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.

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Letter #3: In Which Grandma Jo Goes Blind

Dear Aglet,

If, by the time we meet each other, I happen to have gone blind, here’s why.

I am in the habit of staring at sunsets. Isn’t that awful? I’ve been told since I was a little girl not to look at the sun, and that doing so would hurt my eyes and eventually blind me, but I can’t seem to help it. I’m sure you’ll never disregard what your elders tell you solely for your own good, Aglet, but I’m telling you now that if you ever decide to disobey, you better have a durned good reason for doing so.

I have a great reason for staring at the sun when it rises or sets. Here it is: it’s beautiful. And I’m drawn to the sight, even though I know my eyes aren’t strong enough to handle all that light.

[That is why they told me not to, isn’t it? Something like that? Oh well, I guess it doesn’t matter now. Not now that I’m blind and I can’t see what my own (imaginary) grandkid looks like.]

I’m frustrated that I can never look at the sunset for as long as I’d like to. I can only take a glimpse, then look away–and when I glance again, the lighting’s changed just a little. It’s like taking a new and lovely photograph with every blink.

Someday you’ll be reading this and thinking, “Grandma, grandma, grandma. You were/are so strange. You chose looking at a couple of boring old sunsets over preserving your eyesight into your old age.”

I’ve already apologized in a different letter for being strange. Get over it, Aglet.

Here’s what I hope, though. I really, really hope that people can still notice sunsets in that weird, dystopian future I imagine you growing up in. Sometimes it feels like we humans are losing our ability to appreciate anything that isn’t technological or made from a machine. And while I’m here wailing the same warnings older people have been wailing since the invention of the wheel, I may as well say this.

[But seriously, can’t you see Grandpa Cave Dweller shaking his fist at the youngsters on the first unicycles hewn out of the cave walls? “Durn kids! Always playing with their useless, newfangled toys! Now, when was a youngster…”]

What I was going to say, Aglet, is that while it might seem silly to say “beware of technology” and it might seem foolish to resist all the change that’s happening in the world, there’s something to be said for listening. Listen to older folks when you can, especially when they talk about their lives and what they’ve learned. People like to talk, and if you can learn how to really listen, you have a shot at gaining wisdom when you’re young.

One of my favorite books is called “The Giver,” by Lois Lowry, and it has to do with memories and emotions and what it means to be human. It takes place in a society in which nothing seems to be lacking…except, curiously enough–grandparents. The Old, in this society, are kept by themselves, perfectly tended to, perfectly comfortable, while the younger members of the society go about their practical, smooth-running occupations. There’s no overlap between the generations. And it’s tragic.

You should read the book. I think that what you might find is that the lack of grandparents only reflects the loss of many other things that make us human.

There are certain memories I have that I hope I will get to pass on to someone–if not you, then someone else. There’re certain experiences that I hope are universal to the human soul.

Sunsets are one of them. Holding my niece for the first time is another. Playing hide-and-seek in the curtains with my nephew. Seeing someone I love smile. Reading words that assure me of God’s presence. Listening to the third movement of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D.

All sorts of strangely specific things that conjure up a swelling in my heart. These things are real, somehow, in a way that watching other people’s lives on social media can never be real.

In Sunday School, when the teacher reads Genesis 1.1 and a kid pipes up with “Did He create smartphones,” the teacher says God created the minds of humans with the ability to make smartphones, and in that way, He’s responsible. And yes, there’s a deeper truth there about human tendency towards creating and how that reflects the creative aspect of God’s nature.

My point is that it’s easy to think we humans are so clever to have designed this or that new innovation. We look at our own creations and congratulate ourselves.

Look at what God has done. Look at what He still does, every day. That sunset or that sunrise is just one of an infinite number of things God creates every day to display His glory. The way our bodies work is marvelous, and scientists discover new aspects to His design all the time.

Another book I think you should read is by C.S. Lewis, called “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.” Heck, if I haven’t lost my vision completely by the time you’re born, I’ll read it to you myself. And oh, I can’t do justice to it here, but there’s a place near the end that I love. I’ll only say that when I read this book, I’m not ashamed of my fascination with sunsets, rather encouraged.

I’m looking for a place where I can look at the sun in all its glory, and not look away.

Love, your grandma,

Jo

 

Thoughts on Herbert and Lewis

Sometimes, you can tell when I have a paper to write because it’s then that I have most of my ideas for the blog. This is partly the inconvenience of inspiration; but mostly the delicate art of procrastination. It’s not that I actively delay writing required essays. It’s just that they do have a tendency of being written eventually…at ungodly hours of the morning. I don’t always remember, on the other hand, what it was I wanted to blog about. So blogging usually wins.

I finished C.S. Lewis’s The Four Loves just now. Holy smokes. His were such good, good thoughts, and I am sorry it took me this long to read them. Most of this post will likely consist of me quoting Lewis, and, later, a sixteenth century poet named George Herbert. Less Jo, more Clive Staples. It should be good:)

First, though, here’s an introduction for why this particular section resonated so much. I’ve been trying to understand why everybody hates Calvinism/Calvinists. And while that sentence is probably too much (and too vague) to tackle right now–besides being off-topic–I will say that I think a big part of it is that big, fat “T” in their whole TULIP acronym. Total Depravity.

Um, guys. You need to work on your marketing. That is kind of heavy stuff for being the first letter in the acronym. It’s not very pleasant, or attractive, to contemplate unless you understand more of the grace side of things. So it makes sense, that, if you just know just a little bit about Calvinism, you might not like it. No one wants to think they’re completely depraved. Maybe? I apologize because I am rapidly getting in over my head here, and I’m talking more than I said I would. Let’s get back to Lewis as fast as we can.

Anyway, every so often something comes on my Facebook newsfeed from this group called “Depraved Wretch,” and, especially early on, my reaction wasn’t exactly charitable. My reaction was usually something along the lines of “Whoa. What is wrong with you guys, guilt-tripping everybody and ruining my day? A Day on which I felt perfectly fine and comfortable and…conveniently forgetting all the ways in which I didn’t measure up. Until now, when I remember them all. Thanks for that.”

[Note to the reader: Every now and then on this blog, the sarcasm setting gets turned on, and it’s hard to turn it back off. Please know that I am genuinely interested in both sides of most things, and I try not to make fun of ideas just for kicks. I’m not a huge fan of cynicism, in fact. Also, while I’m explaining in this parenthetical, I apologize to people I’m probably offending. I don’t always know what I’m talking about–in fact, it’s rare that I do. Helpful comments are both welcomed and filtered.]

What it seemed like to me (past tense, yo) was that those people on the Depraved Wretch page were focusing too much on their sin, almost wallowing in their unworthiness and glorifying that over their new identity in Christ. So my question was this: as a Christian, what’s the balance between a). continually recognizing your unworthiness of God’s grace and b). having hope in God’s grace, not dwelling on your past before Christ. Can you go to either extreme (I think yes) and if so, what’s the difference between remembering your own unworthiness yet rejoicing in Christ’s worthiness on your behalf and being crippled by the temptation to despair in who you once were?

Maybe this is too simplistic, but I think it has to do with the difference between guilt and conviction.

So this is where I’ve been lately. And then I read Lewis, and it made a little more sense. Let’s read some Lewis, shall we?

From his chapter on Charity,

All those expressions of unworthiness which Christian practice puts into the believer’s mouth seem to the outer world like the degraded and insincere grovellings of a sycophant before a tyrant, or at best a facon de parler like the self-depreciation of a Chinese gentleman when he calls himself “this coarse and illiterate person.” in reality, however, they express the continually renewed, because continually necessary, attempt to negate that misconception of ourselves and of our relation to God which nature, even while we pray, is always recommending to us. No sooner do we believe that God loves us than there is an impulse to believe that He does so, not because He is Love, but because we are intrinsically lovable. The Pagans obeyed this impulse unabashed; a good man was “dear to the gods” because he was good. We, being better taught, resort to subterfuge. Far be it from us to think that we have virtues for which God could love us. But then, how magnificently we have repented! As Bunyan says, describing his first and illusory conversion, “I thought there was no man in England that pleased God better than I.” Beaten out of this, we next offer our own humility to God’s admiration. Surely He’ll like that? Or if not that, our clear-sighted and humble recognition that we still lack humility. Thus, depth beneath depth and subtlety within subtlety, there remains some lingering idea of our own, our very own, attractiveness. It is easy to acknowledge, but almost impossible to realize for long, that we are mirrors whose brightness, if we are bright, is wholly derived from the sun that shines upon us. Surely we must have a little–however little–native luminosity? Surely we can’t be quite creatures?

In Jo’s words, surely not quite totally depraved wretches?

Lewis goes on to explain why those strange individuals who embrace their identity as wretches do so:

…Grace substitutes a full, childlike and delighted acceptance of our Need, a joy in total dependence. We become “jolly beggars.” The good man is sorry for the sins which have increased his Need. He is not entirely sorry for the fresh Need they have produced. And he is not sorry at all for the innocent Need that is inherent in his creaturely condition. For all the time this illusion to which nature clings as her last treasure, this pretence that we have anything of our own or could for one hour retain by our own strength any goodness that God may pour into us, has kept us from being happy. We have been like bathers who want to keep their feet–or one foot–or one toe–on the bottom, when to lose that foothold would be to surrender themselves to a glorious tumble in the surf. The consequences of parting with our last claim to intrinsic freedom, power, or worth, are real freedom, power, and worth, really ours just because God gives them and because them to be (in another sense) not “ours.” 

Here is where the connections were made, and Jo got quite happy. There’s this poem, which I love, written in the sixteenth century by a fellow named George Herbert. It’s called “The Holdfast,” and I’m going to put it right here for you to read:

The Holdfast

I threatened to observe the strict decree

Of my deare God with all my power and might.

But I was told by one, it could not be;

Yet I might trust in God to be my light.

Then will I trust, said I, in him alone.

Nay, ev’n to trust in him, was also his:

We must confesse that nothing is our own.

Then I confess that he my succour is:

But to have nought is ours, not to confesse

That we have nought. I stood amaz’d at this,

Much troubled, till I heard a friend expresse,

That all things were more ours by being his.

What Adam had, and forfeited for all,

Christ keepeth now, who cannot fail or fall.

If you think about it, it is sort of a comical picture, how we try to get this relation between ourselves and God exactly right. It’s this ridiculous cycle of humility and unconscious pride, and I guess I understand my initial frustration. Sometimes it seems like it would be better simply to rest in the finished work of Christ. But then I go back and read what Lewis said, and I waver again. After being clear as mud, and probably offending all seven people who read this, I better conclude with the thing I really wanted to say all along, quoting Herbert:

All things are more ours by being his.