulnerable wilderness and encroaching civilization in this fragile but wondrous world.

Schroeder, Minn.

* * *

What is raw material? Is it something not manufactured? Or perhaps it is a substance from which something may be made, like the clay of the ground in Genesis 2:7 -- “The Lord God formed man out of the clay of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and so man became a living being.”

It seems the beginning of life, a child’s life, can be compared to raw material. How can we help this new life, this raw beauty, to grow into a fine human person?

Although we are witnessing a remarkable revolution in technology in the 21st century, there exists the danger that while we focus our talent on creating marvelous technology, human contact is becoming less important. After all, the technology was created to assist humans, not to take their place.

Too often today we interact with robot-like devices and constructs, like the recorded menus we hear when phoning a corporate entity. Children use toys that transform humans into cyber action figures. Today’s blogging revolution not only eliminates the physical contact between people, it also eliminates the voice contact of the phone. Fewer and fewer people come together at community meetings and prefer to keep in touch through the Internet. Desktops, laptops, CDs, DVDs and MP3s occupy a bigger and bigger chunk of humanity’s time.

Holding a hand-held computer more often than holding a child’s hand helps to delete the smile from the child’s face. If you wish to keep the smile on a child’s face, reach out and take that child’s hand.

Bernardsville, N.J.

* * *

I am raw material, in more ways than one. Over the last year or so, I’ve been undergoing some serious changes in my life, and they’ve left me in a state of rawness. The beginning of it all was a health-related problem. It was a difficult time, when my body was out of control and subjecting me to suffering, exhaustion and loss of sleep for reasons I couldn’t fathom. After six months, I was diagnosed with and treated for a hyperactive thyroid and things began to look up. Or so I thought.

You would think having a problem I’d lived with for so long taken care of would finally bring me peace, but I ended up in a spiral of anxiety and depression. A therapist I began seeing suggested that the thyroid problem may have just been the straw that broke the camel’s back, and after hearing about my unhappy work situation and the personal issues I’ve wrestled with my whole life, she said that this meltdown was coming, thyroid or not. My anxiety level was sky-high; I wasn’t sleeping and I was experiencing physical numbness and pain like I’d never had before. Months of therapy and examination of my life has done wonders, though. I started looking hard at my job situation and realizing there were other things in my life I’d rather be doing, and I started learning how to manage and accept my anxiety as something I can experience but not be controlled by.

I’m still in the same job; I know I want to do something else, like play music or write, but I haven’t figured out what to do. I feel like unmolded clay -- raw material. Also, I felt like I was having setbacks in the anxiety department, but my therapist reminded me that, after all I’ve been through, I’m going to be more prone to anxiety right now. Much like sunburned skin, I’m very sensitive. Raw material.


* * *

My childhood, my memories, my experiences: These are my raw materials. Just as a sculptor uses clay and a painter uses paints, my writing comes from my experiences. My childhood home, an old 1800s farmhouse in the center of a New England town -- that is raw material. My experiences as a visiting nurse in rural Maine, where children were entertained by their father shooting a litter of kittens in the backyard, and a four-generation family survived poverty, elder abuse and the suicide of a family member -- that is raw material. My family’s experience of moving back to care for my 90-year-old parents -- that is raw material. My many and varied friendships, some going back to my pre-school years -- those are raw material.

My experiences are rich. To an outsider, they may seem ordinary. But to me, they are my life. They are what make me who I am and how I respond to the world.

Southampton, Mass.

* * *

The development of the Clementwood Spiritual Life Center in Rutland, Vt., has been a labor of love. One could say that the raw materials of the center are the boards, paint and nails used to create the structure. Those are the raw materials of any building, like a building that houses a church, for instance. My belief, though, is that the building that houses the church is not the church at all.

What materials are needed to build a spiritual life center?

Faith. I cannot journey without it. It brings me to the Spirit. We have all been given all the faith we will ever need, as a gift.

Nature. Nature is where the Spirit resides outside of myself. The spirit that our Native American seekers knew: spirit of the rivers, the ponds, the meadows, the trees, the flowers, the sky and the sun, leading us to a Power so awesome as to blind us at the very sight.

Quiet. A raw material in such short supply in the world in which we live, it is a basic resource at a spiritual center. Quiet that allows the spirit within me to connect to the spirit for which I search.

Seekers. Sojourners are raw materials, not finished products. They are in transition and always on the journey. Beginners giving seasoned searchers new views, new opportunities to revisit places on their own path, as seeing something for the first time with a child can be the most exhilarating of moments.

Acceptance. Acceptance of myself and others allows me to exist in my world and grow toward the inner peace of my center.

The building is made of cement blocks, two-by-fours, windows, pipes and paint. But the raw materials of the Clementwood Spiritual Life Center are alive and in flux, constantly building upon themselves.

Rutland, Vt.

National Catholic Reporter, October 13, 2006

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