Sunday, November 29, 2009

Advent. Compassion. Or, and they will call him Immanuel.

The day the clocks spring forward and the days begin to grow longer, I rejoice.  My ankle length down coat can be packed away and I am free to revel in the spring, summer and fall.  Falling back, however, is not as easy.  I watch the sun sink behind Brooklyn at 4:30.  I have to wear coats and layers and put away my flip flops.  Curses.  I realized that when daylight savings ends, I begin to wait.  For five long, cold, bundled months.  I am not good at it.

Then I remembered today is the first Sunday of Advent, the season of waiting.   One of the best books I read this year that I did not post about was Compassion by Henri Nouwen.  Since I was thinking about it yesterday, I thought I would pick it back up and see what I underlined and it completely changed how I want to be spending the next four weeks of this season:

The virgin shall conceive and give birth to a son and they will call him Immanuel, which means God-is-with-us. Matthew 1:23  "By calling God Immanuel, we recognize God's commitment to live in solidarity with us, to share our joys and pains, to defend and protect us, and to suffer all of life with us."  Nouwen goes on to describe what the definition of compassion means to him: "It is not a bending toward the underprivileged from a privileged position; it is not a reaching out from on high to those who are less fortunate below; it is not a gesture of sympathy or pity for those who fail to make it in the upward pull.  On the contrary, compassion means going directly to those people and places where suffering is most acute and building a home there."

Now I'm trying to figure out how all of these threads fit together, other than the word and thought association led me from one to the next.  I think it is this: I struggle so much with all that is a mess in the world.  I am constantly waiting to see things change.  But, I do not have to despair.  For this liturgical season of waiting, I want to be filled with this kind of compassion.  I want to remember that it is often in the waiting that we are most changed; that in the waiting is when our cup just might overflow.

Saturday, November 28, 2009


Walking into a bookstore is always dangerous for me. I will inevitably find at least five titles I want to read, curse myself for not being able to read faster and choose one that was a serendipitous that I must read, even though the stack of unread books in my apartment is way too high. All that to say (and I fully realize that I am an over-sharer of background information in my story telling) I purchased a hard cover book for the first time maybe ever this fall, I forgot to post about it and it relates to what I had to say about The Age of Innocence. So.

Donald Miller's Blue Like Jazz was published the same year I moved to New York (2003) and came at a perfect time: his thoughts on the Christian faith seemed so refreshing and real, something I desperately needed as I left behind the comforts and sometimes small world setting of southwestern Ohio, despite my deep deep love for it. I hadn't read a book about faith since Henri Nouwen's Compassion last February and honestly didn't really have a desire to. But then I saw Miller's A Million Miles in a Thousand Years newly placed on a shelf, I bought it on impulse and read it in three days.

What drew me to it initially is the entire premise is structured around the concept of story: a character, a character who wants something, a characters who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it. Miller writes about what he learned after he started working with two men who wanted to turn Blue Like Jazz into a movie:

"In a pure story," Steve said like a professor, "there is purpose in every scene, in every line of dialogue. A movie is going somewhere."

"What Steve is trying to say," Ben spoke up, "is that your real life is boring."

It didn't occur to me at the time, but it's obvious now that in creating the fictional Don, I was creating the person I wanted to be, the person worth telling stories about. It never occured to me that I could re-create my own story, my real life story.

I think the reason I was not interested in reading books about faith is because I grew tired of reading books that inevitably added another to do list to my mental check-list: want peace? Here's how to attain it. Want to love people better? Try this out. Want to be a better person? Aye. The mere thought exhausted me and seemed the opposite of what a full life should be: checklists.

What I loved about Miller's book was first was his decision to not live in mediocrity and how he stepped into adventure and beauty. He decided to get up and chase the things that make life meaningful. But, second, he didn't do this out of naivete, thinking one adventure after another would make a great story. He knew heartbreak would most likely abound and struggle would ensue, but that option is so much better than merely watching other people's stories from the comfort of one's couch.

If only Newland Archer had realized this.

Monday, November 23, 2009


Halfway through The Age of Innocence, the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Edith Wharton that chronicles the life of Newland Archer and New York's upper class in the 1870s, I had categorized it solely with the other texts I have read and watched recently that revolve in one way or another around infidelity, which I have no patience for. It does, but among other things, like the shallow social society of old New York. But no matter. Inconsequential of the ending (which was a huge surprise to me), it addresses two of my biggest frustrations.

One, believing that the beauty and adventure is meant for someone else in a different place or time or circumstances:

"...we could sail at the end of April. I know I could arrange it at the office."
She smiled dreamily upon the possibility; but he perceived that to dream of it sufficed her. It was like hearing him read aloud out of his poetry books the beautiful things that could not possibly happen in real life.
"Oh, do go on, Newland; I do love your descriptions."
"But why should they be only descriptions? Why shouldn't we make them real?"

The beginning of winter weather is the best time, for me, to remember that a stagnant life is not really life at all. Admittedly, it is ridiculously easy for me to declare the weather as the number one justification for reading a book by my window and not venturing out. Ever. Well, until April, at least. The tea kettle is 30 yards away; what more could I need? But. I read passages like those and everything in me wants to scream at May to jump in the boat before it's too late.

Two, living in the safety of a life prescribed. Newland's society is filled with hypocrisy and nonsensical tradition. He senses this and understands its ridiculousness, yet very much struggles to live outside of it--of course, at a certain point in the book comes the complex moral struggle of duty and passion (a common theme is this year's texts, as I've noted) becomes the forefront of the plot:

"You gave me my first glimpse of a real life, and at the same moment you asked me to go on with a sham one. It's beyond human enduring--that's all."

I don't understand why people--and these stupid fictional characters (!)--don't choose the poetry and adventure *before* they have made commitments. Apparently, that is not the kind of drama that readers/viewers are looking for--not in 1920 when this book was published, and clearly not now. Curses. Anyway. Wharton describes what happens when one ultimately chooses the safe and the prescribed over all else:

"Outside it, in the scenes of his actual life, he moved with a growing sense of unreality and insufficiency, blundering against familiar prejudices and traditional points of view as an absent minded man goes on bumping into furniture in his own room. Absent--that was what he was."

Without the search for truth and beauty, poetry and adventure, one's reality fades into the imaginary--and the life one is living becomes increasingly incapable of sustaining life that is truly Life--for it is now only a shadow.

Absentia is a heartbreaking existence.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

I think I need a secret garden.

As much as I anticipate the glory of spring after the hated season, as much as I revel in late summer evenings, there is nothing that compares to the fall in my mind. Perhaps this is so because the house I grew up in was neighbors with three enormous, ancient maple trees and our backyard was yearly carpeted with the best piles to jump in EVER (which I'm sure my dad was not thrilled about...after all this is before his discovery of leaf blowers, snow blowers and electric pumpkins...ha...the good, old days). Maybe it was because my birthday was in the fall and for years we went to Hidden Valley Farm for hayrides and pumpkin picking. Maybe it was because I spent a fair amount of my childhood romping through the woods and the colors added a whole new element for my imagination.

This year's fall has been rainy nearly every weekend. My perfect fall moments have become few and far between and my midwestern heart is not quite sure what to do with the lack of romping through the leaves this year. Even though its been at Prospect, Central or Riverside Park the past seven falls, there is still plenty of space for proper frolicking.

I just finished rereading The Secret Garden and, not surprisingly, found myself longing for countryside. Mary and Colin start off the book as spoiled, selfish and neglected children who are ultimately healed emotionally and physically by spending time inside a garden untouched by adults and expectations, being changed by its magic.

As I read, everything inside of me wanted to run off to the woods and just be. Or be driving down the rural part of State Route 73 in southwest Ohio. Or laying in a pile of leaves in my backyard. Stuck in a long, frozen moment of crisp fall air and open spaces. I realized that I count on the fall to renew my spirit before the winter begins and in between the rain and the craziness of the first quarter at school, it just hasn't happened this year. This is not ok. So. Since there isn't a cloud in the sky today and since the high is 68, I am off.