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Filtering by Tag: Abby Jarvis

Pale Horses

Abby Jarvis

24 Jarvis Photo

Contemporary music is often painted in broad strokes. Countless references to lazy lyrics, automated melodies, auto-tuned vocals, and inane content have plenty of merit, sure, but there are many, many musicians that are writing compelling, intricate music. Pale Horses, the newest album from mewithoutYou, an indie band from the Philadelphia area, is a testament to that fact.

I understand that mewithoutYou is not everyone’s cup of tea. For me, though, their combination of heavy guitars, intricate drumming, delicate riffs, and lead vocalist Aaron Weiss’ style of blending singing, shouting, chanting, and muttering into his songs has made them one of my favorite bands since I was in high school. Pale Horses is creating plenty of buzz in the indie music scene for getting back to the spoken-word style of music that dominated their first albums—a style that generally combines shouting and chanting more than the folk-driven singing that characterized their more recent albums—but I think the content of Pale Horses is even more significant than their unusual style.

Weiss comes from a religious background that is unorthodox, to say the least. He and his brother, Michael, are from Jewish backgrounds. Their father, a Jewish man, and their mother, an Episcopalian, converted to become Sufi Muslim. All three religions are explored in mewithoutYou’s work, and symbolism from all three are used in the band’s vivid lyrics. Pale Horses, as its title implies, explores the concept of the apocalypse and the end of the world, along with other themes like guilt, hope, doubt, and the fear of being abandoned by God.

Whether Aaron is wrestling with his fear of being abandoned by God in “Birnam Wood”:

Would you take a bound-up Isaac’s place Are you a God, and shall your grace Grow weary of Your saints?... Come untie your sons Before the little angel comes

Or struggling with religion:

Then last night I was somewhere near Virginia Rebuking satan with ironic faithfulness” And satan turned to me: ‘Have you thought much about that cry?’... Eloi, Eloi Lama sabachthani

Or pondering the end of the world and time itself:

At the opening of the fourth seal The sky, I’d been told Would roll up like a scroll As the mountains and islands moved from their place And the sun would turn black As a dead raven’s back But there’d be nowhere to hide From the Judge’s face

His vocals and lyrics and compelling music combine to make a vulnerable, emotional album that forces listeners to question their own beliefs, experiences, and feelings.

Pale Horses is not an easy album. Its driving melodies, shouted vocals, and ever-changing tempos are not the preferred background for most people's’ dinner parties or morning cups of coffee. Aaron’s tendencies to mix terms and narratives from Christianity, Judaism, and Islam is understandably startling for many listeners. The raw fear, anger, and hope evident in the music may elicit uncomfortable emotions if you’re paying attention. But it’s a beautiful album, and a frightening album, and a thoughtful album, and it’s definitely an album that defies attempts to paint it with the same broad strokes used for music these days.

The Power of Humor

Abby Jarvis

24 surreal humor Twice a year or so, my boyfriend Dave starts showing me YouTube videos and makes me question our relationship.

I mean, not really. I wouldn’t actually end our relationship over the YouTube videos he shows me. But I do look at some of them and wonder what on Earth he finds funny about the things he finds on the Internet.

Dave has a particular appreciation for surreal humor which, I will freely admit, I do not share. Shows like Tim and Eric, Awesome Show, Great Job!; Check It Out! With Dr. Steve Brule; Don’t Hug Me, I’m Scared; and others are so awkward and weird that they make me almost physically uncomfortable. He’s always maintained that they were “actually really smart entertainment” and would joke that someday my sense of humor would evolve to be on his level.

He actually had a point. The more I started paying attention to the shows he watched (although I often watched them under protest), the more I realized that they weren’t just awkward, uncomfortable shows. They were satirical shows that took common television tropes—cringe-worthy late-night television shows, family-friendly prime time sitcoms, children’s shows, etc.—and exaggerated them to the point that they became surrealist commentaries on life as we know it.

These shows aren’t the first of their kind, either. Surreal humor has long been used by authors and playwrights to comment on society. It really became popular with the dawn of postmodernism, which, in the aftermath of World War II, became the dominant zeitgeist of a society dealing with a destabilized world and a deep distrust of authority. Surrealist humor was a way for people to deal with political and social uncertainty, the tension of the Cold War, the rapidly-accelerating development of technology, and morphing religious and moral norms.

No wonder surrealist humor is alive and well! Today, world politics are tense. War is everywhere. Technology is increasingly advanced and intrusive. Constant scandals have further weakened trust in established governments, religions, and social figures. Our generation’s surrealist humor has moved off of the stage and onto the Internet, but it’s still wrestling with the issues addressed by Samuel Beckett and others. They deal with topics like the ever-pervasive Internet, the idea of teaching children with television, concepts of identity in a digital world, and fame.

I’m still not a fan of Dave’s shows. Watching a bunch of puppets devolve into shrieking, hysterical versions of themselves as they delve into the Internet is not fun for me. Steve Brule makes me cringe. But I understand how they’re “smart humor” (even though I still roll my eyes at the “your-humor-will-evolve” joke), and I understand why they’re important.

Who knows? Maybe, someday, people will watch Don’t Hug Me, I’m Scared like we read Samuel Beckett. We might not love them, but we’ll see more clearly how significant they are.

Blue Ruin

Abby Jarvis

  Mandolin Orange performs live for Folk Alley.

On May 1, we settled into our chairs at The Orange Peel in Asheville, North Carolina, waiting for Mandolin Orange to take the stage. Mandolin Orange, a folk duo comprised of Emily Frantz and Andrew Marlin, is well known for their introspective, often sad, songs and precise harmonies. We, like our fellow concert-goers, were sipping beers and chattering lightheartedly, expecting our fair share of sad songs—the duo has plenty of those—but not anticipating the grief of their newest song, “Blue Ruin.”

Frantz introduced the song, saying, “We’re going to take you to a dark place… but I promise we’ll bring you back again.” She told us that Andrew wrote the song after the tragedy of the Newtown shooting in 2012, and that they were unsure that they’d ever play the song live. The crowd immediately went silent, and the whole atmosphere of the room changed. I’ve never heard such silence in a concert hall—the couple’s music went uninterrupted even by a sneeze.

“If Jesus had been born just eleven days before, would the world have stopped to see—at least those on the street headed for Newtown?” sang Marlin. “And of all those on their way, could the miracle have made one lay his guns down?” The song covered heady ground in just a few minutes—anger, sadness, and society’s role in the tragedy, among other things—and included the heartbreaking question, “Well for now, who’d like to tell me that, on that morning when 27 fell, how any lesson and count could ever, ever amount to watching them fall? And why, worst of all, come Christmas morning, they’ll still be gone?”

A stunned silence followed the song until, sure enough, the pair led us into a happier place with their next song. But the gravity of “Blue Ruin” stuck with me, and I think it’s an especially important song now. On Mandolin Orange’s website, Marlin explains the purpose of the song:

I was thinking about all those kids who wouldn’t be there on Christmas morning. People can get so heated and so serious about change and addressing gun violence when something that traumatic happens, but a month or two afterwards, they've all cooled down and it's not in the forefront of their thoughts anymore. But two years later, those kids still aren't around on Christmas morning and their parents are still dealing with that.

It’s an important reminder, especially now that there are so many other tragedies in the public eye. Police brutality, shootings, murders, bombings, civil wars, and other tragedies of every scope imaginable dominate the headlines and 24-hour news channels. It’s easy to get caught up in placing blame, passing legislature, and hotly debating nearly every aspect of each calamity. I catch myself doing it, too. It’s hard to remember that the events we’re discussing affected real people—that they still affect real people—and that responding to those events with animosity instead of compassion won’t fix the issues.

By all means, please discuss the tragedies happening all over the world. Think of ways to help. Think of ways to prevent those tragedies ever from happening again. Keep them in mind as you prepare for the change in leadership here in the States that is coming next year. But do it earnestly, do it compassionately, do it with the human victims of each and every disaster at the forefront of your mind. Discussion and legislature and opinions are important, but it’s easy for us to forget that those victims are real people who are still dealing with the aftermath of each tragedy in a very personal way. Don’t forget.

World Religions

Abby Jarvis

24 Bhagavad Gita I’ve always loved studying different religions. It started when I was first grade and started studying the religions of the ancient Egyptians and Aztecs. It carried over into high school, when I became fascinated with the pagans of the pre-Christian British Isles, and it got even worse when I took Florida Southern College’s Myth and Legends class.

My fascination with different religions—from the classical myths to the inscrutable totems of Göbekli Tepe—has raised many eyebrows. After all, I do live in a part of Florida that seems to have a church for every neighborhood (sometime two), and I was raised by very devout Christian parents. But I would hazard to say that more Christians should study other religions, and that they do themselves a disservice if they do not.

This idea hit me forcefully the other day while I was reading a translation of the Bhagavad Gita, an ancient Hindu text dating from the fifth to the second century BCE. In it, the warrior Arjuna and the god Krishna are together on a battlefield. The two have a long conversation wherein Krishna teaches Arjuna about his duties as a man, about life and the nature of life, about Krishna as God himself, and about the nature of the universe and man’s place within it. Many of Krishna’s teachings are remarkably similar to many of the teaching we Christians also embrace. His descriptions paint a portrait of a God very like our own—omniscient, omnipresent, unchanging, at once loving and just—and Krishna offers many lessons that would not be out of place in our neighborhood churches.

Many of my friends and family would likely be aghast at the suggestion that Krishna’s teachings mirror the teachings found in the Christian Scriptures. But if one considers Romans 1:20, which says, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse,” one can not discount the idea that all men have, in some way, glimpsed certain aspects of God. If we take Romans 1:20 seriously, we should expect that those glimpses are evident in different religions.

And yet so many become defensive at the thought of learning about the religions of others! Tension between religions are the root of conflicts all over the world, and are the basis of much fear and discrimination here in the States. To you Christians who are reading this, I would urge you to pick up a translation of the Bhagavad Gita, or a copy of some of Joseph Campbell’s books, or a primer on world religions. You won’t agree with everything. You don’t have to. But you will learn more about the other people in the world, you’ll understand more about humanity, and you will see, here and there, a glimpse of God, of his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature.

Love Your Neighbor

Abby Jarvis

24 Antique floor Living in my antique apartment has its share of quirks. The high ceilings and drop-pane windows are beautiful, but they make heating and cooling extremely inefficient. The location is within a ten-minute walk of my job, my friends’ house, and my favorite bars and restaurants. My taps have two temperatures—“tepid” and “lava”—and I have a comedically small oven. The hardwood floors are original to the building, but I have become very well-acquainted with my upstairs neighbor and his habits because of those floors.

My neighbor is an ongoing reminder of the old commandment “love thy neighbor.” Now, nothing the man above me does is particularly inconsiderate. Yes, there were mornings when I woke up to (mercifully unused) condoms on my porch (he apologized for making a mess the night before). And yes, there has been the occasional shouting match with who I assume is his girlfriend. But those are the hazards of apartment living, and, seriously, who hasn’t had a fight with their significant other before?

No, working to love my neighbor is more of a struggle for me when he is doing 100% normal day-to-day activities. It’s when someone comes home and walks across the floor wearing high heels that I can hear clearly as I lie in bed trying to fall asleep. It’s when his girlfriend’s young son picks up and drops the same ball over and over and over again. It’s when he’s vacuuming and bonking into furniture when I’m writing. THOSE are the times that I find it hard to love my neighbor, even though he’s innocently going about his life like a normal human being. He’s not doing anything wrong—I’m just being selfish.

My upstairs neighbor doesn’t know me, and he doesn’t know I’m writing this. He certainly doesn’t know that he is an ongoing reminder to me to learn patience, to practice empathy, and to meditate on what it means to love my neighbor as myself.

Even when he’s vacuuming.

They Deserted Us Here

Abby Jarvis

42 This one’s a little long. But it’s important.

Christian academics are supposed to engage the culture around us. We’re supposed to interact with music, art, literature, film, and philosophy. We’re supposed to pick things up, examine them, take them apart and reassemble them, and understand how and why they work.

But we often neglect an art form that’s incredibly significant in today’s society. It’s a music form, actually, and it is the music form that I think has been the most important musical movement in the last 50 years or so.

I’m talking about hip-hop.

Hip-hop sprang up New York City, mostly in the Bronx, in the 70s and 80s. It began as a social movement as much as a music style (and lifestyle), and it was, until recently, unique to the African-American community. It quickly became a social movement, a powerful way to comment on American culture and the black community’s place within it.

Much rap music, now commercialized and manufactured to appeal to mass audiences, retains only a shade of the social commentary prevalent in the rap of the 70s and 80s. But the spirit prevails in many artists, and they’re producing very important albums. For decades, prominent and underground rappers alike have presented scathing commentaries on current events and culture, describing the black community, and building a culture that sprang entirely from their communal experiences.

The music form is relatively young, but it’s increasingly relevant. It’s especially important in 2015 after incidents like the Mike Brown shooting, Eric Garner’s murder in NYC, and the prominence of important conversations about race in contemporary America.

Hip-hop is unique in that offers the brutally honest, open, and frank insights into a huge part of American society. No other music style is doing that right now (or at least not as prominently). Countless tracks offer a blistering take on everything from the American prison system and the disproportionate number of black men who are incarcerated and have at least one count against them because of their race and culture, like this verse from rap duo Run The Jewels:

Conditions create a villain, the villain is given vision The vision becomes a vow to seek vengeance on all the vicious… I’m a fellow with melanin, suspect of a felony, Ripped like Rakim Allah, feds is checkin’ my melody (from “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)” by Run The Jewels)

To poverty, violence, and being abandoned by the rest of society:

They merking kids, they murder kids here Why you think they don't talk about it? They deserted us here... Down here it's easier to find a gun than it is to find a fucking parking spot No love for the opposition, specifically a cop position, Cause they've never been in our position Getting violations for the nation correlating you dry snitching (from “Pusha Man” by Chance The Rapper)

To government corruption and institutionalized racism:

Poor reparations, the Bush administration Unequality, martial law, segregation False hood, false teaching, false education Now's the time for us to come amongst this nation They deceiving us, they don't believe in us… For all my people that's out there persevering through the storm Black fist, Staten Island, stand up, stand strong Penetrate through the gate and bring the Clan along (from “A Better Tomorrow” by Wu-Tang Clan)

I can’t speak to the experiences in these songs. I’m not from their world. But I can tell you that there is a raw anger, a despair, and a defiance in these songs that is very, very culturally important. These songs present deep, wide, urgent problems in an important part of our society. And people are writing off the messages in these songs because they don’t take the art form seriously.

It doesn’t matter if you don’t like hip-hop. I don’t care if you don’t like the artists’ tones, or agree with their sentiments, or disapprove of their ideas. I do care about people starting to listen to this music and understand the people who make it.

It’s important. It is important. It is important.

Are you listening?

Good and Evil and Video Games

Abby Jarvis

Binding of IsaacI’ve never been a video game person. My parents—whether by design or by chance, I can’t say—never had gaming consoles in the house. Being able to play a video game is not something one easily picks up past a certain age. I’ve always been content to watch other people play. That all changed a few weeks ago when my boyfriend set up his PlayStation 4 in my living room and downloaded a free game. It’s called “The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth,” and it’s got all the components that would appeal to an uninitiated video game player—color graphics, basic gameplay, and hundreds of power-ups and bosses to keep you interested. I started playing one day on a whim and was immediately hooked. Not until a few weeks later did I really start to think about the premise of the game I’d been playing. In the story, a mother hears God tell her to sacrifice her son to save him from his impurity. The son, Isaac, overhears her consenting to kill him, and escapes down a trapdoor in his bedroom just in the nick of time. He finds himself in a labyrinth of basements, cellars, caves, and dungeons, fighting monsters and big bosses before moving to another level.

What’s really interesting about the game is the religious symbolism that permeates every aspect of the game. Aside from the fact that Isaac finds himself the object of his mother’s religious delusion, he uses tools like the Necronomicon, a goat’s head, rosary beads, the Bible, and other religiously-charged objects to gain power. As you approach the end of the game, your character is become virtually unrecognizable—different power-ups change your appearance. My most recent game found me transformed into a horned demon, weeping tears of blood followed by an entourage of familiars—mummified babies, floating heads made of tar, a swarm of spiders. Eventually, players fight their mothers and their mothers’ hearts, ascending either to a cathedral or descending to Sheol. In Sheol, players fight the devil; in the cathedral, they fight themselves. It’s a striking image—you start in the dungeons as a scared, weeping child, become transformed into a grotesque character disfigured by deals with the devil and the gruesome powers you need to survive. Your grim, newfound self fights your angelic past self in a cathedral, complete with monks chanting in the background. Or, instead, you fight Satan himself before going on to meet other bosses like The Lamb, a hellish creature with horns and fangs.

What I can’t decide about the game is what it says about the culture that produced it. Steven E. Jones, a professor of English at Loyola University in Chicago, says, “Video games are the most quintessential social texts of our present cultural moment,” and I tend to agree with him. But what does that mean? If one assumes that art reflects the culture that prompted it (which it does), and one accepts video games as an art form (which they are), The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth must have something to say about the perception of religion at least in one predominant part of society. But what?

There are myriad possibilities, but I’ve fixated on two thoughts. I’m struck by the fact that both Christ-figures and demonic figures are both antagonists—there is no concept of good and evil, only the concept of survival, despite interference from spiritual influences. One is just as easily killed by angels or the (admittedly demonic-looking) Lamb as they are to be killed by Satan or his legions of monsters. Tools like The Bible, Bible Tracts, and rosary beads are just as useful as Necronomicons, severed paws of animals, and pentagrams. What does it mean that the game designer conflates traditional symbols of good and evil in such a way that they’re both equally antagonistic? I don’t know.

Even more striking to me is the juxtaposition of muddled, ambiguous religious references with the style of the game. The game’s graphics recall the same bright, basic shapes and simple graphics today’s gaming community associates with nostalgic favorites like the early Zelda games. It’s decidedly unnerving, sometimes, to see such heavy-handed symbolism combined with decidedly nostalgic graphics. What does it mean?

Today’s art community struggles with the significance of video games as an art form. Peoples’ opinions seem to be split on a generational basis; most of my friends (and most academics!) don’t think twice about saying that games are an art form. Asking three ladies not of my generation the same question sparked almost-instantaneous exclamations of “Oh! No, of course not.” But, try as you might to deny it, video games—whether they be games with simple graphics like The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth or beautifully-rendered social commentaries like Bioshock and its sequels—make intriguing and often uncomfortable commentary on today’s cultural and social climates.

I will never be good at video games. I am 27 years old, and it’s too late for me. But I am excited and intrigued by the video game world and the ever-blurring lines between video games and the arts community. I look forward to other games like The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth and what they’ll make me wonder about the world and the leading zeitgeists of our society. And I look forward, too, to the day we all agree that video games are a significant part of our culture, even if they make us uncomfortable.

Lo, how a rose e'er blooming . . .

Abby Jarvis

rose-in-snow1

Lo, how a rose e'er blooming, From tender stem hath sprung. Of Jesse's lineage coming, As men of old have sung; It came, a flow'ret bright, Amid the cold of winter, When half spent was the night.

 This hymn has always been a favorite of mine, even when I was far too young to understand the symbolism and history behind the lyrics. It seemed to carry a certain gravity shared by few hymns I know; the hush that fell over the congregation before they opened their mouths in song seemed more sacred, the circle of musicians that played it seemed an echo of Renaissance counterparts in an ancient church. Still, years later, I imagine the same scene when I hear the song—a clear, bitterly cold night; the world silent under a blanket of snow; a red rose blooming deep in the woods, lit by the moon. It’s a vivid image I’ve seen clearly since I was a child.

Only recently did I dig back into the song’s history. The hymn we call “Lo, How A Rose E’er Blooming” was originally “Es is ein Ros entsprungen,” a hymn written in Germany sometime in the late 16th century. Its interpretation—not in terms of words, but of intent—is a subject of some debate. Catholics assert it is a Marian hymn; Protestants believe it references Jesus himself. Whichever the song’s theme, I love the legend behind it—the story goes that a monk was walking through the forest late one winter night and found a rose. Inspired by its beauty, he placed the flower at an altar to the Virgin.

Whatever its origins or meaning, many musicians and interpreters have been struck by the hymn’s simple beauty. There are several widely-known translations of the hymn from people of different theologies, and many versions of the tune have been played by artists both Christian and secular. It’s played in churches’ vaulted sanctuaries and on music systems in shopping malls alike.

The rose in the hymn has endured far longer than the song’s author or the thousands of people who have sung about it. The carol has sparked many debates about its interpretation over the last several hundred years, and musicians have continued to be inspired by the image of the rose, just as the monk was inspired by a rose so many centuries ago. However you consider “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming”—either as an ancient Marian hymn, as a description of Jesus Christ, or as the poetry of an inspired monk—let the image of the rose’s stillness in the cold midwinter remind you of the still beauty of advent and the hush of expectancy as we celebrate Christ’s birth.

Art is universal

Abby Jarvis

And The Cow Jumped..., 2007 “Art is universal,” wrote James Jackson Jarves. “It unites mankind in common brotherhood. . . . art is the connecting link in the chain of great minds. Through its language, thought appeals to thought, and sympathy echoes feeling.”

Jarves, a 19th century writer and art critic, beautifully captured the sentiments that ran through my mind while I was deep in the halls of the Chicago Art Institute. Of all the amazing works in that museum—works that span hundreds and thousands of years and come from every continent of the globe—I was struck most by a small, green, comparatively unimpressive plate in a hall of Chinese pottery. It was “Foliate Dish with Bovine Gazing at a Crescent Moon,” and my first reaction was to laugh. It’s a strange motif. A cow looking at the moon sounds absurd, like something out of a nursery rhyme.

My second reaction was absolute amazement. That plain, light-green dish seemed suddenly like the most amazing thing in the museum. Think of the implications of that plate! A man—a real man, who lived in real life, in a real house—looked at a farm animal in a field in China hundreds and hundreds of years ago. And he was so inspired by that cow that he went home and made a dish with its picture on it.

Think about it! It’s amazing! A real-life man saw a real-life cow, and that man put that cow on a dish, and now we can see it more than a thousand years later! That man had a name, and a home, and a family, and an appreciation for small, everyday sights like a cow in a field. He could never have fathomed that we would go see his plate in a museum on the other side of the world. He could never have known that a tourist from Lakeland, Florida would ever see his dish and feel a sudden kinship with him. The cow on the plate looks like any one of the cows that loll around the fields around my hometown, and it was captured in clay more than a millennium ago! What a wonderful thing!

Maybe I’m not making my point. Maybe, from your perspective, I sound like a crazy person raving about a weird dish and the fact that it has a cow on it. I don’t know. But I do know that, for a while, I felt a deep friendship with a long-dead Chinese potter whose plate was in a glass case a thousand years after he made it. I knew what Jarves meant when he wrote that “Distinctions of tongue or boundary lines disappear before the power of truths, which, like the rainbow, charm by the beauty of variegated hues, or, combined with light, illumine the universe.” I knew what he meant when he referenced a chain of minds connected by art—in my case, I experienced a chain of gazes. A cow gazed at the moon, a man gazed at the cow, a woman gazed at the man through a window in time opened by a small green plate.

Art is a remarkable thing . . . even when it takes the form of a rather unremarkable dish. The chain of minds Jarves references is accessible everywhere! You just have to look.

(Painting by Jamie Wyeth)

Caritas abundat in omnia...

Abby Jarvis

Museum - Hildegard von Bingen Every newspaper I pick up is awful. The whole world, it seems, is in an uproar. Fear of war stalks families and countries around the globe; Ebola is throwing whole governments into panic; ISIS continues its brutal campaign across the Middle East; politicians stateside and abroad fling insults and petty accusations at each other. Rarely do I ever let myself look away from what’s going on in the world at any given moment, but the temptation to do so can be overwhelming.

Perhaps it is because of that worldwide turmoil that the compositions of German nun and healer Hildegard von Bingen have been such a solace. Her chants are my go-to for nights I cannot sleep and, though I don’t speak a word of Latin, the songs have quickly become my favorite nighttime soundtrack. Out of curiosity, I looked up the lyrics to my favorite of her chants, Caritas Habundat. It runs:

Caritas habundat in omnia, de imis excellentissima super sidera,

Loving tenderness abounds for all from the darkest to the most exalted one beyond the stars.

atque amantissima in omnia, quia summo Regi osculum pacis dedit.                                           

Exquisitely loving all she bequeaths the kiss of peace upon the ultimate King.

Translations differ, but von Bingen’s message stays the same — love abides in even the depths and in the voids beyond the stars. Her chant is a beautiful reminder that, no matter the darkness of the world, that love abides … even when it doesn’t seem so.

The world is in shambles. Bad news flows from every corner of the globe. It’s been like that, though to varying degrees, for as far back as history can recount. My own life is less dark, but it is still full of work and obligations, family illnesses, young friends who die too soon, and other stressors that come with a normal life. Everyone’s life is like that, and has always been that way. But when the world’s problems seem overwhelming, when we learn of bad news and illness and death, may we always be able to hum to ourselves,

“Caritas abundat in omnia…”

Aimless Love

Abby Jarvis

il_570xN.359267815 Billy Collins’ poem “Aimless Love” strikes a special chord with me. The poem, wherein Mr. Collins falls in love with “... a wren/ and later in the day with a mouse/ the cat had dropped under the dining room table,” makes me remember my first love. I was only a child, and it was a brief affair — a deep, fleeting affection that was not reciprocated — but which set the tone for many of my experiences as an adult. My first love, you see, was an ant on a clover in my neighbor’s yard.

My sister and I decided to “go on a safari” outside. So we packed a backpack with some paper, a magnifying glass, and several apples, and solemnly announced to our mother that we were Going Outside to Be In Nature. Off we went, and, through some series of events, I ended up face down in a neighbor’s yard watching an ant on a clover. As I watched it climb, I felt a sudden deep, fierce love for that bug. It was so small, and the flower it climbed was so much larger than it was, and the grass in the yard towered over it like a forest, and I was keenly aware of how large in the world I was, and how clumsy, and how apt I was to overlook small things like ants on clovers.

Such love seems very human. I always tend to roll my eyes when people throw around the phrase “God is love.” It makes me think of awful little Victorian cherubs and vacuous worship songs. I’ve always thought of God more in the Old Testament sense — the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who spoke light out of the darkness, who stopped the sun in the sky while his people fought at Gibeon. God is love, of course, but I have always thought of God’s love in a more terrible, cosmic kind of way, not the kind that’s fussed by everyday details. That’s why the passage wherein God is described as knowing when a sparrow dies always startles me — it’s hard for me to imagine. But it is a beautiful thing to know that God does know when a sparrow dies, or that he cares even for the lilies in the valley, or that he can count the number of hairs on my head.

That ant was a long time ago. But I am now very familiar with that sudden, painfully clear love for small things. Like Collins, who falls in love with steam rising from a bowl of broth, whose heart is “always propped up/ in a field on its tripod/ ready for the next arrow,” I direct my affections at odd, unsuspecting people or objects — my friend’s face, illuminated as she bends over the stove; the shape of my cat on a chair; a particular shade of green. It’s a fleeting, aimless love. But I do like to think that, maybe, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is looking with me and loving the details. Even the ants on clovers.

We need rituals

Abby Jarvis

22894262-cosmetics-seamless-background Every morning, I array my tools — lotions, liquids, powders, brushes. I darken my eyes, shadow and line. Some days I sing softly, some days I work in steely silence. I call it my war paint. The ordeal is part of my ritual, the morning routine that separates my time at home to my time in the real world. The shower, the clothes, the meditative time standing over the stove — all a liminal time between those two worlds.

There are other, less mundane rituals. We all have them, we humans — the ones that mark us moving from one stage to another. Hovering over birthday candles, illuminated between one age and another; weddings, a transitory period between single life and a life of matrimony; bar mitzvahs, suspended between boyhood and manhood; silence in the pews, when the church prepares to move from the secular world into the sacred. Rituals are important; they make us aware of our stages of life, of our positions in the world, of our roles and relationships to the rest of humankind.

Joseph Campbell, an American mythicist and author, notes that rituals are ubiquitous, a universal part of the human experience. We need rituals to separate the phases of our life, to give us closure as one period of life ends and another begins. Some rituals were ordained long ago; communion, for example, and the liminality of being “outside” our world and present in the sacred. Other rituals are manmade — birthday parties, weddings, Halloween. Some are our own. If we do not have rituals imposed upon us, we often make our own. Campbell even suggests that many instances of teenage rebellion or adult neuroses stem from the absence of rituals and the subsequent insecurity in our current stages of life.

Whether man made or sacred, communal or individual, we move through our own rituals. The ordeal of brewing coffee smooths the transition from sleep to work; a child’s first day of school marks their advancement from babyhood to student; elaborate preparations and ceremonies denote major life changes. Ritual has proved important for millennia, used for everything from minor daily routines to major spiritual practices.

And so, every morning, I join the rest of mankind and perform my rituals. I shower, I dress, I cook my breakfast. I apply my war paint. At night, I perform the same ritual in reverse — I retreat again to the kitchen, I wash my face, I change my clothes. I am, again, my home-self. At least until tomorrow.

Creative Process and Rest

Abby Jarvis

ScreenHunter_01 Aug. 01 18.54 Most Bibles say that God rested on the seventh day of creation. “Rested” is a good word. I have always imagined God relaxing on Sundays — maybe kicking back in an armchair and watching the world progress, or maybe taking a Sunday nap. It’s a nice image.

“Rest” is a pleasant word, but the original text implies a much deeper rest than mere relaxation. What we translate as “rest,” the word shavat, may more accurately be translated as “abstained.” The 12th-century Torah scholar, Nachmanides, interpreted the passage to read “[God] ceased to perform all His creative work.” God’s rest, then, surpassed kicking back in a lawn-chair for an afternoon — God stopped creating entirely. He stopped his processes. He Rested.

To relax is hard enough; Resting is nearly impossible. The body may be still, but the mind goes on, full tilt. We rarely indulge in the Rest that was part of God’s creative process.

That lack of Rest is to our detriment. Studies are beginning to show that our contemporary disdain for true Rest — our immersion through technology, to news, to each others’ social lives, to our work — has a huge, negative effect on everything from our sleep cycles to our manners to our creative abilities. We are, as Tolkien wrote in The Fellowship of The Ring, “thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”

It was with this thought that I left for the mountains to traipse around Asheville with a large group of friends. It was not a restful weekend. We climbed waterfalls, we toured pubs, we sat around a fire pit and hacked small trees into firewood with hilariously inadequate hand-tools. We watched a rockabilly band in a dive bar and sampled hoppin’ john from a cook with a black eye and a crocodile mask. We collapsed into bed, exhausted, every night and rose again each morning with full schedules. We did not rest, but we Rested. We set aside worries about work, endless social feeds, familial obligations, and personal stressors to fully enjoy the beautiful surroundings and the companionship of others.

And what a difference it has made. Now firmly ensconced in my regular routine, I again find myself planning projects and chores when I should be relaxing. I worry, as usual, about deadlines and relationships and obligations. I fret about not sleeping enough which, humorously, prevents me from sleeping. But now I have the energy to do so; I have mimicked God’s seventh-day practice. I am no longer butter scraped over too much bread. I have Rested.

Fairy Tales, for Life

Abby Jarvis

24 Fairy Tale1 It was a hot summer Saturday when I uncovered a book of fairy tales at a vintage shop. It sparked a conversation with the shopkeeper, who asked me to recommend fairy tale books for her two young daughters. They wanted stories about fairies, princesses, dragons, witches — stories about adventures and quests for true love and truth.

Not until later, as I mused over my nephew playing in the darkening yard, did I realize how precious that conversation had been. It seems a rare thing, now, for children to want fairy tales. In a world full of iPads, structured play dates, and a relentless focus on academics and test scores, it seems that fairytales are being crowded out of everyday life.

And what a shame that is! Academia certainly has its place, but the lessons to be learned from fairy tales are not lessons often found in test tubes or classrooms. Fairy stories lend us a belief in the magical, in the un-provable. They teach us that bad things happen to good people but good will triumph; that things are not always as they seem; the value of love, and bravery, and kindness; that dragons, as G.K. Chesterton once beautifully put it, exist and that they can be killed.

In a skeptical world, fairy tales foster a sense of wonder, an appreciation for the unexplained and the magical. They’re morality tales, practical warnings, glimpses of the magical world that exists in the “black boxes”science and logic can’t explain. Princes and witches and dragons aren’t just frivolous stories; they teach us to love, and to hope, and to fight for truth, and to make your own way in an uncertain world.

I hope my nephew reads fairy tales. I hope he looks under bushes for gnomes and into streams for sprites and pixies. I hope he seeks redemption in desperate situations, that he dreams of magic and of eucatastrophe -- the sudden, inexplicable happy ending. I hope he fights dragons and quests for Fairy only to discover, as Tolkien phrased it, “that sudden glimpse of the truth…a glimpse that is actually a ray of light through the very chinks of the universe about us."

The Fifty Year Sword

Abby Jarvis

fiftyyearsword

In Mark Z. Danielweski’s novella The Fifty Year Sword, a recently-divorced seamstress named Chintana attends a 50th birthday party for her husband’s mistress, Belinda Kite. A storyteller at the party tells Chintana and several orphans the story of his epic quest for a mysterious weapon, the Fifty Year Sword. The invisible sword cuts every victim just like a non-magical sword, but with one catch; the wounds inflicted by the blade don’t manifest themselves until the victim turns fifty years old. Belinda Kite, in a bid to prove to the frightened children that the story is hogwash, slashes herself repeatedly with the sword. Later that night, as she and her guests toast her 50th birthday, Belinda falls apart piece by piece, a victim of her bravado and the Fifty Year Sword.

The story is full of images pertaining to the cutting, slicing, and severing of threads while characters try ceaselessly to bind up the pieces. Chintana heals a gash on her thumb and the wound of her recent divorce, the storyteller goes on a dark quest to heal an unknown grudge, and Belinda Kite falls to pieces while Chintana tries desperately to hold her together. The characters flounder in the aftermath of violence, haphazardly stitching themselves together before the next round of chaos or despair. Their efforts invariably fail.

It is interesting that Danielewski’s book deals so extensively with stitching and sewing. For millennia, mankind has been preoccupied with weaving, stitching, and mending. Some of the earliest recorded gods and goddesses in history were dedicated to those arts; the goddess Ixchel from the Mayan civilization, the Greek Muses, Frigg and the Norns from Norse legends, and the Navajo’s Spider Woman are all mythical weavers. They wove men, their destinies, and the universe itself. Thread and fabric are ancient symbols of life, and the severing of threads is symbolic of death or chaos. In myth, managing the fabric of a man’s life was the responsibility of his deity.

In the story, though, the act of binding and mending is left to the characters, not to any higher power. If art and literature are windows into the human experience, what does Danielewski’s novella say about our fears and beliefs? Chintana and the others are scarred by violence -- physical, spiritual, or emotional -- and they alone are responsible for mending their wounds. The fabric of their lives is repeatedly slashed and torn, but no intervening higher power helps them bind up the gashes. The cycle is exhausting and never-ending. They are truly alone.

And don’t we often feel alone? Our lives are often disrupted by our own actions or by circumstances beyond our control. The slashes come again and again; it’s easy to get caught in the endless battle to sew ourselves up again, alone, before we try to battle on. It is easy to forget that we are not alone; it is easy to forget the promises made by Jehovah Rapha, the Great Physician, who said, “Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness.” How much more hope we have than Chintana! We must strive to not forget it.

Look at Everything Close Up

Abby Jarvis

24 Steen Jan- St Nicholas Feast copy

In Chuck Palahniuk’s Lullaby, journalist Carl Streator is just getting by. He copes with the stress of his job. He copes with his finances. He copes with the accidental death of his wife and his child, whom he killed with a culling spell. He copes with his mission to find and destroy every copy of the spell. He copes with the fact that he can’t stop thinking about it.

He copes.

Most of us feel the need to cope, to escape our big picture. Work is stressful. Money is tight. Cholesterol is too high. Deadlines are approaching. There’s an illness in the family. There’s a fire. Or a flood. The electricity has just been shut off. We agonize over the minutia of our schedules, the humdrum routines that give structure to our daily lives. Everything is spiraling out of control.

“The trick to forgetting the big picture,” Streator says, “is to look at everything close up.”

So we bury ourselves in the latest game to top the iTunes charts. We throw ourselves into the dramas of the latest group of Housewives. We obsess about sports. We count calories. We distract ourselves.

But if we change our perspective a bit, looking at everything close up can be an exercise in meditation and mindfulness, instead of a distraction. Looking at everything close up can be a powerful way to see the big picture. We come to  understand that our big pictures -- the bills, the jobs, the finances -- are really only tiny details in our collective Big Picture. Close up we see things that are quintessentially human, actions that tie us to generations of men and women through millennia. We knead and bake bread, just like we have for thousands of years. We steep tea. We fall in love. We worry about our children. We sow seeds and pull weeds. The tiniest details of our lives and our routines and our habits bind us to an innumerable host of people who worry just like us. These ubiquitous activities place us in the framework of a shared humanity.

Perhaps if we look at these daily responsibilities close up, if we squint, if we work really hard, we can avoid many of our daily stressors.

So go ahead. Try. Look at everything close up.