Human for the Holidays

It’s a kitschy title, I’ll admit.  I’ve just been thinking about how these holidays will be a little different for me than previous Christmases, when I had four weeks of a break from school. This year, because God has blessed me with gainful employment, I get one day off, and I’m trying to think of how to make the most of it when it gets here.

So here’s my list of reminders starting now, December 6, that you are welcome to join me in, if you’d like to. They are reminders to be human, and to engage people around me well, rather than be absorbed by a screen. They’re activities I think are peculiarly human things to do, and they’re things to do at your leisure (ie, if no one immediately signs up to climb a mountain with you, don’t get discouraged and go by yourself and get mauled by a bear–or worse, not go at all). If you think of more ideas, or things you plan to do this Christmas, please share them in a comment!

Week One:

-Make a coffee date with a friend. Don’t check the phone. Listen:)

-Arrange to meet that one friend who always sends ugly pictures back and forth with you on Snapchat. Sit facing one another. See who can make the silliest face. Laugh together:)

-Wake up really early, bundle up, and take a brisk walk. Don’t put earbuds in. Just listen.

-Have tea-time promptly at 4 o’clock with a dear friend. Have cookies and tea (or hot chocolate). Chat about the weather and your health. Each of you recite your favorite poem.

Week Two:

-Find three or more friends and have game night (board games/pictionary/charades/anything) but leave your phones in the other room. Pretend you’re in a theater: you can’t text the friends who didn’t come until the game night’s done.

-Read a (good) book cover-to-cover. Warn anyone who persistently contacts you that you’re unavailable for the next two hours, but that you’ll talk to them soon. REEEAAADD.

-Knit a thneed. If you don’t know how to knit, ask a friend to teach you.

-Make a homemade loaf of bread. If possible, do this with your mother. Eat the bread with homemade butter (actually SUPER easy to make) OR blackberry jam. Or anything you want.

Week Three:

-Wrap presents/clean your room/do your homework/wash the dishes: do anything you need to do, but if possible, without checking your phone throughout.

-Play video games with your kid sister (or brother) but DON’T check your phone during it. Just play. Lose, win, it doesn’t matter, just keep mashing the button and focusing on being with the person you’re with.

-Go OUTSIDE and play football, or baseball, or tag, or blind man’s bluff (not sure how to play that last one) with your family or your neighbors or your friends. Preferably a mixture of all three.

-Make a fancy dinner for your parents and serve it on fancy dishes with a fancy candle on the table. [CLEAN ALL DISHES AFTERWARD. ALL DISHES. EVERYWHERE. EVER.]

-Sing carols all day. Go caroling at night. Have apple cider waiting when you get back.

-Watch a Christmas movie–but leave your phone somewhere else and text people later.

CHRISTMAS DAY:

As much as is possible, wherever you are Christmas day, be all there. Yes, wish EVERYONE happy Christmas and call friends and far-away family and do these things, but be with people, and don’t distract yourself with Facebook or Twitter or things that, at least the memories of which, aren’t going to be with you when you’re your parents’ age and older.

Sincerely, Jo:)

 

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To Tune a Heart

“Come, Thou Fount of ev’ry blessing, tune my heart to sing Thy grace.”

We know this one, right? Written by Robert Robinson in the 1700s, tune by John Wyeth (as I literally just now learned)? What a hymn, friends–what a concept: that our hearts must be tuned like instruments to praise our Master Craftsman. The hymn goes on–

Streams of mercy, never ceasing, call for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me some melodious sonnet, sung by flaming tongues above.
Praise the mount–I’m fixed upon it–mount of Thy redeeming love.

Here I raise mine Ebenezer–hither by Thy help I’m come;
And I hope, by Thy good pleasure, safely to arrive at home.
Jesus sought me when a stranger, wand’ring from the fold of God;
He, to rescue me from danger, interposed His precious blood.

O to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter, bind my wand’ring heart to Thee.
Prone to wander–Lord, I feel it–prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart–O take and seal it, seal it for Thy courts above.

This is helpful stuff. But what on earth is an “Ebenezer?”

Other than a type of Scrooge, I mean.

I looked it up in our huge, Random House Dictionary of the English Language (because I’m stubborn and because I wrote this long paper once about posthumanism), and I didn’t learn the definition. [I did, however, learn what an ebeniste is: a French cabinetmaker, if you were wondering].

SO I caved and went to the online OED, which defined “Ebenezer” so:

1a. The name of the memorial stone set up by Samuel after the victory of Mizpeh: see 1 Sam. vii. 12. Used appellatively in religious literature in fig. phrases, alluding to the sentiment ‘Hitherto hath the Lord helped us’, associated with the origin of the name.

Okay cool–so I looked up 1 Samuel 12. It’s a great passage, all about Samuel giving the Israelites a reminder of what he’s been telling them all his life: Trust God. Serve the Lord. Fear Him.

But I don’t see any mention of a memorial stone. It’s kind of a sad passage–the people have demanded a king, even though God was their king–and God has given them Saul, and Samuel says that if the people and their king will continue to follow God, all will be well. But the people have a habit of forgetting, and it’s pretty clear Samuel knows this.

He ends with something that’s a cross between a blessing and a warning:

“Do not be afraid,” Samuel replied. “You have done all this evil; yet do not turn away from the Lord, but serve the Lord with all your heart. Do not turn away after useless idols. They can do you no good, nor can they rescue you, because they are useless. For the sake of his great name the Lord will not reject his people, because the Lord was pleased to make you his own. As for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by failing to pray for you. And I will teach you the way that is good and right.

But be sure to fear the Lord and serve hm faithfully with all your heart; consider what great things he has done for you. Yet if you persist in doing evil, both you and your king will be swept away.” (1 Samuel 12: 20-25)

Wherever that memorial stone is in the passage–that same idea pervades Robinson’s hymn: that God tunes our hearts by reminding us what He has done.

Fount of blessing. Streams of mercy. Redeeming love. Let these reminders bind our hearts to our Savior, who rescued us before we knew how lost we were, back when we were wandering aimlessly and serving useless idols.

What’s reminded me of this is a poem by George Herbert (my favorite poet) called Denial. I’ll give the whole thing, but especially note the rhyme and meter and how they change:

When my devotions could not pierce
Thy silent ears,
Then was my heart broken, as was my verse;
My breast was full of fears
And disorder.

My bent thoughts, like a brittle bow,
Did fly asunder:
Each took his way; some would to pleasures go,
Some to the wars and thunder
Of alarms.

As good go anywhere, they say,
As to benumb
Both knees and heart in crying night and day,
Come, come, my God, O come!
But no hearing.

O that thou shouldst give dust a tongue
To cry to thee,
And then not hear it crying! All day long
My heart was in my knee,
But no hearing.

Therefore my soul lay out of sight,
Untuned, unstrung;
My feeble spirit, unable to look right,
Like a nipped blossom, hung
Discontented.

O cheer and tune my heartless breast;
Defer no time,
That so thy favors granting my request,
They and my mind may chime,
And mend my rhyme.

Do you see how crazy the meter is in here? And the rhymes go back and forth in each stanza until the last line, when there’s an effect of brokenness: Disorder. Alarms. Discontented. Untuned. Unstrung. 

And then. The speaker’s prayer is that God will “cheer and tune [his] heartless breast,” and that, being in tune with the will of His Father, his offering will be acceptable.

Teach us some melodious sonnet, God–and let us remember what You’ve done throughout history to glorify how good and great You are. Mend our feeble spirits, and let our hearts be satisfied with Your mercy.

Letter #8: For Jonah-days

Dear Aglet,

I’ve started writing this probably five times over the past few weeks. Just now I saw that it’s my thirteenth blog post I’ve written a draft for and not published. They’re about various, unimportant things: one is called “Purple hair dye and communion wine” and I think it’s about dressing up as Madam Mim for Halloween.

In other words, I’m not sure I have anything worth saying, but I’m writing anyway.

That last sentence may end up being my autobiography in one sentence.

I tried doing NANOWRIMO for the fifth or sixth year in a row, and all I have to show for it (so far) is one page, handwritten on front and back, about a young preacher’s wife who moves to a town called Marysville, TX, where it’s always dusty and dull and she has to do good all the time and she misses the trees in Arkansas.

I don’t like how it’s heading, so I’m retiring that story, maybe forever.

Everything ends in autobiography with me, Aglet, which is a real shame, because I’ve not gone and done a whole lot with my life thus far. Hence, I’m not sure I have anything much to say. There have been some Jonah-days here lately–days where your soul feels like the grayest of days in November, and it doesn’t seem like anything can make it better.

There have been wonderful days too–days like today, when the sun came out and various poems by e.e.cummings and Gerard Manley Hopkins kept popping cheerfully into my head and distracting me.

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

I cry about everything, mostly, even lovely things. Even while laughing, sometimes. I heard my dad’s voice and cried; heard a sad song and cried; thought about what it would be like to have cancer and cried; thought about what it would be like to have someone I loved have cancer and cried.

Worried about what might happen tomorrow, or in five years. And cried.

It’s ridiculous, especially because I have been down this road so many times, and I’ve made a choice over and over and over not to fret about what happens next (or five years from now), but instead to trust God, who’s infinitely worth trusting.

I need help trusting God and being more honest than simply stuffing my fear into my pocket and pretending that means I don’t have it anymore. Jonah-days will come to you. Whether you’re terrified of things not turning out perfectly or whether you think you’re so strong that hard times will just bounce off whatever rationalistic armor you’ve been layering on as a defense against overwhelming emotion–something will happen that’s too hard for you, Aglet.

You’ll have to decide where to run and what to do when you are overwhelmed with fear, or depression, or anger, or grief, or any of a thousand troubles that won’t be a reality anymore when we’re in God’s presence. But they’re reality now, and they needn’t be pointless. If, when you discover you’ve been horribly wrong about something important, you yield to despair, thinking you’ve ruined everything and you somehow can’t ever fix what could have been, you’ve missed something.

You’ve missed (and when I say “you” you better know I mean “I“) grace, in a way, and the precious illustration of your own desperate need for grace. Feeling heart-sick, or lonely, even feeling rage at the wrongness of the world–all these may drive us to prayer: to wrestling with how on earth lovely things and wretched things exist together, and to asking our Father to fix what’s broken, to fix us.

So yes, on Jonah-days, read Hopkins, read cummings, even read Whitman, but most of all take comfort in knowing that God is both good and great, and He blesses the poor in spirit.

Love, your grandma,

Jo

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Stir-Crazy

Some days, when I don’t understand what I’m doing, or when my eyes are glazing over from scanning the computer screen, or when I have no clue how to answer the question someone just asked, I remember that I, in fact, set my own hours, and that sitting numbly at my desk isn’t going to help anyone or anything, so I take a pause to try to remember why I do things in the first place.

They can’t be long pauses, I realize, or I’ll never get anything done, but it’s like in college, when it’s late and you’re staring at a paper and you can’t possibly think of anything to write, and the better thing would really be to go to sleep and work the next day, refreshed. There will eventually come a midnight, I know from experience, when waiting is not an option, and you must push through and turn in something.

My sister, when she’s stressed, likes to bake cookies (and she’s great at it). I make pizza.

I go into the kitchen and start tossing stuff into a bowl. I hardly ever measure anything. I prefer to approximate in cooking, which is probably why I can’t make cookies very well. You’ve got to be exact when baking desserts. Probably you have to be just as exact with pizza and I just don’t know it.

I like to experiment. Tonight I’m making spinach pizza (mostly because there’s a bunch of spinach in the fridge we’re supposed to eat up before it goes bad), but I hope to make the most exquisite, most delicious alfredo sauce to go on it, without measuring a thing.

It’s really a terrible plan. Sometimes I wonder how God created the world–did he just toss stuff around haphazardly–as in, “hmm, how about some light?” Or “I think I want to see what an ocean would look like.”

I doubt it. I don’t think God’s capricious like that, or stir-crazy like I happen to be. I think God knows exactly what He’s doing and what it’ll be like when He’s done.

I, on the other hand, still refuse to be precise when creating things, and yet have the audacity to imagine myself years from now running a pizzeria called “Mama Jo’s.”

Quality control? Psh, no. Every pizza will have its own unique character, spurred on by the restlessness of its equally imperfect maker.

Small is Beautiful, E.F. Schumacher

“The time has come,” the Walrus said, “to talk of many things. Of shoes and ships and ceiling wax–of cabbages and kings! –And why the sea is boiling hot, and whether pigs have wings!”

And small books about Buddhist economics that turn out not to have been Buddhist after all.

All last summer I labored over “Small is Beautiful,” by E.F. Schumacher (1973), stubbornly trying to read the book cover-to-cover before I started another on my reading list. It was a desperate attempt to rehabilitate my reading habits from my usual hit-and-run style, wherein I start a book, get to the middle, start another book, get the middle of that one, and start another book…

I used the word “labored” but I don’t really mean it was a hard read–at least not at first. In fact, in just a bit I’ll write down some of the many quotations I took note of in my earnest but doomed attempt to really digest a book. It’s a very good book, and I recommend it, especially if you like authors who work on their words, refining their sentences until every other phrase seems worth putting on a coffee mug.

Maybe I have strange taste in coffee mugs.

Schumacher, apart from having possibly the best title for a book I can imagine (the subtitle is “Economics as if People Mattered”), is a thoughtful, sharp writer whose curiosity is evident–he inspired me to think about how things are, and how they ought to be. His main idea, as I understood it, was that economics is more than a (pseudo)science of how businesses interact and nations prosper; rather, there are deeper questions that economists ought to be asking, about human nature, about what people believe and value and why people work in the first place. He questions and he prods, and advocates, in the end, a return to certain values that have been dismissed as unproductive or lazy. Of course, he says, we oughtn’t be lazy, but nor must we work merely for money. There is, or at least there ought to be, something in men and women that makes them want to work, to produce something valuable, to create. 

But as a society, America doesn’t tend to value anything that is, perhaps, less lucrative but more fulfilling–we prize profit in monetary terms and sometimes, just sometimes, lose sight of why we’re working. The values which drive our actions get pushed to the back of our minds, and, if we’re not careful, we lose the values altogether. Schumacher takes issue with both Keynes and Carnegie, and sums up five to seven “ideas of the age” which have crept through science, education, and economics.

With that small teaser for an already small book (but a small book very much worth reading), here are some of the more fascinating sections I found.

About man’s nature:

“…we are estranged from reality and inclined to treat as valueless everything that we have not made ourselves (15).

“The substance of man cannot be measured by Gross National Product (20).

“We still have to learn how to live peacably, not only with our fellow men but also with nature and, above all, with those Higher Powers which have made nature and have made us, for, assuredly, we have not come about by accident and certainly have not made ourselves (21).

About pollution:

“As nothing can be proved about the future…it is always possible to dismiss even the most threatening problems with the suggestion that something will turn up (28).

“Nothing makes economic sense unless its continuance for a long time can be projected without running into absurdities. . . Permanence is incompatible with a predatory attitue which rejoices in the fact that ‘what were luxuries for our fathers have become necesities for us’ [Keynes]. . . Every increase of needs tends to increase one’s dependence on outside forces over which one cannot have control, and therefore increases existenstial fear (33).

About greed:

“The modern economy is propelled by a frenzy of greed and indulges in an orgy of envy, and these are not accidental features but the very causes of its expansionist success (31).

“If human vices such as greed and envy are systematically cultivated, the inevitable result is nothing less than a collapse of intelligence. A man driven by greed or envy loses the power of seeing things as they are, of seeing things in their roundness and wholeness, and his very successes become failures (31).

About work:

“There is need for a proper philosophy of work which understands work not as that which it has indeed become, an inhuman chore as soon as possible to be abolished by automation, but as something ‘decreed by Providence for the good of Man’s body and soul’ (37).

“…insights of wisdom…enable us to see the hollowness and fundamental unsatisfactoriness of a life devoted primarily to the pursuit of material ends, to the neglect of the spiritual (38).

“To organise work in such a manner that it becomes meaningless, boring, stultifying, or nerve-wracking for the worker would be little short of criminal; it would indicate a greater concern with good than with people, an evil lack of compassion and a soul-destroying degree of attachment to the most primitive side of this worldly existence. Equally, to strive for leisure as an alternative to work would be a complete misunderstanding of one of the basic truths of human existence, namely that work and leisure are complementary parts of the same living process and cannot be separated without destroying the joy of work and the bliss of leisure (55).

About education:

“…The task of education would be, first and foremost, the transmission of ideas of value, of what to do with our lives. There is no doubt also the need to transmit know-how but this must take second place, for it is obviously somewhat foolhardy to put great powers into the hands of people without making sure that they have a reasonable idea of what to do with them. . . When we think, we do not just think: we think with ideas. Our mind is not a blank, a tabula rasa. When we begin to think, we can do so only because our mind is already filled with all sorts of ideas with which to think (82).

“What do I miss, as a human being, if I have never heard of the Second Law of Thermodynamics? The answer is: Nothing. And what do I miss by not knowing Shakespeare? Unless I get my understanding from another source, I simply miss my life. . . Science cannot produce ideas by which we could live (87).

About everything:

“All subjects, no matter how specialised, are connected with a centre; they are like rays emanating from a sun. The centre is constituted by our most basic convictions, by those ideas which really have the power to move us. In other words, the centre consists of metaphysics and ethics, of ideas that–whether we like it or not–transcend the world of facts. . . they cannot be proved or disproved by ordinary scientific method. . . but that does not mean they are purely ‘subjective’ or ‘relative’ or mere arbitrary conventions. They must be true to reality… (94).

“It is easy enough to see that all through our lives we are faced with the task of reconciling opposites which, in logical thought, cannot be reconciled (97).

Like what you read? You can find this book on Thriftbooks, Amazon, Goodreads–pretty much anywhere there are books to be found. Give it a read and tell me what you think!

P.S. Coming soon: A GoodReads thing where you can see what book(s) I happen to be bumbling through at the moment. Whenever I can figure out the blogging things.

Try to Remember

I haven’t seen the musical “The Fantasticks,” but I love a song from it, called “Try to Remember.” It’s calm and sweet and reminiscent, and I think you should give it a listen:)

Try to remember the kind of September
When life was slow and oh, so mellow
Try to remember the kind of September
When grass was green and grain was yellow
Try to remember the kind of September
When you were a tender and callow fellow
Try to remember and if you remember then follow

I’m writing for a few reasons–one is that it’s September, finally. And that is worth reveling in, just by itself. The -ember months (including the very loveliest, October) have a way of waking me up inside; in fact, I’m half-convinced I’m doing a sort of sleep-walk/hibernation the rest of the year. The air dries out and a breeze comes down the trees, and the breeze is bringing fall. And it smells like smoke and cinnamon and hope and yearning.

Another reason I’m writing is to inform the blogging world that I got a job, which is weird. Because I can’t just take the job and shut up–I have to do some soul-searching and agonizing before I turn into corporate-brained robot Jo. That’s not what I meant. What I mean is that, well, I wasn’t gonna get a job this year (see The Plan for that particular bit of soul-searching). I was going to read and read and read, and relish just being with my family, and take all the opportunities that would never come once I settled down to whatever-the-future-might-hold. I wasn’t going to worry; I was going to let next year worry about itself.

I was going to be a lily.

So while I’m very thankful for this job, I feel in some way that I’ve failed by doing anything so crude as being employed. (See what an absolute idiot I can be? I can regret anything.) Enough of the regret. Enough enough enough.

The job, if you were wondering, is medical writing/editing. So I do a lot of scanning long documents for numbers and split infinitives. If I describe it any more, you might think it’s the most boringest thing ever, but that is NOT the point I’m trying to make. The point is I get to use what I’ve learned (about sentence structure and the use of semicolons) and I get to help very smart people communicate even better. Because I’m not terribly smart, scientifically, but when I understand what I’m reading, it’s fascinating.

So my job involves detective work: (1) because scientists like to hide their identity with a bunch of passive voice; and (2) because I have to look up every third word in my newly acquired medical dictionary.

And there’s a third aspect to medical writing–it’s a game Mary Poppins might call “Well begun is half done,” or “A spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down.”

“In the most delightful way.”

I see if I can make it interesting–whatever “it” may happen to be. I just see if I can be intrigued, and sometimes, God grants me a curiosity about things I never would have expected to be interested in.

Not that reading an essay by E.B. White still isn’t vastly preferable (I love that how that man wrote), but today, for example, I found myself staring at a diagram of a human cell, feeling a steadily rising excitement at the prospect of defining “ribosome” or “reticular.” I like learning (or re-learning, in this case). Words make me laugh, words like “glucocorticoid.” It sounds hilarious.

Honestly, I have no idea what I’m doing–either with this blog or with this job. I do know that I’d kind of forgotten what I wanted to write about, or how I wanted to write, so being reminded of the importance of communication has been lovely. The very idea that literature is valuable and science article abstracts are valuable–this has me wanting to go read Poe’s “Sonnet: to Science.” I’m not seeing the dichotomy between literature and science–or at least, I’m not seeing that the conflict has to be there.

I’m thinking of Robert Herrick and his ode to a woman’s breast and how I blushed when we read it in class, hearing the speaker describe, quite beautifully, quite unscientifically, the appearance of his lover’s body. There’s a wonder there, about the way things are, and the sort of delight that, at least in the abstract, I share. Of course, people are more than only their physical bodies, but the physical is there, and it’s funny and intricate and weird.

I think it’s when I forget that, behind the diagrams and clinical descriptions, there’s a design and a Designer, that science ever could become boring to me. It’s when I forget that the same things are signified by literary words and scientific terminology that the definition of amino acids as “building blocks of protein” fails to delight. Think carefully–of what is meant by building blocks, of what your experience of a building block is, and suddenly the picture is there.

In my mind, there’s a nursery with toys strewn around, and a very solemn and holy baby picking out the perfect little protein block to place on the next one, and so forth until a cell, an organism, a human has been knit together in the womb.

Language is lovely.

Science is lovely, if you can just remember there’s something beyond the physical that gives reason and meaning to existence. The idea that the heart pumps blood without my remembering or my telling it to pump–in a way, to my unscientific mind, inexplicable. If it can lead you to wonder at something other than yourself, it has promise, I’m thinking.

I don’t even know about this whole blog post. Better go and read E.B. White, or the rest of this Septembery song:

Try to remember when life was so tender
That no one wept except the willow
Try to remember when life was so tender
And dreams were kept beside your pillow
Try to remember when life was so tender
And love was an ember about to billow
Try to remember and if you remember then follow

Deep in December it’s nice to remember
Although you know snow will follow
Deep in December it’s nice to remember
Without a hurt the heart is hollow
Deep in December it’s nice to remember
The fire of September that made us mellow
Deep in December it’s nice to remember and follow

Turk’s Cap

[Lately, I’ve been working through some things I haven’t dealt with before, but I’ve known people who have lived their lives within the framework of anxiety. So, that said, I am offering something that touches a topic I haven’t thought through as much as others have. There’s a lot I don’t know, so I ask for patience while reading this whatever-it-is. I’m hoping it’s helpful, not hurtful. Here goes.]

 

Turk’s cap, brilliantly crimson,
Perfectly formed, set against green–
It could be Christmas if it weren’t
High summer.

White moths and big tadpoles,
Hummingbirds relishing the shade
Of my father’s butterfly weed.

I wasn’t always anxious–I remember,
I’ve thought of myself as brave,
Plucky
Stouthearted
(at least I’ve wanted to be).

Maybe anxieties can be developed
Same as allergies.
You’re free, then one day, later in life, you aren’t.
You feel constrained
Helpless
Absolutely idiotic
Quite possibly you are insane.

You know the right answer even before the tears come:
Don’t worry
Do NOT fret (don’t you dare!)
God is good.

And God is so good.
But you still might cry.

What is wrong with me?  you shudder.

Nothing.
Not a damn thing
Except being human like everyone else.

Tears need no reasons;
Anxiety asks no one’s permission
Before it attacks.

Here is something
Reminding me I am not invincible.
Huge emotions besieging all my cool logic
Sometimes winning
Or subsiding,
Only forcing a few leaks from my eyes
Randomly.

I am small
and helpless.

You are great and good.

Hide me til it passes over.

Letter #7: Heading West

Dear Aglet,

I’m heading west with my parents and a sister–it’s my turn to drive and I find myself completely Hyped. Up. on caffeine, mentally penning a letter to you, my dear, future, hypothetical grandchild.

You might be tempted to think it’s because I’m bored by the treeless terrain of the Texas panhandle. Most people where I live say there’s nothing here.

But I find the nothing beautiful.

I love being able to see to the horizon, feeling how the land goes on for so long. And as the sky expands, growing bigger and bluer and wider, I feel my soul expand in a way I can’t explain, quite. I start feeling more hopeful, maybe, more at ease, than when my view of the heavens is restricted by the tall pine trees.

Not that I don’t like trees–I do like them (just ask my college president)–and I’m glad to be where I am, generally, but every now and then, it’s nice to go west and stretch a little.

I’ve inherited it from my dad, I think: the restlessness that occasionally comes and can’t be shaken off or distracted. Herman Melville prescribed for this rising of the spleen a good long sea voyage, but for my family, the cure is going west until the wonderfully desolate land meets the sky. Perhaps the two cures are not very different–both satisfy the urge to see far on all sides. Both calm, at least for a time, the crawling feeling of confinement.

I used to dream of living out here, of having a ranch near Saint Jo, Texas, where I’d live, hermit-like, in a small yellow house with a little dog named Joe Gargery and a big sheepdog named Chesterton (“Chester,” for short). The dream is still appealing, especially when I feel the impatience of loving imperfect people or the ensuing, awful realization of my own glaring flaws. Then the independent spirit comes upon me and I want to be off where uncertainty is gone and I can see with clarity.

I crave certainty, Aglet.

But when I am told what to do, or how to do it, I resent it like the wretch I am, and I prefer the former ambiguity. At least control my own indecision.

Paul, in his letters, said he’d learned the secret of being content in any situation. I think I’ve learned the opposite–I manage to be restless and discontent any time, any place. But I wouldn’t call it a secret or a gift.

Slowly, very slowly, maybe I’m learning that I’ve had many plans and many dreams, but that happiness doesn’t depend on them turning out perfectly, or even coming true at all. That’s not to say I should suppress all my desires and ambitions, more that I should be wary of where I hang my hope, and my heart, and my happiness.

I find myself in my early twenties and I’m thinking about what I want my life to be like, about what would possibly fulfill me, and I sense that the stakes of living a worthwhile life are at once terribly high and wonderfully low.

If I think that this is all there is, I ought to scramble to get all I want and make all the happiness I can, even if it only lasts for a little bit.

If I think there’s something else, though–something beyond this world and this life–it at once raises the stakes and lowers them. I would have more of an urgency to do what’s worth doing, regardless of how exciting it feels at the time, knowing that my source of satisfaction is in Christ. It would mean I could choose what I do and be motivated by more than simply what makes the most money, and yet my job wouldn’t be what fulfilled me.

And it would mean that your future, hypothetical grandfather (my “Mr. Mister”) needn’t be a flawless sort of Mr. Darcy in order for us to love one another or find joy together. It would mean, even, that I might never meet Mr. Mister and my life would still have meaning and fulfillment. I might go on great adventures and weather awful sorrows.

Anything might happen, or nothing.

Life would still be a gift.

Sometimes tears come in the loveliest of situations, reminding me that this isn’t all there is; that I haven’t experienced perfect joy yet; that there is a longing that won’t be quite answered by anyone or anything, wherever I live. Even the open horizon becomes monotonous, and I grow bored with the same mountains that astonish me. My capacity for gratitude is smaller than I want it to be, and my appetite for wonder is really pretty dull.

It’s curious that such a yearning could be a comfort, or that a desolate place could be beautiful. Strange, that horizons bring hope, or that feeling so small could bring joy.

Love, your caffeinated grandma,

Jo

Review of “If You Can Keep it,” Metaxas

I love it when things remind me of Chesterton and I have an excuse to dive back into Orthodoxy. I never finish it–I almost don’t want to. I read a chapter here, and a chapter there, and months from now I’ll probably read the same chapters and be pleasantly surprised by something I never caught before. That’s either evidence of a gloriously insightful author, or of early onset memory loss in myself. Hey there, Grandma Jo.

What reminded me this time was reading If You Can Keep It, by Eric Metaxas. It was the first book on my summer reading list, and I sped read the second half of it yesterday in one sitting. Not that it was the most well-written book I’d ever read, but I’d resolved to finish what I started so I could get on to something else. I don’t have any business critiquing Metaxas’ writing style, given my own rambling tendencies, so I’ll just mention his frequent insertion of unrelated, sort-of-but-not-really rhetorical questions at the ends of paragraphs. That, and some repetition I didn’t think he needed. All I’m saying is he’s not Chesterton. Which he never claimed to be.

He did quote Chesterton, however, about halfway through the book, which is probably why I stuck it out. Actually, once I decided it was an okay book, it really was pretty good. His main idea, I gather, is that we as an American people have forgotten both the heritage of our country and our resulting responsibility, given our unique beginning.

Early on, he clarifies his view of America’s exceptionalism:

Our exceptionalness is not for us but for others. That is the paradox at the heart of who we are. So what makes us different has nothing to do with jingoism and nationalistic chest beating. If we have ever been great, it is only because we have been good. If we have ever been great, it is only because we have longed to help make others great too (Metaxas 25).

In other words, Metaxas goes deeper than simply yelling “Merica” and slamming the book shut, his point made. He presents a thoughtful and compelling account of how and why the country was founded, acknowledging what he sees as the three key ingredients in America’s success while admitting that there is plenty of room for failure. These three elements are freedom, virtue, and faith, each of which requires the other to exist in any meaningful form. He cites example after example of early American thinkers who hoped to cultivate a citizenry marked by these elements, including Washington, Franklin, and Tocqueville (who, though not an American thinker, was certainly a thinker about America).

Metaxas discusses other figures in America’s early history who helped to make the country not only great, but good: George Whitefield, Nathan Hale, George Washington, and Paul Revere, to name a few. For centuries, these and other American heroes were venerated and taught to schoolchildren; now, however, the excellent things such individuals achieved are dismissed the moment anything can be discovered to discredit them. While it wouldn’t be healthy for a country to hold up its leaders as perfect examples with no faults at all, Metaxas is concerned that we are erasing our heroes and, consequently, our heritage without instilling in the next generation such good virtues of bravery, honor, and integrity.

After quoting a section from one of George Washington’s speeches to his military officers, Metaxas notes the difference in his choice of words from anything one would hear today:

…More important is [Washington’s] use of specific words and phrases like “reputation,” “patient virtue,” “dignity,” “glory,” and “sacred honor.”

These words and phrases are most striking to us in that they have disappeared, generally speaking, and not just as words but as concepts. Who speaks of “sacred honor” or “glory” today? These words and ideas have been quietly banished from our cultural conversation. Nor is it that we have replaced these terms with less antiquated equivalents. We’ve lost them altogether. The question is whether we can ever recover them, and whether, short of that, we can survive. Can it be that the further we have strayed from thinking of such things, the further we have strayed from what is necessary for the ordered liberty bequeathed to us by the founders? And that in neglecting the cultivation of these virtues have we unwittingly undermined our entire way of life? (165, emphasis added)

It’s a troubling thought to me–that perhaps not only our vocabulary has changed, but that we’ve dismissed as too old-fashioned some virtues that turn out to be essential to keeping a republic both good and great.

After reading If You Can Keep It, I’m thinking of a couple of things-how I have not done well with informing myself of my responsibility as a U.S. citizen; how there’s so much of my American heritage (both good and bad) that I don’t know, and haven’t cared to learn; how I have not loved my country very well.

That, finally, is what Metaxas leaves with his readers–the necessity of loving something in order to make it better. It’s what reminds me of Chesterton and Lewis and other writers who have resonated with me–that, although my being a member of American society isn’t my ultimate identity (by any means), it’s such a society in which any change I want to see requires my active engagement with whatever it is I think needs to be changed.

Again, this isn’t a “my country, right or wrong” attitude, exactly–Metaxas puts it this way:

…we can say that to love someone is not to avoid seeing their flaws, but to avoid so focusing on them that the person gets a feeling of hopelessness about changing them.

Those who have adopted an “America is the problem” attitude, who have characterized America as an imperialistic “world bully,” are simply wrong. They are no different from those who would say America has no flaws and can do no wrong. Both are fundamental misunderstandings of what it it means to love one’s country and to be a good citizen who is helping lead one’s nation in the right direction. (233)

The way Chesterton puts it is, well, more eloquent than I can properly summarize–if you really want a wordsmith, go and read the chapter “The Flag of the World” from Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton and then find me and we can revel in having read such things. But, to give a short glimpse of the connection between the two writers, here is Chesterton talking about the need for a love and loyalty toward something in order to make it worth anyone’s while:

…what we need is not the cold acceptance of the world as a compromise, but some way in which we can heartily hate and heartily love it. We do not want joy and anger to neutralize each other and produce a surly contentment; we want a fiercer delight and a fiercer discontent. We have to feel the universe at once as an ogre’s castle, to be stormed, and yet as our own cottage, to which we can return at evening.

No one doubts that an ordinary man can get on with this world: but we demand not strength enough to get on with it, but strength enough to get it on. Can he hate it enough to change it, and yet love it enough to think it worth changing? Can he look up at its colossal good without once feeling acquiescence? Can he look up at its colossal evil without once feeling despair? Can he, in short, be at once not only a pessimist and an optimist, but a fanatical pessimist and a fanatical optimist? Is he enough of a pagan to die for the world, and enough of a Christian to die to it? (320-321)

Chesterton may not have been talking about America, but I think his ideas apply here, especially to Christians who are wondering where, if anywhere, their convictions as Christians and their responsibilities as voting citizens overlap. I’m not sure I can answer that question for anyone except myself, but what I’m thinking increasingly is that it’s not enough to keep quiet when you’ve been given a voice, even if it’s only a small voice. If you can whisper, you can speak on someone else’s behalf.

True that one oughtn’t to accept blindly all that America has stood for in the past–some evils need to be remembered so that they aren’t repeated. There are quite a number of social ills, past and present, for which we as a nation ought to repent. It’s also true that, as of 2017, there can still be public conversations about what direction is best and which values or virtues we ought to cultivate.

To quote Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Thanks for reading! Comment below if you have something to share:)

About Writing

There’s a Remington manual typewriter over there on my desk that I rediscovered in my closet the other week and dusted off in the naïve hope that it would get me writing. It hasn’t helped. If anything, it’s hindered me, taking up the desk space where I might otherwise put my laptop. There isn’t any ribbon and it weighs all of twenty pounds, if not more, so bringing it in here was a miserably futile move. I was wrong to think that an old-fashioned tool, purely by virtue of being old, will motivate me to write something I wasn’t writing with the newer tool (laptop) or the older still (pen and notepad). It’s like the notion that the latest technology will somehow inspire more creativity merely because it’s this year’s model. Stupidhead, Jo.

Sometimes I just have to start something, even if I am not completely sure it’s worth much. I have no idea who would read this stuff, for example, but it’s something I need to write. Sometimes I think it’s the stuff probably no one will read that’s most important to write down.

At the risk of sounding like the self-absorbed, yet self-satisfied, yet self-doubting person I am, I am not sure I can actually write worth a flip. I’m not even sure anymore that I have anything to say. And if I do have something to say, I’m not sure it’s anything worth hearing. But I’ve said for so long that I must write, that I think I must try. It’s the last thing I knew with certainty I needed to do. And whether I feel the urgency now or whether it’s faded, I keep remembering that strong, strong urgency to communicate something I could never articulate audibly, but came closer to expressing on paper. There is, or at least there was, something in me that needed to write.

I wanted to write something that would help a person understand he was not alone, even when it seems like no one around him understands or agrees with what drives him at his core. I wanted to write to the twelve-year-old girl who witnesses bullying or gossip at school or at church, and who knows she ought to speak up, but who doubts that anyone will listen. Or perhaps she is afraid of what others think—cripplingly afraid of being unpopular, even if she’s for standing for what’s right. What that girl does there, at age twelve—how she decides to respond—that is going to shape her, and it seems likely that when she is twenty-five, deciding how to act in a new, professional environment, that decision she made a decade before will influence how she acts around the water cooler.

There are things I wish I’d been reminded of when I was twelve, and eight, and fifteen—things maybe I did know, but I wish someone had told me again. I know my parents were there to encourage me to be kind and to do the right thing, even when it meant standing alone, but that’s not true for a lot of kids. And it helps, sometimes, to see things in the light of another story, a book you can be engrossed in, identifying with the protagonist, seeing where he or she is tested, and where he’s victorious, and where she fails. The reader can see redemption and forgiveness when failure happens and the twelve-year old in the story cows to society’s pressure to act cool and strive for popularity above all else.

Children see everything adults see, it seems like, even if they don’t have the tools yet to interpret what they’re seeing. Some things they shouldn’t have to see. It’s a wrong world, and all the beautiful sunsets and waterfalls and butterflies can’t quite make up for the feeling of losing a friend, or being rejected, or watching other people watch bullying without intervening. If a child is engaged with the world around him, he or she is going to deal with many of the same decisions adults face: do I tell the truth when it costs me something; do I defend the helpless; do I stand up for what’s right, and when I do, how do I speak with compassion to everyone involved? Do I listen to this gossip and do I join in, or do I change this conversation before it hurts someone (because it will)?

Maybe I forget that children are just shorter people—they aren’t some alien species that turns into humanity upon puberty or upon leaving adolescence. They are humanity—but still untamed. Kids are wild people who need to be trained in what it means to be human. If the adults in a generation decide that the only things that matter are food and sex and entertainment and getting what you want, that’s all they have to teach the children of the next generation. But they will continue to be wild. If, however, you hold that humanity is different from baboons or dogs or fish—if you believe there is both human dignity and human depravity; that men and women have the capacity for doing great, good things, and astoundingly evil things; that there is something called a soul that no physician can see or repair; that the soul has hunger pains, longing for something that nothing on earth can satisfy, not food or sex or unlimited entertainment—then you will have something more to teach the coming generations.

So I’m wondering if I could write something that would help a young person understand, at the important age of twelve, that feeling lonely in the middle of a crowded room doesn’t mean something’s wrong with you or that you will never have friends.

I’m talking about writing about close, strong friends who love each other faithfully and sacrificially, rather than superficial friendships that may look attractive but have no depth.

About the act of seeing the world clearly—not glancing back and forth at every glittering distraction—but delighting in mountain and molehill alike. The goodness of learning and training your mind and joining in the conversations that have been going on since the beginning, and the joy of noticing small wonders like smiling and music and the color of other peoples’ eyes and, all at once, understanding the wideness of the world’s horizon and its simultaneous smallness, looking at the pinpricks of starlight that aren’t icy cold, after all, and realizing how curious it is that we live on anything so wonderful and strange as Earth, and finally, finally, asking how such things have possibly come to be.

Who made this?

So we start somewhere, with a blog post, maybe, or a conversation in real life. And in the meantime we mow the yard and paint the house and work a job or two. Maybe the key is to try something, to stay motivated by a worthwhile cause while at the same time, somehow, finding contentment in the here and now.