(Accidental) Summer Hiatus

September again. I read two books out of the four on my reading list–the Wilberforce biography and My Antonia.

My Antonia was lovely: I read it during a weekend when just my dad and I were home, and I did nothing else, really, except talk some and cook some and play the piano. Willa Cather painted a couple of her characters so well that I feel I’ve known them in real life: Jim’s grandfather with his crinkly white beard and piercing blue eyes, and solemn kindness; Jim’s grandmother, walking slightly bent but with alertness and a determined step. Mr. Shimerda, gazing worshipfully at the Christmas tree with haunting, sorrowful gaze, and Antonia.

Antonia is almost like the landscape, itself a character in the story. Honest, open, kind–and terribly vulnerable, Antonia doesn’t really change, though others around her do. Jim changes, and when he visits Antonia and her children, you see how he appreciates the constancy of Antonia, certain as the prairie sun, setting wide and orange on the red grass. She hasn’t changed, not really.

Read the book for sunsets and sadness and for Antonia, because I’m not Willa Cather and I can’t summarize how she writes.

The Wilberforce book was good and inspiring because of William Wilberforce and what he made his life stand for, but Metaxas did the thing again where he went off a bit too long on his own metaphors. But I would probably do the same thing, so I still recommend the book.

In other news, my garden is full of weeds, and the blueberry bushes I was nurturing are utterly dead. I quit Twitter and haven’t missed it in the slightest. I visited yesterday with some people who knew me when I was an infant, and I took communion in the pews where I sat as a five-year-old, in awe at the grown-ups around me murmuring the Lord’s Prayer in reverant harmony.

My dear friend asked me to marry him, which means that someday maybe I’ll get to write that letter to Aglet about “How I Met Your (Future Hypothetical) Grandfather,” after all:)

I hope to get back to writing something regularly, regardless of how many read it.
Thank you for reading.


Summer 2018 Reading List

I’ll try to keep this simple. Minimal rambling:)

I’ve been overly ambitious with reading lists in the past, but I know myself better now. So I’ve picked three or four books I want to read this summer and I’m giving myself plenty of leeway for re-reading Orthodoxy or anything by Nicholas Carr about transhumanism.

What I want to read:

  • Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery, by Eric Metaxas

I’ve read another book by Metaxas and for the most part I like his style. He’s a good biographer, and thus far into Amazing Grace he’s referenced William Cowper twice and mentioned Chesterton once. So I’m excited to keep reading.

  • My Antonia, by Willa Cather

I read this a while ago, but I didn’t understand it at all, just found it moving and beautiful. I want to read it again when I might understand it better. I want to read it again to see the red sunset on the plains and feel the ache of loving the land.

  • Phantastes: a Faerie Romance for Men and Women, by George MacDonald

“I was dead, and right content.” If you like lovely, rambling prose and a new adventure on every page, read this book. It’s another re-read, but I need to be refreshed–and this is the kind of fiction that refreshes your soul and prompts you to go deeper into real life, rather than escaping from it. It’s a wonderful story.

  • The Stargazer’s Handbook, Sweetwater Press

I’m going to read about constellations and study up so that when my stargazing buddy gets back, I can find more in the sky than Orion, the Pleiades, and Cassiopeia. I want to wonder, and maybe knowing more about the largeness of the sky and the smallness of me will help!

I told you I wasn’t ambitious. This is the smallest reading list I’ve ever made for a summer. You better finish this list, Jo.

I’m also interested in any recommendations you may have. What are you reading?

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.

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:)

Spring Break with Flannery

If you’re interested, you can read some notes I made during a very long van ride to Milledgeville, Georgia to research about Flannery O’Connor with my senior literature class. It’s mostly impressions and random, rambly thoughts. 🙂

Day One:

Maybe everything looks dirtier when it’s cloudy. The median is dotted with brown puddles full of plastic trash, and buildings are dingy and peeling off their old paint, almost like I do with nail polish when I’m tired of it. Some of the paint has stayed, but only out of sheer stubbornness, it’s clear. In some nameless town in Tennessee, there’s a strip club and an abandoned restaurant across the parking lot from one another, with graffiti on the bricks. Someone has written, “Gummy I love u” in sprawling red cursive.

I’ve seen an identical van to ours pass us with a group of people similar to ours. Their van had Louisiana plates and ours has Georgia ones, which is how I know it wasn’t really our doppelganger and I am me and not anyone in the other van. In the gas station just outside of Memphis, there was a young and harried mother yelling at one child while she changed another child’s diaper and thawed some breast milk in the bathroom sink. A third child stood quietly by the door, trying to avoid being in the way of anyone. We exchanged uncertain smiles and I ended up drying my hands on my pants.

I keep noticing road signs telling drivers statistics of how many are killed a year in car accidents. This all feels relevant, like living out an O’Connor story, almost. Instead of the memorable “the life you save” sign, I’ve seen several of its 2017 equivalent: “Use your blinking blinker.” Less eloquent, maybe, but making a similar point–watch how you go. The life you save may be your own.

I slept through Mississippi.

Alabama looks remarkably like parts of Arkansas, and yet not the same at all. I can’t figure out the difference. It’s hillier than Southern Arkansas and, while there are still plenty of pines, I notice a lot more hard woods mixed in. They’re all jumbled up together. I guess the terrain isn’t all that different, just new. Signs: “City of Hamilton: Small Town Living at Its Best” and, just below it, “Please don’t text and drive.” The life you save may be your own.

Redbuds and possum haws pepper the tree line like hasty brushstrokes of color against a bruised gray canvas.

Outside Birmingham there start to be more apostrophes on the billboards. A sign for a lawyer’s office says “One Call, Y’all” and a couple miles later, there’s this sign: “Bringin’ the jobs back home.” Every time I hear the names Birmingham or Atlanta, there’s a voice in my head starts saying civil war, civil war, civil war, and then I go through the litany of other names for it: War between the states, war of southern secession, of northern aggression. War in which neighbors fought one another among the rolling hills of the eastern United States. War in which a girl’s sweetheart might have fought her brother or her father and she would have stayed home, hoping for it to end before any of them died.

We don’t do the romanticizing about war that they did then, which is perhaps good–maybe we’ve seen uglier things in the past century and a half. But it’s possible that, although we don’t romanticize, we also don’t do as much remembering. We don’t have uncles and fathers and grandfathers telling us what they saw and did; we get our knowledge out of books, which lends itself either to romanticizing or not remembering at all. I forget that I had ancestors on both sides of that war, some who didn’t want to fight at all, but who were forced to. It’s easy to look back and question what is really worth taking up arms for–easy to forget amid placid everyday events that we haven’t really come up with a better way of settling disagreements when nothing else will work. What on earth is worth fighting for? Worth dying for? Worth killing for? It almost sounds barbaric even to contemplate.

I don’t have the sense of southern pride maybe I ought to, having grown up in the south. My generation in general seems to be lacking in a sense of civic pride or patriotism, and I’m not altogether sure why. I understand the south more than I would other regions, I guess, but I still have a hard time understanding how humiliated the south felt after surrendering. It’s hard to understand the concept of separate water fountains for black and white people.

Madison, Georgia: Everything looks more official if you plant a wooden fence in front of it.

Pecan orchard on the left in Eatonton, Putnam county, home of Joel Chandler Harris. No one except the professors had heard of Brer Rabbit. Maybe in avoiding romanticism we’ve swung to the other extreme of having forgotten everything past.

Then again, maybe I’m reverting to my natural smartypantsness. Sometimes I feel like the unnamed child in O’Connor’s story “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” who rages at people who either disagree with or don’t understand her beliefs, until she’s confronted with something she can’t understand herself, something which challenges her views of orthodoxy. The reason no one my age knows Brer Rabbit is that no one read it to them. And it’s possible there’s a good reason Joel Chandler Harris isn’t read to kids nowadays. The same reason, I guess, that my viewing of Disney’s Song of the South was technically illicit. Censorship is a strange thing.

A nice downtown with Christmas lights on the trees is cheery. And a cool Georgia night makes dogwoods and white columns enchanting. You can smell the jasmine before you see the vaguely yellow silhouette of its blooms.

The hotel shower doesn’t drain.

Day Two

Wake up and get an early breakfast. The lady working the buffet has lived in Milledgeville all her life and can’t believe we’d come all the way from Arkansas just to read some books in their library. On spring break, no less. We get some coffee and head to the special collections room, where we have to down our coffee fast before we can go in. Three hours almost isn’t enough to scribble down all the new things that might help us with our papers. Then the afternoon is devoted to walking around Flannery’s farm and the old area of Milledgeville.

At Andalusia, we’re greeted first by the peacock, who responds to our hellos by violently spreading his tail. I’m reminded of one of the stories in which a priest is struck dumb and also moved to tears by the sight. Next we’re greeted by a charming man with a Georgian accent, who says things like “you all” and politely says “facilities” for bathrooms. When referring to himself, he says “yours truly.” Charming, charming man, telling us all about Flannery and her mother and her home, giving us his “irreligious” interpretations, the result of two things: His Methodism and ensuing distaste for Thomas Aquinas.

Our walking tour of Milledgeville is headed up by the very enthusiastic Jim, who gets mysteriously excited when talking about Flannery O’Connor’s favorite mayonnaise recipe. Jim leads us all around town, his own interests giving us perhaps a more extensive tour than we would have gotten from someone more objective. I retain most of what I hear, but I don’t worry about the rest, contenting myself to gaze in raptures at the lovely white mansions, all bedecked with dogwoods and redbuds and some Japanese maples. I enjoy seeing Flannery’s church and the view she would have seen every day at mass or confession.

Then Jim, his eyes twinkling a little, leads us through the cemetery to prove to us a theory about O’Connor family relations. It’s a beautiful graveyard, ancient and full of trees, and headstones of people who died centuries before, some dying young and some old. It’s mostly because it’s in itself a solemn place that I pay attention to Jim’s speculations about mayonnaise and family plots.

The next place we go is more somber still: the old asylum/penitentiary for which Milledgeville was renowned. We pass the new facility (deemed boring by Jim) and wind around decrepit brick buildings that are half reclaimed by the ivy and weeds overtaking the cement. There’s another cemetery here, for the patients of the mental hospital, but the graves are mostly unmarked. The graves that are marked are done so only with numbers on small metal pegs. People are forgotten here, and only recently was a memorial statue erected, of a very stark angel posing dramatically on the hillside.

It’s so quiet, and the idea of the confinement of any soul who was in any way aberrant, possibly being subjected to cruel and inhumane treatment, does fire the imagination and cause you to shudder. Jim has ghost stories and conspiracy theories that he will only hint at, skirting the edges of conjecture and genuine ignorance of why enormous, seemingly operational buildings are still guarded, or why the grounds are still so carefully tended. Again, it’s remarkably quiet but for the birdsong, and I am on the verge of thinking strange things when the tour has ended and we’ve waved goodbye to the colorful Jim.

Then we’re eating and remembering the day and everything seems worth laughing about, even the moments of strangeness.

It’s 8:11 and I want to go to sleep. Woohoo what a crazy Spring Break.

Day Three:

I can’t get over how excited that guy was about recent scholarhsip that proved which recipe of mayonnaise was Flannery’s favorite. That just doesn’t seem like a fulfilling life to me. It’s like the idea that mayonnaise by itself is filling–ridiculous to imagine. Mayo goes with other things to (maybe) make them taste better. I don’t see the point of some of the literary scholarship people write, if they’re not seeking to understand more about life or what tends to happen in life. It’s like eating mayo plain.

I’m back to questioning the usefulness of a thing, which is always a dangerous contemplation when your majors are music and English.

I’m not saying something has to produce results a, b, and to be useful or even worthwhile. Some things are ineffably worth our time, and I admit that others find things fulfilling that I never could, and vice versa. However, if going to grad school in English means obsessing over a single, famous person in an attempt either to know that stranger through analyzing her life for details about mayonnaise–or, alternatively, murderously dissecting her stories in an attempt to make them relevant to a society to which they were never intended to speak, I’d rather not go. I’d rather go plant a garden and work with my hands and produce something tangible.

If knowing about mayonnaises, or retracing the steps of a fictional journey in a story is what is meant by literary tourism, then I tend to agree with the lady in the hotel that driving 700 miles to visit a library is kind of crazy.

If I had to make a choice between being an O’Connor expert and knowing my neighbor, I’d rather know people in real life. What makes someone who’s published a few stories so much more interesting than Uncle Joe at family reunions, to whom you listen with reluctance and boredom if you’re caught in the same conversation? Again, these are dangerous meditations for an aspiring author, and perhaps I don’t know enough really to question what I’m questioning.

But what if you don’t really have to make a choice? What if we could listen well to all the stories we get told, whether we read them in an anthology or listen to Mr. Bill across the living room? I’m not suggesting you can go visit the home town of everyone who has a story just like you would with someone famous like Flannery O’Connor, but surely, if you considered their words important, you’d listen a little better. If the chapel speaker next Tuesday, for example, were someone on the level of Flannery O’Connor (or pick someone in your own field who’s widely admired and fan-girled over), I doubt anyone would be texting during the lecture. Or tweeting, or surfing Facebook.

Why on earth, then, is it an acceptable thing to do those things while someone lesser known is speaking? You would never have a conversation with someone else while a professor was having a one-on-one conversation with you. Why is it suddenly okay when you’re in a room with twenty other people and the same person is teaching you something you might not otherwise learn?

[Oh, looky there. A soapbox. I was standing right on it, sorry.]

I guess I question some of the distinctions I make between which people are listening to and which aren’t. Why, for instance, is it worth knowing what kind of condiment was preferred by a 1950s author, and not worth knowing what your grandfather thinks about current events? What makes things important? What makes things interesting except how interested we are in them? Chesterton wrote a lot about little things, things that you would never expect to be written of seriously–things like chalk, and lying in bed, and taxi drivers.

To the accusation that he makes mountains of molehills, he wholeheartedly confesses that it is indeed his aim, to be as amazed by molehills as he is by mountains. What I’m trying to say is that mountains are interesting and molehills are interesting, if you will be interested. Flannery is important and the lady who cleans the student center is important. I’d like to be humble enough to take a ready interest in whatever situation I happen to find myself in.

In the Emory library (which is horribly and wonderfully official and regulated) we go to the 10th floor to the special research room which you have to be buzzed in and out of by the librarians. It feels fancy until you realize you have no idea what you’re doing. The librarian brings you a box at a time, each filled with letters and archival materials like pictures and religious keepsakes. What on earth should I look at? What should I copy down? Who can say? 

You copy down anything of remote interest, scribe-style, until noon, when you wander around the campus hospital cafeteria, bewildered at all the options and losing hope of ever finding the exit. Then a nice man comes and offers to take your tray. Bless you, kind man.

Emory is a large school, at least it seems large to me, because I am a small town girl. Dang it, there is no denying it, even if I wanted to. I am easily amazed. There were a lot of people, all of whom appeared to have their lives together more than I do. I don’t know what I meant by that statement.

Four more hours in the library and I’ve read many letters and looked at many pictures. Everything I’ve learned over the past two days is starting to loop through my mind, blurring with what I knew before and what I still don’t know. Comfort food for dinner and a cookie for dessert and I ‘m ready for bed at 8:30. What is wrong with me? I’m turning into my parents: a long soak in the bathtub and I’m the most content person in the hotel. All’s right with the world.

Except I feel I ought to keep going, keep reading, or else talk to a dear friend about something entirely unrelated. Going to sleep this early feels like cheating, somehow. It’s the introvert ghost, haunting me, telling me I’m not as much of a person if I’m not out around other people.  I need some excuse to be alone–something useful like homework or leisure reading. Oh goodness.

Day Four:

Our last stop is at the Ave Maria Grotto, where a monk named Brother Joseph crafted miniatures of religious sites with spare materials like broken glass and such. It was gorgeous and his story was moving–he’d wanted to be a priest but his back was injured early on and he became a brother instead, in charge of shoveling coal into the monastery’s furnace. Humble, unbeautiful work, for a small, humble man. The care he put into each monument shows: small details are attended to, like having multiple clocks on a church tower match the time they tell, or making sure decorative flourishes are consistent and symmetrical.

Walking through, I kept gazing at small thing after small thing that would catch my attention, thinking about the reverence and care Brother Joseph must have taken in building the miniatures. There is an infinite beauty in small things. That sounds pretentious, maybe, but I’d hold to it if pressed, I think. Maybe I mean that small things are worth caring for.

Not being Catholic, I know some of the meaning of the grotto was lost on me–I’ve had it drilled into me to avoid idolatry, and to me it’s confusing to revere so many statues and hold up individuals as patron saints. I don’t understand and I admit it. I almost felt like a heathen, looking at shrines to Mary when I don’t have the same feeling about her that Brother Joseph did or that many of the grotto’s visitors likely do. Yet I am a Christian and believe as they do that the Christian faith is more than just a nice story–that there really is a person, Jesus, who was and is both God and man, whose resurrection from death we celebrate at Easter as something that really happened.

I feel uneasy sometimes looking at Flannery O’Connor’s faith as it plays out in her stories. They’re not terribly comfortable to read as a Protestant. I felt today the same way i felt visiting the Catholic church in my hometown, when I wanted most of all not to be a sightseer, only there to figure out where we disagree and where my view is superior. I know there’re places, some of them foundational, where I wouldn’t agree with Flannery about faith. But I read her perspective with eagerness because it’s a genuine one. Flannery seemed to hate more than anything a kind of charlatan faith that only sought profit for the car salesman who made it up as he went. She doesn’t treat hypocrites with much patience and yet, in having them populated her stories, she often offers those characters the most grace, if they will take it.

I suppose I admire the effort Flannery took to tell the truth about what the world’s like. Similarly I admire Brother Joseph’s sense of vocation: working faithfully as a coal shoveler and crafting, in his spare time, beautiful things out of discarded materials.

I have a sudden doubt about the credence of any of the stuff I’ve been babbling about during this van ride. It’s like the insipid interview I gave for my school when we were at the grotto, when, waving my arms around at the carved rocks, I got out something about how I thought it was “cool” that someone so small and unattractive made something so beautiful. Awful, Jo.

I don’t actually remember what I said, but what I know is it’s not what I meant. I can’t ever say what I mean, quite. The English language either needs a few more words or I need to learn the English language better. Probably the latter.

If I were looking at this mess of impressions in the writing center, helping to consult my self, I would be a regular thesaurus, suggesting alternate words or phrases–saying condescending things like “consider beginning this paragraph with however or some other signal word” or “be sure all your verb tenses match!”

As I won’t be taking this to the writing center to have me look over it, I’ll probably just click submit and be horribly embarrassed later by five or ten comma splices. Or some other egregious error. One consolation is that Flannery O’Connor was awful at spelling, and became so famous that people go visit her hometown all the time. Even on their spring break.

Thesis in Disguise

A century ago or so, a portly English gentleman named Gilbert Keith Chesterton wrote a collection of essays which he entitled Tremendous Trifles. In his opening essay, he tells a parable–a fairy story, he says–about two boys who are each granted a wish by a passing milkman. The first boy asks to be made a giant, that he might stroll across the earth’s surface and see its wonders before teatime. However, as he investigates Niagara Falls, he finds it seems horribly insignificant–like a bathroom faucet–in comparison with his new, gargantuan stature. Other wonders have been rendered similarly unimpressive, so, Chesterton says, “he wandered round the world for several minutes trying to find something really large and finding everything small, till in sheer boredom he lay down on four or five prairies.” That boy comes to a bad end, but the real tragedy, it’s clear, is that the whole world is suddenly boring under his new perspective.

The other boy asks instead to become very small–about half an inch high–and discovers that his front yard, once small and insufficient, has become something immense and of infinite interest:

When the transformation was over he found himself in the midst of an immense plain, covered with a tall green jungle and above which, at intervals, rose strange trees each with a head like the sun in symbolic pictures, with gigantic rays of silver and a huge heart of gold. Toward the middle of this prairie stood up a mountain of such romantic and impossible shape, yet of such stony height and dominance, that it looked like some incident of the end of the world. And far away on the faint horizon he could see the line of another forest, taller and yet more mystical, of a terrible crimson colour, like a forest on fire for ever. He set out on his adventures across that coloured plain; and he has not come to the end of it yet.

One can imagine the adventures a boy, suddenly half an inch tall, might have upon encountering an army of ants, or a leviathan garter snake–things for which he might not have had much respect previously. It’s the adventure of seeing things with new eyes.

Chesterton admits happily that he is the pygmy–the boy who would rather see mole hills as mountains than lose all interest in the glory of Mt. Everest. The literature of the time proclaims all the “extraordinary things a man may see if he is active and strides from continent to continent like the giant” in the fairy story. But the aim of Tremendous Trifles is wholly different: “to show how many extraordinary things even a lazy and ordinary man may see if he can spur himself to the single activity of seeing.”

Look closely enough at anything and you’re liable to find something fascinating, in other words. Consider that all your great knowledge and stature and frantic activity might not be helping you to take in the wonders of the world, after all.

The final paragraph of this initial essay contain the highly-retweetable quotation which everyone (even folks who don’t realize the context) likes to reference. For me, it sparked an idea for an entire thesis (a project which I am currently having an exceedingly hard time finding joy or wonder in). I hear increasingly that our latest technologies are somehow making the world smaller–a good thing, it seems, when in reference to bridging cultures and countries–but a troubling concept for a “pygmy,” or anyone who gets concerned when people find virtual reality more engrossing than real life.

If you’ve got thoughts on this, I’d love to hear ’em, friend! Here’re the last three sentences of Chesterton’s piece for you:

I will sit still and let the marvels and the adventures settle on me like flies. There are plenty of them, I assure you. The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder.

Rumination (about books and food)

We know this word, right? Ruminate? What does it make you think of? I visualize two things, mainly: first, a cow’s second or third stomach or whatever, where it chews up (again) food that’s been partially digested. I also think of stew–but I try never to visualize these two things at the same time, because that’s just nasty.

Apparently “ruminate” has other meanings–did you know, for example, that it can be an adjective describing the “endosperm of a seed?”–specifically, of a seed that “appears chewed.” Nutmeg looks like this, apparently, as does some random seed called soursop (scientific name, Annona muricata). Completely beside the point I’m trying to make.

Other than the whole chewing thing, the more common definitions have to do with “meditating, contemplating, musing, pondering,” etc. My favorite of these:”To turn over repeatedly in the mind; to meditate deeply upon.” It makes sense: If something is worth thinking about, it’s worth thinking about again. Ask any cow–I’d imagine they’d confirm this. If something is worth eating, it’s worth eating again. It’s worth ruminating over.

Imagine this blog post is a slim little paperback–hold one finger here and keep this thought handy while I skip over one chapter (cause I can’t think of a good transition). We’ll come back to this idea of rumination (at which point I suppose we’ll be ruminating). Aaaah.

I was thinking about books and how, in my favorite books, the protagonist dies, or nearly dies, anyway. No, wait, that’s not what I’m getting at–let me try again.

was thinking about books. I was thinking about how there are all kinds of books: books that make you think, books that instruct you or improve your mind, books that entertain you, and books that distract you from problems of real life. And there are a few good books that take you deeper into real life.

It seemed sort of like different kinds of food–think of a four or five-course meal. There’s an appetizer, which may be excellent in a light, anticipatory way, but mainly serves to whet your appetite for something more filling. There are books like that.

There are also books more like salads than anything else–which are good for you but perhaps not the most delightful to devour, sometimes read as an obligation before you can get on to what you really want.

There are all sorts of dessert books: enjoyable, fluffy delights that are usually the most fun to read. They’re not always the healthiest, and sometimes they distract more than help you to think.

And there’s a main course. Think of any rich, hearty food you like–say, roast beef and potatoes, really excellently made. There is a sort of book that ought, anyway, to do most of the filling and which had better take you deeper into real life than merely help you escape it for a few hours.  I’ve been thinking of this lately: what are some books that are like that in the way they portray true life, even through fiction?

You can flip back to the place you saved in thought, where we were talking about what “ruminate” means. I mentioned early on that I think of a stew, but I didn’t explain why. I like thinking of synonyms for words I like, and one synonym for “ruminate” could be, I think, “to simmer.” I’m not sure you’ll find that in a thesaurus, but it makes sense to me to identify words like “simmer, meditate, ponder, and ruminate” with something like a slow-cooking, savory stew. One reason people always use “savory” to describe a stew is because you’ve got all these different tastes and textures in the same dish and it takes on a little of every ingredient. You taste all these elements and you can’t have one without the other.

[If you hate orange vegetables, don’t read this bit or I’ll ruin this illustration, but think of carrots by themselves versus carrots in stew. They’re not even the same vegetable anymore, because the stewed carrots have taken on eight or nine other flavors and absorbed them.]

My point is just that I’ve found some books like this, that draw on what’s been written previously and turn both works into something glorious. Some examples: Snake, by D.H. Lawrence, alluding wonderfully to Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Or Milton’s Paradise Lost, drawing in part from Spenser’s Faerie Queene. There are so many beautiful things in literature that I miss because I don’t take the time to dwell on what it’s saying or what’s been said before.

I’d forgotten how lovely a good book can be. Caught up in books of instruction (none of which are bad) and fact, I forgot how deeply a good author can probe and help me reflect earnestly on real life. Recently I read C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, and I suddenly remembered. He’d redeemed a story I loved anyway, and made it better than before. It was a story that prompted thought, rather than suspended it. It took me this whole time to get to it, but if you haven’t read it I wholeheartedly recommend that you do.

If you have read it, or if you’ve thought, while reading this, of another especially lovely book, feel free to share those thoughts. Thanks for reading.

About Mercy

One time I was getting a root canal and the endodontist took one look at me, found out my majors were English and Music, and flat out told my mother “Oh this one’ll never get a job, I can tell.” That root canal was a painful experience for a number of reasons, and after that comment the tears in my eyes weren’t really caused by the whine of the dentist drill.

However, you know what they say: sticks and stones may break my bones, but comments made by complete strangers over a dentistry chair will never hurt me. Or something like that.

It seems pretty clear that people have a hard time seeing any practical value in the majors I chose. The assumption is something along the lines of “Oh, so you want to teach?” Welllllll. No, not exactly. I promise I do have ambitions for my life other than to sit in my parents’ basement and read all day and all night, but in college, I’ve loved studying what I enjoy. And I guess that’s why I picked English, and why I actually stuck it out with Music.

I’m thinking maybe those people who assume I’ll be a teacher someday are right–because if you love something enough, you’re likely going to tell people about it. People are evangelistic about their passions. Maybe I will become a teacher of sorts; maybe I will become a nerd.

I don’t know that much, but I can tell you about what I’ve been learning lately. Usually I reserve this sort of raving about English Literature to one (or sometimes two) friends, but tonight there’s several things I’ve thought about. There are three authors, mainly: a guy named William Shakespeare, his contemporary Christopher Marlowe, and a poet named Edward Rowland Sill, who was not only decidedly not a contemporary of the previous two, but was also not their countryman. He was born in Connecticut in 1841 and I don’t know much else about him. I’m not sure anyone does.

In Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice, one of the characters makes a lovely speech about the ‘quality of mercy.’ It’s a well-known section, so you may recognize it:

“The quality of mercy is not strain’d,

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest, it becomes

The throned monarch better than his crown.

His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,

The attribute to awe and majesty, 

Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;

But mercy is above this sceptred sway,

It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,

It is an attribute to God himself:

And earthly power doth then show likst God’s 

When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,

Though justice be thy plea, consider this,

That in the course of justice, none of us 

Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy,

And that same prayer doth teach us all to render

The deeds of mercy (MOV IV. i. 184-203)

Perhaps it’s more beautiful in the context of the play, but I can’t get over it. I can’t get over the concept of mercy, which is odd because I often go about my day more-or-less unconcerned that I trust in a just and merciful God. The Sill poem I’ll include further down talks more about this lack of mercy in the world–it proposes that, while good men may be just, anyone who recognizes his own foolishness must plead to God for mercy, because God is the only one who grants grace.

I think there must be a balance there that’s hard to grasp: understanding both the bad news of the Gospel–that we’re all sinners deserving of death–and the wildly good news that Christ offers grace. Sometimes we downplay the bad news and say that we’re not really that bad–or, as Dorothy Sayers says, we consciously or unconsciously think God’s standards too picky or unrealistic to be worth striving for. From The Mind of the Maker: “The God of the Christians is too often looked upon as an old gentleman of irritable nerves who beats people for whistling.”

Other times perhaps we think of grace as something God owes us. To be fair, we think, God has to offer grace to everyone. But that’s starting to sound more like justice, which God does extend to everyone. God is just. And that justice would lead to one sentence for everyone, were God not also merciful…


In Marlowe’s play, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, the title character is thinking through all the things he’s learned in his study of various disciplines. One of these is divinity, which he rejects on the basis that man’s nature compels him to sin, and since sin’s wages are everlasting death, there is no hope or recourse to be found. That seems logical, and it might be true except that Faustus leaves off the second part of the verse he quotes. In the verse Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord,” Faustus stops after the word “death.” He doesn’t consider the “gospell-y” part of the verse. Nor does he accept that he does have sin; rather, he’s so proud of all his learning that ultimately he desires to be as God.

If you haven’t read Faustus, I’ll just tell you now–it all kind of goes downhill from there.

So here’s my favorite of the three things that’ve been going through my head:

The Fool’s Prayer, by Edward Roland Sill

It’s pretty long, so if you’re interested, there’s an external site you can find it on. It’s beautiful, and I think it speaks for itself pretty well, so I won’t ramble on about it, except to say it always reminds me how precious God’s mercy is–and how undeserved.

I just finished a book called Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, by a man named Nabeel Qureshi. If you haven’t read it, I recommend it. Near the end, when contemplating the incredible pain his conversion to Christianity will cause himself and his family, he reads Jesus’s words in Matthew 5, verse 6, and writes the following:

“I hunger and thirst for righteousness, I do, but I can never attain it. God will bless me anyway? Who is this God who loves me so much, even in my failures?” (Qureshi, 276)

Having grown up with the concept of grace, I take it for granted. That’s crazy. These are things I’ve been thinking through, and if you want to chime in, comment away:)

Have a lovely day, and thanks for reading.


About Joy and Melancholy

For an English class I’m taking, I’ve been reviewing the papers I’ve written for my English classes. And I got to this one, and it turns out I wrote it exactly a year ago. So of course I read it:) I guess it’s a terribly nerdy thing to publish one’s own (required) English papers. It’s an even nerdier thing to want to read someone’s required English papers. But if you want to, please do, and let me know your thoughts.

It turns out I only ever write the same paper with small variances each time. Thanks for reading me:)

Samuel Coleridge: A Return to Joy

Recently, my pastor spoke on certain gifts God has given those who follow Him; one of them, to my surprise, was grief. Grief and accompanying disappointment, he said, are gifts in that they remind us of what we truly value. Disappointment teaches us to value the right things, and grief, when it comes, brings us back to reliance on God. My pastor’s inclusion of grief on a list of God’s blessings surprised me, but I more-or-less accepted it and thought about other things. In writing this response, however, the sermon I heard a few weeks ago has come back into my mind, especially in considering the following passage:

…and sometimes

‘Tis well to be bereft of promised good,

That we may lift the Soul, and contemplate

With lively joy the joys we cannot share. (Coleridge 64-7)

When I read Coleridge’s “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison,” the above lines stood out to me as being especially worth remembering.  He wrote the poem under circumstances of loneliness, and, likely, pain, and yet he realized that his surroundings—his so-called prison—were lovely and full of comfort.

What I like about Coleridge, especially in this poem, is that, when he begins his meditation, he is despondent, but by the time he is finished, his soul is more peaceful than before. It seems as if his poetry is therapy for himself—if such was the case, I can certainly identify in that way with Coleridge. Although I do not struggle with an addiction as he did, I often become despondent or discouraged, and it is at those times that I find writing to be a gift. Writing, especially writing poetry or meditative prose, helps purge me of my despair and often leads me back to the hope I have in Christ. I write alone, which, similar to Coleridge’s situation, might seem sad to some people. However, if there is anything I have responded to with the Romantic tradition, it is the idea that melancholy is not always negative. Being alone and a little pensive is a means of developing thought and character, and is often precisely what I need. In a world where I have access to knowledge of what any number of friends is doing—of what I could be doing at any given moment—I value the ability to sit and simply be, without feeling as if I’m continually left out.

“That we may lift the Soul, and contemplate / With lively joys the joys we cannot share” (66-7). At first, Coleridge expresses disappointment that he cannot share his friend’s first experience of the sights that so delight him. He does not necessarily blame his wife for injuring his foot and thus confining him to his garden,[1] but he regrets losing “beauties and feelings, such as would have been / Most sweet to my remembrance even when age / Had dimmed mine eyes to blindness!” (2-5). He tends toward exaggeration: his garden-bower is therefore a prison, and he idealizes the “beauties and feelings” from which he is excluded. This is perhaps the more natural reaction: having been prevented from taking part in a long-awaited visit, Coleridge might be excused some jealousy. However, as he reviews them in his imagination, he begins to anticipate Charles’s joy, and that, in turn, gives him joy.

This seems like such a healthier, such a better, way of thinking, and, reading the turn in Coleridge’s thought, I wished I could have the same view of disappointing situations. I have stayed back from many events, either because I don’t feel I belong or because I have other obligations, and, in those situations, I tend toward a morose jealousy. Whether I admit it to myself or not, my gut reaction to deferred good is bitterness. Sometimes, though, I force myself to stop thinking of my feelings or misfortune, and consider the good in the situation. It may be that, because I was unable to go to the lake with a group of friends, for example, I had the time to read or think, or talk quietly with a friend who may have needed company.

Choosing to rejoice in the good fortune of others seems to be the happier, healthier attitude—as at Christmas, when, rather than compare my gifts with my siblings’, I choose to be glad for their sakes. Then again, I receive joy from anticipating peoples’ reactions to the gifts I have chosen for them; if I have put thought and feeling into finding what I think they will truly value, I would be disappointed not to see the expression on their faces when they unwrap their present. Perhaps this is a little of the disappointed feeling Coleridge has at the onset of the poem: having spent so much time anticipating Charles and Mary Lamb’s visit, only to miss seeing Charles’s reaction to, say, the purple flowers shining in the sunset, or “isles of purple shadow.”

How does he make up for the loss of such “beauties and feelings” as watching the sun set on a “kindled” ocean under a “wide, wide Heaven?” He imagines his friend experiencing such beauty for the first time, and the joy he imagines coming to Charles comes to him as well: “a delight / Comes sudden on my heart, and I am glad / As if I myself were there!” (43-5). Now he begins noticing the beauty of his lime-tree bower, once a prison. He notices little things like a leaf’s stem making shadows on the transparent leaf, and the sights and sounds of twilight. “Henceforth I shall know,” he says, “That Nature ne’er deserts the wise and pure; / No plot so narrow, be but Nature there, / No waste so vacant, but may well employ / Each faculty of sense, and keep the heart / Awake to Love and Beauty!” (59-64)

I identify with this view of Nature as a healing force. Whenever I am truly discouraged, I seek the outdoors—specifically a place where I can sit and notice little things of beauty. In college, I have found two spots on campus that have filled the role of Coleridge’s lime-tree bower: both are benches, one down near Speer Pavilion, the other just outside Berry Bible Building. From the bench at Speer, I can see the river, and, more importantly, the river’s bend, which I connect with hope and the anticipation of the unknown. I often hear birdsong, and on one occasion, I listened to a chorus of owls from across the river. It’s there that I have written the compositions that have shaped my thinking most clearly, because it’s there that I have the time and space to think clearly and process my thoughts. I notice things more there, and outside Berry, whether it’s the birdsong or the sunlight making the roses glow bright pink, dappled with sun and shade like Coleridge’s lime leaves. It is at times when I am at my leisure to notice well my surroundings that I realize how remarkable nature is. I wonder things like, “Why did God make flowers such a ruddy-pink?” God did not have to make the world so beautiful, yet He did. I wish I noticed it more.

These thoughts, thoughts that focus less on my circumstances than on truths I can be thankful for—these are what change my mindset from discouraged to content. If I can “employ each faculty of sense—” whether through looking or listening—under Coleridge’s view of Nature, my heart will keep awake to Love and Beauty. Joy will remain. Not just joy, but the “deep joy” Coleridge describes is highly attractive to me. He imagines Charles looking out over the wide landscape, and being overwhelmed with an inexplicable feeling of something more. Coleridge tries to describe it for the reader, speaking of a “swimming sense” that things are “less gross than bodily,” but this description seems vague and unsatisfying. Directly after, he compares the feeling of deep joy to the effect of the Holy Spirit on one’s soul, and that, to me, is a little clearer, though I still feel that Coleridge must have struggled to evoke the emotion he intended. I think I know what he meant, although I doubt I could express it any better than he did.

The feeling I am thinking of is one of reveling in the way the world is—and yet, it might not be particularly happy. It is seeing your surroundings with an eye of intense delight, as if you are seeing more to them than what is normally apparent. As Coleridge says, it is as when the “Almighty Spirit…yet [he] makes / Spirits perceive his presence.” I have felt a little of this enigmatic sensation, most often when surrounded by natural beauty, and I have encountered it in books. L.M. Montgomery, who wrote the “Anne of Green Gables” series, had a fondness for crafting highly-poetical, romantic heroines, such as Anne or the title character of the “Emily” series, both of whom were subject to what Emily called “the Flash.” The Flash, according to Emily, was a trance-like state that might come over her and make her extraordinarily sensitive to beauty or, in a broader sense, truth—especially truth that might not be apparent under ordinary circumstances. For Anne, the feeling manifested itself in her ability to notice the ethereal beauty of her environment. Perhaps the feeling comes with a tendency to poeticize one’s surroundings, a tendency Coleridge decidedly possesses.

And yet, this same sort of feeling shows up in C.S. Lewis’ autobiography, “Surprised by Joy.” As I recall, Lewis experienced a sense of longing, an “unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.” Such a sensation he devotes an entire book to describing, or trying to describe—that of a depth of intense feeling that attracts him again and again. He calls it Joy, and differentiates the feeling from happiness or pleasure. Coleridge does not explicitly make such a distinction, so perhaps the two feelings are not the same. Regardless, in reading Coleridge’s words, I was reminded of Lewis’s, and further reminded of instances where I think I have had similar, if not identical, flashes of joy.

I think it happens most often when I am very content or very distraught, and less often when I am routinely going about my days, intent on getting things done. If I am feeling well and particularly happy to be alive, I might look up at the sky and feel a glad shudder go through me, simply because I can hardly believe this is real life. If I am sad, however, or discouraged, or only feeling a little lonely, everything around me, though beautiful, seems not enough. There ought to be more, I think—and the thought is never completed. I don’t know what it is that I long for more of, exactly, and even if I knew, perhaps I could not express it. Chesterton, in his Orthodoxy, speaks of a Christian being out-of-place in the world, and thus feeling “homesick at home.” Even in the middle of standing, like Coleridge, with a wide, wide view of an incredibly lovely world, I feel that something is missing—and I long for its completion.


[1] Just previous to the visit of his friends, Coleridge’s wife, Sara, accidentally spilled scalding milk on his foot, preventing Coleridge from walking with his friends during their visit.

The Pursuit of God, part two

Alright, friends, so this is pretty much what it sounds like from the title–a continuation of my reading of The Pursuit of God, by a man named Aiden Wilson Tozer (I kind of prefer the name A.W.). If you aren’t a fan of what I wrote last time, no worries, sooner or later I’ll finish the book and get back to writing about important things like moped accidents. Or not, I don’t know.

Anyway, I’ve been making my way through the book, and I’ve been enjoying it because it’s made me think of a variety of connections with C.S. Lewis, Chesterton, and other authors. I’ve had some questions, and I’ve seen places where I don’t automatically assent, but I’ve had to wrestle with ok, what does this mean when I try and live it out?

Case in point: the second chapter, entitled “The Blessedness of Possessing Nothing.” Like this post, and this blog in general, the chapter is pretty much what it sounds like. Basically, Tozer goes through the story of Abraham and Isaac and declares the importance of truly dying to oneself and one’s possessions–even if one holds on to possessions such as loved ones and relationships out of fear for their safety. Things, says Tozer, get in the way of our knowing God. Specifically, it’s the trying to keep things, even the blessings God gives, that hinders us from following him.

This is a hard chapter for me, and I wasn’t sure about the idea of including it, because it involves a change in my own outlook, especially as regards my family and friends and my plans for the future. I still think they are mine, as this blog is mine, to do with as I please. See, I guess it’s pretty obvious how often I don’t trust God to do what is best. I’m still struggling with this chapter, so I won’t say more except to include two quotations it made me think of. The first is from Matthew 6, toward the end of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, where he is talking about worry.

Jesus says, “Therefore do not worry, saying ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” (emphasis mine)

Well, please be gracious to me if you’re a bible scholar and I’m doing something awful to these verses by not quoting the entire context, but it seems like Tozer is making a similar point to the one Jesus was making. Tozer says we’re prone toward “self” and wanting to keep our selves (and all that we own) safe and happy, and that’s what we’re concerned with, until we give all of it over to God. Jesus tells us not to worry about necessities (Tozer’s “things”) because God is good and knows what we need. Both say to seek God.

The other thing I thought of was something Jim Eliot said. I first learned about Jim Elliot from my brother, I think, when he read Dave and Neta Jackson’s Trailblazer series. The Jacksons wrote all these books for children about Christian missionaries, and they were always in a historical-fiction setting, with the main character usually an imagined younger person who might have been there and observed their ministry. It’s a great series. Anyway, the quote I thought of is this: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”

I’ve had to turn that thought over and over to try and really get it. It’s not a comfortable thought, maybe–especially not at first (or second or third) glance. It seems more like something that becomes more true to a person as he lives his life according to it. Even if you assent to it being true, it only becomes sweeter after living it out.

Anyway, there’s my take on chapter two–thanks for reading!