Walking the Canterbury Trail

Seattle Pacific has a class called University Foundations 1000, which is a required course in basic Christian belief. The culminating assignment in the class is a project in which groups of three or four students attend a church in a different denomination than the one they grew up in. In addition to the visits, they research the denomination and one of its historical figures. Everyone writes down their top picks and the professor assigns groups. My choices were the Orthodox Church and the Episcopal Church.

The group I was placed in was assigned to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in lower Queen Anne. Growing up, if we were traveling, my family would attend an Episcopal parish if no Covenant church was around. As my dad pointed out, “You pretty much always know what you’re going to get.” Episcopal parishes all follow the Book of Common Prayer’s service order, so even if, heaven forbid, the sermon is boring, that’s alright because the sermon is just one part of the structured liturgy that tells the Christian story.

My group attended a couple of services at St. Paul’s that fall, which was fall quarter of our sophomore year. We learned that St. Paul’s is an Anglo-Catholic parish. Anglo-Catholicism comes from the Tractarian Movement, or the Oxford Movement, which was a shift in Anglicanism starting in mid-1800s Oxford amongst Anglicans who desired to restore spiritual vibrancy to the Church of England by returning to some of the traditions that had been forgotten or removed. It was a return to some of the “high church” traditions still found in Roman Catholicism. Anglo-Catholic parishes use incense, liturgical vestments, bells during communion, chant parts of the service, and stand, sit, bow, kneel, and genuflect together. Smells and bells and holy yoga. One thing I appreciated about the liturgy from my first exposure was the space it left for silence. At a time of life when everything felt very turbulent, the collective stillness of a parish meditating on Scripture and listening for God distilled in me a sense of peace that remained with me for the day.

The priest at the time (who has since been called to be the bishop of a diocese in Canada) was Mother Melissa Skelton, a truly amazing woman who was once a high-ranking official at Tom’s of Maine, earned three Masters degrees, writes beautiful homilies, and exudes the love of Christ. At the end of a service she would stand at the door leading into the narthex to greet anyone who wanted to say hello. After taking advantage of the monthly ask-a-priest-about-our-traditions at the Mary shrine we introduced ourselves to Mother Melissa and went downstairs for coffee hour. As a teenager I thought coffee hours in small churches were just sort of hokey and awkward, but through two or three coffee hours at St. Paul’s I met people who, astonishingly, remembered my name the next time I visited. Even when I returned in the spring someone recognized me and asked what I had been up to. That blew me away.

Before my first visits to St. Paul’s, through a conversation with a good friend, I became convicted that I needed to be honest with myself about my orientation, a move that brought me much peace and clarity. After that moment my depression retreated for a solid year. Prior to that moment my pain and loneliness were what kept me returning to God every night. I knew how to pray as a depressed, closeted teenager: God please hear me, help me God, deliver me. But once my depression lifted, I realized that sorrow had been my only spiritual discipline. Without it I did not know where to meet God. I no longer knew what to pray for. I no longer knew when to lift my hands in worship songs, which used to be emotional times when (often thinking about my struggles with sexuality) I sang, sometimes cried, bared myself to God, and praised God despite my sadness. The primary way I experienced God was through my emotions, which I’ve learned are pretty shaky things on which to build any faith or relationship.

Still attending the church that I had been for a year and a half or so in Seattle, I started to become worried. Many artists who are inspired by their suffering fear that their creativity will vanish with their pain. As a sometimes-writer that was certainly a fear of mine. I did not, however, anticipate that my experience of God would change when I became more joyful. I stopped feeling God in worship so I stopped knowing when to raise my hands. While singing, I debated whether or not to stand up or remain seated and whether or not to lift up my arms, and I soon realized that most of my attention in church was spent on myself—not worshiping God.

Around the same time, it occurred to me that, although I had been attending the same church for a year and a half, the only people I knew were the other SPU students I went with. Every Sunday I met someone else during the shake-your-neighbors-hand part but I never remembered their names and no one remembered mine. I never did join a small group and I only attended the college kid hangout once, so I felt relatively anonymous. The church I grew up in in New Hampshire was maybe sixty to eighty people large. We had potlucks and a hokey coffee hour and everyone knew everyone’s name and we all prayed for each other. At my home church in Michigan, which is fairly large, I developed many strong relationships through youth group, hokey coffee hour, and playing in the worship band. I missed that sort of church family feeling.

At the end of sophomore year I wrote a paper on globalization’s role in how the worldwide Anglican Communion has dealt with homosexuality. Briefly put, homosexuality has created much tension within the communion. This is the story of many denominations that make a decision one way or the other on ordaining and marrying gay people, and it breaks my heart that it is so. But over the course of my junior year, in England and then back in Seattle, I spent a bit of time learning about Anglicanism beyond the recent divides. I participated in St. Paul’s Enquirer’s classes back in Seattle, two five-hour sessions on Episcopal and Anglo-Catholic history. I also recently met with the current Priest in Charge, Fr. Samuel Torvend. Through these things I learned about the beautiful heritage of Anglicanism: the church’s heart for the marginalized and its love of art, its Baptismal Covenant and its care for the earth, its practices of prayer and its embrace of mystery.

In the 1970’s, when AIDS first began killing off a generation of gay men, my parish provided free burials to anyone claimed by the disease. Gay people go to my church. They are regular attenders—people who have been practicing Christians since before I was born. They are also leaders. One hard part about being gay in a denomination that doesn’t really talk about homosexuality is the difficulty I had in finding role models—people who have wrestled with the questions I’m asking and who can provide insight and wisdom about how to live faithfully while holding those questions. Without such mentors it feels like you always need to be a trailblazer, which might sound exciting sometimes but really is just pretty exhausting and lonely.

Another difficulty I used to have, which I mentioned earlier, was getting stuck dwelling on things like the uncertainty of not knowing how people would treat me if they knew that I was gay (which only increased after I came out on this blog), trying not to say or do anything that might draw negative attention to myself, the persistent thoughts that—wrong though I knew them to be—kept popping up: that I’m different and obtrusive, that I need to retreat. At St. Paul’s I haven’t been so focused on myself and my sexuality because I know that no matter where I end up—in a relationship, with a family, called to celibacy, or just plain single—my church will be there to support me and celebrate life with me. And likewise, I will support the Church I love, not as a trailblazer, but as a servant, whether that be as a layperson, musician, member of the vestry, deacon, or priest.

On May 18th at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle, surrounded by my fellow confirmands Amanda, Mary, Mollie, and Emily, my church, priest, Episcopalians from the Diocese of Olympia, housemates, roommit (roommate), dear friends, and my mom, who flew out from Michigan to be there, I was confirmed in the Episcopal Church (USA). And I’ve got a certificate to prove it!

 

 

I’m not sure when yet, but one day I hope to go through the discernment process for ordination. I’ve been reading about liturgy and would love the chance to formally study Scripture, theology, and church history. But regardless of ordination, I hope to live a life steeped in the rhythms of Morning and Evening prayer, Lent and Easter, confession and absolution, baptism and communion, worship and justice, death and new life in Christ.

Love to David and Trevor, two of my housemates this past year. We spent hours… HOURS together talking about faith and our denominational adventures. I miss our conversations already.  And, of course, much love to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal, who swiftly accepted me as one of their own. I’ll see you in January!

Asperges Me

Sometimes as I walk home through Queen Anne streets after a day of school and the air is particularly damp and the sky is dark it smells like the time my father and I climbed Mt. Humbug in Oregon, a mountain I bet no one climbs except people like us, passersby who stop on a whim (because sometimes it sounds nice to climb a mountain) and work their zig-zag way upwards to find the elevation where spring dampness becomes frost and snow that clings to the trees and everything shimmers. I pause and think of that day and of the other blessed few days I’ve spent hiking the Pacific Northwest and imagine what Queen Anne was like a few hundred years ago, before urbanization, just another tree-canopied hill cut from the continent’s cloth. I look up and want to go higher, to reach the moment of transposition where time and water freeze.

As I continue my short walk home, a song flits into my mouth.

Asperges me, Domine, hyssopo et mundabor,
Lavabis me, et super nivem dealbabor.

Miserere mei, Deus,
Secundum magnum misericordiam tuam.

Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto
Sicut erat en principio, et nunc, et semper, et en saecula saeculorum, Amen.

Asperges me, Domine, hyssopo et mundabor,
Lavabis me, et super nivem dealbabor.

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in a year

There is a chain of ice cream shops in Seattle called Molly Moon’s, famous at least locally for flavors like Earl Grey, Vegan Coconut Chunk, Maple Bacon, Lavender, and Theo’s Chocolate, among others. The closest one to the campus of SPU is up on Queen Anne, next to another Seattle chain, Top Pot Doughnuts—making that little stretch of W. Galer a two shop pit stop of sweet food and regret. It was a favorite for my hall council sophomore year and for various late night restless stomach grumbles. I don’t visit nearly enough.

A year ago today I sat in that Molly Moon’s with a new friend, a nursing student at my campus. She cooked dinner; I bought ice cream. I was probably eating the Vegan Coconut Chunk because I don’t care who you are or what your views on veganism are—I’m not one—but that is the best damned ice cream you can put in a waffle cone and charge me five bucks for. And because it’s vegan, you can eat more of it and still feel relatively good about your life.

I don’t remember what she ordered. We sat at the window.

I wanted to get ice cream because ice cream is good and to have an excuse to talk longer. But I was also craving ice cream because I was very pregnant, not with a human being but with a story that had been years in gestation. By the night of that Molly Moon’s trip I had been sitting on ‘the end of a silence‘ for several weeks, wondering when to put it online. Feedback about it from friends and professors had been good. My family was as ready as possible for the daunting unknown, and I was itching for it.

Over our ice cream, Claire and I talked about life. I brought up the blog post and told her my anxieties about it. She preached for a solid twenty minutes about there being no room for fear in Christ and reminded me that God had been good to me thus far. The story of my sexuality is intricately intertwined with what some would call my testimony—the way I understand God to be working in my life, and I knew she was right. “You’re going to post it tonight.” “I am?” “You are.” “Wait, no I’m not.” “Yyyyeah, you’re doing it. You want to.” “I’d better call my parents…”

I was jittery on my way back to Hill Hall 306. Upon getting there I took out my laptop and sat down on low drawers my roommate and I used as a seat. My Freedom Playlist was on, the first song of which is “Shake it Out” by Florence + the Machine. I danced and typed. On the ride home I’d sent out a mass prayer text, something I did before first talking with my parents about my sexuality and depression on the last day of Christmas break freshman year. As I reviewed and nit-picked the already carefully preened essay, notes of encouragement from friends lit up the screen of my phone. A few of them, like Brian, dropped in to hang around. “What’s taking you so long? Are you uploading before and after pictures or what?” I laughed, imagining what those would look like. Then, some time later: “Have you posted it yet?” “No, Brian, I’m working on the headers.” “Oh, are you making them rainbow colors?” “Thank you, Brian,” I said, laughing more.

If you were on the ground floor of Hill Hall that evening, you would have heard someone yelling loudly—around 10:00 pm, I think . I pressed the Publish button, slammed the laptop shut, stepped out of my room, and roared. I startled someone walking past my room.

—–

My counselor told me that, for many people, coming out is like stretching a limb that has never been used before. It is true. At 19 I started a process of puberty that most people endured in middle school. It has been both frustrating and beautiful. [While I still feel no need to elaborate here what I believe about gay marriage, suffice it to say that I am not 100% certain. The times of lesser certainty have also been the times I’ve been most depressed and prone to despair. They are the times when I have felt most detached from myself, when I have difficulty showering because I cannot stand being alone with my body, when I have wanted to stop eating. They are the times when I cannot look at a child without worrying that people will think I am a pedophile because I’m gay. They have not been times of flourishing.] As it stands, I know that God looked at the man he created and said, “It is not good for man to be alone.” I’m trying to believe that I will not be, regardless of that question.

I was planning to write a post about what all has changed since a year ago today. Reflecting on the past year, I’ve realized that my sexuality is rather low on that list. In chronological order, the year transpired thusly: I came out; I finished my work as Hill Hall President; I worked 2.5 jobs over the summer; I started attending St. Paul’s Episcopal Church; I studied at Oxford; my depression returned (and resurfaces occasionally); I gained clarity in vocation, deciding to go to divinity school; I pub-crawled the UK with my parents;  I Christmas-ed at home and was reminded of the amazing friends I have in Michigan; I resumed life at SPU; I became more introverted; I walked shoeless across the Ballard bridge in the rain, got soaking wet, and smiled like an idiot; I exchanged books with my favorite professor. Over the year, my desire for intimacy has been teaching me what it means that God yearns to be with us. I’ve learned a lot about love, freedom, and devotion. I learned a lot about how to be myself, and I learned that my belief in God is tenacious, even when I don’t know why.

—–

Last summer Mother Melissa, the former rector of St. Paul’s, gave a sermon called “Let Go,” which began,

I am in my seat with my seat belt buckled and the tray top in front of me upright and locked.  All my belongings are stowed: my suitcase in the overhead bin and my backpack under the seat in front of me.  We have finally been cleared for take off. I hear the engines rev up and in a moment we are off.  Faster and faster we go until I feel the front wheels lift off the ground. And at once two things happen: I think to myself: “Here I go dangling myself up in the clouds again!”, and I do something I have come to do on every flight: I take my hands that have been sitting in my lap and I turn them palms up toward the sky.

I admit it—I’m afraid of flying.  And so right at the moment when the plane leaves the ground, my instinct is both to open my hands in a kind of personal surrender and, for a moment, to pray for all of us on the plane as we put ourselves in the vulnerable position of having nothing underneath us to catch us should we fall.

—–

I woke up the next morning and walked out of the dorm. I’ve never felt so naked. But I was caught in a web of love—wrapped in it and clothed. Thank you all for your kindness.

If you need me in the next two hours, I’ll be at the Molly Moon’s on Queen Anne, eating ice cream with Claire.

Please keep in your prayers those for whom sexuality has been a wound. Pray for the teenagers who contemplate suicide because they are bullied for their sexuality, and for the gay people being abused in Russia and beaten in Nigeria. Peace to you.

Repeat

The summer after freshman year was when I started to write with any regularity. Mind you, a writer of any amount of discipline would laugh at what I here refer to as “regular”—outside of journaling I write once a week at most, even less frequently at college—but I stand by my word choice. I think that the increase in output can be chalked up to a serious increase of feelings. For people who try their hands at anything creative, feelings, like yogurt, can produce movement and… regularity.

Around this same time the way I pray changed. I began to pray that God would use me—a fairly open-ended prayer that always feels like a cop out until I remember the opening line of the Prayer of St. Francis: “Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace.” Petitioning God with specific requests is something that I still do, but less frequently. Part of this is has been realizing that, in many times and places, I am unable to see clearly enough to find an outcome worth praying for. So, Thy will be done—in the world, in this city, in my life, and in my writing.

Flannery O’Connor’s prayer journal was recently published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. It contains her prayers from January 1946 to September 1947, when she was twenty and twenty-one years old, attending writing workshops in Iowa City. Only a few pages in, the prayers are earnest, clunky, and occasionally luminescent. The passage quoted on the back is also from the prayer most frequently quoted in any of the recent writing I’ve seen pertaining to the slim volume. Continue reading

Lodged and Loving

This post is in response to a post by Laura Nile, who says that Seattle Pacific University is hiding its faith. It is a thoughtful post by a wonderful woman who is genuinely concerned with the affairs of her university. The following are musings on themes raised in her post.

—–

That SPU doesn’t talk about Jesus enough wasn’t something that ever crossed my mind until this summer, when, after a panel discussion for people previewing the school, a family shuffled over to me. The mother, who seemed flustered, introduced herself and said, “Thank you. We have been touring the school all day—going to presentations, talking with advisors—and you were the only person who has said anything about Jesus. When we visited [another Christian school in the state], they spoke about Jesus a lot. Does SPU even care about him?”

I was a bit flabbergasted. In response I reassured her that Jesus is very much at the core of what SPU does, even if we don’t say his name a lot at all events for prospective students. I think part of her disappointment as a previewing parent (which is, granted, different than a student) comes from trouble differentiating between the role of evangelism and preaching in the church and the role of recruitment in the university. Talking about your love for Jesus when discussing your faith with believers and nonbelievers alike is a good and necessary thing that we as Christians must do. It is different to talk about your love for Jesus in the context of an admissions event designed to convince prospective students that this school is the school you should attend (and send your money to) over that school. I think it is possible to do so tastefully, but you run the risk of muddling the goals of the two institutions. The goal, or function, of the church is to be the body of Christ—worshiping God and showing God’s love to the world. The primary goal of a university is to educate. A Christian university does this differently than other universities because it sees an individual’s education and vocation as parts of the larger mission of the Church.

In her post, Laura shares pictures of banners from SPU’s new “FROM THIS PLACE” campaign that tell of alumni who have gone on to end river blindness in Ecuador, launch Washington state’s first Asian giving circle, and engage the culture and change the world (the final of these being the school’s motto). Laura writes,

These are wonderful achievements from some talented and gifted alumni, but not one of them mentions a single thing about Christ. Not one of them even hints at our Christian identity. We will boast about non-profits, development work, social justice, and professional athletics, but Heaven forbid we boast about Jesus Christ.

Advertising and branding campaigns are intended to pique curiosity. As a university, SPU wants to showcase its graduates, hence the “FROM THIS PLACE” campaign. It is true that the banners from this campaign do not mention Christ, but the variety and nature of the jobs they describe (treating “veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” or playing pro soccer) suggest the sundry ways that someone motivated by a their Christian education would go forth into the world to serve their God. Not everyone is the same; people serve in different ways. The body has many parts. If the banners were to “boast about Jesus Christ,” I worry that the line between evangelism and recruitment would be too blurred, given that the purpose of the banners is indeed to advertise. What would such banners say? “We believe in Jesus Christ” or “Our students lead lives of Christian integrity” or “Christ has risen!”? There is something I don’t like about putting credal truths and other things about Christian living onto advertising banners. Let them know we are Christians by our mission statement, our magazines, our non-mandatory chapel services, the Bible verses engraved onto the stone of our buildings, and yes, our love.

Laura also raises the concern that our advertising runs the risk of being dishonest to non-Christians about what is most important to us—our Christian identity. She writes,

Sadly, the false advertisement is hurting the non-Christian students who we attracted, who feel tricked into coming to a Christian school.

Another mother approached me after that panel last summer, along with her daughter. During the panel earlier she had asked questions pertaining to SPU’s faith. When she spoke to me afterwards I learned that she was curious because she and her daughter are liberal Jews, wary of SPU’s Christian class requirements. They didn’t need a banner to tell them SPU cares about Jesus. The mother was concerned that because her daughter had a different faith that she would feel alienated here. “She’s bright and she doesn’t let other people say things that they believe without questioning them to see if they’ve actually thought things over.” I told her that SPU’s faculty does not let their students’ beliefs go unchallenged. Many students struggle with ideas like creation or the possibility that some of their beliefs were formed through careless eisegesis. I told her about how the community supported me so amazingly—students and faculty alike—when I came out a year ago. I also told her that being different is both hard, when you feel like no one understands you, and good, when you are able to engage in tough conversations about those differences. By the end of our twenty minute talk the mother and I pretty much agreed that we’d be best friends if things were different, and in retrospect, I don’t think I had to ignore Jesus at all.

Putting the banner issue aside, I really appreciate Laura’s post. While my experience has been a bit different than hers, I think, (or perhaps we just have different expectations), I admire the courage she has to critique something that she loves. Many people are quite willing and eager to point out the flaws in things they dislike (ex: “NASCAR—it’s just driving in circles, amirite?”), but it is more difficult to give a thoughtful critique of something dear to you. Compassionate criticism is necessary in the Church. It calls us to ask ourselves questions like “Why are we here?” and “Why do we do what we do?”—questions whose answers reveal what lies at our core. And, like Laura, it is my prayer that SPU continues to remain firmly lodged in Jesus. I also pray that SPU does this without forgetting that to be in Christ is to “Walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:2, emphasis mine).

eats stones and leaves

After Elaine prayed for me, there was a bit of a pause. I wasn’t sure whether she would start up again or if she expected me to pray, or if it was just over. She smiled before opening her eyes and saying, “I just got a picture.” The first of several visions Elaine shared with me that night. “I saw water… just… little fountains of water starting to shoot up—not to full height yet, but… does that mean anything to you?” It meant nothing to me. Thinking that she would be expecting something relatively deep, I made a conscious effort to leave my face unchanged as I started formulating some good old fashioned English Major bullshit about water (one of our most fertile symbols). “If it doesn’t mean anything, that’s alright.” My God, she can read me. “I just thought I’d ask…”

“I see the shoots of water as new things God is opening up for you. They’re just starting, but they’re there.”

I told her I’d look  for the little shoots of water. She laughed quietly and said, “Ok.”

—-

Less than ten years ago my father rented a high pressure water gun, the kind used to blast paint off of outdoor surfaces. We were in the front yard, but he needed to get something inside so he handed me the gun, saying, “Don’t touch the water. It could tear your finger off.” I touched the water, just grazed it with my finger. It hurt, but my finger remained attached. Triumph. I later asked my mother for help with the large blister that developed.

—–

Having finished J. K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy a few hours earlier in Heathrow, I pulled Stoner by John Williams out of my book-crammed backpack. It was a book whose cover caught my attention at Waterstones and Blackwell, two booksellers in Oxford. The cover of the new Vintage Classics edition being sold has three books stacked on top of one another. The blurbs on the back say things like ‘Stoner is a perfect novel,’ ‘A terrific novel of echoing sadness,’ and ‘democratic in how it breaks the heart… It is a triumph of literary endeavor.’ The brief synopsis says it is about William Stoner, who goes to the University of Missouri in 1910 to study agriculture but becomes a teacher instead, marries the wrong woman, leads a quiet life, and is rarely remembered after his death. In the past I read A Separate Peace and, more recently, Brideshead Revisited—both wartime novels involving university students. I loved Brideshead and liked A Separate Peace well enough, so I bought Stoner. By the time my flight touched down in Atlanta I had finished the book’s 288 pages. It was, as a dear professor of mine would say, “dreamy prose.”

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Scotland, For I [Part II]

I may not know much about alcohol, but I do know that morning drinking on the train from Edinburgh to Aberdeen will get you a few odd looks—although probably not as many as you’d expect most other places. The man with the food cart came down the aisle at ten fifteen and asked if I wanted anything. “What beer d’ya have?” I asked him. He looked at his watch with a little concern before hesitantly naming a few labels. I’d never had any of them before, so I employed a tactic that I’ve mastered recently. “Foster’s, please,” I said, nearly cutting him off. I may not know much about alcohol, but other people don’t need to know that, so I play connoisseur as well as the next American twenty-year-old.

“Shake It Out” by Florence & the Machine came onto my iPod and I enjoyed a few moments of victory before the train filled up with Scots. A surly young woman sat next to me. “Don’t judge me,” I told her. “I’ve never drunk on a train before and I wanted my first time to be in Scotland. I swear this isn’t sad.” “No, seems reasonable,” she muttered. I put my earbuds back in.

I wrote in my journal a lot on these train rides. An excerpt written while flying past little Scottish towns:

The steeples on the churches here are dark and bleak. If the Christopher Wrens in London inspire awe and wonder and glory, those here seem to say that there is hard, unglamorous work to do before we can get to where they’re pointing. Protestant work ethic and whatnot.”

The next nine pages of my journal are spent on the metaphor of Christ and his Bride. After that, two pages of quotes from Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss, including the following:

Faith cannot save you from the claims of reason, except insofar as it preserves and protects that wonderful, terrible time when reason, if only for a moment, lost its claim on you.” (7)

On falling in love with his wife:

…it was human love that reawakened divine love. Put another way, it was pure contingency that caught fire in our lives, and it was Christ whom we found—together, and his presence dependent upon our being together—burning there.” (22-23)

I didn’t understand the brogue of the taxi driver who took me from the train station in Elgin to Pluscarden Abbey, the home of the Benedictine community I was to stay with for the week. I did, however, understand the posh and articulate to the point of theatrical Oxbridge accent of the man who greeted me upon arrival—a young visiting dom, ranked somewhere between priest and monk. “Oh, you’re an Oxford man. Oh, so sorry. I’m a Cambridge man of course, which, as I’m sure you know, is better than Oxford for most things. What college? Wycliffe Hall? OH, so so sorry.” I was surprised and smugly pleased to learn a few days later that the dom was, in fact, a mere New Yorker born and bred who did his undergrad at Cambridge, changed his voice, converted from Episcopalianism, and joined an order.

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Scotland, for I [Part I]

I don’t know much about alcohol, but I know enough to recognize that the air found where Wycliffe Hall’s courtyard spills into Norham Gardens smells like a gin and tonic. Sometimes I just stand there to drink it in.

I don’t know much about alcohol, but I know that I didn’t like the fruity slider I got at the Oxford Union’s club, the Purple Turtle. They have sliders named after every college and hall in Oxford, in addition to the houses of Hogwarts. Whoever came up with the blue-green bubblegum tasting shot for Wycliffe Hall—the Oxford centre for typically conservative Evangelicals—must have particularly savoured the irony of their concoction. Myself and a couple friends each downed one to commemorate the end of our first month at Oxford and the start of our first night out dancing. The decision to go out that night, for me at least, was both a horrible one and a wonderful one. Earlier in the day I had a hell of a time getting my new phone plan to work at the local branch of a UK mobile company, courtesy of their completely incompetent staff and shady business practices. It still doesn’t work. The next morning I needed to wake up at 6:30 to catch a train to Edinburgh, thus beginning the ten days of vacation between my pre-term classes and Michaelmas. I lied to myself saying that I would be able to get sleep on the train (I can’t sleep in moving vehicles), and danced until two in the morning, followed by a happy trip to a kebab stand—the staple English remedy for late night less-than-culinary cravings.

From my journal on the train to Edinburgh, via Birmingham:

I know where you are
but I can’t go there, so I’m
looking for you here

[the names and phone numbers of my contacts in Edinburgh]

I’d like to write something about the women in my life. Something about resilience and loud voices.

When I arrived in Edinburgh, after two hours spent in vain at the local branch of the UK mobile company, I took a taxi to the flat of the couple I was to sleep at for two nights. One perk of having a father who works in the world of academia is the network of kind academics that comes with him. The couple I stayed with are both professors at the University of Edinburgh, in theology and art history. After dropping off my bags, I went to find another couple that my dad arranged for me to hang out with (also professors, both theology). They showed me around the university. I have a disorder that kicks in when I visit most universities: I stop enjoying the place for its own sake and instead start enjoying the life I could potentially be living there—the people I’d know, the buildings I’d live and work in, the air I’d breathe. After a fairly thorough tour of Old Town and New Town, my guides took me to the Scotch Malt Whiskey Society, of which they are members. I had a beautiful plate of (well raised) haggis and what will probably be the best whiskey I’ll ever have, which is depressing given that I’m twenty years old. Continue reading

Our Lord’s National Fire Brigade

1.

The National released Trouble Will Find Me before the summer began. After one listen, there was only one song that I really liked, “This Is the Last Time.” Being a huge fan of their previous two albums, I knew to restart the album and play it again. And again. And again. That is how the National works on me. I swallow one or two songs initially and then the album begins to infiltrate my system with its meticulous percussion, minimalistic melody, and background oohs and ahhs. The combination of low voice, steady rhythms, and seamlessly layered keys, guitars, background vocals, horns, and strings gives the band a patient if sometimes brooding sound—like sitting in a rocking chair on your porch on the last Sunday evening before the looming grey clouds finally crack open to release the furious waters of heaven and hell while you continue to rock slowly back and forth, unfazed, because you’ve been through worse.

The National’s music recognizes the monotony of time and uses it as the setting for Matt Berninger’s confessional and often cryptic lyrics. But sometimes their songs—as in “This Is the Last Time,” whose lyrics speak of strained love or perhaps a numbed love—are interrupted by a completely different melody and lyric. “Your love is such a swamp,” Berninger sings over the repetitive guitar and bass lick that opens the song and the drum beat that kicks in at the second verse, providing a sense of stability and purpose. Berninger has risen to the call of the song’s “you,” in her moment of need. “This is the last time,” he says perhaps unconvincingly. After a third verse, Berninger picks up the cry of “I won’t be vacant anymore / I won’t be waitin anymore,” ending his dwelling on his lover’s swampy love to examine his own part in it and find the determination to change. Then the drums fall out, leaving the strings, bass guitar, and the strumming acoustic guitar in a swamp of their own. We’ve moved into the speaker’s head. “Jenny I am in trouble / I can’t get these thoughts out of me / Jenny I’m seeing double / I know this changes everything.” While he continues these lines, a woman’s voice slowly fades into focus, “It takes a lot of pain in the cup / It takes a lot of pain to pick me up.” Although the song is very ambiguous, one gets the feeling that the singer has finally realized that he is losing something and that he, like his lover, needs help in finding it.

A similar moment occurs in “Slow Show” from the album Boxer, released in 2007. Berninger is at some sort of get together or party and isn’t  able to get out of his own head: “Standin at the punch table, swallowing punch / can’t pay attention to the sound of anyone.” The second verse continues his scattered stream of consciousness narration: “My leg is sparkles, my leg is pins / I better get my shit together, better gather my shit in / You could drive a car through my head in five minutes / from one side of it to the other.” He clearly does not do well at parties. But between and after these verses, the singer has moments of focus where his thoughts travel to his wife: “I want to hurry home to you, put on a slow dumb show for you, crack you up.” Alienated from himself and his surroundings, he desires the company of his loved one. After a couple of minutes in this back and forth between the scattered present and the longings for the stability of love, the drums shift to a low, contemplative thumping—that’s the only way I can describe it—providing the space for one of the Berninger’s most intimate lyrics. A piano begins playing a characteristically minimal and repetitive lick and he sings, “You know I dreamed about you / for twenty-nine years before I saw you / You know I dreamed about you / I missed you for twenty-nine years.” The song ends with the piano lick unaccompanied.

The National’s music is brilliant because it shows how, from the seas of normality and anxiety, clarity emerges to help us understand ourselves (like the frank “Jenny I am in trouble…”) and to reveal those things that pull us through times of alienation and chaos. In these two songs the moments of clarity are ushered in by a noticeable change of texture, but in other songs they are found in the slide of the guitar (“Graceless”), a more melodic chorus after verses of monotone musings (“I Should Live in Salt”), or an unusually unadorned drumbeat (“Santa Clara”).  Enjoy and savour the variations, slight though they may be.

2.

This summer, as I wrote in archipelagos and icons, was saturated by many great opportunities that, because I did not leave enough time for stillness, became a mass of obligations that choked me. I gave way to anxiety and feelings of inadequacy. My sister came to visit in the last week or two before I left for Oxford, giving me a much needed boost of spirit. But the first night of her visit, through absolutely no fault of hers, became the climax of my summer’s anxiety.

I was reading Paula Huston’s A Land Without Sin in bed before going to sleep. Not having a handy outlet or lamp that would reach my bunk, I lit a candle for light, setting it on a shard of my favorite mug, which broke freshman year. I set the shard with candle on my mattress. When I felt about ready to drift off, I carefully dropped my book to the floor and reached to set my alarm clock. The next thing I recall is waking up to the sound of a fire alarm. Smoke filled my lungs. Looking around, bleary-eyed at first, I saw the smoke pouring across the ceiling, stemming from a fire on my mattress, next to my head. The fire was a foot in diameter and perhaps a foot and a half tall. Yelling horrible words, I grabbed my pillow and attacked the fire with it. When the pillow caught fire also, its partially melted polyester stuffing went flying across the room, sticking to the walls and ceiling. I beat the fire out with the carcass of my pillow.

I got up and looked around my room, unable to recognize it. I called campus security, my desire to hear the voice of another human overpowering my instinct to try to cover up my error and carry on, saving myself the embarrassment of bearing the consequence of a broken rule: no candles. The candle for me was not only a source of light, but a source of peace and a reminder of God’s presence. But a candle has dangerous potential, which I, by inadvertently passing out after a long day, released.

The cleaning man came at 2:00 am to help clean and to remind me that I was lucky to be alive. The Seattle Fire Department came to make sure the fire was out. It was, but the room remembered it by the scorched hole it left in the mattress and the ash spread thick on the ceiling. A campus residential director (whom I consider a friend and someone whom I respect) came to make sure that things were being taken care of, including me. She found ointment and bandaids for the two fingers on my left hand that had minor burns. She returned twenty minutes later to find me hyperventilating on the kitchen floor. She made me some tea and talked with me until I had calmed down and then helped convert a couch into a bed so I would have a place to sleep. I didn’t get any sleep that night. I didn’t go to work the next day. But I did see my sister, and that was a blessing.

For a while afterwards, before falling asleep at night I could feel the burning tingle of the flames in my fingers. I still flinch at the smell of toast burning or a brief encounter with heat, even if I know it is contained.  People have endured so much worse than my stupid mattress fire, but it was the scariest thing I can remember happening to me.

It is written that our God is a consuming fire. My fire told me that the wrong things were consuming me.

Postlude

Gerard Manley Hopkins, from ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’

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archipelagos and icons: time cartography

This post is part confession and part sharing what I have learned this summer. The lesson is one that I think everyone learns, so I hope the reading isn’t too dull.

Until not very long ago, without really realizing it for what it was, I think I took pride in how I kept myself busy. Being busy means that I am working, learning, and pushing myself. While, in a balanced life, these are all good things, busyness can evolve into a virtue that I think we I subconsciously pursue for its own sake. At its worst, busyness becomes exhibitionist and masochistic, which in turn can lead to a a perverse sense of pride: “I’m doing all of this and I’m still standing. Aren’t I wonderful?” I realize that in writing about it I risk playing this game, but I write with the desire to respectfully return my ticket to play.

Part of busyness is, of course, scheduling. I came into this summer with a full time job through my school, an internship with a literary journal, an agreement to index the new book of a professor, and the desire to plan a campus-wide discussion for next year. All of them are, in and of themselves, good things, good experiences, with good people. All of them have taught me skills that I will need later in life.

What exhausts me is not necessarily my inability to keep track of all of these things. I don’t wander blindly through these time commitments—my Google Calendar guides me. In the same way that a map helps in navigating a foreign city or highway system, a calendar helps in navigating  time: it is an exercise in time cartography. I can open up the Google Calendar and see the archipelago of obligation I’ve constructed for myself: green rectangular islands on an expanse of white with an overlay of measured lines. The islands, separated by little inlets and rivers I use for quick navigation, tend to cluster on the weekdays, but they frequently spill over onto Saturday and Sabbath.

calendar

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