I finished reading For the Time Being by Annie Dillard. In the “Author’s Note” preceding the text Dillard lists some questions that the book contemplates. “Does God cause natural calamity? What might be the relationship of the Absolute to a lost schoolgirl in a plaid skirt? Given things as they are, how shall one individual live?” The prose is split under recurring headings: birth, sand, China, clouds, numbers, Israel, encounters, thinker, evil, and now. Each heading carries different narratives that are picked up, dropped off, and later revisited. Further into the book the narratives blur, tiptoeing into each other’s headings.
While all of the themes and characters Dillard writes about are captivating and well worth further study—birth defects, the paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin, quantifying human mortality, interactions with strangers, Baal Shem Tov, etc.—something that stayed with me from its first occurrence in the first chapter was Dillard’s writing on clouds, found on page 20. The “clouds” section of each chapter is typically the shortest. In each section Dillard unearths someone’s observations of clouds, noting that interest in the big white fluffy things in the sky is fairly universal. She draws on the writings and drawings of clouds by John Constable, “one oblique bluish cloud riding high and messy over a wan sun;” John Muir, “‘a solitary white mountain… enriched with sunshine and shade;'” Gerard Manley Hopkins, “‘One great stack in particular over Pendle was knoppled all over in fine snowy tufts and pencilled with bloom-shadow;'” Jorge Borges’ character Ireneo Funes, who “could compare the clouds’ shapes to a pattern in marbled endpapers;” Athenian men and women in January of 1942, when the United States entered Athens, “‘an undercloud, floating like a detached lining;'” biologist Archie Carr, “‘little round wind clouds’ … and ‘towering pearly land clouds;'” the Baltimore News-American, “‘a cloud of sand blown thousands of miles westward from the Sahara;'” and painter Jacqueline Gourevitch, who “drew in graphite seven clouds above Middleton, Connecticut. The largest cloud tumbled out of rank.” We like to look at clouds. Sometimes we like to paint them, find animals in them, or write about them. But why? Continue reading
In several days I will be flying back to Seattle. Christmas break will have ended, a month away from Seattle Pacific University will have passed, and I’ll have left behind another year. As I prepare for the new year, starting with Winter Quarter, I have been reading The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky, translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky. I began reading it more than a year ago “for fun,” if that expression actually describes the motivation that drove me to buy the book. But school led me away from Dmitri, Ivan, and Alyosha and into the world of ancient Greece. Before I stopped my attempt to blast through it, I made it approximately a third of the way through.
If you are familiar with The Brothers Karamazov, you might recall when the Elder Zosima relates the story of his life to Alyosha and others as he is reaching his life’s end. He begins with the story of his brother, who, an atheist, became sick and returned to God before dying while still a young man. In the last days of his life, he was consumed with a joy and love that confused his mother, visitors, and doctor, who mistook his fervor for madness. It was this passage that I read on the plane back to Seattle nearly a year ago.
It is wintertime. Although the earth is frozen and seemingly barren, curious little cultivators plant unseen seeds with knit-mittened hands. Snowmen and angels, nurtured by innocent fingers, rise from the ground like annual flowers beneath a sunless sky. After day-long outside labor, the children retire to kitchens and hearths to remember the warmth of their own forming, the wombs in which they were once knit.
There is a house on Porter St. where a child is engulfed by blankets in the warmth of a hearth—the heart that pumps life into the ice-encrusted brick and mortar of the New England home. It is a boy, towheaded and drowsy. The blanket is an old brown and white afghan given to his parents on their wedding day some fifteen years ago. In his hands is a book. It could be the Chronicles of Narnia, D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, the Hobbit, or a collection of Calvin and Hobbes comics. He reads and collects memories, as the stories of hobbits, Olympians, a stuffed tiger, and a great lion become indistinguishable from his own.
I have never lost a close friend or relative, so I don’t feel qualified to comment on the grief that is instilled into the hearts of those who have. However, there is a grief that is stirred in anyone who hears stories like those that have arisen from Newton, Connecticut, or Clackamas, Oregon, or Aurora, Colorado. This resonating grief is common to every person. With it come confusion, anger, and a longing for peace and healing.
Bear with me as I reflect and stumble through some thoughts.
My first examination of the school year was last week. It covered Mariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen and Gilead by Marilynne Robinson—both of which I’m fairly sure I’ve mentioned here. The test was two short essays and one long essay. There were several options of what to write on for the long essay. I didn’t write on empathetic suffering in Mariette in Ecstasy, and I partially regret that. Take two.
My personal experience with nuns is minimal. I attended a Catholic elementary school in New Hampshire, but there were only two of them left in the teaching faculty. The sister that taught music retired form teaching during my time there. The other sister was my first grade teacher. The main thing that I remember about her was her love of whoopee pies. I’m not sure if that is how you spell the word for the two chocolate cakelets with cream in the middle, but autocorrect made it that, so I’ll take its word. My Mac is obese.
The lunch table was the central point of middle school life. It was a market of junk food and crude jokes. Cold lunchers like myself eyed the platters of hot lunchers with gut-shriveling envy. On the rare occasion I would slip into the cafeteria area and grab some garlic bread or a plate of pasta after everyone had settled into their place at a table and after my bagged lunch was depleted. I felt a bit foreign approaching the lunch ladies, but they quickly became allies. “Just take it. No one should leave the lunch room hungry.” Continue reading
During a class discussion about Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, the question was asked, “How did a slow novel portraying a protestant minister in a good light win the Pulitzer prize?” Gregory Wolfe, the professor, suggested that the sincerity of the novel left critics shocked. He then spoke about the New Sincerity, which I had never heard about before. It is the idea that a new wave of honesty and simplicity is on its way to replace the current irony, self-consciousness, and jadedness of our culture.
He cited Sufjan Stevens, Gilead, Arcade Fire, and folk-nuevo bands like Mumford and Sons that earnestly sing about things they care about.
This idea gave me a lot of hope and excitement for the future and my generation’s role in it.
Today was the second day of classes. I am enrolled in Honors UFound (Christian foundations), a survey of music literature from ancient Greece to Bach, several music groups, and Topics in American Literature. The last class is taught by Gregory Wolfe, founder and editor of IMAGE, a prominent literary quarterly that focuses on the intersection of faith and culture. He is also director of SPU’s MFA in creative writing.
I wasn’t really expecting any strong cohesion between these courses because they are each from different departments: theology, music, and English literature. But something has already emerged. In UFound, we will divide into groups and focus on different major Christian traditions—I’m hoping for Orthodox. In the survey class, we will study church chants of different places and eras. And the first book we’re reading in the Am Lit class is Mariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen. Mariette is right there on the cover experiencing ecstasy. I’ve received some odd looks. “She’s a nun,” I say, but that doesn’t change the looks.
The book is about a young woman, Mariette, who joins an order of sisters. SPOILER ALERT: Mr. Wolfe told us in class that she ends up with stigmata. There is so much tension building right now, in a weird nunny way.