Summer with my family has been a time full of changes and green and very little internet. We’ve moved to a new property, wide with acres, and spend a lot of time swimming in the deep and narrow lake and blazing trails through the forests.
One thing I have managed to get done as I’ve been away from the worldwide web is some additions to my Etsy store here, including more Tolkien art, a Reepicheep bookmark, and some other things like this card based on Coventry Patmore’s whimsical Victorian poem, The Azalea.
If you’ve been having troubles getting in touch with me, I should be back online soon! In the meantime, here’s a thought-provoking little poem I picked up from Garrison Keillor’s anthology Good Poems.
Each summer the last summer, Levertov says.
The fire in leaf and grass
so green it seems
each summer the last summer.
The wind blowing the leaves
shivering in the sun,
each day the last day.
A red salamander
so cold and so
easy to catch,
dreamily moves his delicate feet
and long tail. I hold
my hand open for him to go.
Each minute the last minute.
When I was a child, I read The Wizard of Oz over the course of a few days. I was eight years old and reading still made me feel accomplished. I read it everywhere, from the top bunk of my bed with the yellow blankets to a tiny balcony of an office building in Ankara, walking back and forth over old leaves on the stained concrete. I tried (but mostly failed) to ration it, to make sure I wouldn’t finish it too soon, because I was already old enough to know that the best things in life should be saved and unwrapped slowly, then savored like expensive chocolate or buttered crab.
I knew that Old Yeller was going to die and even though I wept like a faucet for Where The Red Fern Grows, I didn’t feel cheated and the world didn’t darken. But when at the end of the yellow-brick road, the wizard wasn’t a wizard after all, and the city wasn’t erected of emerald, and there was no fix, no cure, no king, it was a disappointment unlike anything else that had happened to me. I lay awake that night and cried my heart out in the dark and wanted my mother.
“Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies,” wrote Edna St. Vincent Millay in her poem of the same name:
Nobody that matters, that is. Distant relatives of course
Die, whom one never has seen or has seen for an hour,
And they gave one candy in a pink-and-green stripéd bag, or a jack-knife,
And went away, and cannot really be said to have lived at all.
And cats die. But, she says.
But you do not wake up a month from then, two months
A year from then, two years, in the middle of the night
And weep, with your knuckles in your mouth, and say Oh, God! Oh, God!
The obvious thrust of this vivid and unsettling poem is, of course, the part about nobody dying. The expected emotional safety of the very young and the presence of wrenching grief as a distinguishing aspect of adulthood.
But there is something else that stands out to me about this poem. Childhood is the kingdom. The poem touches on more than the absence of death in the lives of children. It speaks to the presence of benevolent power, the irresistible magnetism of monarchy.
There is this thing about a kingdom. Everything is under control. Someone-Who-Knows is in charge of things. Nothing can go ultimately wrong. And isn’t this the essence of traditional childhood?
When we were children, tragedies could happen to us. Like a favorite doll breaking or a bike crash or an unfulfilled promise of ice cream. But nothing could really go irretrievably awry. There were always adults around us who knew what to do. And God, of course, could do anything for us. But we hardly needed Him to. We had parents who had all the answers and when we were afraid, it wasn’t the fear of a best friend bleeding out after a car crash, or wasting our lives or marrying someone who won’t love us forever or dying alone in a dim, squeaky house without even flowers.
We were afraid of wasps. Or Chihuahuas. Or timed math tests.
To the skeptics who populate an unkinged world, The Wizard of Oz reflects sad reality. The transition is from trust to an empty truth. There is no one who has any idea what in the heck is going on. We, limited, ridiculous, arrogant and clueless, really are the only guardians of the galaxy.
But I subscribe to a different narrative: that there is a kingdom. And we must become children all over again, for there is no other way to get in.
It’s been awhile since I’ve put any poems up on the blog, so here’s one I wrote awhile back on this subject. It was an attempt to configure all these ideas into a compressed format, but I’m afraid that without this semi-lengthy explanation, it wouldn’t have made too much sense.
LOSS: [after The Wonderful Wizard of Oz]
“Childhood is not from birth to a certain age and at a certain age
The child is grown, and puts away childish things.”
(Edna St. Vincent Millay, Childhood Is the Kingdom Where Nobody Dies)
Childhood is the kingdom.
There are fierce beasts howling in the heart of the forbidden forest
and little people peer at you from cracks in walls
and the stamen-cups of flowers, tittering.
Wily witches will cook you and eat you for dinner
if you let them catch you.
But you don’t.
Childhood is the kingdom.
At the end of the long road through the valley of shadow and poison-flowers,
looms the jubilant city and the great throne room.
There are decrees under hot wax seals,
on parchment, rules that make sense,
and if you do all you have set out to do, you will live
happily ever after.
Childhood is the kingdom.
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child,
I thought as a child, I turned the pages of fairyland and found it very good.
Oh, Dorothy in gingham-blue,
your little dog, your simple friends,
there is a green witch after you! But it is alright,
there is a wizard too.
Childhood is the kingdom.
And we are skipping, dancing down the yellow-brick road,
for all our troubles, all our tears,
are bottled for the reckoning and written in the book.
That we are little and helpless is of no account
for we are making our happy way to Oz
the Great and Powerful.
Childhood is the kingdom.
And unless you become as a child, you shall in nowise enter therein.
I put the story down crying when
the man is behind a curtain and is only a man.
I was oppressed by the sudden press of danger and
awoke in a dark bedroom to the thick aloneness
and could not be comforted.
“Please – tame me!” says the fox to the little prince in Antoine De Saint-Exupery’s timeless and legendary fairytale The Little Prince.
“I want to, very much,” the little prince replies. “But I have not much time. I have friends to discover, and a great many things to understand.”
What is it about this naïve little statement that sounds painfully familiar, sounds perilously like something we’ve all heard before? I want to very much, but I have not much time. Isn’t there something here that sounds like millennials, sounds like the hyperconnected but ultra-isolated society we inhabit?
Sometimes when I try to think outside of the bubble that technology has created around us, I’m startled by how recklessly and rapidly everything has changed. I don’t mean the changes that have come since our parents were young. I mean the changes that have come since we were in highschool, since five years ago, since just the other day. It’s difficult to accurately assess or even think about the full impact of snowballing social media, because we’re riding the snowball and it’s growing underneath us. How can we truly understand how it’s affected us unless we fall off of it at the bottom of the hill and get smacked squarely in the face, the whole thing exploding in a shower of ice?
But there are some things that are apparent. It is apparent that although the contemporary age is filled with more words, more photos, more videos, and more interaction than any era at any point in history, there is not more friendship. Indeed, as a college student living in an environment surrounded by constant opportunities for activity and community, I’ve never seen so much social isolation in all my life.
My campus is small. The faces you’ll find here are limited. It does not take long for an outgoing person to make the acquaintance of the majority of their fellow-students. It is a pleasant place and we all enjoy one another. I’m not suggesting people don’t speak to each other or that they have no interest in human contact. It is simply that interactions, for the most part, seem to be stuck on a surface level. There is a lack of meaning, a lack of substance, a lack of trust. There is a frustration, because everyone wants to be known, wants to give trust, and wants to receive it. Yet somehow, few seem able to achieve this. As a result, relationships and friend groups are fluid, shifting regularly, and being replaced often.
Have you felt this too? Have you seen these things? Have you tasted the void of loneliness in the place without understanding?
“One only understands the things that one tames,” said the fox. “Men have no more time to understand anything. They buy things all ready made at the shops. But there is no shop anywhere where one can buy friendship, and so men have no friends anymore.”
What do we mean when we say we have no time? We definitely need to catch up soon! I wish I could hang out with you more, but my schedule is so unmanageable this year. I’ve just got sooo much going on!
But saying, I don’t have time to spend with you – doesn’t that really just mean being with you is not really how I want to spend my time?
“Don’t say you don’t have enough time,” said H. Jackson Brown. “You have exactly the same number of hours per day that were given to Helen Keller, Louis Pasteur, Michelangelo, Mother Teresa, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, and Albert Einstein.”
So it isn’t that we don’t have time, is it? It’s that we spend it otherwise, that we forget how hungry the heart is to connect with the soul of another person who encourages us to be brave and true.
Above our heads are a thousand thousand other suns ringed by a myriad of other little blue and grey and ochre planets, cratered and capped with ice, each one a whole world in itself. In the scheme of things, all the dollars and cents there are don’t really add up to much, do they? Because we are passing away and the big swirling universe will soon forget our place, and all that is not eternal is eternally out of date.
But if I have a friend who speaks to me of what is beyond the both of us, who extends hope to me like a gift and covers over my cracks and gaping split places, how can I pay for that? If I can be a friend like that, does it matter whether they put my name up on a park bench or a boulevard someday? How do we know what it is we want most unless we think about what it is we’ll wish we’d had when we come to the end of all things?
And beyond reason and distance and crises and hurricanes and the change that hurts like dying, there is Friend that sticks closer than a brother, a brother Who never goes away. But how shall we ever come to know Him if we don’t even have time for each other?
The little prince learned it later: how it is a good thing to have had a friend. Even if one is about to die.
While university life is full of reading, I don’t think textbooks and assigned excerpts and articles will ever be able to take the place of living books and literature. So even though I find it really hard to carve out time for reading while at school, I’ve managed to finish reading a few books and one thing I really enjoy about breaks is the opportunity to catch up on reading. Here are a few thoughts on what I’ve read in the not-too-distant past:
The Road (Cormac McCarthy) – 5 STARS – Hands down, this was my favorite fiction work I’ve read in awhile. McCarthy employs a sharp, incisive and minimalist style to describe the relationship between a father and his young son struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic setting. Although the story is rife with tragedy and often takes on a deeply cynical tone, it’s simultaneously haunted by the promise of faith. This book doesn’t shy away from the grim reality of the darkness of the human heart and some portions are extremely sobering and even revolting, but in his determination to accurately depict evil, McCarthy never loses sight of the actuality of good. By presenting the reader with a world where all dreams and creeds and security have been stripped away and “the frailty of everything is revealed at last,” he makes his case that it is far better to die an untimely and painful death as a noble and selfless person than to survive as merely an animal. By forcing the reader to confront the certainty of impending death, he drives them to consider who they truly are.
A favorite quote: “No sound but the wind. What will you say? A living man spoke these lines? He sharpened a quill with his small penknife to inscribe these things in sloe or lampblack? At some reckonable and entabled moment? He is coming to steal my eyes. To seal my mouth with dirt.”
While this sounds woefully pessimistic, I found it extremely compelling: a call to examine my life and realize the imperative necessity of breaking through the temporary surface of the world around me and operating on the plane of everlasting reality. I think McCarthy’s novel is at heart surprising compatible with Christian truth and I was especially pleased with the unexpectedly hopeful ending.
Note: I’ve heard a lot of negative things about the movie, so if you’ve seen it but didn’t enjoy it, I’d recommend giving the book a chance. I found the high-quality writing style one of the most attractive things about this book and I can’t see how any film would be able to duplicate it successfully.
Abandoned To God: The Life Story of Oswald Chambers (David McCasland) – 5 STARS – This was my favorite non-fiction book I’ve read recently. I’ve been reading My Utmost For His Highest regularly for several years now and I still find Oswald Chambers one of the deepest and most mature Christian thinkers I’ve ever encountered, so I was quite excited to read about his life story and I can’t imagine a better biography than this one. McCasland is clearly devoted to providing an account that maintains the spirit of Chambers’ approach to faith, holiness and cheerful utter reliance on the power and presence of God. I found this book overwhelmingly compelling at times and it did more to encourage me to pursue spiritual maturity than anything I’d read in quite some time.
A main theme in Oswald Chambers’ writing is the significance of being as opposed to doing. His writing is full of warnings against Christian “busywork” and is a constant call to strengthen our own fellowship with Christ. “How does your spirit develop in intimacy with Him?” Chambers asks. “Nothing else is right if that goes not well.” A primary part of his advice is always to empty ourselves of self-regard and scheming and grow in dependence on the life of the resurrected Christ within us. When that happens, he assures over and over again, we will become channels of the power of God in the lives of others, but will not be corrupted by this power because it is not our possession, or our aspiration. Our only obsession is maintaining the company of Christ.
What I enjoyed most about this book was how it brought life to Chambers’ approach by providing examples of this staggering power in his own person – something that could never really be established by his own writing, but would have to come from the observations of his family and contemporaries. McCasland has worked hard to compile the statements that demonstrate this. Here are a few examples: “
Cultured, and all his culture captivated by the Holy Ghost, he in turn captivated men and women.” (George B Kulp)
“[He was] a man who always carried with him, and therefore gave to others, a sense of the Presence of God.” (Mary Hooker)
He came into our quiet home life with its parochial outlook like a west wind, waking us up and bringing an exciting sense of limitless possibilities. He was always ready at any moment for anything anywhere. One never knew what lovely, exciting thing might happen where he was, and maybe catch us up in its train. He had a great scorn for small petty outlooks and actions: ‘small potatoes, rather frosted,’ was his expression for all that.” (Irene Chambers)
I think the main thing I took away from this book was the thought that the common ideals for Christian living which we encounter in our culture are sadly impoverished and often flabby, powerless images. This book really enriched my ideals and filled me with a desire to press in towards the Source that can power a life such as this one.
And He Dwelt Among Us (A.W. Tozer) – 5 STARS – This book is a collection of thoughts, observations and meditations on the Gospel of John, and the significance of the concept of Emmanuel. Some of Tozer’s premises haven’t been analyzed quite as thoroughly as they might been, and so even though I agree with what he is expressing, readers who tend towards skepticism might find themselves wanting him to back up a few of his ideas with more substantial evidence and reasoning. However, that isn’t really the nature of this book, which is written in a simple, colloquial tone, calculated to reach uneducated people and not merely scholars. This book gave me a lot to think about and although its style is simple, its range is larger than you might expect and it covers a variety of topics and ideas that I think aren’t often discussed in such an approachable fashion.
A few favorite quotes:
“The very first qualities of Christianity are holiness, purity, right living, right thinking and right longing.”
“It is not what I hold as a creed that matters so much (although if my creed is wrong, my experience is bound to be wrong too), it is that part of my creed that I have lived through experientially…I believe that everything I hold as true must be mine in living, vibrant experience.”
“God knows that the most mature of us still need coddling sometimes, and so He is quick to overlook our ignorance, but He is never quick to overlook our sins.”
“It must always be kept in mind that what God thinks about a man is more important than what a man thinks about himself.” “The sinner dies alone and the Christian dies in Christ. But every man dies for his sins. He either dies by joining his heart to Jesus Christ, and is tucked up under the wings of Jesus and dies in the body of Christ or else he dies alone in his sins.”
Eugenics and Other Evils (G.K. Chesterton) – 5 STARS – Although the scope of this book was more limited than much of what Chesterton writes, I think it was one of my favorites of his books on social commentary. Although he addresses some specific issues of British legislation and politics which no longer apply in the same way they did in his time, I think this book still rings true today as a hearty denouncement of modern academia’s disdain for the lower classes and the modern capitalist elevation of profit over the lives and loves of people.
A few favorite quotes:
“The eugenical opportunity I have described is but an ultimate analysis of a whole drift of thoughts in the type of man who does not analyse his thoughts. He sees a slouching tramp, with a sick wife and a string of rickety children, and honestly wonders what he can do with them. But prosperity does not favour self-examination; and he does not even ask himself whether he means ‘How can I help them?’ or ‘How can I use them?’—what he can still do for them, or what they could still do for him. Probably he sincerely means both, but the latter much more than the former; he laments the breaking of the tools of Mammon much more than the breaking of the images of God. It would be almost impossible to grope in the limbo of what he does think; but we can assert that there is one thing he doesn’t think. He doesn’t think, ‘This man might be as jolly as I am, if he need not come to me for work or wages.’”
“Prevention is not only not better than cure; prevention is even worse than disease. Prevention means being an invalid for life with the extra exasperation of being quite well.”
“The curious point is that the hopeful one concludes by saying, “;When people have large families and small wages, not only is there a high infantile death-rate, but often those who do live to grow up are stunted and weakened by having had to share the family income for a time with those who died early. There would be less unhappiness if there were no unwanted children.’ You will observe that he tacitly takes it for granted that the small wages and the income, desperately shared, are the fixed points, like day and night, the conditions of human life. Compared with them marriage and maternity are luxuries, things to be modified to suit the wage-market. There are unwanted children; but unwanted by whom? This man does not really mean that the parents do not want to have them. He means that the employers do not want to pay them properly.”
The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy (Douglas Adams) – 4 STARS – Perhaps the cleverest, funniest and yet most cynical classic science fiction work of all time, the Hitchhiker’s Guide is certainly entertaining. Douglas Adams is, of course, a bitter atheist, and this attitude can’t help but affect his writing. I really wasn’t a fan of some of the content in So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish, but other than that one, I gave these books a solid 4 stars, mainly for their piercingly intelligent humor – a form of humor that seems to be going out of style in my generation.
A few favorite quotes:
“One of the things Ford Prefect had always found hardest to understand about human beings was their habit of continually stating and repeating the obvious, as in It’s a nice day, or You’re very tall, or Oh dear you seem to have fallen down a thirty-foot well, are you alright?”
“Another thing that got forgotten was the fact that against all probability a sperm whale had suddenly been called into existence several miles above the surface of an alien planet. And since this is not a naturally tenable position for a whale, this poor innocent creature had very little time to come to terms with its identity as a whale before it then had to come to terms with not being a whale any more.”
“They rented a car in Los Angeles from one of the places that rents out cars that other people have thrown away. ‘Getting it to go round corners is a bit of a problem,’ said the guy behind the sunglasses as he handed them the keys, ‘sometimes it’s simpler just to get out and find a car that’s going in that direction.’”
Gerard Manley Hopkins: The Major Works – 4 STARS – This book compiles all the poetry and some of the letters of the Jesuit poet-priest who is perhaps most well-known for Dappled Things and As Kingfishers Catch Fire. Hopkins’ devotional poetry is studded with wordplay and powerful imagery and although the book contains many that are unfinished or only fragments, each one is like a jewel.
War In Heaven (Charles Williams) – 3 STARS – This is the first of Charles Williams’ I’ve read and although I can see his appeal, I’m not certain I’ll ever be a huge fan of his style or preferred subject matter. This book’s metaphysical explorations were a little too far-fetched for me, but I still appreciated some of the thoughts it introduced.
A few favorite quotes:
“‘Something awaits him surely of ruin and despair.’ ‘It may be,’ the stranger said, ‘but perhaps a happy ruin and a fortunate despair. These things are not evil in themselves and I think you fear them overmuch.”
“‘Oh damn and blast!’ he cried, with a great voice. ‘Why was this bloody world created?’ ‘As a sewer for the stars,’ a voice in front of him said. ‘Alternatively, to glorify God and enjoy him forever.’
Ender’s Game (Orson Scott Card) – 4 STARS – I’ve been meaning to read something by Orson Scott Card for quite some time and I finally got around to it. I think this was a good introduction and I really enjoyed thinking about a lot of the serious questions it raised regarding leadership, management of power, and war ethics. Although this is classified as young adult science fiction and features protagonists who are children, it centers around surprisingly deep themes. One of my favorite ideas presented was the fine line between virtual reality and the real world, a concept that I think is particularly important for my generation to deal with, surrounded as we are by constant internet access, video streaming, and gaming. So many human experiences can now be simulated on a console or electronic device with seemingly no immediate consequences, but this book really underscores how profoundly our reality is affected by our mental state, and how the imagery that we process and entertain is shaping both our internal character and our outward view of the world.
A few favorite quotes:
“I will remember this, thought Ender, when I am defeated. To keep dignity, and give honor where it’s due, so that defeat is not disgrace.”
“You realize that power will always end up with the kind of people who crave it.”
“He could see Bonzo’s anger growing hot. Hot anger was bad. Ender’s anger was cold, and he could use it. Bonzo’s was hot, and so it used him.”
“In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment, I also love him. I think it is impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves.”
What I’m Still Reading:
Relationships: A Mess Worth Making (Timothy Lane, Paul David Tripp)
D.L. Moody: Moody Without Sankey (John Charles Pollock)
The Ocean at the End of the Lane (Neil Gaiman)
A Passion For The Impossible (Miriam Huffman Rockness)
Death By Living (N.D. Wilson)
Good Poems (Garrison Keiler)
All The Light We Cannot See (Anthony Doerr)
What have you been reading lately?