"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 January 2008

"Rage, Rage Against the Dying of the Light"

For June, my mother-in-law, whom I loved
28 November 1930 - 27 January 2008

Our students often wonder why so much literature is "dark and depressing." Among other reasons is that Death is the one universal, the one mystery that will happen to us all. Philip Larkin was right to fear Death, if for the wrong reason: Death does not bring annihilation, as he believed, but a more fearful prospect yet -- judgment. Emily Dickinson likened Death to a gentleman suitor, and, while I love the poem, I find it too kindly. The Christian has hope, it's true, and need not fear Death, but Death is not natural or kindly; it is a result of sin having been introduced into the world. I'm far more sympathetic to Dylan Thomas's urging: "Do not go gentle into that good night; / Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

She didn't rage, but she didn't go gentle, either: she lived in the face of the inevitable, inexorable, and agonizing Death pursuing her. Less than a month ago we sat on her back porch sorting through pictures and listening to stories of her younger days. She emailed us a few times after that, and called her younger son one last time to say the final good-bye early last week. I received a letter from her last week, too, a letter I had no chance to answer, in which she asked about syntax that she questioned in an article she'd read. Loving, learning, living.

She lived every moment of her life, and she gave us love and laughter and beauty and wisdom until the very last. And so I rage for her against the dying of the light, the sin that gives Death power over us all, the devastating brokenness of this world. I know the promises and I believe them. But we were not created to be torn away from each other through Death -- who, yes, will die, and the sooner the better.

Maranatha, come, Lord Jesus.

24 January 2008

Pearls of Hope

As I drove down the old ferry road this morning, my thoughts mirrored the lowering clouds which threaten yet another day of cold gloom: the imminent death of someone I love deeply, the tiredness created by a new semester and the attendant lack of decent sleep, that inner darkness nipping at the edges of the mind, certain fears of the uncontrollable . . . Then I reached the highway and looked west to check for traffic.

There, in a rare breach in the clouds, shone Phoebe at the full, startling me with her pearl warmth and once again lifting my heart to hope.

By the time I reached campus, she had disappeared again, but my search for her brought my eyes to the star shining in another breach just above the student center, a sight I would certainly have otherwise missed.

22 January 2008

Homesick Again

The sky is the heavy white-grey of snow-laden clouds, looking ready to drop their soft burden onto the wintered earth and cover its loss of green and gold. My heart aches at the sight, reminding me as it does of lovely Kansas winters sledding or ice-skating or drinking hot chocolate and reading by a wood fire. But, alas, all around me is only cold rain dripping onto brackish lawns and cement.

17 January 2008


I am reading where Smith explores many of the images, analogies, metaphors that have been used over the centuries to try to explain or illustrate depression. These two made me laugh (not because I think they're so terribly funny, but because of the way he puts their truth):

Subterranean [places]: We'll get there sooner or later.

Flora: [. . .] According to Cesare Ripa's 1593 Iconologia, the illness is best represented by "a barren tree," since "melancholy produces the same effect on men as winter does on vegetation." True enough. On the other hand, Caspar David Friedrich's 1801 drawing "Melancholy" shows an impassable wilderness of flowerless, tangled limbs and harsh thistles. This also looks right.

Where the Roots Reach for Water

from Jeffrey Smith's Where the Roots Reach for Water:

It was back, and it was nearly the longest day of the year; at our northern latitude the light would blanch the sky until past ten that evening. The idea of abiding that light for ten more hours exhausted me. Maybe, I thought, [. . .] maybe I can stand up and walk away from it. [. . .]

I leaned back against a cottonwood tree on the riverbank. Shining clear light fell in sheets down the sky. In the breeze the lime-colored cottonwood trees were all atremble; they shimmered the light in every direction, like some radiant version of glory revealed. I noticed, but I did not see; in my eyes all that sparkle and sinew had gone to blunt and shear, a blare of light.

There was no mistaking it now. I knew well enough: it is arrived. [. . .] No external event of weather or circumstance could account for its coming. All I knew was that it came that day rising, as it always did, not falling as if from elsewhere but rising as if it came from within, as inexorable as it was unbidden. I slogged on home and in my dark and damp basement room I crawled into bed.

I read only the first chapter of Smith's book last night and I could hardly force myself to put it down to finish the class prep I needed to do before going to bed. He had, at the time described above, suffered from depressive episodes for a couple of years. No medications had worked until one, which gave him the illusion for several months that he'd found a cure -- until depression came back and caused him to make serious plans for suicide.

The book is about what he learned from his decision to stop using medication, not because he thinks one never should, but because it obviously wasn't going to help him -- and in fact placed him in physical danger as doctors kept giving him higher dosages and placing him on more than one at a time. (He gives a frightening description of the paralysis he suffered which finally led to this decision.) Instead of attempting suicide, however, he decided to taper off the medications and stop taking them. He ends the first chapter with the question he finally posed himself: "Without anti-depressants to vanquish it, could a person have a life with depression?"

The book is highly recommended by Joshua Wolf Shenk (Lincoln's Melancholy), who says, "Smith is driven to map the landscape of melancholy. He finds it stretched deep through history, literature, medicine, and myth. [The book] doesn't discount the value of modern medicine, but it does soundly challenge its inviolability." He calls it "engrossing and persuasive."

Yes, some of my books have come, and this is the one that said to me, Read me now! (before my own next episode, perhaps?)

16 January 2008


From the chapter "Vocation" in Thomas Merton's No Man is an Island:

"The fulfillment of every individual vocation demands not only the renouncement of what is evil in itself, but also of all the precise goods that are not willed for us by God."

I really appreciate Merton's insistence in this chapter that we simply can't have it all. I spent quite a bit of time trying to get this across to my students last semester when we were reading Annie Dillard's The Writing Life: excellence demands commitment which in turn demands sacrifice. If you didn't want to do it, or it was sin to begin with, where's the sacrifice?

Yes, yes, it can feel like sacrifice to give up sin, but ultimately it's not sacrifice in the same sense that I am meaning here -- of course I should give up sin! (I don't mean that the struggle isn't a kind of sacrifice.) And sin, while it has its pleasure for a season, turns to ash, so why should I, in the end, consider it sacrifice to give up what will only obviously harm me?

The kind of sacrifice Merton means here is giving up what is in itself a good for the sake of one's calling. There is nothing wrong with many activities -- except that they may be inappropriate for me and at this time because, while I won't be "sinning" in pursuing them, my vocation simply doesn't leave the time and space for them. Thus, if I do pursue them, I will fail to fulfill that which God has called me to do and be. I might not be sinning per se -- but I will be something other than, less than, what God created and intended me to be.

For a student, this may mean something as simple as giving up a movie or fellowship to study for an exam or write a paper. But to fulfill a life-long vocation requires such sacrifices at a much greater level -- obvious examples that spring to mind are the sacrifices of personal freedom and family time made by physicians and pastors and those in the military or law enforcement.

But whatever the call is, there will be sacrifices. We simply cannot have it all. And one of the keys to contentment is accepting this by embracing God in the call itself and loving Him by our service to Him because of His love for us.

10 January 2008


"Your life is shaped by the end you live for. You are made in the image of what you desire." -- Thomas Merton

"A comprehended god is no god." -- St. John Chrysostom

(I am making up my spring book list, delving into the wonders of the Eighth Day Books catalog -- which has long, helpful descriptions of the books, without exclamation marks, and inserts quotes such as the above every couple of pages. I recommend getting the print catalog for browsing, even if you aren't in the market for books at the moment. Of course, for some of us that is a dangerous recommendation . . . .)