31 January 2006
I don't expect an angel.
Curious why you gave me this journey with this end in mind. Where each alter of surrender has been more demanding and each demand of my trust reaches deeper, there is a hand inside me tearing, tearing into the very fibre of my being, lowering me, lowering me.
I wanted to be lowly.
I thought I'd seen your face before; there's no forgetting it, the searing, searching gaze. What of the promises? Why is the struggle so new and unfamiliar? I thought I'd been here before and made this sacrifice already.
Why do you ask me to build another alter out of stones that I cannot lift?
30 January 2006
I had just proposed the subject of my crowning project as a literature major. At a meeting over lunch, I laid out all the books that I wanted to work with, the questions I wanted to ask, all about aesthetics and art in the church and truth and beauty. It sounded pretty good and high-flown and intellectual. It sounded plausible and interesting, at least coming out of my mouth. But when he asked me what I thought my thesis would become, I told him the truth, I voiced my intuition.
It's not very quantifiable. It's not very intellectual. Christian art has to do with the transformation of the artist. It has to do with worship. Standards have to do with the spiritual more than the actual, they are a matter of appetite and above all a matter of faith. God is multifaceted and the church is full of variety and there is no pattern to follow. If you want your art to be pure, it must be because you are filled with a discernment that is growing within you as part of your sanctification. This is not something you can deduce in a thesis paper. This is something you must do in your own art and can recognize the sense of in the art of others, but it is not something that you can really express without doing it.
“It seems that you can sense it and you can recognize it and you can begin to describe it. But the very nature of what you're saying demands action. Hannah, to live your thesis you have to actually do it.”
He is right, but I am at a loss. I am being pragmatic; I want to graduate and I don't have a story or a mentor to grade it. I have a thesis paper idea and an adviser for that—he signed my sheet, he said he'd oversee the essay, he understood the practical side of things, the mess that my odd little major has me in. I want to finish. I told him this, I told him how rudimentary my ability is, how little I know about writing at all, how I've only written a few stories since coming here and hated all of them, how hard it is to gouge out the truth that is so vivid in your mind, how stubbornly it curls and peels and takes a shape you don't even like when you try to paste it onto the page. I don't know the basics about writing fiction, even though that is what I want to do. I am much better at simply observing, comparing, quoting, relating, than actually doing.
He made me promise to try to find a mentor and undertake a sister-project. This project will be my young attempts to learn the anatomy of fiction. Character sketches. Props. And I feel so young and ignorant, here in my senior year. I had much clearer ideas about who I wanted to be back as a red-coated little freshman, striding around with my fake glasses and my flipped out hair and my ideas about becoming a presidential speech writer. The lines were so clear back then, the black and white so comforting, my goals so definable and concrete.
What is it to have a lot of dreams that are vague and undetermined? Things you can only recognize or feel the sense of but that you cannot describe? Things that you will only know when you're actually doing them?
I paid $14.95 to mail a dream across the country this Saturday—all my best essays enclosed in a vellum folio, with a freshly-printed cover letter, a short resume, backed by the promises of two letters of recommendation from the professors who have made me struggle the most to take hold of my ideals.
If I get this fellowship I'll live in Seattle for ten weeks this summer and spend a week at the Glen Workshop in Santa Fe studying songwriting under Over the Rhine, among other things. But even so, this is just a piece that I feel a sense of recognition about, a piece of a much larger dream that I am not even ready to talk about.
But our task now is to create a new man within ourselves. We must make our men of action into men of ideals and our poets into captains of industry. We must learn to live out our dreams--and to transform them into action. Previously, men gave up or lost their way, we must neither loose or way nor give up.
29 January 2006
(read this quotation aloud)
We see a great many things and can remember a great many things but that is different. We get very few of the true images in our heads of the kind I am talking about, the kind which become more and more vivid for us as if the passage of the years did not obscure their reality but, year by year, drew off another veil to expose a meaning which we had only dimly surmised at first. Very probably the last veil will not be removed, for there are not enough years, but the brightness of the image increases and our conviction increases that the brightness is meaning, or the legend of meaning, and without the image our lives would be nothing except an old piece of film rolled on a spool and thrown into a desk drawer among the unanswered letters.
-Robert Penn Warren, All the King's Men
What does it mean that in the formlessness of a restless night, while going through the negatives stashed away from all of my childhood, I found frame 001—or at least I think I did—and it was more than an image. It was the memory, distinct and breathing, of my mother's voice, singing to me. That the first memory, and the one that seems to get brighter, is of her voice, resonating in the warm darkness, soft and low and musical.
We like to talk about first memories at my house after dinner on the nights when we're actually all at home—we'll tell our stories and Mom or Dad will try to contextualize them. For the longest time I thought my first memory was from the night John Mark was born—and this disappointed me because I remembered it only because it involved a particularly dramatic accident in my bed. Given the psychological significance often placed on the first childhood memory, I didn't want to think that mine showed such a vulgar lack of self-possession. This other memory, so recently aroused, I think must be earlier because I was alone in the room that my brother and I shared immediately after his birth and I was lying in my crib listening to her song.
So they say you can read your earliest memories like a fortune, in some ways they have bearing on who you become, they reveal your intuitive interests and greatest passions. But perhaps those memories are only awakened through recognition, they resurface in the intensity of their fulfillment, when you realize that something you're doing means a lot to you and has for a long time and that it satisfies you in some deep and inexplicable place.
What does it mean that the first question I ever asked my parents was about “the people inside” of my father's stereo? That I remember sitting on the floor by the speakers, feeling the vibration, and then watching the little green lights on the dial go up and down with the levels of music? That I remember writing songs before I could write, singing them to myself when I was alone over and over and over so I wouldn't forget them?
And what does it mean now that I am driven to sing even more than I am driven to write? That nothing cleanses or satisfies me more? That for every act of surrender, every gift of joy, every vague experience, there is a song? Anything is bearable if it can be put into a song. What does it mean that this is both the most organic and the most sacred thing I do?
What does it mean that this ties into the earliest thing I know about my life?
All these thoughts are new, I think, or maybe they just seem new because they suddenly got brighter when I considered forsaking them. A long time ago I used to have a lot of dreams about music, they got lost somehow for a while. And suddenly I am writing more than ever and they seem brighter.
I don't know.
But I got an image in my head that I never got out... and the image is a sound that I cannot forget.
28 January 2006
I stare into my heart,
And wish it were true.
(What is wrong with me?)
I see only closed doors,
You will beat your fists against these doors, desperate to understand. This ignorance will turn you into a madwoman crouching in the hallway to read the shadows on the floor, pressing your ear against the wood, whispering to yourself. You will sleep with it against your back but you will not really sleep. In the morning you will search again, looking for a loose knot, a crack, willing some draft of suggestion to chill the tops of your feet.
But mostly you will throw yourself against it, with all the strength that you contain, bruising your body until you cannot continue. You are stubborn. You think you know what you're meant to have. You will be relentless until you realize that you cannot change it and all your attempts will only increase your pain.
I say, I need a new word
For all of this. One less
tired and pale
This narrow passage of life, that right now seems narrower than ever, this peculiar journey to Moriah, will someday achieve meaning. You do not know today, but perhaps you will tomorrow. Or perhaps not.
When will you realize that this door is a door of Mercy, stronger than your volatile passion, stronger than your self destruction, more tangible than the nightmares that stir your discontent? When that day comes, you will see this door as a shield and silence as a blessing. At last you will sink to the floor and get down to the actual work of trust and surrender.
I say, Here's the deal: I'm going
To get in the car and drive.
I'm sick of my own cruel
Self-pity and chronic indecision.
I'm going out to find the rhythm
Of the ocean.
You have been hungry in the midst of abundance, restless when your gift is stillness and rest. You have been tormented even by your hopes, perhaps when you begin to hope in the Lord alone your torment will pass. You have ideas that are hard to break and desires that do not die. Your confusion is legitimate. But God is much bigger than even the biggest things He's shown you in the past. He is forcing you beyond them. If you believe Him you know that there are no more mere incidents. All things happen with good reason. Your life is not shaped by thwarted dreams or by meaningless denials. Nothing is merely fortune, all events are significant.
“Once you have accepted an omniscient & providential God, the distinction you used to draw between the significant and the fortuitous must either break down or be restated in some very subtler form. If an event coming about in the ordinary event of nature becomes to you the occasion of hope and faith and love or increased efforts after virtue, do you suppose that this result was unforeseen by, or is indifferent to, God? Obviously not. What you should have called its fortuitous effects must have been present to Him for all eternity” (Vanauken, A Severe Mercy).
But you do not know the thoughts of the Lord;
You do not understand His plan,
He who gathers you like sheaves to the threshing floor.
Poem by Linford Detweiler
27 January 2006
25 January 2006
21 January 2006
You caught me laughing on my doorstep,
For pure joy.
And fearless for a moment,
Held my eye.
I let you see the room beyond my shoulder,
My quiet place;
But my hand is on the door now,
I drop my gaze .
This laughter is not yours
These rooms are not yours
You caught a glimpse of my delight
As you paused before me;
But my hand is on the door now,
I drop my gaze.
So its back to the silent interior,
Behind the shades of my own eyes;
And its back to the solitude
That grows so dark at night,
I may open a window for the streetlight.
HEC - 11/05
19 January 2006
This class scares me because it is going to change me.
I am scared of change because lately intellectual change seems to alienate me from people that I care a lot about. It seems to give me a different language to speak and a different hierarchy of value that takes a lot of digging to understand. A lot of ideas that I just hold on to, and pull out to sound intelligent. Do any of these opinions inform my actions? Are they going to change me in an existential way or simply a shift in biases? And does it matter?
We were talking last week about intellectual furniture—the things you put in your soul house—and how comforting it is when you encounter someone who has the same furniture as you. You understand one another, you can talk without tripping, you can go on without backtracking and explaining. Recognition. Unison. And then there is room to embellish, explore, they can show you new rooms, new ideas, they can introduce the colors and the artwork, because you understand their framework.
This class is going to give me some new furniture. A few rooms worth, some end tables and lamps, some odd shelving. Most of it old, antique, forgotten by most people. I sit there dazzled, at first, and then slowly begin to wonder if all these new thoughts are just clutter.
Where will they go? Will they actually change how I live? Will deciding what I think about what conservatism ought to be and has been change how I will live today? Knowing this will make me more sure of myself, and make me more impenetrable, give me some new terms to throw into conversation, alienate me a little more.
Sometimes I am tired of being an intellectual girl, with so many deep seated opinions and such a clutter of mental furniture. There is a lot to bang your shins against, if you stumble around my head in the dark. There is a lot to either agree with or talk me out of. I am full of allusions and metaphors that mean a lot to me but don't to most people. So they divide me.
And yet, at the same time I love it. These are the thoughts that make me feel small. The edges of my world are distant, and the walls I've built for myself are thinning, evaporating. The world
feels larger today because I feel more ignorant--full of questions, full of new thoughts. My heart is full.
I wore a red hat and black boots and didn't feel the wind today (but it was blowing). I had coffee at noon and came back here feeling hungry for life and unafraid of the unexpected. Eager. Curious. Tapping my feet beneath my desk, reading my poetry textbook, distracted by my own contentment with the moment. Lighthearted enough that pausing was difficult. Such moments always feel transient.
There are a lot of people I wish I was taking through this class with me and you are one of them. We could pick over these chairs and tables together, look at the cracked vinyl and the yellowed padding that shows through, decide if they're worth keeping. What is the value of thoughts that do not translate into action? Maybe these thoughts will change me and make me act? Or maybe they will push me further away, separated by barriers of terminology.
it seems my only cleverness
is finding fresh names
for the same mistakes
new words to express regret
"I always leave Mitchell classes with questions," she said, today in my bedroom, across the half opened suitcases and piles of boxes. "He doesn't answer them."
Moving back in. Lots of packages every day, manila envelopes containing new books. Syllabus day. Projections about the coming semester. My door hinge is broken and swings open to the hall, friends come by. I am rearranging my shelves and playing new music. The morning rain is gone and the pale winter day is bright with cold sunshine. I'm keeping my lakeside shades up this semester so I can watch the wind carve waves into the water. They were down all last semester, my semester in the dark. I drove inward and all my questions were about myself.
"Questions are wonderful.” I said. “Let's make a list."
Because questions are sometimes more comforting than answers. Questions are possibilities. I ask them, so brave and liberated, sending them out across the unknown, and as they hang in the air, unanswered, they demand nothing of me. There is no commitment in the question, only in the answer.
Ask and ye shall receive.
Answers are the hard part. My dark semester I asked the things I was most afraid to ask. I was Habakkuk on the wall, relentlessly waiting with a scroll, ready to write, to run, hungry for truth. I was the blind man begging and believing healing would come. And the word fell from the sky. Just as I knew it would. But once you have truth, you must act. I was the blind man healed and the world was much uglier than I'd imagined. My reflection was ugliest. When the word falls from the sky, from the unsympathetic stars, in the cold night, when God replies, when He touches your eyes, there is no way around acting. I have answers now. Staring at the answers has been among the most difficult things I've ever done. Running with them demands parts of my soul that I don't know how to use.
I lied to you
when I asked for the truth
knew what I wanted
before I even spoke
and when you didn't give it
I decided to sing in my own ears
Why was the darkness more comforting than the light? And uncertainty more appealing than truth? Funny how excited I was about the unknown when I thought all my wishes must be clues. I got bold and prayed things that cannot be unprayed.
I am haunted by those old prayers. Prayers I prayed when I was a better woman than I am today. Prayers about sufficiency in Christ and absolute duty to God, about never taking life in my own hands, and about walking on water. There was a time when I identified with Abraham and Job and Peter, but today I am haunted by Sarah, who tried to breed her own answer to God's promise, by Saul, who tried to save what was good and didn't just destroy everything as God told him to, by Jonah who fled the will of God and nearly killed a whole ship full of people. I am haunted by this Vanauken quote that I found about misreading God's signs and misinterpreting His winds.
And my hands are tightly twined around anything I can find to hold onto. I started out on the sea of faith, how did I end up here? Knotted by my fear into my own hammock. Trying to sleep in the boat in a storm?
so I'm fleeing over frozen fields
where I gathered bitter unripe fruit
stumbling into darkened paths
assuming I can guess steps
it won't be long before I break
I've broken. My questions are answered.
And yet, these answers come gently. It must be Mercy speaking. Truth is Mercy. It is Mercy that keeps me from my desires, Mercy that stops up my mouth, Mercy that lifts up my head, Mercy that shows me how much I need to be closer, drawn closer, to Love.
And it is Mercy that has me here, again, putting books on my shelves and asking new questions. Giving me a little space and a little time before the answers come—and letting me ask about external things (politics and philosophy, aesthetics and poetry), while the new ground broken within me begins to heal. The soil is turning. New things are being planted.
“I can handle questions.”
12 January 2006
We were driving on I-95 North, talking, as all of Rhode Island bled past us: the quiet pines in Exeter, layered like a green watercolor, sharp tops receding in the haze and obscure against the distant sky: the water tower in Coventry, knobby and awkwardly placed between desolate sand quarries, like a large white doorknob set down from the sky: the indifferent corporate buildings through East Greenwich and Warwick, each with their flag pole and billow of steam: merging: taillights: the exit for I-295: broad-banked-highway-bends: Providence on the horizon: smoke stacks, loading docks on the bay, the piles of salt alongside the blue peeling cisterns in the shipyard. And then through Providence: the Fleet Center (still dirty), the Biltmore, the State House, Providence Place: up past it all into Massachusetts. The whole state bled by as we talked. My brother, John, drove; he had on his old track sweatshirt, frayed at the wrists and faded everywhere but the place where his pocket had been and I sat in the passenger seat – shoes off, feet pulled up under me – switching the radio from station to station. I was talking.
Who knows what time it was, or what drive we were taking. The sky was chalk-white and it could have been mid-morning or mid-afternoon or early-evening. The clouds diffused the light. The sky was a piece of paper, unmarked and unvaried, and the whole state ran past me like a series of cut outs from a magazine. We could be going anywhere: New Hampshire? Boston? Cape Cod? To the ocean (take the turn at I-195, cut across the city, bridges over the canal, the raised road between rooftops of old and new red brick mills, North Providence up on the hill, steeples and clock towers). It could have been any ride.
This summer we left at 6:00am too many times so that we would arrive in Cape Cod at Grandma’s for breakfast and have the whole day before us. I always made John drive to Falmouth, and I’d lean the passenger seat back, put my feet on the dashboard, close my eyes and talk. Stream of consciousness musings. False early-morning cheerfulness.
I don't think it was very early in the morning, but I was in the car with Johnny and it was just like all the good times. We were calling each other “Old Thing” and “Old Bean” and batting Wodehouseism after Wodehouseism back and forth. Quoting Bertie and Jeeves and Aunt Agatha and Anoria and Bingo and Balmy Fungy Phipps and occasionally we slipped into talking about running. Shoes. Race times. Goals. Stretching techniques. I am such a fake runner. He’s the real thing. But I've mastered at least some of the vocabulary and make myself run often enough that I can justify the conversation.
Everything was familiar except the feeling of rest that had settled deep in my chest, a feeling that had long been absent. There was no aching desire to be anywhere else, only engaged curiosity about what came next. I accepted the road and the sky and the exit signs, at peace with our vague journey and the small world within the car. Nothing existed but the present and I felt lulled by the vibration of the grey steady road, whispering up through the wheel wells, through a back window that wouldn't close. I half hoped it would rain and we'd spin along over the black shiny wetness, fog up our windows with chatter and laughter, look ahead through the rain as the wipers squeaked and slid back and forth.
And then I woke up, in Jane’s bed, at her Reston townhouse, in Virginia. Woke up with my clammy feet sticking out the end of the bed, my lips burning and chapped, with a headache from my 3:00 morning, to the conversation between Em and Jules about whether or not they should wake me.
We drove back to school and we were late. We were rushing to make it back before the cafeteria closed at lunchtime. I felt robbed of obscurity and mystery and peace; I knew exactly where I was going. Rt. 7 was khaki this late morning, lined by cement strip malls and traffic barriers, divided by apologetic tawny winter grass, and framed by naked oak trees. The sky wasn’t white, it was bright blue and flecked with occasional indifferent clouds. The sunshine, glaring and audacious, fell across my unwashed face, warming my dirty hair, as I leaned back in the passenger seat and told Emily things I don’t remember saying. I was desperate to talk, to fill the air, to ignore the feeling of emptiness that was wrenching me inside. This road was just as familiar as the one at home but I was weighted by the knowledge that it would be months before I was home again, driving with my brother, or close enough to to the ocean that it could lie at the end of a morning's drive.
"When you try to tell somebody about a dream, you find in the telling that you are simply having another dream, and different, and even the feeling of the old one changes."
Robert Penn Warren, Band of Angels
(written February 2, 2005)