October Delight | Words of Wednesday

I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers. –L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables


Friends Going Leaf Peeping: Colorado AspensI got that October feeling today. You know the one. Where the sky is grey, and the air is crisp, and you’re inside, and warm, surrounded by laughing strangers, as you sip your pumpkin spice latte (with whipped cream and an extra shot, because, why not?) and everything is a bit golden, a bit bright, a bit tinged with that holiday-feeling. With that sense of magic. The world, for no particular reason, a bit right.

It always makes me miss Oxford, that feeling. Oxford, where I first fell in love with autumn. Oxford, where the college ivy will be turning red, and wool sweaters will make their appearance on High Street, and pubs and tea shops will be bright and cheery with students and tourists, and the Bodleian lights will glow in the early dusk.

But I’m not in Oxford today. I’m in Colorado — adding one more place to the patchwork mosaic that is my definition of “home.” In Colorado, watching the sun dip behind the mountains, turning the sky the color of golden aspens (mixed with just a hint of that Oxford ivy). In Colorado, living with two of my dearest friends, reading Anne of Green Gables aloud, running every morning (have I ever seen so many sunrises?), cooking dinners, watching anime, playing board games, editing dissertations, listening to audiobooks, and seeking, with Anne, to live every moment of it fiercely alive. 

October was a beautiful month at Green Gables, when the birches in the hollow turned as golden as sunshine and the maples behind the orchard were royal crimson and the wild cherry-trees along the lane put on the loveliest shades of dark red and bronzy green, while the fields sunned themselves in aftermaths.

Anne revelled in the world of color about her.

“Oh, Marilla,” she exclaimed one Saturday morning, coming dancing in with arms full of gorgeous boughs. “I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers. It would be terrible if we just skipped from September to November, wouldn’t it? Look at these maple branches. Don’t they give you a thrill — several thrills? I’m going to decorate my room with them.”

–L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables, ch. 16

Aren’t you glad we live in a world with Octobers?

The Gaze of a Lion | Words of Wednesday

From “Serengeti” by Mary Oliver:

Can anyone doubt that the lion of Serengeti
is part of the idea of God?

. . .

the bone-breaker,
and the agent of transformation?
No doubt, in the beginning,
he rose out of the grass

like a fire–
as now he rises out of the grass,
like a fire,
gleaming and unapproachable,

and notices me,
and fixes me with his large,
almost fatherly eyes,
and flexes his shoulders.

I don’t know
anything so beautiful as the sunlight
in his rough hair.
I don’t know

where I have seen such power before–
except perhaps in the chapel
where Michelangelo’s God,
tawny and muscular,

tears the land from the firmament
and places the sun in the sky
so that we may live
on the earth,

among the amazements,
and the lion
runs softly through the dust,
and his eyes, under the thick, animal lashes,

are almost tender,
and I don’t know where I have been
so frightened,
or so happy.

A Couple of Lions


Today, I miss Africa.

Excerpted from Mary Oliver’s poem “Serengeti” in her collection House of Light (1990).

Have I Lived Enough? | Words of Wednesday

The Gardener

Have I lived enough?
Have I loved enough?
Have I considered Right Action enough, have I come to any conclusions?
Have I experienced happiness with sufficient gratitude?
Have I endured loneliness with grace?

I say this, or perhaps I’m just thinking it.
Actually, I probably think too much.

Then I step out into the garden,
where the gardener, who is said to be a simple man,
is tending his children, the roses.

Mary Oliver


From Mary Oliver’s 2012 collection, A Thousand Mornings.

The year (my year) is drawing to a close, and I find myself wrestling (as always) with questions of what it means to live well, to live fully. Have I shown up enough? Have I been present enough? Have I done enough? Have I been enough?

I don’t know the answer to any of those questions. But I do know that I got up every weekday morning, drank matcha, and talked to, fed, played with, cuddled, and generally spent time with my nephew. 

And, somehow, none of the rest of it seems to matter quite as much.

Magnus and Aunty Kar laughing on the couch

Feet towards the Sunrise | Words of Wednesday

There is a difference between curing and healing, and I believe the church is called to the slow and difficult work of healing. We are called to enter into one another’s pain, anoint it as holy, and stick around no matter the outcome. –Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday


You probably know that Rachel Held Evans died last weekend — a fact that I’m still trying to process (while avoiding the articles and discussions, however sympathetic, that wrangle over her faith, her legacy, and her life). I didn’t know Rachel personally. And, unlike many of my friends, I came to her work only recently, so she played no part in my discovery of feminism, my early journey with questions, or my wrestling with issues surrounding the LGBTQ community. Yet despite her absence from my life for most of my formative years, I found her Searching for Sunday to be revelatory — precisely because I found so many of my thoughts and longings spilled across its pages. It was the experience of connection, of encounter, of knowing oneself not alone that C.S. Lewis has declared to be the purpose of reading and writing. And in the midst of an ongoing search for female writers — women of faith — to sojourn with, I knew I’d found a kindred spirit.

Rachel is — Rachel was — only five years my senior. So I anticipated years and years of her presence, her wisdom, her compassion and insight, as companions on my journey. And, I suppose, I can still have those years, because, while Rachel isn’t here any longer, her work still is.

Yet I feel the ache nonetheless. An ache that doesn’t begin to compare with the loss her family is experiencing — the loss they’ll wake up with and go to sleep with and live with for the rest of their lives. Yet I grieve for the rest of us too. For we lost the voice, the leadership, the insight of a fierce, wise, articulate, Christ-loving woman just as she was coming into her own. And we are all of us poorer for it.

All of us, that is, but Rachel. She’s probably doing just fine.

The above quote is probably my favorite single statement from Searching, mostly because I think it sums up, so powerfully, what it looks like to usher in the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. Rachel was someone involved in Kingdom work — shaking strongholds, speaking truth, and showing up with ointment for the wounds of both church and world.

May her example cause all of us to grow deeper in courage, in integrity, in compassion, and in wholehearted devotion. May we have the faith to ask questions, to wrestle, to show up, to love, and to not be afraid. May we follow Christ into the bruised places of the world. And may we be buried with our feet towards the sunrise.

Why Write | Words of Wednesday

Writing, regardless of the end result — whether good or bad, published or not, well reviewed or slammed — means celebrating beauty in an often ugly world.

_______________________________________

Anybody struggling to make something — no matter how they succeed or don’t in terms of the marketplace — has entered into conversation with giants. We’re all in the same arena, and our efforts differ “in degree only, and not in kind.”

_______________________________________

To bring one’s self to others makes the whole planet less lonely.

_______________________________________

None of us can ever know the value of our lives, or how our separate and silent scribbling may add to the amenity of the world, if only by how radically it changes us, one and by one.

–Mary Karr, excerpts from “Against Vanity: In Praise of Revision” in The Art of Memoir


Note: I listened to this book in audio format, so I’m relying on a combination of my own and others’ transcriptions (thank you, internet) without the ability to double check punctuation against the original text. I apologize for any errors in accuracy.

From All the Possible Shapes | Words of Wednesday

For it feels as if I was made — from all the possible shapes a human might take — not to prove myself worthy but to refine the worth I’m formed from, acknowledge it, own it, spend it on others. –Mary Karr, Lit


Sorry for disappearing for a while. I’ve been traveling (cheering on my dad as he ran the Boston marathon and visiting my younger brother in Redding, California), which is part of my excuse, but probably the greater truth is that writing is on a bit of a back-burner at the moment. After months of stretching my pennies and desperately trying to hustle up work (and figure out how to hustle up work), I’ve actually had more on my plate these last few weeks than I really know what to do with (which doesn’t mean I’ve moved beyond the penny-pinching phase, just that I finally have leads, and lots of catch-up to play as I figure out how to balance my exacting perfectionism against realistic time constraints — in case you didn’t know, The Chicago Manual of Style is large, y’all). And given that I’ll be moving on from Santa Cruz come June, getting that part of my life (the income generating part) locked in, and under control, has become a rather pressing priority.

Nevertheless, I’m rather bummed that I let two weeks go by without a Words of Wednesday post — I mean, how hard can it be to post a quote, after all? But the truth is I never want to just post a quote. I want to talk about it. Want to ramble about what I’ve been reading and thinking — why I care and why I think you should care. So posting a Words of Wednesday without any accompanying commentary feels like its own kind of defeat. (You probably don’t need to be my therapist to realize that I have a problem with an all or nothing mentality.) 

But I’m trying to combat that way of thinking. Trying to remember that something is better than nothing. That done is better than perfect. And that even when I haven’t had a chance to process, mull-over, write, and revise to my heart’s content . . . maybe, even then, I still have something worth saying. Even half-formed, in-process, uncertain . . . maybe there’s value to words even then. Maybe there’s value to me even then. 

Mary Karr’s Lit is a rather meandering memoir, starting, as it does, pre-college, and ending with Karr as a woman in middle age — a divorcee, a sober alcoholic, a writer, a mother, and a Catholic. The text hardly lends itself to clear threads or easy themes, yet the impression it left on me was one of becoming. This is a text about a woman growing up — not a coming of age story about the experiments of adolescence (perhaps Karr’s Cherry, which I have not yet read, covers that ground), but a story about the slow, meandering road to healing and acceptance. To the kind of maturity and adulthood that John Cacioppo references

Karr may have been a published poet fairly early in her life, yet she manages to make her road “home” feel as winding, confused, frustrated, fear-filled, and grace-touched as most of our roads seem — in truth — to be (perhaps even more so). As someone who lives with a constant sense of time running, slipping, lunging past me — of all that I haven’t yet done, and probably never will do — I found Karr’s book a powerful celebration of process. (Can I call it a “celebration” when so much of this book felt so bleak to me? I think, somehow, I can.) A reminder that even those of us who go slow cannot go too slow for grace.

There is deep magic at work here. A holiness to existence. Even in our brokenness and imperfections — even now, at this moment — all things are being made new. Aware, or not, we are in the hands of God. And God is growing us up, one step, one moment, at a time.

Note: I listened to this book in audio format, so I’m relying on a combination of my own and others’ transcriptions (thank you, internet) without the ability to double check punctuation against the original text. I apologize for any errors in accuracy.

The Art of Restraint | Words of Wednesday

The myth says all the author wants it to say and (equally important) it doesn’t say anything else. –C.S. Lewis, The Art of Writing and the Gifts of Writers


From C.S. Lewis’s essay “George Orwell” in The Art of Writing and the Gifts of Writers. 

I’m deeply enjoying listening to some of Lewis’s thoughts on writing (which inevitably means, to some extent, C.S. Lewis’s thoughts on fantasy/fairy tales) — many (most?) reprinted (and reread) from one of my favorite collections of his work, Of This and Other Worlds

This particular essay is, by no means, the highlight of the collection (which includes many of Lewis’s various defenses of children’s literature, fairy tales, and fantasy, along with such treasures as Lewis’s glorious review of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, his reflection on “The Novels of Charles Williams,” and his “On Stories” — which, along with Tolkien’s “On Fairy-Stories” and Chesterton’s “The Ethics of Elfland,”1 remains essential reading for anyone who believes that stories somehow matter), but, like so much of Lewis’s work, it is sane and insightful — thrilling with the magic of recognition: oh yes, exactly!

Lewis is ever capable, it seems, in putting the most complex of thoughts into the most straightforward of words. 

Reading the last of Stephen King’s Dark Tower books (a series I’ve been engaged in since the fall), I can’t help finding the quote above particularly pertinent. 

Knowing what to include, and what not to include, seems one of the hardest skills to get right as a writer. The Dark Tower series is — ironically — both an example of a writer excelling in this regard (The Gunslinger getting it so, so right) and utterly failing (Wolves of the Calla getting it so, so wrong).

And there is a world of difference between getting it right, and getting it wrong. 

Note: I listened to this book in audio format, so I’m relying on a combination of my own and others’ transcriptions (thank you, internet) without the ability to double check punctuation against the original text. I apologize for any errors in accuracy.

Footnotes:

 1. A chapter in G.K. Chesterton’s book Orthodoxy.

The Only Life You Can Save | Words of Wednesday

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

–Mary Oliver


This poem is not unproblematic. Especially in the deeply individualistic world we inhabit. And yet, there’s something here all the same. Something dangerous and sacred and true. At the end of all things, the soul stands alone before God. (At least on some level, at least in some sense.)

Did you do the only thing you could do? Did you save the only life you could save?

Quoted in Shauna Niequist’s Present Over Perfect: Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simpler, More Soulful Way of Living.  

Encountering the Other | Words of Wednesday

Imagination is the best, maybe the only way we have to know anything about each other’s minds and hearts. —Ursula K. Le Guin, Words Are My Matter


From Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Making Up Stories” in Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books 2000-2016 (a collection of essays, book reviews, author notes, and introductions). 

Encountering the World’s Pain: An Ash Wednesday Reflection

We seldom go freely into the belly of the beast. … As a culture, we have to be taught the language of descent. That is the language of religion. It teaches us to enter willingly, trustingly into the dark period of life. These dark periods are good teachers. Religious energy is in the dark questions, seldom in the answers. Answers are the way out, but … when we look at the questions, we look for the opening to transformation. –Fr. Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs (45)

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent.

Within the church calendar, Lent is to Easter as Advent is to Christmas. It is a period of preparation. For the cross. For the resurrection.

A period of preparation that serves as a memento mori: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

The story that begins with the God of the universe putting on human flesh and entering the world through blood and water (as all of us, sons and daughters of Eve, must do), ends as all human stories must: with death.

Most of our great narratives, our myths, our epics, our hero tales, are stories about humanity trying to escape our fated end. Trying to win out over our own mortality. (Avengers: Infinity War anyone?) If we succeed, it’s to hold off the inevitable for an hour or a day or a decade, but death, like Beowulf’s dragon, always comes for us in the end.

This Lenten story, however, which ends as all human stories must, is fundamentally different than a hero’s story, because here, the one hero who could actually escape humanity’s fate, the one hero who is not, in fact, mortal, lays down that immortality and chooses death. Submits to full humanity.

So doing, death, humanity, Christ himself, are each transformed. But it’s a transformation that comes through, and not around, the grave.

My point? I’ve been reminded recently by Fr. Richard Rohr (among others) that Christianity — this religion predicated on following the footsteps of Christ — is about descent and not ascent.

It is about surrender, it is about gratitude, it is about becoming nothing because “when we are nothing we are in a fine position to receive everything from God” (Rohr 77). It is about growing “by subtraction much more than by addition” (Rohr 121).

I will never challenge anyone’s right to question the presence of evil in the world — the presence of suffering. But while theodicy attempts to offer a systematic, theological construct capable of holding — of answering — those questions, God’s answer was sacramental. Incarnational. God’s answer was to put on flesh and blood and hold the suffering itself. To put on human feet and walk into the suffering, walk through it. And, in walking through it, allow it to shape, change, and transform.1

This, stipulates Rohr, is the heart of what it means to be a disciple of Christ: “So much is happening on earth that cannot be fixed or explained, but it can be felt and suffered. I think a Christian is one who, along with Jesus, agrees to feel, to suffer the pain of the world” (151-152).

The Paschal mystery is the mystery of transformation in and through the ashes. If Lent is the somber reminder of our human condition, then Easter declares that there is hope, but that hope lies not in escaping our humanity but in journeying through it. As Rohr implies in the quote at the top of the page, answers may be a way out of the dark, but they are not the way into transformation. Transformation requires we walk into, we walk through: “We try to change events in order to avoid changing ourselves. We must learn to stay with the pain of life, without answers, without conclusions, and some days without meaning. That is the path, the perilous dark path of true prayer” (46).

Pain and suffering, says Rohr, are “the two primary paths of transformation” (115) and Rachel Held Evans reminds us, in Searching for Sunday, that healing comes when we “enter into one another’s pain, anoint it as holy, and stick around no matter the outcome.”

Anoint it as holy. 

What would happen if we really believed that? That our suffering, our neighbors’ suffering, was holy? Holy not because God delights in suffering but because God came and joined us within it. Holy in the same way the Eucharist is holy — the spilled blood, the broken body — because Christ comes and meets us there. Not symbolically, but sacramentally. Incarnationally.

So, today, whether you will receive the imposition of ashes or not, remember that you are mortal. That you are human (with all the perils and frailty the term implies). And remember that being human is a holy thing. That our mortality is a holy thing.2 Sanctified by the One who came, the One who died, and the One who rose again.

May we all have courage to face our deaths and walk more fully into life.

Footnotes:

1. Christ’s risen body is a mystery of flesh and spirit that bears its scars at the right hand of the Almighty. The incarnated Christ is thus ever, it seems, and for all time, both fully human and fully God.
2. Here’s a quote to wrestle with (if you’re feeling particularly strong of heart):

We do not really know God except through our own broken and rejoicing humanity. In Jesus, God tells us that God is not different from humanity. Thus Jesus’ most common and almost exclusive self-name is “The Human One,” or “[Child] of Humanity.” He uses the term seventy-nine times in the four Gospels. Jesus’ reality, his cross, is to say a free ‘yes’ to what his humanity finally asks of him. It seems that we Christians have been worshiping Jesus’ journey instead of doing his journey. The first feels very religious; the second just feels human, and not glorious at all. (Rohr 19-20)