Sunday, October 22, 2017

Nets

When he called us, we had just spent two days repairing our nets.

Not storm days, either; we had just spent two good fishing days sitting on the shore tying knots. We had to. Our last net had torn the day before, the big one; we'd been trying to make it through on that one till the next chance to make repairs, and then it caught on a rock deep under the lake and tore a long gash all through it. Simon claimed we'd caught some strange creature that had thrashed its way loose through our net; I told him we were lucky that rock hadn't been any higher, and he'd better remember the place so we could avoid it from now on. We had plenty of time to argue on it, sitting there tying hundreds of little knots, watching Zebedee and his sons out there on the water hauling up gleaming loads of fish.

And I have to say Simon never stopped tying, even to gesture about that creature of his, though anyone who's met him knows Simon scarcely has the patience for a job like that. But he'll do what he has to do. And if there's one thing a fisherman has to do, it's care for his boat and his nets. A fisherman's roof can leak, his door can hang broken for months, but his nets and his boat, they're his life. He depends on those to fill the bellies under that roof.

So as I say, we were fishing that evening with our new-mended nets; an early start, out on the water as soon as the sky'd grown dark enough so you couldn't see a shadow. Fish'll flee from the shadow of a boat, and we couldn't afford to go without a catch after two days mending. We had just found a good place and were laying out our biggest net, spreading it through the water in as wide a circle as we could get with just the two of us. It's delicate work; you can't let the net fold down over itself, or it'll tangle instead of spreading, and the fish will flee while you haul the thing out to start again. We were almost done, and a neat job too, when Simon turns and looks at the shore.

“Simon!” I say. “Look to what you're doing!”

“It's him,” he says. “Over there.”

Him? I glanced over. And it was him, and my hand lost all sense of how the net was meant to go, and Simon dropped his end, and the net folded instantly and tangled. Because it was the man himself, Jesus, out on the shore in the dusk light, and his hands were cupped around his mouth, calling, and it was plainer every second he was calling to us.

I hadn't even been certain we'd see him again. John the Baptizer had pointed to him and told us he was the Messiah, and we'd thought the time was at hand, and then he'd left and gone home to Galilee and John had been killed for a stupid king's pride. So Simon and I had gone home to Galilee too, because what else do you do when things fall apart? We came home and found our nets still there where we'd stored them. When nets fall apart, you can mend them with your own two hands.

Simon turned the sail and tacked into the wind, trying to get near enough to hear what the man—the Messiah!—was saying. He was making broad gestures now, beckoning us in. I pulled on the net, trying to set right the tangle, but the sudden turn made it worse. It was in such a snarl now it was all I could hope to haul it up without another tear. I could see another hour wasted, sitting on the shore untangling the thing. I got most of it in the boat, till something snagged down near the waterline; then I turned again to the shore, where the wind was carrying Jesus' words to us over the water.

“Come with me!”

With him? I looked at Simon, who didn't look back at me, his hand on the tiller and his gaze locked on the man. Did he really mean come with him—not just—
“Come with me, and I will make you fishers of people!”

He did mean come with him. Him. Us to be disciples of the Messiah? Fishing for people. To bring people in to follow him, did he mean—the Messiah—
Simon didn't take his eyes off him, but me, I looked back at the nets. This wasn't like going off to the Jordan for a time to be baptized and hear what John had to teach. If the Messiah wanted us—the Messiah!—well, then we'd mended our nets for nothing, that's what.

The boat beached in a crunch of sand and slap of waves, and Simon jumped out into the shallow water and began to run up the sand. I gave another tug on the nets, my eyes picking out the mended places, all those knots we'd tied. The end of the net still trailed in the water, and I couldn't bring it up over the side. What was going to happen to our boat? Who would take it—would they care for it? Would they scrape the hull over rocks and fail to mend it? What would we live on without our nets to pull fish from the lake? We had no other skill. Only fishing.

And fishing for people—perhaps we had that skill. He seemed to think so. He himself!

“Should we come with you now, Teacher?” Simon was saying. “Where are you staying? What are you doing?”

“Yes, come with me. I am going round Galilee preaching the good news. The kingdom of God is among us now.”

The kingdom of God. The Messiah wanted us, to join him, to fish people into the kingdom of God. If his kingdom was among us, God must have these things in hand. What are you so afraid of, Andrew? Do you still think it will all fall apart? So many things do, in this world. For a moment I thought of God's hands tying knots. Hundreds of knots.

Millions of knots.

I left the end of the net trailing in the water, and jumped out of the boat.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

A different kind of hard

So I was talking on the phone with a dear friend the other day, and I found myself saying this: "When you're doing the work you're called to do, it is hard--very hard sometimes--but it's a different kind of hard."

It made sense in the context of what we were discussing--work that's driven by guilt, or the guilt of not doing it, work that crushes rather than fulfills. But afterward I kept thinking about it. What did I really mean? How could I explain it better?

See... I'm lucky. I get to do the work I choose to do. Due to some choices I'll discuss sometime, I live an extremely quiet life where I stay on the same land basically all the time because I can't afford a car. In the same bargain (so to speak, and leaving out a lot) I also received three or four quiet hours a day in which to write. I think I got the good end of the deal. But I didn't realize just how true that was till halfway through writing this book.

It's a long story. Maybe I'll tell it to you sometime. But in writing this book I found my calling. Found that I'd been writing, not because it was my skill, but because I was supposed to. It came out of nowhere. It was... really hard to explain.

But here's the thing. It was hard. Very hard. When I entered the phase of the book where I was truly doing my real work, here was my routine: Sit at computer playing digital Mahjongg, trying to force myself to get up and go to my writing room. (A small bare room in the empty apartment next door. While our friends still lived in the upstairs part, I got my husband to sabotage my computer's connection with their wireless. No internet.) Go over to my writing room, berating myself for not going sooner. Sit down at the desk, open my laptop.

Stare at the screen for twenty minutes, scared to death.

Start writing.

The writing wrung me out, mentally and physically, exhausted me. I felt the story in my body, my characters' tension and fear, the hard spiritual work of making choices that they could never step back from, choices in the dark. It was like wrestling. In my mind I stopped calling the little bare cave my writing room. I called it my battle room.

If I was saying it now, after thinking about it, I would add this: it's a different kind of hard. Like battle, or surviving in the wilderness. Not hard like being abused. It's completely different. Work you're not called to, done out of guilt, can crush you. Beat you down with your inadequacy, your failure to ever measure up. Because how can you measure up, when it's not your work?

(I mean, when we're failing to do our true work, when we're procrastinating past the point of shame, when we've let that beat us, we can feel like that sometimes. But when we're doing it--never.)

I think of the descriptions of wilderness survival in Hatchet and its sequels. You're very rarely comfortable. (Mosquitoes. Everywhere.) You have to put your whole strength, your whole mind, into what you're doing. There's hard work and discomfort and pain and fear and sudden danger. There are continual small joys, the deep, ever-fresh pleasure of food for real hunger. There are also breathtaking, transcendent moments of beauty and awe that you wouldn't trade for anything. And you can't decide when those moments will come--you have absolutely no control. They are given you--by a hushed lake under the stars, by a sunrise, even by a wild animal leading you on your path. They come from outside--from God.

And the whole time, in the good moments and the bad, you are alive.

It's like that.

There's something else it's not like, too. I've been listening to the Story Grid podcast recently, and Tim Grahl, who's starting a nonfiction book on how not to let procrastination and shame overcome you in creative work, describes a terrible moment in his life. It was the moment when he had gained everything he'd been working toward. He'd struck out on his own as a writer and book marketer, he'd built his business, he'd marketed a book into bestsellerdom, he had made it.

And it turned out he was completely miserable.

Now I've already made this pretty long, so I'll cut to the chase here. Doing the work you're called to do is also not like being on drugs.

"Success" is a drug. And what I mean by that is fame is a drug. I mean, I wouldn't know, but I can darned well guess. Because I know that even attention is a drug, at least in the form of "likes" and upvotes--anonymous attention, not flowing back and forth face-to-face, just a little signal in a vacuum that says you are now a little bit more worthy.

You get a "hit." It feels incredible. It fades.

You want another.

I read an article on Cracked.com (just so you know there's language & stuff) about stupid things we believe about rich people. The writer says money doesn't make rich people happy, which we all know and few of us believe. To make her point, she gives us a sentence about "Rich people never have to worry about money, they have so much money they don't have any real problems," etc, and suggests we replace the word "money" with "cocaine."

Because money, in that kind of quantity, is also a drug.

And what do drugs do? Weaken you. Destroy you.

I know it in myself. The mood in which I go to the internet looking for a hit is a terrible thing. I can well imagine why Tim Grahl wasn't happy. You work and you work towards success, and you think that you will make it and then you can bask. But you can't bask. The hit fades. And you feel miserable.

Human beings weren't made to bask.

I don't know everything about how, not having read the book he's just starting, but I gather Tim fought his way through from that bad place. One of the things he says he wants to tell everyone is that meaning and joy are found in the work itself. In the doing, in the struggle. And that's what I find too.

You're rarely comfortable. There's hard work and fear and failure and having to start all over again. And there are transcendent moments, unforgettable, unexplainable moments.

And in the good and the bad times, you are alive.

(But at least there aren't any mosquitoes.)

Makes me think of G.K. Chesterton's poem The Hunting of the Dragon, about how beautiful the world is in the midst of the struggle, and how it fades in our eyes when we've been too long at rest:

Beauty on beauty called us back
When we could rise and ride,
And a woman looked out of every window
As wonderful as a bride...

...For the hunting of the Dragon,
That is the life of a man.


There is no heaven on earth, no nirvana-like state of resting, unchanging bliss. There is only the struggle. But if we are blessed to be given the good struggle, in which the work itself is its reward, let's not flee it. It is the good. It's a gift to us, a gift of meaning. It is the kindness of God.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Being small and not despising

You know, I work pretty hard on blog posts. Some weeks. If I have the energy. Some weeks I'm just too worn out, so I post something previously-written, or just kind of run my mouth a little. Last week was one of those. I was really just running my mouth.

I'm... kind of surprised how many people felt it was something worth reading, and worth sharing.

I wonder--is it maybe that we all feel like we're making applesauce in a world falling apart?

That it's so awful, and we don't know what to do, what will make a difference, and pray and we send some money, and the crisis just keeps on going and maybe our money helped a little but it was only a little and the appeals keep rolling in and it's all still awful. And we don't know what to do but do the work that's put in front of us, we don't know what to do but make applesauce.

And we also feel somewhere deep down--in our hearts? in the earth beneath our feet?--that applesauce is worth something. That putting our roots down and holding on is worth something. That in spite of it all there's a future and we need to be ready to survive and to share.

Are any of those how you feel?

I don't really know what to say, again, today. I'm tired again. I've made a lot of applesauce and a fair amount of apple butter, and Paul and I between the two of us even managed to clean the kitchen floor afterward. (Ever boiled applesauce? It goes "Splat. Splat." and spits itself at you. And the floor. Protective gear is in order.) The world is still an awful mess. It doesn't clean up so easy.

My cat killed another chipmunk yesterday. I wish she'd stop. She doesn't eat them, doesn't even try. I love her, but she is quite frankly a clueless, overbred lap cat whose entire goal in life is to get people to pet her. She's beautiful and appealing, with big eyes and big paws and incredibly soft, long gray fur, and whoever bred her for these qualities managed to get rid of almost all the common sense. If I'm forced to walk anywhere in her company I'm sure I look ridiculous; I adopt this wide-set waddle, my boots swinging far around to each side, to avoid kicking her as she continually positions herself right in front of my feet no matter which way I turn. In hopes I'll pet her. Good luck, kitty. (The Boy & I call her Love Cat. She has a theme song.)

I saved the chipmunk. Not in the sense I would have liked--it was fully dead, limp and warm in my hand. No, I hesitate to admit this, but I saved it in the fridge.

Is it strange that I didn't want it to go to waste?

There are three barn cats in what we call the Valley, where the barns are and where the farm section of the communal land begins. They're two brothers and a sister, all ginger; their mother was a wiry little feral cat and a great hunter, but they grew up under someone's porch with food available, and they've had some trouble resigning themselves to barn cat status. (My cat came from under that porch herself--just showed up one day, no clues as to where she came from, rail-thin under her long fur, like a mangy gray lion. We were catless at the time and adopted her--the owners of the porch couldn't possibly handle one more cat, and the idea of her surviving on her own is just laughable.) They're healthy but on the thin side, always thinking about where their next meal will come from--and asking that exact question, quite loudly, to any humans they see. The Boy and I always wish, when we go down to the Valley, that we had brought something for them.

So I'll be bringing them something today.

I'm raising the Boy to believe you should never kill anything unless you have to. It just seemed the best thing. I don't like to see kids stepping on bugs just because they can, and he doesn't do that. Yet I still feel a little odd sometimes at how comfortable he actually seems with the idea of death and killing--he switches back and forth, now at almost four years old, between the point of view of the hunter and the hunted, between detachment and empathy. Sometimes even in the same game. But I couldn't teach him hunting was bad. Not when I was trying to teach him the animals in our woods here, half of whom live by it; not when he opened one of my National Geographics to a picture of an Amazon tribesman, wiry and smiling, his very long bow held loosely and alertly in his hand. "Where that man lives, there isn't any store," I told him. "They can't buy food. He knows how to hunt animals with his bow to get meat for his family." We played hunting for days. We pretended to make a little fire and cook the meat. He loved feeding his "family." I think he'll fully understand giving the chipmunk to the barn cats. I think he'll approve.

I even believe, to some extent, in never killing plants you don't have to. I know, it's nuts. But I have a notion, which I've never been able to carry out, that to truly respect the woods as God's creation, maybe you should never kill a tree you can't identify--even a sapling, even a seedling. What if it's something needed, something beautiful and rare? (Yesterday I had five actual living mature American chestnuts pointed out to me, standing around an isolated farmhouse. I wouldn't have known them.) I can't identify all the saplings. Maybe someday. I'm working on it. But at least I know enough to hold off a bit. When Paul and I moved here, we decided we wanted a redbud in the backyard. We almost pulled out the scrubby little sapling that was there instead, to make room. But we waited a year. And it bloomed.

It was a redbud.

When I weeded my inherited flowerbeds after arriving here, I was careful, knowing just how much I didn't know. I took out only weeds I recognized. Everything else I waited to see bloom. One odd dark-green vine--in my herb garden of all places, which I broke ground for myself--I left for years, simply because I'd never seen its like anywhere in the woods. Last year it bloomed. It was clematis, hundreds of little white star-flowers. I've seen the same one for sale at a nursery. This year I built it a trellis for it, and it brightened my garden, in the fall when all else began to fade.

I think it's worth something, being careful with things. A lot of the time I do it simply because I have to, because I live a small life with little money, but it's become a habit partly because I've found such nourishment in it. Waiting for the gift rather than taking it, it feels more like a gift. It's been that way more and more for me, as I've grown into this life.

It's about not despising things, I guess. It's about seeing the gift, even when the gift is small. It's about being okay with being small yourself, and not despising yourself for it. We have been taught for so long, in our culture, that we are either great or worthless.

It's a lie.

The chipmunk was not worthless. I respect it by not wasting its death. The small things that grow out of the earth are not worthless. I respect them by not uprooting without need. I am small, and give small gifts, and rejoice in small gifts, and am not worthless.

Same to you.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Making applesauce in a world falling apart

That's not meant to be a cute title or anything. It's just... what I'm doing these days.

Today the last family moved away from the Christian intentional community we lived in, which has folded. Well, the last family for awhile; but the other two families that remain are a steep four minutes' walk from us through the woods, and we're now sitting among four empty houses. Some of which need cleaning, which I suppose I will do. It's a sad day. A lot of people's hopes and dreams went into this place and it's hard to lose those. But mostly at this point, it's a tired day. The dissolution process has been so slow and long.

It's very quiet here now...

This used to be her house
Things fall apart. The center cannot hold. The community, the world. I couldn't believe my eyes when I found out just how bad it is in Puerto Rico. They say the death toll could rise into the hundreds--not from the storm but from the aftermath, no power, no clean water, no refrigeration for medicines--in Florida a few people died because a generator failed, and here millions of people have no power. I don't know how you make the government listen, convince them that these people are entitled to just as much help as Texas and Florida, just as much help as all other American citizens (and I certainly don't know how I would do it, I who never could reconcile myself to people having different rights depending on whose jurisdiction they were born in.) But I found a couple of places to donate where the money goes directly to help as fast as possible...

And then to cap it all Trump has capped the number of refugees allowed into the U.S. at 45,000. I mean listen, I'm terrible with numbers, they usually mean nothing to me till I find another number to compare them with, but even I knew the moment I heard it that 45,000 is ridiculous. I honestly just re-googled it before writing this because it looked so puny I wondered if I'd forgotten a zero.

We are in the midst of the worst refugee crisis since World War II. And we're accepting fewer than ever. WHY? I can't even. I really should write a screed about this. I just don't have the energy. I guess I'll have to make do with--if you're newer to this blog or just haven't read them before--directing you to my post "If they hadn't welcomed refugees, they would never have hidden Jews." And/or to the story of Varian Fry, the American hero who saved thousands of people from the Holocaust by breaking U.S. law and smuggling them in under the nose of the State Department, an act of civil disobedience I salute with both hands.
Refugees outside U.S. consulate in WWII France

Refusing refugees has real consequences. People die.

We're in the midst of the worst refugee crisis and the worst famine year (click here to donate) since World War II, and not only our President but also our news media barely mentions it. Maybe I should just start getting my news from Oxfam. You know, there's a game I play in my head sometimes of imagining a perfect world. It's like Heaven or the new earth, except without the parts I can't imagine, immortality and bliss and all that. It's just ordinary life with one difference--we all trust each other. No evil. (Imagine the sheer amount of resources freed up, even in what we consider nice stable countries, with the need for protection from each other removed. What would we do with all that time? Garden? Create? Make sure everyone had enough food, maybe?) One day I imagined what the news media would be like in that world. Supposing there were still natural disasters & all--they would be messengers letting us know where to send help. That's what they would be. The thought almost made me cry. Maybe I should just start getting my news from Oxfam.

So what do I do with the world and the community falling apart around me? I make applesauce. It doesn't seem the best response, but it's the job in front of me. I've done what I could think of to do for the world, which is precious little, I've given the money I could give. I've done what I could think of to do for my neighbors, mostly little, practical, daily-life things for those who remain; little, practical parting gifts for those who are gone, and help loading the moving truck. And here I am, looking out my front door at four empty houses, a vineyard, and three laden apple trees. Not to mention, a little further off, an acre of raspberries that are theoretically dying of disease, but are giving off quite a decent crop as they do so. And my garden full of tomatillos and green beans that have ripened so slow in the strange cool August we've had (I'm not complaining... but sweet fall weather in August was sort of eerie) that they're only just ready to preserve now. So I preserve. Cook and can and freeze. What else is there to do?

You see, we're staying here. For the known future, at least, but that may be quite a long time. When the community folded, it gifted the land to a new non-profit called Hungry World Farm. It's local people who are starting it, people from the local Mennonite church--friends. We've gradually moved into caretaking this place, and we have an agreement with HWF to continue doing that through the transition and beyond.

So I make grape juice. Thirty quarts for us, forty quarts to place in the old communal "Food Room" to be shared by people I know and people I don't yet know, people who will come. (That's an estimate. I don't want to count them! I would be OK with never seeing or smelling another steaming quart of grape juice right now.) So I make applesauce, and sock away apples in the root cellar believing someone will eat them. It's what you do, in the country. You take what God and the land have given you, and you preserve it against the coming cold. The coming storms. It's what you do, when the storms are all around and haven't reached you yet. There's precious little I can do but put my roots down and hold, and take what I am given and make food, but I'm grateful to be shown what's given me to do. And it's plain enough. You should see those apple trees. I've made sixteen quarts of applesauce already without picking a single apple. I swear. I just picked a bushel and a half of windfalls up off the ground. I may need to learn to make apple butter.

When life gives you fallen apples--remember that they're apples, I guess. Sweet and precious, and a gift. I am so grateful for the kindness of the land, the fruit and flowers it gives. I am so grateful for the firewood stacked by the driveway, that we will be warm this winter. I am so grateful for the quarts of applesauce lining the shelves of my pantry. And I wish I could send them to Puerto Rico or to South Sudan, but I can't; but I hope and I look to the future, and I believe someone will come with whom I can share them, if only I wait.

__________________


Image credit for apple tree in winter: Elena Elisseeva

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Eowyn and the feminism of all things that grow

Do you remember the first time you read Lord of the Rings? Do you remember when you first learned (and was it a shock?) that Eowyn had ridden in secret to battle before the gates of Gondor? I remember.

I was just a kid making a puzzle on the floor, as my Dad read us the entire trilogy, night after night after supper--it must have taken years!--and I was listening with all my heart. Come not between the Nazg├╗l and his prey, the Witch-King hissed, and Hinder me? Thou fool. No living man may hinder me!

And Dernhelm laughed a clear laugh like the ring of steel. No living man am I! he said.

And I thought, Oh no, he's some kind of undead!

(Yep, that's me--paragon of feminine and writerly intuition.)

I realized my mistake pretty quickly, of course. Eowyn stepped forth and I was swept up in wonder. Tolkien gives us such vivid images (not nearly equaled in the movie, to my sorrow): Still she did not blench (as the great beast strikes at her): maiden of the Rohirrim, child of kings, slender but as a steel-blade, fair yet terrible. A swift stroke she dealt... A light fell about her, and her hair shone in the sunrise.

From that time--unless it was even earlier--I loved Eowyn. That never changed. But on this reading (I'm listening to the audiobook as I garden this fall) I noticed something I had never noticed before.

At the end of her story Eowyn changes. (This is not the new thing. I'm getting there.) She comes to the brink of despair after her great battle, heals slowly and finds a man whom she can love, and she makes a choice and changes her life.

Then the heart of Eowyn changed, or else at last she understood it. And suddenly her winter passed, and the sun shone on her.

"I stand in Minas Anor, the Tower of the Sun," she said; "and behold! the Shadow has departed! I will be a shieldmaiden no longer, nor vie with the great Riders, nor take joy only in the songs of slaying. I will be a healer, and love all things that grow and are not barren." And again she looked at Faramir.

There are those who feel that this moment destroys her as a strong character, that Tolkien is relegating her to "a woman's proper place"--that by becoming a wife, (and presumably mother,) and a healer rather than a fighter, she becomes proper and feminine and acceptable. She becomes small. It's the view that changing from a warrior to a healer is a demotion. That serving life, rather than death, is a demotion.

Some people call that feminism.

I am a feminist. I rather think I was born one. I have never, not once, been able to stomach the view that a man is more important than a woman. And fundamentally that's what feminism means to me: equality between men and women. I'm told the term is falling out of fashion, that young women no longer call themselves feminists for fear of being labeled man-haters; I don't agree with this trend and will not bow to it. But there's something else I can't stomach, and that's the equation of violence with importance. The idea that nothing is to be more admired than the ability to kill. The idea that Eowyn's life becomes pitiful when she lays down her sword.

And Tolkien agrees; I only realized on this reading just how explicitly Tolkien agrees.

It comes in Faramir's talk with Frodo, as they sit together in the secret caves behind the waterfall in Ithilien. As their conversation ranges across many things, Faramir begins to speak of the culture of Gondor, its roots and the changes that have come to it. In their lore, he explains, they reckon three races of Men (and stay with me here, because I may talk about the problems inherent in this sometime but it won't be today): the High, the Middle, and the Wild. The Numenoreans or men of the West, the founders of Gondor, are the High; but the Rohirrim are reckoned among the Middle Peoples.

Yet now, says Faramir, if the Rohirrim are grown in some ways more like to us, enhanced in arts and gentleness, we too have become more like to them, and can scarcely claim any longer the title High. We are become Middle Men, of the Twilight, but with memory of other things. For as the Rohirrim do, we now love war and valour as things good in themselves, both a sport and an end; and though we still hold that a warrior should have more skills and knowledge than only craft of weapons and slaying, we esteem a warrior, nonetheless, above men of other crafts. Such is the need of our days. So even was my brother Boromir; a man of prowess, and for that he was accounted the best man in Gondor.

...And favored above himself, Faramir does not add, by their father--and by others. Someone else (I believe it's one of Faramir's men) later comments that as a man who loves learning more than war, Faramir is less respected than his brother by most people in Minas Tirith; but the men who serve under him love him. And there's no doubt his creator does too. This is the man who refuses the Ring, though (even besides its terrible inherent pull) he knows how much his lord and father wants it. He passes the ultimate test. I knew that--but it had passed me by, until this time, just how much Faramir is meant by Tolkien to be a representative of Numenor, of all that is "highest" in human culture. A fictional culture, of course. He couldn't use a real one, to represent the ideal. That does not exist.

Rohan, on the other hand, is a real culture--one that Tolkien loved and admired, but with reservations. It is absolutely the culture of the Angles and Saxons, transposed from the sea onto wide grassy plains and onto horses, speaking the same Old English (also known as Anglo-Saxon) that my first college English class twisted our tongues around trying to read Beowulf. (Tolkien was a professor of Anglo-Saxon and knew the culture and its sagas intimately.) It struck me vividly, this time, just how much that culture glorifies battle--in a deeply attractive way, full of bleak but blinding beauty and pathos.

Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?
Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?
They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow;
The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into Shadow.

Eowyn, as we first meet her, embraces her culture wholly, even as she burns to break free of the darkness and dishonor she feels her royal house has sunk to in the days of Wormtongue and the weakness of Theoden. She speaks of battle in the same glorious, steel-bright terms as any man of Rohan, and the word renown is often on her lips. Only one fault does she find with her culture: that it does not allow her the same chance at great deeds as the men. All your words, she says to Aragorn when he speaks of valor without renown in the last defense of her people, are but to say: you are a woman, and your part is in the house. But when the men have died in battle and honour, you have leave to be burned in the house, for the men will need it no more. Though Aragorn is not wrong to praise it, valor without renown is not what is offered to her brother, and she will not have it for herself. In this she is just; she is, after all, his equal and more. Though it's not right for her to abandon her post as leader of her people in hiding at Dunharrow, it struck me this time that she begs to ride with Aragorn after she has failed to convince him to ride another way--she begs to go with him on the Paths of the Dead. The very mention of that place fills absolutely every rider of Rohan with abject terror, including the king and Eomer, who beg Aragorn not to go. Eowyn is braver than her brother.

She also, we are told, goes seeking death. Oppressed and darkened in her heart by her long role as "dry-nurse" to a shamefully weakened king, by being shut in the house with Wormtongue's whisper always in her ear, by the great change Gandalf works bringing liberation to--it seems--everyone but her, she sets her heart and her love on Aragorn as her hope for a larger life. A life (as Aragorn says later) "of glory and great deeds, and lands far from the fields of Rohan." When he rejects her, she has nothing left to fall back on, and in her despair she takes her culture's way out: she will die in battle, gloriously.

But she does not die. She does the great deed she has always hoped to do, with the help of a humble hobbit, and she lives, though sick with the Black Breath, in the darkness of her mind with her vision of her future empty before her. She is healed. She meets Faramir. I stand upon some dreadful brink, she tells him, and it is utterly dark in the abyss before my feet, but whether there is any light behind me I cannot tell. For I cannot turn yet.

Then the wind changes, and Shadow passes, and the Eagle comes out of the East crying the news that the Ring is destroyed and peace is come again to Middle-Earth.

And she turns.

I will be a shieldmaiden no longer, nor vie with the great Riders, nor take joy only in the songs of slaying. I will be a healer, and love all things that grow and are not barren.

Not take joy only in the songs of slaying. This is the very thing Faramir said about the deterioration of his own culture, which he still hopes to reverse: that only war and warriors are admired.

This, then, is the change Eowyn makes when she turns from her darkness towards Faramir: she lets go of the culture she was raised in, the culture of glory and death. She makes her choice, and she stands with a man who does not desire to be a king, but to go "dwell in fair Ithilien and there make a garden." (It's not for nothing that Faramir earlier says to Frodo and Sam, with great respect--even with awe, and because they were the only ones able to carry the Ring and not to use it--Your land must be a realm of peace and content, and there must gardeners be in high honour.) She is a hero, and has killed a being second only to the Dark Lord in power and evil; she has fulfilled the greatest dream of any warlike Middle Man; she is free now to choose the High. Which paradoxically is also the humble. Gardening. Healing, and all things that grow.

Tolkien names as High the cultures that honor and do not disdain those things of peace and nurture that are traditionally the woman's realm.

I am a feminist. But I have the same uneasiness about my own culture, and (at least sometimes) feminism within it, that Faramir confesses to about Gondor. So often, "feminism" in movies is an attractive young woman felling a dozen men with karate moves or guns. So often, fans are quick to scorn a female character who is insufficiently prepared to hurt people, or to consider her demoted if she marries or (worse) has children, or consider her ill-treated by her creators if she is not put in harm's way and allowed to show off a few moves. (Have we now experienced so much false and choreographed violence--and so little real--that lethal fighting appears to us to be the best part of life?) As if violence were the only kind of strength.

But this is feminism to me: not only that women should be admitted to the realm of the traditionally masculine, but also that men should learn to honor the traditionally feminine as it deserves. Who will care for all things that grow--children, gardens, human bodies, homes, the earth? Some people answer "unpaid women," others "low-wage workers." There is no good answer till we learn to say "all of us as we can, in honor and in love." There is no good world till men cease to think themselves "above" the profound and humble work of life, till all people cease to think the work of death is better. Yes, the glass ceiling is wrong. The worship of money and power, and the dismissal and overriding of the vulnerable of the earth, is worse. But these things are tied to each other. Till we stop shoving off the tedious work of care onto "unimportant" people we do not honor for it--whether it's women or the poor--till we cease to scorn or condescend about the care of small things that grow, we can never be equal. And we can never be free.

So that's my dream, I guess. The feminism of all things that grow. It believes in equal rights and in the right of women to use their gifts in every place and way that men do--to share fully in the work that is called "real" in our society. But it does not stop there or accept that so-called reality. In the end its dearest wish is not to take women away from home so much as to bring men back there, working together in equality to make it a place of life. It honors gardeners. It honors the giving and preserving of life, and all things that grow. It honors and does not scorn the uncounted millions of traditional women whose main work in life has been to nurture other human beings and help them survive--and men the same. (I think for instance of subsistence farmers, their work as repetitious, full of care, and ignored by the so-called great as any housewife's.) It honors love and respect, kindness and humility, and a Man who kneels and washes other people's feet.

For thus spake Ioreth, wisewoman of Gondor: The hands of the king are the hands of a healer, and so shall the rightful king be known.

__________________

Image credits, in order:

Eowyn fighting the Nazgul: Cory Godbey
Eowyn versus the Witch-King: grantgoboom.deviantart.com
Eowyn of Rohan: lariethene.deviantart.com
Eowyn with sword: New Line Cinema
The Healing of Eowyn: the Hildebrant brothers
Eowyn and Faramir kiss on the walls: Catherine Chmiel

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Scars: a reading from the Gospels


I'm listening to the Lord of the Rings on audiobook these days, and have a lot of thoughts forming on the story of Eowyn and the meaning of her deeds and her transformation at the end of the story. I almost wrote about it for today, but I want to take the time to make a good job of it, so that'll be next week. (Stay tuned.)

So I'm sharing another of my readings today, the short Biblical pieces I write. I wrote this one for a spiritual retreat we hosted, for which Paul had selected the story of Thomas as a theme. As a doubter myself, I've always been fascinated by Thomas, but this time--and I don't quite remember why--I chose to take a step back, or maybe sideways. I wrote the story from the point of view, not of Thomas himself, but of one of his fellow disciples: Simon the Zealot. It was interesting, writing from the point of view of a somewhat hardened freedom fighter. It didn't actually occur to me till halfway through the story that such a person would know exactly what a mortal wound looked like. This is one of the things writing does for me: it shows me things I would never see otherwise. I never pay such profound attention to Scripture as when I'm writing one of these readings; I can't. The writing itself takes me to a place I can't otherwise reach.

________________

Scars


All of my scars have stories. But there's none of them I like to tell.

The oldest two, on my arms, are from my father. You can barely see them now. I can see them just like they were, if I think about it. I can see his face just like it was, too. Why would I want to think about it?

The mess on my left leg and arm is from the Romans. I was fifteen. Some officer, going somewhere important in his long red cloak, just rode me down on his horse. I was in the way, and what did he care about some Jewish boy? The rocks on the slope beneath the road took chunks out of my leg, and my arm up to the shoulder. The wounds turned bad. I was sick with fever for a week and they thought I would die. But I guess he got where he was going on time.

The men in our village talked about it for weeks. But there was nothing they could do. What did Rome care?

It's not exactly the kind of story you brag on.

I suppose that's part of why I joined the Zealots, in the end. Why I decided to fight them. There were other reasons. I wanted to free our country. But the look on my father's face when he said “There's nothing we can do,” and the pain and anger in my belly when I saw it, those things are burned into me as hard as the thick hard lines and ridges on my skin.

I suppose that's why I don't like to tell the stories. There are other scars. The ones you can't see hurt longer. I don't know how long. I don't know if they stop.

The other scars are from the fights that came after that. Battles, I suppose you could call them. The one on my face is one of those, the one people ask about. They generally expect me to be proud, to want to talk about it. There is some of it I'm still proud of, but I don't care to talk about it. One memory brings back another. Believe me, putting a sword into another man and pulling it out is not a thing a man wants to remember.

Those days are gone, of course, since I chose to follow Jesus. I chose to fight for a different kind of freedom. He sent me out preaching, going around the country with the others, telling people the kingdom of God had come. He taught us so much. We saw the power of God in him, and the kindness of God; we saw lepers healed and the dead come to life. We saw him come into Jerusalem in triumph, not at the head of an army, but riding on a donkey with the people all shouting for joy and waving branches. And then the Romans got him after all. The Romans and our own people, our so-called leaders, the cowards. I've seen death enough to know it, but I saw Hell that day.

When the women came to us three days later and said they'd seen angels, when Peter and John came and said he was alive again, I thought hard. He was different from any man I'd known, and I had believed God was in him. If anyone on earth could do such a thing, it wouldn't be anyone but him. But I held back. I'll admit: I held back because I was afraid to be a fool. To be made a fool of by hope.

He came to us that night, very late. We were still awake, with one lamp burning. He wasn't there, and then he was. Someone cried out. He looked like a spirit in the flickering light, like his spirit come to say goodbye on his way to God. That's what we thought he was.

Then he spoke.

He spoke, and his voice had life and blood and strength in it, as much as it ever had when he'd stood up on a hill and shouted his teaching to the crowds. “It's me,” he said. “I'm alive. Look at my hands and feet. Touch me. See if it's me.”

I lit another lamp. I cupped the flame in my hands till it blazed high. And there in the flare of light I saw it. He was reaching out his hand to Matthew, and there on his wrist was the place they'd driven the nail through. It was healed. He'd been dead three days, and it was the clean pink of a fresh-healed scar. And then I looked further, and there in his left side I saw a thing I'd never seen in my life—a thing I could swear no-one had ever seen. I saw the scar of a mortal wound, fresh-healed just like the other.

No-one could have survived a blow like that one. I've seen men take wounds like that, and I know. It went in, right to the heart. And there it was, that awful hole in his side, new-healed just like all the other scars. Testifying. It was him. He had been killed, and he was alive. God was in him, and all our hope had come again.

I believed. The scars did that for me. But I don't know that I would have learned the other thing, the stranger thing, if I hadn't seen what they did for Thomas.

Thomas wasn't there that night. He was afraid, I think. I don't know where he hid, but he came back to us at dawn, and when he heard what had happened he accused us of lying. Then changed his mind on the instant, before we could get angry, and said we must have dreamed it, it couldn't have been real. He said he'd believe it when he'd touched those scars we spoke of, when he'd put his hand in that hole. I saw the tears standing in his eyes, though he turned away to hide them.

It was days before Jesus came again. We stayed together, talking of what we'd seen, of what we ought to do. Thomas said nothing at all. He barely ate. When the others tried to tell him again that it was true, he turned away.

Thomas was my friend. I seem like a hard man to most people, I suppose. But I know how hard life can be when you're young, and it was hard for Thomas. I did what I could for him. It wasn't much.

Then Jesus came to us again.

He wasn't there, and then he was. And he was standing by Thomas. Thomas staggered to his feet. Looking at him. He never took his eyes off his face. I saw the tears start in them when Jesus said “Peace be with you.” And he still stood there just looking at him, looking into his eyes. He never looked down at all till Jesus told him outright to look at the scars.

“Put your hand in my side,” he said, and Thomas looked at him, and I saw his hand reach out, just a little, and draw back. It was shaking. But it wasn't fear. His eyes were wide. He seemed not to be sure it was allowed. Not to be sure he was allowed.

And I looked again at that wound, that open path into his heart. Those holes torn in his wrists and in his feet. He would have them forever, by the look of them. I realized I was rubbing one of the scars on my arm; one of the ones the Romans gave me before I could even fight back.

I remembered what he'd said, what we hadn't understood till later: that he would give his life as a ransom for many. That was the story of these scars. The story of how he had been killed and yet here he was alive. Of how—though I didn't quite understand it all yet—he had saved us all.

But it was also the story of how men drove nails through his wrists, and he could do nothing to stop them. It was also the story of how he hung there nailed to a beam, and a soldier put a spear into his heart.

Thomas reached out his trembling hand, awe in his eyes, and put his hand into that wound. He looked like he was touching something holy. Something that had death in it, and life. The power of God, and the kindness of God.

And standing there watching him, I saw that he was. And he knew it. He saw those scars for exactly what they were.

And I wanted to touch them too.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

The Ballad of the White Horse

It's the longest poem I've ever read--and enjoyed from beginning to end. The Ballad of the White Horse--G.K. Chesterton's epic poem about King Alfred re-conquering England from invading Danes--is more than 2,500 lines long.

And it's wonderful.

Welcome to another edition of "here is a thing I love, maybe you'd enjoy it too." I know people don't go in for epic poetry so much anymore. I have a book of Chesterton's poems--which I love--and it was years before I took the plunge and actually read the 80 pages of it that were the Ballad. But there's another way, Epic poetry was meant to be listened to. There are recordings out there--free ones. (More on that in a minute.) For an audiobook, the Ballad of the White Horse is actually quite short! I've listened to it three or four times by now while gardening. It always give me a boost.

Chesterton is an old-fashioned poet, in my favorite way. People mostly don't even know he wrote poetry, it's in a style that's so unfashionable today--but I love it. Ringing, rolling stanzas of iambic pentameter that thump and rock under you like a galloping horse; images clear and bright in heraldic colors... or primary colors, as we call most of them now... Yeah, it's not subtle, but he can write an incredible stanza:

Not for me the vaunt of woe;
Was I not from a boy
Vowed with the helmet and spear and spur
To the blood-red banner of joy?

So the Ballad is about a time when the Danes (in the poem they're sometimes called pirates--if I understand rightly these were not technically Vikings but close enough) had invaded England and driven the Anglo-Saxon tribes off most of their lands. Alfred the king of Wessex was still fighting them, but it looked hopeless. Alfred is a bit of a figure of legend in England--there's quite a bit that isn't known for sure (though a lot surer than, say, Arthur--he definitely did exist!) and Chesterton feels free to weave his own heroic, idealized version and cast Alfred as defending civilization against the dark age that came with the fall of Rome.


And there was death on the Emperor
And night upon the Pope;
And Alfred, hiding in deep grass
Hardened his heart with hope.

Alfred soon hits his lowest point--a "conquered king" driven off his lands completely, taking refuge on an island in a river--and just at the moment when he concludes that "God has wearied of Wessex men" and is now on the side of the Danes, everything changes.

In the midst of a childhood memory that follows on his despair, he looks up stunned with a strange sense that the world has changed when he wasn't looking:


Fearfully plain the flowers grew
Like a child's book to read,
Or like a friend's face seen in a glass;
He looked, and there Our Lady was,
She stood and stroked the tall live grass
As a man strokes his steed.

(Mary plays a big role in the poem; Chesterton was Catholic. I love that image of her stroking the grass.)

Alfred asks her if he will ever win England back from the Danes. She tells him this is the one thing he cannot lawfully be told; that pagans seek sure knowledge of the future, but Christians are not allowed to know it and must instead rely on courage, faith and hope. Then she says:

I tell you nought for your comfort,
Yea, nought for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.

Night shall be thrice night over you,
And heaven an iron cope.
Do you have joy without a cause,
Yea, faith without a hope?

It's a little hard to analyze these words. (They weren't--nor is any of Chesterton's poetry--meant to be analyzed. They were meant to ring like music, or steel.) What do those last two questions actually mean? What I know is, the stanzas function as a challenge. It's worse than ever. What will you do? Do they stir you? They stir me.

(It's said that during both World Wars the Ballad was immensely popular. It was apparently so much part of public consciousness in the U.K. that twice during World War II newspaper headlines were simply quotes from it. One, after a great defeat, was "Nought for your comfort.")

They stir Alfred's allies too. When he seeks out three local leaders--a Saxon, a Roman, and a Celt--to ask them to gather their troops for another fight, all three of them refuse at first. The Celtic chieftain says that Alfred's people keep prophesying a victory that never comes, and Alfred replies that he has no such prophesy this time: "The thing I bear is a lesser thing, but comes in a better name." He quotes Mary's words--which set the man's heart on fire. The hosts gather for battle.

There's a lot more. Alfred spies out the Danish camp pretending to be a harper and sings a song identifying his cause with the White Horse of Uffington, a prehistoric chalk shape cut into the turf of a great hill; because his people cherish and maintain the Horse despite not even knowing who made it, he says, and because the invaders have instead let it go to ruin, he knows God will be on their side--the side of care and love of all things, not carelessness and destruction. Then comes the battle, with many moments that ringingly dramatize faith and persistence and hope. (And, a little anachronistically, democracy.) Should I tell you how the battle ends?

Maybe you can guess. But it's worth a listen.

You can find it here at Librivox--ah, Librivox my old friend. I've gotten so many hours of wonderful listening there. Classics and books I'd never heard of--all older works, in the public domain now--read and uploaded by volunteers and available entirely for free. Have a look round. I may post something myself there one day. Shouldn't say more yet.

Here's a little preview embedded--the section I quoted from:



And, for fun, here is the trailer for, apparently, a movie someone is making of it. Very much a homemade movie, but it's kind of fun:


And the whole darn thing embedded from Youtube, just in case that's the way you'd like to play it:



I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet,
And the sea rises higher.

Let's pray for everyone the sea and sky threaten today.