Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Nothing in this world is like you

Lone leaf in the wilderness

Bob Dylan released his first Christmas album this year. The Weekly Standard says, in typically erudite prose: “It’s so bad I can’t believe it.”

Do I believe it’s bad? No. It’s one of the best Christmas albums I’ve ever heard. But of course I would say that. Right? I’m one of those battered Dylan wives Andrew Ferguson talks about. I have to admit--I love even Self-Portrait. Seriously. I was listening to iTunes on shuffle the other day (last month, actually--December is for Christmas music), and “Wigwam” came on. God, do I love that song. It has a flat-out good melody. So catchy. Dah-dah-daa dah-da. I love “All the Tired Horses,” too. The entire album is infused with world-weariness, with exhaustion. And I love Tijuana brass.

I find it interesting that other people (mainly critics on the internet) feel a need to tell me what’s good and what’s bad, in overtly moral language. As if I’m sinning by liking different music than they do. That if I love Dylan singing “how’m I gonna get any riding done,” or “here comes Santa Claus,” that there’s something wrong with me. Sure, I give Dylan a hell of a lot of free passes. I’ve seen him eighteen times in concert. Each and every one of those eighteen shows was one of the best days of my life.

I have a theory about art, though, a theory I’ve been cobbling together since college, when I was exposed to Abstract Expressionism, an entire movement in art that the Weekly Standard writes off in a half-sentence. My theory is that the relationship between artist and audience is the same as that between husband and wife, father and child, creation and Creator--one of trust. If I can trust an artist’s intelligence, trust that the purpose she’s serving is beauty, truth, and the spirit of the holy, then that artist can get away with almost anything. But thinking about it as “getting away with” is a problem in itself. It implies a lack of trust.

My married friends have the same problem. If your husband is working late, and you think to yourself: he’s working late because he loves me and our children, you are trusting him. If you think: he’s not really working late. He’s out screwing someone else. Then the trust in the relationship is lost. But those are your two choices. You can choose to trust, or choose not to.

If an artist puts a table in the middle of the room, and calls it art, I have two choices: I can say--she’s a charlatan. Or I can ask myself--what’s she trying to do here? What reason can there be behind this? How is beauty served?

As someone who wrestles with creativity every day, who struggles to find a place for herself in the universe by putting words together on a page, who fights to create order out of the chaos, I know how much work it is. And if I trust an artist, I’m going to seek to find the meaning I know they fought for.

I trust Dylan. The caustic criticism he encounters whenever he steps out of bounds is the same thing he’s had to fight his entire career. He was a folk genius, the voice of his generation, and people put him in the little box of folk genius. And Dylan said: no. I’m bigger than that. I’m going to follow my muse, and all of you can go screw yourselves. Or you can follow my lead.

To all the critics, I ask:
-Do you think no one’s ever asked Dylan to do a Christmas album before?
-Do you think he’s so senile he wasn’t aware of what he was doing?
-Do you think that all Christmas music is, by definition, bad?
-Do you think that Dylan performs 200 concerts a year, at $50 a ticket, at almost seventy years of age, because he’s trying to wring a couple of more bucks out of his aging fan base? Because he’s trying to punch his audience in the face? Or could it possibly because he genuinely loves music in all its incarnations, loves performing, because all he’s ever wanted is to be, as he called it, a “song-and-dance man”?

Sufjan Stevens can release a Christmas album,and we take it seriously. Johnny Cash can release albums of gospel classics, and we take him seriously. Brooklyn indie artists release albums full of animal howling, and we take them seriously. But Dylan releases an album about Santa Claus and we can’t even give him the benefit of the doubt? Four decades of the greatest music of our time hasn’t earned him that? Come on.

The thing about those smiling Dylan fans? At the end of the day, we have our music. Which we love. And as much as the critics sneer, they can’t take it away from us.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

O tempo eu que eu fico

Blooming Christmas cactus

God says certain words to me at moments in my life, moments when he wants to emphasize a point. To bring me to a crux of humility. And I love him for it. I do. I love him like Saint Teresa of Avila did, on her bed in the monastery.

Tonight it was when the Amens from the Messiah flooded my speakers, on the iTunes random shuffle that I insist on using at all times. That way God can speak to me, through the intersection of random electrons in my computer circuits.

When I was a little lost American kid in Bangkok, one of the few cultural events my parents dragged us to was a complete rendition of Handel’s Messiah, performed every Christmas. It was one of the few ways we could get into the spirit of the season. Thailand is a Buddhist country, and the idea of Christmas hadn’t caught on yet. The weather didn’t help. Bangkok is the hottest city in the world, averaging daytime and nighttime temperatures, and winter for us was a week where it didn’t get above ninety degrees.

I don’t remember where the music was performed, other than it feeling distant from home, maybe a Catholic church, where wooden window slats opened onto a tropical garden that felt like Gethsemane, while slow ceiling fans circled above us. Every year, all three of us kids would fall asleep, especially during the Passion Week doldrums at the center of the oratorio, when the bass and the tenor sing recitatives about how much Christ suffered. During intermission, we drank Milo, non-American powdered hot chocolate, curling our hands around the paper cups in defense against the chilly seventy-degree weather. This contributed to our sleepiness.

If you know anything about the Messiah you know that the whole thing was written in 21 days, when Handel locked himself in an attic apartment, had food shoved under his door, and saw the face of God. At the time, he was a rather mediocre eighteenth-century composer at a low point in his career, on the edge of starvation, and paralyzed on his left side by a stroke, or so the legend goes. At the end of his rope, he grudgingly agreed to set a friend’s libretto to music.

The whole thing is brilliant, of course, and even stands up to the Southern Baptist church choirs that butcher it every year. The first section has most of the famous Christmas bits. But even those are more surprising and relevant than you expect. “Comfort ye my people, saith your God,” the tenor sings, crying unto Jerusalem that her warfare is accomplished and iniquity is pardoned. Even if you don’t believe in God, at Christmas, it’s hard not to believe that this means something. Maybe our warfare really has been accomplished.

When Handel dives down into Easter, where it gets very dark, and little children in the audience go to sleep, the text is surprising. “He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” And “Behold and see if there be any sorrow like unto his sorrow.” Not exactly the Christmas of poinsettias and jolly old elves, but this is the section that ends with the Hallelujah chorus, which, as legend has it, also woke up King George. He jumped up, and everyone else had to follow.

After coming back with the resurrection, the chorus simply becomes the angels singing at the throne of God. “I know that my Redeemer liveth,” begins the soprano. Everything’s over, the whole vast saga, and good has won and evil has been vanquished and the apocalypse is done.

Then you check your program, and you see that one little word printed there, “Amen,” and you sigh to yourself. “Phew. It’s almost over.” But having seen the face of God, for 21 days in a row, Handel can’t let the thing end. The Amens begin quietly, a slow rising melody, echoed by the tenors, then altos, then basses, then sopranos, and they build, and build, and build, for a full twelve minutes. The melody is sweet, but the triumph of victory is gone.

As if he’s saying, “Sure, I know all of this is too good to be true. Maybe the nations still furiously rage together, maybe none of the dead have risen. But isn’t it beautiful anyway? Don’t you wish it were true? Can’t you believe, just for tonight?” And still the Amens keep building, wave after wave, and the sopranos casually hit the high notes and the timpanis break out and it’s triumphant and beautiful but still sad and you don’t want it to be over, you don’t ever want it to be over, and just when you think that it never will be over everything goes dead silent and you think, please let there be more. And there is. At the final moment, not one, but two Amens. Even then he can’t let it go.

But then it really is over. And you go back into the muggy tropical night, and it’s really really late, it feels later than you’ve ever stayed up before, and your little brother’s still asleep and your dad’s going to carry him to the truck and you know that you’re going to fall asleep too as you drive across town and then you’ll be carried up to bed, but in that moment it’s all true. You believe it all. And you will, every time you hear it, for the rest of your life.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

I wish I had a river

Sunset on Lake Michigan

I spent two weeks in early October at the beach with my family, at Door County, a peninsula completely surrounded by water. Unfortunately, it was also as far north as the Maine section of the Appalachian trail, so it was like sudden winter onset. It was fun spending the week with my family, but the weather was horrible, and we were all trapped inside, at the beach, circled by white-capped waves and wind-lashed trees. It made me long for the life I had at sea. One day it blew 65 knots, according to the weather.

So we watched Star Wars movies. When I was about as old as Sophia is now, I tried to watch Return of the Jedi with my dad at a beach-front restaurant in Thailand, and I still have a vivid memory of Princess Leia coming up on a frozen Han Solo in a darkened corridor, the light shining from above, his hands clutching out from the metal. I was terrified. So terrified that I convinced my dad to leave. This was when, if you recall, the movie had just come out on VHS. Yes, I’m that old.

So it’s about time for Sophia to be terrified in her own time. When you think about it, Star Wars is a pretty good child’s morality fable. Especially Darth Vader. He starts as Anakin Skywalker--good--morphs into Darth Vader--bad--and ends up redeeming himself as Luke’s father--good, again. It’s nice to have children learn that people can be more complex than being just good guys and bad guys at an early age.

It can be hard to be around my family, though, as much as I love them. I guess it boils down to how my life path has diverged from the standard one expected by my grandparents and parents, by the evangelical subculture, by, maybe, even the culture at large. When you think about it, standard operating procedure equals:

1. Go to college.
2. Get a job and an apartment.
3. Meet husband (preferably good Christian boy).
4. Get married.
5. Buy house.
6. Have lots of uber-cute children.
7. Successfully balance family and life’s work (preferably in Christian service).
8. Die surrounded by loving grandchildren (preferably with great-grandchildren on the way).

Somewhere between items two and three my life got significantly derailed. I decided I hated my job and my life, I hated winter, I hated spending eight hours a day behind a desk, working for someone else’s dream. So I quit. I swore I’d never work in an office again. (Going on six years and I haven’t broken that promise to myself. Yet.) I’m not even so sure about the whole marriage thing, and so far, my candidates for the office of life partner have not been--exactly--good Christian boys.

Does this bother me? I’d be lying if I didn’t say yes. It’s harder when I’m around my siblings, who seem to be managing so well. My sister’s children are uber-cute. My brother’s getting married this summer, to the daughter of a doctor, and a good Christian to boot. And what am I doing? Struggling to find my way. Still. Struggling to swim against the current. Because that eight-point life? I don’t like it. I don’t want my life to look that way. I don’t want that engraved on my tombstone.

I used to say, especially when I was hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, that the measure of a life should be in its 360-degree views. I remember sitting at a stoplight on my commute to Oak Brook, Illinois, at a five-lane traffic intersection and thinking: this is it? This is what my life looks like? A life constrained by a metal box, by asphalt, and low-budget mid-rise buildings. On the Pacific Crest Trail, I was eating ramen noodles and living in a teepee, but the 360-degree views were fabulous. Snow-covered mountains. Tundra. Streams of melted snow. Glacial ponds. It was another world, and around each corner was something I’d never seen before.

I’m fighting for that kind of life. Sometimes I feel like I’m drowning, but I keep fighting. Especially in December, now that it feels like Door County in Tennessee. We had seventy-knows winds this week. I’ve broken out my down jackets and winter hat. The sun has disappeared. I don’t care what anyone says--I hate this time of year. Christmas tries to make up for it, but it doesn’t quite do the trick.

Friday, September 25, 2009

A baby on motor oil

Cucumber flower

My childhood had its fair share of trauma, although I usually feel guilty talking about it because so many people had it so much worse. My early years were idyllic. I still can’t conceive of anything better than drinking mango lassis under palm trees for breakfast; treading beneath a sun so hot it makes my breath quiver; spending all day swimming and walking and snorkeling in the sun and then eating crab fried rice and plah sahm roht at an open-air restaurant while an old James Bond movie plays on the VCR; stepping from thick humid air into air-conditioning as cold as the arctic; the blissful final pain of sunburned skin scraping against the sand that always crept beneath my guest-house sheets.

That’s what I remember when I think about my early childhood. Then I went to boarding school, at eleven. I loved that, too, and made friends there that are still my closest, but it was an immense disruption that forced me abruptly into adulthood. It was hard, and it’s where reality began to slowly seep into my consciousness, the reality that life is not an endless string of books and beach vacations.

When I was a thirteen-year-old freshman, three girls in my class were raped in an armed robbery at a neighboring teacher’s house. They were my age, close friends. How our community experienced that violation colored all four years of my experience of high school .

I don’t like to talk about it. I don’t know if I ever have talked about it. I don’t really know why I felt a sudden need to write about it now. Things changed at school afterwards. Barbed wire went up around the campus. The administration hired armed guards to patrol the perimeter. Not that any of that helped, or would have changed anything. My problems with my faith started then, specifically my doubts when it came to the problem of evil.

I didn’t know if I could trust that there was a plan, somewhere, that someday I’d understand why that happened to my friends. I still don’t know if I can trust that.

Can I? There has to be meaning in everything, doesn’t there? Can God have a meaning for even something like that? I don’t know.

Maybe some of my continuing fear comes from that moment in time. I’m more afraid of rape than I am of almost anything else, and that fear always colors my consciousness. I can’t decide if I’m more afraid because of my experience, or if it’s something that every woman fears. Or if men are afraid in the same way, too. It comes back to the same question--do I trust someone in the universe to take care of me? Do I trust this promise: “all things work together for good for those that love Him”? All of the parents of those children stayed on the mission field. Last I heard, some were still in the Philippines. God demanded a sacrifice of them, and they made it.

Not that they even made a sacrifice, other than the one of belief--they were able to believe that god had a purpose behind it, that there was a greater good. They were able to convince themselves that God had a plan. Sometimes, that seems sacrifice enough for me.

I know that I’m not alone, that many women are similarly afraid, and with better reason. That fear infuriates me. So many choices have been taken away from me, and not because of anything I have done. Merely because of how I was born, because of my chromosomes. My anatomy makes me vulnerable, and that vulnerability means that I have to protect myself. “Guard your heart,” my parents and teachers used to say. I hated it, more when I learned it actually came from the Bible, not a self-help book: Proverbs 4:23. “Above all else, guard your heart.”
At the end of the day, it simply comes down to what losses I am willing to accept. I have to be smart, to make good choices, but I can’t live in fear. I have to be able to accept anything that can happen. I always say that, but I still allow fear to control so many of my choices. It reminds me of the great St. Augustine disaster, when so much was lost. Sometimes I wonder if Secret would even be stranded where she is if it wasn’t for that one awful night. She might be worth twice what she’s worth now.

If I believe, then I can’t make decisions based on fear. But I do have to make decisions that are in my own best interest. I have to protect myself. I have to guard my heart.

It’s a balance, as almost everything is. Not living in fear, but living in just enough fear to keep myself safe.


A postscript: I’ve been meaning to post this entry for two months now. I’ve dated it July 9. For some reason, I was able to write about this moment in my past now, even though I’ve been trying for two full years. It’s still been overwhelming and difficult to think about posting, but maybe there’s some reason for this now, too.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Come listen, gather 'round

Flowers are not a cliche

On the boat, I kept a little notebook of blog ideas. I've abandoned the practice here, partly because my life ashore seems so gosh-darned boring, but mainly because it's hard work to be constantly alert to those twinges of conscience that say: ah. Here's a story. Follow it.

I'm looking through that little notebook now, remembering how and where my twinges happened, remembering a different life that felt not just sensually rich but also ideologically rich. I know there are as many ideas floating through the air here, but my receptors feel deadened, asleep. Maybe that's why my late posts have been so bombastic and dictatorial. Even though I believe them, I'm annoyed at their tone. Get off your high horse, Melissa, I want to say. Get over yourself. Geez.

So I've been asking myself how I can build that spirit of receptivity into my life here, how can I begin to put out my antennae again. Taking pictures makes me feel alive. Playing Bob Dylan songs on the piano that I couldn't have on the boat. Cooking pad Thai. Growing basil.

Here I am, though, a person who allegedly thrives on adventure, cringing from the thought of it here, even though I know the more adventurous I allow myself to be, the more rich my life feels. David Wilcox, one of my favorite contemporary folk artists is performing tonight here in Chattanooga, of all places, and I'd love to go, but I'm not going to. Why? Because it's too expensive. Because guys assume that girls alone at bars only want one thing. Because I don't have anyone to accompany me.

During the childhood and on the boat, it was my cross-cultural interactions that made me feel alive. In the Bahamas, especially, I came into the culture as an equal. I encountered the middle class, not exclusively the poor, as development workers and missionaries do, or the rich, as we find immigrants in this country to be. I worked alongside Bahamians who had just about as much money as we did, some slightly less, some more. Nappy is still the best non-American friend I've made since boarding school.

Seeing things through other people's eyes makes me feel awake. Here I can get that perspective only through stories, and songs, and art. Maybe I can also begin to find it through adventure again, in small ways. By spending the day at the park or the beach or the library. Which I'm discovering about adventure, though, is that the hard part is doing it alone. The hard part is being alone. That's what's scary.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

All your dreams are on their way


I’ve been thinking a lot about belief lately, maybe because of the response I received to my Lenten blog, which has led to a lot of additional reading. My father also sent me a link to the Evangelical Manifesto, a document produced by a group of evangelicals trying to sort their way out of the political mess they’ve managed to get themselves into during the last eight years. I’m reading Velvet Elvis, by Rob Bell, subtitled “Repainting the Christian Faith,” which I am finding enlightening in all kinds of ways. My favorite quote from today is:
The thing we are searching for is not somewhere else. It is right here. And we can only find it when we give up the search, when we surrender, when we trust. Trust that God is already putting us back together.

I believe that, as you know if you’ve been reading for the last few months. Or I believe some days, not others. Today, I believe, as Paul Simon said so eloquently, all my dreams are on their way. Today I believe that I don’t need to search for what I already have. I can trust that God is ordering my steps, leading me in the way that I should go.

Other people don’t believe, and I see their point, too. It feels ludicrous sometimes. It feels New-Agey, hippie-ish, gullible--or to put not too fine a point on it--stupid. Some days I believe I am nothing but matter in motion. God had nothing to do with that email in my in-box, that day I spent with a friend, those hours on the grass. Those are just moments in time, a quantum mechanical construct. I’m a rat, dying slowly in a cage, and not in a bad way. I’m moving through time, the way an animal moves through time: eating, sleeping, reproducing. Some days that’s all I am.

My whispered prayer, then, is: Lord, I believe--help thou my unbelief.

The thing, though, about belief is that everyone believes what they believe. And they believe it because they believe it, and if they didn’t, they wouldn’t believe it. Whether you believe you’re just a product of your biology and chemistry, or heading on a divinely oriented teleological journey, either way, you believe. At some point, you said, “Here I stand. This I believe.”

My reasoning is beginning to sound circular, because I can’t seem to find a way to put into words the irreducibility of belief. At times like these I take a shortcut, by quoting someone much smarter than I am. Here’s Kierkegaard:
Thus, if someone wants to have faith and reason too, well, let the comedy begin. He wants to have faith, but he wants to assure himself with the aid of objective deliberation. What happens? With the aid of reason, the absurd becomes something else; it becomes probable, it becomes more probable, it may become to a high degree exceedingly probable, even demonstrable. Now he is all set to believe it, and he dares to say of himself that he does not believe as shoemakers and tailors and simple folk do, but only after long and careful deliberation. Now he is all set to believe, but, lo and behold, now it has indeed become impossible to believe. The almost probable, the probable, the to-a-high-degree and exceedingly probable, that he can almost know, or as good as know, to a higher degree and exceedingly almost know — but believe, that cannot be done, for the absurd is precisely the object of faith and only that can be believed with the passion of inwardness.

Beliefs can change, but not because of anything I can do. I don’t believe that anyone really has the ability to change the beliefs of another person. There’s the rub, though: that’s a belief. And beliefs only make sense from the inside.

For an example, let’s consider Osama bin Laden. I’m not a big fan of the guy, but his beliefs have complete internal consistency. He believes that we Americans deserve to die, so he is setting about killing us. It’s rational. It makes sense. I just don’t agree with him. I don’t believe what he believes.

Or that guy who assassinated Dr. George Tiller, the alleged “baby killer” of Kansas. I don’t see why there’s so much confusion about it. It’s not an argument about abortion. It’s simply the just war debate all over again. We don’t think twice about whether or not World War II was a just war--innocent people were being slaughtered, and we needed to stop that. From the perspective of Dr. Tiller’s murderer, his decision was completely rational and justified. It made sense. I just don’t agree with him.

So what do we do with people we disagree with? We can try to convince them that we’re right, but somehow I don’t think anyone’s going to convince bin Laden of the advantages of a secular democracy, and I don’t see many pro-lifers convincing pro-choicers or vice versa.

That’s the thing about belief. The belief and the truth become indistinguishable, even if the believer is dead wrong. That’s one of many reasons that I’ve stopped believing in evangelization, of any stripe. Part of my belief system is humility, that God is in control, and He’ll make happen what He needs to make happen. It’s not my job to tell other people that they’re wrong.

I’ve taken a leap of faith. We all have. And we’re all by ourselves on that cliff, doing the leaping.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Remember the nights

Learning to help things grow
(A lot more pictures of my garden are here.)

I’m sitting on a blanket on the grass at my local park. I’ve never been here before, and I don’t know why. There are children playing in the creek with buckets and pails. Why do we bring children to parks to play and never take ourselves? I don’t know if I’ve laid out a blanket on the grass, listened to music, read, and wrote, since I was in college. Why do college students deserve this sensory fulfillment any more than adults do? Why don’t we treat ourselves as well as we do our children?

Maybe this decision is the one I’ve been making since I dropped out of society five years ago to hike the Appalachian Trail. I decided then that I wanted to experience every moment of every day fully, not from inside of a computer in a cubicle. I’d rather suffer with holey clothes and cheap haircuts and a basement apartment than cage myself eight hours a day. It’s a decision that has not been met with great approval by family and friends, nor society at large. I believe in what I’m doing, even if everyone else seems to believe it self-indulgent nonsense.

My next adventure, I’ve more or less decided, is to buy a little piece of land, probably in Alabama. There I’ll build my own house, with my own back and brawn and hands. I have no construction experience and very little aptitude. Still. Would I rather lock myself up from dawn to dusk (at least for six months of the year, when sunlight appears after eight and disappears before five) and pay someone else to do something I can learn to do myself? I’d rather heft the beams in my own arms. Heck, I’d rather pour my own concrete.

I’ve never had a job--paid, at least--where I was rewarded for creating something with my own hands. I envy people who get paid for building things. Marx was right. He said that human beings are fundamentally divided between the proletariat, who see the results of their labor--at the end of the day, the ditch is dug, the stones are in a pile--and the bourgeoisie, who use their minds but are divorced from what they produce. He said, and I concur, that those two halves, intellectual and physical, are only fulfilled in the pursuit of art. Is it any wonder we use the term creativity? Something new is created. Something new takes form.

How many Americans, I wonder--seventy percent? Ninety?--spend their days moving paper from one stack to another? No wonder our economy is destroyed. We don’t make anything. We earn our livings making nothing. Then we spend all the money we earn on cheap plastic nothing we buy at Wal-mart. This cycle is patently insane, and yet we all continue in it. Why? Because we’re ashamed not to. We’re ashamed to say that the emperor has no clothes. And we like our cheap plastic crap, our fried chicken, our garbage bags, our splinter-board furniture.

I learned recently that a coworker of a friend, an executive assistant at a financial company, makes $80,000 a year. She shuffles paper for a living. She has a $300 key-chain. What does that say about us as a nation? As people? As Christians?

I can’t say I won’t give up, that I won’t take one of those jobs eventually. I like fried chicken, too. The battle may exhaust me. I may lose. I may go hungry, at least metaphorically. I may fail. At the end of my life, though, at least I’ll be able to say I had this afternoon on the grass, in the sun, watching ants crawl on clover.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Everything in its right place

The New Yorker recently featured a retrospective on the life and work of David Foster Wallace--a brave article, filled with fire and verve and quotes about what it means to be a fiction writer, and what it means, really, to be a human being. David Foster Wallace, if you don’t know, is the brilliant contemporary novelist who hanged himself on his front porch last September, at the age of 47.

He said: freedom “means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to, and to choose how you construct meaning.”

There are so many things I have to say about him and the article: what a gift is to have access to the New Yorker again, to feel like I’m participating in a dialog with the best minds alive today, relishing every exquisite sentence. What a tragedy it is to have lost one of our best novelists. How awful is the continued massacre of artists by their own hands. How I feel required to apologize for his and my own battle with depression, and how I refuse to do so.

What I want to say most, though, is what a brilliant man he was, and how lucky we are that he managed to stave off his fear and doubt enough to create at least two novels. How grateful I am for that. I haven’t read them yet--I’ve only read his shorter work--but I savor their future reading the way kids look forward to dessert. That anticipation in this case is coupled with sadness that his words are so finite. Two is all we get.

Despite his awful death, I believe he grasped in some essential way the core of what it means to be successful in life. His end doesn’t matter as much as the courage he had to make good choices about his own internal life for 47 years, to battle the demons of addiction and depression that stalked him. I find it intolerable that, because he eventually succumbed to those demons, after going off the antidepressants that kept him alive for twenty years, people can invalidate his life’s work.

He sought to find the truth behind experience. He wasn’t willing to accept archness and irony as substitutes for substance. He wasn’t afraid to risk being cheesy. Or he was afraid, terrified, but he was brave enough to confront that fear and overcome it, for a long, long time.

In the book he was working on when he died, a vast exploration of the inner lives of IRS agents, he said:
“Bliss--a second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious--lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (Tax Returns, Televised Golf) and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Instant bliss in every atom.”

So much of his internal struggle echoes mine. I fight those same neuroses, trying to control my inner life. Lately, people, intending to be helpful, have dangled these ghosts in front of me, the specters of the artists who offed themselves serving as cautionary tales. See, you really don’t want to be an artist. Look what happens to them! They’re consumed by despair! They go crazy! They kill themselves!

I refuse to be scared by demons or ghosts. I celebrate the accomplishments of those who spent their whole lives battling mental illness and the war of our culture against those who speak painful truth. I’m so grateful that David Foster Wallace managed to wrest meaning and beauty from his experience. I refuse to invalidate his success.

Friday, May 01, 2009


Flowers are pretty.

Another poem today, this one by Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish national treasure. (I should add that I'm also not the author of the previous poem, as some seem to have assumed. That was John Updike, who died last year.)

The history of my stupidity would fill many volumes.

Some would be devoted to acting against consciousness,
Like the flight of a moth which, had it known,
Would have tended nevertheless toward the candle’s flame.

Others would deal with ways to silence anxiety,
The little whisper which, though it is a warning, is ignored.

I would deal separately with satisfaction and pride,
The time when I was among their adherents
Who strut victoriously, unsuspecting.

But all of them would have one subject, desire,
If only my own—but no, not at all; alas,
I was driven because I wanted to be like others.
I was afraid of what was wild and indecent in me.

The history of my stupidity will not be written.
For one thing, it’s late. And the truth is laborious.

Friday, March 27, 2009

How'd I end up here?


Fine Point
December 22, 2008

Why go to Sunday school, though surlily,
and not believe a bit of what was taught?
The desert shepherds in their scratchy robes
undoubtedly existed, and Israel's defeats--
the Temple in its sacredness destroyed
by Babylon and Rome. Yet Jews kept faith
and passed the prayers, the crabbed rites,
from table to table as Christians mocked.

We mocked, but took. The timbrel creed of praise
gives spirit to the daily; blood tinges lips.
The tongue reposes in papyrus pleas,
saying, Surely--magnificent, that "surely"--
goodness and mercy shall follow me all
the days of my life,
my life, forever.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

He’ll stop the next war

Sophia looks to heaven

My current source of stress is an article I’m writing about American perceptions of poverty. I’m having a really hard time with it. I don’t know how much I have to say about poverty. I do believe that after growing up in the vast, dirty necropolises of Bangkok and Manila that I have a better conception of what global poverty really means than the average American. I believe that much of my angst and uncertainty and depression, and that of my brother and sister and fellow missionary kids, is due to having experienced the reality of suffering around the world. I also believe that almost all Americans don’t want to hear about it.

We learn this lesson young, as missionary kids. We learn to stifle our knowledge, to stuff it down, to become chameleons, able to adapt to the culture we’re surrounded by and ignore all of our previous knowledge. We learn that American kids don’t want to hear about Thai kids. We learn that Thai kids don’t want to know what America is like, don’t want to hear us brag about all of the fancy stuff we’ve seen. We learn that the lines that separate the poor from the rich are very distinct, and we learn that we’re on one side of the line in one country and another in the other.

I didn’t choose this topic. It was chosen for me, by an editor. I’m realizing why many writers have problems being given assignments. While the subject is close to my heart, it’s almost too close--so close that I have a tough time writing objective sentences. Poverty IS suffering. Poverty is what’s wrong with the world. And poverty is our fault. Poverty is MY fault. I also know those are not helpful ways to think about it, and that, in order to deal with poverty, I have to put those facts out of my mind.

The fact is: no one wants to hear about it. No one wants to hear about those whose suffering is worse than their own. No one wants to hear about things that they can do nothing about. What does it help to feel the pain of the poor more deeply? I don’t know.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

High on the hill

I watched this clip today, sent to me by a friend. I completely believe this, 100 percent. So why do I feel embarrassed saying so?

Maybe it’s because so many other artists and writers are skeptical of this kind of romantic, spiritual creative process. Primitive cultures aren’t, for sure. They believe that art taps into divinity. Generally, the artists and the shamans are the exact same people. So what place does art have in a world of scientific rationalism? I don’t know. Maybe that is why all artists go crazy and shoot themselves with shotguns in cabins in Montana.

Then again, all artists don’t. A companion piece, a point-counterpoint to the Gilbert speech, is the recent article about Ian McEwen in the New Yorker. Here is a writer who has abandoned all hope of the mystical, who has completely embraced the dominance of science in all areas of life. I, too, believe in science. But what, specifically, do I believe about science? That science always leads back to the mystical, even when everything is completely explained.

Current scientific theory holds that the universe curves back in on itself at the outer edges of time. The human brain remains an almost completely unexplored phenomenon. We’ve been unable to replicate even the most basic scientific process--photosynthesis--manually. I always think of the Mandelbrot Sequence, the exquistely beautiful graph of numbers that delves into infinity, explored in one of Arthur C. Clarke’s obscure books (I don’t even remember its title). That is science, that is art, that is God.

That doesn’t mean that I believe in a god of the gaps. I believe that God IS the gaps, that God IS science, that the creative process is as scientific as anything else, and that being able to explain something scientifically doesn’t take away its mystery.

The McEwan article reminds me of my favorite quote from Maus, where the lead character quotes Samuel Beckett as saying, “Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness.”

“Yes,” responds his mouse-masked therapist.

A beat.

“On the other hand, he SAID it,” says Maus.

“He was right,” says the therapist. “Maybe you can include it in your book.”

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Don’t cry

One of my life's great loves

So I decided to take myself seriously, and listen to my own advice. If I’m going to have faith, then I have to have faith that Secret will find herself a new owner, with as much love for her as I have, and that she’ll go on to have many wonderful adventures. I enumerated things I was procrastinating yesterday, and seriously listing Secret for sale is at the top of the list. Yesterday I put together a listing on eBay. I already have bidders! Exciting, but also nerve-wracking.

The real reason I hadn’t listed her up to this point is that I didn’t want to. I’m having profound difficulty abandoning the sailing dream, giving up on all of the memories that Secret holds. I know all adventures come to an end, but I really believed this one had a future. I had hope, even now, that I’d get back to her, and I have deep, deep guilt for letting go.

I have to let that dream go. God has plans for me, and if sailing is again in my future, I’ll find another boat. In the meantime, I can use the boat to move forward, instead of having an additional chain tied to my ankles.

So, any takers? You have a week!

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Cradle and all

This is what I believe today. Maybe not yesterday, and maybe tomorrow. Today, at least, I can believe.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

This tornado loves you

How you parents avoid posting endless cute pictures of your children I'll never understand.

What will make you believe me? I love unspoken and unexpected synchronicities in life. They are things, maybe the only things, that give me real faith. I believe completely in the power of divine coincidence. My father says, when things like that happen, that they are “of the Lord.” My vocabulary is different, but our thought is the same. I’ve had friends call me a fatalist, and maybe that is true religion. I should have been an ancient Roman. The fates weave the threads of my existence together, and if I can begin to listen for their echoes, I find myself believing that there is a plan. That someone up there is looking out for me.

My cousin used to believe that every time she found a penny God was telling her he loved her. It was a reasoned belief, a choice, the truth she was choosing to accept from the universe, but once she made that choice there were pennies everywhere. So many pennies; too many pennies. Too many pennies to not believe that there was a divine purpose behind them, that God knew what she had decided and that he was consciously telling her something. That behind the seemingly random patterns, there was, in fact, a personal intelligence.

Buddhists believe something similar. Because the universe is ruled by karma, the infinite intricate belief in cause and effect, nothing is random. “The environment mirrors the inner lives of the people who live there,” says Nichiren Buddhism. “You make your world.” Jung is the one who named the principle synchronicity, and defined it as the fortuitous inter-meshing of events. He said, “When coincidences pile up in this way, one cannot help being impressed by them -- for the greater the number of terms in such a series, or the more unusual its character, the more improbable it becomes.”

Of course, science has a rational explanation, calling the occurrence a “delusion of reference,” where one interprets all new data in such a way as to confirm previous beliefs.

Indeed. Is all faith, then, a delusion of reference? I don’t know. I chose a line from a random song I was listening to as my subject line for a blog post about Papou--I had never heard the song before, didn’t know it. Pandora, my newest favorite music site, was playing it to me as I wrote. A week later, my sister had the sudden urge to buy a song she had heard only once--at midnight, on the radio, stopped at a stoplight. The song evoked for her that single moment in time, in a way that only music can do. I looked up the lyrics and found my single line, from the song I had not heard before or since.

Today, while beginning this blog, I was listening to the playlist from a friend’s blog, and it played the same Neko Case song that brought me to tears yesterday, on the radio, as I drove through an exquisite spring day that seemed to mean nothing, a day so much like that beautiful day when my brother almost died.

What will make me believe? Evidence. Proof. I don’t know if synchronicity is enough for everyone, but some days, the good days, it’s good enough for me. At least good enough to play my music library on shuffle.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

My dad’s gone crazy

He hasn’t, actually. But he may if he ever reads my blog. I’m afraid to check my comments today, afraid to even check the blog, so I’m writing off-line, in a safe text document. Does everyone hate me now? I feel a little like I’ve come out of the closet. I seem to be an equal-opportunity offender--capable of offending the nonbelievers in the crowd with the primacy of my faith, and offending the believers with my counterintuitive politics.

Oh well. Can’t please all the people all the time, can I? Didn’t Abraham Lincoln or Bob Dylan or someone say that? In reality, I feel much better today, freer, as telling the truth does. Jesus wasn’t kidding when he said “the truth will set you free.” Truth, though, is a difficult concept, another one that theologians spend their lives writing incomprehensible juried journal articles about, thus elucidating the concept not at all. Pilate asked “what is truth?” and no one seems to have been able to answer him.

I like Emily Dickinson’s answer: “Tell the truth, but tell it slant.” Jesus didn’t even answer Pilate with erudite theology (he saved that for the Apostle Paul). Jesus answered with a slant-y story, first a series of difficult parables that he refused to explain, and then the ultimate parable of his own death. Tell the truth but tell it slant. “For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn--and I would heal them.” In short--tell stories.

My dad and I did have a good conversation this morning about art. I made the point, as I always do, that one of the first elements of all of the world’s cultures is story-telling, that story-tellers always have a place of honor in primitive cultures, often the highest place of honor. Human beings have a need for art, a need for explaining their experience through the language of pictures, the language of music, the language of story. We even need to tell ourselves stories, paint ourselves pictures, in order to stay sane, every night as we sleep.

It’s the Puritans who took that from us Americans, with their black clothes and their work ethic and their suspicion of anything that smacked of papist Roman froofiness. Architecture? Paintings? Stories? Gasp. What we need are good sermons, and, if we’re feeling particularly soft, a nice stern a capella hymn in 4/4 time. We’re still suffering under their curse. No wonder all our writers flee to France.

I recently took a trip back to western Michigan, my dad’s homeland, where I braced myself for the continuing onslaught of questions. Yup, still no husband or children. Still no nice career that can be handily summed up in one word, like “teacher,” or “accountant,” or “engineer.” Still no mortgage and house in the suburbs. The only way my art will earn legitimacy with that set is by earning a lot of money, and even then it will remain suspect. If I make a million dollars from a novel, what have I done, really? Only string a bunch of pretty words together. Nothing that puts meat and potatoes on the table.

These are tough demons to fight. They are legion, and they rise up in my consciousness every time I hesitantly touch the nib of my pen to paper. The war is ongoing, and I take arms now for my next, new battl

Friday, March 13, 2009

I am doll parts

After I wrote yesterday’s post, I found myself thinking a lot about humility. Humility may have been the reason I decided to return to my faith. I decided I didn’t need certainty, that I didn’t need systematic theology--that what I needed to have was humility, and that its lack was exactly what was so wrong with most evangelicals. Micah 6:8, one of my favorite verses, reads: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

I can think of very few better prescriptions for life, very few other verses that some up the whole of the Christian life. But so many Christians forget about it, especially the “humbly” part. My grandmother insists that everyone who voted for Obama is going to hell, solely because he is pro-choice. By voting for him, you are voting for the death of babies, and thus deserve to burn. I see so many problems with that logic I don’t know where to start, but I know that that is not a humble position. When I decided to return to faith I realized that there were many things I couldn’t know. I can’t even believe fully in the existence of heaven and hell. I see little evidence for those doctrines biblically, certainly not as they’re commonly understood. I’m not sure why I have to believe in the trinity. I certainly don’t think there’s much proof in the Bible that voting pro-choice is a damnable sin.

So I am a Christian, but I believe in gay rights and same-sex marriage. I am pro-choice. I am an environmentalist and a feminist and a socialist, more or less. I believe in art and literature, and that beauty changes people’s lives. I believe in science, and evolution, and global warming. I believe that all truth is God’s truth, no matter where it’s found. I don’t believe in the after-life, at least not in any way I’ve heard it explained. I believe that all of us were created in God’s image, and that Christ came to earth to call all people to himself.

But you know what else? I don’t insist that everyone else believe all these thing. Because you know what? I might be wrong. I have made a great effort to believe everything I believe with humility, to accept that my grandmother might be right. For that matter, Osama bin Laden might be right. I don’t believe he is, just like I don’t believe I’ll be damned for voting for Obama. I believe what I believe, and I’ll explain to you why, but I also can’t insist that I’m right. All I can do is live justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with my God.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Never my love

I read this poem today and it recalled to me, somehow, the problems I used to have with faith, problems that still haunt me now although not with such immediacy. My fundamental problem with faith of any kind used to be the nature of evil. I know, easy, right? Only the biggest problem anyone’s ever dealt with in the entire history of humanity.

It struck me for the first time my senior year of college. I was taking Systematic Theology, like every good Christian girl with an unfailing instinct for self-torture, and we were discussing this exact problem at the same time that my teenage brother fell unexpectedly ill, into a violent and terrifying coma. We later learned that it was a rare form of mosquito-borne encephalitis, but at the time, no one even knew what was wrong with him. I may have been reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved for my African-American literature class, a book that does not do much for one’s perceptions of the goodness of humankind. Or God for that matter.

So we prayed. We prayed like crazy. I had the president pray in chapel. I was stranded outside Chicago, desperate to hop on a plane to Chattanooga, but it all happened so fast, and they didn’t even tell me how serious it was until it was really, really serious, and no one still knew what it was.

I remember one cloudless, exquisite day, walking down from the chapel where everyone prayed for my sick brother, looking at the flawless blue sky and the sun that seemed to have been storing up all its light for exactly this moment in spring, across Blanchard Lawn to the Billy Graham Center for my theology class. And I thought: all this beauty for what? All this beauty, and my brilliant, funny, breath-taking brother could be dying? What does it matter? What does it mean?

It may have been that very day, or these events may just have coalesced in my memory, when my professor passed around a current copy of Time magazine. It was opened to a picture of a young boy, barely over ten, with his throat slit, being pulled up from the bottom of a well. He had been killed in some nameless African war, the result of ethnic conflict, natch--a boy, younger than my brother, his life worth no more than a rat curled up in a hole somewhere.

My brother got better, miraculously. No one knew why, or how. It was luck, or grace, or fate. Everyone praised God. But instead of proof of God’s goodness to me it seemed merely evidence of the randomness that controlled our lives. For every one like my brother, how many young boys died in hospitals or on battlefields or with guns to their own temples? Did it mean any more that he lived rather than that he died?

I’ve come round since then, after the senseless nihilism and agnosticism that invaded my life after that year. I don’t know what made me turn the corner. Some people probably believe that I still haven’t turned the corner, that my faith isn’t real enough, or Christian enough, or biblical enough. But unlike that day, I now believe that there is a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how they will. I believe in Jesus Christ, who died to take away that evil. I can’t say any more than that.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Slice paper wrists

The young philosopher

Wow, this has been harder than I expected. Seriously. Any Lenten discipline is hard, I know, but it’s a tall order to be completely honest about my faith every day. So hard that I’m not even doing it, even though I’ve had a remarkable quantity of positive feedback. Why is it so hard? Sometimes I feel like I’m trying to push two magnets together at their opposite poles, trying to force them to stick, just to ask myself these questions, just to look at what I believe full in the face.

When I was in Chicago, Sophia decided to watch Spiderman, her favorite movie, on the computer before she went to bed. Spiderman is her favorite character to pretend to be, and she’s seen the second and third movies, but not the first one. Erica and I were chatting, talking, and completely forgetting how scary the Green Goblin character is. She eventually crept into the living room, slowly, and said, “it’s scary.” We felt immense qualms, and I went in with her to watch the rest of the movie with her, and we discussed it all in depth--how it wasn’t the Green Goblin who was bad, just his costume, why he went to try to hurt Aunt Em, why Spiderman had to kill him in the end.

I could see her processing all of this information, and maybe some people would say that’s too young for a superhero movie, but Erica and I have a firm belief that what’s withheld from people when they’re young become forbidden fruit, forever irresistible. I didn’t have any television available to me until after I graduated from college, and to this day I have to hold myself distant from it or I glut myself. It’s an ongoing war. Besides, we had it brought about a great philosophical conversation. What made her feel afraid at first eventually made her feel safe, as we discussed all of the people capable of defeating the Green Goblin.

“You know who’s stronger than the Green Goblin?” she said.

“Who?” I said.

“Baby Iris. You know who’s better than Baby Iris?”

“No, who?”

“Daddy. You know who’s better than Baby Iris?”

“Me.” Etc.

When he died, she said simply, “He went to be with Jesus.” No qualms, no questions. He wasn’t judged because he was a bad guy, because he hurt Aunt Em, because he was Spiderman’s enemy. He was forgiven.

There’s a reason Jesus himself tells us to have the faith of a child. If I have to say one thing about my faith today, that’s what I can say. I want to have that humble, simple faith, and if I spend the rest of my life returning to it, it won’t be long enough.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009



My sister, her children, and I spent twelve hours in the car yesterday on a fantastic road trip that included two Starbucks stops (tea for me, Americanos for her, chocolate milk for Sophia) and one hourlong McDonald’s playland stop in southern Indiana. Items of note: all female children under the age of ten in southern Indiana wear pink head to toe and the playing of Christian radio in public places is encouraged. Also, I did not see a single non-American-made car during the entire stop, except for our lone Camry. At least southern Indiana is doing its part for the American economy.

My sister and I also had amazing conversations about our faith, our dreams, our last couple of years of life, our friends, our relationships, for the entire trip, with one conversation or story tripping up the other as we tried intensely to catch up. The great thing was knowing we had hours of talking as the babies snoozed, so we didn’t mind being interrupted or interrupting with story atop story atop story, knowing we’d get back to our original point eventually, and learning more about ourselves on the way. We talked a lot about the struggles we both have had with our Christianity in the past few years. I love that this blogging process is making me think seriously about my faith, and making me think is making me talk, and talking is causing me to clarify what I really believe, succinctly, in ways that I haven’t done in years. This is what Lent is really for, I imagine.

One of the things I’m realizing about faith is that the problems I have with it are not with the Bible itself, or with Christianity as a faith, or Jesus. My fundamental problem with my faith is the church, and other Christians. Hypocrisy is a harsh word, but so much of what I see in the contemporary American church is hypocritical. So much of what I was taught growing up let me astray. So little of what is taught do I actually see in the Bible.

I know these are not excuses. The worst thing is when people use other people as excuses to keep them away from other things that are important. I can’t react against other people’s mistakes, allow them to drive me away from truth. Some of the things are difficult for me to overlook, but if I can’t overlook them, then I become a hypocrite myself.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Always be waiting for you

Mom's hands, as seen by Sophia

So early in Lent do I stumble. Oh well. Mistakes are not the point. The point is to keep going, and to not use the mistakes as excuses. Maybe I’m stumbling because I’m not sure I have much to say, or maybe it’s because I’m trying to purge the negativity from my life. Trying to not let it affect me.

Maybe I should just blog about that. One of my big problems with the Christian community is not faith itself, not doctrine, but peer pressure. Didn’t Gandhi say something about loving Christianity except for the Christians? I know, as all of evangelicals did growing up, that no one could choose their faith based on their companions, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about just how difficult it is to maintain one’s independence..

Dogmatism is never good. Ever. Most churches I’ve attended are the kinds of places where a person can’t even express a divergent view, let alone have it honestly discussed and debated. One of my favorite quotes from college was that “the church is the only hospital that kills its wounded.” There’s this internal pressure to believe everything that everyone else believes, even if it doesn’t quite make sense, to not express doubt, to not rock the boat.

In high school, I remember my endless torment during Faith Fellowship, our on-campus Sunday morning service. Should I raise my hands during the praise choruses? What did it mean if I did? What did it mean if I didn’t? Was I doing it honestly because I was praising God? Or because I wanted people to think I was more spiritual than I actually was? Even if I was doing it to truly praise God, was raising hands something that people should do at all?

What the debate did was draw me completely away from any sense of worship, from any connection with God. It made me angry and frustrated. It still does, when I go to raising-hands kinds of churches. Didn’t Jesus say to hide in a closet when we prayed? I had the same feeling, the same utterly angst-ridden and crippling self-doubt, whenever we would pray as a group in our dorm. We were supposed to pray out loud “as the Spirit led,” but what did that mean? If the Spirit was leading me by making me completely uncomfortable while we all sat in silence, or if the Spirit was leading me by making me feel guilty because I hadn’t prayed out loud in two weeks, then maybe the Spirit was leading me. If not, then maybe our praying out loud had a lot more to do with showing off than it had to do with communicating with God.

I still worry about what Christians think, and I worry about what everyone else thinks, too. I worry about what you think reading this. I worry about what atheists think and what fundamentalists think. I wouldn’t go to church in ripped jeans and a dirty sweatshirt, with greasy hair, not because I don’t believe God would accept me, but because I don’t believe my fellow Christians would In the last year, I’ve spent more money on clothes so that I can feel comfortable in church than I have on any other apparel. Is that right? Of course not! It’s exactly the people in the stinky sweats who should be welcomed at church with open arms. Jesus made that perfectly clear. We all know it, and we all know that they aren’t.

So what does this mean for my faith? I didn’t go to church this morning, even though I desperately wanted and needed to, because I have a morbid terror of coffee hour. I want to meet God. I don’t want to justify my existence to a bunch of strangers.

I know that’s harsh. I know a lot of it has to do with my resistance to participating in any kind of intimate community, and maybe with having been forced into too many strange Sunday schools as a child. Ultimately, it’s irrelevant. But other Christians are still a huge obstacle for me. An obstacle I have to acknowledge and move through.

Friday, February 27, 2009


Papou and Sophia

Yesterday, Papou moved back to his assisted-living facility. He’s doing better, much better, as he promised my mom, but it still feels scary and rushed. They’re continuing hospice care for him, and at any moment he could disappear. My sister and I talked about it, how it reinforces our feeling of immortality. All of our four grandparents still live. All eight of Sophia’s eight great-grandparents live. I know death was close this time, but it still feels like we can’t be touched by it. It hovers in the corner, still distant.

It feels miraculous, too. He decided he would get better, and he did. He wasn’t ready to die. I wonder why. A pastor friend from Pennsylvania came down to visit him while he was in the hospital, and we asked him how he prayed for parishioners in this situation. His answer was wise--he prayed that everything a person needed to accomplish be accomplished before they pass on. Papou must have something more to accomplish on this earth. I hope it’s sharing more of the memories from his childhood with me.

We were speaking of Papou’s past today, of how he spent his whole life in pursuit of the intellectual life. Does he regret that now? I think not. He was always a person utterly certain of his ideas. When I was a girl, I remember asking him questions about the Bible, while he wrote. Once I asked him about the role of women in Scripture, specifically the passage in First Timothy: “Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.”

“Men were created first, then women,” he answered. That was it. End of story. Their role is less, because they came second. Incidentally, this is the very passage that caused me to cease believing in biblical inerrancy. I can’t believe that I will be saved by childbearing. There’s nothing wrong with having children, but my salvation does not lie in my ovaries and cervix. I cannot believe that that’s the Holy Creator God’s infallible word, his logos, for my life.

That’s what Papou believed, though. That’s what many evangelical Christians continue to believe. No wonder I have so much anger when it comes to biblical gender roles, to the prejudice that underlies so much of contemporary Christianity. That is not my faith. I draw my hermeneutical circle away from those lies. I believe the Apostle Paul when he says, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.” I am not a woman in the eyes of my God. I am a precious, saved child.

So Papou and I disagree on theology. It doesn’t make me love him any less. That’s the thing about beliefs. One believes them. It doesn’t help to have someone else tell you you shouldn’t, or that you’re wrong. A belief is too central, too close to the core of your being. Maybe Papou’s right, or maybe I am. Maybe both of us are wrong. But what I believe matters is that, as Jesus said, I love God with my whole heart, and love my neighbor as myself. That’s hard enough.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Ready to unload

It’s the first day of Lent, and I’ve decided this year, instead of giving up something, I’m going to take on something. I’m going to spend these forty days thinking and writing about my faith. It’s a gauntlet my sister threw down, and I have some ambivalence about taking it up, but what can it hurt? I want to become a person of stronger faith, to allow my faith to take control of my life.

As with so many of those Christian cliches, though, I mean exactly those words, but I don’t mean what is commonly understood by those words. I want my faith to be real, to be the guiding force behind my life, but by that I mean faith in its largest possible sense: the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. All of us live by faith. All of us shape our lives based on things unseen.

I’m more than a little afraid of the challenge. I’m afraid that I don’t have that much to say about my faith. I’m more afraid of putting what I believe in public, of what everyone will think. I’m not sure how many of my readers are Christians, and how many are atheists, and what kind of spectrum lies in between. Deep inside, I know it doesn’t matter. My faith is the most important thing in my life, and if I can’t be honest about it in public, what does that say about me?

My parents are missionaries, which means that they spend their lives actively living according to the dictates of their faith. More than that, they spend their lives trying to convince others of the truth of their faith. I don’t believe, anymore, in converting people to the truth of my faith, but that’s because that’s not what my faith encompasses. One thing I do believe, though, whole-heartedly, is in talking about faith. In talking about the things that lie under the surface of our everyday lives, the things around which we orient ourselves without even realizing it.

A subtle kiss that no one sees

Last November

My grandfather, my Papou, is dying. I suppose, in retrospect, we all knew it was inevitable. Maybe it’s why I’ve been blogging about him so frequently, maybe it’s why his history has been so much on my mind, why I keep trying to take and post feeble pictures of him. He’s in hospice right now, his 86-year-old kidneys failing.

I’m not sure he’s ready to go yet. My mother broke down crying by his bedside the other morning, and he looked up at her and asked her why she was crying. “Daddy, you’re really sick,” she said.

“I’ll get better,” he said, and patted her hand.

My other favorite story from these days is one from my grandmother. He sleeps all the time, waking up only when one of his kisses him. He recognizes us and smiles up, but he then his eyes close again. My grandmother asked him, “Do you dream when you sleep so much?”

He nodded.

“What do you dream about?”

“Salvation,” he said.

What a beautiful dream. I wonder what it looks like. This morning I knelt before a priest and had ashes spread on my forehead. “You are dust,” he said, “and to dust you shall return.” That’s a beautiful dream, too, on Ash Wednesday. All I am, all he is, is frail human flesh, imbued with the spark of the divine. I don’t know what salvation looks like. I definitely don’t believe that heaven is something out there, something that he’s going to go to, in the sense of a departure. Then again, I’m sure he has nothing to be afraid of. Wherever he’s going, it’s going to be home.

Friday, February 20, 2009

It’s the end of the world as we know it

Walking through the door

After a three-week visit in the north country, I’m heading back south. I’m at Boston Logan right now, the late-afternoon sun slanting across my shoulders, with a three-hour wait for my flight. I definitely overestimated the time I needed to get through Boston on my bus. Still, one of the things I’ve always loved about travel is the waiting time in airports and train stations, the time that allows you to collect your thoughts, the waiting with no place to be other than here. That goes to show that I am a true traveler, not one of these dilettantes, and that long-distance travel is my true vocation. I’m never happier than when moving from one place to another.

The light here is different than in the south. Already, since seven o’clock this morning, I’ve traversed many lines of latitude and the sun is noticeably higher in the sky, even later in the afternoon. One forgets about these things in the south, how the light feels different farther north. It always cuts low, across the shoulders, unless it's July. My subconscious is continually aware of the angle of the sun, how my proximity to it is lessened.

There are other things one forgets. Like the preponderance of Subarus. I’ve been looking for a new car on eBay, and in Chattanooga there are an overwhelming quantity of crappy, American-made eight-cylinder SUVs. When everyone knows that the only car that’s worth anything is an AWD Subaru. In Maine you realize immediately how useless those god-awful vehicles are.

I miss the snow. It’s gone from the ground here, even as far north as Boston. I had forgotten that, too, the continual ice barrier that surrounds every road in Maine, the sheen and glisten of all of that whiteness. Yesterday, I went on my longest snowshoe yet--an hour and a half for almost two miles, with probably a half-mile of fresh path-cutting. I begin to understand how one could have 200 words for the stuff, as the Inuits are alleged to. Yesterday it was perfect for snowshoes, crispy on the top, but with enough heft underneath that I didn’t sink below my knees.

Shadow, the wolf-dog, and I had a long talk last night, but I’m not sure he understands my departure. How can he? I disappear and reappear in his life like a dream. Or a nightmare. Would he choose to have me in his life if he could? Even if he never sees me again? I don’t know. Maybe I need a dog of my own. One that can handle the tropics. Maybe I just need a direction in which to travel, someplace to go that when I get there I’ll know I’ve arrived. Maybe then I’d stop being only happy in waiting rooms.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Working for the next day

Snow drifts

I’m back in Aroostook County, Maine, at least temporarily. It still feels like home up here, although, unfortunately not mine. Four feet of snow lies on the ground and I’ve been snowshoeing every day for at least a mile with the wolf-dog who is about half-mine. There’s something about the snow that is both hopeful and melancholy, especially when one is floundering about in chest-deep drifts.

Still, snowshoeing may be my winter sport, I have discovered. It is exhilarating, and brutal, and hard enough work that I stay warm even when it’s eight degrees out. My broken trail is an arrow straight toward belonging, the crunchy snow like movie-set styrofoam. The worst part is that my wolf, after my all-too-many disappearances from the County, no longer trusts me. He keeps disappearing into the forest to chase moose. No amount of bologna brings him back to my side.

I’m sitting before the wood stove on the unfinished steps, my circa-seventies pot atop the rusted burner. It’s a remnant of my long-lost Chicago life, filled with a leftover combination of Thai curry and minestrone. The menu was not my choosing, but my chef insists on the delicacy of fusion cuisine. My butt is cold, but the rest of me is toasty. The sky is the palest blue, and water drips off the eaves. It’s been warm today, above freezing.

Jesus feels distant, even on Sunday. I have begun to resolve to accept God’s help unflindg my life, even as agnostic as my faith in God has become. I do accept His help, if He has any help to give, but my faith remains hesitant, nebulous. The hymn goes “turn your eyes upon Jesus,” but how? It all seems overly metaphorical. How can I turn my eyes towards something that’s not even there?

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Feeling no remorse

Papou does battle with the spirit of Robert Johnson

As I write, a little striped chipmunk that lives in a hole outside of my French doors is perched on the stacked firewood. Like all of the fish that wandered around on the ocean floor in the Bahamas, he knows who I am and what I mean. His little pink hands look remarkably human. I’m trying to make friends with the gray neighborhood cat, but I’m worried if I get too friendly he’ll find my friend the chipmunk.

The picture’s a shot I took at a post-Christmas barbecue lunch at the local Sticky Fingers. I find Robert Johnson brooding over our shoulders amusing. He’s the blues guitarist, as I’m sure you all know, who traded his soul to the devil at the crossroads for the ability to play. His eyes seem to mimic those of my Papou, whose life seems to get harder as he gets older. I’ve been thinking about Papou a lot lately, and about aging, and about God and the devil. Papou (or Dr. Spiros Zodhiates, Th.D.) was a writer, too, a Greek exegete and theologian. Maybe he’s the reason that I considered being a professional writer as a legitimate career choice. Now he relies on puffy Chattanooga CNAs to bathe and shave him.

So, hi, everyone. Sorry about my little descent into chaos the other day. I’ve considered posting a retraction, or just deleting the dang thing altogether, but it doesn’t quite feel honest. I’ve always believed that once I write things they belong to someone else, to whoever I wrote them for, and, in this case, I wrote for the whole wide world. So it’s yours now. Not mine.

Maybe that is the point of a blog--it’s catharsis, in its truest, Greek sense. A way for me to purge myself of my own grief and pass it on to the unfeeling World Wide Web.

I admit that it has been a rough month. I received some bad news about an opportunity that I had real hope for, and have had other difficult things going on personally. Maybe the most real outcome from being brutally honest is to realize how real my descent into the bottomless pit of depression can be, and that I need to find better ways to fight it. It’s an ongoing battle, and I have more sympathy for those who struggle with it. I’ve been dealing with it since high school.

So I begin a new year now, with more optimism, more hope. Doors are opening again. Maybe some will stay open this time. Maybe I’ll finally see a path laid clear to the horizon. But in the meantime, I’ll take the next step in front of me. Thanks to all of you who responded with concern and kindness, and I pray the darkness doesn’t close in again.