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Iconography

A Writer's Meditation

Susan Neville

Publication Year: 2003

"I started this meditation on the first day of Lent. I hope to keep going every day until Easter. Each day I go fishing in the water of this internal voice. This week the water's still, this angled pen a blue sail; the hook is lazy in the estuary, the water the color of lapis. So what if I don't catch a fish? I said that I would fish; that's all I promised. I bait the hook with each day's discipline. I have no guarantees that there is anything at all to catch in these particular waters, that something beneath the surface won't grab my pen and pull me under." -- from Iconography

When Susan Neville enrolls in an icon-painting class in the cellar of an Indianapolis monastery, she begins a journey into a fascinating hidden world where saints are fabricated of mineral and wood, yolk and blood, earth and time. The process is tedious, and she begins to make mistakes, to become impatient; she doesn't feel ready for the challenge. To prepare herself, Neville makes a vow to write during the 40 days of Lent. What emerges is a journal, a meditation, a series of confessions that we are invited to listen to as we follow Neville's sometimes painful attempts to reveal the truth and discover the mystery of her existence. In the layering of colors and moods, her writing is the spiritual equivalent of an icon. As she observes the world around her and applies the paint of language to her observations, she realizes that spirit and matter are not separate -- that now and then moments of meaning emerge from daily life, and the stillness and majesty of the universe shine through.

Published by: Indiana University Press

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Acknowledgments

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pp. ix-x

With thanks to Mother Catherine and the members of the icon class; to everyone in Freelance Nation—Ken, Greg, Julie, Duncan, Charlie; to my friends and readers on this project— Kendra Boileau Stokes, Michael Martone, Maura Stanton, Jane Lyle; and to my colleagues at Butler University and my family...

ST. MARY OF ENNUI

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pp. 1-22

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BOOK ONE: TRANSFIGURATION

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pp. 2-141

What is the meaning of life? That was all—a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck...

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Ash Wednesday, 2000

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pp. 25-26

The first Ash Wednesday of the new millennium, and I went to the mall to buy a pair of socks. I thought about going to church but didn’t. Why start now? I’ve never in my life been to church on Ash Wednesday. All week long I’d noticed Ash Wednesday signs along the highway and thought that if my vow was to write every...

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Buying Time

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pp. 27-29

I woke up Thursday morning feeling like I had a hangover. Is there a name for the second day of Lent? I’m not a religious person. Yesterday my neighbor decided to post the Ten Commandments in his yard, and for some reason I wanted to shoot him. I’m the pathetic character...

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A Vow

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pp. 30-33

The third day of Lent, and I’ve had too much coffee. I want to further confess my sins, but I’ve hidden them too long, even from myself. I know that everyone’s most secret sins have to do with love. How can you trust me? I have many good qualities, I’m sure, but often, lately, it feels as though there’s nothing solid at the core...

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A False Spring

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pp. 34-40

On the fourth day of Lent I look for dining room furniture to replace the ornate pieces I inherited from my mother. They’re pieces that she inherited from her mother. They’re overcarved things that the daughter of a coal miner would have bought, pieces that look, each one of them, as though they’re trying to...

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Confession

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pp. 41-42

The fifth day of Lent is Sunday, of course, and I’ve vowed to, in addition to writing this, go to church. It’s the same one I went to as a teenager, the one where my mother heard voices. It’s a sweet service, really, a baby in a full Christening dress who pulls the glasses off the preacher’s face and throws them on the floor...

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I Am

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pp. 43-46

But how do you get outside the ego? I remember a time when I was in middle school and I tried (three in this sentence already) to stop saying “I” for a week. I’m not sure why I did that (six for the sixth day of Lent). Now and then...

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Housekeeping

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pp. 47-48

Back in January, I began straightening my office at the college where I teach—down through the layers of job-related detritus, years and years of it. One of my cabinets had been locked for at least five years, and I’d lost the key. I had no idea what was in it, but probably some sort of secret something I thought I’d be...

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A Well-Lighted Place

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pp. 49-52

On the seventh day of Lent, I got a better start. My daughter went to school early. I made her lunch, transferred the pants she wanted to wear from the washer to the blast furnace on high, dropped her off, looked for some note cards she’d misplaced, picked up both children’s clothes from their floors, picked up an...

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Vocation

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pp. 53-60

I’m not sure of today’s date, but I know it’s the eighth day of Lent. Yesterday, I’m pleased to say, I spent the day writing and didn’t buy a thing, though on Monday, I neglected to report, I got an overdue check from Alabama and bought a lamp I’d coveted. Antique brass with a linen shade, it gives me pleasure...

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Inside This Skin

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pp. 61-68

I have to admit, I like him better after the conversion. Though it may be that I’m learning, as I go, how to read him. My anger at the midpoint was showing off. If you’re an American at the beginning of the twenty-first century, you think you know every- thing there is to know, when in fact we’re clearly living in the dark...

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In Memoriam

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pp. 69-78

I went to school at Indiana University. One of my best friends, my first lover, was from New York. I was always intrigued by it. I knew I had a job in Wabash as a buyer for an antique business, but I went to New York. I had a patron when I was...

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St. Augustine

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pp. 79-86

Starting this in anger at myself on Ash Wednesday, I thought it would have something to do with religion. Clearly, so far, it hasn’t. What have I learned in the first ten days, one-quarter of the way through Lent, that I didn’t know when I began? I threw myself into yesterday thinking I would have some...

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Marriage

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pp. 87-92

And so, after writing for hours, my mind felt as shimmery as a metal plate or freshly minted money. I can see why writers work only a certain number of hours in a day. It’s altitude training. The mind can engage with its own voice only so much before it stretches, thin and fine and brittle, and you need to turn your eye...

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Plague Sunday

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pp. 93-95

Sunday morning. Raining and a chill in the air. The sound of sports TV rising up from the basement, the pout of women voice artists saying the lines of babies on the Rugrats cartoon from the family room. My son’s at the gym, working out, and in an hour we’ll all drive to Columbus to see my husband’s shut-in parents...

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Monday

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pp. 96-98

This is where it gets hard. Last week was a flying start. I have a great job, really, despite my complaints. Every year I have two spring breaks—the one from my own teaching job and the one I manage to take when my children are off school. During the first one I get caught up with grading, I do administrative work, I...

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Those Things I Didn’t Know about Death

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pp. 99-102

That night, after I visited her and received her now-forgotten wisdom, she had a stroke. They called me from the nursing home and I went out, and for the rest of that week I sat with her. There were things I didn’t know about death. I didn’t know that the legs get so cold, that death starts in the feet and moves its...

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Discipline

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pp. 103-109

And all did not go particularly well. One evening class and one next-day meeting are enough to throw my concentration off completely. If I weren’t committed to this process, I’m sure I wouldn’t write a sentence today. It was the expanse of uncommitted time that allowed this to bubble up last week. It was like being...

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On Place and Time

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pp. 110-117

What is it about Broad Ripple? I’m not there today because my daughter’s home sick from school, so I’m working in my house and thinking about the place I would have been ordinarily. It’s naturally on a human scale. There’s that. The houses are small and ramshackle, bungalows that young married couples can afford to...

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Synchronicity

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pp. 118-122

On sphere day, yesterday, the day of strange synchronicity, I got a phone call from a friend who just returned from teaching in Alaska. It’s like he was visiting the moon. They took me to a farm, he said, where the students are paid to research the mating habits of caribou. They paint the animals with these different colored...

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Midpoint

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pp. 123-126

The doctor stuck a swab in the dark cave of my daughter’s throat, and when he pulled it out it was covered with green pus and blood. She’s pale and thin and her complexion is the color of dusk. On the way home from the doctor’s office we get ice cream, and the cold feels good to her. The penicillin comes in gelcaps...

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Dusk: Third Sunday in Lent

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p. 127-127

Gina’s face was dark with extraordinary beauty and with sadness. It made me start to cry for the third or fourth time that day, and my daughter was embarrassed. I don’t know that Gina knew. It was dusk, and I turned my eyes away from her face. The neighbors’ flag was backlit with the light of the family’s...

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On Fragility

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pp. 128-133

A writer’s confession: I am ashamed of my self-absorption. I am ashamed of the way that, when things happen, I’m eager to observe and use them. I’m ashamed of the way that makes me get this odd joy out of tragedies. I’m ashamed of being at times an ambulance chaser. When there’s a fire in the neighborhood, or...

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Children

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pp. 134-135

I’ve lost track of the numbers of the days. Each day just is, and this is a new one. I’ve been trying to make it a point to talk to neighbors when we find ourselves outside. It’s difficult, because of the way the neighborhood was built, for suburban privacy. There’s just enough distance between the houses that it’s difficult to say hello without...

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Wednesday

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pp. 136-137

It’s been almost impossible today to work this in. In forty minutes my daughter gets off the bus, and I’ve spent the entire day working. There’s a big event tonight at Clowes Hall that I’m in charge of, and all day long there have been fires to put out. Douglas Adams’s plane will be an hour late, and we had to find a...

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On the Cusp between Wednesday and Thursday 11:30–12:30—Waiting to Fall Asleep

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pp. 138-140

Just home from the lecture. Sometimes I hate my job, and then there’s an evening like this that feels like church should feel but never does. Bradbury went out on the stage in his wheelchair. It’s late, I’m tired; I can’t really explain how amazing it was. When he talked to Adams before the reading, he told him that...

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A Window into Radiance

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pp. 141-142

Sometimes you listen to writers talk and you leave feeling as though you’re living in the darkest times, and then you listen to other writers talk and you feel as though the times you live in are extraordinary. Since I was in college, the thing I’ve loved about universities is those days, almost like holidays, when some...

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BOOK TWO: CAPTIVA

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pp. 143-156

Five hundred people on the plane, one used to transport soldiers, and it slides down out of the gray clouds into air the color of butter. The colors! my daughter says. I had no idea there were colors like this, she says—lush green and red hibiscus, purple azalea and the jewel-toned water—emerald, sapphire, fire opal. Why...

BOOK THREE: HOME

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pp. 157-195

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Sunday

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pp. 159-161

It’s the Midwestern sky that’s the problem. If you keep your gaze parallel to the ground, the landscape is lacy in the spring, as delicate as tatting, watercolor-like, a wash of green on the weeping willows, a wash of lavender and pink on the crab apple trees and redbuds, a wash of greeny white on the dogwood, marbled...

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Grace

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pp. 162-164

It’s not just the weeping willows that have started to bud. That fragile green, the color of fresh snap peas, you can feel it on your teeth. It’s that sweet. The air is amazing. I walked out to the mailbox for the mail, and there was a neighborhood newsletter on bright pink paper. I read it as I walked back to the house, and when I looked up, I...

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Wednesday Once Again

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pp. 165-170

The vacation pictures are glossy with that wet membraney look, that feel I wanted the Captiva section to have, like that thin outline of blue you see sometimes around gray eyes. Though not a circle. I wanted it to be a vein or a slice, like turquoise in platinum, something like that. Like one of the sunset pictures in...

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Witness

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pp. 171-173

God had to die, Nietzsche wrote, because Man cannot endure that such a witness should live. What loneliness without the witness, even if it’s only this quiet inner voice that echoes the witness of your own mother and father. Yes, you’ve done that well and no one else can see it, but I noticed it. I see you. Teenagers shut the doors to their rooms because of that uncomfortable feeling...

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Thresholds

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pp. 174-175

Today’s word is liminality. I’ve spent the morning and after- noon at work, listening to undergraduate papers on Yeats and Synge and C. S. Lewis and Anne Brontë, and at lunch there was a question and answer session with an Irish poet, Nuala Ní Dhomh- naill, and both Nuala and the students at one point or another...

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And So

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pp. 176-177

Tomorrow is the first day of Holy Week, and where am I? Instead of giving something up for Lent, I’ve added something, including pride in the fact that I’ve added it, unfortunately. But how do you separate the pride in, say, giving up chocolate and sticking to it for the entire season from the sacrifice? I suppose...

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Frogs and Karaoke

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p. 178-178

Last night we went to an awards dinner at Butler and listened to a biologist give a lecture. It’s always billed as a Last Lecture, a meditation on things that have been important to the speaker. This biologist has devoted his life to frogs because, he said, “I like them.” He brought a tape and played frog calls. Now and then he’d...

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Palm Sunday

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pp. 179-181

There have been times, as I’ve been working on this, that I’ve felt that I was actually writing a book, that all these words were going to draw together into something. Even yesterday I felt somewhat buoyed up just by the process, by the day-to-dayness of it, and today it all crashed down around me and I realized that...

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On Rivers and Cherries

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pp. 182-183

All day long the light has been dimming; no blue in the landscape, no fire, until finally at five o’clock the day is heavy- lidded, reptilian. Everything is still. The canal isn’t moving, and the surface is a deep green. The reflections of trees are so still they seem like a thick covering of moss or algae, like you could dip...

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Tuesday

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pp. 184-185

Crab apple trees are in bloom. Passover begins tonight. Today is the closest I’ve come to breaking my vow. So busy all day long. And besides, the crab apples chose today to blossom. Veils of white. I walked underneath them on my way to work, looked up, and thought of marriage. Or sex. Maybe just sex. He’s moved back...

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Midnight, Passover

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p. 186-186

Tonight I taught an evening class. The house is quiet as I’m writing this. Completely still. For a minute the voice in my head stopped. Like a clock stopped, and I just listened to the silence. It was like wine. Passover—I’ve never thought about it. But right now the house is so still it has that pre-holiday feel of the night...

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Wednesday

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pp. 187-189

I spent today typing up other days. Does that count as writing? Probably not. Three sentences now today, the ones you’ve just read, and now this one. Does this count? Technically, I suppose. The letter of the self-imposed law, but not the spirit. In order to keep a discipline, sometimes you have to find the...

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Thursday

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pp. 190-191

Some days I feel so limited by these five senses, by my position in time and space, by my particular size. It’s Maundy Thursday afternoon, four o’clock and dark as twilight. The windows in my house are a deep sea green. It’s the first spring storm. The streets are flooded, and Tuesday’s white flowers are falling all at once...

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Good Friday

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p. 192-192

So I began this meditation reading Augustine, and I seem to be ending it reading science and realizing that in all of this I’m looking for those moments when the world stops. Or rather, not the world, but my own furious spinning in the world becomes so harmonized with the music outside of it that it feels like singing...

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Saturday

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pp. 193-194

It rained all day Good Friday, and today the sky is, again, a lacquered blue. I see a boy and girl on the shoulder of the highway, kissing. They’re dressed in black, their hair dyed raven feathers with burgundy stripes. So hip and cynical, and still, on an early spring day, they’re fused together like butterflies or any...

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Sunday

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pp. 195-200

Why is Easter so late this year, two weeks after the school holidays, in fact, long beyond the daffodils and tulips? Is it just arbitrary? I have no idea, so I look it up. Easter occurs on the day of the first full moon after the vernal equinox, the day the sun crosses the equator, dividing the days...

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THE JOY OF ALL WHO SORROW

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pp. 201-214

Therefore, paint on wood and present for contemplation Him who desired to become visible. —St. John of Damascus, “On the Divine Images” (1239)...


E-ISBN-13: 9780253110725
E-ISBN-10: 0253110726
Print-ISBN-13: 9780253343222

Page Count: 224
Publication Year: 2003

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