"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

31 May 2007

Walking on Water

I've been re-reading Madeleine L'Engle's Walking on Water, as I am using it in my Creative Nonfiction course this fall. It always amazes me how a truly good book, when one returns to it, seems both like an old friend and a text one has never read before. I have been enjoying it immensely.

L'Engle writes at one point about reading someone's theory that all artists are "neurotic, psychotic [. . .], not one is normal." She admits her first reaction was outrage, but since then she has accepted that such labels are not worth getting upset over ("he means one thing by his labels; I would call it something quite different"). Then she goes on to discuss what she thinks makes an artist the way he is:

"[T]here is no denying that the artist is someone who is full of questions, who cries them out in great angst, who discovers rainbow answers in the darkness, and then rushes to canvas or paper. An artist is someone who cannot rest, who can never rest as long as there is one suffering creature in this world. Along with Plato's divine madness, there is also divine discontent, a longing to find the melody in the discords of chaos, the rhyme in the cacophony, the surprised smile in time of stress or strain.

"It is not that what is is not enough, for it is; it is that what is [has] been disarranged, and is crying out to be put in place. Perhaps the artist longs to sleep well at night, to eat anything without indigestion; to feel no moral qualms; to turn off the television news and make a bologna sandwich after seeing the devastation and death caused by famine and drought and earthquake and flood. But the artist cannot manage this normalcy. Vision keeps breaking through, and must find means of expression."

If it's only the suffering, the discontentment, that keeps one awake, then indeed that way lies real madness. But L'Engle seems to suggest that it's also the search for the melody, the rhyme, the surprised smile that keeps one awake, -- because these exist, they are real, and they tell us that suffering is not all there is. Vision . . . the little pictures of hope, of order in the midst of the seeming chaos, these are what make life worth living, and these are what I hope to capture in my writing. I write about the suffering because one must process it somehow and because it is real. But it's the little gems of loveliness that remind me that suffering is not, in fact, all there is.

L'Engle's book itself has been one of those gems for me this past week.

28 May 2007

Memorial Day

I am far too tired to be eloquent today, but I wish to express my own gratefulness for all those who have served our country in the military, especially those who gave the greatest sacrifice. I fear at times that we are no longer worthy of such sacrifice, but I hope and pray that we may, by God's grace, yet be. And being a Navy mom, I cannot but also look to those serving today and say thank you for the sacrifices you are making, knowing that the ultimate one may come. The church member who will miss the birth of a child -- again -- because of redeployment; the former student recovering from a severe wound and struggling with the deaths of several of his comrades; my son, back from overseas and to return in a couple of months . . . I am so pampered myself, so far from real danger and real sacrifice, and this remains so because all of you are willing to fight the enemy on his own ground -- so that I can enjoy my freedom to carp and complain over the mundane and ridiculous inconveniences of a life most people in the world would take in a heartbeat over their own. God help us all to have perspective, and most especially me.

23 May 2007

Fiction: A Brief Apologia

Periodically, someone challenges the reading of fiction with comments about its lack of seriousness or its lack of substance or the "fact" that it's mere escapism or whatever other reasons to dismiss it as an activity unworthy of much of a serious person's time. Books have been written on the subject, of course, but I was thinking about it last night and jotted down some thoughts that might serve as a starting point for its defense.

Fiction offers particular pictures of theories about human nature; it is "theory become flesh," as a student once put it. It is where we see these theories tested (what if x kind of person were placed in y situation with z conflicts . . . what would happen?) and can decide if they make sense.

When I read Kate Chopin's "The Storm," for example, I find myself thinking about the emptiness of her picture of adultery making people happy and making them better marriage partners. This just doesn't make sense given what I observe about human nature and what I think I know about women in particular. And so I reject her theory about human nature, marriage, and sex, while recognizing that of course some of her critiques of social norms and attitudes are still true.

When I read "A Domestic Dilemma" by Carson McCullers, on the other hand, I find myself thinking how true is her portrayal of the ambiguities of love in a marriage with an alcoholic wife, the complexity of emotions and the decision of the husband to love in spite of the crushing disappointments, how true the wife's reaction to her circumstances is for certain women. And so I accept her theory of love and marriage, of commitment in difficulties, even if I don't accept every aspect of her critique of society.

Sometimes reading theory is helpful and even necessary. But it's in story that it's made real, that we see and understand its implications and its truths, its strengths and its weaknesses, its power or its emptiness. (By "theory" here I don't mean literary criticism so much as I simply mean any serious nonfiction study of anything having to do with how we live or should live.)

Scripture is a story, and stories within a story. Of course, it contains exposition as well, but we are always seeing the theory played out in particular lives. Jesus told parables because stories about a particular man who loses a sheep or a particular woman who loses a coin made His hearers see themselves, be able to put themselves into the story and understand how they should then live (or not live). And often He did not expound the parables; He left them to work in the souls of those who were willing to learn.

Stories move us, make us want to laugh and to cry -- and to be better people. "I want to be like Aragorn" or "Oh, I don't want to become like Saruman" is far more compelling (and helpful) than "I would like to be more patient and persevering" or "I should not be greedy for power."

Stories work at the level of intuition. They can be explicit in the principles they embody, but usually they are not. "He who has ears to hear, let him hear," Jesus said of the parables -- meaning a heart to hear. The subtleties are what make story dangerous, yes -- too much Chopin can convince the undiscerning reader that her errors are truth. But it's also the subtleties that carry story's great power for good. The best stories allow for the complexities and ambiguities of life in a fallen world, while still giving clear pictures of virtue and vice. And they open our hearts to mystery and wonder, beauty as well as truth. Imbibing such stories from childhood on is more likely to lead to a subconscious desire to be virtuous than if a child is merely preached at with theory.

The real substance of knowledge is in story. The theory just helps me to articulate what story makes me know and understand.

17 May 2007


I've been slowly making my way through Neil Postman's Technopoly, sandwiching it between novels and other lighter reading. It's very good; everyone who promotes the indiscriminant use of technology (it exists, therefore we must have it) should read this book and give it some serious thought. One of his most salient points thus far (I'm only in chapter 3) is that we rarely are aware of the far-reaching implications of technological change -- it's not just the addition of tools, but it affects the very way we think and how we see the world. And he makes a good case for our having reached the point where we no longer ask why about technology but only how -- it now exists for its own sake and not for ours.

He acknowledges early on that those of us who suggest that technology is not necessarily an unalloyed good are seen as curmudgeonly folk who fear and hate all technology -- which is obviously absurd, as we all use and benefit from technology each day. I know of no one who seriously wants to go back even to medieval Europe, say, much less live in a truly technology-free culture (even soap is technological!). Postman writes in response to this allegation, "My defense is that a dissenting voice is sometimes needed to moderate the din made by the enthusiastic multitudes." No kidding!

The line I really love from this first chapter, his apologia for the book, is this one: "A bargain is struck in which technology giveth and technology taketh away. The wise know this well, and are rarely impressed by dramatic technological changes, and never overjoyed."

So take that, technophiles. I'm not the only curmudgeon out here; in fact, I take Postman as pretty good company (and a lot better writer and broader thinker).

And no, I don't look forward to the mandated upgrade to Vista in my workplace. I'm quite content with all the familiar bugs and irritations of XP, thank you very much, and do not care to have a new set of them forced on me. And yes, I very well might be induced to go back as far as electronic typewriters, if I could ever learn how to type without fifty errors a paragraph.

13 May 2007


I've been reading Tony Esolen's translations of Dante, which are not only remarkable poetry but worth the cost for the introductions alone. I finished Inferno the other day and was browsing through the appendices, which include quotations from various influences on Dante. Among the quotes from Thomas Aquinas is this one on acedia (sloth):

"It is written: The sorrows of the world worketh death (2 Cor. 7:20). But such is sloth, for it is not sorrow according to God, which is different from the sorrow of the world. Therefore it is a mortal sin.

". . . Mortal sin is so called because it destroys the spiritual life which is the effect of charity, whereby God dwells in us. So any sin which by its very nature is contrary to charity is a mortal sin per se. And such is sloth, because the proper effect of charity is joy in God, . . . while sloth is sorrow about spiritual good . . .

"Sloth is opposed to the precept about hallowing the Sabbath-day. For this precept, insofar as it is a moral precept, implicitly commands the mind to rest in God and sorrow of the mind about the Divine good is contrary to that."

We tend to think of sloth as mere laziness, but it is more like ennui, a weariness that arises from having no purpose, no hope. Baudelaire describes it in "To the Reader" from his Flowers of Evil. The person suffering from ennui (the link gives several translations; some call it ennui, some boredom) can't even rouse himself to do evil, he has so little energy to act. This is the greatest sin of all, to Baudelaire; great evil would be better than inaction. One of my students this year commented that the poem reminded him of the Lord's statement that one should be either hot or cold, but never lukewarm. A different context, but a similar idea.

I like the Aquinas quote because it brings sloth into much clearer focus than any other description I've read. One is to rest in God and not be discouraged about the divine good. This suggests that sloth is born of not trusting God -- God is not here, He doesn't care, He ignores evil and doesn't do good . . . and so I lose all incentive to do anything myself.

But trust in God allows for joy even in the inevitable sorrows of a fallen world (not sorrow because "God isn't here"). And that reminds me of the hope that holds me together so often -- no matter how I feel on any given day, no matter what my circumstances are, He does love me and works for my benefit at all times. I fear that sloth will be my temptation this summer, as it often is. May I remember to look on Him and take courage.

08 May 2007

Criminal Minds: Modern "Morality"?

Last week, Criminal Minds finally thoroughly disappointed me.

I didn’t catch the quotation at the beginning, so maybe that would make some difference, but I doubt it. The ending left me most frustrated; I hope the issue raised at the end is addressed again but this time with an answer.

The show was a take-off, I’m sure, on a short story I read years ago and can’t now recall the name or author of – a man goes overboard from a ship and ends up on an island, where the psycho who lives there sends him out into the jungle in order to hunt him, since mere animal prey no longer interests him. {Ah-ha: someone finally told me: "The Most Dangerous Game" by Robert Connell.} So the plot of CM last week involved two brothers who kidnap people near their Spokane auto garage and then loose them in the Idaho forest to bow-hunt them.

At the end of the show both brothers die. The younger is attacked and stabbed by one of their kidnap victims, who then also attacks the older brother but isn’t able to kill him. She is rescued by someone – I’m not sure if it was a local cop or if it was Morgan or Prentiss – shooting him just before he can let the arrow go that would kill her.

The victim asks Prentiss how people can do such evil things (she has watched four people die as she and others have tried to escape the killers). Prentiss replies, “They don’t think like we do.”

Fine, as far as it goes. Then they are on the plane returning to D.C. and she is obviously disturbed, so Morgan asks her what’s wrong. She tells him about the victim’s question and her answer. Then she goes into how they – the BAU – actually do think “just like” the killers. They “hunt” killers to “bring them down” and so “how are we any different from them?”

And Morgan doesn’t answer her. That’s what disappointed me.
He doesn’t answer her.

Is it not obvious to anyone with any moral sense whatsoever how hunting criminals in order to bring them to justice and prevent further crime, even learning to think like they think in order to hunt them, is vastly different from hunting innocent people in order to rape or torture or kill them for one’s own sadistic pleasure? How could this be a question without a clear answer?

Speaking of a modern/post-modern way of thinking . . . of course, if you don’t know the difference, maybe you are just like them. Maybe that’s what made it possible for Elle to kill an unarmed man walking away from her in cold blood – maybe she didn’t know the difference either.

So . . . I hope they don’t leave that question hanging like that. Because “that’s just wrong,” as my son would say.

Update: So now they're firing Hotch and putting Prentiss in charge because the team is "out of control" and "has lost sight of the big picture"? Which big picture? The one where they are just exactly like the evil murderers they "hunt"? I sure hope this last show was purely a tease for the fall season and we get Hotch back in control. Unbelievable!

04 May 2007

Slow Learner

Freshman Composition is the toughest class I teach. I don't know anyone who teaches it regularly who is ever entirely satisfied with any particular semester. The highest praise I've ever heard has been "It was okay, but . . ." I'm not sure why this is the case, except that there is so much we need to accomplish in just one or two semesters, and because teaching writing is not teaching information but teaching skills and performance, and the same techniques never work quite the same way with different students and even different mixes of students. After a few years one learns never to assume that because an activity was a stellar success this semester it will infallibly work the next. And there is always the matter of which readings will be most accessible, challenging, and helpful for each skill being taught; the book edition is likely different, with one's favorite readings no longer available, or one wonders if the students might respond better to different topics . . .

However, there are of course basic concepts one always addresses; it's the how, not the what, that causes our angst. I developed a basic structure years ago which I find the most helpful in building those concepts over the semester. (There is, of course, no textbook which follows this structure and/or defines its parts the way I do.) So every summer as I plan for the fall, I jot down this structure and then begin inserting specific assignments, activities, etc. into the daily schedule. Usually I'll forget part of the structure at first and have to start the planning over; then during the semester I'll forget that I had a handout or activity that would probably have helped this particular class with some specific skill until we're well past that point. In other words, I'm thoroughly organized but don't always remember that I am.

(I understand this is a quality of intuitive types. It's not bad, really, just inconvenient, kind of like having no concept of time, another intuitive trait I muddle along with.)

But God has a sense of humor. Last week a young lady asked if I could give her some tips on teaching her high-school aged brother composition this summer. Sure, I said, thinking of my well-defined structure; come on by. And then I realized that if I typed out that structure with brief explanations and a list of the handouts and activities that I use under each section, it would be really helpful to her and easy to explain . . . So, yes, after all these years, I am finally actually putting all this in writing so that it's readily available -- to me -- at any time . . . and, yes, I do feel a fool.

It won't make the class any easier to teach. But maybe the planning will take a few minutes less, and I won't forget as many possibilities as I have already available. Now, if I could make myself do the same for the second semester . . . but that might be asking rather too much for one lesson learned, to apply it elsewhere.

01 May 2007

“Already” – but “Not Yet”

To live in the “already” is a joyful thing, indeed. But I know too many people who have guaranteed others that “already” is already here every moment – that if you do not feel happy, satisfied, even ecstatic, there is something wrong in your relationship with God; your faith is too little or too weak. But this is a dangerous denial of reality; honesty compels us to recognize that the “not yet” is with us also and will be until we meet Him face to face – and what a glorious day that will be.

Kamilla, in her comment below, is right that the tension between the “already” and the “not yet,” honestly drawn, is what attracts me to writers like Greene and Waugh. The acceptance of the tension, it seems to me, frees mind and spirit to love and live in a way that insistence on either one or the other extreme as the primary reality cannot possibly do.

One can live too much in the “not yet,” of course, and despair; I am all too familiar with this . . . but I think the error of our own day has tended more in the other direction. In fact, this overemphasis on the “already” may lead some people to the extreme of despair when reality can no longer be denied. “O taste and see that the Lord is good” doesn’t mean that the bitter herbs have been removed from our diet.

A recent World Magazine article (5 May 2007) by Wichita writer Tony Woodlief points up this tension well, I think. In a column titled “Mornings,” he writes about his children waking in the mornings to seek out their parents, expecting them to be there and simply wanting to experience their love. He tells of many such wonderful mornings, then describes those other, “treacherous” mornings of waiting for their daughter’s death:

“In those grim hours the morning seemed to share the soul of night, creeping up to spill its light on the stark reality that the world is broken and that not even that glorious morning outside the Savior’s tomb has ended our suffering. [. . . .] On those mornings [. . .] one learns that sometimes God is silent, or perhaps that sometimes we cannot hear Him. It is difficult to believe, on those mornings, that the same sun under which we once rejoiced is now the sun that illuminates our despair.”

I recall on a spring morning of my own despair wondering that the sun could rise at all. But of course it does. Of course God still reigns. Of course we are still loved. Of course He wants us to still run to Him, even if He seems silent. I recall that Job’s lesson was not “Here I am to give you comfort and sympathize with you” – it was, quite simply, “I am.” And that was – is – enough. And sometimes knowing this gives us the delight of seeing and tasting the “already” of His redemption, the abundant life He holds for us. But not always; sometimes it only means that we need not be devoid of hope in the silence and the heartache of "not yet."

Woodlief puts it like this:
“I’m trying to see mornings like my children, as expected miracles. This is our faith, isn’t it? – we persist in believing the unbelievable. We expect the impossible and grieve joyously, irrationally hoping that grief ends.” Because, of course, we know that the unbelievable is true, that the impossible has already happened, that we can know joy even in grief, that grief will end, even though its ultimate end is in the future, and not yet.