Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Ear Drums and Intuition

I've had a cough for a month now, and three days ago I coughed forcefully enough to burst my ear drum. It isn't really painful, but I've lost a great amount of hearing in that ear. The Dr. says it should come back, as the perforation heals, but healing may take several months. The biggest inconvenience (other than being deaf in one ear) is that I get episodes of vertigo and nausea; on the other hand, it is nice to hear all my boys' crying and fighting at a muted level. I'm naturally keeping my voice down, too, because it is much louder to me now, inside my head. My neighbor put shock collars on his dogs to keep them from running into my yard or the street; my ruptured ear drum is my shock collar--if I raise my voice above a quiet, controlled tone, I pay for it. I think every frazzled mother should try it...

I've been reading a paper by Hubert Dreyfus, and it has me thinking about intuition. What is it? Where does it come from? Can it be developed or stifled? And what, if anything, does it have to do with the creative process? Any thoughts on this would be appreciated.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Genius Insomniac

I believe this is the first time I have ever posted, just to post. So, if you don't like bloggers who ramble, hit the back button in your web browser, NOW.

So I'll tell you what's up with me. Over the past few weeks I have unintentionally developed a new habit, in place of some old ones. Insomnia! And, unfortunately, it has nothing to do with coffee or exercise or medication. Here's what's been happening: every night, no matter what time I go to bed, I sleep fitfully and wake at 5:00 A.M. My alarm is set to scream at me around 7, so when I wake, I lie in bed and try to go back to sleep. But I can't. I can't stop thinking. My brain fixes on a problem or a definition and I can't stop thinking it through, over and over, until I'm sure I've exhausted all possibilities and have left nothing out. Then I obsessively start the whole process, again. What makes this interesting is that I usually do fall into a sort of "wakeful sleep", and that really messes with my perceptions.

This morning, I was tossing around a philosophical theory, which I am sure is the key to the universe. It precisely and comprehensively explains the human predicament and much, much more. I do so wish I could remember what it was...I can tell you, though, that it was a sound theory; I tested it from every possible angle and against every possible situation--and it held like super glue.

My experience put me in mind of a Simpsons episode in which Homer asks God to tell him the meaning of life. God hesitates, but Homer insists that "after death" is too long to wait (even though God has just revealed that as six months). So, God caves in:
"Oh, ok... The meaning of life is..."
Cut to commercial. End of show.

Later this morning, I asked Scott if we had any aspirin (my arm was hurting from not sleeping on it). He started talking about Aspirin being a generic name, like Kleenex or Coke (in the South). What he said was: "Aspirin is the same as Kleenex and Coke".

Since I was about to give a logic lesson to Marshall, and I like to amuse him, I said:
Aspirin = Kleenex
Aspirin = Coke
Therefore, Kleenex = Coke
Kleenex is full of snot
Therefore, Coke is full of snot
Marshall thought this was funny; Scott sort of rolled his eyes.

I'll bet that was the grand theory I worked out, this morning.

Any tips on sleeping? Or on the meaning of life?

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Qube Blog

If you haven't noticed yet, I've added a link to Qube Blog, which is a project I've been asked to help out with. I think the idea is eventually to publish a series of coffee-table style books, featuring thought provoking questions paired with high-quality images, intended to generate interesting and important discussion in social settings. My job is to see how well the ideas discuss. I'm not sure a blog works best, because the discussion gets a bit long for the narrow column format.

Consider this your personal invitation to participate in the discussion (so I don't look like an idiot talking to myself) and also a request for feedback on the blog (what you like or don't; what works or doesn't). Feel free to email me re: Qube Blog at: qubeblog[at]gmail[dot]com.

Thanks. I Hope everyone is well. I've been sick since last Wednesday (yup. I was sick on Thanksgiving and couldn't smell or taste the turkey). I'm feeling somewhat better today, after sleeping fourteen hours yesterday, but I'm still not sure if I'm actually recovering or if the three cups of coffee I had this morning are masking the symptoms.


Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Rain Baby

Tomorrow Eliot will be seven. He was born six weeks premature, so seven years ago to this moment, I had no idea he was about to arrive. I imagine myself napping on our old, wood and wicker couch or staring out the enormous picture window behind it at city houses all in rows, and city children hanging lazily on porches and playing in the street. I remember rain, and maybe there was rain—as is common in St. Louis in November. But rain is almost all I remember that year.

In my thoughts of childhood, I am perpetually seven. I was seven when I hugged the white house on 8th Avenue and said goodbye to hay fields and country roads; to Johnny Height and Mindy Plumpton, whose straight brown pigtails I both adored and envied. I said hello to sidewalks, green lawns and neat suburban blocks. My heart widened that year. I sat on my swing set in the dark and told God a great secret-- I would love Him forever. I would love people, too; the hurt ones, the lonely ones. This was the great awakening of my heart to inner dialogue and large questions. Also that year, I split open my chin to the bone, while racing bikes with my brother. For weeks afterward, I could walk past Grace Bible Church and see my blood dripped all over the stony sidewalk. Once, I squatted near it and covered the brown dots with my hand. I wished until my stomach hurt that I could go back, and not glance sideways at my brother's tire. At first when I looked at the blood, my stomach always churned like that, but later, as the story spread, I grew sort of proud of it. That’s my blood there on the sidewalk; that’s a piece of me. It seemed like years before the rain finally washed away the last spatter but when it was gone, I knew I had lost something. That year I wrote my first poem.

I wrote a letter to Marshall the year he turned seven. I was away in England for ten weeks, and I wanted to tell him about being seven. Micah turned five while I was gone, and Eliot was just one and a half. I have a photograph of him: blond curls piled high on his head and a bottle hanging from his smirking mouth. His eyes are clear blue and as often as I’ve tried to find him in that picture, I can’t. This child isn’t in my memory. I wasn't there. It was only ten weeks, and I needed to go. Still, I imagine a churning hole of sadness in his middle, as my memory faded like blood stains on the sidewalk.

Tonight, I lay down on Eliot’s bed to kiss him and tuck him in. He asked me to sing The Meatball Song, so I laughed and started in,

"On top of spaghetti, all covered with cheese;
I lost my poor meatball when somebody sneezed."

He sang along with me until we came to the last line. He was quiet while I sang,

"It rolled down the sidewalk and under a bush
And then my poor meatball was nothing but mush!"

“That is such a sad song,” he said. “Do you know what I would do? I would run and catch the meatball and clean all the dirt off it and then I would put it back on my spaghetti.”

He asked me why the person in the song didn’t do that and then he asked me why anyone would write such a sad song and call it funny. I laid my head on the pillow next to him and smiled as he sang his very own continuation of The Meatball Song, which finds the meatball “pulling up its sleeves”, making its way back into the house and “onto the plate”, and wraps up neatly with everyone having a “happy day”.

It must have been a healing rain that November and it must have been enough, because Eliot is all flowers and sunshine.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

To Will One Thing

"...let us suppose a man wanted... a blue world. He would have no cause to complain of the slightness or swiftness of his task; he might toil for a long time at the transformation; he could work away (in every sense) until all was blue. He could have heroic adventures; the putting of the last touches to a blue tiger. He could have fairy dreams; the dawn of a blue moon. ...If he altered a blade of grass to his favourite colour every day, he would get on slowly. But if he altered his favourite colour every day, he would not get on at all. If, after reading a fresh philosopher, he started to paint everything red or yellow, his work would be thrown away: there would be nothing to show except a few blue tigers walking about, specimens of his early bad manner."
-G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy
I tend to think steadfastness or single-mindedness is useless, unless it finds a proper object. There are unworthy pursuits: for example, painting the world blue. Chesterton (elsewhere in Orthodoxy) seems to suggest it is better for me to pursue a path unswervingly, even though I am not sure it is right, than to waver and swoon around the truth, unable to start out in any direction, for fear that new evidence or tesitmony may arise to inform my decision. Of course, it is better to do something than to do nothing. But is it better to do something in which you are misguided than to do nothing? Better to steadfastly paint blades of grass blue, than to waffle and back-track and re-direct, following evidence in pursuit of truth (and making a big, colorful mess, in the process)?

I guess it was two years ago that I read Soren Kierkegaard's "Purity of Heart Is To Will One Thing". I thought then as I do now, that in it, there is an answer to this question:

"So let us, then...speak about this sentence: PURITY OF HEART IS TO WILL ONE THING as we base our meditation on the Apostle James’ words in his Epistle, Chapter 4, verse 8:

"Draw nigh to God and he will draw nigh to you. Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts ye double-minded." For only the pure in heart can see God, and therefore, draw nigh to Him...

Let us...come to an agreement on an understanding of this verse, and on what the apostolic word of admonition "purify your hearts ye double-minded" is condemning, namely, double-mindedness.

To will only one thing: but will this not inevitably become a long-drawn-out talk? If one should consider this matter properly must he not first consider, one by one, each goal in life that a man could conceivably set up for himself, mentioning separately all of the many things that a man might will? And not only this; since each of these considerations readily becomes too abstract in character, is he not obliged as the next step to attempt to will, one after the other, each of these goals in order to find out what is the single thing he is to will, if it is a matter of willing only one thing? Yes, if someone should begin in this fashion, then he would never come to an end. Or more accurately, how could he ever arrive at the end since at the outset he took the wrong way and then continued to go on further and further along this false way? It is only by a painful route that this way leads to the Good, namely, when the wanderer turns around and goes back. For as the Good is only a single thing, so all ways lead to the Good, even the false ones: when the repentant one follows the same way back.

...Instead of wasting many moments on naming the vast multitude of goals or squandering life’s costly years in personal experiments upon them, can the talk do as the life ought to do -- with a commendable brevity stick to the point?

In a certain sense nothing can be spoken of so briefly as the Good, when it is well described. For the Good without condition and without qualification, without preface and without compromise is, absolutely the only thing that a man may and should will, and is only one thing. ...The way this one thing is willed is not such that: one man wills one thing but that which he wills is not the Good; another wills one thing nor is what he wills the Good; a third wills one thing and what he wills is the Good. No, it is not done in that way. The person who wills one thing that is not the Good, he does not truly will one thing. It is a delusion, an illusion, a deception, a self-deception that he wills only one thing. For in his innermost being he is, he is bound to be, double-minded. Therefore the Apostle says, "Purify your hearts ye double-minded," that is, purify your hearts of double-mindedness; in other words, let your heart in truth will only one thing, for therein is the heart’s purity.

And again it is of this same purity of heart that the Apostle is speaking when he says, "If someone lacks wisdom, then let him pray... but in faith, not like a double-minded man" (James 1:5,6, 8). For purity of heart is the very wisdom that is acquired through prayer. A man of prayer does not pore over learned books for he is the wise man "whose eyes are opened" -- when he kneels down (Numbers 24:16).

In a word, then, there is a man whose mind remains piously ignorant of the multitude of things, for the Good is one thing.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Blogger Remorse and Other Fun Things

Apparently, Thursday afternoons aren't the best time to think. I re-read my post this morning, and found that I completely disagree with it. Well, not completely, but significantly.

I'm tired of blogging. So what are all you lovely readers up to? What's on your mind? Take over my blog. I welcome you. I'm begging you.

I came home the other day to find my kitchen, newly-floored dining room, and newly-carpeted living room covered in two inches of standing water. My washing machine broke while I was out (yes, I left it running) and just kept pumping out the water, until I came home, waded barefoot through the pool, and turned off the machine. The water seeped under the wall, into the boys' bedroom, too, and it looks as though we'll need to replace the carpet.

I've got most of Marshall's curriculum, now, but I haven't been able to look at it in too much detail; I've been swamped. Ha, ha.

I can't wait to learn latin, though. And to diagram sentences, again. OOOOHHHH. I don't believe I've ever enjoyed anything more. Sentence diagramming may be the one thing I was born to do.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Thoughts on a Thursday Afternoon

Maybe heaven is having both the freedom and the will to do that thing which your soul craves; the thing that crouches, like a word on the tip of your tongue; surges, like the ocean swell; fights, like a dog against a chain. Desire for it can be restrained but never vanquished. You neglect it for the sake of duty or for lack of time or out of fear, but it is the one thing you know is true, without doubt or demonstration.

It approaches each of us differently, and as a result we are forever misnaming it. It is Truth, but goes far beyond any account of the facts; It is Beauty, but is immaterial and unadorned; It is Love, but it is impartial. It is the wedding of what you long to be with that which you long to do; of what you desire to give with that which you desire to receive. Heaven is to act without self-thought and yet be satisfied; to abandon all else for the sake of one passion, and find that it is the road to everyone and everything else. It is exactly what you were made for.

We could call this passion, "God", and say that we find final purpose in "worship of God", and that would be true, though perhaps misleading. This suggests a uniform human experience of it, and leads us to think we may lose ourselves in God, as masses before a powerful orator, or a man before the muse. When you throw yourself into God, you journey from the collective to the individual, from the vague to the specific, not the other way around. God has specially named each one of us, and heaven will be, at last, finding out that name.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Dog Days

I'm sitting in the family room, sipping tea, listening to a steady rain and blessing its Sender for the seeping, pooling way it cools the earth. The house is dark and I've left off all the lights so I can feel the rain work. My three-year-old son is running up the driveway in his underwear, puddles splashing at his knees and streams of rain wetting the curls on his head. Another day I might stop him, but today I'll welcome wet clothes and muddy feet.

Yesterday the heat index topped off at 106 degrees. I don't know for how many days the sweat has beaded above my lips and at my hairline, and run down the middle of my back, but the time has been sufficiently long to make me forget that t-shirts aren't perpetually damp and clinging and that I sometimes like to wear my hair down.

I didn't think we'd need air-conditioning in Michigan, after living in stifling St. Louis heat for six years. I also thought that experiencing and changing with the seasons was a noble goal or at least a grand idea. Two days ago I spent the better part of the day in my air-conditioned car. I called myself a wimp and a traitor, but I knew I needed to get out of the heat. I had already yelled at my kids and thrown a pile of papers on the floor and chucked a plastic cup at my kitchen counter, and used a few choice words without choosing to. I was just getting started on the "I hate everything/nobody likes me/I just want to die" stage when I realized I had to get out. So that's it. I am weak. But I believe concession is the wiser course than the one which crashes and burns.

And, today, the lovely rain. I'm looking around with eyes which seemed open before but must have been closed. I'm seeing my front garden, over-grown with weeds, my bookcases which want dusting, and I'm trying to remember where I have been these past weeks. The best that I can come up with, is that I was waiting out the heat, the way one waits out the flu or the way a woman in labor waits out the pain. Now that it is over, I can begin to move.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The Fruit of our Labor

Trinitas Classical School is now online! Check out our website

Tuesday, June 06, 2006


Yeah, so my little experiment didn't work out so well. But I get to have another go at it, as Scott is in Florida this week. It's also the last week of school for the boys, so it's my last chance to get everything in order before they descend on me for the summer. Anyone have any good organization tips for a scatter-brained woman living in a too-small house with a husband and four sons?

Tuesday, May 23, 2006


Reading way too many books. Must stop.
Must clean toilets.
Must create space on kitchen counter to assemble and cut one peanut butter sandwich (make required number one at a time).
Must email friends.
Must find missing school papers before last day.
Must find missing library books before last day.
Must brave laundry piles to find Eliot's gym-shirt (close eyes and dive).
Must grocery shop (taco bell doesn't count).(Taco Boy also doesn't count- in spite of their "wet burrito" menu- mmmm.)
Must take shower (insert this item before item reading, must grocery shop).
Must garden.
Must take long walk.
Must not substitute for true and deserved satisfaction that false sense of accomplishment achieved by reading books on any or all of these subjects.
Reading way too many books. Must stop.

This is my "To Do" list for the next few days. Scott left this morning for St. Louis and won't return until Friday evening. I have a secret plan while he is gone and I'm letting you all in on it: I'm going to pretend to be a homemaker or housewife or executive familias or whatever they're calling it these days, instead of the scholar/researcher/philosopher/writer/VIP that I really am.
In fact, I am going to do more than pretend, seeing that while I am actively engaged performing the duties and rites of a homemaker, I will in fact be creating an environment which could, under certain circumstances, be called home; and thus, I will BE, in fact, a homemaker. The benefits of this, I expect to be both profound and multitudinous, the chief of these being that I will stop pulling out fistfulls of hair and screaming; I will be able think clearly again; I will be able to walk on nothing but the floor, all the way to my bed. Maybe the kids will even come back from the neighbors' house (Add to above list: call neighbor and remind kids not to forget toothbrushes.)
When all is complete, and I am a sane, clean woman in a clean and sane house, I will pour myself a glass of pinot noir, sit leisurely on my sofa, and admire my shiny new "homemaker" badge (I lost the first one ages ago, and haven't been able to convince any self-respecting institution to issue me one, since). I'll carefully apply a natural clay face mask, and paint my toe-nails pink. And I know just the book I'm going to read.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

River Bank Run

This past Saturday, on Scott's 36th(!) birthday, he and our two oldest boys ran the 5k River Bank Run, downtown.

Scott made it out, but not ahead of Marshall or Micah, who have been running consistently for a month. Marshall came in at 26:23 and Micah at 27:50, Scott at 28:48.

After the race, Micah said to me, "We should train and do races as a family."

I don't know about the future. But I do know that if I'd attempted a three and a half mile run on Saturday, my chances of being alive to write this were very slim.

In other news, a group of North Hills Classical Academy parents have decided to pull out and start our own school next year. I'm on the curriculum committee and have been swamped with reading. I've also felt ill. I have so much to do and so little energy or motivation. So that's why the lack of writing here (I have been writing, but not for the blog).

Be well. I'll be back, perhaps, but I don't know how soon.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Optimism, Unconquered

I took Eliot with me to return movies this afternoon. At the video store or at the library, he takes pride as well as pleasure in his contribution to our trip: loading and dropping the due materials into the "drop box".

Today he had kicked off his shoes on the trampoline in our backyard and forgot to put them on again before getting into the car.

"Mommy, I really want to put the movies in the box. But I kind of don't want anyone to see me. They might think I'm kind of weird. Do you know why? Socks. I have socks on and not any shoes. They might think I'm weird because I don't have any shoes on. I don't want anybody to see me in my socks. " (This is really how Eliot talks. He's logical, organized, wordy, uses complete sentences, and says all of it very, very slowly.)

"Well, I don't think it matters," I said. "Just go straight to the box and come right back. Nobody will even see."

He did. He came back. As he closed the van's sliding door he started to laugh, "Nobody even noticed me!"

It was true. I had been watching. There were people all around and not one of them had looked at him, much less at his shoeless feet.

"Sometimes you'll be glad of it, Eliot, and sometimes it will make you sad. But people don't really notice each other all that much." I said.

"Why would it make me sad?"

"Well, you might be lonely and want a friend. Or maybe you'll work really hard to do something, and you'll just want somebody to notice."

"But Mommy, what if you're wearing socks while you're doing it?"

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Contemplating Periwinkles

The path bends just here
Where a man stands ankle deep
In periwinkles

In a space sweetly shaded by
Cherry blossoms and
Warming green leaves
Small, spry, undefiled;
In greening grass, edging beds of
Buttered daffodils and brave tulips,
Blue periwinkles peek through
Dark green foliage and deep brown earth;
Their small white centers
Twinkling stars
Fading into a morning sky

The apple in his hand; half-eaten,
Now forgotten
In the simple sunny ecstasy
Of purple periwinkles

There is stillness born of sweltering sun;
Equally of frozen hills
A still sigh at argument’s end
Forsaking resolution;
In the peace of decisive amends

There is the stillness of the wait;
For a bus
A child
A rare bird
For trust
A friend
A doctor’s word

There is stillness in the final rubble
Of great towers;
In earth which ceases to quake;
In bold flowers, which take
What bleeding sun and soil
Can give
And make it
With their benediction

There is stillness in the tight round belly
And rested eyelids
Of a baby at breast
At rest,
Sweet milk dried like sugar
On his parted lips

There is stillness in bereavement
When everyone is gone
And has forgotten
The Mother
Combing carefully
The stale terrain of sheets and pillow
For proof that he was there
A scent
A stain
A hair
Brushed loose from his head
Which smelled of Grace
And warm sand
And baking bread
And everything contained
In the very best dream
Stillness in that pull
Toward Tangibility,
For Physicality
To know that he is gone
And not merely hypothetical

And there is a singular stillness
In this man
Standing to the side of the path
Head down,
Arm bent and raised just so
The stillness of the half-eaten apple in his hand
The stillness of marble
Contemplating Periwinkles

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Rain or Shine

Today is all blue skies and sunshine. Yesterday was grey and rainy and exactly the way I remember fall in England. My son, Marshall can't stand dark days; he says they make him want to do nothing. "Days like this are depressing," he said. Marshall has not been depressed a day in his life and I doubt he has it in him. But gloomy days make him less active and more prone to grumbling, as if the sky is a too-low ceiling and he has to duck his head.

Scott called me from his cell phone on his way home from work and I suggested we all go for a walk before a late dinner. He said, "Tomorrow is supposed to be sixty and sunny, much better walking weather. Today is so wet and cold."

I admit that I've enjoyed the blocks and slivers of sunlight playing on the living room floor and stretching across the walls these past few weeks, as we move into spring. But there's nothing like a steady drizzle and an unremitting blanket of grey pulled over the earth to draw me in; I yearn for long solitary walks along winding country roads and through soggy fields, my face growing dewy and my hair springing obediently into tight, frizzy curls.

Overcast days suit me. I'm low-keyed, easy-going, melancholic; not loud, flashy or manic like sunny days. Sunshine is wonderful and warm, and when I see it, unexpected, I feel a small jump of life inside my chest. But rain is the thing that feeds me; rain feels like coming home.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

How It All Felt Today

There's a photograph of me in a yellowed picture album, sitting under a backyard maple tree in the dirt, my legs folded at the knee so that I make a "W". I'm holding Boots, my grey-striped cat with white stockings, in my lap and I am looking down at her, not at the camera. The left side of my face is vulnerable, my fuzzy hair pulled together in a braid behind my ear. On the other side my braid has fallen out and I'm making the long blonde cloak of curls into a shroud.

That afternoon Boots was laid to rest by lethal injection, in life labeled with "distemper" for biting a boy when he dangled her by the tail; in death, a peace offering to irate neighbors. After the camera clicked I held Boots up against my face and cried into her fur in big, body heaving bursts.

There is a similar photograph of my little brother in the same album, several pages later. He is five or six and his face is puffy and red. He's holding a wild bunny that we fed with milk from an eye-dropper after our lawn mower upset a nest and put his mother on the run. As with Boots, this is a farewell picture, snapped just before we drove to the end of the street, crossed the creek at the back of Grandville Cemetery and watched Thumper disappear into the brush. Sometimes I would look long and hard at these pictures, reaching out with my index finger to stroke the glossy finish where a patch of fur showed.

I was ten or eleven when my mom took me to the store one evening to buy me a shirt. As a family of six, paying private school tuition on one blue-collar income, none of us expected new clothes. But this shirt was on sale and my mother wanted me to have it. It was a small checkered plaid pattern, long sleeved, button down, with a white cotton collar, croheted around the edges. It came in maroon and aqua blue, and I tried on both colors to see which I preferred. I stood there a long time, squinting my eyes so that my face became a blur and I could see the thing objectively. I wondered which color my school-mates would like. I didn't know if it was stylish, and wondered if the girls would laugh when I wore it to school.

"Which one do you like better?" I asked my mother. I was hoping she'd say aqua blue but she said maroon, instead. She waited for me to choose a color until the store closed, and in the end we drove home with a maroon shirt in a white plastic bag.

The year I went to public high school, my best friend was a boy who lockered next to me. When I met him he wore baggy drawers in fierce prints, silk screen logo tee shirts and a shock of blonde hair over one eye. He smelled of strong cologne and had a ready smile. He flirted with me and made me laugh and a friendship formed between us. I counted on his asking me out at least twice a week and he could always count on my saying no. We talked for hours on the telephone, we went to Campus Life and football games. That spring, I told him to ask me out again. And I said yes.

It started to go bad right away. I had never kissed a boy or had a boyfriend and everything was new to me. He stopped talking and took up acting shifty. One night he phoned me while I babysat and told me we were better off as friends. The next day the gossip was all over school: he had met a girl from my math class at the beach on Saturday, and they were the new hot item. I never really talked to him again. By our senior year we were exchanging "hello's" in the halls and he had started calling me "Roach", again. But it had become a nickname without anything behind it.

I get nervous when people tell me to look to the afterlife for joy and beauty, because I want to affirm what I see, here. Still, there is so much loss. We are all running around grasping at things and little bits of eachother, but we are only grasping at straws.

[Dorothy] Day liked to quote a retreat master who told the people in his care that they should start stripping themselves of worldly cares as soon as possible, because, no matter who we are, in the end "we shall be stripped"- stripped of health, wealth, body, breath, and, finally, of life itself.

-from "The Life You Save May Be Your Own" by Paul Elie

Just before my wedding my childhood best friend turned nasty. She accused me of being unfair, she complained that she wasn't chosen above another friend to be my bridesmaid, even though we'd grown apart after the seventh grade. One evening, in the middle of her driveway, she screamed at me, "You're just going to get married and run off to Chicago, and I'll never see you again."

We hugged and cried, and for the moment we were ten year old girls, again.

Yesterday I pushed Ethan in a stroller and walked with my mom. We passed the first robin either of us has seen this spring, dead alongside the path. "It sounds so silly," she told me, "but I could just cry at that."

She said she's been wanting more time to pray, more time communing with God. My mother cares for cancer patients at Butterworth Hospital, where I was born. She teaches "end of life care" to groups at her church. She visits the sick and sends cards in the mail to the elderly. She has close friends with mighty hurts, and she takes them all upon her chest. She told me she feels a growing cloud of sadness, as she ages, an "accumulation of all the sadness of the years".

The August I turned seventeen, I spent in bed. On July twenty-first I gave birth to a son, in the same hospital my mother birthed me, and on July twenty-third I put him in a nurse's arms and went home without him. My mom brought me garden fresh zucchini with melted cheese and toast, and on the days I ate it, I began to cry with the first taste, and I had to choke it down.

That fall I started school in a jungle-print jumper. In my student ID picture, I look like the social butterfly my friend Jeremy liked to call me. I started dating Scott that fall, and here I am, fourteen years later, a mother of four with perpetually empty arms.

I have suffered losses since. I have lost dreams, beauty, innocence. I have lost dear friends. Today I went to get my boys from school with red eyes and a swollen face. Today, loss caught up with me, entered, and ran out my eyes. Today, Ethan fought me when I told him "no", and flung himself to his bedroom floor, feeling loss of his own. I sat there on the blue carpet, my legs spread out in a "W", with Ethan's head on my lap and tears rolling off my chin.

Like my mother, I've felt a kind of sadness lately. Still, when she said it I wanted to say, "Yes, but what about the accumulation of joys?" But the two are connected, mysteriously, paradoxically.

Last month Ethan played with toys at the coffee table while I folded laundry beside him. He stopped playing, abruptly, looked me full in the face and said, "You have to die, to live." Then he said it again. I thought of Jesus' words in Matthew 16:

Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.

And that, again, is the paradox.

What we love, we lose, and yet we love again. I wept today, because life hurts and is beautiful, all at once, and because beauty slips through our fingers like sand, and only reaches us, mingled with loss.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006


This afternoon as I dressed Ethan in his snow clothes I pulled him close to me and kissed his neck and his head.

"I love you so much that I just want to keep you forever and ever," I told him. "Can I keep you forever?"

"No." he said.

"No! What do you mean,'No'? Aren't you going to stay with me forever?"


"But where are you going to go?"

"I going outside, Mommy."

Friday, March 03, 2006

Peace on Earth

I nearly saw death on Wednesday afternoon. Two ground squirrels chased each other over leaves and twigs, up and down trees. They raced, one on the tail of the other, up a small tree about fifty feet from where I stood. The surrounding area grew restless as half a dozen spectator squirrels gathered near; standing still, receding, turning again. I watched along with them, as one grafted in.

I hadn't known squirrels could make so much noise. One trapped the other on the highest, most extended branch of the tree, and held him there with loud warnings, periodically lunging at his ribs. The branch bent, quivered. The top of the tree stands lower than the aged oaks surrounding it, but it is high enough that a fall could kill.

At a school board meeting tuesday night, discussion turned heated. The school board and the administration stand on opposing sides of a financial question. At one point, an important finanical donor stood up. "I'm not going to let you use my money for blackmail!" He said. The next day one of the teachers shouted in the face of a parent who tried to broach the subject with her.

This week, a lengthy discussion on a religious web-site got heated, too.

"You are afraid to stand up for GOD and you will regret it," wrote Anonymous. "God will not put up with this kind of behavior from people like you..."

Someone else wrote, "When you stand before GOD he will make [the issue] quite clear. Good luck!"

Still another had this to say: "You will find out the hard way...And he will cast all of you into the lake of fire for your actions."

The other side didn't possess much more luck or skill in the game of kindness, in spite of their stand on the side of love and tolerance.

"God will punish you more than other people" said one.

"Who the hell are you to judge like that?" said another.

And then, the most ironic statement in the whole dialogue, "I love God with all my heart and my soul and I love my neighbor as myself, and I have nothing but hatred for you christians who think YOU are better than I am".

When Thomas Merton visited Alaska, in the last year of his life, he talked about peace.
"It is terribly important that everything we do should be done in a ground of peace within us, rather than in a ground of contention. So much that goes on in Church renewal tends to develop in an atmosphere of conflict where people are too keyed-up about what is right and what is wrong and are trying to prove that they are right and somebody else is wrong. This is not God's way. Naturally this conflict is bound to arise once in a while, but we must always have this deeper ground of peace and confidence and trust..."

I stood in one place as the squirrel drama unfolded. I saw that the underdog was not going to get on top again and would soon fall to his death. I spent what seemed a very long time captivated, in something like fascination or interest. I was watching a key turn in a door and I wanted to see what was behind it. Each time the victim's fall seemed imminent, one or another of the squirrels watching from the ground moved forward or backward, chattering. I expected to witness death at every moment; I dreaded it, I feared it - and all of a sudden I realized that I could stop it.

We are beginning the Lenten season of the Christian church, which I have chiefly understood as a time of repentence and renewal. It is a time to uncover in ourselves the arrogance and hatred which led to the greatest act of violence in the history of the human race: the putting to death of our very Creator. It is a time to reconcile ourselves to God and to one another. A time to put right what we can and fall on the grace of God for what we can not.
"Our Lord came to overcome death by love, and this work of love was a work of obedience to the Father unto death- a total gift of Himself in order to overcome death."
Says Merton.
"That is our job. We are fighting death, and we are involved in a struggle between love and death, and this struggle takes place in us...The work of creating community in and by the grace of Christ is the place where this struggle goes on and where He manifests His victory over death."

I moved toward the squirrels slowly at first, clicking my tongue. Then I moved faster and with greater noise. The pursuer backed down the tree and scrambled up a larger one. I waited, then stared, dumbfounded, as the squirrel whose lease on life I had just renewed exited the tree of death and scurried up the other one, pursuing his enemy. I had not stopped death; I had only delayed it.

The next day school started two hours late because of an ice storm. Micah and I were playing a card game on one side of the house when I heard angry voices on the other side.

"What IDIOT broke this?"

I arrived on the scene to find Marshall assaulting Eliot with words and a level of anger disproportionate to the offense. And it wasn't Eliot's offense. Marshall had left out a toy, and I had stepped on it the night before.

I didn't know I was angry until I opened my mouth. "Go to your room NOW!" I shouted in his face.

Listen to Thomas Merton, again:
"Never has the world been so violent and in many respects so insane, and so given to pressure and agitation and conflict. Although men have made brilliant technological advances, they cannot handle them or use them for good... In such a society there have to be specialists in inner peace and love."

Luke 2:8-12,14
"And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord...
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men."

Lord, have mercy on us all.

Thursday, February 16, 2006


I have been unable to access my email all week.

Yes, I am one of those stupid, stupid people who does web-mail and does not back any of it up. Periodically I go through my Inbox (dating back to early 2000) and delete all the mail I don't want to keep. This generally creates enough space in my inbox for me to continue functioning on the "free" level, without having to upgrade my status to Preferred Member (which really just means I have to pay to do what I did for free, before).

My husband (who makes his living in computers) has been telling me for ages that I need to do my mail differently. And he has even offered to set it all up for me.

Now, I am one of those people who can't be bothered. And I don't mean that I won't work very hard to get something or I don't want to get a little dirt under my fingernails. I mean that I literally can't be bothered about certain things, much the way I described Eliot in my story, running.

Unlike ninety percent of America's women, I generally have only one pair of shoes at a time. I just can't be bothered to care about shoes. If my shoes are worn out, I'll keep wearing them without thinking about it, until one rainy day when I step in a puddle and have to live the rest of the day with a water-logged sock. And I will live the rest of the day with that sock, rather than run to my bedroom to change it, because, well, I simply can't be bothered. And even then, I am as likely as not to step in another puddle the very next day and the next week and the next month, before I finally, probably on impulse, buy a new pair of shoes. I am adaptable. To anything. This is good in some respects. But every now and then I'll see a stack of books on the floor in front of the bookcase or glance at the china cabinet where a game that we played a year ago still sits, or I'll take last-year's overlooked Christmas ornament from the top of the microwave to put it on this year's tree, and I'll think, "I really should take more notice of things. My life is all about reaction and not at all about prevention.

It shouldn't surprise me, then, that when I tried this morning, for the 6th consecutive day, to check my email, I was able to access my mailbox only to find that it had been wiped clean. All of my mail from anybody for the last six years is gone. And unless Mail.com finds the method and the generosity to restore it for me, I will never see it again.

I'm trying to decide if this matters to me. On the one hand, I kept all that mail for a reason, and my relationship with all of you who email me is important to me. Also, although perhaps somewhat sadly, most of my friendships and the larger part of those individual friendships have taken place via email.

On the other hand, how important is it that I hoard or revisit those conversations? I have my memory. I carry them with me. I don't remember many specific emails, but the whole of those conversations, over the years, has informed the way I know each person and the way I know myself, because of him or her. Life is organic. When we try to go back in memory to a specific place or time, it is all different, anyway, even if we've taken great pains to preserve it intact.

Several months ago I sorted through my "Treasure Box", a box containing memorabilia from my childhood and adolesence. The treasures therein did not give me the pleasure I thought they would, though many of them I would never part with, willingly: like the letter my older brother gave me at Summer Camp one year.

Camp Gitchee Gumee set up a "Secret-Brother, Secret-Sister" arrangement on the first day of camp. Every boy was given a girl's name at random and every girl was given the name of a boy. During the week each camper was to write friendly notes or give small gifts to the person bearing the name on his or her slip.

About mid-week I understood that whatever boy drew my name out of the hat must have asked someone to point me out and realized he'd drawn the short stick. I cried. I withdrew. I couldn't look in the mirror at my fuzzy hair and my awkward body draped with garage sale clothes. I knew that some boy had been sorely disappointed and didn't want to risk peer-taunting, even to send me a friendly note.

The next day one of my cabin mates handed me a folded letter. On the outside were the printed words, "From your Secret Brother." Inside were several kind paragraphs, replete with mis-spellings and poor grammar, but to me they could have won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

At the end of the week, when the Secret Siblings were revealed and nobody stood up and showed himself when my name was called, the truth slowly began to dawn on me.

Michael told me later that he had asked a girl to write the letter for him, so I wouldn't recognize his handwriting, and that he'd dictated the mis-spellings and grammatical mistakes so as not to arouse suspicion, because most pre-teen boys just don't know how to write.

I wasn't let down when I learned the truth. I was used to being overlooked, especially by boys. But not another girl in that whole camp had a brother who loved her the way mine loved me.

I still have the note, tucked away in a box somewhere in my garage. And I'm glad I have it. But what's really significant is that it did exist, and I read it, and I learned something because of it, and I carry that tender piece of my brother with me every time we talk.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Flu Reflections

I spent the weekend with the flu and Dorothy Day's autobiography, "The Long Loneliness".

I am struck by the vast difference between the world then (early 1900's) and our current world. Has human life ever changed more rapidly than in the 20th century?

Dorothy Day was Catholic, a non-violent social activist and a writer, who lived in Chicago and New York during prohibition (though bootleggers were plenty) and in a time when women were not allowed to smoke in public or to vote. Day went to work on a newspaper, reporting social injustice wherever she saw it. Labor Laws and worker's rights were largely non-existent (a 14 year old boy working 90 hours/week, injured workers left without compensation to beg on the streets, the poor working themselves to death and relegated to unsanitary housing). Most young social activists of her day were Communists (or the more benign, Socialist) and Anarchists and sometimes resorted to violence in protest of the corrupt social order, but to a large degree they were peaceful protesters who picketed or wrote and spoke against injustice. Still, almost all Dorothy's friends were arrested multiple times, and during this time some Radicals were tried and sentenced to death.

We have undoubtedly made social progress since then. Women have voting privileges (and I can't believe how begrudgingly I accept this right), there are child-labor laws and, despite low wages and run-down housing for the poor, there are laws governing minimum wage and work-week hours and there is compensation for occupational injury and medicaid and food stamps and WIC. It is helpful to me, to look back at where we've been and appreciate how far we've come. I would not dare purport that our current system is in all points just or that our existing programs are sufficiently effective, but we do a disservice to the remembrance of all who worked and fought for reforms when all we manage is to sit back and complain.

At the same time, I'm in a bit of a quandary when I think about our responsibility to carry on their work. The climate has changed so much. The world has changed so much. As I see it, at least two major changes make responsible social activism very difficult.

First, we have "specialized" everything and everyone. When Dorothy Day left her parents' home at 16, she attended University for two years, on a scholarship of $300 (semester tuition fees at the University of Illinois were $12.00), which covered books, tuition, and most living expenses. She took various odd jobs and living situations to cover the rest. After two years she took a job as a reporter with the Call, a socialist newspaper . During World War I she joined a hospital nursing program, which trained its students on the job, with three hour breaks in the afternoon for lectures and training seminars.

Today, a minimum of four years higher education is required to get a job in just about anything, outside of the most basic customer service jobs, and the cost of education is unattainable for all but the wealthiest few. An untrained person can't just volunteer to become a nurse and an eighteen year-old with "some college" is not going to land a reporting job, nomatter what kind of paper or what kind of writer.

The second obstacle to social activism is a prevailing social attitude that equates radicalism with lunacy or barbarism. Dorothy Day was arrested for a peaceful women's suffrage demonstration on the White House lawn; today picketing is associated with crazy fundamentalists in front of abortion clinics (who are often hauled off to jail just as Day was). We look, in retrospect, at her activism as heroic and necesary for social reform; why are today's activists on both sides of the political spectrum (Pro-lifers and Environmentalists) written off as mentally imbalanced or intolerant or at best, annoyances to roll our collective, enlightened eyes at? We are told that we can't "legislate morality". But then how do we procure change? Weren't Women's Suffrage and Labor Unions and the Civil Rights Movement exactly that, attempts to legislate morality, so that society would run by more moral laws?

In general, I see my life as being full of restrictions. I found myself complaining to a friend just the other day that I feel stuck in the "this is how things are done" rut, and I lamented my deplorable lack of imagination. I want to do something, but I don't know what to do. Whereas the world of 1915 was wide open, almost begging individuals to stand in the gaps and shape the future, the world of 2006 feels closed to me. If I want to help the sick I need training in the medical profession. If I want to help poor families or orphans or victims of abuse, I've got to become a "social worker". I don't even qualify to counsel pregnant teenagers, even though I was one 15 years ago, and have felt the weight of it every day since.

Maybe I'm being obtuse and looking at the roadblock instead of the grassy bank that winds around it. I know I can donate food and clothing to charities and I can help serve meals at a shelter. I can give money. I can pray. I can vote. I can practice kindness. Am I the only one who feels immobilized in the face of it all?

Although she eventually converted to Catholicism in her thirties, Dorothy Day rejected Christianity for agnosticism in her college years. Here is her account of it:

I did not see anyone taking off his coat and giving it to the poor. I didn't see anyone having a banquet and calling in the lame, the halt and the blind. And those who were doing it, like the Salvation Army, did not appeal to me. I wanted, though I did not know it then, a synthesis. I wanted life and I wanted the abundant life. I wanted it for others too. I did not want just the few, the missionary-minded people like the Salvation Army, to be kind to the poor, as the poor. I wanted everyone to be kind. I wanted every home to be open to the lame, the halt and the blind, the way it had been after the San Francisco earthquake. [which she experienced in her childhood neighborhood] Only then did people really live, really love their brothers. In such love was the abundant life and I did not have the slightest idea how to find it.

I want to understand my place in all of this. Certainly, Christianity as I have known it is far from this abundant life. Is there even a line of demarcation between the church and the world? When I was small I thought as Dorothy did and I was full of zeal to be Christ to a hurting world. Popular culture must have a sinister goal- or perhaps it is merely a natural side-effect- of squelching virtuous passions, while feeding destructive ones to bursting. I have tried to close my mind to its inundations, and still I find I have been mesmerized, sedated, lulled into a life of dangerous conformity and appalling self-absorption.

And I will probably join you, when you roll your eyes at me and tell me I'm being overly dramatic. And I will probably agree with all your assesments of "youthful idealism" vs. the "wisdom of age". And I will probably laugh when you say that the flu "went to my head" and concede that I "shouldn't be too hard on" myself. But then there are those disturbing Biblical words:

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

James 1:27 (NIV)

Monday, February 06, 2006


When I was almost three, a dark man and woman knocked on the door of our gold, shoebox house on Locke Avenue and wanted to buy it, so we moved “Out to the Country”. We lived in a square white house with two levels and black shutters and a concrete front porch, sporting rectangular pillars. A Weeping Willow yawned in the front yard near the ditch that ran along Eighth Avenue; the ditch I squatted by and caught pollywogs and fat brown toads and made mud-pies with Johnny Height, my next-door neighbor with wild blond curls and a cap-gun. My brother and I weren’t allowed guns, so Johnny cut an unsettling figure, running around the neighborhood like a renegade, bare-chested with cut-off blue jeans and a holster slung low about his hips.

The gun wasn’t the only dangerous thing about Johnny. He never got spankings, for one thing, and he had a dirty mouth. He was an only child and I remember seeing his parents only a few times, when my brother was lost in a book and my desire for a playmate outweighed my fear of knocking on Johnny’s door. His mother was a left-over Hippie, with straight black hair that fell down in front of her shoulders. She had yellow teeth and a cigarette in her left hand and she never addressed me by name or seemed very interested in me, or in Johnny, either. I think she invited me in once, in the five years we lived there. The house was strewn with cigarette butts and dog hair and when I came home my mother scrubbed my hair and clothes to get out their smell.

Johnny’s dad looked a lot like Johnny, but bigger, and wore a bare chest with just as much ease. He parked a beat up Chevrolet in the back yard some time before my memory; put it up on cement blocks and left it there. Black-Eyed Susans and wild rhubarb grew up around it, in the thick, uncut grass. Johnny showed me the best patch of rhubarb, alongside the back wall of his house. He cut gigantic purple stalks with his jack-knife and gnawed on the juicy ends.

The Heights didn’t go to church and had an old hound named Reefer. Johnny thought this name was funny and liked to say it a lot, but once, when the subject surfaced at home, my dad grew angry and my mother’s posture drooped. She turned quiet and sighed and I thought she was going to cry. Johnny Height and his parents and his dog became my first demonstrable link to the word “heathen”.

One time while we were playing hopscotch in the driveway, my stomach knotted up with conviction and wouldn’t let go. I took Johnny by the hand and led him to a shadowed corner of my basement, behind a rocking chair, and made him pray the Sinner’s Prayer. He didn’t really want to, but my vivid explanation of the torments of Hell made him more willing. I could be pretty persuasive already at five or six. I waxed eloquent, like a tent-revival preacher and tried to measure my effectiveness by Johnny’s face. He teetered on the edge of decision, his eyes shifting from me to the marbled shag carpeting, to the stairway that led back outside. Time to close the deal:

“Anyway, I won’t play with you any more until you say it”, I blurted, thinking of mud-pies and tadpoles and rhubarb and hoping he didn’t hold me to my words, in the event that he was blinded to the truth and damned, after all.

“Okay.” He shifted his agile body awkwardly, and half-closed his eyes.

“Repeat after me,” I said.

When we had finished a sufficiently salvific prayer I told him we were done. He opened his eyes.

I looked for the bare-chested cowboy with hands quick on the draw, hands which caught twice as many frogs as mine and were both surer and freer with a Frisbee or the branches of a tree. Johnny’s hands lay folded strangely on his lap, his face was flushed and funny and he wouldn’t meet my gaze.

“Can we play now?”

“Yes”. I stood up, suddenly tired and wondering why my legs were shaking and why I felt so crummy when I’d just saved a soul.

It was maybe ten minutes before Johnny’s movements quickened again and the fire lit in his sky-blue eyes, but it was ten years before I tried my hand at Conversion again.

We played long into the summer evening shadows that day and many other days, and when my family moved, the summer I was eight, Johnny was the only one who saw me sneak around the side of my house to hug it at the back corner and to look one more time at the Black-Eyed Susan’s and the broad-leafed rhubarb in his backyard.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Maybe God Created Me to Get My Children

My two oldest boys have found new respective occupations this past week, which has made the house much quieter.

While all of our boys love books, Micah (9) is sometimes difficult to coax into one. Micah is a man of action and interaction; he is drawn to computer games and board games and cooking and playing with friends and pushing his brothers. He is prone to nagging and boredom. He loses interest in a story more quickly than does Marshall, and will sometimes leave a book un-finished.

Last week he chose Madeleine L'Engle's "A Wrinkle in Time" for an upcoming book report in school. He has read good books before, including the Narnia books amd Harry Potter, and he has enjoyed them. But something in "A Wrinkle in Time" caught him in a new way. He has finished the first book and is on to the second in the series. He's reading before school in the morning and after school whenever he is not eating, doing homework or playing piano.

My children's school, North Hills Classical Academy, is helping each grammar-school child write and "publish" a book, to be completed by the end of this year. Marshall (11) started writing and hasn't stopped. He's in the middle of two stories, one for the school project and one "just for myself". He is getting up early (6:30 a.m.) to write. (Oh, that his mother could acquire such discipline!)

Mark my words: within five years Marshall will be a better writer than I am. At least as concerns fiction. Here is a teaser:

Zecor was waking up. It was not terribly early nor terribly late, but the sun was shining brightly. Zecor, like everyone else in Platinum, was a robot.

Zecor half reluctantly rose from his bed. He put on his removable armor, which was only taken off during the night. This certain armor covers the head, back and shoulder area and is unique to this particular type of robot.


I must tell you that Zecor had long envied the position of Rash, leader of the group Sliver. Silver was a group of three robots who fought crime and protected the whole of Platinum.

Zecor suddenly had an idea.He came up with this idea without trying to. There is no way to tell how he thought of it but... he thought, "If I secretly kill Rash, then I might make it up to his position."

With this plan still fresh on his mind, Zecor rushed through the crowds, which were quickly gathering as the morning progressed. As he pushed and shoved through the population on the street, his plans grew greater and nastier.

At the Head Government Building...

Zash and Slash, Rash's two companions, were competing in their acrobatic and weapon-handling skills.

"Beat this!" yelled Zash as he ran toward the wall of the building, jumped, ran up the wall a ways, turned around on the wall, and ran back, brandishing his weapon.

"That's easy!" replied Slash. Then he did the same move, but in a slightly more impressive manner.

No, Marshall has never seen the Matrix.

Zash and Slash are twins, which is a complicated thing for robots.

Ummmm... Perhaps he knows more about reproduction than I thought? He seemed to think this line was funny.

Zecor has now infiltrated the government building:

It took Zecor very little time to reach the stairs. From the bottom of the stairs he proceeded to the second floor. Going up, Zecor went a bit faster than he meant to. It was a strike of luck that nobody saw him ascend.

And one more bit of humor, as Zecor confronts Rash, the leader of Silver.

"Hello! I believe your name is Rash?" said Zecor.

"Yes, it is. And, by the way, my name does not describe my personality. What do you need?" Rash said, kindly.

For anyone who's interested, I can let you know how the story ends, but it's shaping up to be a long one.

Monday, January 30, 2006

The Weight of Glory

C.S. Lewis, in The Weight of Glory, says that human longing points to the existence of God and after-life, in which we will be made perfect or fulfilled. What follows is the relevant part of his essay to what I have just said about beauty:

"In speaking of this desire for our own far-off country,... I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you - the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our existence is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. Wordsworth's expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things - the beauty, the memory of our own past - are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited."

Fear of Beauty

Why are we afraid of beauty? Here is the best explanation I can offer for my own fear. I'd really like to quote C.S. Lewis in The Weight of Glory, because, as with most things, Lewis just says it better. But, my answer first:

I fear beauty because it both requires something of me and shapes me into something.

Unasked for beauty surprises us in mundanity; I never escape the short walk from my house to my garage without a pang in my chest or a dip in the pit of my stomach. Earth and trees and sky are beautiful, in rain or sunshine, in blue, gray, brown or green. Sometimes, when I am far down and can't move my body from the couch, trees outside my window beckon me; squiggly-patterned gray bark and stark branches writhe atop stolid trunks, like Medusa's snakes. The trees know something that I do not. Or possess something. Something true; and they invite me in, to pass through them into this thing for which I do not have a name.

Other beauties call, too: kindness, deep laughter, a child’s smile. Beauty not only hints at a knowledge far beyond my own, it also calls me to be worthy of each special beauty, of the truth which beauty reflects. My most common experience in the face of it is pain- the pain of personal incongruity with beauty.

This is where I get stuck every time, because every time I choose not to answer beauty’s invitation. I can only conclude that I turn away out of fear. This second fear of beauty, I confess makes little sense to me.

Beauty, interacted with, makes us beautiful. Not much scares me more than this. I have gone to great lengths to define myself with words like depressed, unmotivated, unlovable, failed, confused, sinful, useless, lost. As long as I beat and imprison myself for past error, as long as I act as though I do not deserve grace or love or children or talent, my life is under my control, even if that control perpetuates self-hatred with bad choices and attitudes. When I am open to beauty my hands slip, I panic for fear of losing grip and being un-made, like Orual before the True God. And even more frightening, I will be re-made, and I will not be the maker.

Several years ago I had a recurring, half-waking dream. Just as I drifted into sleep, my body tingled, like a foot gone asleep or an epidural coursing through my veins or like regaining consciousness after passing out. Loud rushing filled my ears and both the sound and the numbness increased steadily. I knew I was coming to a point, a jumping-off point, but I didn’t know what lay beyond it: Death? Levitation? Ordinary sleep? I couldn’t move or make a sound or open my eyes when it began, but I fought and feared and fought some more. Each time I broke the spell just before sailing off the edge of the world. I’d wake up sweaty, heart thumping, and relieved, but terrified to go to sleep again. More than once I determined to embrace whatever approached; I’d jump and see what lurked in the great beyond. But I couldn’t do it.

Maybe it is too much to hope that God will welcome me. Maybe it is too much to ask that I wed my need to something as unstable as human love. Maybe it is too much to believe that I was made to drink beauty, to become beauty. It is too incredible. And it hurts.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006


Eliot is student of the week in his kindergarten class this week and I am trying unsuccessfully to put together a picture poster-board of his life for him to showcase before his classmates. I'm running into trouble because I have not put a single photograph of Eliot in a photo album.

I fell asleep seven years ago and I am not awake yet. I want to wake; I do. But waking images are sharp and cold and as vivid as the smell of rain in June. I am afraid. I will finally admit that I am afraid.

It has become easy for me to concede depression or angst; these adorn me like well worn clothes. But fear...

This afternoon as I flipped through jackets of long-abandoned pictures, I saw pieces of me and people I know or used to know, people I love or used to love.

Eliot is my favorite child because I have wronged him most. I was sleeping soundly when he was born and he withered away at my grudging breast. I roused enough to warm a bottle but then I slipped away again.

I came back when I had learned to sleep walk, and Eliot did not know me. He kept staring at me with a tentative grin. I didn't know him, either. I couldn't read what was behind his eyes.

Fear... I can tell you I'm afraid to fail; that keeps me and everybody else from expecting too much of me.

But really I am afraid of beauty.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

"The Dark Half"? Not Here

I've just finished Stephen King's On Writing and am eager to write fiction.
Part memoir, part instruction manual, often reminiscent of a personal letter, this book is the most helpful one "on writing" that I have read. King is practical, encouraging and friendly in a candid way which surprised me and bordered on downright vulnerability. I have never read one of his stories. I yet may. But whether I like his novels or find they just aren't up my alley, I wager I will retain a certain respect for the works, as the author retains respect for his craft, and respect for his readers, and respect for serious pursuers of writing.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Christian Fiction

The November/December issue of by Faith magazine contains an article by Stephen McGarvey entitled, "New Direction for Christian Publishing?". In it, he offers an answer as to why so many of us find contemporary Christian fiction, the kind that lines the shelves of the nearest Christian bookstore, formulaic and unforgivably boring. We find it so, he says (if I may take the liberty of paring down his answer), because it is so. In support of this, McGarvey quotes Richard Terrell's essay, "Christian Fiction: Piety is not enough", in which the author calls Christian fiction parochial and pietistic, and Allen Arnold, who laments that Christian fiction is written to a narrow group of people and employs a pre-approved technique to create a "safe" story, ironically bringing about a dangerous loss of integrity in both the art form and the communicated message. Here's Allen Arnold on Christian fiction:

"Christian fiction has become a genre with a long list of things that each story should include and a longer list of what each story cannot include. It's often comfort food for the saved. It's billed as safe, as if 'safe' is a Christian virtue. But it's rarely culturally relevant or well written."

This reminds me of the gem I found the other day in Annie Dillard's "Living by Fiction":

"Sentimental art...attempts to force preexistent emotions upon us. Instead of creating characters and events which will elicit special feelings unique to the text, sentimental art merely gestures toward stock characters and events whose accompanying emotions come on tap. Bad poetry is almost always bad because it attempts to claim for itself the real power of whatever it describes in ten lines: a sky full of stars, first love, or Niagara falls. An honest work generates its own power; a dishonest one tries to rob from the cataracts of the given."

I was so glad Dillard said what she did in the way she did, because I spent a very unhappy hour the other week, trying to convince my husband that a popular Christian Christmas song was sentimental and lacked integrity, musically and lyrically, and that I was not merely engaging in my beloved and frequent habit of cynicism. (The fact that I could not put this intuition clearly and succinctly until I found Annie Dillard saying it does not bode well for me, as a writer.)

McGarvey goes on to quote author Bret Lott on the state of today's publishing industry:

"Lets be realistic. The world of books is run, by and large, by the notions of money... Christian publishing...is undoubtedly even less interested in the art [of writing] than [secular publishing], and... is most interested in... how deep the pockets are of the choir to which it preaches."

The article ends on a hopeful note, citing several Christian publishers who are seeking writers and works with more integrity. I wonder if there is even a place for "christian" publishers of fiction. If Christians own and run a publishing company, they should publish books that have integrity; if a Christian's work of fiction is written with integrity, it should be able to withstand secular scrutiny and be meaningful to readers, whether or not those readers are Christian.

I cringe that I must here mention authors such as C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, Dostoevsky, T.S. Eliot, Walker Percy, Flannery O'Conner... because every discussion of Christian fiction clings to these few bright stars in an otherwise cloudy sky. However, Dr. Randall Smith of Bellhaven College says of them something that is worth repeating:

"They wrote seeking answers and their novels are artifacts of their search for meaning, not testimonies to the false belief that they knew everything before they began... When the writing of the book is not an exploration of the mysteries of the world God has made, it is merely the dressing up of a few scriptural truths. We know truth, but we do not know all the truth that God wrapped up into creation- we have to write with this in mind."

Katherine Paterson said, at a writer's conference, that whatever she doesn't understand, whatever bothers her, whatever she can't accept or wrap her mind around, that is what she writes about.

"I write to understand", she said.

January 3, 1959

On Jan. 3, 1959, President Eisenhower signed a proclamation admitting Alaska to the Union as the 49th state.

Alaska is a land rich in natural resources and wilderness beauty. It has proven itself a profitable addition to the United States; however, both the purchase of Alaska and its fight for statehood were surrounded by controversy. Nearly one hundred years elapsed between the United State's purchase of Alaska in 1867 and the day its people were finally given the rights and benefits of statehood.

During that century, Alaska's natural resources were exploited by outside business groups and entrepreneurs, while Alaskans were denied self-rule and were taxed without representation in congress.

William H. Seward promoted the Alaskan purchase during Andrew Johnson's presidency, as part of an even more ambitious "manifest destiny" than the original hope of stretching from "sea to shining sea".

[Seward] negotiated a purchase price with Edouard de Stoeckl, the Russian diplomat. They settled on $7,200,000. This came to 12.5 cents per acre for a plot of land twice the size of Texas.

At the same time that he was negotiating a price, Seward was negotiating on another front too. The Congress of the United States hadn't yet made up its mind to make the purchase, but Seward finally convinced them. By one vote, the Senate appropriated the money, and the US bought Alaska. On October 18, 1867, the Russian flag was lowered and a United States flag was raised over the city of Sitka, Alaska.

Even though Congress had approved the purchase, many people still questioned whether it was worthwhile. They called Alaska "Seward's folly," "Seward's icebox," and the "polar bear garden."

Seward disagreed. One time he was asked what his greatest accomplishment was. He answered, "The purchase of Alaska! But it will take a generation to find that out."

The next hundred years saw pioneers and gold-seekers and timber companies and canneries and finally, the military, arrive and utilize Alaska's resources and position, while proposals for self-government were repeatedly denied. At first, Alaskan statehood was championed by individuals and politicians within the forty-eight contiguous states and the Alaskans themselves showed little interest. But slowly, the people became informed and engaged in impassioned discussion. The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner printed parts of Edna Ferber's novel Ice Palace.

The passages featured the character of Thor Storm, the grizzled Nordic pioneer, informing his granddaughter, Christine, about the legacy of Seattle and San Francisco cannery operators' unmerciful exploitation of Alaska's fisheries. Ferber's book had sold well and widely. Ice Palace had such an educative effect on the nation's populace that one critic was moved to refer to it as "the Uncle Tom's Cabin of Alaska Statehood."

And finally:

No one savored the prospect of paying federal taxes yet remaining, in effect, a stranger to the Union. Another series of Congressional hearings about Alaska's situation instilled in many Alaskans an interest in more aggressive action. Such enthusiasm ultimately brought about the 1955 Constitutional Convention, held in the newly appointed "Constitution Hall" on the grounds of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. It was here that Senator Ernest Gruening delivered his galvanizing "Let Us End American Colonialism" address. The convention received phenomenal national exposure and was praised by numerous journalists for its idealistic attention to "the good of Alaska" rather than partisan politics. The convention was an intensely emotional event for all involved, as passions about the future of Alaska ran strong and deep among convention members. In 1956, the resulting Constitution--which the National Municipal League called "one of the best, if not the best, state constitutions ever written"--was overwhelmingly accepted by Alaskans.

- all excepts from "Alaska For Sale" by Sharon Fabian