Being a Baker

Working at the Main Library has surprising advantages. Just now I stepped out of my office, walked five paces across the hall, scanned a badge, and walked under the civic center plaza to the elevator that stretches from beneath the earth up to the mayor’s office on the fourteenth floor. I didn’t have so far to go—just up one level to the utilities counter, where a sympathetic, amused woman named Sue shut down my gas payments. It took less than five minutes.

I finished packing up my kitchen days ago. My cake pans were in boxes sometime early last week. But as I walked through the underground loading dock on my way back to the office, I was distinctly aware of the finality of what I’d just done. I would never, from that moment on, be able to bake for anyone out of that kitchen.

Maybe it doesn’t seem like a very big deal, but I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of a certain identity, namely being “the person who bakes a lot”. I made a tiered wedding cake for some friends (because their original plan of buying a Costco sheet cake sounded fairly sad), princess cake for a Swedish friend feeling homesick, banoffee pie for my Irish friend who hadn’t tasted it since moving to the States over a decade before, pecan pie for another friend’s Thanksgiving dinner, maple bourbon pecan peach pie for another friend’s birthday, Canal House chocolate chip cookies for a dozen odd events, buttermilk breakfast cake for Saturday morning visitors, orange olive oil cake for backyard dinners, and so many cakes, breads, pies, cookies, tarts, tortes, and more for so many gatherings, celebrations, holidays, birthdays, and births past counting.

Packing has been hard. I’ve shed a lot of tears. This apartment, this kitchen, have meant a lot to me over the last four years. But as I walked away from city hall, realizing that my last baking project in that kitchen (two almond tortes) was now irrevocably far behind me, I felt…free. I am no longer the person who bakes a lot. I’m just myself.


At the close of nine years

I'm moving to Texas in less than two months. I've lived in Long Beach now for nine years. Already I have stacks of books covering my dining room table that I'll be reading for my PhD program in the fall. I've quietly begun the tedious work of sorting and cleaning everything in my little apartment. I'm scheduling all of my last days with friends, moving through my calendar in reverse order from when I expect to slip into my car and drive away.

This is the longest I've lived in one place, so I've never really experienced a leaving quite like this before. I remember the day I left Wheaton, closing the bedroom door on my best friend, walking down to Chaeli's car so she could drive me to the airport. (The greatest grace of Texas is that she will be there. Some friends we never lose completely.) I remember leaving California for Scotland—walking away from my mother in the Palm Springs airport. We leave people who have changed us, and we leave places that have witnessed us change. It's not easy.

And there's no coming back. I drive down Broadway on my way home from work, catch sight of the mural in the alley, and wonder if, in five years, the same sight will make me feel sentimental. Will remind me of what I left behind. But we're always leaving, even when we stay still. That's what time does. It perpetually moves everything from experience to memory. Where I was two years ago was also precious, and it's been gone a long, long time.


Happy Birthday

It must have been a decade ago, or nearly, that I wrote this poem for a friend. It was coded verse in her voice to someone else, and today its strange metaphor was born in the most literal sense of labor and breath. So I'm posting it here today. Welcome to the world, Everett. We have waited for you long.

"An Incarnation"

Certain as stars am I
that this embryo will grow
as though filled with the patient spirit
that met Mary so intimately 
upon her humble Yes.

Certain as stars, though stars die,
setting hope on long life—
all the millions of years 
between their first burning and our sight—
I will wait.

It is not enough that he grow in me
a child sleeping silent—
He must grow in you also
between the sheets of your heart like pages
in a story book.

This is the Law of Waiting
and I hold to its words like a child
to its mother—I would be a mother,
but am barren and weeping
at the temple doors,

making vows to my patient Spirit-God
of waiting and wombs:
I will name him
after the brother of Your Son
for he must be a miracle.

In the glow of a bedside lamp I see him
silent and straight, waiting,
as I am, to be born. A shadow still
until you see him, too,
dark and growing strong.

I will see you in his evening glow
rumpling his hair on the pillow as you do
and I know this is not prophecy
or vision, but a kicking sense—
a breath of something waiting.

Will you not let him form?
Say his name in the tide of your afternoon
or press your hand against me
and feel his heart beat 
like a spinning world?

Take him with you in your
go and come. Read and speak
to him. Drive and walk
with him. See, live, and love him—
as I do



Again in Gilead

I just finished reading this for the second time last week, thanks to the forever book group of Grace. It was equally as lovely the second time around, and while reading it, I wrote down a dozen more quotes from the incomparable Ames, who is both too beautiful a man to be real and too beautiful a man not to be real. (I'm grateful and amazed to know a few like him.)

"It has been my experience that guilt can burst through the smallest breach and cover the landscape, and abide in it in pools and danknesses, just as native as water." (p.82)

I have found this to be remarkably true. I see it in myself, and in many others as well.

"I believe there are visions that come to us only in memory, in retrospect." (p.91)

This seems to be about the only way I experience visions, but because memory is a rickety thing, I tend not to trust them much. Which makes me a poor prophet.

"I know, too, that my own experience of the church has been, in many senses, sheltered and parochial. In every sense, unless it really is a universal and transcendent life, unless the bread is the bread and the cup is the cup everywhere, in all circumstances, and it is a time with the Lord in Gethsemane that comes for everyone, as I deeply believe." (p.114)

My experience of the church has been neither sheltered nor parochial, and I find myself often observing the bread and the cup, before approaching and afterwards, and wondering with something close to despair if this could be true. But I suspect we're speaking of it with slightly different concerns. Regardless, fictional minister though he may be, I will rely on John Ames's faith in the matter where mine fails. This is a great comfort to me.

"I have always liked the phrase "nursing a grudge," because many people are tender of their resentments, as of the thing nearest their hearts." (p.117)

I couldn't help but see faces rise to mind when I read this line. Which always worries me, as it can be a quick cover for avoiding one's own face. 

"There is never just one transgression. There is a wound in the flesh of human life that scars when it heals and often enough seems never to heal at all." (p.122)

The reason we collect these lines when we read Gilead is that they are persistently true, perhaps none more so than this. "There is never just one transgression." And not simply because we sin more than once, but because every singular sin is manifold in its trespasses. The scar is slow to form as the trespasses unfold.

"At the root of real honor is always the sense of the sacredness of the person who is its object." (p.139)

Replace the word "honor" here with "love" and you realize how interchangeable the two ideas actually are.

"So to be forgiven is only half the gift. The other half is that we also can forgive, restore, and liberate, and therefore we can feel the will of God enacted through us, which is the great restoration of ourselves to ourselves." (p.161)

Tucked within this sentence is a decent definition of humanity. That is, not simply that we are agents of the will of God, but then in enacting God's character (which is an interesting concept in itself) we realize our identity.

"Nothing true can be said about God from a posture of defense." (p.177)

And yet how often people try.

"There is no justice in love, no proportion in it, and there need not be, because in any specific instance it is only a glimpse or parable of an embracing, incomprehensible reality. It makes no sense at all because it is the eternal breaking in on our temporal." (p.238)

Let us imagine that in experiencing love, it is as though we are looking through a magnifying glass at something resembling a bee or a shell. But on the other side of the magnifying glass, where we cannot travel, the bee or the shell is actually a universe, vast and exuberant. "The eternal breaking in on our temporal" suggests a suddenness to the act of love. But the "embracing, incomprehensible reality" is really the wide way of things. And our inability to see it except in "glimpse or parable" is because we are smaller on the inside than we were ever meant to be.

"There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient." (p.243)

I am grateful to know exactly what he means by this.

"Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don't have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?" (p.245)




I wrote the following about nine months ago, but it didn't feel right to post at the time. I still mean every word.

In the film Wives and Daughters, and the book by Elizabeth Gaskell which inspired it, Squire Hamley lives through the deaths of both his wife and his eldest son. He's a proud man, whose pride is greater than either his education or his purse. But each of these deaths, coming as they do at the beginning and the end of the story, change him in significant ways. The first hardens him; the second softens him. We see in the squire (perfectly portrayed by Michael Gambon in what I consider to be one of the greatest performances on screen) a complete character transformation. He is changed, but we still recognize him. In fact, we see him all the more clearly.

Grief does that to a person. It uncovers them.

Today I went to a memorial service for a woman I never knew. Before the service started, her two year old son found his way up to the podium, pacifier in his mouth, and began to wail. It occurred to me more than once from then on that wailing would be right in such a space, at such a time.

We don't do that, of course. We don't wail, nor do we hire wailers. We do not beat our chests in the street or cover ourselves in sack and ash. It's not a part of our culture. And I'm not suggesting that it should be. There's a moment when, like the squire, we open wide our wailing, spurning the dinner set before us, and cry, "He…will never eat again!" But we still find ourselves downstairs the next day, answering the mail and making arrangements. Because we go on. Our hearts are battered, but they are not broken. Not for good. "Nay, nay. It's not so easy to break your heart. Sometimes I wish it were. No, we have to go on living 'all the appointed days.'"

We go on living. Beauty and joy are a little sweeter for having known the dark days. And dark days are a little less forbidding because we've traveled them before. We were never promised easy lives. We were promised exactly this. Living, stained with tears. 


the year of bad poetry

Last night, after having spent the day with two of my favorite people—one a writer, the other a musician—I sat down at my computer with a glass of red wine and I wrote a terrible poem. It was so bad, I'm pretty sure I won't even bother trying to edit it into something readable. And you know, I was blissfully happy with it.

It was the second day of 2015, but certainly not too late to make a fanciful plan for the next 364 days.  A plan to write at least one bad poem every day.

I haven't written much poetry in a long while. I used to write poetry pretty frequently, but it's never been a discipline. It's just happened irrepressibly. So when the fountain turned off, the poetry ceased. When it comes to establishing creative patterns of behavior, as I mentioned before, I'm not very steady. Part of my inconsistency has to do with having a short attention span. But when it comes to poetry, it's mostly because I don't want to write it if it isn't life-changing in some way. Epic. Romantic. Painful. Grand. To commit to a year of writing poetry would be crippling. To commit to a year of writing bad poetry, just so that I'm writing anything at all...I suspect that'll be liberating.

We'll see.


what the new year holds

Today marks the beginning of a new year, and with that, new resolutions to be or to do things differently. I used to have a bad habit of starting new blogs with new years, eventually finding myself spread so thin over a handful of platforms that all of them suffered. To begin this year well, I've spent the day cleaning. I cleared out my closet, waxed my kitchen counter, took two loads down to the recycle bin...and deleted each blog but this one. A last bastion, if you will. 

Anyone who's been paying attention has noticed that I haven't posted in four months, and before that it had been spotty for quite a while. I've used my blogs in part to simply have an outward voice for the things that are going on in my life, but also to clarify thoughts, experiences, and hopes related to living a creative life in community. I'd like to continue with that, but I'm not really sure what it will look like.

I hesitate to set out a grand plan for this blog and this year, because I don't believe most of my new year's resolutions anymore. They generally have to do with developing certain habits, rhythms, even rituals, and I am terrible at anything habitual unless it involves sleep. That's a characteristic I've always wanted for my life in an idealistic way, but which in the real day-to-day of life is completely contrary to my personality.

So I make no promises. I can only say that I have had a wonderful year of developing creatively, of developing relationships with creative people, with pursuing remarkable and inspiring avenues of community—and I suspect 2015 will carry with it even more of these opportunities. I will do my best to record them here with better attentiveness. We'll see how that goes.

In the meantime, may this year be one in which we begin to believe that change is possible.


Reviewing Books in an Age of Self-Publishing

A lot of people are talking about whether or not it's possible to develop a literary canon in an age of self-publishing. When there are no gatekeepers, how do we know what to keep for future generations? Those who've had the gates slammed in their faces find the open doors of self-publishing a welcome relief and a source of hope for their material. To them, this question seems archaic. But when anything can be published, the resulting sea of material makes it almost impossible to find the readership that matters, whoever that is. And the plethora of written material that's now available for people to read is mind-boggling—and growing exponentially by the day.

It's kind of like orbital debris. At the moment, it doesn't really affect anyone. But at the rate we're going, it will. Eventually. Future generations will look back on our irresponsibility and cast well-earned judgment.

Not that keeping a blog or self-pubbing your memoirs is literary littering. But sometimes it is.

I think that's why reviewers are important. Good ones. Reviewers who don't just read the books that are already hitting the bestseller shelves, or the blogs that everyone else is already following, imitating, tumbling, and pinning. Reviewers who hunt for new material more voraciously and thoroughly than an acquisitions agent.

I don't think I've said anything new yet, so here it goes: I think we should be paying reviewers. I think we should be finding the good reviewers, the trustworthy, intelligent, hound dog reviewers, and then we should be paying them to cull through the morass of material that's out there—traditionally published and self-published, books and blogs and zines—to find that canon. Otherwise the digital age will actually serve to drown out voices, not to give the silenced a voice. We'll still only hear about the books that have money behind them. And our age will be remembered not for liberating the writer, but for making the writer irrelevant. As things stand now, book reviewers are a dying breed. Granted, there are more self-proclaimed reviewers on the internet than ever (myself included), but they're mostly not getting paid. And the only way to read enough to attempt the attic purge that is contemporary book reviewing is for it to be a full time job. So I would challenge our newspapers and journals not to cut those columns. And I would challenge people looking for a good book to read to first find a reviewer they trust, someone they'd happily take a book suggestion from., and find a way to keep them doing what they're doing.


A Q&A with Chelsea Davis

Over the past year, I've had the pleasure of knowing Chelsea Davis, an artist and musician as well as a friend. Just over a week ago, Chelsea launched a Kickstarter to fund an EP with songs written by her and our friend Ana Sanchez. As someone who thinks a lot about the creative life, and what it looks like to live out of our identity as image bearers of a Creator, I thought I'd take a moment to grill her (in writing) about what it's like to be Chelsea Davis.

So, Chelsea Davis, what is it that you do?

I try to understand my experiences of people, places, and things. Generally, this involves a lot of quiet time followed by a lot of talking out loud. Occasionally somewhere in the middle, I find words to name my experiences, and then I sing about them.

When and how did you realize that music was your passion?

I just watched an embarrassing home video of my 4th birthday. Apparently someone brought a karaoke machine, and I refused to share the mic with any of the other kids.

Seriously though, I loved all things performing and artistic when I was growing up. I chose to attend a different high school than my friends to study musical theater, but I had a negative experience trying to fit in there and ended up transferring. Things went downhill for a couple years (as they do when you’re 15 and the world is a terrible horrible no good very bad place.) I minimized my love of performing to be accepted by my boyfriend & peers. I really wasn’t myself for quite awhile. It felt like a part of me just died.  

I went to college to become an English teacher and had enough transfer credits my freshman year to basically take whatever classes I wanted to---and I never left the music building. I pursued a degree in music therapy and ended up teaching elementary music for 5 years.  

Then in 2009 I developed a stress-related illness that was semi-debilitating. I started to re-evaluate how I was spending my time. I discovered that I was spending so much time working in music-related fields, I didn’t have the time or energy to create my own music or perform. Getting sick was a definite wake-up call that something needed to change.

Then in 2010, I was sitting in church and the speaker asked, “What would you do if you knew you could not fail? Turn to the person next to you and share.” I turned to my left and blurted out, “I would be a professional singer.” No one could’ve been more surprised than me.

A few months later, I made plans to leave my full-time teaching job to pursue singing & songwriting.

How does your day to day life look differently than it would otherwise because of your creative pursuits? What are your rhythms?

My natural habitat is creative chaos, and I’m a very circular thinker, so I sometimes have a hard time organizing myself. Every day is different, but my weeks have a pretty good flow to them. In my weekly rhythm, there are some essentials for me to be able to live well & create well:

1)     quiet, uninterrupted, journaling time almost every day  
2)     having individual time with my two closest friends for 3-4 hours
3)     counseling once a week
4)     eating at regular intervals (a real struggle if I’m in the middle of something)
5)     doing yoga 4-5 time a week really helps me care for myself emotionally so I can focus
6)     daily bedtime ritual with my husband where we do the Examen practice to evaluate what was life-giving during the day, and then we read aloud.
7)     If I’m writing, particularly blogging, I’m best in the morning
8)     If I’m singing, I’m best in the afternoon\evening (warmed up)

Depending on the phase of a creative project I’m in, the rhythm really shifts. For example, right now we’re in this huge fundraising push for the Kickstarter, so I’m spending 10-12 hours of my day glued to my computer. NOT ideal. I can’t wait to get back to my normal groove.  

From where do you get your inspiration?

When I was young, my internal experience of the world didn’t match the shiny veneer that was being painted for me by my family and in my church. I found that gap very confusing, and I think I’ve spent much of my adult life trying to name my experiences in order to validate them—to create an external representation of them so that the world makes sense. I was hungry for honesty and integrity, and I think that comes through in my work. I don’t really brush things under the rug.  

If you had a daughter, what's the one thing you would want her to learn from your life?

How to live boldly and imperfectly, without shame.  

If you had a son, what's the one thing you would want him to learn from your life?

How to treat women with respect and dignity, and use his power, privilege and gifts to lift up other people.

What's your most extravagant wish for your music?

I really want to have a song on So You Think You Can Dance. I think I would weep for days.

What's your most humble wish for your music?

That whoever hears it and resonates with it will be moved to greater vulnerability in their own life. I want it to heal people, break shame, give courage to name experiences, and help people hold on when it’s really hard.  

Let's say you were going to go away for a month somewhere, to an ideal location, with the end goal being to have written a handful of new songs. What would that place look like?

Oooooh!!! Great question. I would love to go to a farm somewhere in the Midwest or South. I’m from Kentucky originally, so I imagine it would be two-story rickety farmhouse with big old windows overlooking a huge yard and trees for miles. There would be quilts and rocking chairs and a screened in porch or solarium, and a piano, of course. We’d be far enough away that we’d have to drive into town. It would probably be late spring or early fall, to miss the humidity. That sounds lovely, only made more unrealistically ideal if a couple friends could still visit every few days for lemonade and fresh berries and listening to cicadas together. 

Tell us about Kickstarter. What's the deal?

Kickstarter is a crowdfunding website for people who have a creative project to raise money to fund their idea. It’s a platform for people who want to make something, be it an album, an invention, a play, etc. You set a funding goal, and if you don’t meet that goal within 30 days, all the Backers get their money refunded, and you get $0. It’s an all-or-nothing deal.  
My current project is the album “Caged Bird”, which I co-wrote with spoken word artist Ana Sanchez. I’m using my performance platform as an opportunity to raise awareness about some of those things that we tend to brush under the rug—sexual abuse, exploitation, and trafficking.

We launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the album on Tuesday, June 24, and as of right now, we’ve raised over $12K in 3 days*. Our goal was $15K to record a 6 song album with Grammy-winning executive producer Bill Cunliffe. It’s going so well, we might set a stretch goal of $25K and see if we can make a FULL LENGTH version of “Caged Bird.” I’m pretty excited. You can watch a short video & hear the music here:

*Update: The "Caged Bird" Kickstarter project reached full funding after only 6 days! You can add to the support through the link above. The backer perks are incredible, the music beautiful, and the cause noble. 


The Disastrous Life of Me

Lately I've been feeling like any account of my current life would have to include the word "disastrous" in its title. It's a bit hyperbolic, but when you consider how easily a pile of little things can take on the weight of something much greater, disaster seems about right.

Here's an abbreviated account of my recent troubles:

There was that cake I made that kind of imploded. That was after having to make it twice because the first attempt turned out way too thin.
Then I got cake grease all over my new shirt.
And I broke my biggest mixing bowl.

I broke that while making bread for an amazing dinner with a friend, after which, while walking her to her car, a bug flew into my mouth.
Then there was the whiskey. A parting gift for a friend, I had to pick it up in Costa Mesa at an exorbitant price (apparently worth every penny, but I don't drink whiskey so what do I know). I accidentally left the whiskey too long in the warm car. It uncorked itself. All over the floor of the backseat.
Which meant my car had to be detailed.
Having never detailed my car before, I didn't know they left the plastic on the seat because the seat was damp. So when I picked it up, I whipped off the plastic without a thought and sat right down on a wet seat.
This was after I'd already vacuumed out half my car because I'd knocked over two succulents, spilling almost a full pot of soil all over the passenger seat.
I hosted an open mic night the other day and managed to knock the microphone over, getting my foot completely knotted in the cord while I was at it. As I stood there on my remaining foot waiting to be untangled, all I could think was, "This is my life now."

But you know, I've found a curious consequence to these minor havocs. I feel unusually blessed with things being normal, and incredibly grateful for anything above average. I bought myself some peonies on my lunch break earlier this week, and they nearly made me cry they were so beautiful. (Even after accidentally dropping one in the trash.) We should take time for peonies, and for pancakes and people watching, taking the longer route, opening the windows, pausing with the cup of coffee. If it takes disaster to notice these things, then let disaster come. But it shouldn't take disaster. We should live with our eyes wide open.


Shakespeare Sundays

I'll tell you what gives me more joy than anything else I can think of: creative communities. I don't mean formal communities with logos and schedules, though those are nice enough. I mean when you find out that Benedict Cumberbatch is friends with Tom Hiddleston who's friends with Zachary Levi who's friends with Nathan Fillion who's friends with Joss Whedon. Just imagine that dinner party for a moment. Now you see what I mean.

Yesterday afternoon I was in a room of people, most of them friends, some of them strangers, reading through "The Merchant of Venice". Each person read a different role. And the whole thing was brilliant. I found myself looking around me at the other readers with a particular appreciation, because I was in the midst of my own convergence. The creative community had happened. Not a single person in the room was "famous", but every one of them was graced with a good measure of talent—and a few of them with the kind of talent that makes you stop and stare and forget to breathe. (If I say our Shylock was better than Al Pacino, will I be believed?)

This is just to say, again, that I'm very grateful. None of this came about because I said, "Here, let's develop a community." It came about because a few people who loved something very much found the same love in each other and said, "This here! Let us celebrate it!" We find ourselves in good places when we set about celebrating our whole (as in hale, full, well and making well) passions. 


Pater Noster

I wrote this responsive prayer for our service yesterday as part of a 40 day series on the Lord's Prayer our church is going through. My mother asked me to post it here. I do what she says.

Lord Jesus, teach us to pray:
For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.
This is your world. You hold the past, present, and future in your almighty hands. Because the veil was torn and the Spirit has come, we are always—even now—standing in the presence of our God. All of creation bends to you—and would we hesitate? The rocks sing your praise, and the waves rest at your feet. How often we forget!

Lord Jesus, teach us to pray:
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.
All around us—and within us—we find excuses to ignore your persistent presence.  We settle for easy dissatisfaction in things that are not of you. We have stepped too far over that line that runs through each human heart. We’ve compromised to keep ourselves from suffering as you suffer, grieving as you grieve—but it has robbed us also of your divine, unfettered joy. All this, and we hesitate to call the darkness evil. Christ, keep us.

And Lord Jesus, teach us to pray:
Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
Son of God, have mercy on us for the things we choose to do instead of loving you.  Too often we cast the stones of our own justice, forgetting that they fall on you. Our hardness of heart keeps us distant—but apart from you, where shall we go? How can we live? You who said, “Father, forgive,” help us to have mercy as you have mercy. Unclench the fists of our hearts, and teach us to love like you.

Lord Jesus, teach us to pray:
Give us today our daily bread.
Ever more we need you! When the car unexpectedly runs out of gas, the bank account’s tapped out, the job’s lost, or we’re just too tired to do the kindest thing. Then the simplest things are supernatural, because we only have when they come from you. Every day we need your grace. Every day we need your bread.

Lord Jesus, teach us to pray:
Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Even though it messes with our personal plans, even though it requires our surrender, even though it means everything must change—O that you would rend the heavens and come down! We are weary, we are angry, that the oppressor has had his way! The closer we are to you, the more it breaks our hearts to see the poor trampled, the weak abused—to see the lonely, the less than, the lost, the hurt.

We’ve wronged, fallen short, and been endlessly needy, and you’ve met us with your own endless mercy and generosity. So too we need you when the brokenness of the world hurts us more than we can bear. Put an end to the brokenness of nature. Put an end to the brokenness of humanity. Because in your presence neither disaster nor disease nor abuse nor death by any hand can stand. You conquer with severest light, and you heal with perfect tenderness.

We need you now to remind us of the goodness of existence, of the beauty of the earth—to remind us of the astonishing gift of your holiness here with us. When our hearts are burdened, when our future is hard to see, when our patience is thin and our eyes are dim, still, as your children, there is one thing we know: That you, O Lord, are good.

Lord Jesus, teach us to pray:
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.



Choosing Coriolanus

Let me tell you a little bit about my life right now. It's quite lovely, actually—I have a perfect apartment, good friends, precious family, and I ate delicious sweet potato gnocchi today. But it's not particularly cheerful at the moment. It seems nearly everyone I care about is going through their own personal gauntlets, and I am left to pray. Which is a good place to be left in, but not easy.

I have made this observation elsewhere, but I'll make it again here. Something happens when you crack open the door to grief. You become almost physically aware of the feelings that are due things. That which is delightful suddenly strikes you as the most beautiful thing in existence. That which is sad can set you to honest weeping. I find a certain sanctity in this. After all, Jesus wept.

In the midst of all this, I've been personally "suffering" a lot of Stupid. My wallet was stolen a month ago, and for a pile of reasons, it's taken all that time to get access to my new bank account. I made an hour long trip the other day only to find out it was a wasted journey. I broke my key ring. I dropped each of my keys individually the whole way down the hall trying to fix it. I'm pretty sure there's a leak in one of my tires. I could go on, but why bother.

I've been meaning to treat myself to something, lately—preferably something theatrical. A few weeks ago, I heard the Donmar's Coriolanus would be screening in Irvine. The tickets were available online—I just needed my new payment card. I waited for it for three weeks. Just long enough to be too late.

Though the tickets were sold out, I called anyway, and the woman at the box office sounded vaguely hopeful. It was possible (though the seats might not be any good) that just maybe there would be room for me. An hour before it started, I sat in my living room thinking about my perfect parking space fifty feet from my door, and the 45 minute drive in Orange County traffic, and the strong likelihood that I'd have to turn right back around. To be honest, I was afraid of being stuck in a stupid situation again.

And then I thought about what I'd be doing in an hour if I didn't go: sitting in my living room, wishing I'd gone. When I got to the box office, I told the woman I didn't have a ticket. She plucked one off the counter, saying, "You're in luck. A woman just left this here for the next person who came along. It's yours."

It was so perfect it was like a bad novel.  

So it was with absolute gratitude that I watched Coriolanus. And I think that's the way we should approach every work of Shakespeare. And while we're at it, the world.


For once in my life, I disagree with First Things. I suppose actually twice, because in August of 2012 they posted a review of the film adaptation of Shakespeare's Coriolanus which was less than positive, and just last month they reviewed the Donmar Theatre's production of the same with similar disaffection.

The review of the film is titled "Ralph Fiennes' Coriolanus," which is the first sign that the reviewer's main issue lies in the portrayal of Coriolanus himself. A different reviewer looked at the Donmar performance, and her main contention is also with the portrayal of main character. The one is too subtle, the other too sensitive. I think an interesting evening would be had if we could put these two reviewers in a room together, because they seem to disagree with one another almost completely about who Coriolanus is supposed to be. Sympathetic? Cruel? Fascist? Victimized?

I loved them both, for that exact reason. There may be plenty of wrong ways to perform Shakespeare, but I suspect there isn't a singular right one. Ralph Fiennes's Coriolanus was terrifying and victimized. Thoroughly unlikable, but horrifyingly admirable. Tom Hiddleston's Coriolanus was a soldier of soldiers, self-destructively honest, ironically blind. And they both had more or less the same lines.

In the end, I found myself preferring the latter depiction—and not just because I'm a single woman between the ages of fifteen and fifty. (No, really. I swear.) I preferred it, because, unlike the film adaptation, I didn't feel like it was trying to do more than what Shakespeare wrote (i.e. be more political than he was already being), and it was richer as a result. It also felt much more like a classic tragedy. The end was completely surprising and completely unnecessary and completely inevitable all at once. It was so classically tragic, it felt more like Sophocles than Shakespeare.


I was thinking about Coriolanus as a character during the 30 minute walk home from my new parking spot (thankfully worth it). I was thinking about the choices he made—and the choices that were made for him—and how much he suffered for them. Here's the thing of it: You can't sort this one out. It's no one's specific fault how the Coriolanus cookie crumbles. As soon as you blame the politicians, the people open their mouths. As soon as you blame the people, Coriolanus turns out to be an ass. 

What does seem to be clear is that sometimes things happen regardless of you. Sometimes you step into a stream that seems like inevitability and you're left with nothing but your character, because no matter what, you'll be strung up by your ankles. 

Sometimes I make wise choices. Sometimes I make stupid ones. So often the difference lies not in the actions, but in their consequences. It seems so arbitrary that at times I might almost think our lives are ruled by fate—were it not for the burning in my heart. The thing Coriolanus lacked altogether. Human sympathy.

Incidentally (and I feel very strongly about this), I think sympathy isn't so much sharing other people's emotional experiences as it is echoing the "No's" and "Amen's" of God. Life can look an awful lot like tragedy sometimes, but it's not at all. For one thing, it makes no account of delight. "Life remains a blessing / Although you cannot bless." (Thank you, Auden.) More than this, suffering is never the end of the story. It is always the beginning. I don't say that dismissively. One must believe that souls are eternal to hold to this—and I do. 


from the Writers' Workshop, Feb 2014

Right as my hope comes crashing down,
I pray I might be hopeful still from every angle.
I pray hope overcomes dreams with better things,
And the sight and the shiver, the taste and the sound

Go out from me, and come back new.
Clean my memories, build them with better wings,
Root my feet to the earth and wake me up well,
For I have dreamed many dreams, and not one of them true.


Advent 2013

I've been called upon several times in last few weeks to defend my love for Advent. It seems people fall into two camps: those who relish the festivities (the warm fires, the Christmas music, the trees and lights), and those who are overwhelmed by the busyness—or worse, the memories of loss—that the season makes unavoidable.

We're called to rejoice though we are sad, rest though we're busy, and step into the celebration of something very old with all the eagerness of children, for whom it is still very new. It's a hard season of contradictions. And those are the very reasons for which I love it.

I love it the way I love inclement weather. Because it forces you to look up from what you're doing and take steps to meet it. I live most of my life in a contented little fog, almost absurdly present in this particular moment and no other. It's hard for me to step into the past or the future without some kind of catalyst. That's why I love stories—novels and film, television, fairy tale. And that's why I love Advent. It takes me out of myself.

But it also reminds me to feel. It's good to remember the things we've lost, the ones we've loved, the hopes that have risen up to God and not quite made their way back down again. We need to face them. I wonder if one of the reasons so many people don't like Advent is because we've forgotten how to feel properly. How to give the epic strains of our lives their proper due. We like to be in control, and this season takes us out of our own hands.

It does this because of the Incarnation, which was both an earthly, overwhelming, impractical experience for those involved (you know, Mary and Joseph), as well as a cosmic, epic, divine experience (angels, visions, mysterious visitations). And it did not end with a birth. The Incarnation was the most essential fact of the presence of Christ as he walked on the earth. Because he walked on the earth. His miracles involved good wine and coarse bread. He got tired and hungry, he liked gardens and boats, and his friendships almost invariably involved getting together in dining rooms or around watering holes. We're familiar with this Jesus. We've forgotten that before the first Advent, God did not walk the earth. There was a long, silent waiting period between the cool of the evening in Eden the night of the birth of our Lord.

For the past three Sundays, I've been reading the following poem in our church service:

Now we enter the liminal space,
where heaven and earth touch
with trembling fingers.
In places so thin, Christ enters in.
Regardless if we recognize his face,
his presence lingers—
leaving behind finer wine,
multiplying the bread,
shedding the scales from our eyes
till we pause,
between the carol and clutter,
to encounter him.

This is what we recognize in Advent, and we recognize it because of our busyness, because of our sadness, because of the cold and the loss. The Incarnation has given all of these things meaning beyond themselves. The God from whom we were distant is now imminent. The story has been quickened.
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