Finding the Art in Everything

31 December, 2008

For Those Wondering How I Spent My Break

they should consult the following tableau:

The only significant thing missing is George Herbert, who is 2 years old today.

30 December, 2008

Top 50

It being the end of the year, my ipod's Shuffle and I were reflecting on some of our most significant moments. We came up with the following list of our fifty favorite songs this year (give or take a couple of months).

"A Billion Bees" - Kevin Devine
"A Perfect Fit" - Tilly and the Wall
"Bad Education" - Tilly and the Wall
"Big Casino" - Jimmy Eat World
"Cemeteries of London" - Coldplay
"Chase This Light" - Jimmy Eat World
"Colly Strings" Manchester Orchestra
"Deliver Me" - David Crowder
"Disappearing World" - David Gray
"Disintegration" - Jimmy Eat World
"Dream" - Priscilla Ahn
"Faithful to Me" - Jennifer Knapp
"Falling Slowly" - Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova
"Grapevine Fires" - Death Cab for Cutie
"Gray Room" - Damien Rice
"Hawkmoon269" - U2 (Rattle and Hum)
"His Truth is Marchin On" - Mike Doughty
"How Lucky We Are" - Meiko
"I Was A Cage" - Right Away, Great Captain
"I'm Winning the Race" - Inkwell
"Is There a Ghost?" - Band of Horses
"Lonely" - Yael Naim
"Lord, I Know We Don't Talk" - Kevin Devine
"Love, Come Save Me" - Right Away, Great Captain
"Love, Save the Empty" - Erin McCarley
"Martyrs and Thieves" Jennifer Knapp
"My Sister, My Bride (I'm Taking on Your Hell)" - Alexander
"Nobody Knows Me At All" - The Weepies
"Now That You're Home" - Manchester Orchestra
"Own Me" - Ginny Owens
"Painting by Chagall" - The Weepies
"Peace" - Jennifer Knapp
"Plasticities" - Andrew Bird
"Please Stop Time" - Tyler Ramsey
"Resurrection Fern" Iron and Wine
"Shine" - Shawn Starbuck
"Sodom, South Georgia" - Iron and Wine
"Sorry" - Maria Mena
"Starting Now" - Ingrid Michaelson
"Surely We Can Change" - David Crowder Band
"The Call" - Regina Spektor
"The Chain" - Ingrid Michaelson
"The Funeral" - Band of Horses
"The One Who Loves You the Most" - Brett Dennen
"The Trapeze Swinger" - Iron and Wine
"These Streets" - Paulo Nutini
"Tightrope" Inkwell
"Viva la Vida" - Coldplay
"Where Have You Been?" - Manchester Orchestra
"You Remind Me of Home" - Ben Gibbard

24 December, 2008

Christmas Carols

Over the years, working retail has demolished all of my appreciation for Christmas music. There are too few songs played far too often. I have noticed them trickle in as early as Halloween!

This year I was fairly successful at avoiding not only Christmas music, but the whole run up to Christmas. As every year, much of this can be blamed by school's end-of-term madness. I miss out on a lot of the season's festivities due to school stress. (It's why I mail valentines instead of Christmas cards). More than ever, however, my season was marked by musical underexposure.

This is significant because the songs I heard and sang at the Christmas Eve service actually meant what they were supposed to--a profound religious reflection of the second most--that's right, second--most important Christian event. Christians celebrate the birth of Christ because it is the miraculous beginning to the story that results in the redemption of humanity.

For me, though, I have always had a hard time connecting stars and livestock and mute infants and local princes to the adult Gospel. Much of the Christmas carols concentrate on what seem to be fictitious or impractical accounts of that night. There was no little drummer boy at the birth of Christ, and it was NOT a Silent Night--it was high-risk medical procedure inadequately performed on a teen mother, likely producing an infant who was cold and screaming, supernaturally announced to a processional of strangers. What teen mother is ready to receive a crowd of strange men hours after she had been through labor in a barn? Add a child with a percussion instrument to the scene and someone will be punched.

"O Holy Night" is my favorite Christmas carol, and by that, I mean one of the few I look forward to hearing. And I wish everyone could hear the one I heard at the service, with my friend Jon adding some really powerful drums. It was breathtaking. The song is already really beautiful, but this the best version I'd ever heard. I like this song, because it IS one of the ones that connects the events of Christmas to the adult Gospel. When people say that the "true meaning of Christmas is Jesus," they still might miss the point if they concentrate his infancy for the month of December. "O Holy Night" explains why the night is so magnificent, and worth everything that we call, on our best days, true Christmas:

O Holy Night -

O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,

It is the night of our dear Saviour's birth.

Long lay the world in sin and error pining,

'Til He appear'd and the soul felt its worth.

A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,

For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

Fall on your knees! O, hear the angels' voices!

O night divine, O night when Christ was born;

O night divine, O night, O night Divine.


Truly He taught us to love one another;

His law is love and His gospel is peace.

Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother;

And in His name all oppression shall cease.

Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,

Let all within us praise His holy name.

Christ is the Lord! O praise His Name forever,

His power and glory evermore proclaim.

His power and glory evermore proclaim.

The song, unlike many of the others, not only reminds us that Christ was born on Christmas, but that He was the Savior to a world that was desperate for it: people in sin and error, those in chains and those who face oppression, a world that is collectively weary of itself. And for those who believe in the Gospel, what happens on Christmas is extraordinary; the moment Christ is born, God's process for real restoration--the kind that restores the worth of a soul--commences and no day is the same after.

The birth of Christ begins a new era in human history, and no matter how familiar the tune, the Truth of this song ensures the song's purpose is not lost: I really do fall to my knees in awe and praise.

04 December, 2008

This makes me very happy

From the Google Reader Blog:

Hide unread counts

We've heard you loud and clear. For some of you (and some of us on the Reader team), unread counts are a source of anxiety and can feel more like a to-do list than the random awesomeness of the Internet. So to help you sleep better at night, we've added the ability to turn off unread counts for each section of navigation independently. Subscriptions with unread items will still appear as bold, and you can see the number of unread items if you hold your mouse over the subscription name. To really set yourself free, try turning them off for all sections. (Ahhhhhh, now doesn't that feel better?)

29 November, 2008

Farmer's Market

Today we went to the Winter Park Farmers' Market. We found fresh crepes, kettle corn, herb plants, and scones! Afterward, we spent a gorgeous morning walking up and down Park Avenue.

28 November, 2008

Rampant Materialism

In following the lead of one of my fellow bloggers, I, too, post my 2008 Christmas Wishlist. You may recognize a few of these things from previous lists.

27 November, 2008


Yesterday I was working on my Christmas list, as is some kind of blog protocol, and I remembered I probably have the wrong holiday. I think I am supposed to be listing the things in my life I'm glad to already have.

Often people say "what they're thankful for" before they get to eat, but we missed this around-the-table prelude because there were 25 people around our table.

In all of the fuss of trying to prepare the feast for the crowd, I blew right past the requisite reflection. I got caught up in the aggravation that family often brings, but its a great loss when we forget that all of the family and feasting is a celebration of gratitude.

  • I'm grateful for the way my mom developed and encouraged my artistic ability and sense of aesthetics. She gave me all the tools and supplies to follow my creative impulse as far as I could.

  • I'm grateful for growing up with such funny and smart sisters, and for the great sense of belonging that often brought. There was something quite formidable about the Sisters Ruscello.

  • I'm grateful for all that my mom taught me about entertaining and making people comfortable.

  • I'm grateful for good wine, and for a bar-tending family friend who makes Cosmos when that runs out.

  • I'm grateful for all the times I don't have to be the one who makes the mistakes from which everyone else can learn, which isn't very often as the oldest child.

  • I'm grateful that I have a job, where I can both pay my bills and do something I mostly enjoy.

  • I'm grateful that I live in a time and place where I don't have to live fearing social and political reprisals for personal expression.

  • I'm grateful for my bed and the dog that curls up next to me on chilly nights.

24 November, 2008

The ICE! Exhibit

Today my family went to the Gaylord Palms Resort to see their ICE! Sculptures exhibit. We spent about an hour in weather that was literally nine degrees. And while it was really pretty, an hour was enough.

22 November, 2008

Emerson and Prayer Part I

Those of you who read The Strand might have noticed my attention to the topic of prayer, recently. A colleague of mine pointed out a familiar quotation by Emerson on the subject:

"Prayer that craves a particular commodity,—any thing less than all good,—is vicious. Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view. It is the soliloquy of a beholding and jubilant soul. It is the spirit of God pronouncing his works good. But prayer as a means to effect a private end, is meanness and theft. It supposes dualism and not unity in nature and consciousness. As soon as the man is at one with God, he will not beg. He will then see prayer in all action. The prayer of the farmer kneeling in his field to weed it, the prayer of the rower kneeling with the stroke of his oar, are true prayers heard throughout nature, though for cheap ends."

I struggle with parts of this passage (which I'll get to later), but I appreciate his definition of prayer, "the beholding and jubilant soul,...the spirit of God pronouncing [H]is works good."

I think so often we make prayer really small--what we have in the postmodern me-centered Church starts to sound like a conversation between 2 people, which is prone to the viciousness and selfishness of Emerson's concern.

By definition, prayer is the soul's communication with the master and creator of the universe, permissible through the redemptive work of Death and Resurrection. I think we too often get the scale wrong, which leads us to seeking the "private end," resulting in "meanness and theft." Prayer becomes a wish-list, or a script, or a manufactured emotional validation for an ungodly cause. When we approach prayer as a "conversation," there isn't much to keep us from projecting fallen human sentiments on something wholly and holy Other--because a conversation presumes we do the talking.

In this sense, maybe we get the scale of worship wrong, too. In church, we carefully select songs, with particular rhythm and notes, to call out specific emotions and intellectual themes. This is too controlled. We seem to forget we are part of a much larger "conversation".

Prayer and Worship really happen when all of creation lives according to the fullest measure of its purpose. This is how "prayer of the farmer kneeling in his field to weed it, the prayer of the rower kneeling with the stroke of his oar" could be heard "throughout nature".

What was the first worship like? What were the first prayers? What was prayer and worship like before power structures? Before perverted collectivism? Post-modernism? Tithes and small-groups and potlucks and C,G,&E chords and Z88.3? Before we forced it into our tiny practices and contexts? Before we made what connects prayer and worship the "me" of it all?

Dillard and Emerson have both driven me to seek examples in the natural landscape. I find an illustration of the true, simple prayer and worship in the trees of my daily routine.

The trees reach deep into the surface of the earth--depend on it to live and grow--to where they hold up the sky. The enormous trees on our school's campus are so big they seem to fully support the great blue canopy. And if the canopy fell, it could be a great wall of water, a tsunami that wiped out everything, the walls of the Red Sea held in place by the wooden staff of Moses.

We need the trees above our front doors, above the bell tower, above the dorm, the dining hall, the classroom building, or the sky might cave in and we'd be lost. These trees are pillars, sentinels. I walk among them, but they are separate from me. They live according to their great purpose, connecting the earth to blue infinity.

I can imitate the trees: raise my hands like branches in prayer and worship or I can climb a tree like Zaccheus to see Jesus.

20 November, 2008


Dillard writes, "Hasidism has a tradtion that one of man's purposes is to assist God in the work of redemption by hallowing the things of creation."

Today I was walking to the dining hall and I saw of flock of cobalt dragonflies. I was startled by the depth of my delight. They are bugs, after all, and I have made this walk to lunch a couple hundred times.

But in that moment, they didn't look like bugs in an ordinary part of my day. The midday sun hit them so that they sparkled, and their metallic blue was out of place in the tableau of concrete and shrubbery. They were glittering gems suspended in the air.

How can these be anything but sacred?

The hallowing work of God is continued in our wonder and surprise and delight. When I see them, I feel part of that holy moment. It's a work that continues itself; I'm only present for the consecration. In that moment of delight and surprise, I'm sanctified with the dragonflies--by The Presence in the dragonflies-- by the katydids, the moths, and the tree frogs.

I continue the hallowing work of God by being in the present.

15 November, 2008

The Slope

Annie Dillard writes through a moment when she says her "mind is a slope," and then lists a dozen bizarre and disparate moments, "ghosts" she calls them, "that drift across the screen from nowhere." "It's insane," she says. "The engineer has abandoned the control room, and an idiot is splicing the reels. "

I read, astounded. How did she do that? How did she record, with great importance--and it's important because it utterly arrested me even though we're strangers, and because she won a Pulitzer for this book of these moments, and I still believe that these accolades go to things that mean something--how did she record the very slopes in my own mind I dismiss as nonsense (that I'm too embarrassed to share) ?

And then I distrust her record, because in my experience, the very nature of the slope is that I glide too fast. Any image I grasp on my way down is one of a hundred. The only ones I keep would be there in my memory only by flailing, clumsy accident. Am I reading her flailing, clumsy accident? Am I always reading someone else's flailing, clumsy accident?

14 November, 2008

13 November, 2008

Poetry Jam

Today I'm reading for the MVA Poetry Club's Poetry Jam that is part of Fine Arts Week. (I wish I had something of my own to read, but I can't afford to dwell there today.)

I am reading these three poems I found on the Underground in London:

'I saw a man pursuing the horizon'

I saw a man pursuing the horizon
Round and round they sped.
I was disturbed at this;
I accosted the man.
"It is futile," I said,
"You can never--"

"You lie," he cried,
And ran on.

--Stephen Crane (1871-1900)

The London Eye

Through my gold-tinted Gucci glasses,
the sightseers. Big Ben's quarter chime
strikes the convoy of number 12 buses
that bleeds int the city's monochrome.

Through somebody's zoom lens, me shouting
to you, "hello...on...bridge...'minster!"
The aerial view postcard, the man writing
squat words like black cabs in rush hour.

The South Bank buzzes with a rising treble.
You kiss my cheek, formal as a blind date.
We enter Cupid's Capsule, a thought bubble
where I think, "Space age!", you think "She was late."

Big Ben strikes six, my SKIN. Beat blinks, replies
18.02. We're moving anti-clockwise.

Patience Agbabi (b.1965)

from Ode: Intimations of Immortality

THERE was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparell'd in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
Turn wheresoe'er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

The rainbow comes and goes,
And lovely is the rose;
The moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare;
Waters on a starry night
Are beautiful and fair;
The sunshine is a glorious birth;
But yet I know, where'er I go,
That there hath pass'd away a glory from the earth.

--William Wordsworth (1770-1850)


One Perfect Rose

A single flow'r he sent me, since we met.
All tenderly his messenger he chose;
Deep-hearted, pure, with scented dew still wet -
One perfect rose.

I knew the language of the floweret;
'My fragile leaves,' it said, 'his heart enclose.'
Love long has taken for his amulet
One perfect rose.

Why is it no one ever sent me yet
One perfect limousine, do you suppose?
Ah no, it's always just my luck to get
One perfect rose.

--Dorothy Parker (1893-1967)

12 November, 2008


I keep meaning to write about my Coldplay show from last weekend, (and I even have some images to post) but I can't seem to get to it. Worse, I'll have another show tomorrow that will also be worth a post. Rats. Two behind now.

I've also been looking at those daily photos, still. It got me seeing, and I took these outside the front door of my apartment. Look! Our own fall colors!

09 November, 2008

A New Model

I've been thinking about three things a lot lately:

  1. Time vs. Eternity
  2. Predestination vs. pre-determination
  3. Garfield Minus Garfield
The time and eternity contemplation comes from reading Dillard.

The predestination vs. pre-determination comes from my entertaining a pentecostal perspective on prayer in a book study group.

And Garfield Minus Garfield is the only comic strip I read with any regularity (which should illuminate everything)

With all of this, I think I have a new model for how divine direction and free will go together.

Picture a comic strip--a series of boxes in which a narrative unfolds, frame by frame, to a humorous end. As the reader of the comic strip, you can follow the narrtive from left to right until you run out of boxes, with maybe resolution to the joke in the last box. You can also view the first box and the last box at the same time--viewing the beginning and the end all at once.

Picture another parallel comic strip underneath the first on the paper. The first box is the same, but the second one isn't--it starts in the same place but follows a different narrative to a different, but equally funny punchline.

Put another one underneath that - with the first two boxes the same, only the third one is different, with a quick turn to a totally different, but equally funny punchline with a different irony found in the same situation.

Say there are ten parallel comic strips made out o f 5 boxes each. And all the strips have one central character but different sets of others. All the strips end in good, funny punchline.

God sees the beginning and the end all at once--in his Eternal nature hovering over linear time--like we can see the whole strip. God can see all ten strips with five boxes on the same page all at once--so we can say He knows or sees all the beginnings and all the ends. Say in fact, He wrote all of the comic strips.

Why does it matter that there are ten parallel strips? Because the characters in them have the power to move between them. They can follow one narrative and then individually, freely decide to follow the narrative of a different strip. They climb from the first box to the second box of the second strip, maybe down the the third box of the third, back up to the fourth box of the second, and so on. And maybe sometimes prayer causes the boxes to move between strips like the characters can choose to move themselves.

So what if there were an infinite number of parallel strips with an infinite number of boxes with 6 billion characters and an infinite number of possible groupings?

And the very fact that the characters can move between the strips means they are "in them but not of them" and that they sense there is something bigger than the narrative to the right of them.

And what if, at the end of their days, the 2-dimensional strip and paper-bound characters find their true form (of which they had just been an outline), stand up, and step out of the strips and off the paper altogether?

07 November, 2008

City Photos

I made a delightful discovery today.

I've added a new student to my google reader, and she shared this photo. I was surprised by the blue cornflower in the bottom corner--a little poetic irony that made me smile. It reminds me of being delightfully startled by yellow daisy-like flowers on the way to school Monday morning. It's like the funny, ironic turn at the end of our recent Collins poems.

Then I found that this photo is part of a series, and that series is part of an interesting blog movement: City Daily Photos. This appears to be an online collective of blogging photographers from all over the world who post photos depicting daily life where they live.

With this collective, I can visit the places I used to live. I found this one, from where I grew up in Minneapolis. I like it because he gives his photo how-to's and also gives the city location of his shots. I also found one from the beautiful city where I went to university. While, it's much easier to appreciate the city when you can see it without fearing frost-bitten epidermal death, the pictures recall my shame from not appreciating the city enough when I lived there. I'm so grateful for these Minnesota blogs because I miss the beauty of the fall leaves, and I have it here.

Of course, the first city whose photos I sought was London. I found three interesting London blogs, and added them to my Reader feed folder labeled "Britain". This guy even puts his photos on the map. The English city where I went to university is known for being the "ugliest city in England," so it's no surprise no one runs around shooting it to post. If I lived there, I'd make it my mission to make it look lovely.

I was struck by the dailyness of it: daily photos make room in the series for more pedestrian subjects and a real sense of life in a place--so we don't have to feel so much like a tourist. And while tourism has its exciting charms, what I ultimately want is to rightfully consider myself as a resident.

I also liked that daily commitment to sharing and taking photos. I think, "If I lived in a better place, I'd participate in this." It's true travel photos are always easier to take because everything is interesting in cities that are famous for being interesting, but this could speak more to my self-destructive, "life-will-begin-once-I-leave-Central-Florida" syndrome. I think maybe a real challenge would be in finding art in the daily-ness of Clermont and Montverde--maintaining artistic diligence regardless of my surroundings.

31 October, 2008

Ma Seychelle

I wouldn’t consider myself a “people person.” Lately—and I say lately because there’s a small chance I wasn’t always this way—I tend to prefer island living. This is where I visit the mainland (other people) for supplies or amusement, but I always have the option of sailing back to solitude. Worse (or better) it’s a sovereign island. I am in total control of my territory.

But also lately, I’ve begun to realize this is not a naturally self-sustaining one. Its fresh water is dependent on how much rain I’ve had, and I have to work pretty hard to collect it. I also tire of eating plantains, slaying my own chickens, and drinking the rum alone. I figure I could do worse than being stuck in the Caribbean.

At least I’m not Tom Hanks talking to a volleyball.

But I’m finding for the second or third time, someone has dared to move onto my island. A relationship falls into my life with all the subtlety and inevitability of an ACME airborne anvil. It’s huge, and heavy, and by the time I see it coming, there’s really no point in moving aside. Besides, cartoon anvils chase their targets.

Now I’m annoyed to find my island’s neither self-sustaining NOR sovereign.

It’s as if some Imperial Power has undertaken a very offensive (to me) relocation project, populating my island. When I can, I post these invaders’ heads on a stake and watch them shrink. This way I always have civilized company without having to live in a Barbarian community with cannibal neighbors.

24 October, 2008

The Invisibility Game

I read this today, shared by a friend. It made me think about how often people blog about blogging, or not blogging as the case may be.

I was also talking to another friend about his blog entry, posted after a long RSS silence. When I commented how we let those blogging gaps happen, he said he just wanted to make sure what he posted meant something--that he didn't post "just for the sake of posting."

It occurred to me that blogging can impose such a burden of self-identification. Not only do we decide what to write, identifying ourselves by what we want to say, but we we decide what we want our blog to be. And for those of us who have a blog with no driving theme, (i.e politics, news, or nutrition) our blog becomes an eclectic, electronic extension of ourselves. What do we post, and why? Why do we often feel guilt about not posting to something we're not even sure anyone is reading? How much of ourselves do we expose? Do we only post polished ideas? Or is random drivel from a journal ok?

It's like I'm playing a funny game: I'm only vulnerable because I'm only "writing for me". But if it were only for me, what is it doing online for everyone to see? It can be there because no one will really read it. I'll never forget being startled by the round of comments on my first blog entry. They read that? But I didn't think anyone was paying attention! This governing fallacy--the one where I'm pretty sure no one is paying attention to me--actually brings a lot of embarrassment.

If the self-identification of blogging is really only for me (because "no one" is actually watching), then why all the fuss about appearance and content? Maybe the way Jadepark does it, where she conceals her identity, is the only way it can be done. This way a writer can satisfy that craving for transparency but have the liberties of anonymity--liberties that include freedom from self-consciousness. Maybe pretending I'm invisible is really the only freedom I find from self-consciousness and the criticism it brings me.

Blogging is good because it forces me to overcome the foe of my inner critic and make readable what was hard enough to write.

I wonder if I'll ever be able to beat the critic and win transparency without first playing the invisibility game. Because if I can't, maybe the beat-the-inner-critic battlefield will always be the blog, keeping real, paid publication as far away as it seems.

22 October, 2008

Tree Frog

The Gargantuan Book Sale

I thought I would a list of my terrific finds from the book sale in Gainesville on Saturday, but this seemed a little more efficient:

18 October, 2008


  • I just watched the movie Once, and it was as lovely as everyone said. Its earnestness was captivating. As I watched the Dublin scenery, it made me really excited for the trip to Ireland I'm planning. But then I thought the Dublin in the movie does not exist in the touristy city-centre where I'll likely be. I'd have to live there to find it. I remember seeing that landscape in Belfast--gritty, working-class, hardened. I was drawn to it, but as a foreigner, there was nothing to draw me in. And I just wished something that seemed so real wasn't so off-limits to me.

  • I went to a gargantuan book sale today in Gainesville, and I had to quit buying books when, with a box and a bag, I had more than I could physically carry. And, while I'm excited about my finds, the finding and buying them was a surreal experience. Suffice to say I don't suffer crowds well to begin with, and this place was third-world crowded. The prices were so low and the searching was so aggressive, it felt more like looting than buying. And all at once we were the Yahoos from Swift's Gulliver's Travels. I wondered what the Houyhnhnms would think if they saw us. They'd think the hundreds of book grubbers looked like they were digging useless things from the earth for the sake of greed and competition.

    But these things were books--and classics and textbooks at that! The very things that are supposed to redeem us from the ignorance that begets greed and mindless competition. It was jarring to see this frenetic tableau paired with and created for its opposite, reading and contemplation. While I wanted to flee the debasing of the Books, I thought they're probably just books, and I bought a box full.

  • I've been wondering what to live for. And the weight of "purpose" resembles the weather--English weather. There are days of brilliant sunshine that soak the wild daffodils, where everything is clear and in sharp focus. Then there are some days of continual, relentless rain with the kind of piercing cold that makes you feel bruised from the inside out. But most days are in the middle, dry but overcast--not darkness but greyness.

  • Today I considered whether I could have / would have been friends with Holden Caulfield. And I don't think so. I think people who cite Catcher in the Rye as their favorite book might have missed the point. That child--and I do mean child--lives in a peculiar hell he made for himself.

10 October, 2008

Tree Frog

Tonight when I came home there was a tree frog, curled up the size of a baseball, on my door handle. I have come to this door in the evenings 1000 times, and never before found anything on my door, especially nothing as exquisite as a giant tree frog. My dog George who normally scares away innocent things was too busy peeing on bushes to notice it. I couldn’t enter my apartment without most surely scaring it away. And who can disturb something so extraordinary? I texted two friends the novelty of my frog quandary, but I got my answer when I called a third. My young friend told me to catch it, which can’t be done when my only equipment was a cocker spaniel and an expensive Italian handbag. She said since I couldn’t catch it, I should just name it. . Right when I went closer to see what the frog’s name should be, while on the phone, it hopped to the yellow stucco of my wall, turned yellow and flopped into the bushes.

I failed. I’ve been reading a lot of Dillard lately, and this was one of her kind of nature encounters. She names ephemeral islands, and she can look closely at a moth aflame and see its holiness. Presented with my own holy moment, all I could do was call my friends. When the frog left, I felt like I missed that moment—sullied its holiness. Maybe holy moments have to be solitary. But then, I wouldn’t have remembered to name the frog if I hadn’t called someone.

I opened my door and dragged George in. Turning to drop my bags, I noticed a moth through the window above my front door, by my porch light. This moth was at least 3 inches across with dark gray spots and intricate gray lace on its brown wings. It had a fat body and a fuzzy head. Like the frog, this enormous moth was out of its place. I got a text from one of my friends, “What would Dillard say?” Dillard would say, this moth, too, is holy. This is the moth that, lit and aflame, burns like the seraphim who proclaim God’s holiness. Unlike Dillard’s forest candles, my lamp is enclosed so my moth is in no fiery danger. But if it’s my moth, it too needs a name. With the frog I fell short, but I can name my moth. I wanted the frog back, but I got a moth. I got a moth that connects me to all the Dillard and prayer discourse I’ve been reading—to what passes for my prayers and my intimacy with nature. I name my moth as Dillard names her islands on Puget Sound—the ones that appear and fade in the mist, the ones that she can’t catch but still sees. I name my moth Second Holiness, Mercy; I name my moth To Name and Holy the Firm. .

Prayer is giving things a name. A text from another friend reminds me that assigning names is what identifies the thing as known by us—part of the holy desire to know and be known. The first task assigned Adam by God is name all the creatures of the earth. Naming is holy work, but like Adam, it also wants for a companion.

A name puts “a handle” on the infinite beneath it for holding the infinite above it. Dillard states, “the world is far from God. [It is] from God, and linked to him by Christ, but infinitely other than God,…a vertical line…a great chain of burning… Christ touches only the top, skims off only the top, as it were, the souls of men…” But also “the world is an immanation [sic], where God is in the thing, and eternally present here, if nowhere else,” leaving the world “flattened on a horizontal plane, singular, all here, crammed with heaven, and alone.” We need something to connect the God we find at the base of things—in experience and circumstance—to the Sovereign God of eternity. When we name something, we make it knowable. We have a handle for the will of God that is in us and around us, but also for the will of God that is so great above us we can’t comprehend it. When we pray we socket the base need or conflict, bound by the limits of time, into the sovereign hurling eternity where it belongs.

I socket this moth into place, but I wonder if I would have without first losing the tree frog.

06 October, 2008

01 October, 2008

Teaching and Drinking

Top-five Things I Love About Being a Teacher that Have Nothing To Do with Instructing:

  1. The process of getting coffee on campus: having to wash my mug in the bathroom, going to get the coffee in a colleague's room, then having to go get milk from the workroom fridge becomes less about obtaining the beverage and more about all of the detours on the way.

  2. Summers off.

  3. The excuse to buy school supplies every year, only being able to get more sophisticated ones like fountain pens, ink bottles and paperclips. Don't think I don't still grab that 24-cent box of crayons and a bottle of Elmer's glue, though.

  4. Dressing up on Wednesdays--I'm a sucker for ceremony, and here we have pomp and circumstance and ceremony weekly.

  5. Birthday celebrations. I always felt bad in school for kids who did not get to celebrate their birthday with the class because it fell over a school holiday. Mine is right at the time of the term when we need a celebration, and I get to celebrate birthday week in 5 classes!

Top-five Historical Figures with whom I'd Really Like to Have a Drink: (in no order, and subject to change)
  1. Benjamin Franklin
  2. James Madison
  3. Dietrich Bonhoeffer
  4. William Wilberforce
  5. William Gladstone

30 September, 2008

French Fete

I am really excited about my birthday this weekend. I'm hosting a French wine tasting, which promises to be a night filled with cheesy berets, eyeliner mustaches, and something other than Chianti (my obsessive favorite).

Here are the beautiful invitations and envelopes my friend Melissa made for the event:

29 September, 2008

The Trouble with August

I was thinking about this idea of "seasons" as I was comforting a struggling friend. Seasons are important to the grieving because Solomon reminds us in Ecclesiastes that everything has its own season, and that God makes everything beautiful in His time. In trying times, sometimes Peace flows from these, sometimes not.

Annie Dillard wonders in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek "Assuming you hadn't noticed any orderly progression of heavenly bodies, how long would you have to live on earth before you could feel with any assurance that any one particular long period of cold would, in fact, end?" That the cold might not end poses two horrors: the death and dormancy a "permanent cold" would bring, and what Dillard calls "the horror of the fixed...which assails us with the tremendous force of its mindlessness." Those of us in any kind of transition long for something fixed and stable, but Dillard compares the fixed not to a firm foundation, but to a Mason jar in which the class-project moth dies because it can't beat the glass open with its wings.

So it's not in the movement from cold to warmth in which redemption is found--it's in the movement itself. And natural order is one of constant movement. God promises in Genesis to the early people that neither the seasons nor day and night shall cease. But the rhythm of seasonal change, no matter how comfortable, would become another Mason jar. That's why we were given unreliable weather.

Dillard points out, "What we think of weather and behavior of life on the planet at any given moment is really all a matter of statistical probabilities; at any given point, anything might happen. There's a bit of every season in each season. The calendar, the weather, and the behavior of wild creatures overlap smoothly for only a few weeks and then it all tangles up again."

In Minnesota, there is special appreciation for summer because everyone knows winter is right around the corner. For the last couple of years, I've been reckoning with this practical agnosticism that believes God can but doesn't think he would. Florida poses a problem for me because I generally live without this extreme, natural reminder that the order of the universe is one of constant change. How long will I have to live here before I can feel, with any assurance, that this one, particular, long period of heat will, in fact, end? In Isaiah, God tells his people He is "doing a new thing" and asks "Can you not feel it? Can you not perceive it?"

No. I cannot. The subtleties of holy change--the green bud poking through the snow, the first yellowing of August leaves--are washed out by the fixed heat and glare of the Florida sunshine.

14 September, 2008

Not a Stalker, but...

This is my set list from the Inkwell show on Thursday night. At the end of the show, we went to go say hello to the band. The frontman gave it to me, right after I asked him to play a song that makes him miserable--at which point I would have stopped talking to me. He was so personable, and I liked him so much, that the details he shared about his upcoming album made me so excited for him--almost proud of him? I wanted to be his friend.

I felt this way when we saw Billy Collins' reading at Rollins on Tuesday:

I get this urge to be friends with people whom I have no business claiming all the time. And I think it is caused by three things:

First, I really appreciate people who are at the top of their craft--its inspiring. As a teacher, I live to be part of the small accomplishments of my students--I am proud when they excel even beyond what would be a return on my investment. When someone is THIS good at what they are doing, I am that much more eager to be part of it and think I should be because of my routine, small-scale opportunities.

Second, there is that urge to hang on and prolong the extraordinary moments. I have come across this image of "manna" several times this week. I want to be friends with these people because they seem so great, and I feel like I have space for them. But real people are not as great as stage people, nor do they have the space for me. Trying to hang on to the people I find in these shows and performances would spoil in the way that manna did. It's the familiar paradox that what is most worth keeping can rarely be kept.

Third, there is the trill of seeing THE person who MADE the THING that means so much to me. I was this way with the songs and the poems. And seeing these performances live, the reading or the rock show, puts me in the same moment as the person who is making the thing that means so much to me. It meant something to the performer enough to create the song or poem, it meant enough to me to go to see it performed live, and now it means something because the performance makes for a shared, meaningful experience. And somehow I think this shared meaning ought to be enough to make me friends with Kevin Devine, Andy Hull, Travis Adams, Billy Collins, and the rest.

And, yes. I know that telling them that makes me sound like their stalker.

So if you are in one of these places with me, and I start to tell whomever we just saw that they were destined to be my friend (or marry me), please point out my drink is empty and that it is time for a refill.

13 September, 2008

Because Jen Does

An interactive birthday list:

21 August, 2008

08 August, 2008

MFA St. Petersburg Highlights

Today my friend Anna and I finally made it to the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, FL. It is said to be the best art gallery we have here in Florida, which isn't saying much for a theme park state. Still, the gallery boasts more than a decent cast of characters. This is my first time visiting it since their renovation and since my brief teaching foray into "art history," and both of these things made me enjoy it so much more than my last time here.

Gallery Highlights:

  • It's not ever crowded. No one is in your picture viewing space.

  • It is small, it can be thoroughly seen in a little under 2 hours.

  • Excellent, thorough curating. What makes this gallery affordable and accessible is that there are no real masterpieces in it, which is how we probably have it in Florida. Even though it is full of second and third-tier works, the explanations on the wall accompanying the work note its all its meaningful aspects AND situate the artist within the movement of its contemporaries. THEN it explains the movement and its characteristics, THEN it identifies aspects of the work that match both characteristics of the artist and movement. This approach taught novices and experts alike, while truly revealing the nature and significance of the work. I couldn't find who wrote them, but well done! to them.

  • The Ansel Adams and the American West exhibit. I have seen hundreds of reproductions of his prints but never so many made by the artist himself. The exhibit showcased 2 schools of photography. The first, founded by Adams in his club F/64, produces its its image with straight photography with little or no manipulation of contrast during printing. The other school is the pictorialist one, where images are refined and abstracted during printing and the artists' visions are revealed in the darkroom. My dad belongs to the straight photography school, who uses his engineer's penchant for math and science to shoot the exact image he wants. For me, the math and science of shooting pictures is a means to an artistic end, where my main care is in the composition of line and shape, color and form. I think I'm more Stieglitz than Adams.

  • Leon Berkowitz's Big Blue. This piece made me remember why I give any time to color field paintings. Seeing the paintings reproduced they look more like colorful geometry. Seeing them in person reveals their movement. The light and colors vibrate and play off each other. It is not that the work doesn't have any subject, it is just that it's seeking to almost objectify the abstractions of movement, energy, color, and light.

  • The lesser known pieces of the Ashcan artists. The Ashcan school was famous for its gritty urban life scenes at the turn of the 20th century. This trio here features surprising contemplation and serenity. the SPMFA has several of these kinds of lesser-known pieces that complete the viewers collective understanding of the artist. By showing these atypical pieces, the artists become more than their reputations, schools, and stigmas.

  • The American Impressionists. This is an impressionist painting of a place in Massachusetts. I love to see American examples of American things because it keeps the art I love from feeling so foreign. Impressionism does not have to be inherently tied to french nationalism.

  • The Shepherd Girl by Bouguereau. His people seem to be living, and although is this a miniture of the first version, (still painted by the original artist) it is just as moving. Bouguereau was a French Academic painter and one of the most admired critics of the 19th century. It is nice to see someone still painting in the lines during this time, and beautifully at that, rather than drowning in either absinthe or the silly lilly pond.

02 August, 2008

Walking along the Strand

One of the highlights of my recent time in London was a long walk along my blog's namesake, The Strand. Check out my tabblo of the photos from that stroll:

01 August, 2008

Favorite Places

Yesterday, I took a friend to one of my favorite places in my area, the Windsor Rose Tea Room in Mount Dora, Florida. The tea room is more English than almost any I found in England. Their scones are dense and sweet, they have a dozen teas to choose from (Yorkshire Gold was my choice), and the atmosphere is all at once everything quaint about the English. It is where I go for my British fix, even though I am always the youngest person there by 40 years. But as my friend pointed out, sometimes we have to "unleash our inner granny".

This beautiful red spread I found at the shop next door.

27 July, 2008

It Escaped

The other night I couldn't sleep, so I pulled out my paints and watercolor pencils. I didn't know where to start, so I painted a card for a friend.

I mailed it today, so I don't have it anymore. I notice this because as I think of it, I want to inspect it again--criticize it, fix it, or add more to it (which might actually be taking away from it). I don't remember doing all of these things "sufficiently" as I made it last night. I couldn't take the time to take it apart because more important was its installation into a packet that was otherwise complete. More important was making it for my person. More than it had to be perfect, last night, it had to be be for my recipient.

The more I try to call it to memory to analyze it, the quicker my recollection disintegrates. It's no use.

I painted in the colors and the outlines and the patterns as an expression of love, the expression of which was made complete by breaking it off and mailing it away. It doesn't seem it ever belonged to me. If it did, I would have surely killed it.

My sister caught me off guard the other day by asking how long I was going to keep my job because she thought I was going to be a writer. Didn't I want to be a writer anymore? I just looked at her and blinked. I didn't even touch that one. My family doesn't really read anything I write--Not that there is much I let live.

I think this painted card only survived because I threw it in an envelope before I could kill it. I think it survived because I don't feel the same right to wipe out what belongs to someone else.

It makes me wish I had more like it that gives what I make the right to live.

26 July, 2008

When People Leave

"I have three candles here on the table which I disentangle from the plants and light when visitors come. [My cat] usually avoids them although once she came too close and her tail caught fire; I rubbed it out before she noticed. The flames move light over everyone's skin, draw light to the surface of the faces of my friends. When the people leave, I never blow the candles out, and after I'm asleep they flame and burn."

~Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm

25 July, 2008

A Month Ago Today I Was in London

Happy is England! I could be content

HAPPY is England! I could be content
To see no other verdure than its own;
To feel no other breezes than are blown
Through its tall woods with high romances blent:
Yet do I sometimes feel a languishment 5
For skies Italian, and an inward groan
To sit upon an Alp as on a throne,
And half forget what world or worldling meant.
Happy is England, sweet her artless daughters;
Enough their simple loveliness for me, 10
Enough their whitest arms in silence clinging:
Yet do I often warmly burn to see
Beauties of deeper glance, and hear their singing,
And float with them about the summer waters.
John Keats (1795–1821). The Poetical Works of John Keats. 1884.

24 July, 2008

Not Worth It

"Why spend money on what is not bread,
and your labor on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
and your soul will delight in the richest of fare."

~Isaiah 55:2

I was reading Isaiah this morning, again, and I found some questions that seem to have been present in the conversations I've had this week.

I have been reading about Robert Coles, prolific author, Harvard professor, and one of the most prominent psychologists of our era. He says, "We have categories for every person on earth, but who can explain just one person? ... Some reviewers criticize me for saying the same old things about the nature of human beings: that we are a mixture of good and evil, of light and darkness, of potentiality toward destruction on redemption. they wand some new theory, I suppose. But my research merely verifies what the bible has said all along about human beings." He has abandoned modern psychology to explain human behavior, and has looked to the literary wisdom of the ages.

As I read this passage this morning, I felt like I had found it. This passage from Isaiah explains one of the distinct human paradoxes: Why do we spend ourselves on what will not meet our needs? Why do we strive for things that bring us no peace and comfort--or worse--destruction?

I have been talking with a friend who is in a place where the inauthenticity of it overwhelms her. She is watching those who have the highest freedom possible still build their own little prisons with expectations and "supposed to's". For the first time in their lives, people could do whatever they please and be whomever they please, and they choose to live behind masks and chase meaningless things. Why are they laboring on what does not satisfy?

I had another conversation with a friend who learned from her doctor that an estimated 8 out of 10 people is carrying some kind of virus for a sexually transmitted infection. The most horrifying part is that many people don't know they are infected because the body fights it like most other infections for a while. We found that statistic staggering, and we marveled at this horrifying and fallacious notion of "sexual freedom." What is free about being bound to medication for life because of an incurable disease? What is free about the heartache that comes from extricating oneself from that kind of intimacy? What is free about having a physical ailment to represent the loss of self that occurred in fleeting moments of pleasure? Who on earth wants to make the call, "I'm sorry, but you might want to get yourself tested?" Why do we spend money on what is not bread, but in fact, poison? How do we not know this is not worth it?

It is significant that the Bible pinpoints this paradoxical human tendency so precisely, because it gives credibility to the second half of the verse: We see that God offers an alternative to the pattern of self-destruction: "Listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fares." Elsewhere in the Bible, we find abundant explanation for the Fare and its richness. We then have the power to measure cost, benefit, and the risk against a Love we can trust is not jeopardized by inauthenticity or its own inclination toward self-destruction. If we look enough at the Alternative, then what isn't food doesn't even appeal to us.

23 July, 2008

Hooray for Hipsters

That's right, folks, the word of the week is hipster. These creatures, relatively foreign to me, have shown up in my music, in my email, and then as a herd of free-thinkers who threatened to wreck good music with their smelly, bad-manners. My limited exposure to them has led me to think they are a limited phenomenon--limited to a particular city or university, to art majors, to a particular age group, but extensive research in the last 24 hours has indicated otherwise.

What, exactly is a hipster you ask?

Christian Lorentzen, for TimeOut New York defines it as, "Under the guise of “irony,” hipsterism fetishizes the authentic and regurgitates it with a winking inauthenticity. Those 18-to-34-year-olds called hipsters have defanged, skinned and consumed the fringe movements of the postwar era—Beat, hippie, punk, even grunge. Hungry for more, and sick with the anxiety of influence, they feed as well from the trough of the uncool, turning white trash chic, and gouging the husks of long-expired subcultures—vaudeville, burlesque, cowboys and pirates."

This amalgamated originality has the potential for wacky charm, but there is an underlying evil to it.

First, Hipsterism is anything BUT original. Go to any indie-rock show to find its uniform:
  • "found-object" shoes--known to the less-tact as "P.F.UGLY" shoes
  • clove cigarettes
  • skinny jeans
  • a superfluous scarf
  • an affinity for an unruly facial forest
  • horizontal stripes
  • one of Kurt Kobain's tour shirts bought on Ebay for $1300
  • enough hair products to shower every day, yet still make oneself look dirty.
  • thick-rimmed vanity glasses
  • a plasticity that puts Fischer Price to shame.
That "original" ends up looking uniform is hardly the irony that hipsters claim to seek--it is ugly, oxymoronic idiocy, and it looks more like the emperor's new clothes than anything to be emulated.

Second, hipsterism feigns good taste while celebrating the opposite. While this alone could be dismissed as simple self-destruction, its danger lies in its ability to cultivate followers. Nothing is worse than hipster disciple. The hipster disciple takes the derivative of the hipster's unoriginality, drawing a tangent line that is even dumber and uglier. Celebrating the opposite of taste is more acceptable when it is done alone.

And they probably won't grow out of it.

I think of the hold the counterculture movements of the 1960's and 1970's has on politics, academics, music, and social movements. I wonder what kind of legacy the Hipsters will have in 30 years, or if it is already too much nonsense to matter.