A CONVERSATION WITH KATHLEEN NORRIS
Beloved author Kathleen Norris brings clarity and wisdom to her reflections on the relationship between the inner life and our outer experience. It’s all one - depression and spirituality, the language we use to describe the indescribable, the poetry of the everyday. What I didn’t know until we we met earlier this year was that Kathleen’s love of cinema is as enthusiastic, elegant, humorous and alive as any of her works. We began our conversation for The Porch by discussing one of our shared favorite films, Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, in which a bus driving poet (or a poet who moonlights as a bus driver) shows us the meaning of taking life one day at a time. (This conversation with a contemporary mystic also includes spoilers for the films Pulp Fiction and Melancholia. Which is as it should be.)
Kathleen Norris: It’s rare that I’ve watched a film and realized that I am also being blessed at the same time. I was thinking of the Archangel Raphael whom Flannery O’Connor refers to as “the Angel of Happy Meeting”. Basically the angel who is supposed to make sure you meet all the people in your life that you are supposed to meet. In my life Raphael works overtime I am sure and in most people, but [in the movie] was that incredible circumstance where here is this young bus driver meeting a [stranger]. It’s crazy circumstance and [the stranger] blesses the guy with this gift of wisdom and also the notebook that he needs. It really was like divine intervention through an ordinary human being; that I think is Raphael’s specialty because Raphael is also God’s healer.
When you look at the Archangels, Michael is the warrior, Gabriel is the messenger, Raphael is the healer. And that was the role that this man was playing and I don’t know who that actor was but he was wonderful, because you had the sense both that he had no idea what he was doing and that he absolutely knew what he was doing.
Gareth Higgins: It really means something to me that this is a Japanese man who gives him the new notebook. I think my generation and younger people [may] have no conception of what relationships between white US American military veterans and Japanese people were seventy years ago and the reasons why such an encounter is a miracle. Never mind the fact that whole film is about how it’s possible for the most ordinary life to be the most beautiful life. It challenges the idea that you have to have a sophisticated academic analysis about race in order to live diversity.
Kathleen Norris: Yes, you know, come to Hawaii and that whole notion will be shot out of hell, because we just live with it all the time. Because [here in Hawaii] we are 19% white, the rest Asian and Polynesian and others. It really is unique in America.
My dad was a musician, a Navy band master. He enlisted after Pearl Harbor when he was teaching music at a high school in South Dakota. But he was always a musician first and foremost. He was a show man, loved to do tours and things. So he got his navy band stationed at Pearl Harbor. They went on a tour of the Philippines, Korea and Japan in the early 1960s. And typically my dad made the band members learn folk music and the languages of all the places they were going. So they could hear with this navy musician in American uniform singing folk music to his audiences. He said the band resented having to do it, but when they saw the audience response they got it, it was incredible.
On the day that President Kennedy was assassinated they were in Japan, scheduled to tour Hiroshima. And so they got on their navy bus, all kind of in shock, wearing the uniforms. They had bought flowers to put at the Peace Memorial. But what my dad said really got to him was all these Japanese people coming up to him in tears and even hugging the band members and saying how sorry they felt that our President had been killed. Dad said he just went and sat on the bus because it wasn’t that long after the War, really, and here was this gesture of compassion from the people that we had massacred. He said that was probably one of the most powerful moments in his whole life. And so I guess that’s what was in my mind watching Paterson.
Gareth Higgins: One of the things about Paterson is that it’s edited in such a way that watching it feels like the experience of reading poetry. It slows down your mind the way that truly reading beautiful poetry does. You could tell that story with a different pace. You would tell that story and make some things that are oblique in the current film be more explicit. You could overact the character of his partner and make her into more of a comic foil but Jarmusch knows how to make poetry on the screen. So you are experiencing and that lovely rhythm of Paterson waking up at 6:10 every morning and the way the film lulls us into joy.
Kathleen Norris: And not boredom! This is a daily grind, but you don’t feel bored at all.
Gareth Higgins: It’s interesting, you said “not boredom” but I initially what I misheard you, thinking you were saying “not burden”. And I think this is a film that actually helps you carry the burden of your life. It could help you reframe the story of the ordinariness of your life in the way that people like Wendell Berry makes farming a tobacco field miraculous. It almost made me want to go and become a bus driver or to have a more regular 9 to 5 life. Some films help you face the burden and some films actually lift the burden.
Kathleen Norris: What really strikes me with Jarmusch is that I think early on he was trying to be too cool for school, but this one is very warm by comparison.
Gareth Higgins: It is indeed. So let’s enlarge this conversation. This point you’re making about your dad and the Japanese people expressing sympathy on death of JFK. Why do you think it is that most of the time we need to wait for something catastrophic to happen before we are kind to each other?
Kathleen Norris: I think that’s just human. It’s that daily burden that we have, we are going about our daily business and we are pre-occupied with whatever chores we have to do that day, whatever is on your mind. And often, it just takes a real wakeup call for something to happen. Sometimes it’s catastrophic, but sometimes it’s a simple gesture like this poet loses his notebook the night before and now he has been given a new one. Sometimes it’s not catastrophic, but it’s an event that says pay attention to this!
I think we all need those moments, and I guess the traditional spiritual term for it is “mountain-top experiences”. I mean, sometimes they’re devastating and sometimes they’re just are inspiring. But we need those interruptions, to put down your phone and stop what you’re doing and pay attention. I think catastrophes like 9/11 or the death of JFK have a way of reminding us wait a minute, what I thought was important five minutes ago might not be so important.
Gareth Higgins: Do you think there are ways to cultivate the kind of value that what I think is important most of the time isn’t important without having to need catastrophes or funerals or even happy moments like a wedding or a birthday? Of course it’s important to have these punctuating moments, and to ritualize them and to do them in community. But can we develop the kind of contemplative mind that can find things truly miraculous in the supermarket or other everyday experience?
Kathleen Norris: I’ve been a Benedictine oblate now for over thirty years and while I’ve never really considered myself a very good meditator or contemplative, but there’s a great little line in the Rule of Benedict that really helps with this kind of perspective. If you really practice this, if you really do this every day, it’s amazing what will happen. Remember each day remember that you’re going to die.
Of course, for most people that’s so morbid. But if you practice it, that’s spiritual lifting. You can find it in, I think, all religious traditions. It’s amazing because all of a sudden you’re really angry over something that might be fairly trivial in the scheme of things, but then you look at this person, you think, oh he is mortal too just like I am. It’s not repressing your anger, but maybe it’s out of proportion here and you get a little perspective. And it really helps when you are in crowded situation like an airport security line or a hospital ER waiting room. You look around at everyone and you think they are only strangers. But allow yourself to believe that God loves all these people and we are all mortal, we are all going to have to face that someday, we are all in the same boat. It will take the experience and transforms it into something better than it usually is.
Gareth Higgins: How does that relate to fear? If you accept you’re going to die that probably helps a lot with the emotional continuum with fear, because accepting that you are going to die is the beginning of undermining all fear. But other people aren’t necessarily thinking the same with me, they’re not necessarily approaching you or me with the same kind of love and of acceptance and the hope of good relationship. How does the contemplative life assist in the world and the anxiety of the times in which we live?
Kathleen Norris: You know, other people can be scary and often a fear of someone actually might be a reasonable response to something, especially someone is either physically or verbally threatening. But I know that when I observed my monastic friends, there is something about that contemplative life lived in a community where they have all kinds of struggles, and when you recognize that probably the enemy you need to fear most is the one that’s inside you, that really does help you cope with other people. Most of the time there really isn’t anything to fear except your own passion, your emotions about things that are going to distort whatever is happening. There is a kind of self-awareness that is like the opposite of narcissism that I see in monastic people that’s really inspiring.
I’ll give you an example. I am working in my new book about formation, because monastic formation is still pretty drastic. If you took to monastery and said I want to spend the next six months searching, [the response will be] Okay, hand over your iPhone, your iPad, your personal computer, you are not going to use those anymore. That’s for starters. Most people think that the hardest thing is going to be giving up the notion of personal property and personal devices that they are so used to checking. But the hardest thing is the fact that folk are coming from a world where the first question people want to know is what do you do, and the last is who are you?
All that stuff that really people enter into in a very deep way in the monastic formation. But it’s the opposite of narcissism, because basically you’re discovering who you are with this group of other people. If they see the slightest bid of selfishness, egotism, or narcissism they will shoot you down. They might do it in a kind way, they might do it in an abrupt way but you are not going to get away with that kind of thing.
Gareth Higgins: I suppose the answer to Who are you in this day is different in ways that might be unprecedented, in that we are all connected to the hive mind in ways that the humans have not been before. The fact that you and I are even able to talk and see each other right now is one of the enlightened manifestations of this magical technology. But there’s lots of shadow manifestations, and it seems to me that they are to do with a couple of primary things. One is that people behave online in ways that they might not even behave in the monastery! People feel able to say things to other people online that they might not feel able to in person. And you can analyze and say it’s good to release it or you could say it makes things worse.
So if Who are you is the most important question or an important starting question, what should we be doing with technology given that it is affecting who we are so deeply?
Kathleen Norris: Well, we should be using it a lot more carefully than we do. Again, you can look at monasteries and how they use technology: almost all monasteries I know have cell phones now so that if you are going on a trip where you might need to make an emergency call or you are going to graduate school and it’s cheaper to use a phone, you will be issued a cell phone. But then when you return to the monastery you turn the cell phone in, you don’t have your own personal cell phone.
Monasteries tend to be very deliberate about how they choose to use technology. This just makes sense, if you’re trying to have this kind of life. [As for email, much of the time] we don’t need to communicate this quickly, certainly not for personal stuff. So I’m probably a pretty marginal user of technology, although I recently discovered that someone finally came up with a wonderful use for Twitter.
KimKierkegaardashian. It’s a mash up of her tweets with quotes from him , and it’s just priceless. If I needed silly laugh I look that up.
Gareth Higgins: Clearly the Internet has been an incredible tool for connecting people but one of its shadow sides is that it seems that mutual suspicion in the United States is on the rise.
Kathleen Norris: It’s hard to say how much it is in real life. [But I’m not sure that there ever was a “good old days”.] I guess I would say I’m glad for the internet for the ease of doing research, the ease of connecting like this. I’m in awe of that. But I miss the ability to eat Twinkies without a guilty conscience when I was a kid! (Laughter.) They were telling us [Twinkies] were good for us]!
Gareth Higgins: I wonder if we are just seeing more “information” about painful things than before, with social media and the overwhelming 24/7 news or propaganda cycle. It’s not so much that the world is worse, but that we cannot keep up with the speed of information exchange in a way that enables us to process it healthily. As you say, talking about the deepest things cannot be done that quickly. Take forgiveness for example. The way we talk about that in public is so often either superficial or even damaging. In northern Ireland we used to see people being asked to forgive almost before their loved one was buried. The fact that it’s probably not psychologically possible for a long time because you’re still in shock and you’re still grieving was only the most obvious response. That’s before we even talk about what we might call the “continuum of forgiveness”. It begins with the violation. The first opportunity for forgiveness is when the violation happens. There’s nothing to forgive until someone has violated you. And the first step is to restrain the totally natural urge to revenge. My view is that if all you were ever able to do was that you did not take revenge on the person who harmed you, you actually took a step toward forgiveness. Because even in terms of our evolutionary biology it’s completely natural to want to take revenge.
Kathleen Norris: Yeah it’s a process step by step.
Gareth Higgins: Exactly and then if you’ve got as far as saying “I bear them no ill will”, that’s astonishing. That’s good enough for me. That’s a start.
Kathleen Norris: I think that you always have to give God the chance to work on people that God is not going to throw someone out of the picture because they’ve done something terrible. We’ve all done terrible things but God forgives us, and I want to let God have a chance to work on all of us, even if we’ll never change. Maybe someone is too far gone but it’s not for me to decide that. That’s one of the reasons I tend to be against the death penalty.
I had a conversation with Sister Helen Prejean, who has a really finely tuned bullshit detector. She’s really something. I told her I have such ambivalence about the death penalty because basically I’m against it but there are crimes that are committed sometimes and [it seems that the death penalty is] the only just response, and I go back and forth on it. Her response is really interesting. She said thank you for saying that, and that she thinks most people have that kind of ambivalence but they won’t admit it. But God is not done with this person yet. It’s not for me to judge that. Give God time to work on the person. Otherwise, we’re playing the role of God when we ask the state to execute someone.
Gareth Higgins: Let’s talk about current Presidential politics. Where do you think this all came from.
Kathleen Norris: My perspective is strange on all of this because I spent twenty-five years living in my mom’s hometown in western South Dakota so I know a lot of Trump voters. They’re not racist, they’re not stupid. They’re not even necessarily narrow-minded. If you look at my book Dakota it is actually seeming a little prophetic to me now. This would have been in the 70s, 80s and 90s that people in rural America and overlooked places in especially with a dwindling population of rural whites. They know the rest of the country puts them down and ignores them and I think, in a sense, they were voting for this guy who seemed to be saying I’ll pay attention to you. I think in some cases it wasn’t much more than that. There’s still are people out there who tend to think of American means white and Christian which of course never will has. But that’s their view and so the America that that they thought they knew is changing around them, and there is there is some kind of fear, [and part of it is wrapped in the fact that] nobody notices [these people]. It’s discouraging.
Gareth Higgins: So what can we do about the mutual suspicion?
Kathleen Norris: It’s so hard to know. But in a place like western South Dakota you have to really want to get there. There’s no public transportation. You have to meet people and you talk to them one-on-one. I think people don’t want to admit that they made a mistake. They got fooled in a sense. It’s really hard especially when you’ve got someone at the highest levels of government manipulating suspicion like crazy, deliberately putting out conspiracy theories.
But it’s a human universal that we always hold out hope. Knowing that we have had bad presidents before, we’ve had corrupt presidents before and we’ve come through basically okay. Having a historical perspective it helps me with the church [too]. Another way that can keep hope alive is you’re going to be with other people who are wanting that same thing and feeling that call to action [that has been inspired by recent political challenges].
Gareth Higgins: You’ve written about metaphorical dark nights, and you also get up early in the morning when I presume it’s still dark. I wonder if your familiarity with the physical dark and with the metaphorical dark may mean that it’s less immediately anxiety inducing to be here now. Have you befriended the dark?
Kathleen Norris: To some degree and but it comes back to my own spiritual formation over these years. [I’ve been to places where] daily prayer begins at 3:30 in the morning; in this little church you enter when it’s pitch dark. You realize that it’s probably the most important office of the day because you’re coming from the dark into the light; you welcome the dawn but then you welcome the night and you observe those times. So I guess in a sense I’m living a little bit like a Trappist with that observance and there is something powerful about getting up to read.
Normally I’ll just sit and read for a while then I realize I don’t need the light on anymore. I can turn my light off because the light is coming in; that’s a powerful experience and it’s available every day. Sun is happening every day, it’s the most ordinary thing in the world. We’re back to the original part of this conversation where the ordinary becomes a blessing.
[There’s a very powerful movie called Melancholia], in which the mentally ill woman is the one who’s right about things, and her [“rational”] husband is the coward. He got the telescope, and when he realizes that this planet is just actually kind of collision course with earth, he kills himself and abandons his wife and child. And it’s a completely screwed up character played by Kirsten Dunst who gathers the family together and they die together calmly. That’s an incredibly messy, crazy film, but I remember thinking oh yeah - people who have mental illness are often more realistic about the stuff that’s really going on. And in this case they have a kind that there’s a kind of realism to their expression of fear.
Gareth Higgins: So, what’s the difference between realism and nihilism? For those of us who have been touched by depression, we may be more realistic and honest in our expression of fear, but that doesn’t mean that our perceptions are all contextually accurate.
Kathleen Norris: No, but it was a powerful thing in Melancholia when I realized basically the grace that this sister, who had been the trouble all her life was able to gather the family and do something meaningful with a touch of grace at the end. I thought wow, that’s, you know, no wonder it’s called MelancholiaI She’s come through this terrible self-absorption of melancholia and she can make this gesture to get the three of them sitting together in a little huddle. And it’s absolutely beautiful. It’s crazy but beautiful. I like Jung’s perspective on this whole thing that darkness and fear is always going to be worse and scarier when you’re running away from it. But if you’ll turn to face it, you face opening the door, you take the key and you’ve opened the door or you look at the clouds and you say okay, here it is but I’ve got my people here. I can love. Then things fall into perspective and generally speaking, it’s never as bad as you fear. This even applies to little things like bookkeeping. I mean, this is silly but you worry about Do I have enough money for the next month? And I’m so afraid I have to go balance my checkbook and see what’s there. But the fear about that is always much worse than just sitting down and doing the accounting. When it’s all a muddle in your mind, it’s always worse. I think that’s the message that the movies that give me life are the ones that reflect that [journey of] people coming through darkness and fear. And they’re not going to be Pollyannas, they are not going to be optimists, but they’re not giving in to nihilism.
Gareth Higgins: So why do you think Pulp Fiction is a masterpiece?
Kathleen Norris: Partly technically because of the way it’s edited, the way the story is played out is really fascinating. It’s not predictable - you see these sleazy characters but it’s also a story about redemption. That the guy drives off the motorcycle named Grace at the end… But the John Travolta character who, the one who kind of is the nihilistic character dies, but the Samuel L Jackson character is the one who’s totally changed his life. The events have made him see a new perspective on things and now when he quotes the Bible he’s not only going to kill anybody anymore he’s going to reflect on what it means. There’s so much going on in that film. I really do think it’s a masterpiece and I’ve since, seen it couple of Tarantino’s other films. I saw one about Brad Pitt and the Nazis which was okay but not really great and then Django Unchained, but The Hateful Eight is by far the worst. I don’t think I’ll ever watch another of his movies anymore unless I find out that he’s done something good with The Sermon on the Mount.