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Blog

Filtering by Tag: mystery

Smartwoods

Joanna Campbell

Woods If I can see a tree outside my bedroom window, blood flow to my brain will be different than if I was looking at a view without vegetation. Right now, I have a rectangular perspective of deciduous trees and evergreens making their home next to sidewalks and steep neighborhood staircases. The Italian restaurant across the street is shaded by bare-branched trees adorned in twinkle lights. I have lived in Seattle, Washington, for four years, the most urban place I have ever called home. Wildness and development exist as two tangled lovers, bound by each other’s bodies. I came from Arkansas, and there was a forest in my backyard. I went to the woods as often as I could.

Nature is unscripted. There are no directors, writers, artists, activists, scientists, or programmers predetermining my experience. No one is cuing or staging events. I get to be surprised on nature’s terms, and with thousands of variables at play, the possibilities are limitless. In Seattle, this means a sea gull suddenly appears. Occasionally, a bald eagle will soar. I wonder about the village life of microorganisms dwelling in the rosemary bush that Chef Paul uses for his pasta dishes.

On clear days, I can see beyond the Italian restaurant and the undulating Seattle neighborhoods, all the way to Puget Sound and the Olympic mountains. Though I have never penetrated the heart of its wildness, glimpsing the glacial-capped mountains from my home perch offers its own kind of exhilaration. I know there are six species of shrews and four species of bats. There are flying squirrels, marmots, and Pacific jumping mice. Wolves and black bears, elk and porcupines and cougars are living somewhere in the folds of the land I see from my living room window. River otters share territory with both the spotted and the striped skunk. And those are just a handful of the mammals. Amphibians, reptiles, invertebrates, birds, and marine animals breathe the same air. There are six kinds of salamanders, four kinds of frogs, one toad, and one newt, the rough-skinned variety.

Yes, humans are part of nature. And, humans are influencing nature in terrifying ways. And yes, there are no longer any places on the planet untouched by anthropomorphic choices. We’ve altered the chemistry of the atmosphere after all. But still, I know that walking through my childhood forest is vastly different from using a painting or sketching app on an electronically-intelligent, handheld device. The toolbox on the iPad was decided for the “user” by someone else. The forest’s toolbox is up to your own imagination. You may decide the forest is a place for solitude, reflection, adventure, or escape. It may be a place to play, learn, draw, plant, crawl, climb, cry, laugh, or pretend. There is medicine. There is food. There is sanctuary. There are tools and potential tools. There is paint and clay. There are nuts and crystals and vines. There are bones and long branches dotted in lichen hamlets. All in the forest. All free.

The forest is not framed as a box. It did not arrive in a box. Imperfect spirals and curves and edges separate one thing from another. Nature lives and breathes. Smartphones are not vital organs. Swamps are the lungs of the Earth.

Though it’s possible to reduce ecological processes to precise scientific explanations, nature is miraculous just as human life is miraculous. It is no wonder I secretly hope trees may speak a human language. Or maybe the trees strain for us to hear them. The skin of the Earth and all the wild things thriving from its body are the souls keeping us alive, holding us, sheltering our sanity, giving us hope and inspiration to be more than users. We are creators. We are imagineers in ways most opposite to Disney’s brand of employment.

And here I am, writing this missive on my MacBook Air, created by a wildly imaginative person who loved art and calligraphy and beauty. I am listening to music on iTunes. It is an instrumental piece titled Become Ocean. I gaze at trees and buildings framed by 90-degree angles. The music calms and transports me away from the gray dark winter of Seattle. Given these ironies, I still know with all that I am that walking through the woods gives my heart delight unlike any cyber-styled comfort. No, delight is not a correct description. The euphoria of breathing without worry for what may happen, knowing something exquisite could transpire at any moment and a shimmering wave of endorphins will sparkle through the body—that’s the feeling. That’s the surprise I long for amidst the predetermined criteria of computer-generated beauty. Give me a fungus-infested tree over a perfect sequence of Fibonacci numbers, which produce the ideal pixelated tree. I want the freedom to not understand everything. My body needs mystery and mistakes.

What is writing for?

J Mark Bertrand

7 Untitled Is the purpose of writing to communicate something to readers, or to mystify them? It’s been almost fifteen years, and James Miller’s article in the now-defunct Lingua Franca pitting clear communication (personified by George Orwell) against mystification-as-profundity (poster boy: Theodor Adorno) has stuck with me. First reading it fresh from grad school, where both perspectives were drilled into me with equal vigor, I’ve seen this either/or proposition reproduced in almost every argument over the goal of good writing that I’ve been dragged into since then. Whatever battle lines are drawn — literary vs. commercial, spiritual vs. secular — the old antagonists return to fight. Advocates of clarity are accused of dumbing ideas down, while advocates of mystery are chided for hiding their confused or commonplace thoughts behind a curtain of obfuscation.

I wish I could claim to have kept above the fray, but I’ve been a partisan more often than not — and for both sides, too, my allegiances shifting with the context. If I’ve switched sides back and forth, it’s not for lack of conviction. It’s just that neither side embodies what I’m actually attempting to do when I write fiction.

To me an unread story is a gesture of love left unconsummated.

Unrequited might seem a better word, but it’s not: there are books you haven’t read but for which you still feel affection. (Consider the American love affair with the Bible.) In some cases not having read the story keeps the love alive. The pages do not always contain what we’ve been led to believe.

As a reader I don’t seek consummation for reasons of clarity or mystification, although both sensations are part of the experience. What I look for is something closer to communion.

To me an unread story is like bread and wine left untasted on the table, an author’s gifts placed before readers out of a thwarted desire to know and be known.

Some of us don’t like to think of readers at all. We write for ourselves, telling the stories we’d like to hear. Art for art’s sake, with no hint of accommodating the audience. Mystification for its own sake, feeding your inner Adorno while your inner Orwell starves. This is a pose I’ve sometimes adopted, yet it seems more and more to be a mere shield against rejection: “You didn’t love me? That’s because you didn’t get me. This was never meant for you; you couldn’t have understood it.”

A story must communicate, or so they tell me. The question is, how? Must we follow the expected patterns, tap out only the approved rhythms, and keep culling the word horde until all the mystery is gone? Start thinking of what we do as mere communication and before long you find the reader can be quantified, reduced, understood –– and that a better term than reader is consumer. If writing for myself was a dead end, writing for consumers is even worse.

This is why, instead of communicating with readers, I want to commune.

I’m not aiming at blasphemy here, or even irreverence. It seems important to me that the creative act be understood in terms of incarnation, and the Christian Eucharist provides an apt metaphor. In spite of Walker Percy's belief that “the incarnational and sacramental dimensions of Catholic Christianity are the greatest natural assets of a novelist,” here I find Calvin’s notion of spiritual presence helpful. The author’s presence in the paper and ink or the pixel, though not physical, is nevertheless real in a way that can only be impoverished by ascribing it only to symbolism. Entering into the story is, at least for “worthy receivers,” to commune with an author who is actually, though spiritually, present in the work.

Somewhere between demystification and mystification for its own sake –– or perhaps I should say, somewhere above them –– there is a place for something both mystical and substantial, an experience of one another through words that has become almost a secret, a guilty pleasure none who know it feel entirely comfortable talking about. It does not always happen, but when it does, we remember why we read and write to begin with, just as there are moments in church with the taste of bread on the tongue and wine on the lips when we, for an instant, recover the true urge that brought us there.

Clothed in Mystery

Adie Kleckner

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After being out of town for a couple weeks, I climbed the stairs to my apartment, dropped my suitcase to the floor, and noticed the light had changed. The sunlight no longer blared with cool blues and purples; it filtered through thin chloroformed leaves leaving fluorescent green slatted across my wood floors.

Even now I write this in the light from my laptop screen. An unchanging, medical light of pure white. My cursor blinks with black insistence to cover the light with words.

When Justinian rebuilt Hagia Sophia, after conquering Istanbul and overthrowing her Islamic rulers, he sought to fill the halls with a holy light. Small windows circle the dome so closely set it appears to be floating. Under the dome, our position is not fixed; we are awash in illusionary light and shadow.

The gospel of John begins its account with light. A light so strange that the darkness cannot comprehend it. Can darkness know something that is not only its opposite but also its destroyer?

And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.

Over the course of two years, Claude Monet painted a series of thirty paintings of the façade of the Rouen Cathedral. He painted at varying times of day and year. His view of the cathedral did not change, that is, he was not trying to paint the cathedral, with all of its complexities and architectural innuendos. He was trying to paint the light, the way it marked time and weather. But in order to paint light, you must also paint shadows.

The Impressionist palate did not include black. Rather Monet slathered the shadows in crimson, umber, burnt orange; light in mauve, rose, naples yellow. In some instances, the shadows and light are nearly indistinguishable. He adjusted value—the relative lightness or darkness of a color—by adding white. The colors found in shadow also appeared in light, and vice versa.

In order to snap a properly exposed photograph, the photographer must first establish the middle point between shadow and light. That is, the shutter time needs to be both long enough to capture the details in shadow, but not so long that the details in light burn out.

The dome would not hover in Hagia Sophia if there were not also edges of darkness.

Annie Dillard writes, in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, “if we are blinded by darkness, we are also blinded by light. When too much light falls on everything, a special terror results.”

Back in my apartment, I watch the light change throughout the day. The northern light in my living room a consistent glow, the light in my southern bedroom crawling up and down the walls, the slow dimming of the close of day when the shadows spread and the distinction between darkness and light is clothed in mystery.

(Photo by Hiroshi Sugimoto)

God's Not Dead

Bryan Bliss

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The trailer for God’s Not Dead appeared on my Facebook timeline between a Buzzfeed quiz about Friday Night Lights and a Bruce Springsteen video. I took the quiz (I’m Landry Clarke, so you know) and listened to The Promised Land, trying to convince – or maybe distract – myself away from this movie. Even before I saw the trailer, I could make a guess at the plot.

Instead of asking a person to explore the mystery of faith, films like God’s Not Dead lay a straight and flawless road, painted over with harsh blacks and impossible whites – colors designed to make us comfortable. More importantly, they encourage Christians to ignore the twisting and turning deer trails that sprout off this main road. Trails that lead one through the mud, the murk. Places to get lost.

Could anyone argue that Flannery O’Connor’s classic short story A Good Man is Hard to Find might better end with the Misfit accepting Christ? To have him wave the family off, a pleasant sunset falling behind him? For some, yes. But for those concerned with producing art and living a faith with integrity – that actually represents our place in a sometimes savage, sometimes beautiful world – these knotted paths are the birthplace of transformation. They don’t avoid risk. They force it upon you. It is that tension, that real moment of grace and redemption, which Christian art hopes to harness.

A writing mentor once told me the worst thing a story can be is about something. I would add that, even when we know the ending, a story should also hide the turns. God’s Not Dead, like so much of Christian art, chooses to do neither. It plays to its audience, giving another boost to the myth of the embattled Christian while reassuring them that everything is okay. Cathartic as that might be, it isn’t true. And if Christian art doesn’t have truth – if it becomes yet another escapist trope – then what’s the point?