It wasn’t human nature

Matins
Louise Glück

Unreachable father, when we were first
exiled from heaven, you made
a replica, a place in one sense
different from heaven, being
designed to teach a lesson: otherwise
the same–beauty on either side, beauty
without alternative– Except
we didn’t know what was the lesson. Left alone,
we exhausted each other. Years
of darkness followed; we took turns
working the garden, the first tears
filling our eyes as earth
misted with petals, some
dark red, some flesh colored–
We never thought of you
whom we were learning to worship.
We merely knew it wasn’t human nature to love
only what returns love.

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

Get it, Louise Glück. Happy weekend, y’all. I’ll be spending mine clinging to Guion, begging him not to leave me for 10 whole days, since he’s taking off with Nettles and The Hill and Wood and Camp Christopher (hint: all the same people) to play SXSW! I’m SUPER excited for them, but I’d like to raise this point: Wouldn’t this absence be easier to bear if I had a dog to keep me company? Wouldn’t it?? Le sigh. These days, I feel like June is a year away and I am going to die dog-less.

Lenten aspirations

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After tonight’s Ash Wednesday service, Lent begins. It is a season I look forward to, even though it is one of somberness and reflection. I look forward to it for several reasons: Learning the beauty of the liturgical calendar as a recovering non-denominational, cultivating a spirit of anticipation alongside nature, and recognizing our daily need for God, even in the most mundane things.

For Lent last year, I resolved to not eat any synthetic sugar, to pray and meditate daily, and to memorize a poem and a psalm with Guion. The last two didn’t really happen and the first one should just be a life resolution, but I did focus more on that one.

This year, these are my Lenten aspirations:

  1. Per my previously announced desire to commune more with nature, I am going to spend at least 20 minutes a day outside. That sounds like a pitifully small amount, but I believe that it will actually be hard on weeknights. That’s my goal, though. I feel closest to God when I am outside and yet I don’t spend a lot of time outdoors. This is something I seriously want to change and Lent is the ideal season in which to start. I’ll be watching and waiting along with the earth.
  2. Memorize Psalm 16. For REAL this time.
  3. Stop my bad conversational habits: Gossiping and interrupting people. These ought to be year-round aspirations, but I like the boundaries of Lent for its focus on these specific surrenders.
  4. Stop reading snarky/mean-spirited blogs.
  5. We are establishing a mutual goal of not being online when we’re home together. I’m also very excited about this.

These aren’t ambitious goals; in fact, they are things that I should be doing constantly. As Liz E. reminded me, though, we’re not seeking Lent surrenders to brag or to highlight how spiritually ambitious we are. Rather, we observe Lent to say: Here I am, waiting. Make me more like you.

How the saint talks

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Hence a saint is capable of talking about the world without any explicit reference to God, in such a way that his statement gives greater glory to God and arouses a greater love of God than the observations of someone less holy, who has to strain himself to make an arbitrary connection between creatures and God through the medium of hackneyed analogies and metaphors that are so feeble that they make you think there is something the matter with religion. The saint knows that the world and everything made by God is good, while those who are not saints either think that created things are unholy, or else they don’t bother about the question one way or another because they are only interested in themselves.

New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton

. . . . . . . . . . .

Happy weekend. I’m going to fill mine with girls, dogs, and books, some of my favorite things, since Guion is having a bro weekend in the mountains. Hope your weekend also bears as much promise of fun and relaxation. xoxo

Top 10 Books I Read in 2011: Gilead (#7)

Gilead.

#7: GILEAD, by Marilynne Robinson.

Continuing my annual tradition of ranking the best books I read this past year, I am writing a series of posts about these 10 great novels. You can find the 2011 list and previous lists here.

As I mentioned in my review of The Marriage Plot, 2011 was the year of discovering great new authors, most significantly, Marilynne Robinson. I feel like I was so behind the curve getting to her — a feeling that was compounded after we moved to Charlottesville. It seemed like every other literate person I met was raving about Robinson. Everyone had read her; everyone urged me to. I nodded and shrugged and told myself to get to her eventually. Well. I’m glad I didn’t wait.

Gilead was the first Robinson novel I read, and it stirred up many thoughts. On the surface, Gilead, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006, is about three generations of fathers and sons. The novel is written in the form of a long letter from an elderly and dying father, Congregationalist minister John Ames, to his very young son. The action, if you can call it that, takes place in Gilead, Iowa, a small town in the prairie. The language is slow and lyrical and weaves effortlessly through the corridors of Ames’ aging mind. In the hands of the gifted Robinson, Ames is a gentle and sensitive soul, a man tied to the earth and a man rising up to heaven.

Ames is a wise and meditative narrator. His life is not particularly exciting and he is not trying to make it seem so. He just wants to leave some parting thoughts with his young son, the product of his late marriage to a much younger woman from his congregation. He isn’t trying to stir anything up. But then his best friend’s son reappears and stirs things up for him. Jack Ames Boughton, who was named after Ames, is Gilead’s prodigal son and he comes home, to Ames’ chagrin. The introduction of Boughton and his relationship with Ames was a very interesting choice, in my opinion; I didn’t see it coming. The conflict of Boughton’s arrival and the weight of his dark secret introduces an interesting and compelling tension to the novel, which could have otherwise been simply quiet, dreamy, and soft.

The spirit of the book, which is similar to the other Robinson novel I’ve read, is heavily steeped in transcendentalism, but a transcendentalism that trusts God. Ames is not afraid of God and he is not afraid of what bearing God may bring to his ending life. At the end of Gilead, we find a man who is at peace at the end of his life. Despite the fact that things have not ended perfectly, that he is leaving his young son too soon, does not seem to matter much. In Gilead, Robinson leaves us with this simple and profound reminder: The earth is good and the heart is good and God is good and life, well, it is also good. There is not much more one can say in the end.

Early darkness

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Early Darkness
Louise Glück

How can you say
earth should give me joy? Each thing
born is my burden; I cannot succeed
with all of you.

And you would like to dictate to me,
you would like to tell me
who among you is most valuable,
who most resembles me.
And you hold up as an example
the pure life, the detachment
you struggle to achieve–

How can you understand me
when you cannot understand yourselves?
Your memory is not
powerful enough, it will not
reach back far enough–

Never forget you are my children.
You are not suffering because you touched each other
but because you were born,
because you required life
separate from me.

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

Merry Christmas, everyone! I’ll be back at the blog in early January. Until then, I am going to enjoy a blissfully computer-free vacation down south. Hope your holidays are merry and bright.

Warmly,

Abby

On the order of the universe

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All things whatsoever observe a mutual order; and this is the form that maketh the universe like unto God.

— Beatrice in The Divine Comedy, Dante.

Happy weekend, everyone. I’m looking forward to slow mornings at home; two Christmas parties; reading a lot; and maybe even kind of looking forward to my run on Saturday. But emphasis on the “kind of.”

Does art matter? A letter for Grace

"Slown Down Freight Train," by Rose Piper, 1946-7. A painting from the Ackland that stuck with me.

PREFACE

A few weeks ago, I was walking with Grace around the Ackland Art Museum in Chapel Hill. We slipped in right before it closed and it was like stepping into a vault of solemn beauty. We spoke in our best library voices and talked about which paintings we liked the best, which Asian sculptures we’d smuggle home, which artists communicated well.

“I love being here,” Grace said. “It’s so peaceful. It makes me think that this,” she said, gesturing to the art all around the room, “is what I want to do with my life. I wish it mattered, though. I wish art did something for people.”

“But it does!” I exclaimed. “It does so much. Without art… well… people wouldn’t…”

I trailed off. I couldn’t find the right words for what I was trying to tell her. I believed wholly that art mattered and that it matters, but I hadn’t the slightest way to convince her of this. I was sad, scared that she believed that her painting, her photography, her fashion were meaningless–and frustrated by my inability to communicate otherwise. We kept walking around the gallery and the conversation faded, but her question has been ringing in my mind ever since.

I’d like to attempt a better explanation for what I was trying persuade Grace of. I’m fully aware that I’m not saying anything new or refreshing, but I can’t shake the sense that I need to say it. For my benefit, as well as for hers.

____________________________________________________________________

Dear Gracie,

As you well know, we lived in the realm of imagination when we were children. The boundaries between the creativity of the mind and the reality of everyday life were fuzzy for us. Your old trunk of dress-up clothes was a seemingly bottomless repository of new identities, new stories. We made up for our lack of real pets by inventing invisible ones, “spirit animals,” whose appearances were ripped from the animal encyclopedia. We built miniature communities from Playmobil and Brio train tracks and played for hours in these tiny worlds. I think we lived more in our colorful minds than anywhere else.

As we grew up, we gradually shed these imaginary retreats. Kelsey started playing sports; I withdrew into books, to worlds that had already been created for me; but you didn’t relinquish your creativity so easily. In many ways, you’ve maintained it much more carefully than the rest of us have. This is why you are still an artist today.

You asked me in Ackland if art mattered and you seemed to have already reached the conclusion that it didn’t. I didn’t have a good answer for you then, but I wanted to let you know that I profoundly disagree with your conclusion.

This is why I think art–and your art, especially–matters. You asked if art really did anything for people. You’re right that it doesn’t put a roof over people’s heads or give them clean drinking water. Art doesn’t reform women’s rights in the third world or end famines. But it matters because it reaches the soul, a place that no amount of foreign aid or number of peacekeeping troops can reach. Great paintings, songs, poems, films, and novels accomplish a work in the heart and mind that nothing else can accomplish, which is also why art has existed for as long as people have existed.

Most importantly, I believe art communicates the divine. As a Christian, all forms of great art–even if they are not explicitly Christian–point me back to God. I am reminded of the goodness of the created world, the beauty that we have learned to find and express, and the strange mercy of Jesus. Even those who do not believe in a supernatural force find something uniquely spiritual and enduring about the communion between the self and a great work of art. (Just talk to Edmund Burke a little bit about this and you’ll see what I mean.) The next question, then, is what is a “great” work of art, but that’s another pompous, rambling letter for another time.

I just wanted to tell you to keep doing what you’re doing. It matters.

I love you, chicky.

A.

The way of nature, the way of grace

Last night, Guion and I went on a date and saw Terrence Malick’s highly anticipated and highly regarded new film, “The Tree of Life.” It’s been a long time since I saw a film in the theater, and whoa. What an experience. Jonathan and I have been talking about it since before it came out and we’d been exchanging reviews and our own thoughts and guesses about what the film might be like. “The Tree of Life” stretched patience and attention, but it exceeded my expectations.

I’m not even going to attempt to write about the film as a whole, because I do not think I am capable of such a task, but I’ll share a few lasting impressions.

Early in the film, a voiceover from Jessica Chastain, who plays the mother, explains that in life we must choose between “the way of nature or the way of grace.” Her character clearly chooses the way of grace, living in compassion and kindness toward all people and living things. She is ethereal, charming swallowtail butterflies in the yard, and she is generous with love, cradling her sons in the aftermath of their father’s vengeance.

It is tempting, therefore, to characterize Brad Pitt, who plays the strict father, as embodying “the way of nature.” He lives by a harsh code of perfectionism and demands such high standards from his sons. But Guion and I agreed that Malick didn’t cave to such an easy dichotomy. Pitt’s character grows in complexity over the course of the film. He is not purely the villain. Though it is not his first instinct, Father is also capable of choosing the way of grace.

Overall, “The Tree of Life” struck me as a visually rich epic poem: A series of meaningful images strung together to create a deep, moving whole. Those who need linear plots in art will be immensely frustrated by this movie. Malick isn’t trying to tell you a story; he’s trying to show you the creation of the universe.

Malick, who previously taught philosophy at Ivy League universities, asks all the big questions. Is God watching us? Does God care what we do? Why are we here? The questions are asked directly, often by the protagonist, the son Jack, who grows up to be Sean Penn. Jack and his mother weave their prayers throughout their lives. It is a film, simply, about God. And God’s involvement (or lack of involvement) in the creation and sustenance of Earth and all its inhabitants.

We left the theater hushed, speechless. I was hesitant to speak. I saw the moon disfigured by the clouds and thought about the glory of God in a way that I had not done in a long time. I could be wrong, but I think that’s what Malick was hoping I would do.

Monday Snax

This weekend has been a whirlwind, as we are house/dog-sitting for friends, and because we bought this:

Our new car

So. Yes. It is a lot of fun. Driving to work this morning was actually very exciting. Lots happening! Guion also got the part-time job he wanted at the Wine Guild, so we are thrilled about that. I’m still feeling a bit blurry and hazy from the weekend, so here are some Snax with a lot of caffeine:

A Night with Nettles. Grace took some photos of Nettles‘ recent concert at the Tea Bazaar. A very good show. (Grace’s other photos from the family trip to town can be seen here. For all the Baby Charlie fans out there, there are some amazing shots of him.) If you’re in town, come see Nettles on Friday night at JohnSarahJohn. They’ll be performing for an art opening by Matt Kleberg. (Como Say What?)

Yet More Charts That Should Go with Debt Discussions. Yes, the economy is tanking again, but we should cut down on the griping. See exhibit 1: Americans pay some of the lowest taxes of any developed country. (The Atlantic Monthly)

God’s Blog. God wrote a blog post and is subsequently subjected to all of the crazies on the Interwebs. Not even God can catch a break from those virulent commenters… (The New Yorker)

Wellness Wednesday: Yoga and Why It’s OK to Suck at It. Nina, who is so sweet, makes me feel better about being terrible at yoga. I should start practicing again. (Naturally Nina)

Mariachi Band Serenades a Beluga Whale. This is all over the Cool Lady blogosphere, but I will join them in adding my delight over this clip. It will make you happy. I promise. (Door Sixteen)

Felix’s Felicis. Natalie got a bunny, named him Felix, and broke my heart. I want a bunny! Not as much as I want a dog, but almost! I think Felix and Frances should meet and fall desperately in love. (Peregrinations of NJM)

The Last Thylacine. This is one of the strangest-looking animals I’ve ever seen. It’s a marsupial, but it looks so much like a proto-canid. Those stripes! Sad that it’s extinct. (How to Be a Retronaut)

How to Achieve Uncluttered Without Going Bare, Cold, or Minimal. Such clear and salient advice for people like me, who will be living in small spaces for a while longer. Highly recommended for renters like us who don’t want to live in a place that still looks like your college dorm. (The Small Notebook)

The Filming of Breathless. Guion is a huge Godard fan and this is one of the first of his films that I saw. It’s magnificent and these behind-the-scenes photos are really enchanting. (A Cup of Jo)

Document: Woolf’s Letter to a Young Poet. Virginia Woolf writes a brief review and encouragement to her nephew on his poetry. (The Paris Review)

In Which Vladimir Nabokov Navigates Hell for Lolita. Yes, the protagonist is very icky, but I think it’s one of the greatest novels of all time. Even Nabokov had a hard time convincing people of this, though, as you can see from his letters about the book, compiled here. (This Recording)

To Go-To Snacks of Literary Greats. A series of cute illustrations of what the big writers liked to eat while writing. I don’t think Michael Pollan can be called “a literary great,” but it is interesting that he likes to drink his tea in a glass. I remember seeing that on Food, Inc. and wondering about it. (Mod Cloth blog)

Good News for Wombs: U.S. Paves Way for Free Birth Control Everywhere. All I can say is: It’s about damn time. Look at you, America. Finally catching up with the rest of the developed world! (Good)

Treasure hidden in a field

On Sunday, our rector talked about the passage in Matthew in which Jesus provides a litany of parables to explain the kingdom of heaven. It’s a mysterious series of similes and they don’t exactly line up at first glance. Even if you do know what the “kingdom of heaven” actually means (I’m not sure I do), it’s still mystifying as to how it could be a mustard seed AND a fishing net AND a pearl of great price AND a treasure buried in a field.

The kingdom of heaven can be many things at once, I suppose. It can be deceptively small. It can have a wide reach. It can be what you sell everything for. And it can be hidden.

The hiddenness of God and the kingdom of heaven particularly struck me. Why would God hide? When I feel far away from God, is it because the kingdom of heaven is hidden or because I’m not looking hard enough? I don’t know. I wish I did.

One of the main lines that I remember from Paul’s sermon was about our interaction with the divine. “Trust is often the most difficult thing,” he said. “It is often more difficult than faith and belief.”

Maybe that’s what I’ve been missing lately. I’ve been trying to amp up faith and belief, but maybe it’s the trust that’s really absent.

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Matthew 13:44