I am sometimes embarrassed when I remember how important a certain book was to me five years ago. Amplify that embarrassment exponentially for each year closer to high school. The embarrassment comes partly, I think, from what the earth-shattering import I gave to this or that book says about what I had read up to that point in my life.Read More
Filtering by Category: The Arts
I watched and heard my students say these lines, and so many more, one day in January. They were embodying poems they'd learned by heart, each one saying two: one of 25 lines or fewer, and one composed before the twentieth century was. We were following the rules of Poetry Out Loud, the national poetry recitation contest sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts.Read More
I’ve been mentoring a student in a senior project on poetics. Recently we read this wrenching instance of the sestina, a form that calls for the same six words, in differing orders, to end the lines of six consecutive stanzas, then for the sudden yoking of those words into a three-line envoy.Read More
“My fate is to live among varied and confusing storms.” — Petrarch
We all have them, dark times of struggle. Whether they last an intense day or long years, whether they’re about money, health, or relationships, they settle on us like night. They create tunnel vision, and can blind us to what lies beyond their shadows.Read More
Sports have made me a superstitious person. Whenever Tottenham plays I wear a particular shirt. When I take foul shouts I spin the ball, bounce three times, spin the ball and shoot. Once, during a playoff game between the Red Sox and Cleveland in college, I refused to exit the dorm during a fire drill because I didn’t want to disturb the thin fabric between me and the late-inning rally occurring a thousand miles away. (Also: the guy who organized the fire drill and physically removed me was from Cleveland, so…) Because it seems to alway work, this entrenches the superstition.I do this with writing, too. Limiting the number of drafts, pre-determined writing times, who and who doesn’t read it before I feel it’s complete, writing in the study vs writing in the kitchen, surrounded by books or surrounded by the kids.
But perhaps these replications aren’t superstition. Maybe it’s more scientific. Because whenever an experiment is produced, one that yields results, science demands that same experiment be exactly replicated. As Alan Lightman says, “the results must be reproduced… in order to gain acceptance.”
The deeply humorous Jorge Luis Borges examined this same tendency in the fantastic short story-disguised-as-an-imaginary book review, Pierre Menard, Author the Quixote. Menard wants to write Don Quixote. However, he does not want to compose another Don Quixote, or even an anachronistic 20th century version of Don Quixote. Menard wants to compose “the Don Quixote.” He wants to match it word for word, sentence for sentence, idea for idea. Don Quixote being an “accidental book”, Menard’s endeavor to recreate it will make it better.
He believes there is a way to accomplish this: “to know Spanish well, to re-embrace the Catholic faith, to fight against the Moors and Turks, to forget European history between 1602 and 1918 [the year this story takes place], and to be Miguel de Cervantes. Menard dismisses this method it for it’s obviousness (and impossibility!). Instead, he suggests it is infinitely more profound to be a 20th century author and arrive at Don Quixote. Borges reveals that Menard does accomplish this task and though the texts, he says, are identical, Menard’s is infinitely richer.
But literature (and all Art) isn’t like science. It absolutely balks at the need to be reproduced to find acceptance. That’s one of the ironies Borges is getting at, I think.
Because we homeschool, it’s our task to teach science. Whenever I recreate a science experiment for the kids, there is a certain awe that permeates. Because here I am, recreating this truth that helped change the world — whether it’s understanding the rotation of the earth or why things float or what happens to water at different stages of matter. I’ve found that these simple truths of science, so widely accepted, resonate even more strongly because I’ve made them occur myself.
Would it be better if writing worked liked this? What if you or I could compose a great work of literature verbatim? Would our exactly replicated version of Don Quixote or Pride and Prejudice or Things Fall Apart be better? Would this diminish the work itself because it ceases then to be unique, or would this cement the truth of the work more firmly?
I worked a number of positions in television news, and the only aspect of it I really enjoyed was the news writing. The experience taught me a great deal about the kind of writer I wanted to be. And until recently, I’d forgotten I’d wanted to be the kind of writer whose stories are read aloud. There’s a power in telling stories for all to hear.
While I’d been able to read aloud The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, My Side of the Mountain, even Beowulf and the Aeneid to our kids, it hadn’t become a regular practice. This past Christmas we received the new illustrated Harry Potter and I thought, “What the hell, they’re old enough.” So I started reading it to the two oldest kids. I figured they’d be awed from the start. They weren’t.
One of the habits of being a news writer was to read out loud everything you wrote. It helped if you were able to mimic, to some degree, the anchors who would read the story. And while I wasn’t great at completely aping the sound of their voices, I could get the cadences down, I could wager where they’d be likely to pause, speed up, or slow down. It made me a better writer to understand how my anchors would speak.
And so after the first chapter of the first Harry Potter books fell flat, I realized I needed to become a better reader. These characters had incredible voices. So I began to use them. Harry’s was, obviously, a proper Cockney; Vernon Dursley’s weight and anger meant his whole body should shake when he speaks from the back of his throat; Dudley whines. Hermione has a slightly pressured speech; Ron is quite certainly from Boston. It’s been an enormous success, even if I’ve had to adopt upwards of twenty distinct voices as we’ve progressed through six books. (My favorites are Dumbledore’s Scottish drawl and Ginny’s Irish lilt.)
Gina Ochsner has written a marvelous novel called The Hidden Letters of Velta B. I implore you to read it. The main character, Inara, narrates the stories of her life to her son while on her deathbed. Ochsner’s brilliant writing absorbs the euphony of oral story-telling. The voice of Inara is so sublime that you’ll find the words tumbling out of your mouth in an empty room at 1am.
Inara believes inviolably in the telling of stories out loud because in this way we can “bury them deeply and firmly, pushing them down to an unshakeable foundation, a bedrock of truth.” And on this we can begin to build, to connect to each other in new ways. My experience in reading to the kids has had this effect. I’m often called upon to do one of the voices while making dinner, giving baths, saying goodnight. These stories, heard aloud, have come alive. For example, my son mimics well my voice for Luna Lovegood. During a theater class he used the voice to perform a short monologue. Based on the way I’ve read Luna’s character it fit perfectly into the character he assumed.
But I have questioned the effect of my reading efforts. Have I somehow warped the story to my own whimsical adaptations? Or prevented them from fully grasping the weight of it? They did not respond to a main character’s death with any emotion (I even read it during the day so they wouldn’t fall asleep heartbroken!) And what about when I read these books again and I do some of the voices differently?
Inara’s son Maris questions the logic of verbal story-telling. Here’s how Inara responds:
If you stand in a river you will never feel the same water touch you twice. A story is never told exactly the same way… The words work on us differently each time we hear them…As familiar as they are, they will never grow old. We stand in those familiar waters and feel ourselves transformed anew. This is the power of word worked through the body.
This is why we must tell our stories.
I know that reading Harry Potter through out loud this time has worked such an exact magic over me. It’s an altered experience to dart around the room reading about when Harry wins the Quidditch Cup. To shake and growl out Hagrid’s bellowing because his spider has died. Or to work Harry’s anger toward Dumbledore through my jaw. To squeak out Neville’s bravery in book one and know what happens in book seven.
There is a transformative energy that come with sending words up and out through the body, whether they are your own or someone else’s. And even though my youngest daughter often comes into the room to tell me I’m being too loud and she can’t sleep, I can’t ignore the refrain of Inara’s dying exhortation: “Let us baptize our world in words.”
Raphael's last painting may very well be his greatest. It was completed in 1520 just before his death at the age of 37. In it we see Jesus hovering just above the surface of the earth. He is flanked by Moses and Elijah who join Him in His resplendent glory as Peter, James, and John look on. The setting is transcendent and beautiful and amazing and glorious. But it is only part of the painting. The lower half of this same painting depicts a scene of utter chaos. Toward the right is a demon-possessed boy. His eyes are rolled back and he is convulsing. He, too, is flanked by two figures, but they are not Moses and Elijah. Instead, they are the personifications of the oppressing spirits who defiantly stare down the other disciples. The followers of Jesus are flustered and unsure. They're looking at each other, and pointing at each other, and throwing up their hands in complete frustration.
According to St. Mark's account of this story, both events—the transfiguration and the failed exorcism—are occurring at nearly the same time. It is almost as if Mount Tabor itself stands as a character in the larger story, as Raphael moves us from Shekinah glory at the "top" of the mountain to the confusing chaotic mayhem at the "base" of the same mountain. And, if I'm honest, it is a tension I see often in my own life:
Sunday morning gives way to Monday morning. The sublime is overwhelmed by frustration. Glory is devoured by trial.
And yet there is grace.
And every one of them words rang true And glowed like burnin’ coal Pourin’ off of every page Like it was written in my soul from me to you — Bob Dylan
You know what it’s like to be a literary voyeur. You see a photo of someone in front of a bookcase, and what’s the first thing you do? Tilt your head and read the titles on the shelf. And if you’re a serious voyeur, you make a list of books to add to your collection. In addition to being a literary voyeur, I’m a musical voyeur. I have always listened, over the shoulder, to other people’s music. Growing up as the youngest of five, there was no way I was going to get to the record player first. This set the pattern for being a passive music collector. Music is like a dandelion that sends its seeds on the breeze; even though I didn’t search it out, music always found me. Because it’s the heartbeat of varied people, my music over time has become a colorful and eclectic collection.
If left to myself, I may still be singing along with this, the first song I picked out myself, and the first 45 I ever remember buying. See how it’s a good thing that I’ve been a musical voyeur?
At first, my voyeurism led me into things like Broadway musicals. I’m pretty sure I can still sing the songs from West Side Story and Funny Girl. I vividly remember tucking away in my room and soothing my moody teen blues with Carole King’s Tapestry, or wearing the grooves down on Jesus Christ Superstar, feeling a little reckless singing with Herod.
Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs still sow seeds through my day, as I continue to discover the sacred – mystery and brokenness, wonder and longing – in a broad scope of music. I return to some of the artists whose music travels on the winds of home. Dylan, for instance, whose simple, expressive metaphor for longing, “tangled up in blue,” still captivates me. Even after time, it’s as resonant as a song should be that took “10 years to live and two to write.” Then there are the Beatles’ hard to surpass imaginative lyrics, like the ones flowing from Lennon yielding to his Alice in Wonderland muse:
Picture yourself in a boat on a river With tangerine trees and marmalade skies Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly A girl with kaleidoscope eyes
There are the “sweet and lovely” intricacies of John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk in this. I glean from the harvest of those listening to music around me: Miles Davis, Billie Holliday, David Bowie, Alan Parsons, Neil Young, Beethoven, Debussy, Sufjan Stevens, Aesop Rock. The only genre I haven’t enjoyed too much is rock and roll. Mostly for the reason Dylan notes, “The thing about rock'n'roll is that for me anyway it wasn't enough. . . There were great catch-phrases and driving pulse rhythms... but the songs weren't serious or didn't reflect life in a realistic way. I knew that when I got into folk music, it was more of a serious type of thing. The songs are filled with more despair, more sadness, more triumph, more faith in the supernatural, much deeper feelings.”
Listening to these deeper feelings makes me a better listener as I lean into someone else’s musical perspective. Picking up music from others almost always involves interesting conversations because people love to talk about the music that is “written in their souls.” This connection leads me to identify with the music in a different way than I would on my own. It fills my life with the nuances and layers of new musical languages.
This year I discovered some music on my own and welcomed more that I picked up from others, making it a great musical blend that I love for many reasons: joy and pathos, simplicity and complexity, lyricism and artistic experimentation (someone asks if this might be the first hip hop song). There is also recent music from artists I am privileged to know personally, like these songs as described in one word by the artists themselves: licentious and manic.
And now I wait, for new favorites to drift through an open window. As Donne says,
The heavens rejoice in motion, why should I abjure my so much loved variety?
“But Mole stood still a moment, held in thought. As one wakened suddenly from a beautiful dream, who struggles to recall it, but can recapture nothing but a dim sense of the beauty in it, the beauty! Till that, too, fades away in its turn, and the dreamer bitterly accepts the hard, cold waking and all its penalties.” ― Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows
You know the feeling. You've just finished a big show, cleaned up the messes, returned the equipment, the wrap party is over, and now what? For weeks life had singular purpose. For the last several days you've been riding that wave. What exhilaration! And as soon as the morning after, you're on the shore looking out at the horizon on a dead calm.
In the seventh chapter of Wind in the Willows, Rat and Mole set off down the river on an adventure to save their friend, Portly. Along the way they hear and follow a haunting song with great anticipation. As they enter Wild Wood they are confronted with a mystical appearance of Pan playing the song against a rising sun and are overcome with a desire to worship. When they lift their heads, Portly is sitting there, no worse for the wear. But, they can't remember what happened and they can't recall the song. It seems an oddly melancholy moment.
The title of the chapter is “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”― and youth group called their recent musical based on it “The Gates of Dawn." In just seventy days we wrote the script and songs, designed and constructed the set, learned our parts, and did two shows. At church some days later I noticed bits of the froth like patches of suds on the faces of the kids. No one mentioned it. It was as if we'd forgotten, but not.
In two weeks from this writing the Church will celebrate Pentecost. We'll have ridden the ebb of Lent through the highs of Eastertide for nearly one hundred days. And in a rain of fiery tongues we'll celebrate the arrival of the Holy Spirit in power. The following week will be Trinity Sunday and the Sunday after that begins the long stretch of calm seas called Ordinary Time. It will dawn as a kind of inevitable denouement that allows us to gather the threads of our lives―in my case, the lawn, some work, the rest that I'd foregone―and let memory return in time with the understanding that abides the common, the quiet, and the quotidian.
Read Part I here
“It may be the coldest day of the year, what does he think of that? I mean, what do I? And if I do, perhaps I am myself again.” —Frank O’Hara
What effect are these new gestures having on Don Draper? Does he feel more like himself again? Would that be a good thing? Or are the gestures leading to something better, something blended of the Dick Whitman he was and the Don Draper he had become? On his trip west, after giving his car away to the young man who reminded him a lot of himself, Draper sits alone at a bus stop. He looks like a drifter, except for the bag of money in his lap. He ends up at the Bonneville Salt Flats and puts his money and mechanical talents behind two guys trying to break the land speed record. These last episodes are filled with generous gestures, so different from the selfish gestures that had been the pathway to creating Don Draper. They show him not in command, but helping others take command. He looks up Stephanie, to find a way to help her, because he feels like he has a responsibility toward her, for Anna’s sake.
Stephanie drags Don to a retreat on the coast. She leaves suddenly without him after an emotional confrontation with a woman about the child she gave up. Stranded at the retreat, he feels the full weight of the misery that propelled him on his quest and now includes sorrow over Betty’s pending death. Her words were sounding in his ears, “I want to keep things as normal as possible. And you not being here is part of that.” Don calls Peggy and agonizes, “I messed everything up. I’m not the man you think I am.” When she asks him, “What did you ever do that was so bad?” his answer reveals the depths he’s been searching, “Broke all my vows, scandalized my child, took another man’s name and made nothing of it.”
An attendee comes up to Don as he sits on the ground by the phone. He looks so distraught she thinks he is on a bad trip. She invites him to a session she is late for, on the pretense of not wanting to walk in alone.
During the session, Don listens closely to a man named Leonard who describes how his office job and his family leave him feeling invisible. He tells about a dream he had that describes how even though his family is kind and happy, they don’t seem to include him, they leave him sitting on the refrigerator shelf and close the door, making the light go out. At that point, the man starts to cry. At first, you think maybe he’s laughing over the refrigerator dream. But then you realize he’s weeping. As the man’s easy going facade crumbles, Don gets to his feet and walks over to him. Some have said that Don Draper never changes. But here is a gesture unlike any he has ever made. He gets down on one knee before Leonard, who no doubt would have been his subordinate in an office setting, he wraps his arms around him, but not just to comfort him. Don puts his head on Leonard’s shoulder and sobs with him. It was a gesture another Whitman expressed this way, “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.” Don Draper relates to this invisible man because his own identity has been so elusive.
The next morning, Don stands watching the ocean on the edge of a cliff. Did you think for a second he might throw himself off? He breathes the sea air, watches the sun come up. Was he ever so clear eyed and unhungover first thing in the morning? Later, sitting cross-legged in a group meditation, while concentrating on his mantra, the idea for the Coke ad comes to him, he smiles.
Did Don Draper go back east and pick up where he left off, to work his way into a partnership at McCann Erickson? Don Draper changed, that fact is revealed in his expansive gestures. This kind of transformation results in lifestyle changes. Rather than going back east, it’s more likely that he bought a house on the beach and became an advertising consultant. California was always the better coast for Don. It’s where he visited Anna, proposed to Megan, and got away from his New York problems. Like Joan who celebrated the good and bad of her climb to independence by calling her production company Holloway-Harris (“you need two names to make it sound real” she told Peggy), Don might call his company Whitman-Draper, reconciling the two parts of who he has become, and as a nod to this other poet he would relate to. Maybe it was this Whitman Matthew Weiner had in mind all along who said, “A writer can do nothing for men more necessary, satisfying, than just simply to reveal to them the infinite possibilities of their own souls.”
Didn’t we know, out of all the possibilities, that he’d land on his feet? There he was every week at the end of the fall sequence, comfortably settled on the sofa, white collar and cuffs, cigarette in hand.
(Don’t miss Don Draper reading Frank O’Hara’s poem.)
“Now I am quietly waiting for the catastrophe of my personality to seem beautiful again...” —Frank O’Hara
We wondered if he’d make it, after years of watching the silhouetted man in the title sequence tumble past the images on the skyscraper. It was the confluence of verb and adjective, he was falling and fallen in every episode. We read it in his gestures.
We became familiar with these gestures, lighting a cigarette, pouring a drink, catching a woman. The straight posture, the raised eyebrows, the shrug. Many of his gestures spoke the language of a commanding presence, a successful partner, the iconic possessor of the American Dream.
In a way, the gestures were both the building and the unraveling of the man. He fed off them and they undid him, each in their turn. There were gestures that gave us a view into his murky depths. There was his assault of Bobbie Barrett in the ladies’ room when she attempted to bribe him. There was the moment he returned home with the cake for Sally’s birthday party only to pass the house, drive late into the night to brood. Maybe he was thinking about “having it all” as a party guest gloated, or maybe about Rachel Menken and being trapped in a marriage in the suburbs. There were the gestures inherent in two failed marriages, and many hookups and infidelities—at least 19 women in his life over a 10-year period.
There were some bright gestures blended with the dark. He was devoted to Anna Draper, the real Don Draper’s wife. He promised he would take care of her, gave her money for a porch, painted her living room. He sent her a book of Frank O’Hara’s poems that deeply moved him (the Beatnik at the bar couldn't see past the suit.). Anna once told him, “I know everything about you and I still love you." When he later heard about her death, he sobbed and told Peggy that Anna was “the only person in the world who really knew him.”
Gradually the degrading, selfish, and hurtful gestures transitioned to something more hopeful. What did it mean for him to show his children the brothel where he grew up, after carefully creating a polished father image to impress them? Seeing Don in front of the derelict house appearing a little mystified, and the children looking both stunned and awed, one critic writes, “Sally immediately recognizes the enormity of the gesture.”
After he made his fortune, reclaimed himself from alcoholism, and fell through almost every relationship he had, he began to look both out of place and at home in his new gestures. For once his presence in the room wasn’t commanding. In the McCann Erickson boardroom he seemed bewildered by the box lunch that replaced the full bar, and within minutes of the presentation, his expression seemed almost whimsical as he looked out the window and watched an airplane float past the Empire State Building. Weren’t we waiting for his usual rhythms to kick in? For him to stand up and say something creatively insightful that would put him back in his rightful place at the head of the conference table? Instead, he stood up and wandered out the door.
He went to spend time with his children, but they had become accustomed to his absence. Sally got a ride back to boarding school rather than wait for him to take her, and the boys were doing traditionally father-son activities, scouts and baseball, without him. He finds Betty in the kitchen reading her psychology book. He rubs her shoulders when he sees she is sore and she explains it was from carrying all her textbooks at registration. In a tender moment, she confides that she always wanted to study psychology, and Don smiles and encourages her, “Knock ‘em dead, Birdie.”
He builds bridges to Sally, keeping in touch with her while she’s at school, giving her advice and extra money for things like sport’s equipment. He gave Megan a million dollars because he felt bad about derailing her life. He pursued a waitress, not for his usual reasons, but because “she seemed lost.” It’s as if, seeing the collapse of his life in (and out of) the gray suit, he needed someone to rescue. He heads west, feeling a kinship to Jack Kerouac as he and a daydream Cooper quote from his book, “Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?” He helps a kid who tried to swindle him, with the grand gesture of giving him his car, to help him “choose a different route,” as one critic put it. Different from the road that Dick Whitman had so far paved with elaborate lies.
Read Part 2 here
Here at Relief, we are ever thankful for the art-and-faith community that sustains us: that large but loosely affiliated group of people around the world who value excellence in writing and the arts, and who also are followers of Christ. This is our tribe, and together we’re shaping the landscapes of literature and belief.
We plan our attendance at the Festival of Faith and Writing or the Glen Workshop a year or more in advance. We zealously await new books by Marilynne Robinson, Wendell Berry, Kathleen Norris, or others whose works are the cornerstones of our reading lives.
And we read, publish in, blog for, work at, or otherwise engage art-and-faith journals such as Image, Books & Culture, Rock & Sling, Saint Katherine Review…and of course the beautiful Ruminate. Here is where emerging voices—are own among them—find homes alongside award-winning writers.
Some of these journals are housed at universities, or are part of organizations that can help financially sustain their work. Others are run independently, operating entirely on the goodwill of savvy and passionate volunteers.
* * *
Ruminate has been independent since its founding. Its staff have day jobs and often do their work at the journal on nights and weekends, between family and professional commitments. These dear friends and colleagues have found that this model is no longer sustainable.
That’s where we come in. We can provide balance to numbers that are dramatically skewed.
Did you know that Ruminate receives and carefully reads over 5,000 submissions a year? How many of those submitters offer any support in return? Well, the journal has around 500 subscribers, a number of which are libraries, along with four monthly donors and about fifteen one-time donors per year.
It’s clear that the vast majority who send to Ruminate—who expect and receive excellent attention to our work—are not doing our part in the relationship. Now is our chance to change that trend.
They’ve launched a fundraising campaign, and they need every one of us in the art-and-faith community to give something. A one-time gift of $30 or $60 is doable for most of us, even if it requires a bit of sacrifice. If you can give a little more, please consider doing it. They’ve already raised over $13,000.00 but still have a long way to go. If they cannot meet this financial goal, Ruminate will be forced to close its doors in 2016.
We’re all in this together. If one art-and-faith journal goes out, we’re all much worse for it. Ruminate knows how badly our world needs the comfort and challenge of excellent faith-infused art. Let’s show them how much we love what they do.
Please take a moment to read this note from Ruminate’s Editor-in-Chief Brianna Van Dyke.
Then click here to do your part.
Please spread the word in your own art-and-faith circles by sharing these links. Thank you!
Matthew Fox tells the story in his book Creativity, about a group of fundamentalists who became the majority on a New Hampshire county school board. Their first decree was to not allow the use of the word "imagination" in the classroom. When Mr. Fox inquired what they were afraid of they said, "Satan. Satan lives in the imagination."
I assume much of this spiritual sentiment comes from poor interpretation of verses like Ephesians 6:12, "For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places."
Ephesians 6:12 aside, what a strange ethereal battle to fight within a school: invisible forces and the thoughts of others. It’s difficult enough fighting battles against enemies we can see, how much more against ones we cannot. Who is to gauge whether we’re winning or not? When is the battle over?
Ephesians 6:12 places this ongoing battle in the heavenly places, epouraniois. A curious word Paul creates out of his imagination just for the purpose of this letter. It’s a place above the sky, a place where Christ sits, but also a place with enemies. Satan is in epouraniois.
The late painter Thomas Kinkade called himself the Painter of Light and preferred to portray the world without the fall, without evil or the possibility of Satan. In speaking of a mural he painted for the Billy Graham Library, he said painting it was "a moment of divine inspiration" and that the painting offers viewers "a glimpse of a heavenly realm."
Should we be creating canvasses full of light without a hint of darkness? Can violence and evil have a purpose in our art, in our imaginations?
As Gregory Wolfe comments about Kinkade's art: “If faith teaches us anything, it should be that our nostalgia is for an ideal we can only find after accepting, and passing through, the brokenness of a fallen world. Any other approach, in art or in life, is a form of denial."
If evil is here to stay, in our high places, in our low places, in our heavenly places, and if imagination is to play a vital role in schools and in our lives, then our fight isn’t against the power of these places — whether heavenly or imaginative — our fight is for unqualified truth. In that truth we begin to see the invisible. Only then do we know what we’re up against.
“A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is.” ― Flannery O'Connor
There is a picture circulating on Facebook of a gray ceramic bowl that has been broken and repaired, its cracks filled with gold. Kintsukuroi. The caption reads: (n.) (v. phr.) “to repair with gold”; the art of repairing pottery with gold or silver lacquer and understanding that the piece is more beautiful for having been broken.
The sentiment resonates. We have all been wounded and broken, and we all can, at least most of the time, acknowledge some blessing. More than that, kintsukuroi marks an event in the history of an object. It tells a story. And the story ends in restoration.
But this feels too neat to me. It feels dishonest. There are wounds that can’t be painted smoothly over with gold. What about the fractured parts that will never be put back together, will never take the same shape again?
Over and over in a million different ways we learn the heaviness of the world, learn to navigate its depth and its jagged edges. It is an act of faith to live with the fragments, even the ones unrepaired by gold, even while there is no resolution, not yet.
Paintings above by Daniel Barkley: “Vincent B, Arms Crossed,” “Study for Golden Boy,” “Vincent, etude pour Golden Boy,” arranged in this sequence by the author.
“... the only way of ‘mastering’ one’s material is to abandon the whole conception of mastery and to co-operate with it in love: whosoever will be a lord of life, let him be its servant. If he tries to wrest life out of its true nature, it will revenge itself in judgment, as the work revenges itself on the domineering artist.” (Dorothy Sayers, The Mind of the Maker, 186)
In The Mind of the Maker, Dorothy Sayers makes the intriguing point that our modern culture typically approaches life according to a scientific or analytic “problem and solution” paradigm rather than what she calls a “creative” paradigm. As she states, modern man views life “as a series of problems … which he has to solve with the means at his disposal. And he is distressed to find that the more means he can dispose of — such as machine power, rapid transport, and general civilized amenities, the more his problems grow in hardness and complexity. This is particularly disconcerting to him, because he has been frequently told that the increase of scientific knowledge would give him ‘mastery over nature’ — which ought surely to imply mastery over life” (185-6). In short, we try to take a method that’s applicable to a small subset of human experience and try to apply it to all areas of life, indeed to human life itself.
In her creative paradigm, life isn’t a problem to be solved, nor the mystery of the universe an equation to be worked out; for one thing, these imply the ability to master life. Rather, in this view (as Christine Fletcher summarizes Sayers), “life presents a series of opportunities to make something new” (The Artist and the Trinity, 96). The artist, for Sayers, doesn’t stand outside life as an engineer, but, open-endedly, within life, working with the elements of life according to their nature, in order to make something out of them in harmony with their nature, essentially in an ongoing process of being fruitful and multiplying, that is, in all the various aspects of human life and human interaction with the world. Sayers applies this creative paradigm not just to the artist in the narrower sense, but to the fabric of human nature itself, indeed suggesting that “creative mind is … the very grain of the spiritual universe” (Mind of the Maker, 185).
Thus, central to what Sayers is arguing seems to be that modern man does not want to live life (this ongoing fruitful process); he wants to master life. Modern man seeks to overcome even the deeper problems of life through, e.g., analytic or machine techniques, seeking to conform the world to human will. But the creative paradigm doesn’t seek to master nature. It works with the materials received, according to their nature, to bring forth yet new things. Therein, even “the pains and sorrows of this troublesome world can never … be wholly meaningless and useless.” The artist will seek to “make something of them” (192-3). In short, they are the materials for a new creation or a new synthesis. This, Sayers argues, is the pattern that Christian theology provides as well. And there is a striking parallel, e.g., in the Incarnation. The problem of the Fall isn’t simply “solved” in the sense that problematic elements simply disappear by force of will and reason. They become themselves part of the very elements out of which something brand new is brought forth. God enters within the context of human life as things stand and creatively engages with all the factors involved according to their nature (taking on the “likeness of sinful flesh” [Rom 8:3]). Thus all the materials of the fallen order are employed to create something new. To be sure, God “adds” new materials — the supernatural breaking into the natural — but the old materials are integrated into the new, having been transformed into something glorious through God’s creative work. One is reminded of C. S. Lewis’ analogy, in “The Grand Miracle,” of discovering the missing, central passage of a symphony or chapter of a novel, which, when plugged in, transforms and transvalues its whole meaning, making new sense of all the other parts, forming a masterpiece. Thus, though life is often, in large part, made up of tragedy we can rest in God’s promise and his creative power that he can take all of those elements — the scars, pain, loss, and all other seemingly useless material — not simply erasing them or resetting everything to zero, but creatively forming out of them a new creation of unforeseen glory (how else could a crucifixion be the creative means of glorifying the Son of God?).
Do we perhaps often stand “outside” life, seeking to engineer our lives and thereby gain mastery over it through techniques, or (similarly) get lost in imaginary scenarios that could have been but are not? If Sayers is correct, should we not rather stand “within” life, as its servant, imaginatively interacting with what is there, engaging with life in media res, seeking to create new forms and re-integrations of the good, the beautiful, the true (in all walks of life)? While also, of course, admitting to the tragedy and the brokenness and the longing of life that cannot be assuaged by human ingenuity.
(Painting by Frida Kahlo)
My grandmother went white water rafting for the first time in her fifties, and my aunt began painting and owling in her forties, and another went back to school in her thirties to earn her bachelor’s degree and then her master’s.
So maybe it’s in my blood, but a month ago I found myself in bare feet and tights in a dance studio, facing the mirror. I’d signed up for a six-week workshop: introduction to modern dance. I’m no stranger to dance studios; in my thirty years, I’ve had about twelve years of ballet classes — in college I went two or three times a week — and even own a pair of pointe shoes from a class I took when I was about twenty. I’ve never been very good at ballet, because my body is close to, but not quite the right type: I’m built a little too close to what women’s magazines call “athletic,” slim but not quite slim enough, and my hamstrings have always been preposterously tight.
Modern dance always intrigued me, though — I make a point to see a lot of it — and so, there I was.
And one week in, I was googling, “Can adults become advanced modern dancers?” I could already tell it was far different from ballet, more about the movement and the rhythm and gravity than hitting the right shape over and over. I was grinning by the end of the first class, enjoying the movement and the feeling of freedom. Just to hold out your arms and spread your fingers and fling yourself around a bit, all to music: it’s wonderful. It’s freeing. It actually really feels like dancing.
That said, any time I start enjoying something, realizing I’m sort of okay at it, I want to set a goal: publish an essay, teach a class, run a half-marathon. Within a week, I was already thinking, This is something I could do. I could really be a modern dancer. For fun, of course, but still. Something about putting my hard work out there in the open where other people can see it makes it real. Right?
Is the work really worth doing if nobody notices?
So I guess maybe that’s the next new thing I need to pick up as an adult: doing the work of learning something new for the sheer joy of it.
(Photo by Lois Greenfield)
Just the other day I was paralyzed by these words:
“What would you do differently, you up on your beanstalk looking at scenes of people at all times in all places? When you climb down, would you dance any less to the music you love, knowing that music to be as provisional as a bug?. . .If you descend the long rope-ladders back to your people and time in the fabric, if you tell them what you have seen, and even if someone cares to listen, then what?”
The words are from Annie Dillard’s essay, “How to Live,” which first appeared in Image in 2001. I had been thumbing through the Bearing the Mystery anthology in the few minutes I had with my coffee before the kids came home. Now I heard the bus’s diesel engine rounding the corner and didn’t know what to do.
Writing that moves us, we say, makes us laugh or cry. It may even compel us to fight for justice, reach out to a stranger, say a prayer, or otherwise turn our lives around.
But this essay, this essay about my miniscule passions in “the infinite fabric of time that eternity shoots through,” rendered me helpless. I wasn’t so much overwhelmed with sadness or questions but numb, frozen-fingered in my ability to grasp anything. The fact that such a concept as eternity existed was enough, for the first time in my life, to make the floor tiles spin.
Some art does that—shifts the tectonic plates of our perceptions. It doesn’t inspire us but undoes us, haunts us until we view the image, listen to the piece, or read the essay again. I didn’t want to read it again. It made my stomach hurt, my breath shallow. But I went back to it later that day. Then again the next night. And the next. “Then what?” Dillard asks. Then what, then what, then what?
I still have no idea what to do.
But I know I would like to create something—even just one essay, poem, flowerbed or gingersnap—that leaves someone gaping like a caught fish.
Be still and know that you know nothing, the essay (Spirit? tiles?) seems to be whispering to me. Then work out of that.
I was not familiar with David Bazan when two friends, Joe and Marcelo, stopped by for a beer and introduced me to his album Curse Your Branches. Joe told me Bazan’s music showed him, “it was okay to not only have doubts and explore them but also to talk about them publically.” Marcelo said, “I want my ‘entertainment’ to continually wake me up.”
The songs did wake me up. It was like no Christian—or former Christian?—music I had ever heard. I was not sure what to do with it.
Bazan’s former publicist Jessica Hopper talked to some kids after he had played a set at Cornerstone, and they didn’t know what to make of him either. She writes, “many of them [seemed] to be trying to spin the new songs, straining to categorize them as Christian so they [could] justify continuing to listen to them.” One kid told her Bazan was “singing about the perils of sin, ‘particularly sexual sin.’” Another reported that the songs were “a witness of addiction, the testimony of the stumbling man.”
Witness is an apt representation, but not the kind I grew up hearing about in my small Baptist church.
At the 2009 Festival of Faith and Music, Bazan said in an interview that he always felt a tug toward something authentic, the longing to get out of “that [Christian artist] ghetto.” Plenty has been written about the need for Christians to make higher quality art, but it is about much more than quality.
In his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being Milan Kundera discusses the aesthetics of kitsch. Kundera’s short definition of kitsch is that it is an aesthetic ideal "in which shit is denied and everyone acts as though it did not exist."
Kitsch is an ethical term as much as it is an aesthetic one. In an article in Salon Curtis White calls a book “intellectually shameful.” He explains: “To be intellectually shameful is to be dishonest, to tell less than you know, or ought to know, and to shape what you present in a way that misrepresents the real state of affairs.” Dishonest art is not just aesthetically bad; it is unethical, even shameful.
Curse Your Branches is not a breezy listen—it is emotionally demanding; there is real anguish. It is deeply ethical though. Bazan looks at the world without blinking and honestly relates what he sees there—even when it is ugly.
In his words, “that's what bearing witness is.”
“I see you’re a writer,” a friend messaged me. We had just reconnected via Facebook, after being out of touch for almost twenty years. She asked if I would be willing to critique a story. “Be honest,” she told me. “Don’t pull any punches.” I was honest. Her story was full of passion and longing. It dealt with family and belonging, hurting the ones we love most, forgiveness, redemption. It was not a very good story.
I never heard from her again, and the other day I noticed that somewhere along the way, we had stopped being Facebook friends as well.
I’ve had a number of similar experiences with amateur writers, and two things are inevitably true: the writer is wrestling with real and important subject matter, and she does not want to put in the long, hard hours required to make it something great—she wants to take a short cut.
In an interview recently, Ira Glass, talking about an artist’s apprenticeship, said, “there’s a gap, that for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good, OK? It’s not that great. It’s really not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good.” He went on to say most people quit before they’ve gotten through this stage of making bad art.
In the novel My Name is Asher Lev, the naturally talented Asher goes to study craft under a master painter. The gruff old man warns Asher that it is not going to be an easy apprenticeship. It will be rigorous and often not much fun—but it is the only way. He tells Asher, “Only one who has mastered a tradition has a right to attempt to add to it or to rebel against it.” You can break any rules you can get away with breaking, to paraphrase Flannery O’Conner; but you have to be doing it for a good and apparent reason, not because you don’t know any better.
Short of being born a genius, there are no shortcuts. You have things burning to be expressed? Important things to say? Be serious about your apprenticeship—learn your craft. If your passion is true, this will not extinguish your fire. It will refine it, focus it until it burns white hot and pure.
To be on adventure is in our DNA. We're drawn by something out there. And what about adventuring in? What about exploring the frontiers of the soul?Read More