Exploring where life and story meet!

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Of gourds and men...

I love the scene in the Return of the King movie after the hobbits have returned home from their grand adventures and they are sitting around a table in the local pub waiting for Frodo to bring their drinks, but he nearly collides with an aged, grumpy hobbit bearing an enormous pumpkin.  After being appropriately berated for his clumsiness, he returns successfully to his friends while everyone else in the overcrowded tavern oohs and aahs over the squash, ignoring our heroes, who truly have had adventures over which the plebs might appropriately gush and fawn, rather than wasting their efforts on an obese gourd.  Sometimes I feel that scene is a perfect metaphor for all of modern life, especially as exemplified by social media.  But ironically, we suddenly have the whole world at our fingertips yet we are as clueless and naive as any hobbit that's never been further from home than a day's walk.

People go on and on about their cat or their new love interest (the third one this month) or their kid's stubbed toe or the upcoming preschool graduation and what adorable outfit Maggie Sue is going to wear.  I might perhaps be a heartless cad, but really, don't you have anything more interesting or important to obsess over?  But of course!  Did you hear the latest news out of Hollywood?  Never mind, what was that you were saying about your cat?

I feel like those hobbits sometimes: strangers in their own hometown.  They ventured forth into a larger world; their eyes were opened to greater things.  And here they sit, surrounded by squash enthusiasts.  I have nothing against cats or obsessive parents or the excitement of a new relationship, but contrary to popular belief, the world does not revolve around you (or your cat or whatever), and I'd like to talk about something else for a bit.  Books?  No, I haven't read Fifty Shades of Gray and would much rather open the phonebook at random and begin memorizing; let's get back to your cat.  The internet and social media were supposed to expand our horizons and make us more aware of and sensitive towards others, instead it has allowed each of us to erect our own little parthenon in which to enshrine ourselves as little gods.  There's an old saying about 'too many cooks spoil the broth,' I wonder what too many 'gods' will do to the culture?

So there our hobbits sit, knowing they are small fish in a big pond while all their neighbors think themselves big fish in a rather small pond.  Personally, I'd rather have room to swim!

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Abba, Father

God is mean.  If He really loved me, He'd let me do whatever I want!  I know what's best for me, I know what I need, I know who I am.  If He was really a loving God, He'd let me do what I know is best for me.

I seem to have heard such an argument before, but rather it involves a being called 'mommy' and the offended party just reached the sagacious age of three.  When I hear the same arguments out of the mouths of grown adults, I no longer wonder at Paul writing some of his letters to 'spiritual infants.'  I think part of our problem, as a culture, understanding God is because we no longer understand what it is to have or be parents.  Reading just about anything on parenting on social media, various blogs, or websites is enough to make me want to become Amish!  We want our kids to like us, to be our friends, to succeed no matter what, to never hurt or deal with the negative aspects of life, to basically be happy all the time or they are a burden, a nuisance, an obstruction to 'my' self-fulfillment.  Both views are utterly selfish and harmful to our children.  No wonder we misunderstand our Heavenly Father.

True love demands what is best for the beloved, not for the lover or that the beloved necessarily be 'happy' at that precise moment.  Kids need discipline, boundaries, and to take responsibility for their actions; they also need love, security, and a chance to take risks and to be allowed to fail.  You do not help your toddler by giving in to his tantrums for more sweets, but rather by teaching him that there is a time and a place for treats and that he will not die for want of them.  Perhaps when God says 'no' or 'wait' when we demand a certain blessing, He has a very good reason for it, one that we cannot yet comprehend or see.  He's not mean, He's just a good parent.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Ivory Tower of Babel

I've always known academians were either a little desperate or crazy or whacked or something, but I finally have solid proof.  I spent eight years working my way up the collegiate ladder and along the way met many a Ph.D. or students anxious to be in possession of one.  The problem is, to get such a degree, you must write a VERY long paper on something that has never been written upon before, which in the hard sciences (biology, chemistry…) is not so awful as there are always new and interesting details to research in depth, but in the soft sciences (literature, art…) it is much more difficult as most of the interesting/useful topics have been taken.  So they usually end up researching something like Dr. Suess' favorite color and how it influenced his relationship with his uncle or something ridiculous like that.  The problem with this approach is that we have a lot of time, money, and effort going into things that either make no sense or have no practical purpose in real life.  This explains why many Ph.D's can't hold a real conversation: they've spent so long on their specific topic that they can talk and think of nothing else and sadly, no one else on the planet cares.  I've had professors lecture for hours on an obscure encephalitis of horses in Switzerland (their thesis topic) and completely gloss over diseases I see and treat every day; I have treated far too much parvovirus but have never yet seen a case of Borna Virus, but guess what we learned about in school?

My ultimate proof of the futility of many doctoral degrees was the result of an investigation I did regarding a children's book, yes, it was that important.  We read 'Goodnight Moon' every so often, as many a parent with small children has before us, and in one of the drawings, there is a painting in the background with a fly fishing bunny catching another bunny and I thought it looked very familiar, so I did the only sensible thing and googled it.  The picture appears in another book by the same author called 'Runaway Bunny' which apparently I had once read or looked at some years ago.  Mystery solved, or so I thought.  I started reading further on the Wikipedia site and found a reference to some work ascribing an Oedipus Complex to 'Goodnight Moon' and its companion books.  Am I the only person that thinks this is getting kind of weird?  It is a kid's book, I don't think it was written with all these subliminal messages about the human psyche!  Just read the book, tuck the kids in bed, and get a life!

I remember something of Oedipus from my mythology class in high school but had to go back and look him up to figure out what this article was going on about.  He's the guy that killed his father and married his mother (unknowingly, as he was supposed to be dead and was raised by people who were not his biological parents).  So basically an Oedipus Complex is when you have 'a thing' for your mom.  And where exactly do you find that in 'Goodnight Moon?'  Is there an official complex for people that read way too much into a children's story?  This is what happens when literature doesn't mean anything anymore, I think they call it deconstructionism.  The story doesn't mean what the author thinks it means, rather it means whatever the reader thinks it means.  Huh?  As a writer, I definitely take offense at that.  I don't write gibberish, I try very hard to express exactly what I want to express, but apparently I am either not educated enough or sophisticated enough to realize that I cannot possibly mean what I think I mean, rather I mean whatever a particular reader thinks I mean?  Doesn't this kind of kill communication?  How on earth do these people have a conversation or maintain any sort of relationship: he said X which probably means X but I take it to mean Y because I think he should have meant Y.  We might as well speak two separate languages!

I think I'll just enjoy the book at face value and let the academians argue amongst themselves about its deeper meaning.  "Goodnight noises everywhere!"

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Of wanderers and vagrants

Stranger, pilgrim, sojourner, wanderer, gypsy, and vagrant, all perfect words to describe how I'm starting to feel in this modern world.  Tolkien famously penned, 'not all who wander are lost,' and while I've always been enchanted by the phrase, I begin to understand and appreciate it more and more.  It is from his 'Lord of the Rings' books and refers to Aragorn, or Strider as he is ignominiously known, the uncrowned King who has spent his entire life living as an exile and gypsy in his own Kingdom.  I just don't 'get' modern culture, I never have.  I'll happily lose myself in an old book, but get strangely bored with anything written much after 1935.  Television and movies rarely hold my interest, and I travel in very tight circles on the inter web.  Is it me that's boring or has the whole world become dull?

I suppose boring is not the correct phrase, mundane would be far more appropriate and as it stems from the latin for 'world' it neatly answers my question as well.  The preferred pleasures of the modern world really hold little interest for me and I find myself an alien in my own country, whose people cannot discuss anything deeper than pop culture, a language I do not speak.  The virtues have become passive rather than active: the modern good is not to cheat on a math test versus once it meant helping an old lady with her grocery bags.  Or worse, character has come to mean 'are the opinions I hold socially acceptable,' i.e.: do you recycle, eat organic, or practice/agree with whatever the current conscientious fad is.  The highest 'good' is my own pleasure rather than the welfare of others.  We are all of us becoming conformists to a strange and ever changing list of high social ideals, at which the merest hint of dissent is greeted with cries of outrage and vitriol.  We are not allowed to think or reason or discuss, but must merely conform.  And it is incredibly dull.

So we obsess over the lives of fictional characters because our own have no 'flair.'  A hang nail becomes a crisis of international proportions when appropriately worded on social media.  Life's a party we are told but everyone is a stranger and no one is quite sure what we're celebrating, or why.  We now have so many 'celebratory moments' that none of them are really special.  How many times does a modern kid 'graduate' from preschool, kindergarten…before they actually graduate from high school?  Do we really need another party to find out if your baby is a boy or a girl, odds are pretty good it is one or the other.  Does anybody else feel like they woke up one morning in one of those weird parallel life movies: it is your life but it isn't?  It feels sort of like Disneyland: smile, even if you don't feel like it or you're fired.  Yeah, those fake smiles really boost the spirits, don't they?  We're all 'happy' on the outside but miserable on the inside, but if we keep busy enough no one will notice.

Everyone is looking for authenticity, the 'real thing,' all natural, back to basics, you get the idea, but when every box of inedible prepackaged frosting-injected spongecake and all those parts of the chicken that they won't even put into dog food but will happily convert into dinosaur shaped breaded patties for juvenile human consumption bear the label, 'all natural,' you really start to wonder what exactly that means.  Every city I visit is exactly the same, it doesn't matter what state or climate we're in, they all have the exact same mishmash of stores, restaurants, and entertainment venues.  Every house is beige and every car is a too small, eco-friendly whatever.

I tend to visit a certain mommy blog on occasion, just to see what the 'cultural norm' is for parenting nowadays, and had I not already had kids, I don't think I'd have any.  Apparently there are only 2 kinds of parents in the world: those who live vicariously through their kids and 'it is the end of the world if Jeffie writes his C's backwards at 2, how is he ever going to get into Harvard!' parents or the 'it was sort of an accident or I thought they'd be cute or something' parents who can do nothing but complain about how much kids mess up their lives: 'I can't even go to the bar when I want to!'  Both of these examples are just an extension of our larger cultural problem: we are looking for fulfillment and purpose and meaning in all the wrong places.  And sadly, we are blind to it.  We just try something else: kids didn't work, how about a dog or an affair or a trip to Paris or a new car or…  Like a hamster on an exercise wheel, we just keep running and running but never truly get anywhere but tell ourselves we are making excellent time.

That was me, until the wheel broke down.  I had the degree, the professional career, true we were living in a shoe box, driving a used car trying to pay off school debt, but we had 'the life,' or so society assured us.  And I was miserable, only I didn't know it.  Then life fell apart, the job went away, 'the life' vanished like the dream it was, and I couldn't be happier for it.  My family still thinks I'm nuts, but I know their lives are as pointless and tedious as they assume mine to be.  Sure, I don't have a fancy title anymore, I get called 'mommy' or 'sweetie' instead of 'doctor,' but I like it that way.  The paycheck was nice, but it sure didn't make life any better once the bills were paid.  I just read a short article on the cost of kids, which basically made it sound like a lose-lose deal financially and career wise whether you stay at home or work, so you might as well not have them.  From the materialist's perspective that makes a whole lot of sense, but there is so much more to life than money or prestige or power, which is why those who put their hope in such things are never happy or content.

What then is the meaning of life, the universe, and everything?  It isn't 42.  It's love.  I'm not talking the trashy romance novel or steamy paranormal teen romance or even the modern chick flick sort of infatuation we mistake for love.  I'm talking the 'willing to give up everything for the benefit of the beloved' type of love, I believe the greeks called it agape.  It isn't what you have but Whose you are.  Nothing in this world can compare to that which lurks beyond it, that Love that snuck into our own reality and gave up everything so we could share in that 'peace that passes understanding,' in that Joy beyond the world's comprehension.  This world isn't enough, but then it was never meant to be.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

A rock in a weary land

There's no good story without a few tears in it, at least this side of reality.  Have you ever tried reading one of those insipid children's books that tries to teach numbers or manners or something but the plot and characters are dull enough to make the paint on your wall look interesting?  And yes, there are some very good books with very few words out there, it is possible to tell a good story in five sentences or less.  They are tedious and uninteresting because they are unrealistic, there is nothing of emotion or feeling in them; they are dull for the same reason math books are dull: they were only meant to convey facts, not tell a story, yet telling a story is one of the oldest and best ways of teaching something, but some of our more modern elites in the education world have forgotten this and think only the facts matter.

I often wonder at the modern pursuit of the so-called 'good life,' basically one as free of discomfort and as full of pleasure as possible.  No wonder I find suburbia as surreal as one of those 'informative' children's books.  We all live 'happily' in our beige houses with our regulation lawns and red SUVs, keeping our souls dulled into 'blissful' insensibility by an unending schedule of soccer games, dance lessons, overtime, and expensive family vacations to cheesy rodent themed amusement parks.  There are no problems in the world, save what we see on TV, but those don't affect us, they are far away, and will never affect us.  I'll live in my artificial, anesthetized bubble of reality and watch the years tick away.  You can pretend pain doesn't exist, but that doesn't make it go away.  We try to create our own little utopias, forgetting that we live in a broken paradise where such things cannot be.  One day, sorrow will come knocking; it is not an if but a when.  But are we ready to open the door?  Will your whole fake bubble implode, your so-called life evaporate, or will you struggle and cry, but come out the stronger for it?

Besides for the oldest among us, we have never had our Great Depression or World Wars, all our crises have been rather mild by comparison; the majority of us in the West don't have to wonder where our next meal will come from, to us, our iPhone breaking is the worst calamity we can currently imagine
enduring. I like the way C.S. Lewis put it: "Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world."  No other needle will pop the fake and protective balloon we have carefully wrapped about ourselves and our sensibilities.  I am not saying that all pain and suffering in the world is for just that reason, rather we live in a broken and ruined world, one where sin and strife and suffering are the rule rather than the exception, while we try to minimize it, none can avoid it indefinitely, but sometimes, God will use that suffering for His glory and our good, if we will take the hint, that is.

I often wonder at my childhood, I grew up thinking I was normal: divorced parents, an emotionally abusive father and emotionally distant mother, bullied at day care and public school, normal for a kid growing up in the 90's right?  Then I got married and had a family of my own, I'm still discovering the depth of the hurt and pain, 20 years later I'm still crying myself to sleep, because it isn't 'normal,' it may be culturally normal, but it wasn't how it was meant to be.  Comparing my own family dynamics to those of my family of origin, I know now what family is supposed to mean and the latter was the antithesis.  Why was I allowed to suffer so much sorrow for so long?  Why must I still bear the scars and nurse unhealed wounds?  If God loves me, why couldn't I have been happy?

There are greater goods than happiness, higher ideals than pleasure.  But for my sorrow and loneliness, my social ostracization, I might never have known Him.  'Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.'  In finding Him, I have found my Joy and Hope and Peace, something the world could never give, and when it did, it was a fickle and vapid thing, fleeting and vain, but His hope shall outlast the stars.  I did not enjoy the pain, I would not willingly endure it again, but greater Joy has come of it.  An infant and mother don't enjoy the birth process, but it would be tragic were they to forgo it for fear of discomfort and greater joy certainly comes of it.

We can either lean into sorrow, take its hand and bear with it until it has passed, learning from it what we must, allowing Someone else to ease our burden, to share our pain, else we can try hiding from it, deny it exists, or be crushed beneath it or shake our fists at the heavens and decry that this is proof that there is no God or that He does not care.  He is not the God of personal comfort, that is a small and fickle god indeed, rather He went to the cross to bear the sins and sorrows of a world that denied Him, betrayed Him, insulted Him.  'He has borne our sorrows and carried our griefs,' when He need not have known anything but Glory and Joy forever.  Now there is a rock we can stand upon or shelter behind, whatever the storm without.