Monthly Archives: October 2009

Snow Day Diversions

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Nobby apple cake.

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Robbie Burns. I’m trying to read one full entry in my Norton Anthology every day. The man is funny.

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Tea. Catching up with the British average of 6 cups a day. I’m a Yorkshire Gold girl.

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Hickory, Dickory, Dock. I love Monseiur Poirot. He’s sort of a family tradition.

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Three foot drifts. Those are fun to shovel.

What are your snow day delights?

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Filed under Musings

Book Review: Remembering

41G7NpOQDjL._SL160_There is a peculiar light to Monday mornings. Uneasy, it always feels to me, as if hurry thrummed in the very color of the day. But this past Monday, I ignored it. Rush was mobbing my conscience, but I gated it out because I was reading a book I truly could not put down. It was noon before I finished, and by that time all my bustle had been scattered by the slow, sweet rise of joy that ached in my story. I don’t think I’ve ever been so immediately affected by a book as I was by Wendell Berry’s short novel, Remembering.

I have taken Wendell Berry for my mentor. His books challenge me, especially his fiction, because they make me face what is real, hungry, and true in my own heart. This is not escapist literature- there is no whisking away involved in reading Hannah Coulter, or A Place on Earth. You don’t put down his novels like you do some modern books and wish your life weren’t so mundane. In Berry’s characters, you meet yourself. The loves, the quiet losses, the unspoken griefs, the desires for transcendence and hope that plague every one of us humans every day, get articulated in the thoughts and lives of his characters. Because of this, Mr. Berry also manages to put his finger on the pulse of what we have lost in modern culture. He writes about the loss of community, the breakup of families, the deadening ways of consumerism, the way wonder is poisoned by a materialistic view of life, and he does it with quiet, logical eloquence, demanding us to value the old ways again. He speaks what we all feel, but have no idea how to say.

I must admit though, that I have often wanted to write him a letter of protest. How, I would say, do you return to community if you never had one? I yearn for history, for a people that knows me. But how do you learn rootedness without roots? Berry himself grew up in Kentucky, the son of farmers. He left to study, and could have stayed away forever, breaking the “membership” (one of his terms) of the life to which he was born. He came back. He re-entered the fellowship of place and family that were his history and gift. Lucky him. What if you don’t have that to come back to? Could he possibly understand the sense of displacement felt by so many in my generation? I at least have the priceless grounding of a strong, loving family. But I’ve moved at least 15 times in my 25 years. I yearn to be settled, and ultimately, known. Can a nomad soul like mine and others ever find community? There is no “place on earth” waiting, hoping for our return.

That’s why I loved Remembering.

For the first time, I knew that Berry had felt my own sense of being lost in a huge grey world where nothing is personal, and no one will hold you. Remembering is a journey in and through the thoughts of middle-aged farmer Andy Catlett. I knew Andy from previous books as every story Mr. Berry writes is set in the fictional town of Port William. Andy had been a boy when I knew him in Hannah Coulter, but now he was a man who had made the hard decision to return to the farming and family he had left when he was young. The story opens in a dark San Francisco hotel room, where Andy is questioning not only his decision, but everything he loves. Injured, alienated from his wife, far from home, rejected by his peers, feeling that he is a relic from an old time never to be reclaimed, he walks out into the pre-dawn of the San Francisco streets.

The first chapters were surreal; as a reader I felt disoriented. Only at the end of the book did I realize that I was meant not just to read, but experience, the terror of being unmoored from the people who love you and the place that knows you. Everything becomes strange. Andy wanders the streets, wondering if he can return to the life he thought he had chosen in Kentucky. Homeless men and suspicious woman grip his eyes; he sees the river-like flow of nameless faces stream through the city, and wonders how anyone can ever be known, get home again. The worst comes gradually to him. He has failed. Does he even want to be found? But then, there is this moment, as dawn creeps up the edge of the ocean. He sits on a bench, just watching. And he begins to…remember. Snippet from tales told in his childhood about the courtship of his great grandparents, or the first farm of his father. The stories of the lives of the men and women whose choices, loves, had made possible the shape of his life. They rise up around him and:

He is held, though he does not hold. He is caught up again in the old pattern of entrances: of minds into minds, minds into place, places into minds. The pattern limits and complicates him, singling him out in his own flesh. Out of the multitude of possible lives that have surrounded and beckoned to him like a crowd around a star, he returns now to himself… He has met again his one life and one death, and he takes them back. It is as though, leaving, he has met himself already returning…meeting…a few dead and living whose love has claimed him forever. He will be partial and he will die; he will live out the truth of that. Though he does not hold, he is held. He is grieving, and he is full of joy. (Chapter 3)

I won’t tell you anymore, but for me, every word from there out was the slow swell of a music only to be known in loving, and choosing to love again in the face of loss and grief. It is a music half broken, but singing itself whole. In hearing it, I knew that Mr. Berry had known the ache of being lost. I knew he had fought, as I am fighting, to believe that constancy in friendship and fidelity in love is possible. I knew he had heard, as I have, the derision of a fast-paced, impersonal world, and still chose to believe that the sort of life that grows up slow and rich from the ground of faith, hope, and love, was so precious it could demand the whole of his life. I even think he’s wondered if he had it in him to stay that course.

When I got up from my chair on that Monday, I felt held. Mr. Berry, I realized, is generous with his history, offering his own memories to cradle the hopes of nomads like me. He affirmed that my hope for a place on earth is already creating one. It is a struggle and a journey, but my very desire to love creates the possibility of community. Mr. Berry and Andy Catlett were blessed to have places to come back to, but someone had to begin it. In my case, I’m the beginner. My actions of hope as I search for my place are creating the memories that will one day hold my children. I will find my place on earth. But the story I am making in the process will be part of the “remembering” that grips those coming after me. This journey is a fight, but every step of it is also an act of creation.

With Andy, I was suddenly full of joy.

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Filed under Books

In which I rant about travel and technology

Three grey day hours of delay in the Nashville airport, two caffeine-grabbing stops at Starbucks, and one restive ramble through terminals C and B had me in a serious state of mental exasperation last week. Three glorious hours of quiet, albeit unexpected, had been dropped in my introverted lap and I couldn’t do a thing with them. My brain was jammed with mental white noise, every channel of thought scrambled by the dash through early morning traffic, the monkey dance required to make it through airport security, and then, this sudden space of free time. I had tried my old steady; reading. Too fidgety. Same with writing. I tried to be quiet, to draw inward to those silent spaces at my core. No luck. I tried to pray. Even worse. Time sat in front of me with a grey, blank face.

So I draped myself in a sharp-boned chair under one of those wall size airport windows and watched the planes glide in and out like silent white giants. My eyes were red with lack of sleep, my brain was buzzing with it.  I was too exhaustedly restless to think up anything to do but watch the TV blaring another cycle of “breaking” news over my head. I looked around; everyone near me had a cell phone or iPod in their ears. They stared ahead, unseeing. I glanced down. There sat my plucky black Macbook. I stuck my book and journal back in my bag, pulled out my headphones. The impulse to flip my Mac open, find an online show or lose myself in cyberspace, was an itch in my fingers. I reached for it. Anything to distract me from feeling distracted.

Yikes. My idealistic self came spluttering to life. What was so wrong with me that suddenly, I couldn’t think of a thing to do but watch TV? Of all things in the world, mindless submersion in electronic entertainment is my pet peeve.  I have spent endless hours and a ridiculous number of journal pages in outrage at the amount of time my culture, and sometimes me, wastes on TV. We could be thinking, writing, cooking, carving, weaving, planting, loving, dancing… and here I was about to succumb to the temptation of the screen. What had brought me to such a state?

At that moment, I remembered Neil Postman’s arresting book, Technopoly. Bear with me. When I read it a few years back, the first thing that struck me was his explanation of the way that every new technology changes the shapes, needs, and spaces of our lives. Inevitably, an old way of existing is displaced by a new one. Fine and good, yes? Maybe not. The example that startled me into a keener understanding was his account of the written word as a new technology. As a lover of books who considers all things bookish to be old-fashioned and good, I was startled to read of how writing displaced the grand, oral tradition; the bardic art of poetic memory, of epics sung round firesides. To write something down is a wonderment, but it did replace an ancient way of remembering that was immediate, poetic, and highly communal.

The reason I remembered this in my airport reverie was that I had the abrupt realization that I was experiencing exactly what he was talking about. I watched, wide-eyed, as another line of toe-tapping travelers ducked into a tunnel to be whisked round the world, and I knew that my restless brain, my impulse to mindless entertainment, was a direct result of the processes of technology that Postman described.

Travel, as we moderns know it, is a technological innovation. What does it enable? Global movement. Business. Adventures. Connection with people halfway round the world. But what does it change? Our use and experience of time. Our connection to home and the rhythm of work, rest, play, and creation that we live within is disrupted and we are faced suddenly with what I’ll call vacant time. Normal life is suddenly suspended by the need to be in transit.  For me, this sort of time is on the rise, not only from airport jaunts, but also from the vast amount of time I find myself spending in the car, a habit shared by most people I know. We as a culture are living more and more in spaces of transition; hours that take us to and from our spaces of living, yet somehow don’t feel like real life themselves. Vacant time.

So what is the natural impulse when confronted with such emptiness? To get through it as quickly, and painlessly as possible. Boredom has never been something the human brain tolerates with equanimity. And if we don’t have recourse to the tools, stability, and quiet needed to accomplish our usual work, relating, or creating, what happens? We need to be entertained. We need some form of transportable distraction that will fill these empty hours, and allow us not to feel lost. Hello virtual reality. Hello TV and iPod, cell phones and endless sessions on the internet. Hello to me, perplexed in my metal airport chair, bewildered and bullied by the forces of technological change.

I know you’re probably wondering why this seems so vastly important to me. It’s just a few airport hours, after all. But hours add up to days, and days to years, and years to lifetimes. Time is God’s gift to me, and the way I use it is my answer back to him. In the airport, I forgot this. I was tired, distracted, and unaware of what had made me so.  Life happened to me that day, instead of me happening to life. That makes me a little afraid, and then, indignant. I don’t want to spend my life, even bits of it, with a soul disconnected from the people around me, the earth under my feet, the moment by moment possibility of doing something creative or good. My ideals mean nothing if I give up the fight to fill my hours with meaning. I don’t want forces outside my self to determine how I use the drip by drop flow of my precious, numbered minutes on this earth.

Epiphanies happen in strange places. I decided that day that I want to become accountable for the empty spaces of time which modernity hands me. My travel schedule won’t change, in fact I love it. Good grief, I’m the girl who named her car Gypsy because that’s what I wanted to be. But none of us gets any practice hours here on earth. To let time come to us, and then depart in vacancy is a waste, a sort of death. I want to require the same level of creativity, love, and wonder of myself in travel that I do when I am at home. I’m just beginning to figure out how. All I know is that nothing, not even airports and freeways and hectic hours should be able to shove goodness out of any given minute in my life.

What do you think?

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Filed under Irrational Irritations, Thoughts Thunk Much Too Late At Night, Travel

Undimmed

Don’t tell me about science, Frost said. I’m something of a scientist myself. Bet you didn’t know that. Botany. You boys know what tropism is – its what makes a plant grow toward the light. Everything aspires to the light… We all have that instinct, that aspiration. Science can’t – what was your word? dim? – science can’t dim that. All science can do is turn out the false lights so the true light can get us home.

-Tobias Wolfe in Old School (from a fictional speech given by the poet Robert Frost)

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Three words

I should probably begin by stating that I did, finally, make it home. My driving angels got quite bruised when Gypsy slipped on the ice, nearly wedging me under a semi, and then spinning me out across the road so that I ended up facing oncoming traffic in the fast lane. Incredibly, I wasn’t hit or even scratched. God is very good to me.

In the white-knuckled minutes of that drive, I found myself repeating what I have heard many people call a “breath prayer.” Just the simple words Lord Jesus, have mercy on me. It’s an ancient prayer. I have always been intrigued by the simplicity of it. For word-drunk me, it could seem almost miserly. Too spare an address to God. And yet, Lord have mercy. Those three words manage to sum up my litany of usual requests. They encapsulate exactly what I desire in every area of my life. I found that they were just what I needed in my dire moment the other day.

I think there are times in life when fear becomes your breath, when need is an ache in your stomach, and suddenly, there are no extra words to be had for a prayer. Your whole body, the strain of mind, the ache of heart, becomes its own prayer. I had such a moment as my car spun out.  Sound ceased, thought froze. Yet through it came the whisper, Lord have mercy. When I could not form my own plea, the rhythm of that prayer in my heart spoke for me, fused its voice into the silence of my utmost need.

I think perhaps I would like to pray more like that at all times. Oh, I love and deeply value the freedom of speaking back and forth, easy with God. I love the dressed-up pageantry of good church liturgy. But there is a bare bones simplicity to that breath prayer that makes real to me the undisguised essence of my own need as I come, arms outstretched, to beg God’s abundance. I’d like to breathe that prayer throughout my day as a sort of grounding. Those words make a stark space inside of me where what is true is clear; my weakness, God’s strength.

One of my favorite passages in one of my favorite books (Scent of Water, by Elizabeth Goudge) is the exchange between an old man and a young woman on the verge of despair: There are three necessary prayers and they have three words each. They are these, ‘Lord, have mercy. Thee I adore. Into Thy hands.’ Not difficult to remember. If in times of distress you hold to these, you will do well.

I think he had a point.

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Filed under Musings

Snowbound!

I’m sure St. Brendan encountered a blizzard (well, the sea-faring equivalent) or two. It was swift, bright sailing until just after dark yesterday. I did manage to feel soaringly introspective most of the trip, helped by a mocha or two, and the friendly voices of Mat Kearney and Loreena McKennit. Kansas can be a stunning place in autumn. Just before dusk, there was a moment I wish I could have painted. I came out of a pocket of dark fog to have the skies suddenly widen. The rain storm I’d slogged through for hours gathered itself into a bright, navy line of cloud on the horizon while the sunlight fought as near to the earth as it could, turning the clouds into an opalescent canopy. The light got captured beneath it, thick, grey and gold, and it soaked into the harvested fields until they glowed up into rusty red, and this deep, wheaten yellow. I kept trying to snap pictures, but scared myself with my erratic driving and just watched instead.

But then, storms. When I had just passed the three hours from home mark, the pleasant rain patter changed abruptly into snow. Literally within ten minutes I was smack in a blizzard. Only one lane was open, I was slipping all over the place and there were four inches of snow. I will admit to being scared. Gypsy’s the pluckiest car alive, but snow is not her favorite terrain. Especially when those ridiculous semis whiz past her, shoving us off course and burying us in snow. Hundreds of miles of empty land, a wind screaming like a demon, and the snow piling up. A lot of praying got done in that half hour.

I was very thankful to make it to a motel (after finding the first one to have no vacancies). And I’m still thankful. Despite the fact that the highway is now thoroughly closed, and the electricity here dies every half hour or so. It’s amazing the sorts of panic-stricken thoughts you can think when you wake in the middle of the night to the pitch blackness of a power outage. It was about one am and people were out talking in the halls and I was very tempted to stick my head out and yell, “Ya’ll! Please. Some of us are trying to conquer our irrational panics about being stranded on the plains with no heat or light by sleeping through it all.” I didn’t though.

And now, here I am, writing to you. Strand me in snow more often and I’d probably get more blogging done. I plan to make the best of this. Read, think. Try to find some decent coffee. Maybe write for more than thirty snatched minutes. Oh, adventures. It’s like Bilbo said, you step out on the road, and you never know what’s going to happen. Good grief.

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Filed under Travel

Coracle

Tomorrow the road will be my ocean, sunlight my wind, and I will sail bravely into silence. I will part the waves of dawn as they run up the shore of the snake black highway, I will let myself be carried far away by the rhythm of the undulating landscape out my window. I’m driving, you see. For eighteen hours.

St. Brendan, the Irish seafarer, had a coracle, a tiny little boat of wood in which he sailed the wild ocean in search of the  wonders of his God. I’ve always wanted to do the same. Of course, for me, there are no uncharted seas. And for a boat, I just have Gypsy, my blue little car. She’s enough though, because I have found that a good day of solitary driving can be a sort of voyage. The space of my car becomes a coracle for my soul. It doesn’t really matter what road I take, because its my spirit that sets to sailing as soon as I’m free of the rush and roar of mainland home life.

I sail into myself. Silence rises up around me with the wide hush of a calm sky. The current of my speed, the swift flow of houses and hills, matches the flow of my thought. Then I am swept into the storm of an idea. Beauty lowers dark and thunderous on every horizon. The air sings with the cries of rising prayer. My thoughts stretch out before me like a strange new shore, rich and wild, ready for my exploration. I am driven on.

And I begin to think that silence is a wilder voyage than any I’ve yet imagined.

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Filed under Contemplations