#82: The Angel Oak

It’s been over a year since I’ve marked something off The List of Things to Do Before I Die. But when my best friend and I took a brief trip down to Charleston to see one of our favorite bands, Fitz & the Tantrums, play a show, I took the opportunity to visit the Angel Oak, a really old, massive tree out on John’s Island.

The first view of the tree once you enter the property.

The view of the tree once you enter the property.

The tree was apparently damaged during Hurricane Hugo in 1989 (but, honestly, very little on the coast of SC wasn’t damaged during Hugo). So the tree is braced with wooden posts and wires that criss-cross through the canopy, ensuring that it doesn’t collapse under it’s own weight.

No one is really sure how old the tree is, but it’s at least 400 years old. It’s not the oldest tree in the Eastern US, not even close really, but it’s quite the spectacle nonetheless. I think my favorite part about the tree is that the branches that are spread across the ground are as big as trees themselves. It’s just a really neat little place, down this rough dirt road. For being on an island, it’s kind of in the middle of nowhere.

Proof that I actually visited the tree and didn't just Google images.

Proof that I actually visited the tree and didn’t just Google images. Look how tiny I am (comparatively)!

That morning, before visiting the Angel Oak, my friend and I also visited Fort Sumter, the site where the Civil War began. I’d been once when I was very young, and she had never been. I love military sites, and it was definitely worth taking the half-hour ferry ride to the island to explore.

Approaching the island.

Approaching the island.

Crumbling brickwork where the cannons were once housed.

Crumbling brickwork where the cannons were once housed.

We also enjoyed lunch at Poe’s Tavern on Sullivan’s Island and then visited the Charles Pinckney National Historic Site because we’re working on getting stamps in our passports to the National Park Service. The Pinckney Historic Site is a lovely farmhouse near Mount Pleasant, so all in all, we ended up traveling all around the Charleston area in a 36-hour span. Pretty great.

Snee Farm at the Pinckney National Historic Site

Snee Farm at the Pinckney National Historic Site

So there it is–an item off The List (plus other historic adventures!). Now, to figure out what item to do next!

Folding Chairs

I was born Southern Baptist, and by the time I finished preschool, I had claimed my rightful inheritance on the family pew: third row, right side of the sanctuary. Dark, shiny hardwood with dark green, velvet cushions (which, of course, matched the carpet and even the choir robes). It was to this pew that I returned on a January evening in 1993, after my baptism. It was in this pew that I first felt a call to missions. It was this pew that I left behind as a teenager when my parents, brother, and I moved our memberships to another church (claiming, once more, the third pew, right side, with the [slightly lighter] green cushions). And it was to this pew (since reupholstered in a more pleasing blue) to which I have only returned once, at the age of 25, to bury my grandmother.

On Sunday night, I walked into a different sanctuary, in a different city. I sat on the next-to-last row, in the center section, in a slightly battered metal folding chair that was neither brown, nor tan, nor gray, but some amalgamation of every neutral color in the spectrum. This sanctuary claims no uniformity. The dark wood floor is the only constant, sloping downwards towards a stage vacant of pulpit and upholstered chairs. Two slightly uneven aisles are formed between three sections of chairs that are placed there at the beginning of each service and removed shortly thereafter. The folding chair in which I sat is one of several varieties, including brown folding chairs with ripped cushions; hard, white plastic folding chairs; and the newest, straight-backed chairs with woven seats. Those are placed at the front of the sections, nearest the stage, but I have yet to venture far enough into the sanctuary to try them out. I rather like the simplicity of the metal folding chairs. No fluff, no frills; purely functional.

The floor is my favorite part of the sanctuary. At one point, pews did occupy the room. The outlines still exist where they were screwed into the floor. The marks are lighter colored than the rest of the wood and stand as a beautiful reminder of the evolution of the Church in my city. At one point, I’m almost certain that green velvet cushions sat perched atop the old wooden pews. After all, the peeling paint around the molding is green; the cushions had to match.

This gathering began a little over six years ago, and I joined about 8 months in, although I didn’t realize it at the time. There were so few of us at the time that we met in a much smaller room on the second floor of the next building. Once the congregation grew, and the funds increased, we moved into the sanctuary. The chairs moved from one building to the next.

I don’t remember the first chair I sat in when I attended radius for the first time, but I’m sure that it was one of the same folding chairs we’re still using. In my five and a half years, those chairs have been occupied by a vast array of people, some of whom still remain, others of whom have drifted away. I, myself, have gone for weeks or months without sitting in one of the seats, only to return once more.

In one of these chairs I sat the night in 2010 that I knew my grandmother was dying, which was also the same night that I sat while others prayed for my upcoming trip to Haiti; that night, I had already begun mourning my inevitable loss, but I also looked forward, albeit with a bit of trepidation, to an adventure to which God was calling me. In one of these chairs I sat late into a Sunday evening, talking with a friend who had become very close about life and our pasts and how God would redeem us. In one of these chairs I sat the night one of my friends told me she had nowhere to live, and my roommate and I told her to pack her stuff and come home with us.

Last night, I thought about the chairs, about the people who have occupied them with me and those who will in the future. The person who first invited me to this gathering of believers was someone I once loved. He occupied a seat beside me for a few months before he left, never to return. I doubt he will ever occupy a seat next to me again. But those few months were enough time to become fully entrenched in the body, to meet others who, over the years, would take his vacant seat. Friends who became roommates. Friends who grew closer. Friends who stayed but also strayed away, just as the first one had. Others that I loved, or wanted to love. And others that I chose to love.

Last night, I sat surrounded by my small group, my family, the men and women I joined with, who search with me and beside me for the Kingdom of God. And therein is the uniformity that the chairs, on the surface, lack. God has brought us all together, no matter who sits beside me. When the one I loved sat beside me, God was there. When that man left, God was still there. When others moved into the seat next to me, and then moved on, God was always there, covering me with His grace and love and leading me to His Truth. And for almost three years now, the ones who have been beside me have been the ones I’ve chosen to journey with. I will disappoint them at times. I’ll let them down. But God will be there through it all. And whether our church buys new chairs, or whether I leave this gathering for another group of believers, or another city, God will always be there. Pew. Folding chair. Bean bag. Blanket on the floor. The vessel never matters.

His Kingdom and His Church will endure.

Book Challenge: January 2014

I resolved to buy no new books during the month of January and to read one book each month that I had not yet read but that I already owned (previous to January 1, 2014).

It’s is now February 1. I haven’t bought a single book since before Christmas! I have a few stories I want to download on my Kindle app, and I might order Ransom Riggs’ Hollow City today, but I’m also in the middle of reading four books right now, so I’m not in any real hurry. That part of my resolution was successful, as was my vow to read at least one book I already owned.

I also read 13 books, which puts my far ahead of my goal to read 60 books this year, and I’m halfway through another one that I expect to finish today.

Here’s the roundup for January:

Books I owned previous to Jan. 1:

1) Chronicles of Avonlea, by L. M. Montgomery. I thought I’d read this already, I but I think I actually just read the first story because I remembered none of the rest of the stories. The Anne of Green Gables series are some of my favorite books ever, and I like this glimpse into other aspects of Avonlea and the surrounding communities. Montgomery is quaint and faithful and descriptive, and her writing is a refreshing change of pace from the stuff I usually read.

2) August: Osage County, by Tracy Letts. A PulitzerPrize-winning play that has been adapted to a film starring, among others, Benedict Cumberbatch. My friend John read this book a long time ago and has been raving about it. He gave me a copy about a year ago and has been pestering me to read it. I finally did, and man, is it good and crazy. The play focuses on a family brought together by a death. They’re all dysfunctional, but it’s funny and tragic at the same time.

3) The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Douglas Adams. The second book in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy that isn’t actually a trilogy. Funny and quirky and smart and delightful.

4) Dial H Volume 1, China Mieville. I own the entire series (which is only 15 issues), but I had not kept up with reading them. Now that the series has concluded, I read the first volume of collected issues. Mieville’s writing is strange and unique, and I love it, but I also recognize that his writing style is not for everyone. I hate that the series was canceled by DC, but I don’t think it was as successful as they’d hoped it would be. Still, I highly recommend this. It’s funny and weird and smart. 

5) The Umbrella Academy in Apocalypse Suite, Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba. This six-issue series is delightful. It’s the story of seven children (most of whom have special abilities) who were adopted and raised as a dysfunctional group of superheroes. When they are older and their father dies, they reunited for the first time in years, with (naturally) disastrous results. I absolutely love Gabriel Ba’s artwork, and Way’s story is unique and wonderful.

Library books:

1) The Name of the Star, Maureen Johnson: The first in a series about ghost hunters in modern-day London. An American girl named Rory moves to England to attend a boarding school and gets involved in a mystery involving a contemporary Jack the Ripper. The book blends a little bit of Victorian London into the modern-day city, and I like Rory’s tenacity. This is different than anything else I’ve read by Maureen Johnson, and I’m eager to read the sequel!

2) Zone One, Colson Whitehead: literary fiction/zombie novel. I wished it could have been better. Here’s my review on Goodreads.

3) Just One Year, Gayle Forman. A companion novel to a book I read last year. Features world travel and Shakespearian plays and fate and romance. A nice, light read.

4) The Madness Underneath, Maureen Johnson. The sequel to The Name of the Star featured a plot twist at the end that broke my heart. And now I have to wait who knows how long for another book to be published. Again, this is why I should always wait until a series is finished to read the books. Will I ever learn?!?

5) Eleanor & Park, Rainbow Rowell. What can I say about this book that hasn’t already been said? Trust me, it lives up to the hype!

6) Bimbos of the Death Sun, Sharyn McCrumb. My friend Shea (who used to be referred to as “my thesis advisor”) recommended this. McCrumb is an Appalachian writer, and this book is a fun, quirky novel about a murder at a sci-fi convention. It took me a few chapters to get involved, but once I finally did, I had a great time picking out the geek references and trying to figure out which sci-fi nerd actually did the deed. I’ll be reading the sequel, called Zombies of the Gene Pool, soon!

Other books:

1) I finished The Knife of Never Letting Go for the fifth time and still found myself tearing up (though not full-out crying) during the final chapters. This is such a beautiful, wonderful book, and I don’t know how many more years it will take until everyone I know reads it.

2) Insurgent, Veronica Roth! FINALLY! I borrowed it from a friend and read it quickly, of course. I found Tris to be a bit annoying at times because I hated the choices she was making, but I also felt like the ending redeemed much of that. I’ve read some reviews that people thought the ending was too predictable, and it’s true that I did figure out what was going on earlier. However, even books with “predictable” endings can be well-written because it’s often more about how the writer gets to that ending rather than what’s there when we arrive. I have Allegiant in my stack of books to read, but first I want to read the short stories about Tobias that Roth has published and then I’ll finish out the series.

2014 Book Challenge

Let’s begin with a story.

Two weeks ago, I was enjoying a day off. I went to my favorite used book store in Greenville, Mr. K’s, looking specifically for a book for a white elephant gift exchange. In the process, I shopped for myself. I first found a paperback copy of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. I love Neil Gaiman, and though I read this book last year, I don’t own a copy; I’d borrowed it from a friend. For $4, I should own this book, right? Of course. 

Next, I headed down the road to 2nd & Charles, which used to be Books-A-Million and now sells used books, DVDs, comics, and all sorts of other goodies. It is, indeed, a delightful place to wander around, and one of my students works there, so I dropped by for a visit. While there, I found a used copy of To Kill a Mockingbird. I own a copy–somewhere–but I’m teaching it for the first time this semester and decided I needed a copy to write notes in. I kept walking and discovered a true treat: a hardcover, used copy of The Knife of Never Letting Go, my favorite book of all-time. I bought it. This is now the fourth copy of this book I have purchased. The first (paperback) I lent to a friend and never got back. The second (paperback) I purchased when I began to write my thesis; inside are all my notes and underlinings, and that marginalia is indeed a treasure. I also own the Kindle version of the book, which I’m currently re-reading (for the fifth time). And now I own the hardcover, which matches the second and third books in the trilogy and looks lovely on my shelf.

When I arrived home, there was a box from Barnes & Noble waiting on me. Inside was a copy of When She Woke, an incredible feminist-dystopian retelling of The Scarlet Letter, which I read last year (checked out from the library). That book had been on sale on B&N’s website. Also, I bought the special edition version of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, one of the greatest young adult novels ever written. Yes, I already own a copy–hardcover, autographed, part of the special edition boxed set released last year. But this cover is silver instead of blue! And is a special edition!

Let’s recap. In a few hours, I acquired five books, all of which I’d previously read. Three of them were at least the second copy (or, in the case of Knife, the fourth) that I’d purchased.

I made a decision that day. I won’t buy any more books during the month of January 2014. I’m limiting myself to a month just as a trial period. If it’s working well, I’ll keep going. I have a feeling, though, that on February 1, I’ll rush to Mr. K’s and buy an armful of books.

Books are, by far, my most valued possessions. And I own SO MANY of them. One bookcase in my room stopped being enough long ago. I have stacks in front of the case, bags and boxes beneath the bed, two bookcases in my office, and half a 10×10 storage unit full of books. Not to mention the boxes still in storage at my parents’ house. I can always validate buying a book (especially since I primarily buy used, both online and in stores). But as a professor, I have so little time to read, with the exception of breaks, that I could not possibly read every book I own if I keep buying as many as I do. So many books are sitting un-read while I keep buying multiple copies of books.

I’m going to a few bookstores this afternoon to prepare myself for my month-long (at least) hiatus. My goal for January and the rest of 2014 is to read the books I own first, or to borrow from friends or the library. Buying books is a wonderful thing, and something I enjoy very much. I work very hard to support my local used book store (as well as BetterWorldBooks.com!), but it’s time to spend time with the books I already own.

My official book challenge for 2014:

1) Don’t buy any new books (new, used, Kindle) during the month of January.

2) Each month throughout 2014, read at least one book that I own but have not yet read. This does not include previously unread books I check out from the library, books borrowed from friends, or books that I own but have already read. I’ll try to post a blog each month on my progress and new reads.

Let’s see how this works! Happy New Year! And happy reading!

His Love is Light, and His Gospel is Peace

Today is November 15. The temperature has been chilly, with biting winds throughout most of the week. One radio station in town has already begun playing Christmas music non-stop. All the stores are hawking Christmas decorations and perfect gifts and useless boxes of crackers and cookies that no one wants to eat.

Christmas is bittersweet. Like most children, I relished the holiday. I sang Christmas carols loudly and off-key. I baked a plethora of goodies with my grandmother, pressing the fork to make perfect cross-hatches on the cheese straws and measuring the pecans for dozens of pies. I made sure my grandmother and mother did not decorate their trees on the same days so that I could helps with both. I insisted we drive around to all the best houses to see Christmas light displays.

Christmas lost the magic for me as an adult. Again, I’m sure that’s not an uncommon occurrence. My beloved Mama Kat passed away just before Christmas three years ago; more than anything, Christmas since then has represented fleeting memories and the knowledge that life must inevitably progress without those we love. Her birthday is November 19, just a few days from now, which will then lead into Thanksgiving, her favorite holiday. This season contains far too many reminders.

It’s also the most difficult time of the year to be single. So many parties and family gatherings to attend alone. And the close of a year and the start of a new, wondering when hopes and dreams will come to fruition.

I’ve already begun ripping off the metaphorical bandages. I’ve begun planning my Christmas gift-giving. I’m listening to my favorite Christmas music on my iPod. I’m occasionally fighting back tears in home decor stores because Bing Crosby starts playing over the speakers, and boy, did my grandmother love White Christmas.

I’m also reminding myself to look for hope in unexpected places. To find glimpses of the Kingdom in a fallen world. To celebrate the knowledge that our world is full of brokenness and pain, but that our hope is in Someone greater. Christmas, after all, is the intersection of brokenness and redemption, when heaven and earth collided, when the Word was made flesh to dwell among us. I miss my grandmother while acknowledging that she and I will worship together again one day. I feel flashes of loneliness with the assurance that God is protecting my heart for a future purpose that I can’t yet comprehend. I will celebrate with the people I love, knowing that the way I love my family and friends is a reflection of a Love far greater than what I am capable of.

Maybe I’m ready for Christmas after all.

The Counselor

I accidentally went to see The Counselor last night. My friend Erica and I had dinner and went to a bonfire at the university where we work, but it was really cold last night, and we decided to see a movie. Erica read a one-sentence summary and told me Michael Fassbender was in it (which was really all I needed to be convinced).

Somehow, I failed to remember until the opening credits rolled that The Counselor is the film for which Cormac McCarthy wrote the script. (The Daily Beast posted a great explanation of why it’s important that McCarthy wrote the script and that it was successfully made into a film.)

Cormac McCarthy is a brilliant contemporary American writer. The Road is one of the best post-apocalyptic books of all time, and one of my favorite pieces of contemporary fiction. After reading that novel in 2009, I picked up Blood Meridian, a friend having told me that it was McCarthy’s best work. I finally abandoned that novel halfway in because I actually couldn’t handle the gritty, violent bleakness of the book. The Counselor very effectively captured McCarthy’s narrative style, which worked sometimes and failed at others.

To summarize the film, Michael Fassbender plays the Counselor, an unnamed lawyer who gets involved in drug trafficking. The film moves between El Paso, where the Counselor lives with his fiance and where Brad Pitt drinks in bars and holds meetings with the Counslor, and Juarez, Mexico, where Javier Bardem and Cameron Diaz’s characters are primarily based. There are brief forays into London, Amsterdam, Chicago, and Boise, which reveal the widespread operation of the drug traffickers. The Counselor joins the trafficking operation, but things quickly fall apart when the son of one of the Counselor’s clients is killed. Those involved in the operation attempt to run, mostly unsuccessfully. The film closes with one man facing the graphic, horrifying results of the choices he made, understanding that his greed (and the others’, though that isn’t necessarily made clear) led to unbearably tragic consequences.

There are some aspects of the film that worked really well. Ridley Scott directed, and the film was a fantastic visual representation of McCarthy’s prose; vast landscapes of both the city and the desert, combined with shots of a man driving a motorcycle at 200 mph and cheetahs chasing jackrabbits, immediately foreshadow how the film’s plot will play out. These people are driven by greed, by a futile search for wealth, by a desire to hunt and vanquish anyone who gets in their way. They are intensely selfish and engaged in a lifestyle that the Counselor really can’t fathom.

Where the film doesn’t quite work well lies with McCarthy’s writing, I think. His prose is sparse. In The Road, for example, he has virtually no organization pattern: no chapters, no quotation marks or attribution phrases to indicate dialogue or speaker. This works really well for his stories, though. When style can combine with content to reveal desperation and desolation, writing can be more powerful. An author can leave out major plot elements (like what caused the apocalypse) and trust the reader either to fill in the gaps or to recognize that those plot elements never mattered to begin with. The blending of form and content can propel the story, add suspense, and keep the reader engaged, constantly looking for clues as to what’s really happening. 

That doesn’t work as well in film, though. The first 3/4 of the movie left me confused but interested (and, frequently, disturbed) as I tried to piece together the story–how did all these people connect, what specific role does each play, why are they all so messed up, who are these random people who are clearly antagonists? But none of that really gets explained. The subtlety of the story doesn’t always give the reader enough to work with. (It does provide some weird and disturbing sex scenes that I wish I could remove from my memory.)

And then the last part of the film involves a lot of conversations on phones, and the film beats the reader over the head with METAPHORS and DEEP (or perhaps empty) PHILOSOPHICAL CONCEPTS and THIS IS WHAT YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO UNDERSTAND. Oh, so those cheetahs were supposed to be metaphors for Cameron Diaz’s characters; somehow I missed that EVEN THOUGH she has cheetah prints tattooed on her body (I didn’t miss that; note the sarcasm). I was rolling my eyes at the point when Fassbender is on the phone with some guy, who tells him about all the different kinds of worlds there are and why he can’t live in one world when he’s entered another and THESE ARE THE CHOICES YOU’VE MADE and IT’S HOPELESS and SUCK IT UP, COUNSELOR. The film shifts from very subtly showing to over-the-top telling, then to a suckerpunch of a conclusion (not unexpected, just really, really bleak). I wish we could have worked more toward a middle ground: slightly less subtlety in the beginning and slightly less preaching at the end.

Books and films are different mediums. Both are vital, but they can’t be treated the same way. In books, the writer only has his or her words; subtle descriptions can blend with narration to craft the story. But trying to blend subtlety with too much exposition in the dialogue is frustrating.

Yes, the film is visually artistic. It is visceral and bleak and violent (though not the most violent thing McCarthy could have written, so there’s that). Fassbender and Bardem are fascinating to watch, as usual. And it left me feeling hopeless at the end. I wish I’d been more prepared for the film, but I don’t actually regret watching (most of) it. I’ll never see it again, and there are very few people I would recommend this film to. I’m impressed that McCarthy managed to get an original screenplay produced, but I think he should focus on novel writing and let other screenwriters adapt his work instead.

More Than This

Ask me what my favorite book is, and I’ll pause because, for some reason, my FAVORITE BOOK OF ALL TIME isn’t all that popular in the United States. Patrick Ness’ The Knife of Never Letting Go should be the most famous dystopian young adult novel of all time. It’s far better written, way more thought-provoking, and definitely more relevant than The Hunger Games (which I liked a lot, so no offense there). It inspired me to write my M.A. thesis (I even borrowed a quote for the title of my thesis), and it gets better every time I read it (four times now). Ness’ follow-up young adult novel, called A Monster Calls, was beautiful and haunting and award-winning and NOTHING like his Chaos Walking trilogy. Ness is brilliant. He is versatile. And he breaks my heart every flipping time.

I’ve finally finished his newest book More Than This.

* * *

More-Than-This-Patrick-Ness-628x1024“‘People see stories everywhere,’ Regine says. ‘That’s what my father used to say. We take random events and we put them together in a pattern so we can comfort ourselves with a story, no matter how much it obviously isn’t true.’ She glances back at Seth. ‘We have to lie to ourselves to live. Otherwise, we’d go crazy.'”

* * *

More Than This was released last month, and I’ve been reading it for the better part of a month, only because it’s impossible to read when one is a writing teacher, not because the book wasn’t utterly engrossing.

The book begins hauntingly: “Here is the boy, drowning.” No pretense. Seth dies before we’ve even reached the official first chapter. Seth, our protagonist, wakes up in a desolate wasteland in the town in England where he lived as a child. He is alone, naked, and covered in metallic bandages. The head injury the he sustained before drowning seems to have no bearing on this reality in which he exists now. And he’s got to figure out what’s going on.

He thinks he’s in hell, that this is the afterlife: alone, transported to a place where his life was utterly different. He believes he has to pay penance for the choices he made as both a child and a teenager. Then, he meets Regine, a large, sassy, black girl, and Tomasz, an intelligent, sweet, brave Polish boy. And his understanding–as well as our understanding–of reality completely shifts.

I can’t really say anything more than that. This book is a whole lot of things that have to be experienced on one’s own. It’s terrifying; I wouldn’t let myself read when I was home alone at night. I seriously tried to read as much as possible during daylight hours. This book is unnerving, constantly challenging my expectations of where the story was heading. This books is confrontational, as if it and I were in constant conversation; it kept subverting my understanding of the story and throwing ideas and philosophies in my face. If this book were a person, it and I would have some spectacular verbal fights. And maybe throw a few fists, too. And we would respect each other for our differences.

Terrifying, unnerving, and confrontational are good qualities for this story to have. It’s an existential journey through a desperate world; the characters and the readers will both question reality and push against the constraints of what is and ought to be. It’s a story about people who face a desolate future and know that there has to be more than this; they are the few who get the chance to find out what this is or might be, and they fight to find the truth and to discover what really matters.

That being said, the ending made me angry. I closed the book, closed my eyes, and said audibly, “What are you doing to me, Patrick Ness?” This book affected me differently than all his other books. I wanted a different ending; I wanted confirmation, closure, but the book wouldn’t give that to me. I don’t think the book is capable of giving that to me; everything contained within the story led to this conclusion. I just didn’t want to accept it.

Ugh, this is so vague. I can’t give you any more than this, though. (Did you see what I did there?) This book was fantastic, and Ness is still the genius I always thought him to be. When I read Ness’ books, I have to suspend my expectations, put my trust in his storytelling abilities, and hold on for the ride. It’s worth it every time, for the way he makes me perceive the world in which I live, for the way he makes me hope for better things in the face of adversity, for the way he makes me want to fight oppression and negativity. For the way I get absorbed in a story that engages my mind and my heart. For the way I want to yell at him for what he does to the story and then hug him for making my life better.

Patrick Ness is amazing. I have so much respect for him. And I’m doing my level best to convince everyone I know to read his stuff. Get to it, people!