"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

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.