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

Advertisements

Letter #7: Heading West

Dear Aglet,

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

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

But I find the nothing beautiful.

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

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

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

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

I crave certainty, Aglet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anything might happen, or nothing.

Life would still be a gift.

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

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

Love, your caffeinated grandma,

Jo

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.