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.



This morning I was trying to remember Thanksgivings past. It's a big day, and it only happens once a year, so you'd assume they'd stick in one's mind. But I remember very few of them. I remember last year and the year before, because we had special guests. And I remember the Thanksgiving I celebrated in Scotland, because it was the first time I ever cooked something for the holiday myself, and because we were expats in an island of selective American tradition, desperately trying to find cornmeal in a Tesco (FYI: can't be done). I remember the first Thanksgiving I spent at my sister's house—the other guest was vegan, and the pumpkin pie boiled when it should have baked, and I liked stuffing for the first time and drank a Blue Moon.

But the Thanksgivings of my childhood, the ones I think of when I think about Thanksgiving, those I don't remember. They would have been at my Grandmother's house, and the extension would be in the table, and there would be candles, and then men would've had beer. Those Thanksgivings aren't memories; they're senses. They're all Thanksgiving. They're what Thanksgiving looks like when I close my eyes and picture the word. But the details of them, the things that make one different from the next, those are gone.

Part of this is just the fallibility of memory, but there's something else happening here that's more important. It's at the heart of holidays. It's about stepping out of time.

You know how the day after Christmas is always a little depressing? All the energies of the entire world seem to have been building up toward this one epic moment, and then it's over, and it won't happen again for another year. Some people are glad of this, but some of us actually like holidays. And for us, the aftermath is a little dismal. I think that's because we have so few holidays and we celebrate most of them so poorly. We have Thanksgiving (which is really about nothing but food—I mean, let's be honest), and Christmas/Hanukkah/Winterfest, and Easter, and the National Holiday (Independence Day, Bonifacio Day, fill-in-the-blank day). And we have birthdays. But we don't actually celebrate holidays as holy days*. And this is a problem.

Because holy days cause us to step outside of time and enter a different state. There's only one Christmas Day and only one Easter, and when we celebrate them, we are stepping out of our own time and into that single day of holiness. It is a time set apart. It is a different way of being.

So it makes sense not to remember the particularities of Christmas in '97, or Thanksgiving in '01. They're not meant to be particular. They're meant to be the same, because they're one Day. We feel loss when the day is over because we don't have regular rituals beyond these few. We really won't experience something like that again for a long, long while. If we had regular rituals, and not just the four-holiday ones, we would regularly be reminded of the thinness of time (a relevant theme for me at the moment)—that though we live in time, we are ruled by a creator who is outside of time.

This is the reason for following the church calendar, for observing saints' days and feast days and all the days we can. If our lives were marked by a continual pattern of outside-of-time days, we could step from one to the other without that sense of loss. And we wouldn't wonder why each one was hard to remember. Because we would be developing a different kind of memory.

*I am well aware that Thanksgiving and Independence Day and Winterfest (which I made up) are not actually Holy Days in any accurate sense of the word. But they are culturally holy days, and it makes some sense to conflate them as my point is how few holy days we really celebrate. We need more, and we need them to be actual Holy Days.



When you open yourself up to inexplicable joy, you also open yourself up to deep sadness. It's a hard step to take, knowing the lows can get very, very low. But it is better than giving nothing its due. I would rather feel the hurt and the happiness as acutely as they deserve than be cold to everything. Because if you fail to feel what each situation calls for as fully as you can, you lose your capacity for sympathy. And that's a lonely way to live.


Things I do when no one's in the office.

Go barefoot.

Find all the heavy things. Press stuff.

Move furniture...

...and listen to music at full volume.



Can't apologize for not posting much when I've been doing beautiful things. But I will share them with you.


the Fool

Yesterday I started my morning off with a brief conversation with someone I don't particularly like. I've never had a good conversation with this person before, not once, and when I realized it would be necessary to strike up a conversation yesterday, I gritted my teeth about it. And then we talked, I got what I needed, the person was pleasant, I was pleasant, and not a minute of it was a burden. I walked away surprised by joy and playfully kicking myself for having such a bad attitude about it in the first place.

This is a lesson I've been learning over and over again recently. It's been a circling theme, and just when I think I've learned it well, I step right into it again. I begin with a preconception, however justifiably formed, that something or someone is difficult, unpleasant, unjust, a threat to my security. And then I'm proven wrong.

I was reminded this morning of the Proverb about "if your enemy is hungry." It can be hard, learning to bless your enemy. But it's a different kind of hard to assume the worst, and to receive food and drink instead. It's startling when you find yourself receiving the burning coals of a generous, unwarranted gift, because as it turns out, you are the enemy. Your own worst. Thinking about it gave me a different view of the whole book. In the long, dancing narrative of Proverbs, I was the fool.

Most of these cyclical lessons I'm learning don't involve me being an enemy, but they do involve me being the fool. Assuming, being proven wrong, over and over. But there's a great delight in that. I hope I'm always willing to have my assumptions undone. I suspect it's a lesson I'll be learning for a long time yet.



This past week, I was struck several times by critical comments from people in my community spoken in such a way that insinuated they had a better notion of how things should be done than the way things were. Behind these comments was a layer of cynicism, or as one person put it, a sense of disillusionment.

I am no stranger to cynicism. As a generally sarcastic person, I find my sense of humor often crosses over that invisible line between playful irony and biting criticism. It’s something I’m actively working on. One of the most basic ways I’m working on it is with the discipline of silence.

Sometimes keeping silent about the way things are and the way things might be is a bad way of going about things. It can allow injustice to thrive. Or, less egregiously, it can allow inefficiency to run rampant. In such cases, so long as you’re speaking the truth in love, raise your voices to the roof!

But sometimes we voice our opinions just because we think we know better, without considering that ours is one of a thousand voices expressing often contrary things to people whose job it is to find what works not just for you, but for the whole. I’ve noticed a remarkable lack in my conversations with people recently: a lack of grace.

I don’t mean to suggest this problem exists only “out there.” I’m one of the perpetrators too. I recently let my opinion of someone I used to know out in the open. I expressed the opinion somewhat comically, but it wasn’t very favorable. Then he showed up and was perfectly kind and intelligent, and I realized I’d missed one of those important opportunities to keep my mouth shut.

I should note that this happens to me quite a bit. It’s rare that any of my preconceived critical opinions ever lasts the test of time. I’m nearly always humbled by my ability to assume someone or something is less than they are—less capable, less intelligent, less worth my time.

This is one of the reasons I’m trying to extend grace towards those who seem to be having trouble extending grace themselves. Because heaven knows we all need it.


It's been all reminiscence.

I've been reading through old journals, which will always do it to you. Also, this morning I was reminded of a professor I hadn't thought of in years while moving some books from his class to the office. Found out a couple hours later that he's guest preaching at my church in August. Shortly after that, my roommate from senior year, whom I lost touch with soon after graduation (I graduated before Facebook, you see), found me on a social network I never use and was planning on dumping. It has served me well; I loved that woman, and am so happy to be back in touch.

On top of these things, all day long I've been haunted by the smell of jasmine. As though my memories of college are actually messing with my sensory organs. Jasmine is the smell of Wheaton to me, because I wore copious amounts of jasmine oil back in those days. But it's not the memories that are making me smell jasmine again. The jasmine is blooming wildly, at home and at work and apparently everywhere else I've been all day long. A reminder that the best of those days is still with me, not as a memory of some distant, idealized "good ol' days," but because of who I am and how I've grown and what I see in where I've found myself because of where I've been. 


For Graduates

Thomas Merton writes the following in his book Love and Living (forgive all the elliptical breaks):

The purpose of education is to show a person how to define himself authentically and spontaneously in relation to his world....The function of a university is, then, first of all to help the student to discover himself: to recognize himself, and to identify who it is that chooses.

...This inner identity is not “found” as an object, but is the very self that finds. It is lost when it forgets to find, when it does not know how to seek, or when it seeks itself as an object....Hence the paradox that it finds best when it stops seeking: and the graduate level of learning is when one learns to sit still and be what one has become, which is what one does not know and does not need to know....

Education in this sense means more than learning; and for such education, one is awarded no degree. One graduates by rising from the dead.

Thinking about this, I only know what he means because I have experienced it, in the breathing autumn leaves, the stone city buildings that first trip into Chicago, the small daisy rising from the Scottish soil. Those moments I was most myself were the moments I was acutely aware of life, beauty, existence, creation, the world. 

It is my goal then to make a practice of this. To make it a way of life. I do not know if it's possible, but Merton seems to imply that it might be.


the Pause

Driving home from our Good Friday service this evening, I was reminded of the night years ago when I went with my college friends to see The Passion of the Christ in theaters. I was worried about seeing the movie with so many people, because each of us responds to gravity in different ways. I didn't want to be pulled out of the experience because someone couldn't handle grief or awe in silence, and yet I also wanted to experience those things in community. It was a risk worth taking.

In the end I sat next to a good friend who understood more than most people how to serve and be served by others in the weighty moments. I don't think we said a word to each other during or after the film, but we certainly felt free to cry. Another friend drove me home, and we were mostly silent the entire way. I know that at some point we discussed it, but I can't remember when. Whenever it was, it was the right time.

Knowing the time, and understanding the space surrounding grief is something you learn when you live long enough with others. When my grandfather passed away in his hospice bed that we set up in the back room, I learned to take time with him, and I learned to take time with my father, and I learned to give time to my mother, and to give and not to give space.

When I look back at my richest friendships, the ones I miss most deeply, I see in them so many moments like this. When I came home for Christmas after my first semester at Wheaton and cried with Tara in her living room. Or the weekend spent on White Head Island off the coast of Grand Manan, sitting at the kitchen table and acknowledging in hushed whispers things that had gone unsaid for a painful year. On the hill outside Blanchard, in the strange cafeteria two minutes from my flat, on so many Starbucks patios across the country, and perhaps once in a Panda Express. We learn in community when to speak and to keep silent, how to hold and carry each other or simply to walk beside. That community might look silly sometimes, but there's nothing silly at the heart of it.

Good Friday is the one day every year when I learn and put into practice what I have learned everything about the pause, the time, the space, the wait. And every year on Good Friday I am grateful to those who have learned it with me. If you are one of them, I thank you. 


Last fall I went to an open mic with my friend Carole Crocco. She sang some songs, they were beautiful. A while later there was another one - she sang, I read a poem, someone made me an origami crane. Last week, Carole opened an open mic downtown with half an hour of just her and her music. The place was packed because, fancy that, lots of people love her! I've had this song stuck in my head ever since. If you're gonna have a song replaying in your brain for a full week, you can't do any better than this.


A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle

I can't remember the first time I read Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, though I have read it since at least half a dozen times. It feels new every time I pick it up, and for that reason alone it belongs in the category of Great Books.

It is a great book for other reasons, though I'm not entirely convinced it's a good book. I don't want to be confusing about this distinction. What I mean by this is that the book contains a lot of faults. There are awkward moments, hiccups in dialogue that should have been scribbled over by a good editor. And the very premise has a certain degree of obviousness to it that's only forgivable because of the book's age - and it's not really that old.

But the book has magic. I suspect in part because the author believes in the world she creates - and we do too. Our vision of the universe expands even as we read it.

At the moment, I've begun reading the book again along with my book group from Grace. It's the largest group I've had so far, and everyone seems very responsive. I'm looking forward to their thoughts, especially as we're reading it along with L'Engle's Walking on Water.

Don't concern yourself with that book quite yet. A Wrinkle in Time should first be read in childhood, with the anticipation and curiosity of an explorer. Then again in adulthood, and then again following Walking on Water. The latter gives insight into L'Engle's creative inspiration, its subtitle being "Reflections on Faith and Art." Most of it will feel familiar somehow if you've first read the Time Trilogy, not the least because of her talk of angels and believing in them. It may be new to you, but it will not feel new. If first you have read her novels, it will feel as though she affirms many things you've suspected for a long time.

Madeleine L'Engle donated all her papers to the library at Wheaton College. I was there when they were sorting through them, though I never went upstairs into the archive rooms to take a look. I would have loved to, but I had no academic excuse. I suspect L'Engle hoped to someday be incorporated into the Wade Center across the street (more or less) from Buswell Library. The Wade Center contains one of the most significant collections of C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, G.K. Chesterton, Owen Barfield, J.R.R. Tolkien, Dorothy Sayers, and George MacDonald of any library in the United States. I tried to work there as often as I could while at Wheaton, but again, my excuses were few. I only have one clear memory of curling up in the large armchairs by the bay window, looking out on a snowy landscape. I'd been assigned some reading for Modern Mythology and decided to use their catalog instead of purchasing the book myself.

It might take a revision of the Wade Center's criteria for L'Engle to be included, as the seven authors it features are strictly British. In all other respects, she belongs among them. Her novels, too, are deeply Christian, and her non-fiction is richly perceptive of the correlation between art and faith. It would not be remotely surprising, should I find that excuse I needed to peruse her papers, if I found she had developed her creative creed from the Wade Center's own masters.

Most importantly, like them, she felt one ought to approach her work first with the heart of a child. Which is the first reason A Wrinkle in Time (along with the Narnia books and MacDonald's fairy tales) is considered a children's story. This is also the reason I say to read the Time Trilogy first in childhood and then again as an adult. You will be amazed by how much of the rich theological truths you understood in your youth, and how much of it you needed to be reminded of as an adult. 

There is more love...

It's an interesting thing to give an appraisal of a person based on their Twitter tagline, or the section on Facebook titled "About Me." I always feel a bit stumped by those requirements of a social networking profile. What do you need to know about me that can be summarized into a single sentence? My profession? My hobbies? My sense of self-deprecating humor? My cynicism toward the world at large and profile summaries in particular? 

There's a similar section in the profile of a Pinterest user, and regular readers know well that I take my Pinterest account very seriously. So it was with much consideration that I decided to forgo the usual descriptors and opt, instead, for a quotation by George MacDonald. 

The line is from the book Sir Gibbie, a novel set high in the Highlands, about a little boy whom no one thinks much of until it turns out that he's very important after all. That's about the vaguest summary of a novel I've ever come up with, but I don't like giving things away. Everyone who bothers to know Gibbie Galbraith loves him, and Gibbie loves everyone in turn. So it shouldn't have been surprising, especially in a novel by George MacDonald, to come across a line like this:

There is more love in the world than anything else.

And yet it was surprising. For me, at least, because the moment I read it, I rejected it. There is more love than anything? I thought. I doubt that. More sin, more like. Or more desire, or more waste. There are plenty of things there might be more of than love. But I couldn't shake it, of course, this suggestion that perhaps I was a little more cynical about the world than it quite deserved.

I decided that I must be wrong. Between MacDonald and myself, I concede to his judgment. He has the Highlands to teach him, after all, and globalization and the advent of the internet doesn't change fundamental human experience so drastically that the measure of love or the lack of it should be tipped to one side of the scale or another. There is, then, more love in the world than anything else.

But I need to be reminded of it, and often. This is why I use MacDonald's line in my profile, not so that others might know me better, but so that I might know myself better. Be reminded, self, that there is, in fact, more love in the world than any other thing. Love is abundant.

When I read them, I am reminded not only of the moment I first encountered the words - because every time I read them I must be convinced again of their truth - but of all the proof I've seen. In particular, I am reminded of Prague, which I wrote about in this very blog some six years ago.

Thunder and rain in Slavic measure.
I kneel before the crucifix in St Nicholas' Cathedral amd shake my hair. Still it drips on the pages. What is there to do?
the tiles and the tourists
30kC to kneel in worship with the sound of the voice of the tourguide leading her wayward crowds with trivia and tidbits of history.
Before me, you are bleeding on the cross, a bit too quiet for my taste - I, no longer kneeling, but thinking of the rain, wonder when you will rend cloud from sky and come down. Meanwhile, I am chilly here on this wooden bench.

(I think I may have just driven out a tour group by praying in here. Flustered tour guide. Huh.)

Leaving the church, a guard in a clean black business suit was keeping people from coming in the exit door. He spoke to them sternly and closed the door firmly in their faces despite loud protest - only to turn and see me quietly waiting to get out. He had a beautiful face, like the guard in St Peter's who let Chaeli pray in the pews after the five o'clock mass. From stern refusal toward those without, he saw me and transformed. Gentling laying a hand on my shoulder, he opened the door again as though he had kept the others out just to make space for my exit. Perhaps he had seen me praying... I think I could live well from the love I glean from strangers alone.

This is what I am reminded of. And this is what it means for there to be more love than any other thing. Have it in abundance, and you will receive it in even fuller measure.


Chief of Sinners

For those not paying very much attention, we are in the midst of Lent. Among other things, Lent is the season in which we observe a humility that remembers our shortfall, the great distance between what we are on our own and what Christ has called us toward, made us for, and redeemed us into. I've quoted Richard John Neuhaus before, a line that I remember particularly during Lent every year: "About chief of sinners I don't know, but what I know about sinners I know chiefly about me." This comes from his book Death on a Friday Afternoon, which I probably mention every year about the same time I'm reminded of this line.

I was reminded of it again yesterday while reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Life Together. He addresses the same question, Who among us is the chief of sinners? with the same answer. It brought me back to Neuhaus today, and I think rather than talking about it more, I'll just give you a small passage:

"I may think it modesty when I draw back from declaring myself chief of sinners, but it is more likely a failure of imagination. For what sinner should I speak if not for myself? Of all the billions of people who have lived and of all the thousands whom I have known, whom should I say is the chief of sinners? Surely I am authorized, surely I am competent to speak only for myself? When in the presence of God the subject of sin is raised, how can I help but say that chiefly it is I? Not to confess that I am chiefly the one is not to confess at all."

It is a matter of honesty, and any humility that is not rooted in honesty isn't humility at all. It is also a matter of love, and that is what brings us back to Bonhoeffer. In Life Together, the question of our guilt is raised as a reminder that we come to our neighbors as broken people, children in need of a Savior. Any suggestion that we are less in need than our neighbors is a lie we must disabuse ourselves of if we ever mean to love them with the love of Christ.

"Finally," Bonhoeffer writes, "one extreme thing must be said. To forego self-conceit and to associate with the lowly means, in all soberness and without mincing the matter, to consider oneself the greatest of sinners. . . . There can be no genuine acknowledgment of sin that does not lead to this extremity. If my sin appears to me to be in any way smaller or less detestable in comparison with the sins of others, I am still not recognizing my sinfulness at all. My sin is of necessity the worst, the most grievous, the most reprehensible. Brotherly love will find any number of extenuations for the sins of others; only for my sin is there no apology whatsoever. Therefore my sin is the worst. He who would serve his brother in the fellowship must sink all the way down to these depths of humility*."

In a secular sense, good etiquette requires approaching all people with equal respect, consideration, and sincerity. If you wish to approach any layer of society with an open heart and mind, you need those three things. But I suspect it's not wholly possible, even for the most polite disciple of Emily Post, without the humility of Christ, who bore the consequences of the worst of sinners with a holy willingness, though he himself knew no sin. Better to be his disciple, because in doing so we find not only the most lowly humility but also the adoption into his family. Welcome, then, to the Church, home of the chief of sinners.

*emphasis mine



Later this month, I'll be starting another ten-week book group in which we'll be reading through three Madeleine L'Engle novels along with Walking on Water. I've featured two of them in my "Book Therapy" box on the left, one of which is there now. Like any normal Madeleine L'Engle reader, we'll begin with A Wrinkle in Time. If you haven't read it since you were a kid, now's your chance. Read along with us and tell me what you think.

I have very few expectations for the group, which is probably a good thing. (Few is not the same thing as low, by way of clarification.) Half the attendees have been with us before, and the other half are brand new. We'll see how it goes. 


Open the Mic

Last Saturday I hosted an open mic night at the Seka Coffeehouse at my church. It was a perfect gathering of talent and appreciation, the ultimate expression of creative generosity, and I was honored to be a part of it. I read two poems myself, both of which have been on this blog before. I edited them for the event, and I'm proud of the changes. You can read earlier versions of "I Rode the Devil's Back" and "Glitz" through the links, and the edited version of the latter is below. It's a good example of how the revision of a single stanza can improve the whole.

Watch me bust at the seams
to offer you praise—
and if my dance seems epileptic,
know my heart is full of grace.

My garb is gangly and gauche,
cheap cheesy kitsch and unholy,
but holy's your business—
it's you drawing breath from my lungs.

In this space particular, all I can give
is a song that will break all your crystal—
will rise to the rafters, 

and ruffle the wings of the owls.

While everyone watching thinks:
oh, what a shame!
That such music should come from one
so overweight,
or these notes make their way through
my messes of hair
and emerge from between such
crooked teeth.

They are good enough to wonder in quiet,

neighbor to neighbor, inquiring silent:

How could he be pleased,
How the Lord satisfied,
or the one with the microphone brazen to try?

I ignore all their eyes
and the skin I stand in,
thick in the way of the aria
fit for a king.

Such contradiction
of praise and praiser.

Oh, we all have our highs,
we all have our lows.
We carry our growths
on the sides of our faces—
and maybe they know
and maybe they don't,
but we all limp and shudder,
we tramp and we hulk.

And the bones that aren't broken,
they still quake like we're choking.
The voice that we sing with
fits us like an epileptic.

But.You. Look full on my face.
Bless the place where I stand.
And draw one last note—
out of my throat—
to hold in your enormous hand. 



I'm guest posting today over at the remarkable blog of Kathryn Bronn. If you want to see my thoughts on Pinterest, well, that's where you should go.



A couple months ago when Instagram released their new terms of service and everyone got in a great huff over infringements to their privacy, a friend asked if I was going to close my account and quit using them to share pictures. I thought about it for a minute and realized that no, I wouldn't. By the time the new terms of service came into effect, either someone would discover that the hullaboo was over a misreading of the new terms, or Instagram would have fixed the problem to keep their good name.

Within days, the latter happened. We're all still taking our pictures with Instagram, and nothing is amiss* - as far as we know. I'd like to say this is a sign of some divine presentiment within me, but it's not so complicated.

We all find some lessons easier to learn than others, and this has been easy for me: to avoid panic based on supposition. It's one of the reasons I've never been particularly moved by end of the world theories, of either the evangelical or the Mayan sort. I have been trying to pinpoint when I first learned this lesson, especially as I've had cause to think of it more often than usual lately.

It was when I first came across the verse in Isaiah: "Do not call conspiracy everything that these people call conspiracy; do not fear what they fear, and do not dread it" (8:12). I remember when I first read that and took it to heart. And I really took it to heart, more than usual - perhaps because it seemed to allow me a freedom that was natural to me to begin with.

There are other verses about standing firm, or not following every wave of doctrine, or avoiding faddish philosophies, but they don't mean quite the same thing. "Do not call conspiracy..." is not just about being level-headed or avoiding panic, and it's not about being easily gullible. It means that we should wait to know the truth of a matter before we act on it. We should wait to rise against injustice until we are seeing with clear eyes. The short version: Be wise.

I think there's more for me to learn. But I am grateful for the pause before the leap. The hesitation before assumption. And I pray against any impulse that might make me too quick to fear.

*I am very aware that Instagram would not have bothered to correct their terms if people hadn't kicked up a load of dust. Let us consider this the blessing of human variety.


North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell

It was just after I finished my master's degree at the University of Edinburgh that I was introduced to North and South, having raided the Rancho Mirage Public Library's impressive collection of BBC adaptations as thoroughly as possible. My flatmate Jess had burned me a copy of the DVD before I left Scotland, but there was something wrong with it, and it wouldn't play. Which was just as well, pirating being illegal and all.

Elizabeth Gaskell's masterpiece, North and South, should never be read before Pride and Prejudice. I would like to get the comparison between these two novels out of the way as quickly as possible, because it's probably the first conversation anyone has about North and South. The premise of both is more or less the same - a man and a woman from two different walks of life meet; he finds himself unwillingly attracted to her and addresses a hasty proposal to her immediate and fiery rebuff; circumstances follow which make her regret her decision, and feel a sort of moral or social shame before him; happy ending. Or, to summarize the universal love story: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. I hope no one considers this a spoiler.

Beyond these very obvious similarities, though, the books are remarkably different. Perhaps because one is a Regency novel and the other Victorian. I first read North and South after seeing the BBC adaptation with Richard Armitage and Daniela Denby-Ashe, which is still and perhaps forever one of my favorite costume dramas of all time. I defy you, children, to reach the final scene and not feel flushed with romantic fever. Perhaps you are boys; even still.

The novel is just as romantic, and in some ways even more so. But it is also more religious, more colloquial, and more particular. You will see what I mean.

The main reason that North and South ought to be read after Pride and Prejudice is the difference in economic values. Economic might be the wrong word here, and I'm sure someone more intentional than me has written a well-researched essay on the subject. What I'm stumbling toward is the difference between their understood values in either land or industry. Edward Said's book Culture and Imperialism devotes an entire chapter to Jane Austen, examining the ways in which her narratives establish the English landed gentry as a kind of ideal (granted, one in need of some improvement) in the face of the inexhaustible borders of the empire. He points out the very distinct comparisons Austen makes, intentionally or not, between rural and urban life.

Elizabeth Gaskell makes the same comparisons in North and South with absolute intentionality. One might even suggest that her heroine, Margaret Hale, acts as a placeholder for all the thoughts and feelings of those who felt as Austen did in her day - that the closer one was to the simple and reliable existence of field and forest, the better and more "English" one was. I'm sure I could express this all better if I sat down and reread Culture and Imperialism, but I am not a student anymore. I will leave that to you.

Having exhausted the comparison between Gaskell and Austen, it's worthwhile to point out that I read North and South only a few months after blitzing through a large number of George MacDonald's Scottish novels. The man was none too fond of the city either, and his great city was only wee Aberdeen - a hamlet in comparison with the sweeping urban centers of Manchester and London. MacDonald frequently uses urban life as a literary type for sinfulness, and rural life as the ideal state of the flourishing Christian soul. It's hard to disagree with them, having spent my own brief moments rambling up a sweet Scottish burnie, sipping from fairy springs and looking out across the mysterious dark waters of a rich, haunting loch.

But Gaskell knew Manchester best, and her religious sympathies as well as her experience lay within the harsh hustle and bustle of a manufacturing city. Though both Gaskell and MacDonald shared what was then considered "schismatic opinions" relating to the Church of England, they took slightly different approaches to the religious nature of their fiction. I would suggest Gaskell is more ecclesiastically generous than MacDonald, who himself felt the consequences of removal from the church a bit (though only a bit) more directly than Gaskell.

If Gaskell is more ecclesiastically generous, MacDonald is more spiritually generous. Though I suspect you'd have to read them both to know what I mean. A hint in that direction - and this is my last point, I promise - might be found in that Gaskell's great literary friend was the monumental Charles Dickens, while MacDonald's was Charles Dodgson - better known as Lewis Carroll.

Having said all this, the best of North and South is the most obvious part of it. The love story, though I have minimized it to the point of formula, is better than all its careful arguments about industry and urban life. When I reread the book, it's those portions I read most carefully. Though they are not as crisply and carefully written as Austen's famous Darcy-and-Elizabeth romance, they are somehow more human and unarguably more passionate. 


Go for a walk.

I had reason to walk down First Street this evening. The sun was just below the trees, the air cool enough for my ubiquitous purple coat, and everything quiet enough for reflection. Walks are good for the soul, but I don't take them very often because I'm lazy or careless or both. I've written plenty of poems out of good walks ("Crossing Main Street" and "Let Me Be Like a Leaf" come to mind), most of which rank among my personal favorites.

I didn't write a poem this evening, but if I did, it would have something to do with the wilting camelias scattered in the driveway, or the lost four-square ball by the curb, or the burnt-out building abandoned these past four and a half years which someone has recently deigned to decorate with two potted plants. I'm not sure what the point of the poem would be, though if I'd let the walk be longer, or if I'd faithfully refused to pull out my phone during the last leg, I might have thought of something.

There are triggers for creativity, and there are triggers for the lack of it.   

5 Records to Keep

If you intend to be fastidious about the records you keep for your literary children, there are a few things worth writing down as you read:

1. The Title: This is a bit obvious, but if you're keeping records in a journal or on a blog, it's considerably more necessary than if you're leaving your notes on the inside cover of the book itself. Recording the title can be useful in other ways, particularly if the book comes in multiple editions, or if you're reading a translation of some kind. Something is communicated to me, for example, when a reader claims to have read Demons rather than The Possessed.

2. The Date: To know that my mother read a particular book while she was pregnant with me, or when we were on a summer vacation, or while she was between jobs, is interesting to me personally. Books then provide a kind of literary timeline to a life. For the rest of the world, this may have no significance at all, but your children will consider nothing more fascinating in the years to come than the realization that you were thinking, feeling, and experiencing all manner of things they were unaware of while they were right under your nose. There are other perfectly decent reasons for recording dates, but I find this one is my favorite.

3. Where It Came From: Many of the books lining my shelves were gifts. Some were unintentional gifts (i.e. they were loaned to me and never returned). There are a few which I remember purchasing with perfect vividness. You Shall Know Our Velocity!, by Dave Eggers, with Lisa and Tara during a spontaneous trip to Fullerton back in the day when that city felt exotic to my desert experience; or The Princess and the Goblin, which I hunted for in an attempt to begin a collection of first editions.

4. Favorite Passages: Whether by page number (accounting for the edition) or transcription, pointing our your favorite passages is a way of developing a roadmap for future readers. If these are passages you have considered long after you first picked up the book, it may even be something recognizable to your children - if not word for word, then in the manner by which their content has influenced you in some way.

5. What You Thought: Why is this book important to you in particular? Why should your children read it - or avoid it? Recording your own thoughts is not just a way for your children to converse with your own reading experiences across time, but it's also a way for you to synthesize in your own mind what might otherwise be a passing impression. "What you thought" is a broad prescription for any number of written observations. Take time with this, and enjoy it. 


Leaving a Legacy

I remember hearing a story once about a man who left his library to his children after he died. When they went through the books, they found he had inscribed a note to them about each book, explaining why it was important to him and why it might be important to them.

Ever since I heard about this man and his library, I have wanted to keep a record of books for my own children. Since so many of us read books digitally, and so many of my own important reading experiences have been through the public library, recording my impressions on a blog seems more relevant and more helpful.

This is different than reviewing books, of course. It's more a matter of recollection, since many of the books recorded here are very old, and their contents already approved by myriads of readers across history. Some are not so blessed. Some, in fact, might have been either forgotten or ignored by history. Some might be very new. Some might be epic novels, some picture books, and still others might be non-fiction odes to beauty. What unites them is that I have for one reason or another decided to communicate something about them to my children.

I should qualify here that I am not a parent. Much in the vein of 1001 Rules for My Unborn Son, this begins as a project for hypothetical progeny. Nor will I weep over my soup if such bairns are ne'er born (not yet, at least).

Don't expect posts every day here. I will be writing for relevance and quality, not quantity, so please be patient. I will do my best, because I care about you all, but like last year's blog, this is an exercise for me. We'll see how it goes.

2013 - Resolved, to write letters.

One of the things I wanted to do more of this past year, and which I am even more resolved to do this year, is to write more letters.

I used to write letters all the time. It was something I enjoyed, something others enjoyed receiving, and it gradually became both a part of who I was and a part of knowing me.

I have gathered a good deal of stationery recently, as well as some postcards. I'm going to be writing many letters in the next few weeks, to people I know, and even to a few strangers. I don't know what the letters will say yet, or even who will receive them. But I have a few names in mind, and I'm willing to add to the list.

If you'd like a letter from me, let me know. Not here on the blog, where information is unprotected and widely available (unless you feel very safe behind a PO Box or something). But contact me privately on Twitter or Facebook, if you have the means, and let me know where to send something. I can't guarantee anything, because resolutions are notorious for being unmet throughout the world, but I will certainly do my best. 


The Resolutions of Jonathan Edwards

Being sensible that I am unable to do anything without God’s help, I do humbly entreat him by his grace to enable me to keep these Resolutions, so far as they are agreeable to his will, for Christ’s sake.
Remember to read over these Resolutions once a week.

Overall Life Mission1

1. Resolved, that I will do whatsoever I think to be most to God’s glory, and my own good, profit and pleasure, in the whole of my duration, without any consideration of the time, whether now, or never so many myriad’s of ages hence. Resolved to do whatever I think to be my duty and most for the good and advantage of mankind in general. Resolved to do this, whatever difficulties I meet with, how many and how great soever.
2. Resolved, to be continually endeavoring to find out some new invention and contrivance to promote the aforementioned things.
3. Resolved, if ever I shall fall and grow dull, so as to neglect to keep any part of these Resolutions, to repent of all I can remember, when I come to myself again.
4. Resolved, never to do any manner of thing, whether in soul or body, less or more, but what tends to the glory of God; nor be, nor suffer it, if I can avoid it.
6. Resolved, to live with all my might, while I do live.
22. Resolved, to endeavor to obtain for myself as much happiness, in the other world, as I possibly can, with all the power; might, vigor, and vehemence, yea violence, I am capable of, or can bring myself to exert, in any way that can be thought of.
62. Resolved, never to do anything but duty; and then according to Eph. 6:6-8, do it willingly and cheerfully as unto the Lord, and not to man; “knowing that whatever good thing any man doth, the same shall he receive of the Lord.” June 25 and July 13, 1723.

Good Works

11. Resolved, when I think of any theorem in divinity to be solved, immediately to do what I can towards solving it, if circumstances don’t hinder.
13. Resolved, to be endeavoring to find out fit objects of charity and liberality.
69. Resolved, always to do that, which I shall wish I had done when I see others do it. Aug. 11, 1723.

Time Management

5. Resolved, never to lose one moment of time; but improve it the most profitable way I possibly can.
7. Resolved, never to do anything, which I should be afraid to do, if it were the last hour of my life.
17. Resolved, that I will live so as I shall wish I had done when I come to die.
18. Resolved, to live so at all times, as I think is best in my devout frames, and when I have clearest notions of things of the gospel, and another world.
19. Resolved, never to do anything, which I should be afraid to do, if I expected it would not be above an hour, before I should hear the last trump.
37. Resolved, to inquire every night, as I am going to bed, wherein I have been negligent, what sin I have committed, and wherein I have denied myself: also at the end of every week, month and year. Dec. 22 and 26, 1722.
40. Resolved, to inquire every night, before I go to bed, whether I have acted in the best way I possibly could, with respect to eating and drinking. Jan. 7, 1723.
41. Resolved, to ask myself at the end of every day, week, month and year, wherein I could possibly in any respect have done better. Jan. 11, 1723.
50.Resolved, I will act so as I think I shall judge would have been best, and most prudent, when I come into the future world. July 5, 1723.
51.Resolved, that I will act so, in every respect, as I think I shall wish I had done, if I should at last be damned. July 8, 1723.
52. I frequently hear persons in old age say how they would live, if they were to live their lives over again: Resolved, that I will live just so as I can think I shall wish I had done, supposing I live to old age. July 8, 1723.
55. Resolved, to endeavor to my utmost to act as I can think I should do, if I had already seen the happiness of heaven, and hell torments. July 8, 1723.
61. Resolved, that I will not give way to that listlessness which I find unbends and relaxes my mind from being fully and fixedly set on religion, whatever excuse I may have for it-that what my listlessness inclines me to do, is best to be done, etc. May 21, and July 13, 1723.


14. Resolved, never to do anything out of revenge.
15. Resolved, never to suffer the least motions of anger to irrational beings.
16. Resolved, never to speak evil of anyone, so that it shall tend to his dishonor, more or less, upon no account except for some real good.
31. Resolved, never to say anything at all against anybody, but when it is perfectly agreeable to the highest degree of Christian honor, and of love to mankind, agreeable to the lowest humility, and sense of my own faults and failings, and agreeable to the golden rule; often, when I have said anything against anyone, to bring it to, and try it strictly by the test of this Resolution.
33. Resolved, always to do what I can towards making, maintaining, establishing and preserving peace, when it can be without over-balancing detriment in other respects. Dec. 26, 1722.
34. Resolved, in narration’s never to speak anything but the pure and simple verity.
36. Resolved, never to speak evil of any, except I have some particular good call for it. Dec. 19, 1722.
46. Resolved, never to allow the least measure of any fretting uneasiness at my father or mother. Resolved to suffer no effects of it, so much as in the least alteration of speech, or motion of my eve: and to be especially careful of it, with respect to any of our family.
58. Resolved, not only to refrain from an air of dislike, fretfulness, and anger in conversation, but to exhibit an air of love, cheerfulness and benignity. May 27,and July 13, 1723.
59. Resolved, when I am most conscious of provocations to ill nature and anger, that I will strive most to feel and act good-naturedly; yea, at such times, to manifest good nature, though I think that in other respects it would be disadvantageous, and so as would be imprudent at other times. May 12, July 2,and July 13.
66. Resolved, that I will endeavor always to keep a benign aspect, and air of acting and speaking in all places, and in all companies, except it should so happen that duty requires otherwise.
70. Let there be something of benevolence, in all that I speak.


9. Resolved, to think much on all occasions of my own dying, and of the common circumstances which attend death.
10. Resolved, when I feel pain, to think of the pains of martyrdom, and of hell.
67. Resolved, after afflictions, to inquire, what I am the better for them, what good I have got by them, and what I might have got by them.
57. Resolved, when I fear misfortunes and adversities, to examine whether ~ have done my duty, and resolve to do it; and let it be just as providence orders it, I will as far as I can, be concerned about nothing but my duty and my sin. June 9, and July 13, 1723.


8. Resolved, to act, in all respects, both speaking and doing, as if nobody had been so vile as I, and as if I had committed the same sins, or had the same infirmities or failings as others; and that I will let the knowledge of their failings promote nothing but shame in myself, and prove only an occasion of my confessing my own sins and misery to God.
12. Resolved, if I take delight in it as a gratification of pride, or vanity, or on any such account, immediately to throw it by.
21. Resolved, never to do anything, which if I should see in another, I should count a just occasion to despise him for, or to think any way the more meanly of him.
32. Resolved, to be strictly and firmly faithful to my trust, that that in Prov. 20:6, “A faithful man who can find?” may not be partly fulfilled in me.
47. Resolved, to endeavor to my utmost to deny whatever is not most agreeable to a good, and universally sweet and benevolent, quiet, peaceable, contented, easy, compassionate, generous, humble, meek, modest, submissive, obliging, diligent and industrious, charitable, even, patient, moderate, forgiving, sincere temper; and to do at all times what such a temper would lead me to. Examine strictly every week, whether I have done so. Sabbath morning. May 5, 1723.
54. Whenever I hear anything spoken in conversation of any person, if I think it would be praiseworthy in me, Resolved to endeavor to imitate it. July 8, 1723.
63. On the supposition, that there never was to be but one individual in the world, at any one time, who was properly a complete Christian, in all respects of a right stamp, having Christianity always shining in its true luster, and appearing excellent and lovely, from whatever part and under whatever character viewed: Resolved, to act just as I would do, if I strove with all my might to be that one, who should live in my time. Jan. 14 and July 3, 1723.
27. Resolved, never willfully to omit anything, except the omission be for the glory of God; and frequently to examine my omissions.
39. Resolved, never to do anything that I so much question the lawfulness of, as that I intend, at the same time, to consider and examine afterwards, whether it be lawful or no; except I as much question the lawfulness of the omission.
20. Resolved, to maintain the strictest temperance in eating and drinking.

Spiritual Life

25. Resolved, to examine carefully, and constantly, what that one thing in me is, which causes me in the least to doubt of the love of God; and to direct all my forces against it.
26. Resolved, to cast away such things, as I find do abate my assurance.
48. Resolved, constantly, with the utmost niceness and diligence, and the strictest scrutiny, to be looking into the state of my soul, that I may know whether I have truly an interest in Christ or no; that when I come to die, I may not have any negligence respecting this to repent of. May 26, 1723.
49. Resolved, that this never shall be, if I can help it.
The Scriptures
28. Resolved, to study the Scriptures so steadily, constantly and frequently, as that I may find, and plainly perceive myself to grow in the knowledge of the same.
29. Resolved, never to count that a prayer, nor to let that pass as a prayer, nor that as a petition of a prayer, which is so made, that I cannot hope that God will answer it; nor that as a confession, which I cannot hope God will accept.
64. Resolved, when I find those “groanings which cannot be uttered” (Rom. 8:26), of which the Apostle speaks, and those “breakings of soul for the longing it hath,” of which the Psalmist speaks, Psalm 119:20that I will promote them to the utmost of my power, and that I will not be wear’, of earnestly endeavoring to vent my desires, nor of the repetitions of such earnestness. July 23, and August 10, 1723.
The Lord’s Day
38. Resolved, never to speak anything that is ridiculous, sportive, or matter of laughter on the Lord’s day. Sabbath evening, Dec. 23, 1722.
Vivification of Righteousness
30. Resolved, to strive to my utmost every week to be brought higher in religion, and to a higher exercise of grace, than I was the week before.
42. Resolved, frequently to renew the dedication of myself to God, which was made at my baptism; which I solemnly renewed, when I was received into the communion of the church; and which I have solemnly re-made this twelfth day of January, 1722-23.
43. Resolved, never henceforward, till I die, to act as if I were any way my own, but entirely and altogether God’s, agreeable to what is to be found in Saturday, January 12, 1723.
44- Resolved, that no other end but religion, shall have any influence at all on any of my actions; and that no action shall be, in the least circumstance, any otherwise than the religious end will carry it. Jan.12, 1723.
45. Resolved, never to allow any pleasure or grief, joy or sorrow, nor any affection at all, nor any degree of affection, nor any circumstance relating to it, but what helps religion. Jan. 12-13, 1723.
Mortification of Sin and Self Examination
23. Resolved, frequently to take some deliberate action, which seems most unlikely to be done, for the glory of God, and trace it back to the original intention, designs and ends of it; and if I find it not to be for God’s glory, to repute it as a breach of the 4th Resolution.
24. Resolved, whenever I do any conspicuously evil action, to trace it back, till I come to the original cause; and then both carefully endeavor to do so no more, and to fight and pray with all my might against the original of it.
35. Resolved, whenever I so much question whether I have done my duty, as that my quiet and calm is thereby disturbed, to set it down, and also how the question was resolved. Dec. 18, 1722.
60. Resolved, whenever my feelings begin to appear in the least out of order, when I am conscious of the least uneasiness within, or the least irregularity without, I will then subject myself to the strictest examination. July 4 and 13, 1723.
68. Resolved, to confess frankly to myself all that which I find in myself, either infirmity or sin; and, if it be what concerns religion, also to confess the whole case to God, and implore needed help. July 23 and August 10, 1723.
56. Resolved, never to give over, nor in the least to slacken my fight with my corruptions, however unsuccessful I may be.
Communion with God
53. Resolved, to improve every opportunity, when I am in the best and happiest frame of mind, to cast and venture my soul on the Lord Jesus Christ, to trust and confide in him, and consecrate myself wholly to him; that from this I may have assurance of my safety, knowing that I confide in my Redeemer. July 8, 1723.
65. Resolved, very much to exercise myself in this all my life long, viz. with the greatest openness I am capable of, to declare my ways to God, and lay open my soul to him: all my sins, temptations, difficulties, sorrows, fears, hopes, desires, and every thing, and every circumstance; according to Dr. Manton’s 27th Sermon on Psalm 119. July 26 and Aug. 10, 1723.
Aug. 17, 1723

1 The subheadings and categorization are suggested by Matt Perman to increase the readability.
With gratitude, I copied the above from John Piper's website, Desiring God, though they are available many other places online as they are freely available in the public domain.

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