Sunday, February 26, 2006

It Looks Like....

We woke up this morning to more snow, a lovely fluttering snowfall that just barely covered the ground before it started melting mid-morning. Because we live in a river valley, we get a lot of wind, and the flakes tend to flutter and blow sideways and do other odd and beautiful things before they actually land on anything. Dana and I used to joke, the first few years we lived here, that it actually only snowed about a hundred flakes every winter, and that those same hundred flakes just blew around the whole season.

I've been feeling very tired, and so the sudden whiteness on the ground was especially healing. It looked like a clean white page, ready for the writing of a new story in a new day.

I've been doing the "it looks like" game a lot for myself lately, courtesy of my daughter's fascination with the idea. I'm not sure when Booper started saying that things "looked like" other things, and if she picked it up from me or just came up with it on her own, but she does it often. Some of her "looks like" ideas are very creative. At lunch today she was munching on apple slices, held them up together, grinned and announced "It looks like two moons hugging." Three year old poets are wonderful!

Yesterday was another good one. We'd gone for a walk to the little library here in town in the late morning, and the weather was unbelievably balmy. We wore light jackets, and mine almost felt too heavy. The light looked like spring, the air almost (but not quite) smelled like spring, and it was almost 50 degrees. Later in the afternoon, nearing dinner time, I decided I wanted to pick up an early Sunday paper, so we walked a few blocks to get one. I'd heard it was going to get colder, so I put Sarah in a heavier coat, but I foolishly shrugged into my light one again (well, it's a fleece jacket, and a favorite of mine, but the zipper broke on it so it's not very warm at all). It had dropped close to 20 degrees, I bet, and the wind was could tell snow was probably on its way. Even Sarah, native Pittsburgher, was admitting it was cold.

And I confess I struggled with one more blast of winter. Walking down a gray street under a gray sky, thinking about our difficult financial and job situation, aching a bit with the knowledge that some of our closest friends here will soon be moving away (again) I suddenly wasn't sure I could deal with one more cold, windy winter walk in this loveable but broken town. As we battled on against the wind (and walking home we were definitely against it) I found myself struggling to even try to imagine any change in our circumstances. Last year, during some of the harder times, I was able to buoy myself up with imagined futures where we were settled somewhere warmer, greener, someplace where I actually had a small yard and a patch where I could grow flowers. Most of the time I'm pretty good about living fully in the present (a lesson the Lord has taught me over and over here) but sometimes I need to do some fruitful and hopeful imagining. And yesterday, suddenly, walking down that wind-cold street, I just couldn't muster the energy to imagine a garden anymore.

That's when Sarah's three year old imagination (though she didn't know it) brought healing to my heart. She suddenly came to a stop, reached over to pick something up off the sidewalk, and lifted it triumphantly in the air. "Wow, Sarah, pretty neat!" I think she said (or something like's one of her favorite phrases these days...she likes to talk to herself). I tugged at her other cold hand to hurry her along. "What is it, sweetie?" I asked. She waved the something around with great abandon. We were passing the town square, the one with several trees, and I saw that she'd picked up an old brown and brittle seed pod, round and prickly, on a stem. Not very beautiful. But Sarah waved it like it was a prize and announced "It looks like a dandelion!" I started laughing. I squeezed that little hand and said something like "Sarah, only you could see a dandelion in an old seed pod." She just beamed at me and repeated, "It kinda looks like a flower. Pretty neat!" Out of the mouths of babes. Bless her.

So I need to keep exercising my imagination, using my eyes with the freshness of a three year old's eyes. I need to keep saying "it looks like ----" and then filling in the blank, with hope, with beauty, and yes, when need be, with imagined gardens.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Writing Excellence

My paternal grandfather was a journalist and an historian, and words mattered deeply to him. He was especially keen on the idea that words should be used wisely and carefully in order to communicate clearly. I never got to meet him (he died 6 years before I was born) but I've been blessed to hear many stories (clearly communicated to me!) about him, and I suspect his legacy is one of the reasons I love words so much and try to use them as well as I can.

I confess to feeling aggravated when I read certain articles or stories that do not use words carefully or wisely. Of late, I've been especially annoyed by certain pieces I've read online. I worry sometimes that the ease and speed of online communication is making writers sloppy. A couple of brief cases in point:

*This morning I was on a website for a small press whose listing I had seen in the 2006 Writer's Market. I hadn't heard of them before, and was interested in seeing what they publish, the philosophy behind what they publish, etc. They provided only the briefest of introductions as to who they were and what they were doing. They did make the point, however, that "our purpose is controversial." In vain did I search for a purpose statement -- there was none! I confess I don't understand the point of claming a "controverisal" purpose (unless you think it just sounds cool?) if you're not going to explain what your purpose is and what you mean by controversial. I tried to sift through some of their content for contextual clues, and concluded that they are probably into a kind of "health and wealth" version of the Christian faith, which isn't very "healthy" at all. But I could be wrong. Their writing was so unclear, I couldn't be sure. They also claimed that their "passion" is "inevitable" -- yet another statement that made little sense.

And another example:

*A few days ago I read an editorial on the Winter Olympics by a well-known sports writer for a prominent news website. He made some interesting points (as far as I could tell) but the piece itself meandered all over, and was so inconsistent in tone, that it was hard for me to decide exactly what he was trying to say. He began by bemoaning how boring these Olympic games have been, especially for the U.S., in part because there have been no stories that capture the public's attention or dazzle journalists. He then appeared to chastise all of us in the U.S. for our general shallowness -- for no longer being satisified with athletic excellence if it didn't result in lots of gold medals or the blooming of fascinating sports personalities. Then, in an odd about-face, he fretted about the possibility that Sasha Cohen would succumb to competitive pressure once again and not win gold in ladies' figure skating, and went out of his way (though whether in blame or praise, I couldn't tell) to point out that she's refused to play the media game by taking on the role of American ice princess.

Is writing like this fuzzy writing? Or just plain fuzzy thinking?

And while we're on the topic of the Olympics, I had to say I found Sasha Cohen's second place finish inspiring. I'd never seen anyone in an Olympic skating competition, with so much to win and so much to lose, stumble so badly so early and yet find the strength of will to not only finish, but finish beautifully, elegantly, and almost perfectly. 3 out of 4 minutes of her program were sheer poetry and near perfection. It struck me with odd force, watching Cohen and also her closest competitors, that these young women have really achieved excellence in their field. Most of us have never achieved anywhere near such excellence in any skill. They do what they do better than anyone else in the world, and they achieve this kind of skill through hard work, determination, and (as was clear last night) sometimes through sheer chutzpah. Watching Cohen skate, falls and all, gave me a sense of joy and of clean and simple contentment. Reading rushed and inflated prose about her and her fellow athletes at the Olympics, from a writer who clearly doesn't have the same standards of excellence for his own work, just left me feeling flat.

It makes me want to work all the harder at my own writing.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Going Bananas

This morning Sarah and I were reading the story of the feeding of the 5,000, or as her children's Bible calls it, "The Little Boy's Lunch." One of the lines in the story is "Then he (Jesus) thanked God for the food and began to break the bread and fish into pieces."

A little while later she was at the breakfast table while I was in the living room doing a few things. Suddenly I heard Dana start laughing. Sarah had peeled an entire banana, broken it into chunks, and placed them on her plate. When her Daddy asked her why she'd done that, she said proudly "You broke it into pieces just like in the Bible!"

If we suddenly have more bananas than we know what to do with, I'll let you know... !!

This seems as good a time as any to plug the wonderful set of children's Bibles we've been using with Booper these past several months. It's a two volume set (OT and NT) called My Very First Bible. Published by Harvest House Publishers, the stories are retold by L.J. Sattgast and the terrific illustrations are by Russ Flint. We've used a number of "kid-friendly" Bibles in the past three years, and I think this is our hands-down favorite. It's officially listed for an age range of 2-7, and that's just about right. Sarah loves them, and we go through them again and again, often reading 3 or 4 stories each morning (they average about a dozen lines or so each). The stories are well chosen and well written. Some children's bibles have really awful illustrations -- either cartoonish or somewhat dreary old-fashioned Sunday School take-home paper pictures. These are bright and lively, well drawn, with fantastic details and expression and even some touches of droll humour. It pays to look carefully at each picture because you're often rewarded with a memorable detail. For instance, in the story of the miraculous catch of fish (post-resurrection, John 21) before Jesus gets on the scene, the disciples can't catch anything...and there's a marvelous illustration of Peter bringing up an old sandal from an otherwise empty net. Things like that capture kids' imaginations. Sarah always remembers that part! And it's much easier in the context of laughing together over Peter catching an old sandal, to press home the point that it's Jesus who makes the HUGE catch of fish possible! I also love the facial expressions on many of the characters' faces -- especially the people who are healed in the healing stories. Such joy and exuberance! The lame man turns cartwheels. The paralytic dances. These are memorably and beautifully done, really bringing the stories to full life.

Unfortunately they're out of print. We were blessed to find our copies through Amazon sellers - I think we spent $5 apiece, and that included shipping. And they looked like they'd never been read. Definitely worth finding and buying if you have little ones in your life that could benefit from a good introduction to the Scriptures.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Reading Rambles

Long week. My lack of posting here hasn't meant a lack of reading, just a lack of time to actually reflect on/write about anything I'm reading. I've been busy, both with ordinary life and with the stress of continued job hunting as D. and I continue to try to find some ways to pay our bills. Meanwhile, winter has struck our little corner of PA with a vengenance again. After an amazingly balmy and springlike day on Thursday, bitter cold roared back into the Ohio River Valley on Friday. Booper girl loves it, but then she was born in the 'Burgh! She keeps saying "it's not really, REALLY cold" and "it's not as cold as snowmen." Meanwhile, her poor southern mommy is freezing and donning my heaviest, warmest socks.

Our friend Travis preached an amazing sermon at church this morning. I'm still chewing on it. Reflecting on the gospel story of Jesus healing the paralytic (the one who was lowered through the roof by the four faithful friends) he spoke of Jesus always going "deeper, wider, and higher" than we could possibly imagine or expect in his response to our faithfully bringing someone into Jesus' presence. "Deeper" -- Jesus gets to the root of the person's real needs. "Wider" -- Jesus enlarges everyone's vision to reveal more of who He himself is. "Higher" -- Jesus points Godward and orients us and readies us to praise (and gives us cause to praise). So much there my heart needed to hear.

I went to a movie yesterday. Yes, an actual movie in an actual theater! Dana knew how much I needed a break, and how much I'd been wanting to see "Nanny McPhee." So when it came to our little inexpensive theater in town, he practically pushed me out the door. Having two hours to escape into a hilarious and charming fairy-tale was bliss. Emma Thompson's done it again with her brilliant screenwriting and fine acting. She made a far scarier and funnier nanny than Mary Poppins. Colin Firth was wonderful in the role of the bumbling, vulnerable father to seven out of control children. And any movie where both Angela Lansbury and Derek Jacobi get cream cakes in the face is worth seeing. (There's a dancing donkey too. Really, you should see it. Lovely fun!)

I guess I've been in a fairy-tale sort of mood. Several days ago I finished a little book called The Lost Flower Children -- still trying to decide what I thought about it. I liked it, but I'm not sure if its really a purebred fairytale. In the end, I'm not sure the author, Janet Taylor Lisle, could decide whether or not the magic was real or not...or whether or not she just wanted to leave that question to the reader. Part of her point, I think, was that the real magic of the story lay not in the legend of the garden fairies that Nellie came to believe in (which may or may not have been "true") but in the love, encouragement and hope provided by Aunt Minty for Nellie, and the healing that fully entering into the fairy story helped provide. I hope the approach wasn't entirely a half-hearted modernist cop-out. I have to confess I liked the "real world" aspect of it, the notion that the deepest magic of all might be ordinary but very real love. Plus I liked the openness of the ending, when the reader doesn't know for sure whether or not the real fairy teapot has been found buried in the garden. It reminded me of a story I wrote several years ago in which I laid out conflicting claims to a character's identity, and then at the end brought in a momento/artefact which would seem to cement the character's claim as to who she was. But I never quite came out and said who she was and left it to the reader instead.

Today I finished Jon Hassler's latest novel The New Woman. Last I had heard, Mr. Hassler was ill with Parkinson's disease, and I wasn't sure if he would write another novel. So what a pleasure to be able to return to Staggerford, Minnesota (one of my favorite fictional towns) and to the company of Agatha McGee (one of my favorite heriones). I was a bit nervous going into the story since Agatha is now 88 and living in a nursing home, but she doesn't seem to have lost much of her spunk. In fact, she seems to be getting a bit more flexible and tolerant in her old age. And Hassler's as deft with dialogue as ever. I did feel it fizzled a bit plot-wise -- it felt more like a character study of Agatha than a riveting story -- but I enjoy her character so much I didn't mind.

Have been working with some metered/rhyming poetry again -- playing with iambic lines and also with ballad stanzas. On that last, I've been reading Emily Dickinson and having fun aping her style. Mostly just keeping my writing muscles moving.

There lived a girl in Ambridge gray
And a tired girl was she;
She wished for sunshine and for light --
That tired girl was me.

Or how bout' this one?

The need for light is very strong
An elemental urge
To rid the cave of shadows drear --
And let the sun come in

Monday, February 13, 2006

Learning to Plot with MICE

No, I'm not going completely batty...nor have I been reading The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (not lately anyway).

What I have been reading is Orson Scott Card's How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. This is a book I've been trying to get a hold of for a few years, ever since someone (I'm not even sure who now) recommended it as an excellent book for all fiction writers, not just writers of sci fi and fantasy. I even ordered it used a couple of years ago, but it got lost in the mail (something that never happens!) and the seller didn't have another copy. Turns out the library a couple of towns over actually had a copy all this time.

Much of the book is specific to writing for this particular genre, and while interesting, it's not all pertinent to my own sense of calling as a writer right now. But there was one chapter that I found worth its weight in gold, chapter 3 on "Story Construction."

Card offers wonderful descriptions of four elements that can determine the structure of your story. They're all in every story to some degree, but usually one "stands out" more than any other, and thus determines the story's shape. He gives the acronym MICE for the four elements: Milieu, Idea, Character and Event.

He suggests the best way to determine the structure your story should have is to consider carefully what part of the writing you feel most passionate about. The part of the story you care the most about crafting, or the part of the story you think is most important, is the key to your structure.

In brief: MILIEU stories are the ones where you most care about the environment, world or society you're creating. These stories are shaped by the need to have a character explore a world that is strange and different to him or her. That character is usually your POV, and the story usually begins with entry into that different world and ends when the character leaves (or chooses not to).

IDEA stories care about the discovery of important information. They look into the process of finding something out. An idea story usually starts by asking a question, and ends when it's answered. The most obvious example is a "whodunnit" murder mystery, but there are other stories that fit the pattern as well. The important thing is to raise a question, a question that's important to one or more characters in the story. One can spend some time establishing character, but must get to the key question soon within the narrative.

CHARACTER stories are what they sound like, stories whose main focus is on who a character is, not just what he or she does. Character stories are about transformation, often (Card says) about the transformation of a person's role in a certain community. (Though I think transformation stories can and do go deeper than that sometimes.) A character story usually begins when your main character becomes dissatisfied in some way with their current situation or role, and it ends when they move into a new one or fall back into the old one (neither ending has to be a happy one). Card suggests beginning your story as close as you can to that moment when the character realizes change must happen. He also reminds us that other characters, besides the main one, will change within a story too...but the climax doesn't depend on how they change. Their changes or how they resist the change of the main character may be important in providing struggle/drama.

Finally, there's the EVENT story. Here it is more important what a character does (or is done to him or her) than who the character is. The shape of the story usually centers around a disordered world. "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark..." or Middle Earth, or someone's family. Whether a big world or a small one, the disorder is real and the main character opposes the disorder or tries to reorder things, restore peace, etc. The story usually begins (and this is very important, according to Card) not when the chaos ensues, but when the main character becomes aware of it/is called to the struggle. Thus Hamlet doesn't start with the king's murder, but with the ghost coming to Hamlet to tell him of it. And The Lord of the Rings doesn't begin with Sauron forging the rings, but with Frodo's realization that the ring he has is the "one ring" and that he's called to do something about that. Important to remember: the main character is often not a great and mighty person, but a small one who is freeer to act and whose actions are often less noticeable but more important to the unfolding of the story.

Card adds that most stories could be structured in any of these four ways. What's important is to find the structure that works for you (by following your instinct and passion about what matters most to you in the story you're setting out to tell) and then stick with it consistently. In other words, if you begin by writing a character story, then end with the transformation of that character, not the solving of a mystery. So basically you need to deliver payoffs for your set-ups, as an online acquaintance of mine (who's a screenwriter) loves to say. Thanks Janet!

I know this is basic stuff, but I found it incredibly helpful. Plot is not my strong suit and never has been. I can write scenes all day, but am not always as skilled at finding ways to shape them into a meaningful whole. So this is guidance worth pondering, especially coming as it is from such a story craftsman as Card (who singlehandedly changed my stereotyped attitude to science fiction a few years back). I'm looking forward to trying to heed these thoughts as I revisit some stories I've been working on...and struggling with...for a while.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

The Gift of Drawing

An odd thing has happened over the past three weeks...I've begun to draw again.

To understand how odd this is, you have to realize that I haven't really drawn (as in, sketched) in many years. I used to love to draw when I was a child. Up until I was about twelve, in fact, it was something that I really enjoyed doing. I'm not saying I ever showed a lot of talent, just that I loved doing it, found it relaxing and enjoyable.

I don't know what happened to change that. I can't look back and pinpoint a day or an experience that made me stop. In fact, I don't even think it was a conscious decision. I just know that somewhere around the beginning of adolesence, drawing became almost impossible. I almost felt like I had some sort of mental block so that when I picked up a pencil, I couldn't make it do what my fingers wanted it to do. The harder I tried, the worse it seemed to get, so I just quit (beyond occasional margin doodling in my journal which no one would ever see).

I've continued to love art all these years, and to enjoy other people's artwork. In the past few years, since my daughter was born really, I've felt my own urges to create visual art again growing stronger. For a long time, that translated itself into paper collages and cards. I've always loved design, especially designing with colors and patterns of basic shapes. Spending so much time reading children's pictures books in the past few years, I've been intrigued by the boldness and creativity of many children's book illustrators, and find myself thinking "I could do something like that' or 'oh, that gives me an idea to try that...' I've indulged my love of paper scraps for so long that I now have several small baskets and boxes full of images (and words) I've clipped from magazines, catalogs, newspapers, and wrapping papers.

But as much as I still enjoy doing collage work, lately I've had almost irrestible desire to sketch again. Even though I know I'm no good at drawing. Even though my most recent attempt, a few years back, to work my way through exercises in Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, only made me freeze up worse.

So a couple of weeks ago, I just suddenly did it. My little girl was having her nap, and I went and dug up a sketch book and some good sketching pencils which my parents had gotten me for Christmas a couple of years ago (along with some lovely watercolors I'd asked for, but have hardly yet used). And I started to draw. And...I don't know how to explain this...but suddenly, I could draw again. No, I'm not going to win any prizes any time soon, but the delight is back and so is the ease. In fact, the ease is a factor I don't even remember being this wonderful from my childhood drawing seasons...maybe it just feels extra precious because of the twenty-five year absence. It's as though the mental block has melted away. Some of it is, I think, time I've spent in recent years reading and writing poetry as well as the much more recent years I've been designing paper collages. I seem to see and feel lines more fluidly, note patterns more easily. I'm sketching all kinds of things, especially flowers and animals, and even bringing some of the design elements from my collage work (along with a few nods to Celtic knotwork) into creating some interesting geometric designs.

In a strange way, I feel as though a part of me has been healed, though it's hard to explain what part. I find myself a little afraid this ability will go away again, disappear just as mysteriously as it did a quarter century ago. But another part of me is just grateful that I can once more pick up a pencil and enjoy the delights of drawing. It almost feels more about having weathered some difficult inner growing seasons and learned a deeper art of seeing than it does about the drawing itself.

One of the picture books we've been reading over and over again lately is Jim Arnoksy's All About Owls. My little one has an utter fascination with owls right now, so the whole family is learning about them! I discovered Arnosky is a nature writer and illustrator, and picked up his wonderful book Drawing with Nature. Ironically, it was written in 1982, probably not long after I experienced the beginning of my personal artistic ice age. The book's done with young people in mind, but this middle-age mom who's recently rediscovered her childhood love of drawing is loving it. He includes sketches and small prose observations/meditations on "Drawing Water," "Drawing Land," "Drawing Plants" and "Drawing Animals." It's not a how-to book, and I'd probably run away from it right now if it was. He's a poet, and it's all about learning to see, to really look with attention at the world around you, and to find faithful ways to sketch what you see. As he writes:

"Drawing from nature is discovering the upside down scene through a water drop. It is noticing how much of a fox is tail. Drawing from nature is learning how a tree grows and a flower blooms. It is sketching in the mountains and breathing air bears breathe."

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Burnishing Gold

I had hoped to post over the weekend, but some computer glitches and just a general time crunch kept preventing me from getting here. It's been a very stressful week at our house, for various reasons related to jobs and finances. Not that there hasn't been a lot of such stress for the past year or more, but most days I've been able to retain a sense of peace and even (sometimes) a sense of humour. This month has me feeling like I'm treading water against a mighty current that's threatening to dash us against a rock. I found myself tearing up this morning as I read Sarah her morning Bible stories -- she wanted "Jesus Calms the Sea" again. "The water is HIGH!" she exclaimed in wonder, pointing to the big waves churning against the little boat. Indeed! I was so glad to get to the next page, with the sea and the wind calm, the sun shining, and Jesus' words "Why didn't you trust God?" (hear that, heart?) along with the disciples' awed "Even the wind and waves obey him!" To which Sarah replied something along the lines of "That's pretty neat!"

Feeling somewhat fragile emotionally this evening, and just received news that an old and dear friend lost her sister a few days ago. Her sister died at almost eighty and had lived a full and vibrant life of love, but I know the loss will go deep for my friend, because they were best friends.

Suffering, loss, difficulties, stress...they're part of this life, and they shape us. God uses them to shape our hearts for his purposes, for his kingdom and glory, for HIMSELF. That's the good news I cling to in the midst of my own weariness, and in the midst of the suffering of loved ones and of so many others I don't even know.

All of which seems to tie in somehow with Lewis' Till We Have Faces. I reached the staggering and yet immensely satisfying end of the book over the weekend too, and fortunately I don't feel I have to retract any of my earlier comments, made when I was still in the middle of the story. I still feel that this is best looked at as a journey story, the story of a soul's journey from baseness and brokenness to wholeness -- or at least as whole and peaceful as it gets this side of eternity. For a story that's set in a mythic, pre-Christian age, it's absolutely steeped in Christian themes -- though they're not explicit. Maybe because for Lewis, everything in the "old stories" contained at least a hint of the "true Story" simply because the true Story IS true, and because the whole world now and for always has "held together" in Christ.

The story was really about Orual's purificiation. Although she rails against the gods for causing (or at least allowing) her suffering, and though she believes her life has not been "fair" -- in point of fact, she is being readied through all her suffering for the moment when she can stand before them, realize their presence is the answer she's been seeking (very Job-ian) and realize too that all she has endured has not been in vain. It has, in fact, been a sharing in or partial bearing of another's suffering (her beloved sister Psyche) and it's also, in the process, shaped her so that she's become real -- real enough that she finally has a "face" and even a form of beauty after so many years of walking about with her ugliness veiled.

That veil is such an interesting part of the story. Orual first decides to wear it after she's gone through the terrible scene on the mountain in which she refuses to believe in the reality of the god of the mountain or his palace, where she cruelly manipulates Psyche into breaking faith with the god of the mountain, Psyche's husband. She seems to decide to wear the veil because she's suddenly come to terms with her ugliness. And yet she's lived with the fact of her physical ugliness for many years, and others have not let her forget it (Batta, her father). So why the sudden rush to veil herself? I can only think it's because she finally realized her spiritual ugliness, the state of her own heart. The veil might also symbolize her stubborn willfulness against *seeing* what her sister sees. She refused to see the realities before her on the mountain, even when given a real glimpse of the palace and even a glimpse of the face of the god who actually speaks to her! And in refusing to see (because she doesn't want to see, because if she sees then she will have to believe and her whole world view and everything/one in it will have to be altered) she shows her blindness, which the veil symbolizes.

Perhaps too the veil is a subconscious way of confessing (to herself?) that she *did* see, at least for a moment. In evening Bible reading we've been reading about Moses leading the Israelites, and recently read the story of Moses having to veil his face when he came down from the mountain where he spoke with God. For the radiance of God made his face shine.

In the end, Orual is given that kind of radiance. The prophetic word that she too is Psyche ends up meaning more than "you too shall live in exile." It means "you too shall be beautiful and loved and brought home at last, given a face that you can live with." (I'm indebted to Thomas Howard for some of these insights, though my own ideas are mixed up here with some of his. I was grateful to discover, as I read his thoughts on TWHF, that I wasn't so far off the beaten path with my interpretation of the story.)

Amy Carmichael, in the book of her meditations I'm still reading, commented that she once asked a goldsmith in India who was working at his crucible: How do you know how long to sit and wait? How do you know when it's purified?" to which he answered "When I can see my face in it."

The alchemy of God's love.


ETA: For some reason this posting is showing up as written on Sunday the 5th, probably because I started it then (I think I wrote two sentences before I had to save it in draft). But the full posting was really written late night Tuesday the 7th...yikes, it's actually past midnght now, so it's the 8th!

Friday, February 03, 2006

Visible and Invisible

I'm most of the way through C.S. Lewis' Till We Have Faces. It was his last novel and many think his best. I feel as though I know a lot about it, but I've never really worked my own way through the story. Dana read it aloud to me years ago, not long after we were first married, but for some reason I had a hard time staying awake for many of those late-night reading sessions. (Odd but true -- I can read aloud for hours, till I'm hoarse, and not get tired -- but when anyone reads to me for any length of time I often find myself nodding off.) I've also read bits or heard lectures about the book over the years. So I feel I know the story in bits and pieces, but have missed the real power and impact of reading it myself until now.

And it's an amazing book. I can already understand, even before reaching the end, why so many consider this Lewis' most mature and powerful fiction. There's a raw elemental feeling to it; the voice of Orual, the narrator, is one of the strongest (and most bitter, thus far) story voices I've ever read.

I'm struck as I read by the way Lewis worked certain themes over and over into his life's work, like certain colored threads woven into a tapestry, or a refrain line in poetry, or design elements that repeat as a motif in a painting. The one that's really jumped out at me here is his fascination with visible and invisible realities, things "seen and unseen." In Till We Have Faces, there is a crucial scene in which Orual has discovered her sister Psyche is alive, the sister who had been sacrificed by their community to appease what they believed to be a wrathful god. When she finds Psyche alive and well on the mountain, she is stunned to see her beautiful, healthy and full of happiness. And yet she cannot believe her sister that there really is a god, who has turned out to be loving as well as fearful, and that he had taken her as his wife. She believes her sister mad, especially because Psyche insists that they are sitting in the courtyard of a beautiful palace. Although Psyche can describe this great house in detail, Orual sees nothing but rocks, trees, wind and sky. And the two are locked in this moment with a huge chasm opening between them -- one who seems to see into an invisible realm to "what's really there," and one who simply cannot believe anything beyond her own senses, which tell her that nothing beautiful is there.

Lewis plays on this theme again and again in the Chronicles. Having recently re-read the first two, they're freshest in my mind. Of course it's Lucy who sees (actually enters) a world that the others can't, at first, see at all -- when they first go to the wardrobe to verify her seemingly wild account of journeying into a land called Narnia, the doorway is no longer open to it. Even Lucy sees it's "not there" -- or at least doesn't seem to be. But she adamantly sticks to the truth that it was there a moment ago, leading Peter and Susan to ultimately question her veracity and even more, her sanity (though the Professor poo-poohs them for that silly suggestion). I think it's Peter who comments that if things are really real, they're there "all the time" to which Professor Kirke says rather enigmatically "are they?"

We see this theme again in Prince Caspian, when only Lucy can see Aslan at first, but he is clearly there, leading and guiding the party on their way. Eventually all come to see him. And we see it again in The Last Battle (which I've not read in quite a while, so I'm treading on thin ice with my memory here) when at the end of Narnia, when Aslan is leading people into his country, the dwarves are unable to see any of the wonders and beauties around them, insisting loudly and angrily that they're in a filthy place eating terrible food, when all the others can see and taste wonderful things. (Orual reminds me of the dwarves. Her sister offers her honeycakes and wine, and she tastes only mountain berries and water.)

For Lewis, there are invisible realities that can lie hidden (unseen, unrevealed) all around us, and it's only in certain moments and situations, and I would add to certain people who are ready and able to see with the eyes of the heart, that the veil is lifted so that what is truly there can be beheld. This is a deeply Christian view, one confirmed by the Scriptures that teach us of an invisible God who has lovingly revealed himself in the face of his son Jesus, and through the Holy Spirit who is sometimes likened to the wind. The Scriptures also speak of the existence of other realities we can't see with the naked eye, including realms and spirits, both good and bad. It's not a view that sits easily in the modern world, which is perhaps the very reason Lewis chose to explore it through the language of myth and fairy-tale, knowing as he did that the world is in need of "a powerful spell" to break it from "the enchantment of worldliness" it's been living under.

Lots of people point to Lewis' interest in Platonism when they consider these themes. And sure, that's there. (He did, after all, hold a degree in Philosophy as well as Literature.) But I'm struck again by something pointed out by Alan Jacobs in The Narnian, an obvious point I'd somehow overlooked for years -- Lewis was Irish. He himself, in at least one letter he wrote to his father, talked proudly of their shared Celtic temperament and roots. It seems to me that his fascination with "thin places" where the veil is momentarily lifted and one can see realities beyond those we can grasp with our mere senses, where the earthly realm and the heavenly realm intersect and overlap, is a very Celtic trait. As is his fascination with journeys, especially interior journeys of the heart, though often mirrored in outward journeys. The kind of journey that the Celtic saints called peregrinatio, often wild and perilous journeys where one is led through suffering and trial (but also unexpected joy and beauty) to the place of one's resurrection. (That last reflection is shaped out of some reading I'm doing on Celtic prayer in a book by Esther De Waal...more to come on that.)

I think it's that kind of journey that Lucy takes when she steps into Narnia. And that Orual is taking in Till We Have Faces (though I'm less sure about the end of the journey here...stay tuned). Interesting that along they way, they're both learning to live into royalty, into queenship.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

January Round-Up

Yes, I know it's three year old daughter reminded me first thing this morning that we needed to change the calendar page. She's been learning the months of the year and finds the whole concept fascinating. Not to mention that she got to choose our kitchen calendar this year; we will have 12 full months of chocolate labrador retriever pictures as a result! :-)

I didn't get a chance to post yesterday. But I've decided that somewhere near the end of each month I want to post a kind of "odds n' ends" batch of notes on things I've been reading that somehow didn't make it into any other reflection. I also hereby give myself permission to throw in other things that strike my fancy -- movies I've seen, inspiring quotes, songs or poems that have been stuck in my head. Hey, it's my journal so I get to make the rules!

During family reading this month we've been reading Prince Caspian. We read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe during December, mostly during our Christmas travels in the car. I had hesitated briefly over whether to start these books with Sarah so young, but she's already listened to a lot of things way past her "age range" and Dana and I really felt like doing a re-read of the Chronicles, with all the hoopla surrounding the movie release. I probably read them every four or five years anyway, at least.

Our family reading time is very relaxed. We don't have a set time, or a regular place, or even try to do it every day -- in fact, sometimes a whole week can go by without us reading anything all together except our morning/evening prayers and Bible stories. Oh and we usually do one bedtime story all together too, assuming D. doesn't have evening meetings or work. We tend to do most of our family reading in the car or sometimes at dinner. I think S. has liked PC mostly because it has the name "Trumpkin" in it so often, though she's been a bit confused that he's not a bear. Her beloved brown bear is Trumpkin -- it's how she's always known the name. She didn't know that her Mommy named that bear (in college...he was my going away from home present from my Dad) after a dwarf in a beloved book. Of course, I didn't know then that one day my fuzzy friend would come out of retirement to become the favorite animal of my daughter!

I'd forgotten how much I like PC, especially the characters of Trumpkin and Caspian, and the whole "return to Narnia" theme. Not much happens in the book in some ways, and yet there are a lot of scenes in it I love. I especially like the whole "following Aslan" section in the middle, when the Great Lion reveals himself to the children and Trumpkin, but one at a time, and basically in the order of their willingness and openness to seeing him and following him. It's so telling that Lucy sees him first. And then there's that wonderful moment when she tells Aslan he's gotten bigger, and he explains to her that it's because she's gotten older -- so she can see more of him.

Lucy's a marvelously drawn character, here and elsewhere. One day I will have to make a list of my favorite heriones in fiction. Lucy is definitely on that list!

In the reading as total fluff category, in January I also read the Sense and Sensibility Screenplay and Diaries. I got this through inter-library loan and was very pleased with it, though a bit disappointed that Emma Thompson (who screenwrote the wonderful movie and starred as Elinor Dashwood) didn't spend more time in the diaries section actually detailing her creative process in adapting/updating the Jane Austen story for a modern audience. Instead it's mostly notes from the set, but they're so funny and droll I didn't mind too much that it wasn't all I'd hoped for. I actually dug out the movie again (we got a VHS copy last fall for something like $2!) and followed along watching it while I read the screenplay. Didn't quite get through the whole film this way yet, but hope to -- it's really interesting seeing how actors interpret the directions in the screenplay, not to mention to note scenes they've cut. I was surprised they cut a kiss between Elinor and Edward...perhaps they felt it was just too "lover-ly" for Austen. She was always so reserved in the way she wrote those tender, romantic moments.

I read almost no poetry in January. Must makes amends in February. February is a month that cries out for lots of poetry! I have read some poems from the fall 2005 issue of The Penwood Review, which I'm published in. (But there's a typo in my poem, which sort of makes me want to bang my head against the feels like such a long road to get anything published, so to see the final result with a typo is a bit maddening. Ah well. Patience. I am learning patience.) I may post some thoughts about one or two of the poems in that issue later as there are some beautiful ones.

Most interesting video I've seen this month (and I didn't see many): Bride and Prejudice. It's a "Bollywood musical" of the Jane Austen classic, and I thought it rip-roaringly exuberant and fun. Very bold retelling, though not without its flaws.

Song I've listened to a lot this month -- Derrick Harris' Cup of Life. More on that and perhaps a few other odds n' ends later. It's nearing midnight and I'm fading.