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 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