Ash-Wednesday

eliotToday, on this first day of Lent, Ash Wednesday, it seems only appropriate to reflect on the words of my favorite poet, T.S. Eliot. The marvelous, genius, insightful Mr. Eliot is a beautiful reminder that God can take someone broken and searching and use him for His glory. As much as I love Eliot’s pre-conversion poetry (such as The Waste-Land and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”), his post-conversion poetry is a beautiful testament to His faith in Christ and his belief that literature can be the purest form of art. His poem “Ash-Wednesday,” published in 1930, may be the best example I know of these beliefs. It’s often difficult to understand and obtuse, but packed full of Truth. Eliot struggled with moving from utter faithlessness to salvation, and that tension and struggle is beautifully memorialized in this poem. You can read the entire poem at the link above [or find a delightful collection of his complete works and spend an afternoon with Mr. Eliot :)]. But I shall henceforth include my favorite excerpts from “Ash-Wednesday.”

From part 1:

“Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice
And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And I pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain”

From part 2:

“Let the whiteness of bones atone to forgetfulness.
There is no life in them. As I am forgotten
And would be forgotten, so I would forget
Thus devoted, concentrated in purpose. And God said
Prophesy to the wind, to the wind only for only
The wind will listen.”

From part 5 (perhaps my favorite verse in all of literature):

“If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.”

From part 6, the concluding lines of the poem:

“Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto Thee.”

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Learning How to Die

Disclaimer: This blog may be a sort of eruption of everything in my head. Hopefully, it’ll all make sense in the end.

Lent begins on Wednesday. I’ve never participated in Lent before because no church I’ve ever been a part of has encouraged it. I’m not even sure I knew what Lent was until maybe middle school. That changes this week, with Ash Wednesday fast approaching.

At church, we’ve been working through the book of Galatians. We’ve been talking about grace and peace–how we can do nothing to earn grace, and how striving for grace cheapens it. How peace comes when we accept grace with no strings attached. It’s obviously been on my mind a lot–I’ve been constantly reminded of grace in unexpected ways. I’ve found peace even when I’m exhausted and stressed out. (This is such a watered-down summary of all I’ve been thinking about that it doesn’t even seem to be scratching the surface.)

In conjunction with that, I’ve been a part of a community at North Greenville with people who are quickly becoming my family, people I genuinely love and care for. It’s been incredible. And we’ve all been working through the book of John, where over and over again, I am reminded of how vast Jesus is. The past few days, I’ve been reading through chapters 11 through 15, and over and over again, I’ve seen the theme of how everything–Lazarus’ death, Judas’ impending betrayal, the story of the vine and the branches–everything points back to God’s glory. Everything happens because God will be glorified.

All of these ideas combining in my head have made for an interesting few weeks. And I feel like it’s about to get even more interesting…and difficult. See, at church Sunday night, Stuart (our pastor) encouraged us all to participate in Lent, communally, if possible. He encouraged us all to die to ourselves in every way that we can, to get rid of any sin that’s separating us from God–from his peace, from his glory. To leap off the cliff and follow Jesus in every way that we can.

Yikes. Scary. Difficult. Invigorating. Enthralling.

So after meeting with my community tonight and spending some time wrestling over how we can die to ourselves, I’ve made a few decisions. First, the easy thing. I can’t exactly fast in the traditional sense of the word (because of the diabetes and all). But I can certainly give up something that has become my crutch: caffeine. Starting Wednesday, no more Coke Zero, no more real coffee, no more tea from the NGU caf. Be prepared. 🙂

But more importantly, can I die to myself emotionally? Can I fully turn over my heart and my mind to Christ? Can I learn to overcome my impatience? Can I hand over the desires of my heart and fully trust that God has a greater plan in mind? It will require constant vigilance, an unceasing awareness of moments when I attempt to wrestle control away from God. Intentionally letting God pervade my thoughts instead of all the crap I tend to get focused on. Choosing to rely on Him instead of my own imperfect plans. And doing it all unselfishly because I want to glorify my Father and not have pride in myself.

I can already feel that the last part may be the most challenging. (To be honest, even writing this seems a bit prideful–as though I want you all to know how self-sacrificing I can be. But that’s not my intention at all.) But if I love Jesus, then I’ll want to follow his Word, right? And if He promises that whoever loses his life will gain it, what do I have to lose?

Here’s the cliff. I think I’m about to start free falling.

Grace and peace.

Fire is bright and fire is clean.

Last night, I thought about all the kerosene I’ve used in the last ten years. And I thought about books. And for the first time I realized that a man was behind each one of the books. A man had to think them up. A man had to take a long time to put them down on paper. [ . . . ] It took some man a lifetime maybe to put some of his thoughts down, looking around at the world and life and then I come along in two minutes and boom! it’s all over.

~Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

I had a fantastic discussion with one of our work-study students this week about books. One of those discussions where I lose track of time, and suddenly, forty-five minutes has gone by and we’re still talking. I mentioned The Book Thief to her, and she in turn asked if I’d read Fahrenheit 451. She was shocked to discover that I hadn’t, and I checked it out that afternoon. I finished it this morning.

The book is quite good. Very 1950s, but that’s okay. At some moments, I had to suspend my disbelief and remind myself of when the book was written. Some of the ideas seem farfetched from my 21st century perspective, but Ray Bradbury was revolutionary decades ago (much like Richard Matheson with I Am Legend).

Imagine a world where books are essentially banned. Imagine firemen who set fires to burn books instead of putting them out. Imagine a woman dying rather than parting with her beloved books. Imagine the great works of literature existing only in the minds of a few scholars who are on the run, who realize that knowledge is both sacred and dangerous and has the power to restore humanity to an eroded civilization.

Ray Bradbury created a world like that. And the result is powerful and poignant. It made me want to read even more and soak up every ounce of knowledge I can.

Three Things

1. I’ll begin with the most unpleasant. I’m reading Gertrude Stein’s Three lgsteinLives & Tender Buttons for my 20th Century American Fiction class. I HATE GERTRUDE STEIN! There…had to get that out once more. Why? you may ask (but only if you’ve never read her…). Well, let me tell you:

a) All telling, no showing. Dry and boring narrative. Ugh. Tedious to read.

b) Overuse of direct address. Seriously, in one paragraph, less than a page long (in a mass market paperback-sized book), one character used another character’s name 17 times. Two or  three times, Jeff began a sentence and ended a sentence with Melanctha’s name, and threw it in the middle for good measure. I’m sick of reading her name!

c) Overuse of adjectives. The most notorious example involved 8 adjectives before finally getting  to the main noun, “summer.” Completely unnecessary.

And I still think she looks like a man. Wouldn’t you agree? That, of course, has nothing to do with her writing. I just wanted to throw it out there. I’m very glad to be nearly finished with this dreadful piece of work. Can we hurry along to Faulkner, please?

2. Moving on to better things. Jess, Ticcoa, and I watched Into the Wild on Saturday. It’s as heartbreaking and haunting as the book. And Emile Hirsch did a fantastic job playing Chris McCandless. I’m eager to see more films that he’s been in.

3. Good news on a Monday morning! Word has officially made its way down the hill that all non-critical areas of campus (i.e., the library) will be closed for the entirety of spring break! Usually, we get Monday off, and our boss lets us work half-days the rest. But this year, we get the entire week! I’ll still have class on Monday and Wednesday, but to not have to work will be incredible. Ticcoa remarked this morning about all the day-trips we can make if we’re all free! Hmmm…Flannery O’Connor’s home in Georgia. Thomas Wolf in Hendersonville and Asheville, perhaps. Joel Chandler Harris’ home. The Blue Ridge Parkway? More scenic mountain overlooks? Let’s also throw in my sometimes-roommate, Jessie, who might be in town that week, as well. It will be so exciting!

Happy Monday, everyone!

Into the Wild

into_the_wild“In April 1992, a young man from a well-to-do East Coast family hitchhiked to Alaska and walked alone into the wilderness north of Mt. McKinley. Four months later, his decomposed body was found by a party of moose hunters.”

–from author’s note, Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer

* * *

“If this adventure proves fatal and you don’t ever hear from me again, I want you to know you’re a great man. I now walk into the wild.”

–one of Christopher McCandless’ last postcards, sent from Fairbanks, AK, to his friend Wayne in South Dakota, April 1992

* * *

I first heard of this book several years ago, and the story has intrigued me immensely. I finally got my hands on a copy of the book a few months ago, and on a whim this morning, I grabbed it to take with me to the writing center, knowing that I had five hours of work and would not want to be bothered with Gertrude Stein for the whole of those hours. Little did I know I wouldn’t be able to put it down. I made it through half the book before leaving work and finished it just half an hour ago. Since then, I’ve been researching the story online, and I decided it was time for yet another book review (after all, it’s only been a day since the last one).

Jon Krakauer first got involved with the story when he wrote an article for the January 1993 issue of Outside magazine. After the response to his article, he decided to develop the story and history of Christopher McCandless into a book. The result is an astonishing story that reveals so much of the life of McCandless that I almost feel as though Krakauer must have somehow channeled the young man’s spirit, resulting in a posthumously written memoir. Krakauer conducted in-depth research with everyone who knew McCandless during the last two years of his life–from the moment he graduated from Emory University in 1990 to the moment his body was found in September 1992.

chris_mccandless

a self-portrait from a roll of film found with McCandless’ body; this bus is where he lived most of the four months in the Alaska wilderness and where his body was found

Inspired by such epic writers as Jack London, Leo Tolstoy, and Henry David Thoreau, Chris McCandless is an other that I can’t pretend to fully understand. He was anti-government (inspired by Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience”); adept at making money, but loathsome of the concept at the same time; and far braver and more courageous than I could ever attempt to be. I, in no way, romanticize his life and death, as some have accused Krakauer of doing; instead, I see that he made utterly stupid decisions at times (those decisions and his ignorance of the Alaska terrain ultimately lead to his demise), but he also embraced life fully and did exactly what he thought was right. I have to admire that kind of mindset, although I could never live that way.

In short, Christopher McCandless is a man that I wish I could have met just once and had coffee and a steak with somewhere out west. Instead, I find myself inspired and enlightened by the story of his life and death. I’m not setting off for the Alaska wilderness with a copy of Walden and a ten-pound bag of rice. But now I understand, at least a little more, what it must be like to have that desire and to try immensely to fulfill it.

Also, I’m terribly interested in seeing the film, starring Emile Hirsch and (sadly) Kristen Stewart. I leave you with the trailer for the film, which seems to, in some way, at least, embody the character of Chris McCandless:

Of book thieves and word shakers.

book-thief2“I wanted to tell the book thief many things, about beauty and brutality. But what could I tell her about those thing that she didn’t already know? I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race–that rarely do I ever simply estimate it. I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant.”

* * *

I’ve been sick the last few days, confined to my bedroom and coughing incessantly. In between long, Benadryl-induced comas and cups of tea to soothe my aching throat, I’ve discovered that one good thing about being forced to drop out of life for a few days is that I’ve found plenty of time to read. And since I was sick, I decided that I shouldn’t force myself to read anything terribly “important” (i.e., my Ed. Psych. book or Gertrude Stein for my lit. class). So I very deliberately let myself get absorbed in The Book Thief, and I’m so very glad.

The book is astonishing. It’s about a young German girl named Liesel, and the narrative takes place over the course of about six years during World War II. The point-of-view, however, is the most spectacular part about this book–it’s told from Death’s perspective. Every description, every musing, all of it, is told by Death. We see Liesel’s life through his eyes, as he moves in and around her life. Since it’s during the war, he’s really very busy, but his encounters with Liesel cause him to stop and take notice of her life.

Death’s view of humanity is startling. As I was reading, some passages caused me to stop and stare at the pages, thinking, “Oh, my gosh, he’s right. We are like that.” Other moments, the descriptions of Liesel and her love for those in her life–her foster parents; her best friend, Rudy; and Max, the young Jewish man her family hid in the basement–brought tears to my eyes.

This book is one that anyone who appreciates beauty, truth, and love should read. It’s made the short list of my absolute favorites–Books that Rocked My World. It’s brilliant and beautiful and moving and astounding–all the things that any great book should be.

The green comes from the frozen ground…

Last night, some friends and I went to Easley to see the play Foxfire. This post is not about that. (The play is good, though, and you should see it if you get the chance.)

At some point in the car, this kid Andrew (whom I just met last night) said the word “forever” but, as usually with fans of the film, imitated the kid from the movie The Sandlot, which led us to briefly discussing the movie. I mentioned that I own it because I’d found it for $5 at Wal-Mart, which was one of the best days of my life. (I’m prone to drama and exagerration, in case you are unaware.) Harvin, my beloved roommate and BFF, made some remark along the lines of “You have about 500 ‘best days of your life.'”

Hmmm…do I? It’s a comment that I make relatively often, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I have a lot of really good days. So I started thinking about that. If I were to make a list of “best days of my life,” what would that look like?

You probably guessed it. I started the list. And I’ve decided to include it here, in chronological order. Not surprisingly, most of these are relatively recent (the farthest back is almost 5 years), but I’m sure if I thought harder, I would be able to come up with many, many more. Here are my favorites from the list that I spent just a few minutes making this afternoon.

May 4, 2004: My last day of exams of my freshman year of college and the first day of summer break. My then-roommate Adrienne’s birthday. But, most importantly, the day I bought Switchfoot’s The Beautiful Letdown. My life has not been the same since. 🙂

October 14, 2006: I spent the day riding roller coasters for the first time at Carowinds (which we had free tickets for). Epic.

March 18, 2007: That morning, I got my first phone call (2 minutes!) from my brother Berry, who was at basic training at Fort Benning, GA. That night, I went to my first Switchfoot concert. Euphoria all day.

May 23, 2007: Family Day at Fort Benning. I got to spend the entire day with my brother, whom I hadn’t seen in over two months. He’s my favorite person ever.

July 5, 2007: Harvin and I took a road trip to Beaufort and Hunting Island, where I climbed my first lighthouse. Traveling with my BFF is always a best day.

July 20/21, 2007: I spent the afternoon/early evening finishing Rilla of Ingleside, the last book in the Anne of Green Gables series. It was my first time reading through the entire series. Harvin and I went to a late dinner at P.F. Chang’s (delicious!) then went to Barnes & Noble for my first-ever book release party: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. We drank copious amounts of caffeinated beverages and hung out in the store until ridiculously late. Then, once we got home around 2 a.m., I read for a few hours, slept a few hours, and then spent the rest of the day reading, finally finishing around 6 p.m. To finish 2 beloved book series in less than 24 hours was epic.

November 3, 2007: Harvin and I spent the morning browsing at a craft fair in Greer. That evening, I went to my second Switchfoot concert at the Bi-Lo Center, after which we hung around and met Jon Foreman. I was speechless for the first time in my life. I cried a little. It was beautiful.

March 4, 2008: I took a road trip by myself to Savannah. I hung out at Fort Pulaski, a national monument where there’s a lighthouse on the grounds. Then I drove a few miles to Tybee Island and saw that lighthouse. Two in one day, on a solitary adventure? It was fantastic.

March 16, 2008: The day after my friend Laura got married (at which she told me she and her husband would be living in TR, and was I sure I wanted to leave Greenville?), I had a discussion with my parents. I decided, in a matter of just a few hours, that I would stay in Greenville, keep working at NGU, and apply to Converse to get my M.A.T. Not once have I regretted that decision.

April 28, 2008: Civil Twilight opened for Switchfoot at the Orange Peel in Asheville. Best concert ever.

May 2, 2008: My first trip to Connemara (Carl Sandburg’s home), the day after Harvin and Nikki graduated. Tina, Becky, and Ticcoa also went. This is probably the day I first realized how much I love living in the mountains.

June 10, 2008: My 23rd birthday. I went to dinner with friends, and then we hung out at the Silver Chair. It was also the day that Jon Foreman’s “Summer” EP was released (and I finally downloaded “Spring”). New music on my birthday? Perfect!

October 4, 2008: Harvin and I joined the Leisters in a trip to Connemara and Chimney Rock. It served as an initiation for my new car. And we had a great time, of course.

December 21, 2008: I stayed awake until 5 a.m. because I was having a really great, important conversation. A very good night.

December 23, 2008: On my way home for Christmas, I took my time and did some exploring. I marked two things off My List of Things to Do Before I Die. Before leaving town, I picked up my Christmas gift from Jessie: a poster-sized photo of Steven McKellar, the lead singer of Civil Twilight. Best present ever. And a beautiful day, all in all.

January 1, 2009: I started the new year off with some best friends and a heavy dose of spontaneity.

February 7, 2009: That’s today! I spent the morning with Harvin, Ticcoa, and Jess, planning our July trip to Boston. While I was there, Barnes & Noble played the entire Fiction Family album. The temperature was in the 60s, with plenty of sunshine and not a cloud in the sky. After I left B&N, I realized that I couldn’t stay inside. So I called Ticcoa, and she, Jess, and I went to Connemara, where we walked around the pond and then sat outside the house. I dug my toes into the grass and listened to Jon Foreman’s “Spring” EP. And the day was absolutely glorious and perfect. I can bear winter if God will ocassionally give me spring days like today in the midst.

Looking at this list (and the rest of them that I haven’t included), I can easily pick out a theme. Best days happens with music, traveling, and best friends.

Life is beautiful.