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.


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,
(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
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.

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

I am small
and helpless.

You are great and good.

Hide me til it passes over.

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.

Prosey Poesy

This post was supposed to be a smarty-pants book review of Eric Metaxas’s If You Can Keep It, but I got about halfway through and got annoyed by what I was writing, so I’m taking a break on that particular ramble.

Instead, here are two sort-of poems. They’re lazy poems, rough poems, slapped-down-on-paper poems which I really should heavily edit before putting them anywhere people can read them. The second one isn’t even finished yet. But since when do I edit things I write? I’ll get to them in a minute.

Last semester, I read a lot of Flannery O’Connor’s works, both fiction and non-fiction. I even wrote a smarty-pants paper about disability in her life and in her short stories. It’s a topic I probably had no business writing about, but it got me thinking a lot about the Christian response to suffering. Long story short, O’Connor seemed to agree with this guy named Pere Teilhard de Chardin, a French philosopher/priest who wrote about what he called “passive dimishments,” or suffering that cannot be avoided or escaped, but must be endured. This sort of suffering, for the Christian, is to be accepted (Flannery wrote that she hoped to accept suffering in her own life “if possible, with joy”).

Important note: when a miserable situation occurs and a person can mitigate his suffering, he should do whatever he can not to suffer–just in case you were thinking this was starting to sound like grim fatalism. Passive diminishments are different in that they are instances where there is not really an option for improvement, so the options are either to accept reality or to be doubly miserable, refusing to learn and grow from the (perhaps undeserved) “diminishment.”

Anyway, I started thinking about my own life, and how I haven’t suffered at all to speak of, but other people have, and I may someday soon. In another post on here I wrote about the future in terms of a Story, in which the characters may not know the impending plot twist, but the Author does and, if he is a good author, will write the story so that even surprising events are somehow right and meaningful in the end. [Click here for that ramble: On Wanting to Know]

In that frame, as you might expect, I was thinking of how God as the Author of creation knows his plans for his people–Psalm 139 uses similarly literary language, saying “…in Your book they all were written, the days fashioned for me, when as yet there were none of them.” It’s a comforting thought if you know God as a merciful, mighty Father whose plans are perfectly right and good.

And yet it’s kind of scary at the same time. I can say til my face turns blue that I trust that what the future holds will be meaningful and worth-while, but when something actually arises that is too hard for me to handle, how am I going to respond? Last week I was sick off and on for several days and I was so impatient to be well and up and around–doing something useful–finally realizing in the middle of the last round of sickness that I hadn’t done a dandy job of honoring God in the middle of feeling crummy.

And other people have ailments far more serious than the stomach bug.

Here’s what I’ve been thinking of–that episodes of the stomach bug and even the persistent, eternal common cold can prepare us for some harder thing in the future, if we’re willing to accept those things we cannot avoid as being given by a good God for a good purpose in the future. I’m not saying the bad things that happen are good in themselves, just that nothing God gives is, or ever can be, pointless.

I’d like to hear your thoughts if you want to share them. Here’s the poem:


I want my works to justify;
I wish my words expressed me.
In suffering I’d like to rise
And rejoice in times that test me.

But I can hardly keep the faith
Through little trials that come.
Complaint and doubt bestrew the way:
I choose the hard road home.

I haven’t suffered much, and still
I tend to worry and despair
That some thing waits unseen, unknown
For which the present should prepare.

And since I have not suffered well,
But struggle to accept
The daily, inconvenient Given—
God’s promise made and kept—

How can I, then, expect to be
A martyr or a saint
When daunting grace draws near to me
And my weak soul grows faint?

I curse this inability
To say with grace some worthwhile thing:
Moses-like, I have a tongue
Unfit to praise my God, my King.

My rhymes are forced, as are my works,
And dead: they have no power
To justify or plead my case
When comes the darkling hour.

Then bless, my soul, this living hope
Which cannot be defeated:
My Intercessor, Savior, Friend
Who, long ago, entreated

Me to come to Him, when I
Was sick with fear
And, casting doubt aside, has granted
Love and cheer.

Cheer that stays through charcoal dusk
And crows aloud at morning;
Love that wonders at all things
And gives herself, an offering.

An offering of praise and thanks—
A quiet, glad assurance
That all is grace, that God is good—
I learn from this forbearance.

And here’s the prosey excerpt thing:

The man of acts says he is pierced by a great thorn—
I believe it. Scholars consider what Paul meant
And what shape the thorn might have taken.
I think it is enough to know there was a thorn,
Even in the side of one so earnestly following his Lord.
Enough to wonder at the curious way God governs,
Giving weaknesses as if they are gifts, and planning
For His children paths utterly unpredictable to human hearts.
Blessings that do not look like blessings
Til seen with new eyes.

Thanks for reading.

The Plan

A couple weeks ago I had just completed my final undergraduate assignment–reading my paper about Flannery O’Connor for faculty and friends–and I was waiting for the next day’s graduation.

So then I graduated. It was the perfect day: I smiled and cried and spent the afternoon with a few people, quietly celebrating four lovely years. I love celebrating things in a certain way–with people who understand that joy doesn’t always have to be raucous (although belly laughter is one of the best feelings in the world). Often, I find a certain kind of joy that’s real and glad and good, but that’s a little bit solemn–or maybe I mean serious. I have been seriously happy these weeks, just being with my family.

I’ve unpacked and cleaned and painted and written notes and gone to a piano recital and to the lake. I’ve mowed and picked apples and had a tea party on the floor with my niece and nephew. We jumped on the trampoline and my niece taught me how to feed her baby heifer Isabel, who had a very slimy nose. I’ve had time to read, and I’ve played Chopin and Amy Beach purely for pleasure. I’ve had coffee with my mom, which is what I wanted just about most of all. It’s been idyllic, mainly.

But then a week had gone by and I didn’t know what I was doing. I was half afraid someone from school would come knock on my door and say, “Now, Jo, what is your plan, now that you’ve graduated?” I doubted whether any of what I just listed would satisfy a future employer or potential grad school. And I didn’t feel any closer to knowing what it is I want to do with my life, as far as job titles go. Can writer please count?

If you’ll notice, I didn’t list “writing” as one of the things I did that first week–this blog post is my first attempt at sorting things out, and I’m terrified that writing is just one of the things I would tell people to try to get them to stop asking about the plan–rather than something I really mean to put effort toward.

The truth was I didn’t have a plan, and I was realizing how audacious (read, stupid) of me that was. I joked with my family that after college, I was going to be a bum for a year. Except now I kinda felt like a bum, and it had only been a week.

Every now and then, in the middle of walking through my house–I would be quite happy, then suddenly the thought would come, almost audible: what are you doing, Jo? How dare you not be planning for the future? You can’t bum off your parents forever and living on your own is going to require money. You aren’t being a productive member of society if you aren’t at least sending out your resume to work or continuing with grad school.

If you haven’t noticed, friend, this is shaping up to be a blog post about what almost all my blog posts are about, which is the struggle between working and worrying; between striving and trusting. It’s about fretting and constantly wondering if I’ve done the right thing or if the other decision would have been better. And Oh, God, I don’t know if I’ll ever learn the lesson.

But we do keep trying.

A dear friend sent the following to me, and at the time I didn’t think I needed it–I just thanked my friend and went on unpacking (or whatever I was doing at the time):

Don’t forget to find your self-worth in Christ’s righteousness, instead of whether or not you have a stereotypical job.

I don’t understand how the Holy Spirit does that–prompts people to send words of encouragement that, even if they don’t seem relevant at the time, at some point will be effective in another person’s life.

What I mean to do is make a sort-of plan for this year, a plan that’s still not quite up-to-par with anything someone aspiring to be CEO of a company would have in mind after college. It’s a plan for what I want to learn and do and accomplish, and write. I’ll be putting some updates on here, probably, as I go, and as I descend into various existential crises and, by God’s grace, come back out.

I’m starting off by reading all the books that have accumulated in the packing crates I used for bookshelves in the dorm room:

If You Can Keep It and Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery, both by Eric Metaxas. Small is Beautiful by E. F. Schumacher, The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers and Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton (both of which I have been reading for years now and haven’t finished yet!). The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis.

There are others, and when I’m done with mine, my father has bookshelf upon bookshelf of things he’s promised I may read. To keep myself accountable, I’ll try to write a quick thought or two about what I learned, so that if you’ve read the same book, we can compare notes and learn something together.

I’m also working on projects around my parents’ house, many of which involve learning handy skills, such as scraping, painting, plumbing, and things they generally don’t teach you in college. I’ll be figuring out how to save and spend money wisely (hopefully), and when to take a rest and when to keep working.

I suppose I want to figure out what is worth doing–and then I want to learn to do those things really well. It’s not that impressive of a plan, but thank you for reading:)

Music and Graduation

Waiting to graduate is like waiting for a train to actually come into the station, when it’s still a mile out and creeping along. You can see the bright light, you can hear it whistling, and the bar at the railroad crossing has just lowered and is flashing and dinging like mad. Exciting times–but hard not to rush these last few weeks. Motivation has made herself pretty scarce these days.

I wrote that a month ago as the beginning of some unfinished blog post. I think I’ll leave it unfinished. It certainly felt true at the time, but today the graduation train is closer to the station and I don’t feel so impatient. I feel downright sentimental about that train. And while I’m still glad to be finishing college, I don’t feel as much like getting the heck out of Dodge as I did a month ago.

It’s kind of like how, when I was a kid living in the country, I wanted to live in a neighborhood, with a cute, normal house instead of a crazy in-construction mobile home. But when we moved to said cute, normal house, I yearned more than anything for the freedom and space of the country. I’m not exactly digging in my heels to stay in college forever, but I feel really glad for every second I’ve spent here.

Tonight I went to a choir concert, the 200th or so of all the concerts I’ve been required to attend as a music major. Just a few days ago, I tossed that figure out as a complaint–“ugh, look at all the music stuff I’ve had to go to since they wouldn’t let me quit music!” But oh goodness, tonight I looked up at all the lovely faces of new friends and old friends and started bawling like a baby.

Not literally bawling. My eyes just started leaking, and I tried to shield my face from my friend sitting next to me, even though we’ve known each other since the first day of freshman year. Every song was more beautiful than the last, and I praised God for the wonderful, gorgeous gift of music. I was smiling, too, but mostly through these crazy tears because I am so thankful I had to go to those 200 concerts, if only so that I’d be there tonight.

Most of the things I complain about are precious gifts that I’m failing to recognize as such. Having to go listen to music as homework is one of those, I guess.

Last night I played in a concert–an extremely loud, raucous, steel drum concert–where I got to play an African drum, a Snapple bottle, and a chicken waterer, among other things. Oh, the fun I’ve had in that group! Looking back, it was a big factor in reminding me why I liked music in the first place. It brought some of the fun back into it. Sharing music with others to bring them joy is a lovely privilege that I’ve enjoyed for four whole years.

Tomorrow is my last piano lesson–maybe ever. That’s a hard thing to think about. My parents have ensured that music lessons have been available to me almost every week of my life since third grade. I’ve had a rocky relationship with some of my teachers–and especially with the reality of practicing–but dear God, thank You for the lessons.

Thank You for teachers who encouraged me to play well in order to make music, not in order to live up to their personal expectations of what I ought to be.

That last part sounds bitter, but it’s not. I learned a great deal from all my teachers, but I guess I’m especially grateful for those who recognized that music is best when it’s enjoyed, both by the listener and the performer. I know that excellence ought to be striven for in everything, but I think that the joy people derive from music is the most precious thing about it, even if we’re talking about a two-year-old banging on a cooking pot with a wooden spoon.

If I could learn how to present music–my study of it, my listening of it, all of it–to the Lord in recognition that He’s the one who made it, how much more value it would have! I was listening to a sermon earlier about how it’s often the “good and precious gifts” we’re given that we’re also tempted to make into idols–into things that we treat as more valuable than God. It’s the same everywhere–those wild surges of joy we feel when we experience something we really love; those tears I shed when I was moved by the music; the delight we see in seeing someone smile–all of these we’re tempted to think of as being the best it can be.

But these are only glimpses.

I hope that the glimpses of joy you see will remind you of the coming Joy that’s in Christ.

Thanks for reading:)


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.

A Pointless Story about Thistles

Think of this story like you would think of an unsharpened pencil: try not to resent its total lack of a point.

First of all, my family doesn’t tend to have the best luck with cars. We’ll send a car that’s been making a weird noise to the shop and it’ll come back still making a noise, just a different one. As my sister described the result of the most recent repairs, less like a vacuum cleaner and more like a perturbed hornet. We tend to baby our cars, as a result.

And we treat out lawn mowers the same way–gingerly. It’s not a happy day when you admit to the parents that you’ve broken the belt or tried to reverse with the blades down. Mortifying, actually.

Anyway, by now I’ve generally been taught what a riding mower can and can’t run over. I am always to avoid the enormous, hardened ant palaces that pepper any yard in southern Arkansas in the summer. I am not to get too ambitious during a wet season, but mow the low spots on the highest setting. Yadayadayadaya, we know all this, Jo. Get to the point.

But there isn’t any point, remember?

Today I mowed part of a pasture that was mostly wet and which contained many ant mounds and thistles. Accordingly, I mowed on the highest setting and scrupulously avoided the ants, especially after I hit the first one and a cloud of dust ballooned over the yard, no doubt carrying with it half a population of ants. Which was probably a thrilling, onece-in-a-lifetime experience for them.

I was glad because the blades were high enough that they didn’t cut the heads off the little blue Johnny jump-ups. They did, however, do a dandy job of decapitating the thistles. I rattled on over them, forgetting that I’d only just learned yesterday that part of this particular thistle is edible. If you didn’t know, the heart of this thistle looks and tastes kind of like a less-stringy celery, which is pretty good for something so intimidating and thorny.

I realized after about the twentieth thistle, that I was blithely mowing down a potential food source while leaving ant mounds alone, for goodness’ sake. This obviously means that, if I were a young Indian woman, responsible for foraging for my tribe or family, I’d be stoned by the community. Or left out in the woods for the wolves.

I tried to tell you there wasn’t any point to this story–although I’m sitting here trying to think of some lesson to tack onto the end so I don’t feel I’ve completely wasted your time. hmm what’s an easy, wise-sounding insight I can draw from mowing thistles?

If you can think of some moral that can come from this story, I’d be interested (and entertained) in knowing it. I feel silly for some stuff I write, til I remember that I’m just writing. And then I usually do some soul-searching about how valuable “just writing” really is, if I’m not trying to do it well or draw some insight from it. And then I think maybe I ought to go do something useful, like, I dunno, mow down some thistles.

And then I question what in the heck I think I mean by “useful,” and I descend into a kind of madness.

Thanks for reading:)

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.