Exploring where life and story meet!

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Slow as dial-up it comes

"Out of the cold Caribbean,
into the desert Libyan,
there crawled a strange amphibian."
~Shel Silverstein~

That's the feeling I got, standing on a bridge overlooking a cold, rushing stream, wistfully gazing over the water as something emerged quite unexpectedly from the frigid flow right beneath me.  It was a bird, not a duck or even a sandpiper but something that looked like a drab just fledged robin.  But it wasn't half-drowned as one might expect, rather it hopped about on the stones and branches, pecking at unseen insects in the vegetation, occasionally plunging back into the flow and swimming about as if it had every right to be there.  And it did.  I had been looking for one for years.  I sought them in such exotic places as Alaska and Yellowstone but nary a glimpse did I see.  And here, right under my nose, flaunting itself for my camera and everlasting amusement, was a young American Dipper, and in a place no more fascinating or exciting than the heart of the Midwest!  I've been looking and searching and waiting, probably quite impatiently, for years and years, and there it was, with no heroic effort or sly maneuverings on my part.  All that was required was a little patience (that and being in the right sort of place on occasion), but I had despaired of ever seeing one.

I remember life before the internet, yes I am that old, and I remember with what impatience we used to wait for the dial-up to connect, and now, in the age of blink and it's there technology and connectedness, I wonder if we are not even more impatient.  Perhaps that is why I love old books: they remind me that life is a journey, a long one, sometimes a tedious one.  If you think the 5 hour 'Pride and Prejudice' is slow, try reading 'Emma' or 'Les Miserables' or any other book of the time.  I'm reading through a copy of 'Les Mis' I picked up somewhere and absolutely hate it.  Before you stone me for hypocrisy, realize this is the very abridged version that came out with the last (non-musical) movie and it is so choppy and pieced-together that unless you know and love the story (in all its incarnations) you'll come away confused and annoyed, wondering what all the fuss is about.  I love the not-so-abridged version (I've never been brave enough to read the whole thing!), the musical, and the movies; it is one of my favorite stories, but they slaughtered it in this version.  They've destroyed the characters, have only an outline of the plot, and in general it makes very little sense unless you already know what is going on.  Yet another symptom of our impatient culture: we can't stand to relish and digest and enjoy a story, we need the cliff note version, asap, and then we are on to the next 'classic,' having merely checked the novel off our 'bucket list' rather than having enjoyed, experienced, or learned aught from it.

I was rather delighted to come across this article written by a native Brit on her favorite, but little known, Costume Dramas from the UK.  Not only am I eager to watch her recommendations, but I'm excited to try a few of the books themselves (not 'Bleak House').  And as you can find many of them free on project Gutenberg, I've no excuse not to.  What can we learn from such classic works?  Patience, certainly.  Try reading 'Persuasion' and imagine yourself waiting ten years for that romance to work out the next time you get a little agitated when 'he' won't text you back within five minutes!  It is a nice reminder that just because 'it' doesn't happen immediately, that 'it' never will. Just like my bird, if I persevere and do what I must, 'it' may just work out eventually and at a time I least expected, and if 'it' doesn't, well, there's probably something different, and probably better that was meant to be instead.  So instead of wasting so much time with our social media 'friends,' we might do well to spend a little of it with and learning from all those intriguing characters from the forgotten books of yore, or at least watching a good movie adaptation.  Happy reading (or viewing)!

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The parable of the Sheep and the Sheep...?

We went to Yellowstone last week (yes, it snowed!) and I really wanted to see a Bighorn Sheep, a species I have never yet beheld in the wild.  Wolves, black bears, moose, and bison have all been checked off my bucket list, but the bighorn continued to elude me.  Finally, we stopped for one of the requisite 'bear jams,' either a bunch of people gawking at some wild thing or a herd of bison is loitering on the road.  Some lady had parked her car right in the middle of the road and was out photographing what ever it was, but she got her photos and drove off leaving us to guess at what the critter was.  It was grazing with its head down and its rump towards us making it difficult to identify.  It was rather small and light colored and certainly moth-eaten and after several guesses of a sickly elk or a rangy deer, it finally revealed itself to be a rather scruffy Bighorn ewe:  

I was excited and disappointed.  Yes, I had my Bighorn, but it was far from the majestic, stunning denizen of wild mountain cliffs seen on postcards and wildlife calendars.  Yes, all the wildlife was thin and molting at the tail end of winter, but I had hoped for something a little more, well, grand!  But I was content, I had my sheep and could check it off my list.  Then we drove around the corner and came upon a major traffic snarl but as I pulled over briefly (and happily had my atrociously huge lens handy) I managed to snap this picture:

There they were, seven rather impressive (and lazy) Bighorn rams dozing in the sage brush, ignorant that their very presence was causing a bit of a frenzy in the traffic department.  I was willing to settle for my moth-eaten ewe, little thinking there was something so much better just around the corner, if I would only be patient and wait.  How often does that apply to life?  I know I've snatched at things I knew weren't the best or what was meant for me, yet I grasped at them desperately, content with the crumbs when I could have the whole cake, if I would but wait and trust.  A love interest, a job, a place to live, selecting a college or career, a prospective adoption...I've done it all, so afraid I would be forgotten or miss out that I chased dreams that were never meant for me, and I knew it, somehow, and after some angst and trouble, I'd be back to waiting for the right thing, the good thing, though I so wanted to be doing something, anything, to assure my own destiny, bring about my own future.  But I needed to learn to wait, and to trust, and to learn that it wasn't of my own doing that the important things in life were accomplished, but rather they were a gift and a blessing, that I wasn't forgotten, but rather it was not the proper place or time.  How many tears of frustration and how much wasted effort have I vainly spent on such futile strivings?  When all I really needed to do was wait until the appropriate time (this is not to say that all one needs to do is sit tight with open hands and whatever you want will happen, rather, this assumes you have taken the necessary steps to place yourself in the position to wait for the adoption to happen or the job offer to be made, laziness and being ill-prepared will not yield the hoped for results).

Maybe one of these days I'll quit settling for the rangy ewe, I'll be able to walk past it without batting an eye or looking back or wondering 'what might happen,' and rather walk on boldly round the corner and find the good intended for me, long hoped and prepared for, but not ready when and as I wanted it, but rather as it was meant to be.  All the closed windows and locked door, dead ends and walking in circles and endless waiting will not be in vain, but I must be patient in the interim.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The lost narrative

Ever wonder why life is so messy, ugly, and confusing at times?  Why as a society and culture we seem to be either circling the drain or milling about dazedly like cattle in a strange pen?  I think we've lost our narrative.  How can that be possible in a world 'where anything can happen child, anything can be!'?  Think about it for a minute: the very essence of art or story or music is the frame, the boundary, the border; a creative work is as defined by what it excludes as by what it includes.  Art died when all the rules were thrown out in favor of the modern 'freedoms,' the same happened to poetry and literature and if you've listened to the radio lately, music is also on the endangered species list.  In a land of infinite choice, where all choices are equally good, what is the point of choosing?  We are paralyzed by fear of choosing wrongly, of missing out on something, or too overwhelmed to do anything but point at random.  Instead of winning a trip to Norway, we get to go anywhere in the world and do anything, and all we can do is stare at the map with glazing eyes and gaping mouth, unable to decide what and where and how.

In the land of infinite freedom, many would give their right hand for a map.  I saw an article some years back examining the American infatuation with Tolkien and his world and it concluded that lacking a certain, known history, Americans grasped at Tolkien and his Middle Earth as a sort of substitute mythology, making it part of their own story and thereby giving themselves standing in a chaotic and shifting world.  It was an interesting theory, probably only good for a Ph.D. dissertation, but I think it hinted at a very important truth: human beings are creatures of story.  We need a beginning, a middle, and an end.  We need plot and characters and setting, otherwise we are adrift at sea with no knowledge of sailing.  In a world where everything is insane and open ended, story is the one enduring theme.  Need proof?  Look at the movies (not the quality but the quantity).  Almost every major release in recent history is a remake, a sequel, or a prequel of some beloved tale, why?  Because, no matter how insipid or badly done, producers know people will come simply because of the story or character or series upon which it is based.  We are drawn irresistibly to stories.

But how do stories fit in this post-modern world where nothing is true yet everything is?  Is it as certain literary theorists suppose that the tale means what you want it to?  That idea will ruin stories as much as modernism destroyed art.  The last thing we want (or need) is another idea catering to and shaping itself around our wants, needs, opinions, and desires.  We thirst for something outside ourselves, a True North by which to calibrate our overwrought compasses of meaning and purpose and origin and destination; above all else we desire a direction and a purpose in the going.  We want a quest, an adventure, we want to set out like Frodo or Luke Skywalker, upon some needful and meaningful quest.  We are tired of 'just do it' and 'have it your way;' the universe is a dreadfully small place if I (and my enjoyment thereof) is the be all and end all of reality.  We've come to the end of hedonism and found it as empty and vain as every other worldview and lifestyle ever tried.  A really good story is the only thing that yet has the power to transport us out of the mire of nihilistic abandon.

Think of the popularity of books, movies, TV shows, video games, and whatever other medium you desire, they all tell a story and we eagerly escape into them.  Stories promise meaning and direction and purpose, a thing most lacking in modern life, and for a while we can walk the wilds with Strider or flit between the stars aboard the Millennium Falcon.  They also give us a common understanding with our fellow mortals, we can't peaceably discuss politics or even eating styles but we can dress up like Chewbacca and dream up plot lines for Star Wars Episode LXVIII.  We have lost community along with Truth.  And we are social creatures as much as we are creatures of story.  We are all hurting and lonely and confused, we blame X or Y or Z for it, hating individuals, worldviews, causes, organizations, political bodies, or whatever, blaming everything and everyone for our hurt and pain, when we all suffer from the same disease, even though our ideas are extreme opposites.  We've made our ideas, opinions, tastes, and preferences the meaning and reason for life, we define ourselves and base our worth on our likes and dislikes, becoming as broad and shallow (and important) as an internet message board.

But you will outlast the internet.  Countries and Kingdoms, stars and oceans will vanish.  Sports teams and corporations will not endure.  Lifestyle choices will disappear.  And what will be left?  An old story tells us, 'no eye has seen nor ear has heard, nor has it entered into the mind of man.'  We cannot even begin to imagine it, for its wonder will boggle a mortal mind.  That's our quest, our adventure, our common purpose, our shared narrative and the basis for our community: to find that Kingdom, and not to come as refugees, saved at the last, empty handed and in rags, but rather as citizens, children of the very King, coming Home at last into our inheritance.  You can 'have it all' here, but inherit only wind, for it is nothing but a passing dream, a vapor of fog, gone in the morning. Or you can have your adventure, you can find Truth, and you won't go alone.  You are called, as much as Frodo or any other storybook hero or figure out of legend to tread this path, to accept the quest, though it won't be easy, nothing worthwhile ever is.  Will you find the Way, the Truth, and the Life?

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Leave room for fairies

We've all heard the trite saying, 'bloom where you're planted,' which is a nice little ditty and often true, but sometimes I wonder how anything grows out here (yes, it is that time of year again, this is my annual gardening pointers for life article).  I've tried all sorts of things, but no matter what I grow or try, it seems like all my grand experiments are doomed to failure.  My vegetables get run over by a hay-bine.  Nothing will eat or kill a shrub rose but a deer can sit on it.  A pheasant uprooted all my periwinkle, twice!  My carefully nurtured Columbine seeds die but the neglected or wild ones go crazy (not a bad thing!).  I'm not saying I don't have nice plants and fun in the yard, but my plans never seem to work out, rather it is the unexpected and unanticipated that makes it so worthwhile (just like life!).

A yellow warbler nest, a white crowned sparrow not three feet away, my first sight of an orchard oriole, scads of cabbage butterflies when I thought I was growing nasturtiums, daisies everywhere, the ethereal blue of a flax flower...sunsets and stars and sparkle on the snow...well worth all the weeding and drought and wildlife and soil fit only for making pots (clay, lots of clay!).  My plans go far awry, and my dear grandmothers would likely die of apoplexy to see the disordered riot that passes for my flower beds when theirs were laid out with particular order and care and precision, but they never had fairies.  The same goes for life.  If our plans are all that matter, if there isn't room for detours or backtracking or a completely different course, we are doomed to disappointment, or we can embrace the adventure and see where the journey takes us.

Proverbs puts it this way: "The heart of a man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps (16:9)."

G.K. Chesterton puts it like this: "An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered; an inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered."

We make our plans, and then life happens, we can either stand at the crossroads, staring blankly at our map and scratching our heads, or we can set off into the sunset, whistling as we go, eager to meet the adventure at hand.  I control so very little, be it in life or the garden, and thinking I can control everything (or should) will only lead to discontent and disaster, such things are better left in wiser hands than mine, my only duty is to walk (or dig) that which is set before me.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

When hobbits venture forth

"I hope there are not many more hobbits that have become like this.  It would be a worse trouble than all the damage the Men have done." Frodo, J.R.R. Tolkien, 'Return of the King'

“The little things of life, sweet and excellent in their place, must not be the things lived for; the highest must be sought and followed; the life of heaven must be begun here on earth.”  Anne, L.M. Montgomery, 'Anne of the Island'

"Consider, first, the mere quantity.  The quality may be wretched; but we never had souls (of a sort) in more abundance." Screwtape, C.S. Lewis, 'Screwtape Proposes a Toast'

Whoever thought Frodo Baggins, Anne Shirley, and Screwtape could ever have anything in common?  A hobbit, a spunky redhead, and a fictional demon!  But they all agree that the Western world is suffering from a crisis of character.  Even a hundred years ago it was a noticeably downward trend, perhaps even before that, but I wonder what they would think of our tempestuous modern world, could they see it now?  Modernism was the threat then, but we have sunk even past post-modernism.  No longer is it 'who you are (as an individual)' but rather 'what you have (including fame)' that is important.  Being an anonymous saint is far worse (culturally speaking) than being wicked and famous.  Our individuality is expressed in our 'likes' and 'dislikes' on social media, the causes, food, clothes, celebrities, and activities we reject or embrace.  We are a list of loves and hates, vehemently defending to the verbal death those things we love or opposing that which we abhor; hating any that do not agree with us.  No wonder I prefer the company of relatively ancient fictional characters to the insipid ranting and infighting of this uncivil age.

I've been rereading some old favorites lately: Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, Jane Eyre, various Jane Austen books, Lord of the Rings, Narnia.  Every single one is most of all a study in character, especially "Lord of the Rings."  It is a journey of character building, from small minded and frivolous Hobbits to individuals suited to be leaders in their homeland and ride amongst the great of their own or any age.  And we each have that chance, every day, every moment with every thought, word, and action, we ingrain in ourselves more and more character either for good or for ill.  Will we grow and become great, though the world knows not our name, or will we 'fall into darkness, with all that is left of our kin?'  That is our choice and we don't need a 'Ring of Power' to do it.  We all want to be individuals, we all want the freedom to choose, and this is the greatest freedom of all: the choice of molding ourselves into some likeness, be it good or evil, strong or flabby.  We won't become unique following the clueless herd; we won't grow without conscious effort and yes, some discomfort and pain.  But do we want to be a flavorless nonentity like everybody else, devoid of personality and character, just another shade of beige merely defined by our likes, dislikes, opinions, and preferences?  Consider life the 'gym' of character, will you sit back and watch others work out or will you jump in and get a little sweaty yourself?