Tuesday, March 24, 2009


I had the day to myself at work, thanks to (a) spring break absences by the rest of the faculty, and (b) Noel treating the kids to a morning in Little Rock. It's always more difficult for me to be productive when I'm unscheduled. But knowing that both kids would be returning to the office with me tomorrow, one kid would repeat the trip on Thursday, and I'd only have a half-day in the office on Friday due to Noel's trip to the Ozark Foothills FilmFest, I tried to get a start on one of the two big tasks facing me this week.

That task is the creation of a brand new lecture on religious freedom. I'll be giving it to the freshman class on Monday. When I woke up this morning, I immediately began searching for a hook -- something that would give me an entrypoint into the subject. I thought about it while dressing the kids, driving to work, grabbing breakfast. And then I sat at the computer, opened a blank document, and began typing -- tentatively. I had an idea, but it wasn't a very good idea. Still, I knew that I had to get started. I typed six or seven headings and a few subheads. Then I tackled the easiest part of the outline: quotations from state constitutions that mention reliance on Almighty God.

I didn't quite know how I was going to get from here to there, but I knew that I wanted to contrast Jefferson and Madison's determination to keep God out of the federal constitution with the state documents (including Arkansas's constitution, which disqualifies anyone who doesn't believe in a supreme being from holding office or testifying in court). So I went straight to Jefferson's Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom. I copy-and-pasted the whole thing into my outline so I could see which parts I wanted to highlight.

And then the minor inspiration that's desperately needed in these tasks finally struck. The statute had so many interesting points that I began composing brief commentaries on each of them. My outline lengthened, and the other points with which I had begun receded as the lecture began to be structured around the 1785 law.

I didn't finish, but at least I know the idea that will animate the presentation. All writers know that you don't always get to wait for that unifying idea before you have to write. We just feel lucky when one comes along sometime before the writing has to be done.

Later this afternoon, I went to the gym for the first time since October. (Really.) I had no idea whether I'd be able to complete a workout, even reducing my intensity back to levels appropriate for my lapse. And like the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which arrived just in time to save the work I needed to do from being completely worthless, the energy required for thirty minutes of aerobics turned out to be there for me.

Both tasks, though, were just beginnings. There's a lot more work to do on that lecture before it's ready for prime time. And even though a workout after five months is a big change from the sloth that preceded it, by itself it's worthless. I'm glad I accomplished something today, and I'm glad that the parts of those accomplishments that weren't completely under my control happened to work out. It's better than the alternative. But it's just one link in the chain. The forge will have to be fired up again tomorrow.

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