"As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; / [ . . . ] Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves -- goes itself; 'myself' it speaks and spells, / Crying 'What I do is me; for that I came'." --Gerard Manley Hopkins

28 December 2006

We're Home!

Thanks for well-wishes below. We got back last night and were SO glad to sink into our very own beds.

Of course we all got sick. Of course this was while with older, not-overly-well parents. Pray for them!

My mother-in-law got good news about the cancer activity being reduced by half. They hope to have just one more week of every-day treatments and be able to cut back to maintenence treatment.

My dad is finally seeing a gerontology specialist this week. The drive is a bit longer than before, but on safer roads. I hope to hear something this weekend.

The YM is 16 today. I am not sure how he achieved this feat, but I guess we will have to let him continue to grow up now. :)

And I'm back at my office for the day, filling out forgotten forms that were due before I left . . . oops.

I don't know about 24, Sarah -- I've watched portions and it's so frenetic . . . maybe I'll give the season premiere another try next week, on your recommendation. I do know folks around here either love it or hate it!

Not my usual kind of post, but don't have time for several separate emails. Perhaps next week I'll find energy to post something worth thinking on.

Happy New Year to all!

15 December 2006

Christmas Cometh . . . At Last!

I have turned in grades and am now simply trying to clear the mind, find the things I need to take with me to work on during the break, clean up the office a bit so it looks better when I come back.

We will be gone for a couple of weeks, probably without internet access.

The YM sent me an email yesterday:

Dear Santa Claus,

When I was little, I accepted that when you pass judgment on little children, you really knew what was right and wrong. But now, a lifetime of experience has left me bitter. What is good? What is bad?

Can I say to my neighbor "I am good and you are bad?" Who are you to say if we are good or bad? And where's that iPod Nano? Huh??

This will be the last year I send a letter to you, so you'd better get everything on my list right this time. (Last year you mixed up my list with someone who wanted t-shirts and underwear.)

iPod Nano, xBox360, Sam's Town by The Killers, a Pearls treasury, some sunglasses that Gwen Stefani wore in Wind It Up, and $200 cash.

Thank you.

p.s. Can you give me Fred Claus's email address? You know, your brother who give gifts to all the bad children.

I'm still laughing.

May you have a blessed Christmas season and know the love of the One who came so we could be reconciled to the Father.

Review part 3: "Criminal Minds"

All art invites the viewer to consider values and ideas. However, Criminal Minds does this more explicitly than most television shows or films through a voice-over at the show's beginning and/or end of a quotation from a philosopher or writer that suggests the episode's theme and perhaps how we are to think about it. Sadly, I haven't been able to locate a website that gives these quotations, so I rarely manage to keep them accurately. At least the gist often stays with me, though, as they frame my response.

One example: A woman who was horribly abused becomes a serial killer, taking out her bitterness by hurting others as she was hurt. The team identifies her as the killer -- instead of a male suspect -- when they learn about her past. But the quotations at beginning and end are about how suffering can make one great, thus reminding the viewers that the victim of suffering has choices -- there is nothing inevitable about bitterness, about repaying evil for evil.

In this week's episode, the voice-over was about the dark oppression of secrets -- and in the course of the show, Morgan is forced to reveal the secret of the sexual abuse he endured as a boy and had told no one. But when he finally speaks out, it is to save another boy and end the abuser's exploitation. "[Not telling] was my mistake," he tells the boy. "You don't have to make the same one, and I've got your back -- forever." The episode also deepens Morgan's character by showing him interacting with his widowed mother and sisters, revealing some of his past, and showing us why he is especially enraged by crimes against children. "You are responsible for who I am," he tells the abuser; "I became an FBI agent to put b**s like you away."

The characters also often reflect on and discuss the nature of their job, inviting us to consider with them the values we hold, our assumptions about good and evil, right and wrong, the sanctity of life. At the end of one case, for example, Hotch muses to Gideon, "What makes people do such evil things? Is it the parents' fault? Society's? Neither?" Rather than merely driving us to a single conclusion, we are invited to think about it ourselves, and the show's actions leave it open for interpretation even while critiquing various policies and positions having to do with crime and punishment.

In an episode where the team finds a vigilante who has been killing people guilty of criminal acts but who have not been convicted because their actions were blamed on parents or society, we find that Hotch still second-guesses himself about the first case he and Gideon worked together. They had identified a man who had abused and killed two young boys. They had confronted him, armed and desperate, and Hotch had "talked him down," preventing him from killing himself or forcing them to do so. Then he was found not guilty on the basis of his wife's perjury -- and was only sent to prison after he killed again.

"You did the right thing," Gideon tells Hotch, and Hotch agrees -- but we are invited to think long and hard about our justice system and whether it might ever be right to at least not prevent the death of a known killer.

Yet the show does always come down on the side of life: one never, under any circumstances, kills except to save the life of a victim or fellow law enforcer. It is not the law enforcement officer's job to execute justice in any but a desperate situation, no matter how flawed the courts may be. And thus the horror of the team members to realize that Elle has taken justice into her own hands, has killed with pre-meditation an unarmed man. The sick rapes he has committed are no excuse for her own lawless act.

In another episode, a brilliant high school boy approaches Reid, implying that he might be the serial killer that is terrorizing D.C. prostitutes. They find he is not the killer, but he is obsessed with death and crying out for help. Gideon does a psych evaluation and tells Reid afterwards, "It's not a matter of if he kills; it's a matter of when he kills." Later, the boy tells Reid that he has realized that the only way to keep from killing someone else is to kill himself.

Yet his mother puts off hospitalizing him. Finally, he comes by to tell Reid he is going into the hospital the next day. "You know I'll never get out," he says, and Reid -- who "knows what it means to be afraid of your own mind" -- tries to encourage him to be hopeful. A few hours later he receives a phone call: the boy has solicited a prostitute, fantasizing murder, but he doesn't try to kill her. Instead, he lays Reid's business card on the table and slits his own wrists. Reid and Garcia race to the apartment to try to help him. Later, as the ambulance drives away, Gideon tells Reid, clearly as a compliment and encouragement, "You saved his life." Reid answers, "And what about the lives he takes someday?" Gideon: "Profiles can be wrong. But if this one's not, then . . . you'll bring him in."

The unspoken message: you must always presume on the side of life and hope, never except in the direst circumstances taking into your own hands the decision that someone else must die.

Before and after this episode, Gray Gubler voices over quotations from T. S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men":

"Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow.

[. . .]

"Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow."

And we are invited to consider what the Shadow is, if it can be fought, if idea and conception can be brought to birth without destructive distortion.

13 December 2006

Review part 2: “Criminal Minds”

The Characters

Jason Gideon (played by the incomparable Mandy Patinkin, with whom I can claim that I went to college [don’t ask if I ever met him] and I can say definitively that he was a phenom even at 18 or 19): Senior Supervisory Special Agent Gideon is the “elder statesman” of the team, whose special talent seems to be drawing out people’s deepest secrets. Remarkably perceptive, he is saved from breakdown by a rigid code of honor and a place to get away. He battles guilt when things go wrong, but reminds the others that crime is the criminal’s fault, not theirs for not catching him.

Aaron Hotchner (Thomas Gibson): Unit Chief Hotchner is the team’s leader with Gideon and often the show’s moral compass. He is the only married agent, with a young son – Hayley is supportive and the marriage appears stable, but the job creates inevitable (though always sideline) tension at times. Hotch’s integrity is unimpeachable and he tolerates nothing less in his agents – for whom he would gladly give his own life. He is a serious man whose rare smiles deepen a character who might otherwise be seen as overly melancholy.

Derek Morgan (Shemar Moore): Supervisory Special Agent Morgan is a younger team member who seeks Gideon’s approval, rebukes Reid’s tendency toward self-imposed, undeserved guilt, and flirts shamelessly, for sheer fun, with Garcia. His cheerfulness with the team serves to accentuate his intense hatred of evil and revulsion towards evildoers. He would never hesitate to put his life on the line.

Spencer Reid (Matthew Gray Gubler): Supervisory Special Agent Reid is the genius, and the youngest team member. At 24, with a photographic memory, he holds 3 PhDs; besides being a walking information bank, he seems especially adept at discerning patterns, visual, verbal, or behavioral. He is prone to blurting out information, but not, it seems, from arrogance – more like an eager kid who happens to know the answer. Compassion, perhaps surprisingly, is his identifying personal trait, and he fears the schizophrenia from which his mother suffers.

Elle Greenaway (Lola Glaudini): Special Agent Greenaway was shot during a case and became increasingly disturbed, cynical, and fearful. She resigned from the unit early this season after shooting a suspect in cold blood and covering it up to make it look like self-defense. Cleared by the FBI, she avoids Hotch, but he follows her to her father’s grave. When she asks why he believes she is guilty, he tells her, “Because you’re here, confessing your sins.” He can’t prove it, but he can’t let her stay in the unit because he can’t trust her.

Emily Prentiss (Paget Brewster): Special Agent Prentiss is the newest member, replacing Elle. Assigned to the unit without the request or approval of either Gideon or Hotch, she is driven to prove herself. Hotch is still uncertain whether he can trust her or not, especially after discovering a family-friend relationship between Prentiss and a congresswoman – who mysteriously discovers their work on a case that affects a bill she is sponsoring and threatens Hotch’s career if he doesn’t handle it to her satisfaction. Prentiss knows Arabic and plays chess.

Penelope Garcia (Kirsten Vangsness): Analyst Garcia is the computer genius who finds any information that can be found, tracks cell phones, does any needed technological feat. A flashy character who loves to laugh, she adds comic moments, but also poignancy as she reacts to crime with revulsion and victims with compassion. She loves to harmlessly flirt and occasionally takes Reid under a maternal wing.

Jennifer “J.J.” Jareau (A. J. Cook): Supervisory Special Agent and Media Liason Cook sorts through the various cases brought to the team’s attention, reports initial information about requests for help to the team, and is the team’s competent and winsome media voice. Intelligent and sharp, when Hotch asks if she wants to become a profiler, she says no; she is content with the background role she plays doing groundwork for the team.

That’s the cast of characters. The actors are all excellent, and they avoid dropping into stock characterization, instead creating interesting people who react in realistic ways to the job they do.

If grading doesn't kill me, next time I'll look at the philosophical side of the show.

12 December 2006

Review part 1: Criminal Minds

~to inject some enjoyment into finals week~

I'm not especially enamored of visual entertainment. My parents, thankfully, limited television time in our house, and any time the tv was on we all had books or magazines (Newsweek, Boys' Life) to read during the commercials (and often during the show as well). I haven't been to a movie theatre in years and rarely can make myself sit through a movie on television. People always tell me, you must see such-and-such, and I always think, why? There's not enough time in life to waste it.

But now and then I watch a movie, and I do watch a few tv shows for relaxation if I like the characters and plot lines. Crime and mystery shows especially appeal; after all, Ngaio March and Dorothy Sayers are two of my favorite writers. Most of these shows, however, I can take or leave; there's no significant disappointment if I miss an episode and no one tapes it.

CBS's Criminal Minds, however, has utterly captivated me, and I may even have to lobby for the first season on DVD, since I missed most of it. Acting, character development, plot lines, and the philosophical challenges all intrigue me every Wednesday night.

An overview:
CM follows the professional lives of an FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU), a unit highly trained in psychoanalysis of the criminal mind to profile unknown perpetrators and help identify them, predict their behavior, find them, and convict them -- often through psychologically acquired confession. It's based on real-life cases, though of course fictionalized (with the adventurous aspects no doubt hyped up a bit).

Some things I especially like:
It really is about the characters' professional lives. Their personal lives are somewhat known but peripheral: Hotchner's wife and child occasionally appear; any romantic interests are downplayed (as in barely hinted at) and there's never that I know of been even the implication of a sex scene; when personal impinges on professional the effects are made clear and not over-played.

It's clean. There's an occasional curse word, only with great provocation. There's no sex. The women agents dress professionally and don't look sleazy. And there's very little blood and gore, a nice relief from CSI, half of which I visually miss to avoid the explicit effects of violence. Sometimes the crimes, the perpertrators, and/or the victims are sleazy, but there's no dwelling on, for example, strip-bar scenes or excessively violent scenes of crime commission.

The team works well together. There are occasional tensions, of course, but no one-up-manship or jealousy or silly grudges. They have a goal, they have been chosen because they're both smart and trustworthy, and they focus on getting the job done as well as they can. Authority is respected without those under it being sycophants or mindless.

Each character is complex. You think you've got one pegged and then you see another side. No one's a complete stereotype even though they play on these.

The job they do is largely intellectual. It's a kind of Sherlock Holmes approach -- what's the evidence? Okay, now think about it and see where it leads. They get out in the field, yes, but much of their work is reflection on the constantly evolving information they have in order to to out-think the evil-doers.

More to come when another round of paper-grading is over!

05 December 2006

Tarnished Brass, White Gold

Yesterday the tarnished brass of a full moon barely peeked through the branches, disappearing behind the far ridge as I reached the bottom of the old ferry road. Still, her light brightened the sky enough to keep the dark at bay.

This morning, she shone like white gold, riding the tips of the pines and blazing out above the mountains as I left the trees behind, her light suffusing the western sky as brightly as the hinting sun did the eastern horizon.

However full or bright, He uses His reflection, even at times whether we will or no.

04 December 2006

Nancy L. Walker, RIP

(written Saturday, 2 December 2006)

Nancy died day before yesterday. I sat numbed in front of the computer screen for a quarter of an hour, thinking again and again, "I never made the cross-stitch I'd planned for her."

How arrogant and foolish to put off kindnesses, thinking there will be time. We have no idea how much time there will be, and I never told her how much a part of me she is.

Nancy Walker was my colleague, director of the writing program and writing teacher, at Southwest Missouri State University (now Missouri State). It was my first full-time position out of graduate school, half-time teaching and half-time directing the new writing center. She was kind to this nervous 30-something who'd never intended to work outside the home; she made me feel not only welcome but competent, belonging in this alien place.

A short, petite woman, she dressed "professionally feminine" -- well-tailored dresses and heels that raised her above the lectern (if she ever used one). I sat in on one of her graduate-level writing classes; a dynamo with cropped greying hair and reading glasses perched on her nose, her heels tapping constantly about the room, she challenged, delighted, and encouraged, drawing from us our best. She didn't have to look at my work, as I wasn't a student, but she did -- many written comments and then the concentrated attention to help me make a piece publishable, my first.

It was during those four years at SMSU that I finally accepted the identity of "writer" that had been a reality since I learned to scratch my name on kindergarten lined paper. And it was Nancy who helped me see that the reflective essay is my genre. That in itself might have been a career-killer, we both knew, but she never discouraged me from following the gift given.

I left SMS for many reasons, one among them being my absolute inability to justify sacrificing my time, energy, and identity for academic writing. One of the greatest gains from those years was the courage to embrace a gift -- and in that courage Nancy will remain with me, leaving the world not quite as empty as it felt when I first read the message of her death.

May it please God that she rest in peace.

01 December 2006

Poetry Meme

LuCindy tagged me for this meme, so here goes:

1. The first poem I remember reading/hearing/reacting to was....I actually have no idea whatsoever. I know my mom played music a lot, and I suppose she read poetry to me, though I don’t recall her doing so. All I know is that poetry has always been as natural a part of my life as breathing. I never went through a “I don’t understand poetry” or “poetry is too boring/hard/obscure” phase as so many of my students – even English majors – seem to do.

The first poem I can remember really reacting to was Tennyson’s “Two Voices.” I liked it when I read it for a college assignment, then my atheist professor scoffed at it in class, saying it was far too simplistic to believe that the doubts of the speaker – so strong that he considered suicide because life appeared without hope – could be resolved by hearing church bells and seeing a family on their way to church. But I knew that the resolution was absolutely perfect, because I’d experienced it myself – the simplest image of Truth has remarkable power over despair, far more power even than the mere rational arguments of Truth. “Two Voices” ever since has been my idea of a poem that images Truth – and a reminder of the impossibility of the unregenerate mind to grasp that Truth.

2. I was forced to memorize Robert Frost’s “Birches” in school and........ ah, my favorite teacher ever, ever. Wonderful Miss Angell. Sadly, we only had her first semester, as she had a nervous breakdown over Christmas – perhaps that’s why I’ve always feared teaching at the high school level? She made us memorize a poem so that we could write it out letter-perfect. I’ve loved “Birches” ever since. She also introduced me to Winnie-the-Pooh – she read a chapter aloud once a week, I believe. What a wonderful teacher, who loved language for its sound and made me realize that I loved its sounds, too.

3. I read/don't read poetry because.... I read poetry because it speaks to me in a way no other kind of writing can. The beauty of the language; the way an image becomes real and deep, far beyond its literal existence; the way it takes me out of myself; the beauty, the sheer beauty . . . *

4. A poem I'm likely to think about when asked about a favorite poem is ....... Gerard Manley Hopkins – any of the Terrible Sonnets but perhaps “Carrion Comfort” most; T. S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi”; Robert Browning’s “An Epistle”; anything by Mary Oliver, perhaps “Roses, Late Summer” and “The Ponds” foremost; Christina Rossetti – impossible to choose. Which one depends on my mood at the time I’m asked.

5. I write/don't write poetry, but.............. I don’t write poetry, but it is vital to my existence. It reminds me of the depth of beauty available, often in the most unexpected places, in a broken world, and that eloquence is worth pursuing.

6. My experience with reading poetry differs from my experience with reading other types of literature..... LuCindy wrote “it is less entertaining, for the most part, and more demanding,” which I agree with wholeheartedly; it appeals to both my intellect and my heart.

7. I find poetry...... in books recommended by friends and through the anthologies I teach from. I sometimes see poetry in physical activity – a basketball team working together flawlessly, an ice-skating routine. I envy my poet friends who see poetry in everything, but one can only pursue so many avenues in life . . .

8. The last time I heard poetry.... was reading it in class the other day. I read poetry all the time in lit classes. I rarely ask students to read because so many really can’t do it well at all, and I haven’t time to teach them. However, my Victorian Lit students did a poetry reading this semester and I’ve seldom heard Hopkins and Rossetti so well-read. I was impressed. The last time I heard a poet read her own work was when LuCindy was here at the college, what, 2, 3 years ago? I wish I could hear her every day.

9. I think poetry is like.... an offering of pure beauty clothed in words, Truth in imagery, love come alive.

* To clarify – I keep saying I love poetry for its beauty, and I don’t mean by that any kind of “prettiness.” Some of the most beautiful and moving poems I know are not “pretty”; they are harsh, maybe even dissonant, and treat ugly subjects, for example, “Dulce et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owens, or Lawrence’s “Do Not Go Gentle.” Beauty has to do with the way the sounds and images are entwined to create an eloquence appropriate to the subject and not to be found in any other kind of writing – though an occasional fiction writer or essayist comes close, such as Zora Neale Hurston and Annie Dillard.

Megan, want to try it? Maybe you, Captain?

30 November 2006

Blessing the Grey Skies

The garage door opened on grey skies and wet streets this morning, the fourth day in a row without sunshine. Yesterday the fog finally settled itself deep in my spirit.

In some ways it’s old hat by now; there are occasionally warning signs and this time it was the incessant pounding of a couple of bars of musical notes (calling it a tune would be far too generous) that beat against my mind every time it fell unoccupied with explicit thought or writing or conversation. This isn’t the “I’ve got a song in my head” that happens to people all the time. It’s just noise that robs me of longed-for silence and drives me to weird thoughts just to keep it at bay. Inevitably it’s followed by a round of deep melancholy.

But of course it’s never really old hat. Every time it has to be faced and walked through, a process that never becomes easier, even knowing with reasonable certainty that it won’t – in the end – entirely overwhelm me.

It’s been a great week, too. I’ve had no urgent classroom prep or grading, no essays sitting on the desk begging for attention. That made it possible to accomplish some important tasks for the department, well instead of quickly. Interactions with colleagues, friends, family have been good – easy-going, no pressures, no conflicts. I was enjoying life.

But yesterday the fog infiltrated my spirit. I begged off a regular lunch meeting in which some good friends discuss Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a book I love and which has come more alive than ever to me this year. But today I couldn’t bear to talk about someone else’s winter, nor to subject myself to the noise and chaos of the cafeteria.

My afternoon meeting, however, I would have begged for if I’d had to. My lovely friends, who are writers, too, joined me in the lounge and we talked writing and life for an hour. At some point, the concept of suffering as blessing came up and I found myself repeating what another dear friend has said to me often – if you fight depression it only gets worse.

Of course, one can’t give in to it, either. Not fighting it doesn’t mean letting it take control and spending my hours mindlessly surfing the web or taking long restless naps. Rather, it means an acceptance, an acknowledgement that it exists and causes pain, but finding the way to live despite it – do the next thing and don’t fret over how wretched you feel. Try not to make others feel wretched along with you. Do the next thing.

We talked about how American evangelical Christianity seems to be largely about getting out of suffering. Praises in church are reserved for healing and deliverance. But Job blessed God when He took everything away, not just when He returned it. Because he saw God, I know that Job didn’t need to get everything back; he’d have blessed and praised God in his poverty and sickness had they lasted the rest of his days.

And often our poverty and sickness does last all our days. I don’t see Joni Erikson walking yet, but she claims that she would never have served God as she has if she hadn’t broken her neck that awful, blessed day.

And so I’m brought back, of course, to Hopkins. “Why? [. . .] That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.”

Job repented, not of sins he had committed against his fellow man, but because he – this most righteous man, by God’s own witness – had yet to see the God he served. I long to see Him – and therefore I must accept the suffering as blessing indeed, as He draws me lovingly towards Himself by its means. Without that blessing, would I even know Him, much less understand even the little I do of His grace?

27 November 2006


Reading Hillary Waugh's history of detective fiction this past week, I found of interest his description of how fanatical a fact-checker he is, even with his fictional works. It reminded me of two most irritating errors I'd encountered earlier in the week, one in a piece of fiction, one in a non-fiction book on writing.

I should have known not to buy a detective novel with a Kansas setting written by a California writer. But in some things I am a slow learner, and I miss Kansas, so I picked it up at the used bookstore. It wasn't that great, but I read it all because it was about Kansas and I have a terrible habit of finishing bad books just because I've started them. (I'm getting a little better, but as I slog on, hope springs eternal; surely the next chapter will take off . . . or the next . . . surely?)

The novel has the typical stereotypes -- "small Midwestern towns are full of rednecks and dysfunctional, immoral people" (everyone who rodeos is a redneck, you know, and in small towns no one can be happily and chastely married but all must be lusting after and chasing each other's spouses, children, and mistresses), but even that was not (quite) fatal. The fatal moment occurred when the writer described a baby quilt at a quilt fair: it had baseball motifs all over it, and the explanation by the stitcher was something like "the only Kansas City Chiefs game he's missed is the day he was delivered."

Now, I am not into professional sports at all; I especially dislike football and only tolerate the idea of baseball. But even I know that the Chiefs are the football team, and the Royals are the baseball team. And any writer who doesn't bother to get right something that easy to check on . . . well, what can I say? No more books by that author for me.

The other error was even more irritating, though I am willing to be corrected on it if I've missed something.

In a book by a professional editor/agent on writing, the author was describing writer's block. To give it some emotional heft, she used a line from a poem, which she attributed to Milton -- "give my roots rain."

Now, I could have missed the line where Milton uses this phrase, but I'm fairly familiar with his poetry and I've never seen it. It's Gerard Manley Hopkins, for cryin' out loud, in one of the Terrible Sonnets, and writer's block was, I'm pretty sure, the least of his concerns at the time. Bad enough to get the wrong poet, but when the context of a poem is entirely ignored in using a line from it, I find it somehow cheapens the poet's work. It's like my students using quote sites to find a "famous" quote that happens to have a word in it that relates to an assigned essay topic. They have no idea who the author is or when the quote was made or in what context; it just sounds like it might impress the teacher.

Fact-checking. It should just be obvious that you do it before you publish, or even before you just converse about a subject. There is so much deception and distortion everywhere we turn (the increased access to all kinds of media makes this that much worse); how can we carry on a debate over truth when we refuse to even check the facts on which truth is based?
(And where on earth were the copy-editors of these books, by the way?)

21 November 2006

Thanksgiving Break

Classes done, emails taken care of, only one set of essays to take home and grade over the break. Not bad. The YM is gone to visit his sister and sister-in-law, so we'll get a little taste of the empty nest for a few days. Neighbors invited us for Thanksgiving dinner. I am hoping I will perhaps actually be rested for the final two weeks of classes and final exams.

I am at that point that arrives all too often of having too much to do and too many ideas for other things I'd like to do and too little time and energy for, it seems, any of it. I have a hard time trusting in any case, but I think this may be the worst kind of time in some ways. There's no definite thing I want that I don't have, no definite source of frustration, just a kind of low grade "I wish . . . something; I just don't know what."

So it's time to practice gratitude, as the holiday reminds me, and say what I know is true: I am loved, my life has purpose, and if all I can do is just the next thing, then that's fine.

In "Messenger," Mary Oliver starts the poem with the simple and profound line, "My work is loving the world." The second stanza reads "Are my boots old? Is my coat torn? / Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me / keep my mind on what matters, / which is my work."

And part of that work is "gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart / and these body-clothes, / a mouth with which to give shouts of joy / to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam, / telling them all, over and over, how it is / that we live forever."

Yes. Thank You, Lord. Thank You, indeed.

13 November 2006

"To a discerning Eye -- "

What constantly startles me about literature, no matter how many times I see it in play, is just how revealing it really is, how there are always connections upon connections, how it helps us see and understand.

I taught the following Emily Dickinson poem in Intro to Lit recently, and the students were quick to come up with all kinds of good examples of the concept in action in our world:

“Much Madness is divinest Sense –
To a discerning Eye –
Much Sense – the starkest Madness –
‘Tis the Majority
In this, as All, prevail –
Assent – and you are sane –
Demur – you’re straightway dangerous –
And handled with a Chain – “

I taught the poem because I like it, and it’s true, and I like to end our unit on poetry with poems that speak to students at this Christian college of matters of faith. They loved it, and I was happy with a good class day.

Then I went to my freshman comp class the next day, for which they had read a piece defining the two words “deft” and “daft,” which happen to have the same root. The writer ends the piece with “These days it is usually considered much better to be deft than daft. But don’t be too sure. It is good to remind ourselves that one person’s deftness might very well appear as daftness to another.”

Now the writer might, I suppose, just be a relativist (a la ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”). But I liked the paragraph, and when my students had trouble with it, I put the first three lines of Dickinson’s poem on the board to discuss. And then they got it.

Then I watched Criminal Minds that night. (I like it partly because of the characters and story lines but partly, I confess, because every time I see Mandy Patinkin, I can say, “I went to college with him!” It makes watching Princess Bride even more satisfying. [No, I didn't know him. But I saw him play a stellar Guildenstern in R & G are Dead and Hamlet on alternating nights on the KU stage. That's gotta count for something.])

In the course of the particular episode, a woman finds herself in a car with a bomb beneath her seat set to go off if she gets up. So one of the younger team members, Derek Morgan, stands by the car door and holds her hand, encouraging her, and refuses to move when one of the team leaders tells him to because he isn’t about to let this woman go through the terror of the bomb’s defusing alone.

Gideon (Patinkin), the team’s older leader, isn’t there, but tells someone he is interviewing that “a young man I care very much about is putting his life on the line right now.” Reid of course passes this on, Morgan asks Gideon about it in the plane on the way back to Maryland, Gideon admits to it -- then tells Morgan, “What you did with the bomb? That was stupid.”

Morgan is crushed. When Gideon looks up and sees his face, he adds, “I didn’t say it was wrong.”

“Much Madness is divinest sense.”

A belated thanks to all our vets who often must look mad to the oh-so-sane world, and to all others as well who madly put themselves in harm's way (physically and in other ways) for our protection.

06 November 2006

Full Moon

Starting for work, a wintery sky mirroring my own flu-achey discouragement, I saw, for the first time in weeks, Phoebe, her full orb overwhelming rag-tag clouds to light me down the old ferry road to the highway. The hope of beauty once again, a lovely reminder on a grey November morning.

01 November 2006


It rained last night. This morning a grey mist settled over the tops of the evergreens, softening them into a new autumn beauty and deepening their contrast with the flaming reds and burnished golds of their neighbors. On campus I walk through the mist as in another world, a faerie world where hope lies hidden, waiting, just beyond the edge of sight.

26 October 2006

Thought for the Day

"We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light." (Plato)

25 October 2006

Wrestling with God, Again

I have been thinking a great deal about the nature of suffering the past couple of years. Lately, a number of young women have come through my door to ask me about depression, many of them having been told that they must "snap out of it," or "get right with the Lord," so that they can be happy.

Depression is my own most intimate knowledge of suffering. I am not a counselor, only a listening empathetic ear, but I do know this: the suffering of depression is not sin. One may, of course, choose to sin in response to that suffering (as I have so terribly, far too many times), but the suffering is not sin.

We tend, I think, to see it as such because, as Christians, we are told that we must rejoice. But joy and happiness are not the same thing. One can be most unhappy and still have joy. The key for the one who suffers from depression is learning where that joy lies and how to cling to it in the midst of depression's sadness and even despair, knowing the difference between the suffering of depression and the truth of God's love for us.

I love the scene in Lord of the Rings when Pippin and Gandalf are standing together on the walls of Minas Tirith looking out over the rising darkness from Mordor that threatens to engulf all of Middle Earth; they do not yet know whether Frodo is still alive or Sauron has recovered the Ring. Pippin looks at Gandalf: "In the wizard's face he saw at first only lines of care and sorrow; though as he looked more intently he perceived that underneath there was a great joy: a fountain of mirth enough to set a kingdom laughing, were it to burst forth."

And Hopkins, of course, in even the most terrible of the Terrible Sonnets, always seeing the spark of hope that is his salvation, knowing that the One who seems to be his enemy is in truth his Friend, and crying out to Him, even his cries of anguish a form of worship, however deep his despair.

And the star in the darkness above Mordor that gives Sam the hope that carries him through the last terrible days of their ordeal, reminding him that above the darkness is something greater and eternal, that the darkness, however long it may last and whatever evil it may accomplish, is still only for a moment in comparison to beauty.

Depression may come once, twice, or last a lifetime. But all of us suffer in this world, one way or another. What will we do with it, and will we let it overwhelm the beauty that objectively still surrounds us? In "When Roses Speak, I Pay Attention," Mary Oliver writes that the roses tell us, "Listen, / the heart-shackles are not, as you think, / death, illness, pain, / unrequited hope, not loneliness, but / lassitude, rue, vainglory, fear, anxiety, / selfishness."

The first things she names come to all of us, whether we will or no. We can choose -- though the choice can be extremely difficult at times -- not to wallow in the latter ones. May the Lord bring to us the friends and counselors we need to help us learn how to make that choice, not be too hard on ourselves when we inevitably fail (repent and go on living without wallowing in guilt, either; He knows our frame and has already forgiven), and daily draw closer to Him in whatever suffering He allows for our refinement.

"Why?" Hopkins asks in "Carrion Comfort" of the suffering given him. "That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear."

I pray, with fear and trembling, for clear grain, Lord, to serve You with.

24 October 2006

"The Uses of Sorrow"

from Mary Oliver's new collection of poetry, Thirst.

The Uses of Sorrow
(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)

Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.

I feel so close to understanding and so far at the same time. The Heavenly Hound, thank Him, is relentless. I want to stop and rest in His wild faithfulness, but I am so often afraid. Yet every taste has always been sweeter than honey.

Oliver writes in the title poem, the book's epilogue: "I was never a quick scholar but sulked / and hunched over my books past the / hour and the bell; grant me, in your / mercy, a little more time."

Oh, for a little more time, to learn Him in humility and love . . .

23 October 2006


(I wanted to post this last Friday, but computer glitches did not allow.)

From Mark Jarman's Unholy Sonnets, #34

Although I know God's immanence can speak
In sunlight's parallels and intersections;
Although I know the spiritual techniques
For finding God in all things, when I pray

It is to nothing manifest at all.
And though I know it's only technical,
I do not pray to nothing. Yesterday,
One of those off-hand, razor-edged rejections
The world flips like a Frisbee grazed my cheek.
It drew blood. No consoling recollections
Of having shaken off that sort of play
Helped me to forget it. I could not recall
My strength, and brooded, lost and tragical,
Till, marking this blank page, I found a way.

Failure seems to be the predominant mode of my life lately. I love this poem because it reminds me, first, that I'm not the only one who can't seem to live by spiritual cliches, and second, that I need to write. So it's off to finish the grading and give myself time to write, seriously, for at least a few hours this so-called break.

Needing to stop brooding, lost and tragical. What a pathetic way to live this "one wild and precious life" (Mary Oliver).

13 October 2006

Fall Break

Dragged home scads of paper today -- homework I'm behind on grading, exams and essays that need to be taken care of before classes begin again a week from Monday. Discouraging to look at, but I'm trying to keep remembering that what is done this week doesn't have to be done after classes are back in swing and more of it coming in.

I'm utterly exhausted. But so many good meetings with students this week that make it worthwhile.

A tiny taste during the week of letting go and not trying to keep control of my time, my work. Getting things done that had to be but without worry and frustration at interruptions and needed conversations. I hope to hold on to that and practice it again this week at home, with much to do here as well as for the job and the constant temptations there will be to laziness rather than good rest.

Oh, to learn to live in Him, to let Him live in me.

06 October 2006

Dillard Thoughts

Glancing through the last chapter of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek this morning, I was struck with the following passage:

I think that the dying pray at the last not "please," but "thank you," as a guest thanks his host at the door. Falling from airplanes the people are crying thank you, thank you, all down the air; and the cold carriages draw up for them on the rocks. Divinity is not playful. The universe was not made in jest but in solemn incomprehensible earnest. By a power that is unfathomably secret, and holy, and fleet. There is nothing to be done about it, but ignore it, or see. And then you walk fearlessly, eating what you must, growing wherever you can, like the monk on the road who knows precisely how vulnerable he is, who takes no comfort among death-forgetting men, and who carries his vision of vastness and might around in his tunic like a live coal which neither burns nor warms him, but with which he will not part.

I long to be fearless, seeing. I long to be, instead of always striving. I will not part with the live coal I carry, and I will not take comfort where no comfort may be truly found. Be Thou my vision . . . nought be all else to me save that Thou art . . .

02 October 2006

On Theory

All I have to say today is this: Never agree to write on a topic which you mostly know through theory.

God will not let you write from theory.

25 September 2006

On Being Doormats

In Sunday School yesterday morning, one of the innumerable rabbit trails brought up had to do with "being doormats." The issue was framed something like this: "Everybody says we're not supposed to be doormats. But the Scripture seems to say we should be doormats -- go the second mile, if somebody takes your coat, give him your cloak . . . but I thought we weren't supposed to be doormats."

The teacher rightly ignored this remark, given that it had nothing whatsoever to do with the topic of the lesson. But I've been mulling it over, since I hear it, or something like it, fairly often in this individualistic, rights-centered culture my students are so much a part of.

My first reaction always tends to be "Why shouldn't we be doormats?" In the world's eyes, surely Christ Himself was a "doormat" as He stood silent before Pilate and allowed Himself to be hung on a cross. Am I not called to live like my Savior? In the world's eyes, my humility will always look like folly, like weakness.

But the world is not where I should be finding my definitions, and its perceptions should not be my especial concern. In the situation brought up in Sunday School, how is the believer who obeys the injunction to go the second mile a "doormat"? He is constrained by law to carry the soldier's burden the first mile; anyone might do so, however grudgingly, to avoid punishment.

But if he then says, in cheerful humility, "Sir, because I love the Lord Christ, and through Him I love you, I desire to serve you by carrying this burden another mile" -- how is this being a doormat? This is precisely love in action -- and love is power. Not power to stand up for my rights and demand respect and protect my space -- to not be a doormat -- but power to reach hearts for the Savior who suffered and died for my unworthy self.

20 September 2006

Reflected Light

Phoebe the merest sliver of reflected light on this morning's pre-dawn drive, but that resplendent sliver illuminating the mountains and valleys of her darkened surface.

Oh, Lord, to be even the merest sliver reflecting Your light.

19 September 2006


I have longed for someone to share my writing with -- someone who will be honestly, lovingly ruthless. Someone like LuCindy, who helped me tear apart and reconstruct my tenure paper a couple of years ago, who has been a Godsend to me in this and many ways.

True, we can help each other online some, and we do so, but it's not the same as when intellectual energy sparks across a room and productive silences explode into dynamic word-play.

This year, I've been blessed with two friends who desire the same thing and are willing to sacrifice to make it happen.

We are all busy with lives that draw us away from writing by urgent claims on our time, many of which cannot be ignored. Yet we are writers, and our craft -- whether publication is in view or not -- cannot become a casualty of the urgent.

So we decided to help each other maintain a discipline of writing. Every other week or so -- the realities are not to be ignored and if we try to do too much we will do nothing -- we will bring some work in progress and delight together in the crafting of language.

We met for the first time this afternoon -- affirming, questioning, challenging, laughing together even as we delved into complex and unsettling truths.

It was good. We love each other enough to be kind, yet we are confident enough in each other -- and in our work -- to be honest. As I told a colleague -- this is something I no longer have the time not to do.

15 September 2006

The Struggle for Expression

Looking through Oswald Chambers last night (My Utmost for His Highest) in search of a quote I wanted for an article I'm working on, I came across this (the December 15 entry):

"If you cannot express yourself on any subject, struggle until you can. If you do not, someone will be the poorer all the days of his life. Struggle to re-express some truth of God to yourself, and God will use that expression to someone else. Go through the winepress of God where the grapes are crushed. You must struggle to get expression experimentally, then there will come a time when that expression will become the very wine of strengthening to someone else; but if you say lazily -- 'I am not going to struggle to express this thing for myself, I will borrow what I say,' the expression will not only be of no use to you, but of no use to anyone. Try to state to yourself what you feel implicitly to be God's truth, and you give God a chance to pass it on to someone else through you.

"Always make a practice of provoking your own mind to think out what it accepts easily. Our position is not ours until we make it ours by suffering. The author who benefits you most is not the one who tells you something you did not know before, but the one who gives expression to the truth that has been dumbly struggling in you for utterance."

I am trying to emphasize to my students the importance of writing well for the reader's sake. Chambers makes the case eloquently here. Taking the time and pains to articulate truth for yourself, which brings genuine understanding and the possibility of articulating it to others -- that makes you available to be used by God. Laziness leaves us all the poorer.

Inspiration to keep plugging at the article in process.

13 September 2006

Home Thoughts

My students are writing an essay which will include description of a place. Last night I was playing around with the mode a bit myself, and I came up with this, from my years at the University of Kansas. The true irony, to my mind, is that Wescoe is the humanities building . . . :( Six years in it was -- what shall I say? -- uninspiring.

Wescoe Hall squats ungracefully in the campus center. Its concrete walls could not speak beauty in any setting; the surrounding buildings of native limestone and red tile roofs only heighten its dullness. These older buildings lift the eye toward heaven with towers or turrets or steeply sloped gables. Wescoe sprawls across the land, low to the ground, flat-roofed, ashamed perhaps to usurp the heart of this centuries-old place with its unlovely modernity.

There are fun places I could go with this very rough sketch, but student essays call. Perhaps I'll revisit it.

(P.S. The Shenk review will appear in October's Touchstone, for those who are keeping track.)

04 September 2006

My Son, My Protector

My oldest son is heading overseas soon to none of us knows where for none of us knows how long. If we wish to write, we can send mail to his wife, who can take it to the base, where they will see it gets to him. I thought this would be not a big deal, but when I emailed him a kind of "farewell for now" note today, my heart constricted.

I will pray for his safety, of course; I'm his mother. But more than that, I will pray for a mission effectively completed -- because that is what is important to him. That is why he is going to wherever it is, doing whatever it is, and placing himself in harm's way. He knows the risks, and he chooses to take them because the cause for which he works is far bigger than any one of us. I wonder if this is just the tiniest taste of what Mary may have felt in knowing her Son as her Saviour? My son is my protector now, a protector of our country. I can no longer protect him, but only uphold him in prayer and let him know how grateful I am.

I am proud of him -- proud of his choices, proud of his character that has made him be chosen for the work he does, proud of the man he has become.

01 September 2006

Another Beginning

Rebecca Anne made her appearance Wednesday night; all are well. She is, of course, adorable. She is the thirteenth grandchild and so very precious. Her big brother is perhaps a bit tired of sisters by now -- he has five (one older and the rest younger). But he will learn many valuable things about the female half of the species!

Welcome, Rebecca! You are deeply loved by many.

10 August 2006

Of Risks and Tragedies

It would be so easy to condemn. She left her three-year-old child in the running truck, no car seat, no seat belt. He managed to pull it out of park, just playing around while waiting for his mom as she ran back into the laundromat to grab something she’d left behind. Somehow – maybe she hadn’t quite closed her door – he was thrown to the pavement as the truck lurched forward into the building’s wall . . . and then rolled back, crushing his skull.

So easy to point a finger, to think, “How could anyone be so negligent, so foolish?” So easy to despise her, to condemn her for the risk she took. So easy to think we’d never have done such a thing, never been so thoughtless with our own child.

But we are all of us this young woman. In this broken world, in this place where sin and the flesh cloud our reason (even when we have been made new in Christ; how much more if we have not), where we are so foolish and self-centered as to think – however subconsciously – “it won’t happen to me” or “it won’t happen this time,” we are all takers of foolish risks, meaning no harm yet daily courting tragedy.

The wonder is how often we avoid it, how often we “luck out” (or God lets our guardian angels intervene). As I listened to my daughter’s choked voice telling me of her next-door neighbor’s accident, the horrific death of her own son’s regular playmate, my mind replayed the hundred close calls with her and her four siblings, so many of them caused by little errors of judgment, little acts of commission or omission, never intentional desire to harm anyone.

We are all of us this young woman. We forget to replace the batteries in the smoke detector, because so many other urgent tasks crowd our minds; push above the speed limit, because we really don’t want to arrive at church late again; run alone despite warnings, because we need the time to think and nothing’s ever happened anyway; neglect the safety glasses, because they’re hard to see through and look silly besides . . . leave a child in a running vehicle, because our errand will take only a minute.

But these only mirror the more devastating spiritual risks we constantly take. We mean no harm; just as we can’t grasp that the logical consequences of our physical negligences may one day befall us, we are oblivious to the ways we court much worse disaster, disaster stemming from the self-absorption and pride which lead us to make little compromises with righteousness until our hearts are seared to Truth.

We are all of us this cavalier in our character. We neglect to pray for someone because our own harried concerns drive him from our thoughts; tell an authority we were ill when we have really been procrastinating, because we don’t want to appear lazy or irresponsible; allow a morsel of gossip to slide off the tongue, because we need to feel better about ourselves; follow the world’s fads and fashions, because it’s inconvenient and embarrassing to look or act “differently” . . . leave a friend alone in his sin, because we are afraid to offend.

And when someone else gets caught in some similar unnecessary risk, when it doesn’t pay off and tragedy ensues, we frown and self-righteously note how he should have known better, should never have been so foolish in the first place.

Perhaps so. And perhaps tomorrow or next week or next year, meaning no harm, we who condemn will take one risk too many, in the wrong place, at the wrong time. And in the ensuing tragedy, what will we hope for, crave, desperately need? Mercy, comfort, forgiveness – and someone to walk with us through the valley and point us to the One who offers true consolation.

“Judge not, that you be not judged,” our Lord warns us. “For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you” (Matt. 7:1-2 ESV).

We are all of us that young woman. We cannot avoid being human, taking calculated but unnecessary risks at times, at times being entirely oblivious that a choice we make even is risky. May we always remember, when we hear of tragedies that could so easily have been prevented, that it could so easily have been any one of us. And, as believers in a God of mercy, may we obey the Scriptures, “put[ting] on . . . compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience . . .” (Col. 3:12 ESV).

{This post refers to an incident which happened over a year ago. The laundromat is in the same building as my son-in-law's convenience store; his mom owns it. My daughter sat in the waiting room at the hospital with her neighbor until her child died. She doesn't live next door to the family anymore; she doesn't know how it's going with them now. We pray for her.}

07 August 2006

Red Hats and Social Conventions

Yesterday I chose a black skirt and a new red short-sleeved jacket to wear to church. I thought I would wear the red hat my mother-in-law gave me years ago; I love it but don’t have a lot of chance to wear it, and this seemed perfect. Then I remembered the Red Hat Society. I’d never heard of it till recently, when I discovered that several ladies in my church are part of it. They’re great women, always looking for ways to minister to others, especially younger women who need a friend or a meal or whatever.

But they wear red hats. And I began to wonder what others would think if I wore my red hat to church. I’m not a Red Hat lady, after all. Would members think I was flouting them somehow? Would others think I was flaunting a membership I don’t actually have? The Red Hat ladies don’t wear their red hats to church, you see; they reserve them to wear with their purple dresses in their meetings or when they explain the Society at retreats and so on. They are meant to symbolize eccentricity, and Southern ladies are not eccentric in church.

So I didn’t wear my red hat, which just a few years ago would have been merely a fashion choice but has suddenly become more than that: wearing it may send messages I don’t intend; not wearing it makes me a coward. Frustrating.

However, there’s a greater irony here. The Red Hat Society takes its name from a poem by Jenny Johnson called “Warning.” The first lines read “When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple / with a red hat that doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.” The speaker goes on to tell the other things she will do unconventionally to “make up for the sobriety of [her] youth,” such as spending her pension on “brandy and summer gloves,” “gobbl [ing] up samples in shops,” and “learn[ing] to spit.”

For now, she knows “we must have clothes that keep us dry / and pay our rent and not swear in the street / and set a good example for the children,” though she ends the poem pondering if she shouldn’t begin to practice her unconventionality a bit so that “people who know me are not too shocked and surprised / When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.”

In other words, it’s all about choosing to do those things that she enjoys without having to bow to the conventions of the culture. She knows she’s got to be at least mostly conventional now, while she has children and needs to be a responsible adult in raising them. But someday, she knows too, she will be free of that responsibility and intends to be “shocking” by doing or having some of those “silly” or “extravagant” things that appeal to her.

So . . . now we have a whole Society devoted to the convention of wearing red hats and purple dresses, and making me – whom red suits quite well, thank you – feel that I can’t make a personal fashion choice that I used to make without much thought. In other words, they’ve undermined the whole point.

People are really strange.

(And yes, I include myself. If I really believed anything I say I believe, I’d have worn that hat yesterday.)

31 July 2006

On Writing Letters

My friend Cindy wrote me a letter recently – a real letter: handwritten and sent by U.S. mail.

There is something powerful in finding your name written by hand on an envelope in the mailbox, or waiting on your desk when you get home. As much as I love seeing Cindy’s name in my email inbox – it’s always good to hear from a friend, no matter what medium – it’s not the same as a letter I can hold and handle, open and slowly savor page by page, rustling the paper and enjoying the lovely, clear hand in which she writes.

I appreciate being able to stay in touch quickly with email; I like the pictures I get of kids and grandkids and friends’ kids. The medium has its place.

But I wonder if the very ease of it has drawbacks, too? A student once mentioned that email and the proliferation of diary weblogs like myspace and xanga have overburdened her with what feels like too much knowledge about too many people she doesn’t have time to reach out to and pray for in meaningful ways. She becomes discouraged at her apparent lack of compassion, but perhaps she was never meant to know so many burdens that others carry.

And I wonder if this medium contributes to the human tendency to laziness? “I’ll whip off a quick response and I’ve taken care of my obligation,” instead of taking the time for reflection that’s needed for any real depth. I’m often startled to find, in clearing out my email, that I’ve done just that: sent a quick reply and then never followed up with real concern. May God forgive me.

The art of letter-writing is rapidly dying. (And yes, I’m aware of the irony of the medium in which I am lamenting this.) I don’t write letters – I do well to get birthday cards to 23 family members somewhere near the right dates, and these are usually accompanied by, at most, short notes on the cards themselves. I have been (and will continue to be) guilty of the once-a-year (or so) “mass mailing” of a family update to friends I value but simply can’t seem to find time to write to individually.

I don’t believe the common saying, “you have time for what’s important to you.” Life consists of many urgent tasks that eat up time, there can be more important things than there is time to do, and some of us have little energy to begin with. Truly important things can be left undone because there honestly isn’t time for them. But still I think a world in which real letters come often in the mail is a richer one, and I mourn its loss, for all of us.

23 July 2006

Be Still, My Soul

Sunday morning alone with the hymnal again . . .

Be still, my soul: the Lord is on thy side;
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul: thy best, thy heavenly Friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

Be still, my soul: thy God doth undertake
To guide the future as He has the past.
Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake;
All now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still, my soul: the waves and winds still know
His voice who ruled them while He dwelt below.

Be still, my soul: the hour is hastening on
When we shall be forever with the Lord,
When disappointment, grief, and fear are gone,
Sorrow forgot, love's purest joys restored.
Be still, my soul: when change and tears are past,
All safe and blessed we shall meet at last.

19 July 2006

On What Makes an Artist

Okay, the last post was frustrated. On a more positive note, I have found a wonderful catalog which appears to have outlawed the use of the exclamation mark altogether, as well as to have thoughtful writers creating its descriptions. So I spend a lot of time browsing the pages of the Veritas Press catalog -- and probably spend more money than I should, as I buy books for myself as well as for the Young Man. But one must reward common sense where it's found, yes?

Veritas also scatters cool quotations throughout its pages, like this one from St. Francis of Assisi:

He who works with his hands is a laborer. He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman. He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.

Choices and Exclamations

Summer is time to choose next year's home school curriculum, the most frustrating part of the process (after, of course, the part of getting the kids to buy into it). Back in the dark ages when we began, at a time when few non-missionary families were yet teaching at home, the choices were pretty simple: A Beka, Bob Jones, or the public school texts. We'd supplement with biographies and so forth, of course, but the basics required little time.

Now the choices seem endless and quality is difficult to judge; reviews abound, but which ones are trustworthy, which reviewers share my particular perspective on what makes a good text? As is the norm in all things found in large supply, most of the options are not worthy -- but how to glean the gold nuggets from the abundance of pyrite -- and accomplish anything else with one's limited time?

Reading the hundreds of product descriptions and reviews is excruciating in itself, but many of the catalog writers seem to think that exclamation marks will make their products more appealing. I am tempted to declare a boycott of any catalog that uses more than two of these awful marks on any given page -- but then I find a significant financial savings on something I want, sigh, and continue. Because! these books! are the cheapest! that you! can possibly find!

Argh. It's enough to make me want to send him to public school (where he, too, can learn to use exclamation marks every time he's too lazy to find the words that will create the emphasis he wants.)

16 July 2006

On Being Myself

Back in the dark ages of my youth, we called it "finding oneself." I don't know if today's youth has a term for it, but certainly the primary goal of as many today as in my day is to figure out "who I am" so I can go "be" that. Many of my students talk about needing to find out their gifts and calling and interests and so forth before they can decide how they can best serve God. I understand this, but I question it more and more. Serving God is something the believer simply does, everywhere and all the time (except, of course, when we sinfully choose to serve ourselves).

Indeed, as in my youth "finding ourselves" was an excuse to avoid social and political commitment, it seems to me that for many Christian youth today, the same concept applies for avoiding genuine all-out commitment to God.

I've been reading more in Thomas Merton's No Man is an Island, and today I discovered his eloquent articulation of something I've thought about (and tried to explain much less clearly) concerning what it means to "be oneself." He is writing about knowing God's will -- what it is and how to follow it. Because he says it so well, here's an extended quotation:

His will for me points to one thing: the realization, the discovery, and the fulfillment of my self, my true self, in Christ. [. . .] In order to save my life, I must lose it. For my life in God is and can only be a life of unselfish charity.

[. . .] God's will for us is not only that we should be the persons He means us to be, but that we should share in His work of creation and help Him to make us into the persons He means us to be. Always, and in all things, God's will for me is that I should shape my own destiny, work out my own salvation, forge my own eternal happiness, in the way He has planned it for me. [. . .] I cannot work out God's will in my own life unless I also consciously help other men to work out His will in theirs. His will, then, is our sanctification, our transformation in Christ, our deeper and fuller integration with other men. And this integration results not in the absorption and disappearance of our own personality, but in its affirmation and its perfection.

"Forging our eternal happiness in the way He has planned it" . . . Aye, there's the rub. We want to "be ourselves," to be sure we aren't "lost in someone else's identity," and God says -- nope, you need to do the opposite: focus on serving others. And you do this, by the way, by losing yourself entirely in My Son's identity!

And we refuse to see that this is His plan to give us, in the end, all that we long for -- because built deeply into us as creations in His image is the need and the desire (however buried) to be complete in Him and not in ourselves, where we find only anxiety and indecision and death.

Lord, help me to remember day by day that You are the Source of my life, and that all will come to me only when I let You instill in me the desires of my heart, so that all I desire is to love You and live as Your child.

13 July 2006

"The World"

I've been reading Christina Rossetti's poetry while prepping for Victorian Lit this fall, and while I've always loved her work, I am simply stunned by reading so much more of it than I've ever encountered. I read for hours one afternoon, mesmerized by the depth and poetic quality. She has many narrative poems, all equal in quality to "Goblin Market," and her devotional poetry is nothing less than magnificent.

This poem, called "The World," reminded me of imagery from Phantastes:

By day she wooes me, soft, exceeding fair:
But all night as the moon so changeth she;
Loathesome and foul with hideous leprosy
And subtle serpents gliding in her hair.
By day she wooes me to the outer air,
Ripe fruits, sweet flowers, and full satiety:
But thro' the night, a beast she grins at me,
A very monster void of love and prayer.
By day she stands a lie: by night she stands
In all the naked horror of the truth
With pushing horns and clawed and clutching hands.
Is this a friend indeed; that I should sell
My soul to her, give her my life and youth,
Till my feet, cloven too, take hold on hell?

06 July 2006

Daze of our Wives (and other topics)

No, I didn't come up with that cool title. That would be Dawn Eden, bless her soul. :) It is the title of my review of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique in Touchstone in January. The review isn't available online at Touchstone, but has been reprinted by Catholic Education Resource Center, where you can read it at this link if you are at all interested.

My review of Joshua Wolf Shenk's Lincoln's Melancholy is in the final stages of editing, but I don't know when it will appear. I'm told the review hopper at Touchstone is overflowing, so it will probably be a while. Still, it feels good to have done it and have it accepted.

Shenk writes the following in reference to Lincoln's having defined a specific purpose for his life:

This sense of purpose was indeed the key that unlocked the gates of a mental prison. This doesn't mean [Lincoln's] suffering went away. In fact, as his life became richer and more satisfying, his melancholy exerted a stronger pull. He now responded to that pull by tying it to his newly defined sense of purpose. From a place of trouble, he looked for meaning. He looked at imperfection and sought redemption.

I think I need to put this before my eyes every moment of every day. I'm too easily oppressed by melancholy, by circumstances, by my own sense of inadequacy and frustration. I need to learn to respond by doing the work before me and leaving the results to God. Would that it were as easy to do as to say!

28 June 2006

Worm Theology

Whenever I've heard or used the phrase "worm theology," it's always been in reference to an attitude that says we human beings are just wretched worms in the dirt, deserving nothing more than to be ground underfoot. I have always rejected this attitude. We are indeed desperately fallen, but we were created by God Himself (whose creation was, by His own affirmation, "very good") and are redeemed by the sacrifice of His Son, and that means we were and are not wretched worms (even if we choose to live in the dirt sometimes). We were originally destined for glory and eternal life with God, and we may still receive that destiny in Christ, who loved us even in our fallenness and delights in us now as His children. (See Ephesians 2 and John 17, e.g.) As C. S. Lewis says, we would tremble before the least and worst human being if we truly understood that each of us is an immortal soul.

However, I've decided that worm theology is not just unfair to man, it's unfair to worms. Of course, there are those creatures we call "worms" that destroy plants, and great and greedy "worms" like Smaug that create even greater destruction, and I can't find a great deal of sympathy for these. But most of us, I'd guess, think first of earthworms when we hear the word: and earthworms are greatly slandered if we think of them as wretched, useless creatures deserving of no regard. In fact, they are a lovely example of true servanthood.

The earthworm, a simple, blind, not especially appealing creature, lives underground and is seldom seen (and greatly abused by bird and man when he is). He goes quietly, and mostly unremarked, about his job of improving our lives by aerating our soil so it will allow the roots of plants to grow deep and strong and more readily receive the nourishing rain, and then enriching that soil not only with his waste but ultimately with his very body.

This is a picture of serving at its best: fulfilling one's purpose without complaint, without show, without striving after prestige or reward; giving one's life solely for the benefit of others. Of course, the worm does this without thinking about it, without agonizing over the temptation of sin and trying to rationalize his duty away. He simply does what he was created to do.

And so were we created to serve God and our neighbor, with the difference being the possibility and reality of refusal to accept and live out our purpose. So the next time I'm confronted with "worm theology," I think my reaction will be a little different: I'll wish I were more like a worm than I am.

25 June 2006

On Serving the Reader

I've been reading a book on writing by John R. Trimble (Writing with Style), which is okay, although he comes perilously close to advocating the 5-paragraph essay and actually tells his readers to punctuate according to the pauses they hear when they read their work. Some of you will know these concepts will forever keep me from recommending the book to anyone who is a novice writer.

What Trimble has that I love, however, is lots of quotes from other writers. From John Mason Brown:

"It is in the hard, hard rock-pile labor of seeking to win, hold, or deserve a reader's interest that the pleasant agony of writing again comes in."

Ah, yes. The joy of writing lies in coming as close as humanly possible to saying what one means, and saying it so that others can understand it. The quote also reminds me that a writer must earn his audience. Only students in school have a captive audience who must read what they write no matter how "slipshod and inaccurate" [thank you, Dr. J :)] it may be. The rest of us must earn a hearing, and the morally right way to do so is to be clear and honest.

It is, of course, possible to earn an audience through a kind of eloquence that holds no meaning. Just use as many abstract words in easy-to-form phrases as you can, and there's always a crowd who will ooh and aah over your genius. (For an excellent treatise on this, try George Orwell's essay "Politics and the English Language.") But the real writer wants none of this. He wants to say something that he is convinced is important, and he wants his reader to understand exactly what it is and why it is important: he wishes above all else to be clear.

"And how is clarity achieved?" asks F. L. Lucas (also quoted in Trimble). "Mainly by taking trouble; and by writing to serve people rather than to impress them."

Indeed, there is the heart of the matter. So many of my students think they must impress me. (They have good reason to believe this, given their first twelve years of schooling.) And so they use big words and long phrases and abstractions that carry fuzzy feel-good connotations . . . and are then shocked to find the lowest grade they've ever received.

The ones who learn from this learn exactly what Lucas asserts: that I am looking for writing which serves its readers; writers who respect their readers enough to make their ideas as crystal-clear as they can and who respect themselves enough to make those ideas honest, true to their convictions; writers who do not wish to waste their readers' time and thus take whatever of their own time is necessary to accomplish this goal.

Even when one writes for oneself, this principle holds; why should I bother to journal if I weren't honestly seeking some sort of clarity of thought, truthfulness that will serve me as I embrace or reject the ideas I explore? I serve myself in my personal writing, and surely I should love my neighbor as myself when I write for others.

"Writing to serve people": what other reason can there be to bother?

19 June 2006

Happy Father's Day!

"This is it for Father's Day this year," our older daughter informed her husband as they contemplated baby Emma Jadyn yesterday afternoon. I suspect he was content.

Big brother, 4, gave hugs and kisses but was somewhat nonchalant; baby sisters are old hat by now. Big sister, 2, was confused, pointing to Mommy's tummy and asking where the baby was; maybe in Daddy's tummy now? She contemplated baby Emma for some time, venturing a kiss but not wanting onto the bed with her and Mommy, instead standing on a chair and observing over the bed railing. When asked if she wanted to hold the baby, she backed off, saying "no! no!"

I figure it for an intuitive reaction -- her world is about to change radically, and this strange little person is the reason. :)

Grandbaby number 12, with another on the way in the second son's family. And what a blessing every single one is.

Welcome to the world, Emma. You are loved by a multitude of people already. May you always know this.

17 June 2006


I know full well that people, being people, will disappoint each other.

But some disappointments just make one want to give up and die.

As the old saying goes, "this too shall pass." It's just that it hurts so much before it does.

Looking for God's comfort . . . and a bit of wisdom wouldn't hurt either.

12 June 2006


Thanks to all for thoughts and prayers. The lasik surgery went well. My doctor prayed with me -- in the name of Jesus, too -- beforehand, which was most comforting.

On Saturday, he said my far vision was almost 20/20. Of course, I now can't see anything close up, so it's just the reverse of before -- except now there's no astigmatism. And it seems that my near vision is improving a bit already; I may not know for several weeks just how it will settle out, but I already knew I'd almost certainly need reading glasses. Well, I've used reading glasses for years anyway, so it will be nice just to have those alone!

I am off to put in more eyedrops; that and sleeping have been my principle occupations for the past several days. I've read a few chapters in a book and watched part of a tv show -- it's amazing to see the tv from across the room without glasses. This morning I looked out the window and could see the houses across the street as clear as ever I did with glasses. And to wake up in the night and see the clock without pulling it right up to my face -- what joy! :)

Amazing, really. I can't imagine I'll have any regrets. Now, if one could come up with a 5-minute operation that made one's spiritual sight as clear, without the constant re-clouding of self and sin . . . !

08 June 2006

Trusting God

Tomorrow morning I go in for lasik surgery on both eyes. By God's grace, afterwards I'll be able to see at a distance without glasses and the astigmatism that's been the curse of my life will be gone. I may need reading glasses, but that's nothing in comparison to what I've dealt with since third grade.

The decision has made me think a lot about trust. We are, after all, talking about the part of my body that my work absolutely depends upon. I've often felt that if I couldn't read -- read anything I like, I mean, not just what's been made available in braille or on tape (which I can't concentrate on, anyway) -- I am not sure life would be worth living. I realize, of course, intellectually at least, that this is not the case, but it suggests how important the written word is to me. And I am, tomorrow morning, going to entrust this so vital part of my life to a relative stranger, someone I've met twice in my life.

It wasn't an easy decision. There are risks, and if one of those risks makes my sight worse than it now is, it will be cold comfort to know that I'm in a very small minority of those who've had the surgery done. So I thought a great deal about risk and what kinds of risks I'm willing to take. Finally, the doctor's reputation and track record, along with the 100% satisfaction I've encountered among all the people I know who have had it done or know someone who has, decided me that it is worth it. Now I have to trust him and his staff.

But ultimately, of course, it's not the doctor and his staff that I need to trust. Men are fallible, always. It's God I must place my trust in, knowing that He is the One sovereign over all that happens, including what happens in surgery tomorrow morning.

This is a hard lesson for me, one I've struggled with all my life as a Christian. Always I'm seeing fallible people and feeling fear -- what if this person lets me down, hurts me, fails me in some way? And of course, people have done so, again and again, just as I have done to others, because it's a fallen world and we the most fallen creatures in it.

But the only way to conquer the fear is to place my trust in God. Not trust that all will happen as I want it to, that my life will be perfect and wonderful and without pain if I trust in Him, but trust that He loves me and that whatever happens to me He will use for His glory -- if I allow Him to. Please Him this will be another step in that journey.

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. (I John 4:18a)

04 June 2006

Gardening for Poetry

Amongst the books for my summer reading, I bought volume one of Mary Oliver's New and Selected Poems. I turned to it for the first time today, and it opened about mid-book, to a poem entitled "Stanley Kunitz." Unfamiliar with Kunitz, I found a short biography on this poet, who died this year at age 100. Oliver's poem, of course, would be a metaphor for his creation of poetry, but also, of course, applies to any creative effort -- what it takes to be a friend, a spouse, a parent; to create a meal, a hand-carved table, a cross-stitch sampler -- a life. But I'll let Oliver say it in her so-much-better-than-I-ever-could way.

Stanley Kunitz

I used to imagine him
coming from the house, like Merlin
strolling with important gestures
through the garden
where everything grows so thickly,
where birds sing, little snakes lie
on the boughs, thinking of nothing
but their own good lives,
where petals float upward,
their colors exploding,
and trees open their moist
pages of thunder --
it has happened every summer for years.

But now I know more
about the great wheel of growth,
and decay, and rebirth,
and know my vision for a falsehood.
Now I see him coming from the house --
I see him on his knees,
cutting away the diseased, the superfluous,
coaxing the new,
knowing that the hour of fulfillment
is buried in years of patience --
yet willing to labor like that
on the mortal wheel.

Oh, what good it does the heart
to know it isn't magic!
Like the human child I am
I rush to imitate --
I watch him as he bends
among the leaves and vines
to hook some weed or other;
even when I do not see him,
I think of him there
raking and trimming, stirring up
those sheets of fire
between the smothering weights of earth,
the wild and shapeless air.

29 May 2006


In Flanders Fields
by John McCrae

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders Fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe;
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders Fields.

Thanks to all our veterans. May we never forget the sacrifices made; may we be worthy of those sacrifices.

26 May 2006

The Duties of the Present Moment

The soul that does not attach itself solely to the will of God will find neither satisfaction nor sanctification in any other means, however excellent, by which it may attempt to gain them. If that which God Himself chooses for you does not content you, from whom do you expect to obtain what you desire? [. . .] No soul can be really nourished, fortified, purified, enriched, and sanctified except in fulfilling the duties of the present moment. What more would you have? As in this you can find all good, why seek it elsewhere? Do you know better than God? As He ordains it thus, why do you desire it differently? [. . .] Do you imagine you will find peace in resisting the Almighty? Is it not, on the contrary, this resistance (which we too often continue without owning it even to ourselves) which is the cause of all our troubles? It is only just, therefore, that the soul that is dissatisfied with the divine action for each present moment should be punished by being unable to find happiness in anything else.

from Abandonment to Divine Providence, by Father de Caussade
(some punctuation editing done for contemporary English readers)

22 May 2006

Rain Dance

Reading on the porch Sunday morning in pleasant spring sunshine, I gradually became aware of distant rumblings of thunder and saw that the western sky held gradually darkening clouds. Slowly the thunder grew closer, slowly the grey darkened to charcoal and filled the sky, shutting out the sun and further cooling the air. At last the soughing of the rain moving across trees and lawns, at last the first agate-sized drops on the sidewalk, then the blanketing downpour driving me to salvage my book and watch from the doorway. Within minutes the sky lightening to grey again, rain a mere patter on the walk, thunder rumbling away, and trees dancing in the light-giving beauty.

19 May 2006

Longing for Wisdom

I have just read a book on writing, somewhat too New-Agey, Zennish for my taste, but with nuggets of interest that do intrigue and will no doubt inform the writing over time. However, one concept that occurs throughout it disturbs me: that it is necessary for the artist to be a flouter of convention and breaker of rules to be true to art and to speak truth at all.

Now, I fully concur that convention can be wrongly constraining and rules can be unjust. But the sense here is the Romantic one: all conventions and rules, by definition, are always wrongful and probably evil constraints upon us; in fact, the way we prove ourselves to be human and worthy of the name is by flouting -- or as the Romantics and neo-Romantics would say, transcending -- conventions and rules.

This way lies madness.

Reality and Truth are not found within us. They exist outside the self. (Perhaps we discern them, at times, as we honestly explore the self, an idea I've not thought through.) I do not create Reality; I discover it, I perceive it (even if only through a glass darkly), but I do not create it. And Reality and Truth have principles -- conventions and rules, if you will, though I realize these are not always synonymous -- which we flout at our peril and cannot transcend. Some actions are simply wrong; some are simply right. Not "for me" -- for all of us.

I cannot write "anything I want." I cannot be "anything I want." I cannot do "anything I want."

Unless . . . Unless I am given over to Reality, to Truth, and allow Him to give me the desires of my heart: not fulfill my fleshly desires but implant the desires themselves so that I desire what He desires.

Just as in writing, one must understand the principles and how the conventions and rules embody the principles, in order to know when and how to flout them -- and when it is not possible -- for the sake of the writing, so it is in life.

To flout fallen human conventions and rules? Yes. But not all conventions and rules are fallen, just because human beings articulate them. So the need is to understand His principles in order to discern what may be flouted, what must be flouted -- and what must be honored.

Oh, for wisdom!