The Days Between (Advent 2015)

The one who is in love
waiting for a phone call from the beloved.
The one who interviewed
waiting for an offer.
The sick and suffering
waiting to recover.
The prisoner
waiting to be freed.
All in the expectation that
something is coming, its arrival
an inevitable conclusion.
Unless it doesn’t.

And the certainty that it will come
becomes maybe it will come, as in
when God is less busy with other customers.
Except that it doesn’t, so maybe it will come becomes
it probably won’t happen
because you don’t want to expect too much
and maybe God will finally glance
your way when you stop tapping his shoulder
and go sit in the corner instead. Except that
he doesn’t, and it probably won’t happen
becomes silence. His and now yours.

To wait for something that won’t ever arrive
is the soul stretched on the rack
ever tightening until something tears.
A friend tells you all prayers are answered in the resurrection,
both beautiful and unbearable under the weight
of all the long hours of all the long days stretching before you.

So you go to the stories living on tissue-thin pages
and mouth the ancient names. Abraham, Sarah, Joseph
waited lifetimes in the space between
chapters that speed us all too quickly toward
a resolution they dragged their way to.
The stories don’t us tell what they thought
during all those days in between, what they cried out,
though our own mouths do, our own thoughts,
the longings we have learned to bury deep
like the thirsty roots of a tree in dry land, not knowing
when the storm clouds gathering will release
all their darkness into quenching rain.

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Afraid

In the wake of the recent attacks in Paris, there has been much in the news and on my Facebook feed about the issue of whether the United States and European countries should close their borders to Syrian refugees.  Emotions are running high, and what I’m seeing over and over again is the three-headed beast of anger, fear, and self-righteousness.  And here I am, about to add to the heap.

Before I do, let me acknowledge a few things:  1) I have no expertise on anything I’m writing about in this post,  2) I am just as hypocritical and selfish and crummy as the next person, and 3) No one asked for my opinion.  That said, since none of those three things has stopped anyone else from venturing into the fray, I’ve decided to also ignore them.

So, a few thoughts about people calling for us to keep all those refugees out:  It seems the predominate fear is that terrorists will enter into our country along with the completely innocent/harmless refugees and have greater access for committing more acts of terror and violence against U.S. citizens.  Is this a possibility?  I would have to say yes, it is.  I think any thinking person has to admit that this is a possibility. Dangerous people entering the United States with the intent to do harm is always a possibility as long as ANY people are entering our country.  Here is what is also true:  the large majority of violence committed against American citizens in the last decade has been committed by…American citizens.  In some of the most horrific mass shootings our nation has seen in recent years, the perpetrators have been white (American) males.  White males who, technically, had legal access to numerous powerful weapons.

Secondly, if we are genuinely motivated to take action against things that might harm us, here is something else to consider:  the actual probability of American citizens dying due to terrorist attacks is extremely small.  That is, in part, due to the hard work and vigilance of our law enforcement and government agencies, for which I am deeply grateful.  There are ways they keep us safe on a daily basis that we are oblivious to.  Even so, here is how most Americans will die:  from heart disease, diabetes, car accidents, and cancer.  I don’t see a lot of outrage about that on the internet.  I imagine at least some of the people calling their senators or signing petitions or whatnot to keep out the dangers associated with refugees are also texting while they drive or not exercising regularly or eating far more fast food than they should.  Do Americans have the right to eat their burgers?  Sure! Enjoy them! You’re going to die someday anyway!  But there’s a rather significant failure of logic in fearing a very remote possibility of harm while ignoring a risk of harm that is far more likely to affect you.  If you’re going to walk around afraid of something (and, really, is that any way to live?), be afraid of distracted drivers and that second donut you’re eating.  They pose more threat to you than some refugees moving into the neighborhood.

Aside from that, why should we let anyone in?  Well, as overly simplistic as this might sound, because someone let you in.  If you’re Native American, I guess that doesn’t apply (your ancestors just walked here over the land bridge eons ago, although I bet the bears and buffalo weren’t too happy about it).  But for the rest of us, it totally applies.  I don’t care if your relatives came a generation ago (as my father did) or centuries ago on the Mayflower (as some of my mother’s relatives did)—someone in your family came here from somewhere else, was let in by someone already here (in some cases, involuntarily) and they came because they wanted something.  A better life.  Freedom.  Safety.  A job.  Just because we’ve been lucky enough to be born here doesn’t mean we’re entitled to keep it all to ourselves.  Do we need to act as responsible stewards of what we’ve been given?  Yes.  But good stewardship isn’t hoarding, especially when hundreds of innocent people are dying.

Those of us who call ourselves Christians have even more responsibility to be compassionate and to help.  If we truly believe that God is sovereign and our lives are in his hands, then what are we so afraid of?  How are the terrorists in any more control than they were a week ago?  “God is a mighty fortress” isn’t meant to be literal.  No verse in the Bible says we shall be known by our tough security measures.  Scripture calls on us to love our neighbors and to cast out fear.

This is where I fully confess my own hypocrisy.  I’m happy to write a check to an organization, but if someone were to ask me to take in a Syrian refugee family right now and have them live in my house, I’d probably say no (a week or two? sure; indefinitely?  ummm…sorry).  The reason I wouldn’t throw my arms wide open as I should is that I like my space and privacy, which I’ve written about several times on this blog.  It’s no secret that I like my alone time.  I also like predictability.  Those are things I fear losing.  That’s not how I should feel, and I hope, through the grace of God, my heart might grow in love enough to treat others the way I ought to, the way I’d want to be treated if my world suddenly erupted into violence and I was in need of help. In this discussion about how we are treating other human beings, where we are making decisions that impact their lives, let’s be honest about what we’re afraid of.  And let’s honestly assess whether those fears are really legitimate reasons to turn suffering people away.

Defining Wisdom

Last spring I wrote about a period of malaise I was going through, which, as it turns out, had a lot to do with the fact that I was getting burned out at work.  And a little bored.  While there was some variety in my early years of teaching, things settled pretty quickly into my having the same two preps (AP Lit and sophomore English) for the next 17 years.  And I was teaching sophomores for three periods a day, which meant summoning the energy to act like the passage that was brand new to my students wasn’t something I’d already read and discussed so many times that the thought of doing it yet again made me want to weep.  That’s a lot of acting.  All this to say that I realized it was time to make a change, which led to my requesting two sections of Beginning ELD (also known as ESL) this year, keeping my two sections of AP Lit, and going down to just one section of sophomore English.

Most of the people I encountered thought this was a slightly insane decision.  More than one person said, “I’m sorry” when I told them about taking on that class, and when I’d clarify that I had requested it, their eyebrows would go up and they’d say, “Really?”  Because the sad truth is that ELD has sometimes been a dumping ground at some schools—the class assigned to some of the most underperforming teachers because their negative impact will be less visible.  It isn’t the type of class teachers tend to request.  When my principal announced at a meeting last spring that someone needed to take on these classes, I could see the other teachers in my department slanting looks at each other that clearly said, “Not me!”

I had what I thought were some pretty good reasons to say “Me!” For one thing, the paper load and essay grading from my other preps was killing me (especially after a day of Broadway performances).  With ELD, I would have a smaller number of students and much shorter papers to grade.  The last several years, I’ve had over 190 students in the course of my day.  This year I have 147.  I also thought it would be good for me to try something new, to challenge myself and get out of my rut.  And while it’s been incredibly stressful preparing and teaching an entirely new curriculum and feeling like I don’t know what I’m doing at all after years of knowing exactly what I’m doing, it’s already helped me grow in some areas I needed to be stretched.  I also liked the idea of helping students learn English because my father had to learn English, as did many of my aunts, uncles, and cousins, and it feels right to invest in helping other immigrants get a leg up as well.

Still, I had some doubts, one of the biggest ones being whether it would be hard for me to teach such simple and basic things for two hours every day.  I have the second year students, so they know some English, but their comprehension and skills are still at a very basic level.  Would I just be exchanging one form of boredom for another?  So far, that has not been the case.  Each day presents some type of challenge, mostly behavioral as I am dealing with students who are extremely familiar with each other and who were accustomed to acting pretty much however they wanted to last year.  A lot of my time and energy goes into trying to teach them that yes, they need to listen when I’m giving instructions, and no, they shouldn’t be yelling across the room or throwing baby carrots at each other.  But most days also present some type of unexpected delight.

One of the routines I’ve established with my students is that we all read silently for about 10 minutes each day.  I have a classroom library of simpler texts for them, but a lot of the students struggle with this activity.  At the end of the ten minutes, I have them write one or two words on the board that they came across in their reading and didn’t understand.  They love this.  Part of it is just that they love to get out of their seats and write on the white board with my many colored markers.  But they also seem to genuinely love learning these new words.  And I love it too.  I love these lists of words on the board, words like shimmer, tugged, deny, encourage, portion, hopped, scary, and wisdom.  I say the words aloud and they all chorus them back to me.  Then I do my best to explain the meaning of each word.  Sometimes this involves me physically acting things out (and can I say that few things are more humbling than demonstrating a bunny hop across the room in front of your laughing students?).  But often this involves telling a kind of story or scenario.  “You know when you’re at a lake or the ocean and the sun is shining on the water and it makes a kind of wave of light [with accompanying hand motion] on the water? That’s ‘shimmer.’  Or when a girl’s hair is very smooth and shiny and the light hits it–you could say ‘her hair shimmers.’ And ‘wisdom’ is like intelligence, but it goes deeper.  It’s knowing how to live a good life and understand the world.  It often takes a long time to get this.”  You can see in their faces when they understand.  Their eyes widen slightly and their mouths relax into an O.  Often one of them will shout out the Spanish equivalent when he or she gets it before the others.  I usually ask them to tell me the word again and repeat it after them, and every time the students clap, delighted that I have learned one of their words and pronounced it properly.

And here we are as a class enjoying language, celebrating words.  It struck me the other day that the last time I engaged in this kind of collective word-savoring was at breakfast with a table of poets, some of us aspiring, some long-established.  It was during a week-long conference in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and somehow we got on the topic of what our favorite words were.  Some of us shared words we loved because of their meaning, but a lot of us shared words we loved just for the sound of them and the way they felt on our tongues, like two of my favorites: kumquat and sasquatch.  In other words, it was a language-nerd love-fest, and I was in heaven.

I never expected to get glimpses of that in my ELD class, and yet now that I think about it, I don’t know why I wouldn’t have expected it.  This class is about language and the sounds of words and the meanings of words and the logic (or lack thereof) behind those sounds and meanings.  In other words, the perfect class for a poet/writer to teach.  The kind of class where a boy will ask you why a flashlight isn’t called a “handlight.”

Hooray for the Humanities!

If you are an educator, parent, or just someone who keeps up with current trends in our country, you are probably aware that the humanities have taken quite a beating in the last decade or two.  In public schools, there has been an increasing shift away from literature to informational texts, as well as an emphasis on reading several short texts about the same issue (often informative/nonfiction essays and data sets with a poem, short story, or short excerpt from a novel thrown in) and synthesizing them vs. reading a full-length novel.  At the college/university level, there has been tremendous focus on whether or not a humanities major is a complete waste of money, the underlying assumption being that the value of higher education is strictly whether or not it can land you a high-salaried position and make your loans a worthwhile financial investment.

Even if everyone isn’t going quite to the extreme of this 2012 article from Forbes, which suggested that humanities majors were useless and such programs ought to be cut from colleges and universities, there has still been a strong push from both government and industry leaders for more and more emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) courses and programs.  Because everything of value in this world is now about technology, science, and information, right? Oh, and making lots of money.

Except that’s just not true.  In 2014, Forbes acknowledged that a humanities major might not be a complete waste of money after all.  And just last month, they even went so far as to recognize that even high-powered tech companies are hiring more humanities majors than STEM majors these days. Why?  Because people who major in fields like philosophy and literature tend to be good thinkers, possess the ability to make mental leaps and connect seemingly disparate ideas, understand and are comfortable with nuance and ambiguity,  have greater insight into people and what drives them, and have the skill to communicate effectively about all of these things.  Which, as it turns out, can be pretty useful and is becoming more and more attractive to businesses.

Another article that caught my attention was this piece, written for the NY Times by a Harvard professor.  In this article, the professor discusses a non-credit seminar developed for students based on feedback the university got from graduating seniors—poignant feedback like this:

“My experience in classes here at Harvard was excellent overall. Yet I wish I had a chance as a freshman to discuss with fellow students, in an organized way, some questions about ‘how to live my life.’ I did quite well in economics and history and chemistry. There were plenty of such courses. Yet there was no class where I could discuss questions such as, ‘what do I really stand for?’ ‘Where have my personal values come from?’ ‘Are these values immutable?’ Do I expect them to be any different by the time I graduate from here in several years?”

and this:

What constitutes living a ‘good’ life? Is this a different question from asking what constitutes living a ‘useful’ life? And how about what constitutes living a ‘successful’ life? They sound similar, yet the nuances are different.

and finally, simply:

What do you believe are life’s essential conversations?

Some of the most “successful” students in the country, most likely on their way to lucrative and high-status jobs, are still feeling like they’re missing something–that some of the most important lessons in life haven’t been addressed in all their years of coursework.

This is not to say that a humanities major necessarily provides this missing component, or that some of the students writing these comments weren’t humanities majors.  I have no way of knowing that information.  But when I looked at the topics and activities Harvard developed to address these needs, I was struck by how many of them either overlap or are exactly the same as the activities and discussions I have with my students as we read various works of literature.  Because literature–which is, essentially, the story of humanity, identity, values–explores all of these deep questions.  You can’t truly engage in reading good literature without engaging with these issues and thinking about them and being shaped by them in some way.  And quality literature not only presents the issues, but it also teaches you how to think about them in a rich and complex way.  In other words, those who read regularly and read deeply can’t help but emerge with not only knowledge but also wisdom.

From a purely anecdotal perspective, as someone who has gotten to know literally thousands of people over the years (just living my life and also teaching for over 19 years), all of the most interesting and mature thinkers—all of the most wise and self-aware people I know—are readers.  This applies to a number of STEM folks as well.  I have quite a few friends (and two brothers) who are in STEM fields, but what differentiates them is that they are also lovers of books.  I have yet to meet someone who reads regularly who is not an insightful and interesting thinker.  Of course, anyone who has access to quality books, whether they are a janitor or an engineer, has access to this development.  But few people have the motivation or ability to completely ‘go it alone,’ especially when it comes to more challenging works of literature or philosophy.  For most, the opportunity to read works they might not otherwise select for themselves, the opportunity to reflect on these works and the issues they raise with a group of other people with whom they can discuss and explore, the opportunity to learn how to express their own thoughts and have their thinking refined by others’–well, that sounds like a humanities class.

Communication

In the past 24 hours, I’ve experienced a series of communication breakdowns, both large and small.  The first was when I ordered a decaf iced latte at an airport Starbucks and the woman taking my order interpreted those sounds as “iced tea.” The second was when, after a long day of travel, I hurriedly responded to a text message only to realize a few minutes later that it was talking about that not this and my tired brain had somehow mixed up the two and cause me to answer a question that wasn’t being asked. More serious and significant is the third incident, which has actually been occurring for over a week but I finally only understood this morning.  This one involved my sister telling me something born out of a world roiled by major and difficult changes with deep emotional impact, and me interpreting it through the lens of pragmatic concern. In other words, I categorized what she was communicating as a frustrating obstruction to what I thought was a sensible and easy way to help her, and was reinforcing my perception of this situation with an entire history of personality and family dynamics. Which was not entirely fair.

There were probably many other communication misfires and failures in that span of time that I didn’t even notice because I, like so many others, default to believing my own perception of reality is the correct/only one and assume that everyone is understanding me and I them just fine. But these three interactions remind me just what a fraught and fragile path anything we express travels on its way from our heart and mind to the heart and mind of another human being. I learned about “affective filters” my first year of teaching and how easy it is for a teacher to assume she is being explicitly clear about an assignment, only to have students turn in something that doesn’t even come close to resembling what she thought she assigned. These filters are everywhere. It could be something as basic as noise interfering with your ability to hear what someone is saying to you. It could be that you are too tired to process and understand what they are saying. It could be that the way you feel about them changes how you hear what they are saying.  It could be that the way you feel about yourself does. It could be what someone once said to you ten years ago that you’ve never forgotten. It could be your self-consciousness about sweating too much and that maybe they’re noticing. It could be forty previous conversations you’ve had and your assumption that this one is exactly the same. It could be that you see the world and think in a way that is so different from the other person, that even the most seemingly obvious thing to you is a mystery to them. And vice versa.

When you think about it, it’s kind of a minor miracle that we ever understand or are understood at all.  And, like so many things in this broken world that is also full of grace, while there is such possibility for misunderstanding and the damage and loneliness it causes, that very likelihood makes those moments of true understanding and connection all the more profound. I suppose that’s why, at least on an intuitive level, I’ve always gravitated towards written communication. As a reader, I have the chance to process and think about what’s been written and test, at least to some degree, whether I’m understanding things the way they’re meant to be understood.  At the same time, the best moments of reading are when none of that carefulness is needed, because the words on the page leap out as something deep and true in my own heart and mind, and the author has named it in a way I recognize even though I have never been able to name it myself. This, among many other reasons, is why book lovers are so passionate about their books–they recognize them as true intimates. The same thing applies to the writing side of things.  On the one hand, when I write something, I have the same opportunity to be more careful and thoughtful about what I am saying and how it might come across to someone else. I also have the opportunity to share some of those deeper parts of myself that might cause someone else’s heart and mind to leap with recognition. And when that happens, and I am actually made aware of that, it is a source of deep joy.

I started reading Susan Cain’s book Quiet on yesterday’s flight, and based on what I read, part of me wants to categorize all of this as an introvert’s issue. I suppose, at least in the way I’ve written about it, it primarily is. But even if all those extroverts  are just chatting away out there and not worrying very much about deeper meaning and significance, I’m pretty sure they are still feeling the effects of communication that does and doesn’t work. We all want to know and be known. And we all, in spite of all those filters (including self-protective fear), want to span that distance between ourselves and the Other. Which makes me think that some of our obliviousness to our gaffs isn’t always such a bad thing. It buffers us enough to keep trying and get to those moments of true connection.

Forms

About a month ago, a good friend and I both found ourselves wanting to get back into a regular writing practice, so we resolved to write for just 15 minutes a day at least five days a week and report to each other how we were doing.  Fifteen minutes isn’t much time, but really it’s the time that matters most, because it’s the time you have to actually sit yourself down and try to write something.  And once you’ve managed that, it’s usually pretty easy to keep going for longer.  At the same time, knowing it only has to be 15 minutes makes it seem very non-threatening and achievable.

So far, it’s been equal parts fun and frustrating.  The fun part is that with such low expectations (you can’t usually do a whole lot in 15 minutes) and low pressure (if what I write is terrible today, that’s okay because I’ll be writing something else tomorrow), there’s a lot of freedom.  I’ve found myself writing things that are far more experimental and random than I might normally write.  The critic in my head is pretty much silenced by the understanding that it’s not really the product that matters so much as the habit itself, which gives me permission to play.

The frustrating part is that sickening drop in the stomach that happens when I’m sitting there with a blank screen or paper and have absolutely no idea what to write.  When I feel like I have nothing with which to fill the void or to pattern the blank space.  It’s just there: empty, waiting.  In a rather serendipitous coincidence, I’ve been making my way through T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets” lately and came across this chunk, which sums things up far better than I ever could:

Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion.

Later he concludes, somewhat more hopefully, that “For us, there is only the trying.  The rest is not our business.”  Of course, he’s talking about his own long career as a poet and a craftsman of words at the very highest level, but his observations are true even for me at my most basic, clumsy, and amateurish level–my 15 minutes a day.  Difficult as it may be, there is a value and satisfaction in the trying, in at least making the attempt to put some kind of language or form to those inarticulate impulses or responses of the heart and mind.  It is, in its own way, in the tradition of Adam and Eve giving names to creation, mimicking the Creator with an attempt to create something of substance out of words.

Photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson once stated, “To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.”  Recognition of the significance of an event, and the precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.  Those words could easily be applied to poetry as well, minus the “simultaneous” and “fraction of a second” parts. Rather than a fraction of a second, it might take months or years or never happen at all.  And that, too, is the wonderful and frustrating part–putting something down when you’re not entirely sure of its significance, and you’re definitely not sure about form.  That uncertainty is painful, but in many respects, it’s also a highly beneficial practice in faith and communion.  As Wendell Berry observes, “the given word implies the acceptance of a form that is never entirely of one’s own making.”

I think that’s my favorite part of writing–that when we give words to something and create our forms, it’s never entirely ours.  There’s no voice that’s purely my own–it’s  a manifestation of all the experiences and people and words and writers who have impacted me over the years, along with that ineffable Other that emerges in any creative act.  And if it should come out lumpy and crummy and not at all resemble what I’d hoped it would?  There is consolation for that too, again from the wise and wonderful Wendell Berry, who says, “The unknown is the mercy and it may be the redemption of the known.  The given word may come to appear to be wrong, or wrongly given.  But the unknown still lies ahead of it, and so who is finally to say?  If time has apparently proved it wrong, more time may prove it right.  As growth has called it into question, further growth may reaffirm it.”

The unknown has always terrified me and makes me want to grasp (however illusory it may be) whatever control I can.  But that same unknown is also the the one hope of it all turning out the way it was meant to be.  For the right form to finally emerge.

 

One Week After Resurrection Sunday

The rose bushes are in full bloom
in a frilly abundance that would border on shameless if they weren’t
so beautiful.  If they weren’t so perfectly crafted to make
you sigh, like the bee so drunk with nectar he can’t even fly
straight, but does a kind of airborne stagger.

It will not last, of course.  Tiny stick bugs already cling
to the pale undersides of petals, their microscopic jaws working.
The summer sun will scorch the edges black, and fall
will rust the leaves, the months diminishing
each bush until the day I cut them all down,
stripping away the few rain-soaked buds that lack
the strength to open.

My father, whose body is becoming a stiffening husk
that other hands now bathe and dress,
tells me how at his college in Taiwan the students would gather
in the courtyard every Friday night to play records
borrowed from the American Embassy.

They would set up the record player and the oversized speakers.
They would hand out programs and play Beethoven,
Mozart, Tchaikovsky, and Bach,
all of them perched in silence, their heads tilted with listening.

After the cutting down, Lord, this is what I imagine,
the mercy hoped for in the blade—
my father once again that rapt young man,
every nerve and cell alive and singing.

 

A Good Friday Lament (Guest Post)

For this Maundy Thursday, the following is a meditation on communion and Good Friday written by my friend Jeremy Bear.  It’s a bit different from this blog’s usual content, but sometimes a little shake-up is a good thing.

 

A Good Friday Lament

by Jeremy Bear

Between the second and third metatarsal bones, through the extensor digitorum brevis, that’s where the nail goes in. That’s the foot.

Hold the image in your mind; freeze; lock. There’s a copper tang in the air that clings to your sinuses and the roof of your mouth. Don’t stifle it; taste it. That’s blood.

The cedar grinds into his back, a wet riprap of lacerations. With each breath and writhe, his wounds slip and separate, opening and closing like mouths, like real-time runes, divinations of disaster. You’ll want to recoil, but resist. Find his lesions with your fingertips, trace the ridges. Push into them, past dermis, fat and muscle. In this way, enter into the presence of the king.

And the teeth, his teeth, bared full, his face pulled into a gurgling grimace. The left mandibular incisor: pluck it out. Hold it to the light. Then another. Another. Take them all.

This, here, now is the anatomy of the glorified christ, time blasted and still framed. Raised up on a cross, our vitruvian ideal, punctured for you, for me, for whoever, whatever.

Tangle his nerves with yours. His bones, organs, muscles, sinews and fluids: organize and catalog them. Arrange them in a queue of holy biology.

Now eat.

Liver. Lung. Sweetbread. Heart. Tear and gorge on pancreas and choke on kidney. In full defiance of your own sensibilities and common decency, nourish on his proteins; translate his calories into your own.

“This is my body, broken.”

And drink.

Blood, yes, of course blood. But also sweat. Mucus. Lymph and acid. Bile and water. A black cocktail of the worst kind; fight past the gag and get it down.

“This is my blood, poured out.”

And on this unholy day, it’s finished: he in you.

He in you.

Here are nails. Here are swords. Here are unjust trials and obstinate throngs. Here are betrayals and spined crowns and a lash for scourging. Here is vinegar.

Here are bread and wine.

Swallow.

For Trouble Comes

For the last several days, I’ve been haunted by the news of the seven children who died in a Brooklyn house fire.  And then yesterday came news of the plane crash in the French Alps, which killed 150 people.  Tragedy in the news is such a constant that, like many others, I have developed a kind of emotional distance, and while a story might evoke a brief pang or gasp of horror, I move on–quickly and soon–to the normal routines of my daily life.  Realistically, this is a necessity.  If we were to react with the level of empathy we ought to for every event we hear about, we would all be incapacitated.  But something about the Brooklyn fire story has staked a place in my heart, and I have found myself repeating–over and over–a short, simple prayer for the remaining family members and the community around them, whose pain I can only begin to imagine–Lord, have mercyKyrie eleison!  For what else is there to say in a situation like this.

Another thing that’s been swirling around in my mind these days is something a friend wrote to me recently in an e-mail.  We were discussing a piece he’d written for Good Friday that he realized had the potential to be controversial or upsetting for some readers.  It prompted a thought-provoking discussion about what place boundary-pushing art and discussion might have in the church community, and in discussing his piece, my friend said, “Part of why I’m grateful for the Good Friday service is that for one night only, we allow ourselves to sit in the chaos and the pain and the hopelessness. We let Good Friday be what it was: a confusing swirl of horror, all drag and no lift.”

Seven children dying in a fire, 150 travelers crashing into the side of a mountain is all of those things.  One of the ways we tend to respond to this is to try to make some type of order out of it, to frame it some way.  Some of the responses I’ve already seen online are to proclaim the fire the result of blind adherence to religious orthodoxy or as a tragedy out of which God can strengthen faith.  One of the first details reported in the article I read about the plane crash is how no one could understand the sudden descent of the plane to low altitudes but that a black box had been recovered and hopefully will provide some answers.  We seek to explain, to understand, or to blame, and while that’s a natural impulse, it doesn’t do anything to diminish any of the pain or loss.  It doesn’t offer any real protection against future tragedy.  If anything, it is simply an exercise in creating a false sense of control and is an affront to the magnitude of “chaos and pain” afflicting those affected.

We are taught that the role of those of us who follow Christ is to be a light to the world and, in our own flawed and often clumsy ways, to bring life and hope to those around us.  But we can’t really do that if we don’t fully acknowledge and accept that some situations are just incomprehensibly awful.  Good Friday, with all its ugliness and despair, is a reminder of this.

The title of this post comes from Job, whose sufferings include his own friends’ attempts to make sense of all the tragedy and hardship that has befallen him.  They start off as good friends, sitting next to Job in the ashes for seven days and seven nights in silence, weeping with him and rending their clothes.  It’s only when they start to speak, to chastise Job or attempt to explain God’s ways to Job, that they shift from friend to further affliction.  I am all too often the talking friend–the one who wants to advise, clarify, make meaning, or provide direction for someone who is suffering.  And sometimes there are times for that and it is genuinely helpful.  But there are also times to sit silent in the ashes, and this is one of them.

Stasis

For close to two months now, I’ve found myself a bit down in the dumps, to use one of the more alliterative idioms of our language.  This is nothing new for me.  Had I lived a few centuries ago, they would have said I had a melancholic temperament or “humor” and probably tried some type of purgative or blood-letting that would have been as likely to kill me as help me.  I’ve learned over the years that these periodic slumps are generally temporary and I usually recover from them by simply waiting them out while continuing to live my life.  After all, the laundry won’t wash and fold itself.

But this latest bout has been hanging on a bit longer than usual.  It’s not a full-blown clinical depression where I need professional treatment and medication.  If it were, I wouldn’t be doing laundry.  I wouldn’t be sitting here writing a blog post.  And, in my mind, that’s the kind of state that deserves genuine compassion and concern.  My own lackluster state, on the other hand, has been more of a general listlessness/ restlessness, like some invisible cloud in the atmosphere is siphoning away my energy and capacity to feel excitement about anything while I drift from one activity to the next without any sense of real purpose or engagement.  The words “yucky” and “blah” come to mind, but a more lovely and precise term a friend shared with me is acedia, which has Greek  roots and means a state of apathy and torpor–a sort of spiritual malaise that some early Christian Church fathers believed was a precursor to sloth.

In other words, rather than being an actual illness (like depression), this tends to feel a bit like some kind of self-indulgent wallowing.  Like my soul is currently stuck in whiny toddler mode.  Rationally, I recognize that I have a great life.  With so many people around me experiencing actual hardships and tragedies, I have absolutely nothing to complain about.  But in spite of my rational mind sternly telling my inner toddler to quit its bellyaching (a favorite command of my mother’s when I was growing up) and buck up, I still seem to end up on my couch mindlessly playing Soda Crush on my ipad and/or watching TV while gorging on sea salt caramels far more often and far longer than is healthy.  Which starts to feel pretty crummy and pathetic, especially when I find myself having to pick chunks of salt out of my bra.

What drives me even more batty than feeling pathetic (it takes about two days of this to make me start feeling sick of my own self) is not knowing why I’m feeling this way.  I want there to be a reason so I can address it and bounce back.  One thing I’ve realized might be the culprit (although I also recognize that sometimes there is no specific culprit) is that I don’t know what my “next” is.  If you are a visitor to this site and don’t know me personally, let’s just say that I am an extremely goal-oriented person.  I have to feel like my life is heading towards something or I am purposefully aiming in a particular direction.  While I (perhaps somewhat contradictorily) also really like stability and security–I am rather change-resistant, actually–I’ve come to realize that what truly energizes and excites me is working productively on some type of new project or challenge.  Or planning my next adventure.

When I was thinking back on the last time I experienced this type of extended slump that had no discernible reason (as opposed to the period of genuine grief and trauma I experienced after my mother’s death and my father’s attempted suicide), I remembered that it was after I finished graduate school–after years of high intensity study while working full time, culminating in a master’s degree.  With this goal now behind me and hours of free time ahead of me, one would think I’d have all kinds of energy and my life would become even more enjoyable.  I thought that.  But the opposite occurred.  I found myself constantly listless and bored, and rather than read the many novels I’d put aside for “later” or finally organize the clutter in my house, I ended up watching hours of junk TV.  I went from researching Milton’s use of carnal rhetoric in Comus to watching marathons of “Behind the Music” episodes (you want to know who had a hard life?  Pink did, that’s who).

In other words, give me too much time, stability, and sameness and it leads to entropy.  Last year I had two major “nexts”–I applied for, planned, and went on a really exciting and wonderful trip.  I went through the process of completing and publishing my novel, something I’d been working on for years.  And now I don’t know what’s next.  I also get a little scared that there might not be another next.  I don’t know why having a meaningful job, a house, a lovely family and friends, and all the entertainment I could want right at my fingertips isn’t enough.  It just isn’t.  I am deeply and humbly grateful for all of those things, but I can also recognize that I am wired to need projects and challenges that keep me growing, learning, and creating.

And while writing this post feels like it’s perhaps just one more self-indulgent wallow (the diary entry of my neurosis foisted on you poor, unsuspecting readers), at least it’s writing.  I might not have control over when or how the next “next” will manifest, but I can at least practice some of the habits that position me in a more open and receptive posture.  As my good buddy and fellow over-thinker Hamlet once said, “If it be now, ’tis not to come.  If it be not to come, it will be now.  If it be not now, yet it will come–the readiness is all.”  Of course, this was him talking about death and he gets nicked by a poisoned sword just a short while later and dies.  But I think this notion of practicing readiness applies to life as well.  See?  Look at that.  I’m getting more positive already. And I only ate two caramels while writing this.