Exploring where life and story meet!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Writing on writing

There can be nothing more exciting than someone writing on the topic of writing, well maybe a geometry theorem, but that depends how you feel about math.  My question is, why do certain people 'have to write' when the mood strikes them?  Does this apply to people who collect squirrel figurines, square dance enthusiasts, and people who enjoy memorizing pi?  I was born this way, it is something of an addiction, does this apply to other preoccupations and obsessions or solely to writers?  But then there are times I actually have the time and intention of writing but nothing to write about.  It is only when I 'have to write,' that I can't find the time or chance to do so, then I get all nervous and shaky like someone going cold turkey after getting hooked on some addictive substance.  Do they have treatment programs for people like me?

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Everything's okay, really!

We live in a world of superficial contradictions and metaphysical paradox.  Talk to anyone on the street or look at their social media sites and everything is great, fabulous, perfect, really!  Nobody else on the planet struggles with anything, ever, you are all alone and just plain weird.  Not so much.  Rather, we walk around pretending everything is great when we are barely hanging on, can hardly hold it together.  We want everyone else to think things are okay when we are secretly dying inside, anything to save face.  But it is okay to fall apart, to fail, to struggle, to ask 'why me?'  Why do we lie about our struggles and try to hide them, when it only increases our dismay and loneliness?  Because we don't want to appear weak, vulnerable, or uncool.  Our perception of how others perceive us is of far more value to us than our own well being: it is a selfish sort of martyrdom.

The good news is, we are not alone, everyone struggles with something, but few actually are bold enough to admit it, even to themselves.  We need not be ashamed, isolated, or despairing, for none are perfect nor have the perfect life, despite what they post on Facebook.  Struggle and sorrow are part of what it means to be human, at least in this current manifestation of reality; it is just part of life, so why not admit it and gain strength in the sharing?

But there is even more good news, nay great news!  Everyone struggles, sure, but how exactly does that help, besides to give you some modicum of comfort that you are not alone and it is normal?  It really doesn't, at least in a materialistic sense.  With that point of view, we might as well, 'eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die.'  Our sorrow means nothing.  Our grief is moot.  Our struggles vain. So why even bother?  Because there is some innate part of us that knows life is not as it should be; we were not made to live in an imperfect, fallen world.  We assume there must be a 'happy ever after' and are dismayed that we have not yet found it, yet still live on in hopes that it lies round the next bend.  How can we have hope in a world so devoid of meaning?  Either the materialists are wrong or our deepest yearnings are.

If there were no light would we have eyes?  If there was no sound would we have ears?  So why then do we hope and yearn if there is nothing beyond this vale of tears?  Why do we expect perfection in an imperfect world?  That innate yearning in every soul hints at a world, a future that will be fulfilled.  A time when 'happily ever after' comes true.  This is not a pointless story, there is a plot and an Author and a happy ending.  Your struggles, griefs, and fears are not in vain, they are the birth pangs of something better, something greater; they are the stumbling steps upon a path that leads to a world that is truly our home.

As the old christmas hymn puts it, "and ye beneath life's crushing load, whose forms are bending low, who toil along the climbing way, with painful steps and slow, look now!  For glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing: oh, rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing!"  And as another says, "the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight."  It isn't just a story, it is The Story, it is your story.  Look a little deeper into 'the reason for the season,' and discover what life is all about; find your own happily ever after.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Tis the Season

It is that time of year again, no not the season of shopping and stress, that modern holiday is not one I care to celebrate, rather Advent is upon us once more.  It is the season set aside by the early church in anticipation of the coming King; it is a season of eager joy, personal reflection, repentance, and thankfulness, both looking back at Christ's birth and forward to the Second Coming.  And sadly it has been overlooked, forgotten, and pushed aside by the hecticness that is the modern observance of the holiday season between Thanksgiving and Christmas: namely stress, debt, and stuff, all the antithesis of the original meaning of the season.

I enjoy watching the movie, 'The Nativity Story,' this time of year, as they did a suburb job of capturing the gospel accounts of the events leading up to Christ's birth, if a little cheesy, but I love it for all of that.     They show a pregnant teenager's struggles in a society where such a condition outside of marriage is a capital offense.  We see Joseph, the usually overlooked fiancĂ©, heroically choosing to take Mary as his wife and this unborn child as his own, though it it is a scandal that will mark them the rest of their lives. We see a society in upheaval looking for a hero, a king, a conqueror, when it is a mere babe that has come to save the world from itself.  It is a tale full of beauty, joy, struggle, and hope and a reminder that often the thing least expected or wanted is actually the most important thing in the world, if only we had the ability to see it.

That is what advent is all about: seeing what the world otherwise cannot see.  We stop, we reflect, we are astonished anew, and hopefully come away refreshed and encouraged to go our way rejoicing, for the unthinkable has happened: God became flesh and dwelt among us!  That is the true meaning of the season and life itself, we will not find it rushing about madly to find 'the' gift or in a myriad of insipid parties, gatherings, and festivities.  This is a season of rejoicing and hope, there should be celebration and joy this time of year, but cramming our lives full of stuff and activities will not bring us joy.  Rather, it crept quietly into a stable two thousand years ago and merely waits for us to find it anew.

Of all the Christmas classics you might watch this year, 'The Nativity Story' is a beautiful reminder of what it is all about.  Charlie Brown tries valiantly but it ends as more an afterthought (that and I always find him a bit depressing for some reason).  'It's a Wonderful Life' is a charming story and well worth watching, but isn't quite the 'reason for the season.'  Rudolf isn't even close.  Frosty is cute, but again off course.  If you have the chance, sit down and watch it with your family and remember what the season is truly about.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Return of the Revenge of the Son of the Lazy Blogger Strikes Back II

I ran across this article the other day and thought it rather refreshing, especially with the holidays upon us.  We focus so much on the things we shouldn't do and the things we have to do, that often we forget that we are also commanded to rejoice, to celebrate, to have fun and enjoy the blessings around us, as if God has not filled the world with wonderful things He intends for us to enjoy.  Instead we focus so much on the aughts, the shoulds, the can'ts, that we take all the fun out of a life that should be full of joy, even in the midst of struggle and sorrow.  We are supposed to be ready to give a reason for the 'joy that is in us,' but if we do not present that joy to the world, who is going to know to ask when we are as gloomy and freaked out as the next guy?  This is not a license for debauchery, i.e., an 'eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die,' mentality but rather an acknowledgement that 'the earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof,' and as His children we can enjoy the bounty and blessing with which He has imbued creation.  We are told to focus on the beautiful, the wonderful, the good, and it is all around us, if only we have eyes to see rather than focusing on the things we do not have.  Definitely worth a read!

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Effects of Exposure to Classic Literature on Young Readers and Their Future Reading and Writing Habits

This would make a fabulous thesis if one actually had the time, patience, and funding for such an endeavor, and if one could come up with an accepted list of 'classic literature.'  I had the requisite school reading of course, mostly things in the dystopian and modern lit. genre, all of which are hugely enjoyed by 8th graders and no doubt responsible for the continuing love of reading seen among the millennials.  I wanted to be an avid reader but lacked resources and direction.  We did have a decent library but I had no one to show me what was good and what wasn't.  Everything I read in class only deterred me from seeking out anything considered 'classic.'  So I was left to the endless shelves and random chance to select my next book, the result of which was predictable.  I did enjoy the Newberry Award nominees every year and found some decent reading therein.  But sadly, the main force that kept me reading was the summer program at the library every year.  I read to 'win' stuff (and because there wasn't all that much to do when it was 90 outside and the internet had not yet been invented).  You read so many pages and then received a piece of disposable plastic in the shape of various kid-friendly creatures or things, definitely worthwhile!  At least it eventually lead me to some books worth reading and taught me that reading for its own sake could be rather diverting.

What classic books did I pick up that influenced my development as both a reader and a writer?  Our library had a fine collection of Star Wars books, the Dragon Riders of Pern, and that lady that writes horse books (Marguerite Henry).  Classics all!  As with most young ladies, I thought I had a horse obsession which the latter satisfied, but soon I turned to dragons and interstellar drama (don't we all?).  There you have it, the beloved tomes that shaped my own taste for literature.  Perhaps I didn't learn all that much about social unrest or repression but I learned to use my imagination and developed an insatiable appetite for literature, good or otherwise.  I learned to love Story in any format and to decide for myself what was worth reading and what was not.  It was also in a book that I discovered that it is okay to believe in fairies, in fact life is much more interesting and colorful when you can see beyond the ubiquitous beige of suburban life to worlds beyond our own.

It was only in my twenties and even my thirties that I began to read things actually considered classics and found that things english teachers like might not be that bad.  I developed a taste for the works of dead Brits and expanded from there.  I do not cling to a genre or certain author so much as I look for a good story, strong plot, believable characters and world, and a talented writer.  I haven't revisited the favorites of my girlhood however, I still enjoy a couple of the old Star Wars books on rare occasions but as the series evolved and went places I didn't want to go I gave it up, and as there is a new movie in the works that will completely ignore what happened in the books, I figure there isn't much point anymore.  As to Pern, I loved the older books available to me at the library, but the newer ones have turned me off completely.  The whole point of the books has become to push a certain social agenda which only detracts from an otherwise interesting world.  It was like finding smut in Jane Austen sequels, it ruined the whole experience.  One does not read Jane Austen for the romantic interludes (described in minute detail!) and any author who seeks to emulate her would be wise to remember this.  Neither does one read the Pern books for the torrid love affairs, but sadly that became the focus and a die-hard fan went away disappointed, never to return.  And worse, I can't recommend them to my kids, though I was delighted when I discovered them for myself.

I suppose the whole point of this meandering essay is that whatever your kids read, assuming it is not detrimental to their emotional or spiritual wellbeing or their developing english skills, as long as they are reading something, there is hope one day they will develop a real taste for good literature.  I started with starships, dragons, and horses and ended with Austen and Shakespeare, there is hope!  Keep the flame of reading alive and one day they might surprise you.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014


"A man’s heart plans his way,
But the Lord directs his steps."
 (Proverbs 16:9 nKJV)

We westerners like to think we have the final say in much of life: I am going to do such and such on such a day, and most of the time we can live happily within this delusion, but sometimes it all comes crashing down and we are left gaping in astonishment after the accident or disaster, and at other times it falls softly like snow, gently reminding us that we are mortal and fleeting as the dew of morning.  Whether we live a day or a hundred years, what is that but a breath?  We have no say in our day of birth and little in our death.  What then are the plans of men?  

What then should we do?  Huddle in dejected misery, staring wide-eyed and terrified at the heavens, wondering when it all shall end or what is the point at all?  'Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die?'  Neither of these views is realistic, just check out your local college campus full of eager, hopeful young things ready to do their part to 'save the world,' with nary a thought of death, let alone how to finance their education; they truly live in the moment, not thinking of tomorrow and the sorrows or troubles it might bring but rather they go forth boldly with the immortality of youth, yet unjaded by time and sorrow; a vision of man in his forgotten innocence.  Men cannot flourish in the midst of despair nor in living only for the moment, rather we truly live when we learn to trust our lives and even our plans to the One who sees the big picture, knows all ends, and has bigger plans for us than we can even dare dream.  Ours is not a call to hopelessness nor debauchery but to Joy and Peace beyond the world's understanding, and in that is our hope.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Just Peachy!

“There is no safe investment.  To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.  The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is hell.  I believe that the most lawless and inordinate loves are less contrary to God’s will than a self-invited and self-protective lovelessness… We shall draw nearer to God, not by trying to avoid the sufferings inherent in all loves, but by accepting them and offering them to Him; throwing away all defensive armour. If our hearts need to be broken, and if He chooses this as a way in which they should break, so be it.” 
~C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves~

I love C.S. Lewis, he can say amazing things with simple words and in only a few sentences; he also seems to be something of a prophet, speaking candidly to modern hearts and problems though he was a man of a far different era, or perhaps it is just that men never change and he speaks to problems common to humanity since the first morning of the world.  That is the more likely answer, he chose timeless topics rather than popular issues, much as the writer of Ecclesiastes did thus it still speaks to those of us who live at a distant place and time in a culture foreign as any alien civilization.  

I found this quote on the back of a compilation of some of Lewis' works and felt chills while reading it.  He could have been talking about me!  This was how I grew up, and I wonder how many others have as well and hardly even know it.  Some of my family still try and live this way and it is heartbreaking to watch.  Personally, I know we (my family) has been hurt so much in love that the only option seems to be burying your heart and pretending you don't have one, and then just keep so busy that you don't notice your emptiness and misery.  I am afraid this is a far reaching epidemic in western culture and not just a familial affliction peculiar to myself, I have no data to back up this supposition but just check your favorite social media site and observe a general sampling of what people put up: everyone is wonderful, happy, perfect, in an ideal relationship (or wonderfully independent), has awesome kids/pets/stuff/trips, and ever so many friends.  I wonder if Facebook might be a leading cause of depression among millennials?  But what is behind all the happy, perfect lives?  What is under that thin veneer of wonderfulness?  Are you the only person on the planet with problems, hurts, disappointments, sorrows, failures, and embarrassments?  Does anyone ever have a bad hair day any more?

On the outside our lives are perfect, on the inside we are falling apart.  But we can't tell any one, we can't appear weak or no one will like us.  But at what cost?  Our souls are shriveling that our selfies might smile.  We need to love and be loved, not that fickle, fleeting feeling of warmth or liking that is a distant echo of joy and modern society's only definition of the word, but rather the kind of love we only hear about at cheesy weddings with a recitation of, 'love is patient, love is kind…'  Have you read the entire list?  That kind of love is hard, but it is the only type worth having.  I've tried living without it and that is harder still.  Love hurts, but it hurts far more trying to pretend you don't need it, don't want it, and that everything is just peachy without it.  That is a short road to misery and loneliness, yeah life can get complicated and messy when we are real and vulnerable with others, but at least it is a life, rather than a mere existence.  It isn't really even an existence, it is a mortal version of Hell.  A little messy has to be better than that!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Another link

Here's a charming little piece you might enjoy if you are fond of Lewis, Tolkien, etc.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

On character and characters

What makes a good character?  Why are we attracted to certain personalities, fictitious or not, while others we shrug off, ignore, or overlook?  Why is a too good hero or an ultimate villain sort of dull when a rather ordinary minor character steals the show?  Why is Samwise Gamgee so much more interesting than Sauron?

I think we attach to characters with whom we can relate, that is those who are most like ourselves: the most human.  We want a character who has suffered sorrow and defeat, who has failed, who yet has the hope of triumph, one with a a sense of humor or a quick wit, a mysterious or humble background is always nice, and though they are riddled with foibles and failings (as we ourselves, if we are honest) they are still resilient, willing to learn, willing to get back up and try again.  If they are too good and never fail or struggle, we cannot relate and find the character beyond our experience.  If they are an embodiment of evil (like Tolkien's Sauron) we might feel a little uneasy at mention of their name, but we never really consider them a true character.  Darth Vader is a character we find intriguing while the Emperor (at least in the original trilogy) is just a shadowy force behind the bad guys in the Star Wars epic; we shudder when we see or hear about him, but forget him once he is gone.  Perhaps it is this conflict within a character, the struggle that reflects our own: like calling to like.  The evil against the good and vice versa.  Sam struggled with his baser self while Vader could not quite repress certain feelings unfit for an evil overlord.  Perhaps it is this struggle that draws us like moths to the flame, for it is our own.

I often wonder if this is not part of the reason for the Incarnation.  What can a mere mortal know of God?  No wonder the Israelites trembled in the desert and sent Moses as their go between.  But God made flesh?  Immanuel, God with us?  That we can sort of wrap our minds around.  He dealt with rejection, weariness, sorrow, temptation; He wept and from some of His statements, I am sure He laughed, just like each of us.  He is the ultimate character, what He intends each of us to become: our real and true selves.  We find little interest in a life spent numbly plodding along, merely reacting to what happens around us; never truly knowing ourselves or being known.  We are intrigued by a life that is changed, that is full of honest struggle, that though failure happens the person rises from the ashes and pushes on, by someone who admits they are not perfect but does not despair at this statement nor do they boast in their strengths but rather uses them for the good of others.  This is what we want in our characters and what God wants for each of us.  Do not simply exist, placid as a cow in a meadow with never a thought for the really important things in life.  Be a character, be the actual you!  Discover who and what you are, 'know as you are known.'  Don't just post things on social media and decorate your exterior so everyone thinks you are something, rather be something, exercise that flabby thing called a soul, that part of you that will last forever.  Become the character you were meant to be.  Get out of the Shire, defy the Emperor, get you gone on whatever journey of the heart lays before you!  

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The New Fairy Tale

I have watched several movies over the years, and I am sure there are others of which I am unaware, all with the same theme: a modern man, advancing the influence of progress, finds himself on the wrong side of justice when faced with a native or traditional people group; only by finding acceptance among said people group and standing with them (often futilely) against his former allies can he find redemption.  'Dances with Wolves,' 'Medicine Man,' 'The Last Samurai,' and "Avatar,' all come to mind, all of which are beautifully filmed, with a stirring soundtrack, and a compelling narrative.  Whether it is told in the 'old west,' Japan, or on a distant planet, it is the same story with different pajamas.  This seems to be 'the fall' narrative of the modern, quasi-new age materialist and also their 'redemption' saga.

The great 'sin' of humanity is its wanton destruction of nature, traditional cultures, and denying justice, fairness, and equality (however defined) to 'the others.'  And man's only hope is to embrace the imperiled culture of 'the others,' and live in harmony with nature and his fellow man.  It is a beautiful and compelling story, that gives hope to a world with little of joy to be found.  The only problem is that it is completely, and utterly, impossible.  No matter how we idealize any given culture or the natural world, there never has been and never will be a human society that is 'in harmony' with nature, that is not infested with greed, hatred, envy, strife, treachery, lying, and the like.  It makes a nice movie but has no basis in reality.  No matter your culture, your race, your gender, your creed, your language, we are at heart all human.  And as humans, regardless of our society, a grouping of humans will all have the same faults, shortcomings, and failings.  It is our nature.  As for this gracious mother earth that will embrace us if only we 'understand' her, go watch a nature show, particularly from the 1980's or early 90's (some of the more modern films are edited to remove the more gruesome aspects of life in the wild).  There is no nurturing, mother earth.  In the wild, it is kill or be killed.  The young, old, and pregnant are not spared but rather preyed upon.  There is no mercy, only survival.

The makers of these films (and writers of the original stories) are correct in assuming we need such a story, it is innate in our being and old as man himself.  "Tale as old as time," as a certain singing tea pot puts it.  That is why these films are so powerful: they resonate in the deepest part of our souls.  We already have such a tale, but we don't want that story, we want a story where man can save himself.  We want to be the hero, not the princess locked away in the tower by the evil step-mother.  In dispensing with the old tale, we find ourselves floundering and restless until we find one to replace it.  This meta-narrative that our salvation can be found by embracing our true humanity and the natural world is a nice dream, but it falls apart upon waking.  We cannot fix what is broken by embracing something that is flawed at its core.  Humanity is flawed, broken, and we cannot fix ourselves.  Long ago, when the stars were young, someone whispered, 'ye can be gods,' we listened and broke the world.  We are still broken and still think ourselves gods, gods that sound like defiant toddlers screaming that I can 'do it myself.'  We even invent stories to reassure us of this fact.  But they are just that, stories, and they will not fix the world.  But there is an older tale that can do just that.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Words of four letters


For so common a word one would think it wouldn't have so vague and ephemeral a definition and elicit feelings ranging from warmth to dread to guilt to longing in those who hear it.  But then, it is intimately linked with love, and of all words in the English language, love is the least precise and the most dangerous:

 "The girls nowadays indulge in such exaggerated statements that one can never tell what they do mean.  It wasn't so in my young days.  Then a girl did not say she loved turnips, in just the same tone she might have said she loved her mother or her Savior," Miss Patty, Anne of the Island

We all want it, home, love, whatever the name we choose to give it, it is innate in the human soul.  We all want to belong, to be accepted, to be part of something bigger than ourselves, to have a place to set out from and return to, to be safe, to have fun, to rest, to work for something that lasts, to care for others and be cared for in return, to have hope, joy, and peace, a place to laugh and to cry.  Many of us have a house or apartment or a condo or tent or what have you, but very few actually have a home.  Innately we know the difference between a house and a home (and no, a cat does not make it magically happen, regardless of what the cute poster says).  Some of us go through life and never find it while others spend our whole lives trying to escape it or trying to find it again once we do.  I was one of the former, though I didn't quite know it at the time.

I knew I wanted it, and always thought I had it, didn't I get warm fuzzy feelings around Christmas?  I think the whole world gets warm fuzzy feelings around Christmas, at least the young and the young at heart.  I thought it meant a place of my own, where I could do my own thing and have some privacy and be alone.  Oh so alone.  That was no fun either.  So if home isn't automatically found with your family of origin or in having your own life, where is it?

A quote from Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, "not all who wander are lost," had become rather popular in certain circles some years back, and I used to really like it too, I still do, but it is very sad if you stop and consider the meaning.  It was written about a man who is forced to wander because he no longer has a home, he might have a home in some distant, unknown future but there is no guarantee and he might wander forever for all he knows.  We geeks know that it works out in the end, but he doesn't know that.  He, like all of us, wants to find home.  But where?

I have found it, at last, though I went kicking and screaming (or at least like Jonah, running as fast as I could in the opposite direction).  I did not want relationship, it was scary, it hurt, it wasn't worth it.  And like Jonah, I eventually got the idea (though hopefully with a little better attitude) that one cannot resist one's destiny indefinitely, you can run, you can balk, you can refuse, but you cannot escape, at least not without enduring an ordeal far more painful and difficult than whatever it is you are supposed to be doing.  Such is the dreadful power of Love and Home!  We are all called to it, most of us are terrified, for it is scary and painful and full of grief, but it is also the only thing worth doing and finding in this world and beyond.  For Christ it led to Golgotha.  Can we then expect our own journey to be free of sorrow?  But it is a good sorrow, a grief that will one day die and leave only those things that last forever. It shapes us, builds us up, breaks us down, mends us, and mars us; it hurts to be shapen yet would we rather remain forever a raw chunk of marble or an unpurified lump of ore?  Can we be useful, beautiful, or happy in such a state?  Love demands what is best for us, and in this fallen sphere that means hurt and change.  Home demands Love, for it is the key to that place we all so desperately desire yet all too willingly flee.

Monday, October 13, 2014

On doing the impossible

I'm a huge fan of adventure stories and fairy tales and am thoroughly convinced that each and every life is just such a story, so why does it always come as something of a surprise when my own life takes a sudden plot twist?  In any story, we anticipate just such an occurrence, for there would be no story without those moments where an impossible choice lies before the protagonist and likely the fate of the world hangs in the balance.  Thankfully the fate of the world is not at stake here, but it is still rather inconvenient for the sake of one's peace, prosperity, and comfort, but then who ever said the point of the story was for the main character's comfort?  Who would want to hear such a tale?  Who, in the end, would truly want to live it out?  Boring!  The whole reason the Author wrote any given character into the tale was so that character could become the person the Author meant him or her to be, and there is no story and no character development if the person in question stays safely at home and never leaves the comfort of their easy chair.  Where would The Hobbit be if Bilbo hadn't gone running off after a party of house crashing dwarves?  Or what of the Exodus if Moses had ignored the fiery bush and gone back to his sheep?  Life is not safe or comfortable, it is messy, inconvenient, unpredictable, joyous, and beautiful.  If it is safe and comfortable, that is an existence, not a life and no wonder you are ill at ease and discontent!

I said I would never do it again, and I meant it, but I shouldn't ever say things like that because I cannot predict the future and it seems like the Author enjoys replacing our exclamation points with commas.  But if I have learned one thing in life, it is to trust the Author when He says, 'go do X or Y.'  I can drag my feet, make excuses, but eventually I end up doing it anyway and usually in a more roundabout and painful way than I would otherwise have had to if I had just said 'yes' at the first.  I have also found that though it often seems impossible or ridiculous at the first, by the time it is over it has made for a really amazing chapter in this ongoing story of life.  So here we are, a year after my life fell apart and I stared at my husband in astonishment when he said he was applying for a position way out here, 'where?!' I had thought at the time.  Well, where became here and it has been a much smoother transition than I could have possibly imagined and certainly no accident, but just as life is starting to get comfortable again, you'd think I would start to recognize the signs and anticipate that 'something' is going to happen to upset the proverbial apple cart of our looming ease, that little voice that isn't a voice niggles at the back of my mind and says, 'maybe it is time to try adopting again.'  I would love another kid, but do you realize what adoption does to one's family equilibrium?  What does a cheese grater do to a block of cheddar?  But then God has done far crazier things than that which He asks of us, Who else would step out of eternity, into Time and Mortality, and then die?  In that light, what is so impossible about anything He might ask of us?  And where would the story be if the character said 'no,' went home, and sat before the fire for the rest of his life?  We can't ruin the story now can we?  Onwards into the next chapter!

Monday, October 6, 2014

A light in the midst of a literary Dark Age!

I have been enjoying the works of actual living authors of late, and have had to change my opinion that the literary arts are not what they once were.  I was quite convinced that a good author must be both British and dead (with a few exceptions, such as L.M. Montgomery).  Anne Elisabeth Stengl, the promising young author of the Tales of Goldstone Wood series, has given me hope that there is still a balm in Gilead.  I dare place this young lady among the pantheon of literary saints like C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald, G.K. Chesterton, and Tolkien, for she understands the fairy tale, and what is more, she can add something of worth to that beloved genre in an age when the hearts and pens of so many have grown cold.  She has a heart, a talent for writing, a merry sense of humor, a refreshing wit, and has heard the muses sing.  What's more, she may even believe in fairies.  I highly recommend this series, the more so as I become more acquainted with it.  Her latest book, Golden Daughter, the seventh in the series, is her best work so far; her talent and skill grow and shine brighter with every tale told.  It is not my favorite story in the series, but it is at this point the best told tale and one well worth reading (as is the entire series).  I was fortunate enough to receive a free preview copy and my review follows:

Golden Daughter is the seventh book in the Tales of Goldstone Wood series (this is a review of a free preview copy) and is a worthy addition to an excellent series.  Until I picked up these books, I was quite convinced that any fantasy writer worth reading had been dead for fifty years or more.  Happily I am quite mistaken; Ms. Stengl is a worthy heir to George Macdonald, Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis.  In this book particularly she combines the aching beauty of Macdonald, the whimsy and charm of Lewis, and the intricate world-building of Tolkien with her own quick wit, all too real characters, a complex and interconnected plot, superb writing, and shrewd humor, enwrapping it all in a mystique and intrigue that may well lead to lost sleep and neglected duties as the reader falls under her spell and desires nothing else in life but to know what happens next.  This book can be read as a stand alone, but I would recommend starting at the beginning as it fleshes out and explains some of the questions left from earlier in the series and you will get far more out of it if you already understand something of the world in which it happens. 

This book deepens and widens an already immense world, adds new characters that feel more real, more complex than some of the people you meet in real life, and only worsens the yearning to hear the Song of Spheres for yourself.  There is sorrow, pain, grief, despair, and darkness in this story as in life, but there is a hope beyond the doubt, a light beyond the darkness, life beyond death.  This book will stir the deep places of the soul and ask of you the same questions the characters themselves must face, which is exactly what a good book does, for a good story is not merely a well told tale but a mirror upon ourselves and the world at large, if only we have the courage to look therein.  I very much enjoyed this book and impatiently await the advent of the next addition to the series! 

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Another reading addiction

I have discovered another book series to which I have become addicted but which I am still trying to decide what I think of the books themselves.  It is one of those curious situations wherein you want to know what happens next and find the world, characters, plot, writing or some combination thereof intriguing but are not quite sure what to make of the whole.  I have the same feelings towards the writings of G.K. Chesterton and George MacDonald, I love their writing in general but either their work is so far above me or I am not exactly certain what they are trying to say that I have a hard time saying if a certain book is among my favorites or not.  Phantastes intrigues me but is it on my favorite list?  The Man Who Was Thursday is a great but confounding read; I am not sure what to think.

In this particular case I speak of the 'Tales of Goldstone Wood' books by Anne Elizabeth Stengl, of which the first book is Heartless.  She is an excellent writer, her world is rich and beautiful, some of her characters are annoying and others endearing (just like real people), but there is something about this series that confounds me.  The first book does not fit very well with the rest of the series and has a theological/literary flaw* that has bugged me for a time, but the author mentions on her blog that this work is highly allegorical and her later books have improved significantly on this point.  There is also a bit too much mystery in the books, after reading the first half dozen books through I can look back and make more sense of things, but for a first time reader, things are often frustratingly foggy. A little mystery, foreshadowing etc, are essential to a good read but there was enough here to frustrate even a seasoned reader of the genre!  But then I do tend to be a bit impatient when it comes to 'what is going on' so this may be a personal flaw rather than a foible of the writer.  But perhaps the thing that frustrates me the most is not really a failing on the part of the writer but of epic fantasy itself.

She has good characters and I want to know more about these characters, but there is so much going on that there isn't as much room for character exploration as I would like.  I have the same complaint with the Lord of the Rings.  I really want to know what happens after the ring is destroyed and everybody has to go on with their lives, but all we get is a little blurb that so and so did whatever and then it is over.  I want to know what the characters felt, thought, and experienced not just the cold historical facts.  Besides these two minor complaints, I have really enjoyed these books and look forward to the next installment in the series.  If the worst I can say is that she mystifies me at times and I want to know more about her characters, I suppose these are not failings at all but rather flaws in my character as a reader: I must cultivate patience is what it all boils down to and her books are good enough to keep me hooked.

It was also interesting to note which books have influenced her, I thought I caught hints of C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald, The Last Unicorn, and "The Hound of Heaven."  She did not mention this on her blog, but I also wonder if the sixth book in the series doesn't have a little Star Trek influence (no, not the technology but rather the main evil minds me of a major villain in the sci-fi series and her flouting the laws of time is also suggestive, but this is all a theory).  No wonder I like these books, she seems to be the modern heir to some of my favorite writers.  I must also admit that I have imbibed her works in a drunken binge (trying to satiate my 'what happens next' addiction).  I have not savored them as one should a fine work, but rather consumed them quickly in a short period of time.  I plan a leisurely second read and perhaps that will settle once and for all my conundrums with this series.  It takes a good book to get me to read like an addict, so chances are good these will end up on my favorite book list.

*The first book portrays the Christ figure pursuing a mortal woman as his bride, the allegory is appropriate and beautiful, but as the foundation for a series, it jarred me that one particular girl in all the history of the worlds could be united thus with the Creator, from a theological standpoint it made little sense.  The Church is the Bride of Christ (that is all believers throughout the ages) so how could one frail mortal girl stand in for millions?  What about the rest of us?  If this were a stand alone book and solely an allegory, it would be fine, but as the corner stone for a series it made little sense.  After the first book we hear hardly a mention of the character and it feels as if she were locked away in some closet somewhere like a crazy uncle never to be seen again.  Besides for this little snafu, the series is well thought out and put together and I look forward to seeing where it goes from here.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Price vs cost

I was at the grocery store lately and was asked by the checkout lady, whom I hardly know, if she could get a price break on a certain professional procedure as I was now working part time at the local provider of such services.  I wanted to ask if I could get an 80% discount on my bananas since I had a passing acquaintance with her.  I get annoyed when people ask me things like this, and I was not quite sure why until I sat down and thought it out.  I was feeling that in asking for a discount, they felt that my time and skills were of little or no value and thus it was outrageous for me to charge a reasonable market price for said service and I was indignant that my years of schooling, hard earned experience, and insane student debt counted for nothing but rather they are the ones who get to be upset when I decline to offer free services based on the most meager acquaintance.  It is a strange world we live in!  But more importantly, this is how so many of us treat our own faith in Christ.  We want to get by 'on the cheap,' we want 'cheap grace' rather than redemption, we want Christianity on our terms rather than His.

Our salvation cost Him everything and we assume it should cost us nothing.  We want to live as we want to live, not as He expects us to.  We treat it as some eternal life insurance policy we can ignore until the moment we need it when rather it should be a radical change in life and behavior.  We are called daily to 'take up our cross' which literally means to take up an implement of death and carry it towards the site of our own execution!  We must be ready to lay down our lives and priorities in His service, in whatever guise that may take at the moment.  This is not an easy, gentle faith to be ignored save at the last end of need.  It demands 'my life, my soul, my all,' and if you are not prepared to lay it all down, why bother pretending?  The Book of Revelation warns believers about being 'lukewarm,' rather let us be either hot or cold!  All or nothing!  It is the ultimate insult to approach the throne of grace with a list of prerequisites before one is willing to kneel before it.  Christ held nothing back.  He asks the same of each of us.  

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Cheese, real and imagined

G.K. Chesterton once remarked, "the poets have been strangely silent on the subject of cheese."  Apparently said poets have not watched any overtly Christian movies of late.  Why are they so high on the cheese factor?  Don't get me wrong, I love a good cheesy movie every so often, but those aren't the movies I like to watch time and again or that might change the way I think about things.  It is like a date with a goofy man, amusing for the moment but nothing you want to build a relationship on or even take seriously.  I am not talking about movies like 'Amazing Grace,' 'Son of God,' or 'Narnia' that have underlying christian themes or are actually depicting a biblical story but movies whose whole purpose seems to be proclaiming the gospel with a little bit of a story thrown on to make it palatable; much like putting peanut butter on a pill so your dog will eat it.  I think the former type of movie is far more powerful than the latter, with the latter, people know what you are trying to do and resent it, with the former, if the story is good enough they won't care and will let the story sweep them off whither it will.

The latest attempt (at least the one of my most recent viewing) is 'God's not Dead,' and while there are good parts to the movie, it is a bit of fun, and the characters might have been interesting had there been more time and better acting, overall I was disappointed.  There were too many characters to get to know any of them even remotely, much of the acting was rather unconvincing, there were too many story lines to keep the plot cohesive, and serious events in their various lives were tossed aside and became irrelevant when they accepted Christ, which is completely unrealistic!  If a story is not believable, it will not be accepted or liked by those who hear it and thus ineffective and a failure.  It was a fun movie overall, but not something I will likely own or watch again since it can't figure out which story it was trying to tell.  I especially liked the grumpy professor, but they spent too much time delving into other subplots to make much of his story or character, rather hurrying out a quick excuse and moving on.  I was appalled with how his tale ended, I never saw it coming because you knew no one would ever do that to a character in a 'serious' movie and yet they did.  I was blindsided because I didn't expect them to do something that stupid, and how the other characters reacted to it really made me wonder what was going on.  Something rather serious has just occurred and no one seems upset about it in the least?  Creepy!

The best 'christian' movies are those with a subtle, intriguing message that is intricately woven throughout a good story; not a billy club of a gospel message wearing a thin veneer of story.  That is how Jesus Himself proclaimed the gospel: using stories and parables to explain the mysteries of God and make people curious, to make them hungry, not hitting them over the head with it and demanding they repent and be saved.  Until we learn that, I am afraid the cheese will continue!  At least the poets will have time to rectify their topical oversight.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Watching and Waiting

The notes float hauntingly through the room, stirring something in the soul: a longing, a groaning, impatience for a promise fulfilled after years of darkness and despair.  The song was 'O Holy Night,' yes a strange music choice for August, but it was a random selection, not something I went looking for, but it reminded me of something innate in almost any good fairy tale: The Promise or Prophecy or whatever you want to call it.  It is that hope promised to return in the days of darkness and dismay, when light seems a myth and peace a dream, but yet, there it is, shining quietly, resolutely even when the world has quite forgot or cannot bring itself to believe.  Sometimes I think we moderns miss out greatly by not celebrating the ancient feasts and fasts of the church, remembering the yearning, watching, waiting of Advent, wondering at the Incarnation, solemnly pondering Lent, mourning on Good Friday, and the celebration of Easter and the anticipation of the Ascension.  Remembering those who lived through the events themselves, sharing their doubt, grief, fear, sorrow, hope, confusion, and joy reminds us that these were human souls, quaking mortals just like us in all their fears, doubts, failures, and triumphs.  Wondering what God was up to through all the long years of history.  We too easily look back at past events and wonder how people ever doubted or were confused, but hindsight is 20/20.  How the disciples thought the Cross was the end, how the people thought to make Him king, that He would conquer the romans and establish His kingdom right then and there, how His own family thought Him mad and sought to take Him home.

It is the truest fairy tale ever told, and the heart of every human story, whether we believe it or not.  All those long years of doubt and darkness, watching and waiting, but yet generation after generation only heard deafening silence while the miracles of the past were lost in mist, shadow, tears, and pain.  The world moved on and forgot The Promise, all but a few, and when it came, few were those who knew it for what it was and even then, everyone misunderstood what it truly was.  I suppose that is why I love fairy tales, for they are an echo of this great story that is not yet fully told.  They remind us of the Great Story in their small scale.  As we watch the hero fight and struggle, as we wait for the hope foretold, as evil looms large in the shadows round about, as despair and darkness cover the world, it stirs that part of us that knows the story is true, that it is out there waiting for us to not only discover it, but to embrace it, and thereby assume our own place in the Story of Life, else we can sit on the sidelines and watch, missing out on that for which we were made.  

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Strange Bedfellows and a Lack of Sleep

I did not think it possible, or at least hoped I had outgrown it, but I have fallen again into the temptation of staying up far too late reading a book; it is a flaw I had not indulged in since graduate school ten years ago and hoped it was now merely a matter of historical interest, rather it was only a lack of tempting reading material that kept me from this rather venial sin.  But I have overindulged on literary treats in the last few days and my mind is still reeling slightly from the barrage it has just suffered, but I am happy (and more importantly know how it ended), thus I can get back to life as usual, sadly neglected of late.  I have had this trait for as long as I can remember, not so much a reading addiction as a need to know how things end, it applies to any sort of story, be it a movie, a book, or what have you.  I have no patience (or think I don't) to wait for how everything plays out, so if I catch wind of a good story, the rest of life is all too easily forgotten.  Perhaps that is one reason I enjoy reading well read and beloved books over again, I then have the freedom to lay them aside and not feel anxious for the plight of the hero.  A predilection I have even noticed in my own stories, I cannot keep something a secret too long, hence I tend more towards short stories.  I haven't picked up a book like that in years, until a few days ago.  I had thought it impossible to ever find a living, current writer I could enjoy so much but I am happily wrong.

I have started many a newer work only to lay it aside in disappointment or disgust, perhaps being too picky, but there was always something amiss: the writing style, the plot, the characters, the world, the pacing, but most especially the worldview.  I demand excellent writing, an intriguing plot, characters I care about, a world that feels as if I am part of it, a pace that neither lags nor races, and something that speaks to what it means to be human, but not in a way that is unreal, shallow, or false.  I need a book with soul, or rather that acknowledges that people are more than a collection of atoms dwelling in an accidental universe, and in so doing also speaks to the deeper reality of our own existence; a book that still means something when the story is over, from which I cannot walk away unchanged.  This is one of those books.

It is very hard to write a review of such a work, it cannot be summed up well in a few words but rather must be experienced.  Other works I have read have occasionally popped into my mind as comparisons, though having some commonalities (as most good books will) it is something that is altogether unique (also as a good book should be).  It is a fantasy novel, containing the familiar battle of good versus evil, but it takes a look at both sides, the flaws and strengths and vagaries and subspecies of each and takes them all seriously.  It is a four book series and the first book had me hooked immediately, turning all my preconceptions on their head; I was putty in the author's hands, annoyed at my own gullibility but delighted by the unanticipated twists and turns.  The first book starts out innocently enough in the tradition of Ben-hur and 'Gladiator', but as the series goes on, it deepens and fleshes out in ways hardly to be imagined but certainly enjoyed.

But as good as the story is, its undercurrents are even better and it contains resounding echoes from many of my favorite books.  It has the 'insanely hopeful in spite of overwhelming odds and looming despair' feeling of A Tale of Two Cities.  It has the powerful themes of redemption and love, and the rejection thereof, of Les Miserables.  There is a spicy hint of The Screwtape Letters and a whisper of Pilgrim's Progress.  It has all the twists, turns, complicated characters and plots, political intrigue, action, romance, adventure, an immersive world, and intense pacing of the first three Robert Jordan novels (the Wheel of Time series) without the tedium and stagnation found in his later books.  But most of all, after everything, it most seems to echo The Imitation of Christ.  Yes you read that correctly.  A fantasy novel that also speaks to the very core of your soul and demands of you answers to the same questions the characters must face.

It was painful at times, a mirror into which I did not want to look, but also refreshingly true and taking that truth very seriously.  There were times I wanted to slap the characters, not because they were annoying, well yes they were annoying because they didn't make the decisions which they obviously should make the moment I thought they should, but why was that so frustrating?  I saw myself and my own misdeeds and indecision and stupid thoughts echoed in their own.  They were real and struggled with the same things all mortal men must wrestle with; they were not one dimensional caricatures that went out and slew the dragon and returned triumphant.  They were not thoroughly evil or good (at least the human characters), even if they were a villain or a hero respectively, they were some combination of both, sometimes hardly recognizable as a hero one moment in their pettiness or sulks and the next heart wrenchingly grand: just like all of us!  People were confused, misguided, led by deeper passions to which they could put no name but thinking they were acting on some nobler motive, they doubted, they boasted, they were people, incredibly human: deep, complicated, often unaware of their motives, falling short of their potential, overcoming their weaknesses.  It is a good story, but it is also a grand adventure of the soul.  The Light of Eidon (Legends of the Guardian-King series) by Karen Hancock.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

My week for lazy blogging!

I don't know much about Rich Mullins, but I have always enjoyed his music, apparently there is a new DVD out on him, find a well written introduction here.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Growing up too fast?

Here's an article I found interesting concerning fairy tales and a child's sense of wonder; it is a nice countercultural take on modern thought.

Friday, August 1, 2014

On bad writers and good stories

"But it's not in the power of my gift.  You know what my forte is--the fanciful, the fairylike, the pretty…"  Anne on her writing style in Anne's House of Dreams.

To paraphrase C.S. Lewis's excellent preface to his book George MacDonald: MacDonald is not a great writer, not even in the first or second tier of great writers, at least on a literary level, he is not what one would call an artist, but there is something there that defies words, he evokes something magical that simply uses words as a vehicle for its expression.  It is not how he says something but rather the sensations he inspires in his reader; he is not so much a writer as a mythologist.

I appreciate Lewis's incite into the writing of this fanciful man, I never quite understood what captivated me about MacDonald, his writing is sometimes poignant and painfully sweet, and at other times vague and rambling.  The myth behind the words is what I fell in love with rather than the words themselves.  I can be content now in knowing that an excellent writer and very learned man sometimes finds MacDonald's writing occasionally awkward; I love the man's stories but sometimes found the writing itself a little…cumbersome.

I begin to see a very clear pattern in my favorite authors: it is not so much the quality of the writing (though many of them are very gifted writers) so much as the 'soundtrack' behind the words.  Those inexplicable feelings stirred up as you read that do not necessarily have anything to do with the quality of the words, grammar, or sentence structure.  The story behind the story as it were.  How good of a story do they tell, rather than how perfect of a grammarian are they, is the question I ask.  I've tried reading some of the modern 'classics' and if they are examples of 'good' literature, I will have to stick to my poor, uncultured selections.  I may be a literary ignoramus, but I am a happy idiot.  Those books may be 'literary' or some such undefinable academic jargon, but they have no soul.  I can't read a book that has no heart, that is illogical, or that is grim, depressing, and with never a hint of hope shining through; I cannot read something that has no echo of real life in its pages.  Even the most fantastic fictional world must conform somewhat to reality or there is no point in reading it.  Neither is something that is all happiness and roses satisfactory for the same reason.

I remember watching a movie a few years ago that the critics were raving about, they did bring the strange world to splendid life and I think the musical score was good, but the movie would have been far better if the characters weren't allowed to speak; their insipid dialogue and the predictable plot seemed an intrusion into this otherwise magical world they had created.  It was rather a shame.  The plot was one of those ancient culture threatened by intrusion from 'civilized' outsiders, one of whom is adopted into said endangered culture and falls in love with his new society, thus standing in opposition to his former allies as they make one final, glorious last stand.  Think Dances With Wolves and The Last Samurai.  It is an old story and endures for good reason, it echoes somewhere deep inside and stirs that archaic thing we call a soul.  Just in this case, the tale was told so awkwardly that it detracted from the overall story, but the nonverbal parts of the movie were good enough to tell the tale without dialogue.  Job said it right in this instance, 'it is wisdom for you to remain silent.'  The artistry was there, but the story fell flat on its face because they were trying to sell an agenda rather than tell a story.

I suppose that is why I like movies like the original Star Wars, if you look at it from an artistic standpoint, it is rather ridiculous and the dialogue is certainly not what one would call witty, but it drags you in and stirs the deeps of your soul even so.  It is just good storytelling.  That's what I like about George MacDonald and my other favorite authors.  It is something that I fear is dying in this modern age, I have such a hard time finding a living author whose works I like or even a movie I really enjoy.  Most are just missing something, and I think it was something innate in MacDonald's writing: soul.  I can tolerate a certain amount of 'clunkiness' if the author (or producer) is adept in the art of story, but even the best writing (or effects) in the world cannot make up for a lack of heart and a bad story.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Antediluvian snobbery?

I recently entered some pictures at the local fair and while picking them up afterwards, fell into conversation with a lady of my acquaintance who was likewise picking up her daughter's paraphernalia.  Said bairn is around twelve, only slightly younger than I was when I embarked on my photographic adventures two decades ago, but there has been a seismic shift in the world as we know it since then.  Growing up in the 1990's was like growing up in the 1890's, for then electricity, telephones, and automobiles were about to change the world as they knew it, for our generation it was the internet/computers.  This dear lady asked me what program I used to edit my photos and I was rather at a loss for an answer.  I use the program on my mac to weed out anything that's blurred, out of focus, or has unwanted artifacts but I don't even consider editing them (unless they are fun or irreplaceable shots of people).  'Back in my day,' we amateur photographers had little access to all the cool stuff the professionals had and with film and commercial processors, you could not rely on 'editing' to get a good shot.  I was forced to learn how to take good pictures and knew that each shot cost around twenty-five cents (between film and processing costs) whether it was 'good' or not, whereas digital shots are pretty much 'free.'  Back in those days our phones were also chained to the wall and did nothing but make phone calls; ours even had one of those dially doohickies…talk about outdated!  Cameras were cameras and phones phones.  I still refuse to take pictures with something intended for communicative purposes.

So does this make me archaic or simply a snob?  I love what people can do with photo editing and how widely accessible technology is nowadays, but I am afraid it has also made people less thoughtful and precise in how they treat the medium (just check out a random sampling of pictures on your favorite social media site).  Of course they probably complained about the same problems with the advent of the printing press!  Now the masses can read and gulp, perhaps one day write!  I should rather rejoice that any number of dabblers now have access to the art and one day may become good at it.  The problem with the 'good old days' is that there really is no such thing, we just paint them golden and rose through the lens of nostalgia and the semi-forgetfulness that comes with it.  I am outdated, of course in computer years I should be in my grave long ago…I will confess I am still a fan of Windows 95…I cannot hold this up and coming generation to the same strictures mine had to endure.  With so many amateur photographers (anyone with a cell phone) out there and so many poor shots, these kids will have to strive to become good and stick out from the masses, so maybe things are as they have always been, just with different circumstances.  As in any hobby at any time, and for life in general, one must strive to become more than mundane.  So strive on you photophilics and rise to the top of a vast mediocre sea!