Sunday, May 30, 2010

From the chapbook

Children's (or YA) books make my heart happy, so I read them frequently. I read Hope Was Here (Joan Bauer) on the recommendation of at least two family members. I wasn't disappointed. The book reminded me of my favorites by E.L. Konigsburg: spare, direct, flavorful prose; an engaging plot; warm, but honest, reflections on what it means to be members of a family or a community. I stayed up after work last night to finish it, which is saying something, because work was exceptionally busy and I was tired.

This was my favorite quote from the book:
But when you're in food service, you understand that sometimes you're making up for people in your customers' lives who haven't been too nice. A lonely old woman at the counter just lights up when I smile at her; a tired mother with a screaming baby squeezes my hand when I clean up the mess her other child spilled.

You know what I like most about waitressing? When I'm doing it, I'm not thinking that much about myself. I'm thinking about other people. I'm learning again and again what it takes to make a difference in people's lives. (p.144)
(Hint: It doesn't take much to make that difference.)

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Calling owls at twilight

My youngest sister can talk to the owls, and they talk back. We stand on the back porch, our toes curled over the edge of the patio. She calls into the gloaming--the one-long-drawn, two-short-note call she has identified as theirs.

I am recovering from the last two weeks. It was fourteen days of mayhem, really. Nerves and presentations, and the endless thinking and rethinking. (what went right? what could have gone better? why, why, why? and did i really say. . .?) I am trying to silence my own worst critic: the voice in my head. It is taking some effort.

Today I went into town by myself. I sat in a coffee shop and proof-read my honors thesis desultorily. When the sun came out, I walked to the bookstore and then to the river. I looked at the earth sculpture, avoided the couples cavorting in the grass, leaned over the railing to stare into the muddy currents. I turned up the music on my iPod to drown out the voices clamoring for my attention. (what went wrong? why didn't i do that? and, really, i said. . .?) There were people reading on park benches, and I thought, briefly, about going back to the bookstore. But when I walked back downtown, I went to the mall instead. I wandered through the familiar stores and criticized the way they've rearranged their stock, and the summer looks, and the people walking by me. I tried on clothes, tossing aside shirts with lace and appliqued roses and ruffles, filmy camisoles, a black dress that was too everything. Eventually, I bought a skirt and went home.

I took the long way because this was the point, after all: to drive away and listen to music and think without really thinking; to distract myself from obsessive self-criticism. (couldn't i have done just a little better? couldn't i have made myself more understandable?) So I absorbed the hum of the wheels and the thrumming of guitars, and I let the cars pass me. I thought, as I have been thinking, that Toronto is far away from my home and that I like it here. These fields and roads and this piece of the Oregonian sky.

I think, too, that I am probably overtired and possibly overworked, and I try to tell myself that this is the reason for the overactive mind and the unwarranted melancholy. (because for the most part things went really, really well. or so they say. but, unfortunately for me and my inner critic, the "for the most parts" aren't the whole of it.)

But now all I need is the energy for two more weeks. I tell this to myself as I stand on the edge of the back patio, my toes cold in the twilight.

(i have found a summer job with minimal financial compensation, but hopefully maximum benefit. i really did do a good job on those presentations, and i know what i could do better next time. my papers are not airtight or perfect or bullet-proof, but they show the signs of the considerable labor i invested in them, and i am proud to call them mine. i am headed to the school i have had pinned on my wall for the last two years.)

I decide that I will ask my sister to teach me how to call the owls. I am hoping they will answer me.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

(To love and be loved is to feel the sun on both sides)

The night after I give a presentation on justice and happiness in Plato's Republic, I
  • Soothe post-presentation jitters with a blanket, a cup of tea, jazz, and a recliner in the corner of the living room
  • Look forward to a late-evening outing to the movies with some of my favorite people in the whole wide world
  • Bask in the thought of all the people who took the time out of their busy schedules to come watch me (me!) talk about ancient philosophy
  • Feel loved
There is sunshine headed our way this weekend.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The night before I give a presentation on justice and happiness in Plato's Republic, I
  • Revise, rewrite, and condense my paper
  • Realize that there might be some problems with said paper, but remain remarkably calm
  • Dance unabashedly, unashamedly to Owl City
  • Drink coffee (I know, I know, I'm saying this a lot; but it's true)
  • Don't write a paper that would be due tomorrow, if I hadn't made the relatively educated decision to not write it
  • Wish my dad could be back from the other side of the country in time to watch me climb up on my academic soap box and hold forth on the ancients

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

When I grow up. . .

. . .I want to write just. like. him.

(In particular, I want to write like this.)

Monday, May 24, 2010

Ad infinitum

The job search is going well. The end-of-term list, on the other hand? It keeps getting longer. (And longer.)

They tell me that Dead Week officially begins in seven days, but I may die sooner than that, leaving behind only a few hundred dollars and an unfinished to-do list. My one comfort is that the latter portion of my legacy will plumb the depths of the eternal; even Hercules would be overwhelmed.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Sunday

Listening:
  • Anberlin's New Surrender. I love these guys. "Breathe" is my favorite song on this album.
Reading, writing, and thinking about:
  • The use of the simile in Homer's Iliad (remember that fifth paper that I thought I might not have to write? I have to write it.) Richmond Lattimore's translation of the Iliad is the best.
  • Whether or not nondualism leaves room for religious personalism, and, in particular, whether it leaves space for worship. (I am going to argue that it doesn't; however, I do think--and I'm going to argue that--it leaves space for at least one element of worship: respect.)
  • A presentation on Plato's account of justice and happiness in the Republic. Actually, I'm going to avoid thinking about this for another 24 hours. I need a break from it.
  • Work this evening. Will it be busy? How many people have as many papers due this coming week as I do? (It will be busy.)
Enjoying:
  • Coffee (I like it strong and dark.)
  • Companionship (I am taking my family with me to Toronto.)
  • Brief moments of sunshine (Grey skies were not supposed to be here today, but I'll be content with what I have.)
Anticipating:
  • Being done, done, DONE.

Friday, May 21, 2010

A Series of facts

Fact (1): Graduation is in 23 days. 23 days x 24 hrs/day = 552 hours (but graduation is at 11am on Saturday, and some of today is already gone, so it's even less than that!)

Fact (2): I have approximately 552 hours to write four (maybe five) papers, prepare a presentation (maybe two), keep up with daily homework, and take a final. This sounds eminently doable. As long as I keep myself on task.

Fact (3): In 25 days, I will be bound for the Ashland Shakespeare Festival. It will be like freshman year all over again--except better, because I'll be sharing the experience with family.

Fact (4): My darling cousin is getting married in July. Two and a half months until we're reunited, and I don a blue silk dress to stand at her side while she says her vows.

Fact (5): I need a summer job, and I haven't had the slightest inclination to go looking for one.

Fact (6): I also need a student visa. But there's still time.

Fact (7): Plane tickets, no? Yes, plane tickets. To Toronto. Now I really need that job.

Fact (8): Toronto. The very beginning of September. That's just three months and some days away. It will be the beginning of the rest of my life.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Altocumulus Wednesday

Here we have a layer of fog over Mary's Peak, away on the other side of our hilltop world; a green-gold light across the fields and hedgerows of the valley; my sister says the sky is a combination of altocumulus and altostratus clouds. We know this because we googled a cloud chart to appease our curiosity.

I have been distracted. Yesterday I was trying to have a conversation about intrinsic value, and all I could see was the light illuminating the green leaves on the tree across from us; I couldn't stop thinking about it until I had empirically proven that the leaves were in fact lit up from the sun and not their own chlorophyll.

I was awake into the wee hours last night, rewriting my speech for the 43rd time (exaggeration, yes), and then, when I'd finally tossed the books on my bed onto the floor, switched out the light, and fallen asleep, the dog began barking and the cat started to meow.

Dear Chesterton, dear nameless cat (were you Rajah or Czar?), please keep it to yourself.

I got out of bed and opened the bedroom door for them.

I will take a nap this afternoon before my presentation. I will try to focus.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Boethius and Philosophy (Mattia Preti)

















On Wednesday I'll be talking about Boethius and The Consolation of Philosophy for a few minutes. (Translation: I'm trying to condense two years of work and writing into 7 minutes.) This picture is keeping me company as I prepare my talk, and it will also grace my PowerPoint. I'd never heard of Preti before, but I like his style!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

InternetMonk

Ideas are coming hard and fast this week. So please forgive me for adding one more thought to the list.

Last night I stopped by the blog of a person I never had the opportunity to meet but whom I admire greatly. Michael Spencer sent his "dispatches from the post-evangelical wilderness" for almost ten years; I discovered them about five years ago, shortly after we moved to Oregon, right about the time that I was realizing how many pressing questions there were to answer about my faith, the world, and the people around me. I was impressed with his intelligence, his wit, and his writing styled--most importantly, I was touched with his honesty about the doubts he faced as a Christian, even while teaching and serving on a predominantly Christian campus.

Michael died early last month from cancer, and I feel a little as if I've lost one of my heroes.

I've been rereading some of his essays and it struck that his essay "I Have My Doubts" says exactly what someone else told me recently: "Arguments for God's existence," he said--and I'm paraphrasing, "can't really take into account the experience of that existence. And it's hard to talk about God with people who haven't experience that."

Here's Michael:
[My] doubts have made me respect my honest, unbelieving friends. To many of them, it isn't so much the content of Christianity that is ridiculous. It's the idea that Christians are so certain; so doubtless. They find it untenable that anyone could bury their own doubts so deep that you are as certain as Christians appear to be.
****
I believe Luther was courageous enough to see and feel the verities of a universe without God and a universe where sinners were under the judgment of a Holy God.
[I was talking with someone the other day who told me she couldn't imagine what it would be like for God to exist. And I thought, "Some days I can and some days I can't. There are moments when I can imagine, with perfect clarity, what it would be like to live in a God-less universe; at other moments, I can't imagine what it would be like without him.]
I cannot explain my longing to know God. Talking about it is like undressing in front a crowd. I am not embarrassed that I avoid the topic. But I know to what extent it is a part of my deepest identity. As Augustine said, I have no doubt that I was made for God and my heart is restless till I find my rest in Him. I am persuaded that my longing for human happiness is the echo of my creation in the image of God.
*****
Ultimately, I am persuaded of the truth of the Bible by its presentation of Jesus. I cannot explain or unpack this reasoning, for it comes down to an encounter with a person. Those who are Christians know well what I mean. You know what it is like to see no evidence of God in the world, in the church or in the mangled mess of your own heart, yet to be drawn powerfully after the Jesus of the scriptures.
[There's an experience at the heart of the faith tradition that is difficult to explain--if it is explainable it all. And when I try to tackle it with logic, I lose something. It's like reading poetry for the sense while ignoring the sound. Ultimately, I want sense and sound; logic and experience; and to give up one for the other would be to simple-mindedly, unforgivably close off what I still think is a real possibility.]

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The only really effective antidote to the dreariness of reading the New Atheists, it seems to me, is rereading Nietzsche. How much more immediate and troubling the force of his protest against Christianity seems when compared to theirs, even more than a century after his death. Perhaps his intellectual courage—his willingness to confront the implications of his renunciation of the Christian story of truth and the transcendent good without evasions or retreats—is rather a lot to ask of any other thinker, but it does rather make the atheist chic of today look fairly craven by comparison.
("Believe It or Not," David Hart)

It was an otherwise satisfactory day

It's easy to write about the geniality of other people when you're not actually sitting across from them--when you haven't actually come down from your perch or stepped outside your door; it's much harder when you actually run up against the recalcitrance of real flesh and blood.

I have had a series of discouraging tutoring sessions with students this term. My moments of incoherence and incompetency seem to be manifesting themselves more frequently. I can't decide if it's a lack of preparedness (I know that at least in one case it was), an inability to translate complicated logical and grammatical ideas into everyday English, or a growing impatience with people who want me to do their work for them.

I don't want to believe there are students who look me in the eyes and claim they can't do it, when what they really mean is "I don't want to do it." But there are. And I am trying to remember that it isn't always my fault that a session fails. Sometimes, no matter how many different ways I explain paraphrasing and no matter how many different strategies I offer, it will never be enough, because what I am trying to do and what the student wants are two very different things. I am trying to teach; they are looking for an easy way to the end of an assignment. I am trying to point them in the right direction; they are looking for someone to walk the road for them. And refusing (again and again and again) to write that sentence for them, to just paraphrase it so they can hand it in already, isn't being mean or unhelpful--it's giving them the very best help that I can. It's giving them the possibility to be successful and to take ownership of their successes.

This gets more complicated when I'm working with non-native speakers. I can't always tell when they need to see something written out and when they are playing the international student card. I can't tell when I'm right to hold to my policy of making them do it themselves, and when I'm stubbornly, unhelpfully clinging to ideology.

So at the end of the day, when I crawl defeated into bed, I can only tell myself--like I've told so many other students, about so many different things: "It takes practice." The ability to distinguish between genuine effort and manipulation of the process doesn't come naturally (at least to me); and it will take time to learn how to respond in which situations.

But one of these days I hope I'll know when I'm to blame and when, really, it wasn't my fault.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The benefit of the doubt

I have come to believe that kindness is repaid in unexpected ways and that if you are lonely or bone-tired or blue, you need only come down from your perch and step outside. ("Insomniac City")
I posted this quote, and then I thought (as I have been thinking more frequently), doesn't this express an unaccountably optimistic picture of humanity? And--more importantly--do I have a right to posit such an account? Isn't there something embarrassingly naive about a human world where kindness is repaid and the company of other people is the tonic for loneliness?

(One day last week I woke up and thought, "What if everyone around me isn't nearly as nice as I've been imagining?" It was a bleak prospect.)

Here is what I've been thinking. I've been thinking that of course bad things happen (and they happen to good people too!) Not only do bad things "just" happen (to good and bad people), but we do bad things to each other--terrible, unforgivable, heinous things.

And I don't want my optimism to become a glossing-over of the darker side of life. I don't want it to become an excuse to let injustice go unaddressed. On a smaller--but just as important--scale, I also don't want it to become the way I react to other people's stories. Just because I'm happy and feel like the few clouds I have are silver-lined doesn't mean that other people don't have a right to be unhappy or that they don't have genuinely tragic stories to tell. My happiness certainly doesn't license me to tell others (who are suffering from things that I've never experience or hope to experience) that, well, it all works out in the end. We have to recognize, lament, or condemn the bad things that happen; we have to be willing to acknowledge another person's unhappiness and admit that what they are suffering is real. It's not all sunshine all the time.

So that's one side of the coin.

But here's the other side. In addition to training ourselves to respond to unhappiness (especially in other people), we also have to be willing to cultivate a genuine appreciation for the (genuinely) good things in our own lives. Part of this is being able to recognize which of our trials are truly bad and which of them are only blessings in disguise (abuse is bad; my homework, on the other hand, is a necessary evil). Another part is being able to distinguish what happened from how I should react (of course it's bad that my car battery is dead--but is it the end of the world? Is it the worst thing that could happen?)

And it works this way with people too. Do I really think that it's always pleasant to be around people? Or that every person is equally pleasant to be around? Or that all people are always good?

Of course not. That wouldn't just be naive; it would be dangerous.

But now consider the people I interact with in my everyday life (or the majority of the people you interact with in yours). Most of them are genuinely kind people--quirky from a distance, perhaps, but rich with possibility and human sympathy when you get to know them better. The fact that I am occasionally annoyed by classmates or the person on the other side of the counter, doesn't mean that all the people I pass on the sidewalk are bad; nor does my annoyance and impatience give me the right to treat everyone as if they're the worst specimens of humanity I've ever encountered (even if I think they might be).

Which is all really just to say that, yes, bad things happen and evil people really exist. We are all capable of actualizing the worst in ourselves. But this fact shouldn't turn us into misanthropes. At the very least, we could give one another the benefit of the doubt: innocent until proven guilty.

And until proven wrong, I insist on believing that kindness is repaid, and that the people, at least in my average everyday contexts, are worth stepping outside for.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Here are a few Monday thoughts:

(1) The clouds have returned, and it doesn't bother me. What bothers me is (2) the tiredness seeping through my bones and (3) the prospect of how many papers are due before the end of the term. (4) I am a little discouraged because the draft of a paper I turned in today could have been better, and I have some extra time to make it better, but (5) if I use that time, then I will have delay the start of some other projects. Also (6), I can't look at the draft anymore because (7), as much I love Plato and justice and happiness and all the goodness that is the Republic (yes, that was a pun), I have had about all I can take of my 18 pages of argumentation--for now.

(9) Somehow it always all gets done, doesn't it?

And yes, I realize that (8) is (or was?) missing. But that happens sometimes.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Sun in my morning

I wake to solid blue overhead, to a silence that is the early morning absence of wind in the grass, to the warmth of sunshine and blankets. I wake to the few hours of Saturday that I count my own.

Downstairs there is the whirring click of the coffee machine, the chatter of incoming text messages, the coming together of our weeks' stories. We mix philosophy, music, engineering, business, and movies with caramel-drenched monkey bread and cups of strong coffee. We laugh at Chesterton, who insists on sprawling, lop-eared and bent-pawed, across our laps. One thing always leads to another: tears in the music department evolve into a consideration of writing styles (poetic or prosaic), summer jobs, and Walter Wangerin. There is a give and take of who said what and where and why.

It is gossip of the finest sort. Beautiful because, though groundless, it is nevertheless drawing us together, reminding us that as our lives slowly diverge, conversation will always have the power to bring us back.

This isn't really what we're thinking though. Proximally and for the most part, we just count ourselves lucky--because there is the sunshine, pouring through the windows and into our hearts.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Talking things through (in a non-idle fashion)

I have been blessed with conversation and with Gespraechspartneren who have the gift of thinking deeply and speaking well. I say this despite the fact that these have been busy weeks for me: Papers and projects and presentations are coming due--errands have been left unattended--in the midst of the unfolding conversational dialectic. But I also know that these thoughtful explorations of the universe are at the heart of the college experience, and I'll carry what I learn from them into the rest of my life.

Talking (of this sort at least) requires great courage and greater creativity. It demands that we let down our defenses and enter into the imaginative universe of another. It asks us to let go of pretension, of petty point-scoring, of the desire to ridicule what we don't understand. It invites us to unfold, explore, and articulate possibilities.

It also takes patience. So we meet to talk and then part for a few days to let our ideas simmer, and then we meet again to serve them up with more flavor and a dash of humor, with the understanding that these things take time and the first articulation of a possibility is not always the best or the most skillful one.

I like to think of this kind of talking as an expression of human beings--social animals--at their best. Listening and contributing by turns; working through things from different angles, but together. Is such collaborative dialogue possible with anyone and everyone? A month or two ago I might have said yes; now I am inclined to say that it is possible with almost everyone, but that it's more difficult with some people than others.

That said, the point is that of course I am busy this term (who isn't?) But I am almost never too busy to talk things through. Try me (I will count myself lucky.)

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

No small reminder

Tonight we celebrated our all-campus awards ceremony. For three and a half hours we watched students stream across the stage to collect certificates and plaques, and we listened to their stories (of determination, success, involvement.)

The auditorium was full, but I couldn't help but think, sitting there, that someone was missing. She would have been there with us this evening, garnering applause and awards--and lavishing smiles on the audience. She did more, I think, in her year and a half at Western than I was able to do in my four. And she should have been graduating with my class next month.

Dear Whitney.

If we had had 30 seconds to describe you tonight, we would have talked about your joie de vivre. We would have listed your involvement in the Deaf community, sports, and campus life; we would have reminded the audience of your big plans and your bigger heart.

If someone had asked me to list three words that defined you, I would have said: Optimism. Enthusiasm. Ebullience.

You should have been there; you would have loved it.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Idling

If discussing the weather counts as idle talk, then I am inescapably inauthentic. The weather forecast shows clouds and rain drops for Monday and Tuesday, sunshine and half clouds for Wednesday and Thursday. And I reflect on these uncertain facts before heading into the new week because I am partial to sunshine, especially heading into the summer. I am partial to afternoons on the third floor when the alcoves are filled with light, to mornings when the horizon is bright and far away, and to walks to HSS at 8am when the air is cool but not cold.

Now if idle talk is saying the same thing over and over, then I've again succumbed. I have a one-track mind: I see possibilities and nature, I remark on the sunshine, I talk with people, and these are the things that end up here, every few days or weeks.

Sometimes, though, I suspect that what we are inclined to call "idle" are simply the things that bore us--and so idle talk becomes the woman on the other side of the counter who can't stop bragging about her nieces and nephews; the neighbor who can't help but remark on the mown grass; the coworker who sees a silver lining and has to share it. That is, it's idle talk if we don't care, and the most important and illuminating talk in the world if we do (imagine the children's grandmother, the scent of the grass on an early Saturday morning, the friend who has been needing light).

So I repeat things because I think that repetition, while it has the potential to cover things up and lull us to sleep, can also make the world manifest. The weather happens every day--but sometimes the only way to grab hold of its possibilities is to talk about it: "How are you? Do you feel that sun/snow/rain/shine?"

(Then again, maybe I'm just out of things to say.)

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Untitled.

Today we were treated to sunshine and the bald blue of an open sky. Freed from its two-dimensional wall of gray, the world expanded: trees in the foreground, mountains rolling into one another, distant meadows touched with the gold of a setting sun. And I, who have been thinking again about the way love and conversation honor human possibility--I thought, There is something to these worlds, the ones we create and the one already created. There is something to these startling, three-dimensional encounters with dirt, pavement, leaves, and wind.

I wrote today, "What if I need to feel more and think less?"

But, really, the universe is big enough to accommodate both. And with an infinity of possibilities, I have nothing to lose.