Smaller Things Called Life

For example, the joy of being able to tell something as precise and mysterious as time.  I was overwhelmed by this revelation.  At any given moment to be able to glance down at your wrist and pin the day to a time line in half a second.  Even disregarding the fact that with every tick a second of your life is taken away from you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

During the week there is the flurry of school and learning.  Sometimes, there is that moment of calm, peace, where I make things and nothing else exists except the thing I am making.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Saturdays life is full, and I clean by vacuuming and mopping floors and scrubbing the bathroom, and then I do my laundry, sometimes in the sink.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And there are the days when I work late in my studio at school, and there are tea and biscuits there on the table, a thousand things to write, but I get up and go to the window and look out into a blue night and a white moon, and a thousand lights moving as if they were fire instead of electricity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And sometimes I have to wonder, what would it be like it I had never come here at all, if my shoes never made such a sound against the floor, if I never felt my way along to the door in the dark and then burst out of the door into the lights of an Italian night, and I have to wonder, would I miss what I never experienced?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Even here, the little things in life go on.  Eating, doing laundry, going to the bathroom, taking showers, sleeping, walking, coughing, sneezing, feeling hot, feeling cold, cleaning, listening to music, tapping your foot, waiting.  Everything is happening in the midst of the adventure, and the normal things that go on are what make the experience seem so real, so natural. And still, when I pray, I thank God for sending me here.

On Sunday The Church Bells Are Ringing

It is a lovely, cool morning with an empty sky and a bright sun, and the church bells are ringing every hour or half hour or even every fifteen minutes.  I haven’t counted yet.  I slept for a long time last night, and in my subconsciousness was thinking of verb conjugations for my Italian homework.  So much knowledge has been crammed into my brain this last week I have little time to think about anything else.  I’m still trying to sort it all out, and when I woke up this morning to the beautiful sun, I had a sense of peace and calm.

Last night at 8pm I finally stopped studying to go find myself dinner.  Claudia and the family are gone for the week, and I ran out of food last night.  I walked around various places, almost stepped into one or two restaurants, but decided against them.  Finally, not being able to ignore my hunger, I picked a restaurant that had the Tuscan soup which I love (and have forgotten the name of.)  The soup is made with bread, beans, and vegetables.  It was the only thing I ordered (besides some house wine), which the waitress seemed to think was strange.  But what was even stranger for her was when I ordered fresh bread after I was finished with my soup. “Solo pane? solo pane?” she kept saying, looking at me. “Si, si—solo pane!” I said, making some weird gesture with my arm to give her the idea that I knew it was weird to order only bread.

When no one was looking, I crammed a few pieces of bread into my purse.

I felt like some sort of character from a Dickens novel, spending the last of his money on a meal, and saving some of the food—stuffing it away—so no one would know how desperate he was.  Of course, I wasn’t desperate, I just knew that the bread would come in handy for today when I would take myself out for a picnic to the gardens, and I could make a sandwich with the bread I took.

I paid the bill and went to sit in the Piazza, perfectly alone and perfectly content to be alone watching all these interesting people, listening to the only sound there was to listen to: the blended hum of people talking, with an occasional screech from a child or cheering of a crowd.  I walked home in the dark and tried to concentrate on more Italian, but my eyes were heavy and I went to bed, leaving it all for today.

And when today came, I had breakfast with a Winnie-the-Pooh and Tigger placemat, my typical cocoa with orzo in warm milk, and some kind of biscuit.  I sat quietly eating, while listening to a refreshing sermon that I heard once a long time ago.  When it was over, I kept wishing it hadn’t ended.  Now the rest of the Italian waits for me, and I’m about to go in, resolutely, to butcher conjugations.  I have half an idea my teacher will be horrified with me tomorrow, but if she is we’ll have to have some one on one time.

Today I’m going to try to find the botanical gardens.  I am ready for some rest—not the rest of sleeping, but the willed kind of a rest.  The kind of rest you experience when you say: “I’m not going to let this or that worry me.”  I am ready to walk out of this apartment, into the old stone street shaded by the city wall, up the hills, and into beauty.  I am ready to experience beauty, to become one with it and reconciled with it, because it is peace and comfort to know that Christ is beauty and everything lives and breathes in him, and I can hear him when the wind blows and I can hear him in the light of the sun and the birds when they sing.  So I go out to be at rest.

After my verb conjugations are complete.

Rambling Woman

For one thing, I’m a terribly practical person when you get down to it.  I don’t say “totes” or “adorbs” or “fave” or “legit”.  I’m not sure how often I use the word totally.  When this faithful MacBook hits rock bottom and decides it will no longer serve me, it will be my last computer for a long time. I’ll get a type-writer instead, to write my books on.  I like the ideas of the old world—not just something you think about, but something you live.  I want to live that way.

I’m not caught up in politics or what’s going to happen with the war.  In some ways I’m irresponsible.

But I am quiet in my soul, and the quiet radiates out of me and into my life, and I desire to live simply, as much in the physical company of those near to me as possible, and not so much over superficial places on the internet.

I have a mind to do something purposeful. Not just part-time-jobbing my twenties away, but really doing something that means something to me.  I don’t believe that the earth was made to give to us.  I believe that whatever it gives counts as blessings from God, for the righteous and the unrighteous.  I believe that we were put on this earth to tend it.

Yes, I like to mess around with style and fashion.  It’s enjoyable to pick out a crazy outfit and go somewhere.  But lately it’s felt like more of a strain.  It’s so difficult each morning to decide what to wear, and to know it has to be nice and different.  And then you see all these girls, and they’re all wearing the same type of thing—”what’s in” I guess you call it.  Lately I’ve simply been wearing whatever comes into my hands first.  My priorities are to be clean and presentable, and whatever clothes me should flow with that general idea.

But where I am most at home is outdoors, and above all, with animals.  I like the fresh, cutting smell of pine and wet wood in the fall.  I love the serenity of the woods and the fields under quiet snow.  I like the warmth of a horse’s breath on your cold hand in the early morning, when he’s stamping for his food. I like taking care of things, things that are living, things that are dependent on you for their well-being.

I’m just about ten days from my nineteenth birthday.  The years seem to be going fast.  I’m young and a vigorous blood flows in my veins.  I am ready now to perform these things, to start living out and following a God-given dream I believe I was meant to realize.  To start establishing myself, not independently, but purposefully, as fits a young woman.

In these Wendell Berry books, young people decide that they love each other and they get married and settle down to live life.  They don’t go through this whole ordeal of trying to decide whether or not the girl or boy in question is ready for marriage.  They go ahead and do it, live life, learn from their mistakes.  Now it seems like there are so many inhibitions to marriage.  So much doubt about whether or not “he/she’s the right one! what if he/she isn’t?” And it doesn’t have to be that complicated, because honestly it’s never something that can be answered with logic.  But my point is that our lives nowadays complicate so much, even marriage.  College, career, lifestyles, etc.  So much divides us nowadays.

In those books and in those times women weren’t defined as writers or lawyers or artists or musicians.  They were measured and judged by their character qualities—by their sweetness, obedience, honesty, contentment.  They were admired, and while their husbands worked in the fields and with the animals they cooked and cleaned, fed the chickens and milked the cows, took care of the children, prepared the food for winter, canned, pickled.  She may have had artistic qualities—for instance she may have been a writer.  But her goal as a writer was not publicity.  She would write for herself, and for those around her.  She wasn’t always alone in her work, and neither were the men in their work.  There were always people who stopped by to talk, always people who stopped by to help out.  Even work was a type of community, for both women and men.

The point is this.  I want to be that kind of a woman.  I am strong in both mind and spirit and body, and I know I am capable.  I want to be admired for those qualities, and I want to be known as capable of cooking and cleaning, of being responsible, of being hard-working.

“She had come into her beauty.  This was not the beauty of her youth and freshness, of which she had had a plenty.  The beauty that I am speaking of now was that of a woman who has come into knowledge and into strength and who, knowing her hardships, trusts her strength and goes about her work even with a kind of happiness, serene somehow, and secure.  It was that beauty she would always have.  Her eyes had not changed.  They still seemed to exert a power, as if whatever she looked at was brightened.” (Jayber Crow, Wendell Berry)

God created the woman as a capable help-meet to Adam.  He created her a marvelous thing, as marvelous as man, but in a different way.  How can we expect to be the same?  He created her a beautiful thing, strong and intelligent and above all, with purpose.  We are not as strong as men, but we have our strength.  Our arms are strong for our tasks.  We are created with strength for what we are purposed to do.

And I think it’s noble.

I am old-fashioned. I don’t understand things about these days, or else I do but I disagree with them.  And I live so much in the old world that coming into the new world is like a jolt, a shock.

I am happy.  I have a purpose, and I want to work with the land.  I know from experience it is a satisfying kind of work.  A hard work, but satisfying.

After all, I’m not entirely a bookworm.  If I’m practical in my speech, I make up for it in imagination.  I get that from books.  And in my imagination and in my entire being a dream is born, and I don’t discard it just because it is a dream.  I take it up carefully, tenderly in my hands.  I grow it and I grow it until it is big and strong and ready to be fulfilled.  It’s not just any foolhardy dream.  There are some dreams you can tell are futile.  But then there are others… you feel it to the core of your being, and you can’t explain how or why, but you are led.  And God gives you grace, and grace feeds it, and God gives you opportunity and means, and then, in the end, you realize it.

I realize it.

RH

To Observe, Or Not

The walk from the car to the library seemed to take an eternity, and I felt Bedshaped, yes, just like the Keane song. My legs felt like I was dragging stone, and I kept coughing and coughing.  I felt like I was going to have a heart-attack when I was talking to the librarian, holding in the coughs that wanted to explode in my throat.

“What’s the name of the author?”

“Rosemary Sutcliff.”

Silence for the longest time, and I hemmed and tried to breathe as calmly as I could.  After eternity, she found the author, turned the screen to me to show me the only book they had.

It was fine.  As long as it was one I hadn’t read before, and it was.  I thanked her.  She got up and found it for me, and all I wanted to do was cough inconspicuously—impossible.  The librarian handed me “The Shining Company” and as it came into my hands I felt a sense of completion.  It’s the kind of feeling a reader gets when a book comes into her hands and she knows, immediately, that it will be worth the time she invests in it.

“Thank you,” I said, and the lady moved out of the way.  I snuck a quick little cough into my sleeve to tide me over till I could get outside.  Then I went straight to the Fiction section.

B…. B…. B…. B…. Why was the B section so long?  Why were there so many books by Steven Berry?  Then I skipped too far, had to trace with my fingers and my head flung back to see where Steven Berry ended and Wendell Berry began.  Only one book—but as long as it was one I hadn’t read.

I pulled Jayber Crow off the shelf and into my hands, and I held it there.  It didn’t matter that I was in a library, that these books were stamped by the libraries claiming possession—they were mine, they were for me only to discover in what would remain of the time between when they were unread and read.  I would give back the books, but they would still be mine.

We checked out of the library and by the side of the van I keeled over with my hands on my knees and coughed for a really long time.  Feeling much better, I drove home, and spent the rest of the day on the couch in the company of Rosemary Sutcliff and her magic of the 7th century.  She makes the men of history slow down, downsize, and think and feel like human beings, but she talks—oh, she talks like one of them, like people not from this time and place.  The next day I finished the book, and started Wendell Berry.  I leave in so little time, and am constantly aware that what I read in the next four months will most likely be assigned to me.  I have this great desire to read so much of what I love before I go so that it will still be with me in the months ahead.

Jayber Crow is the kind of book you settle into reading.  Not a long kind of settling, like War and Peace.  The kind of settling where you think, “I am going to enjoy this—a story—beautiful writing and thoughts.” And then you really do.  The story seems so simple, but it’s really a story crammed with a thousand stories, and I dare believe that most of them really happened, or at least were inspired by similar stories.  Wendell Berry tells the tale of Jayber Crow, who in the first chapter of the book takes note of all the people on the street of Port William that he, as a barber, sees and interacts with on a regular basis.  And I could almost picture Wendell Berry standing there in the shade of the barber’s shop, just watching, calling out hello to a friend, laughing at something funny.  He probably heard stories as a kid, probably saw crazy things happen on the main street and in the fields and the farms.  He is himself an old box bursting with every kind of story, with almost eighty years worth of living and a hundred stories for every day he lived. I know because I’m a writer.  You begin to write the moment something happens, the moment you hear a story and tuck it away in the corner of your mind.  The power of observation.

I had my eyes examined today.  Before the retina exam, the drops fresh in my eyes,  I kept blinking and opening them wide to try and see, and move the film I felt over my eyeballs.  I couldn’t see anything clearly.  While I was picking out my glasses I kept saying: “Oh, I like this pair! Isn’t this pair cute? Wait, I can’t see them actually… What’s that on the side? Excuse me, ma’am, could you tell me what that thing is on the side? Oh—a circle with a sparkly thing? Okay, thank you!” And it went on like that for fifteen minutes.  I kept getting up close to peer at something, only to discover that that was worse.  Then I would make my brother walk off about six feet with it and see if I could see it from there.  I suppose it was all rather funny, and it felt odd.  I just wanted to get home so I could read more Jayber Crow—more about the people of Port William.

“Your pupils look like Alex’s [our cat] after he’s come out of a dark closet,” from my ten year old brother Luther. I didn’t think of it at the time but I thought of it later, that Luther must have had to watch Alex’s eyes very closely to notice how his pupils changed.  I could just imagine him shutting the cat back into the closet, taking him out, shutting him in, taking him out, testing every time to make sure that the pupils really did get bigger than usually when he was in the closet.

“They really do look like Alex’s!” and, even later, I caught him peering up at me while I was slicing watermelon—trying to, anyways, considering I couldn’t see very well—and he said, “I like your pupils big.”

It never occurred to me how much I observed things until my vision was so blurred by the drops for the eye exam.  She had told me it would wear off in 2-6 hours, and it seemed like an eternity (again).  I stood in front of the sink, watermelon juice streaming down my chin, hands, and wrists, staring out the window at what I could see.  That wasn’t so bad.  But when I tried to look at the seeds of the watermelon? Blurry.  And I couldn’t imagine struggling so hard all the time with seeing clearly when the time came to observe. But it made me realize something very important.

As important as observation is, we can be too conscious of it, too aware of it.  We might observe something too closely, and then it will lose its originality and beauty.  We will miss the bigger picture.  And if we are too conscious of it, it will not present itself in the right light.  As a writer, if I am so concerned with a certain story—for the use of getting it into a novel or a poem—then I am cut off from all the people who are taking part in the story, whether it be my siblings or my friends.  It’s part of living.  We can’t always be just the observer.  It is when we listen and hearken to the stories told anywhere, when we respond with sorrow or laughter or disapproval that we can write about them because they have become real stories to us—real in the sense that they have meant something to us other than good meat for our books.

No. Don’t observe too carefully, or you will miss the entire picture.  At the same time, don’t be proud and think it all comes from the imagination, don’t think that it’s already known.  It’s all there, to be observed.  That is, the grass and the mountains and the blue-jay’s song in the dead of winter, when his streak of blue on the pine branch causes you to look up and wonder: “What was that?”  And the things your mother used to say to your father that you would laugh at, when your grandmother tells you what happened at her mother-in-law’s deathbed, and the pranks your siblings played on each other, the places you loved or the places she loved, smells that remind you of another time and place.

Perhaps there wasn’t much point to this post.  I am still young and enjoy the creative rant when I get a chance!

-RH

She Believes In Fairy Tales

She does.  When she’s sick she reads Grimm’s fairy tales.  In Ezekiel 16 she reads a grim fairy tale, and it is by far her favourite.  She philosophizes about fairy tales, she writes them, she loves them.  And furthermore, she doesn’t care if people think it’s silly, because she knows in her head and her heart and all her being that it’s not.  You don’t think something’s silly that you believe in.  Look, it’s not just Cinderella or Snow White.  It’s what they mean.  She knows that they mean something far greater than happy endings, than dancing princesses and wicked old hags.  For her they represent more serious plights in the world today, each one of them.  They represent things in this world and out of it, transcendent.

She lives a fairy tale.

The truth about fairy tales is this. Faeries do not fly around on feathery wings.

The truth about fairy tales is this.  Some have sad endings.

Fairy tales aren’t always the fluffy animated Disney characters whose likenesses you can purchase at your local Wal-Mart.  In the original Cinderella story, Cinderella’s sisters had to cut parts of their feet off to fit into the glass slipper, and it was by the blood dripping on the road to the palace that they were betrayed.

She believes that the story of the Bible is like a fairy tale, and that the hidden chapter that reveals this peculiar truth is Ezekiel sixteen, and that’s not a pretty story either.  “And when I passed by you and saw you wallowing in your blood, I said to you in your blood, ‘Live!’ I said to you in your blood, ‘Live!’”

There is beauty in these tales, and there is terrible grief and much to instruct her.  To quote her dearly beloved Chesterton on the matter… he says that fairy tales don’t prove that dragons exist, but that dragons can be beaten.

I have a visa in my possession, I have a plane ticket, a few clothes, one book, and two weeks left in America.  The adventure? Siena, Italy, in the heart of Tuscany.

Image

I took this picture on my last trip to Italy.  When I clicked down on the button, exclaiming again and again because of the sudden, unexpected beauty, I had no idea that just two months later this would be my home for four months. A few hours later, the opportunity was presented to me and I said, “I’ll look into it,” and to myself I said, “What a joke.”  I applied to the Siena Art Institute, I was accepted with a full tuition scholarship.

In two weeks I’m leaving to live with an Italian family and to study creative writing in this historically rich town.  I haven’t latched onto reality yet, even in the midst of working hard every day to make this happen.

And I’m terrified, really.  I’m terrified to be so disconnected from my home.  I’m terrified of that loneliness.

But I also believe that the fear can be conquered.  And my mind is open.  My desire is to learn.  In this opportunity God has blessed me exceedingly. My desire was never to attend a university for four years.  Rather, I wanted to study in areas I was gifted in, specifically creative writing.  My desire was to learn, to be competent in what I want to spend the rest of my life doing—writing.  I want to write to change the way people think, and I don’t—don’t—don’t want to write Christian fiction.  (My hero is Wendell Berry.)  I had no idea that I could study outside of a university—especially overseas.  I didn’t even look into the idea because I thought it was impossible—even though it was exactly what I wanted to do.

Now I have to ask for your prayers.  I’m going to a strange place, away from fellowship that has been soul-strengthening.  I am going to a place that is prominently Atheistic and then Catholic.   I am praying that I won’t be alone and that I will find some other Christians to fellowship with.  Pray that my mind will be open and I will learn many things from this trip.  Pray that I remember to blog.  Pray that God gives me strength to be stalwart in my faith, and that he will sustain me throughout these four months.  Pray that he will prepare me for whatever lies ahead, since I don’t know what to expect.

I am excited.  I am sad to leave my home, sad to leave many people I love, but I know that God is working through me, and I can’t wait to see where he is taking me in all of this.

I believe in fairy tales.  I am living one.  And so, I believe that this is an adventure, absolutely worth taking and worth enjoying.

And I give all the glory to God for everything in my life, for the suffering and the joy and the contentment and the peace.  He’s working through me and sanctifying me, and all of it is for his glory.  Praise the Lord.

R.H.

All For Good

All Things For Good.  The book by Thomas Watson has been sitting in my bookcase for a year.  It was given to me by a dear friend at our old church who enjoyed keeping tabs on my spiritual life, and who frequently just gave me books that he thought would inspire me and challenge me.  I read some of them, but I hadn’t read All Things For Good.  Now, we’ve moved away from dear old Ohio, and away from my quiet, uneventful life.  Things are beginning to occur, and as I have finally begun to settle into my busy schedule I have learned to make time to be quiet and to reflect and study the character of God and to nurture my soul with his word.

I wake up sweating in the night, sometimes, because I worry myself over application work, visa issues, financial matters. I stay awake at night thinking about all the things that could go wrong, how some things seem just too good to be true, that I certainly didn’t do anything to deserve it and all it will be in the end is an empty dream. [More details on this in a later post.]  But then, a few nights ago, I started Thomas Watson’s book.  The old language of the Puritans was like cold water on a hot and dusty day, just poured right over my head.  I could feel the essence sinking into every part of my mind.  And I was convicted.  If things go “wrong”, it’s still for our good.  I am still a child, because I must remind myself over and over again that God does not leave us to ourselves but is constantly proactive.  All things for good.  Not, all for naught, but all for good.  For our ultimate good.  Of course, I can’t always see how it will be good or why—sometimes I’ll never see, but I have to trust in his promises.  He has promised.  Unlike me, he keeps his promises.  And in trusting him I find rest.  I can sleep thinking, “He knows what he wants for me, and he’s working towards that end, and he’ll work in me.”

Here are just a few practical excerpts from the book.

“The Word preached works for good.  It is a savour of life, it is a soul-transforming Word, it assimilates the heart into Christ’s likeness; it produces assurance.  ‘Our gospel came to you not in word only, but in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance’ (1 Thess. 1:5). It is the chariot of salvation.

Prayer works for good. Prayer is the bellows of the affections; it blows up holy desires and ardours of soul. Prayer has power with God.  ‘Command ye me’ (Isa. 45:11). It is a key that unlocks the treasury of God’s mercy. Prayer keeps the heart open to God, and shut to sin; it assuages the intemperate heart and the swellings of lust.  It was Luther’s counsel to a friend, when he perceived a temptation begin to arise, to betake himself to prayer.  Prayer is the Christian’s gun, which he discharges against his enemies. Prayer is the sovereign medicine of the soul. Prayer sanctifies every mercy (1 Tim. 4:5). It is the dispeller of sorrow: by venting the grief it eases the heart. When Hannah had prayed, ‘she went away, and was no more sad’ (1 Sam. 1:18). And if it has these rare effects, then it works for good.”

One thing I love about the Puritans is that as antiquated and unapproachable as they seem, the essence of their words transcend time.  Just because they’re four hundred years old doesn’t mean that what they say is not practical.  No: far from it.  They speak straight to the heart of the matter, with understand and wisdom that is hard to find in this day and age.   I find myself renewed, comforted, and invigorated to continue in my spiritual journey, to continue trusting Christ and putting him before everything that I do.

Just as a closing, one of my favourite Westminster Catechism Q&A’s, which I think can be applicable.

Q: “What are the benefits that in this life accompany or flow from justification, adoption, and sanctification?”

A: “The benefits, which in this life do accompany or flow from justification, adoption, and sanctification, are assurance of God’s love, peace of conscience, joy in the Holy Ghost, increase of grace, and perseverance therein to the end.”

I Preach to Myself

If I’ve learned anything, and if there’s anything that I will reiterate over and over again, it is that the time we have to live fully is too little to be rushed and too long to be wasted.  You’ve heard it from me again and again on this blog.

But mostly I say it to myself because my life is the life that is rushed.  The stages surge together into one big current, and it no longer matters to me how old I am or what my maturity level is.  Because life is too short to wonder about that, to concern myself with it.

“When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.” – Wendell Berry

And when Anne Frank talks about finding happiness in yourself… I have come to see what that means.  It’s not a form of selfishness or self-centeredness.  It is simply the ability to embrace who you are.  For me it has been a recognition of personality traits.  That I never cry, or that I like watching people’s feet underneath the dressing room door, or that I will sit in Starbucks and read perfectly contentedly for three hours, or that I love people, or that I’m a Facebook addict, or that I don’t mind working two part time jobs, or that I love my family, or that I enjoy doing things that shock people.  I laugh loudly and violently.   I have learned to embrace the loneliness of the moment, or the moment gone, because it’s only looking back at myself sitting all alone in a place that I feel loneliness—and so it exists only in retrospection.   I find contentment.  Or rather, I come into contentment.  It’s one of those things that you will never find if you try and pursue it, if you use it as an end.  It’s a gift.  You enter into it, and you feel its pervasive power in every minute.

I have been that person who listens and rests in the grace of the world.  I have been the one who has stood out under the stars and sought refuge from the force of rush and busyness.  Not even events or activities—but the rush of the head, the mind, the heart.  The stress that pushes out total equilibrium.  I have been the person who has exhaled empty feeling and bad feeling and anger and resentment and bitterness into the cold air and watched it dissolve, and felt the grace spring new, felt my soul reverberate with vitality.

I can’t tell you how to rest in grace.  There are things that I did, things I should have done that I didn’t.  It’s not a recipe, it’s not a check-list.  But this is a peculiarity of Christianity, that we are able to receive peace and not fight against it.  It is a gift.  And gifts are given to people that are undeserving, least expecting, even us as we are—humans.

Pursue joy.  Don’t let yourself be overtaken by your own desire for the world or yourself or others, let yourself be overtaken by joy.  Stop trying to live, and live.  Experience that release of the world, and be content.  Then you can find joy… joy in the God who created you, joy in you for Christ in you, joy for this whole life, this wonderful thing that was given to us to toil in and to enjoy.  “But we do not have to live as if we were alone.” – Wendell Berry.  He’s right.  We were given a whole fellowship of Christians, believers, to learn and grow with.  Humans were made to love.  Love your brothers and sisters.  Love the whole human race.  Give yourself totally over to love, and let it be your life.  When you begin to live in love, you begin to live in contentment, because God is love and in him is ultimate peace.

“I see that the life of this place is always emerging beyond expectation or prediction or typicality, that it is unique, given to the world minute by minute, only once, never to be repeated. And this is when I see that this life is a miracle, absolutely worth having, absolutely worth saving. We are alive within mystery, by miracle.” – Wendell Berry

Venice | Murano, Burano, Torcello, and Santa Margherita Piazza

It’s mid afternoon here, and the bells of the churches are all clanging together, blending with the background hum of people talking in Santa Margherita around the corner, and staccato heels clicking down the quiet alley where our apartment is.  I can hear birds too, and beyond even these noises, the sound of boats and water.  After that—nothing.  It’s quiet in the midst of the noise, if that makes any sense.

Yesterday my aunt and I set off to some of the outer islands.  We visited Burano first, which is basically known (as far as I could tell) for it’s brightly colored houses (see picture.) Yeah. But at the same time I was really struck by the fact that people paint their houses to go with the other houses, creating an atmosphere for the whole town.  Usually when people do anything about their houses, it concerns their personal taste only, and they paint or decorate it accordingly.  To me, Burano conveyed a sense of community even when it came to taste and decorations.  Maybe it’s a cultural thing.

After Burano we took the Vaporetto to Torcello, one of the oldest islands around Venice. By oldest meaning I believe it was the first to reach civilization, but with the rise of Venice the population dwindled, and now it’s down to 60 people, a Byzantine cathedral, and the old church of Santa Fosca.  We didn’t tour the cathedral, since the ticket prices were just a little above comfort level, and we could glimpse the inside on our way out.  We probably weren’t supposed to peek but we did anyway.  We amused ourselves by looking in the gardens at old, crumbling statues outlining grapevines, and by wandering down the gravel paths and looking at the teal colored canal.  When we see tourists heading in one direction, we usually head off in the opposite direction.

 

On Torcello, we stopped at a restaurant to get a cappuccino and spritz.  We sat under a tent and scribbled away for about forty-five minutes or an hour.  Then the restaurant closed and they had to unlock the gate for us to get out.  We made our way back along the canal to the Vaporetto stop.  The man playing his accordion made a very weak attempt to hide the fact that he already had made several Euros by putting them under a basket, keeping only one Euro in the basket.  Desperate, I guess.  But his music was good.  It’s funny because walking around the towns you hear them playing a great deal of Henry Mancini and Frank Sinatra. I wonder why, sometimes.  And sometimes I don’t wonder—sometimes I just enjoy it and hum under my breath.

(The reason that the above picture is better quality is kind of funny… it was at this point in our trip that I realized that all my pictures were turning out hazy and blurry because the lens had a layer of filth on it.  So I cleaned it up about five times and started taking pictures with better results.) The next island was Murano, the glass blowing island.  Here some of the factories go back a few hundred years.  It’s a generalization to say that everything was beautiful, but everything really was.  I’ve never seen so many unique pieces in my life, although we visited a glass blowing factory when I was little (or I seem to remember that—I could have made it up).

When we came back at last (making one gelato stop—how could we not?—before reaching home) I was in all literal meaning footsore and weary.  It was at this point I started missing my younger brother Duncan’s foot massages.  He’s the only one who can massage my feet without making me laugh hysterically. (But you didn’t really need to know that, did you?) After snacking on fresh peas, cherries, bread, salami, asiago cheese, tomatoes and cucumbers all day it felt good to have a nice spaghetti dinner out in the courtyard.  Italians eat late—around eight.  Or nine.  Or ten.  It depends. No earlier than eight, usually.  They’re still having cocktails and appetizers.

Auntie went up to work and after a bit I went out into Santa Margherita square, sat by the Executioner’s house (he doesn’t live there anymore… he moved out about a hundred years ago. Or more.). I enjoyed this very much.  It was calming in a way to watch the Italians have their idea of a good time.  There was that hum of people talking.  The square was full of them, sitting in circles on the stone ground, occupying every spare seat and bench.  For the bartenders, every night is a busy night.   It’s not a mad kind of a party, not a dangerous kind of mob.  It’s a kind of gathering of all sorts of friends—again, a kind of community thing, and even at eleven at night families were there with their children of all ages running about everywhere.  It was very interesting.

But I like the quieter things, too.  So I left the square and went to the Ponte dell’Accademia, which is at the south-eastern end of the Grand Canal, from what I can tell.  I wouldn’t trust my sense of direction, though.  Last night I still that Venice was on the Western side of Italy.  As in the Tyrrhenian Sea side.  Again, something else you didn’t need to know.  And I’ll end with this little thing.  I like to watch the five distinct lights that shine on the Grand Canal looking out from the Accademia Bridge… I like to watch them flicker and move with the water, disturbed only for a moment by a passing water bus or a taxi or a gondola with a tenor singing some Italian song.  Behind me sits a man with some instrument akin to a guitar, playing music that sounds like Michael Praetorius.

“Gratzie, Signor,” I say, smiling and dropping a euro into his case.  He smiles back at me, melodically, as graceful as his music.  That’s how I like to end my nights.

I See Them

My next few blog posts will be about a personal experience I am having in Venice, Italy.  The trip is primarily a writing trip, although that gets confusing with the EU security people, so I just say: “I’m traveling… to travel.”  Well that’s entirely true as well.  The wonder-lust was setting in, and still I couldn’t believe that I was on a plane to Venice.

Well then my aunt (who originally asked me to accompany her in October of 2011) pointed out that since we were flying from Dusseldorf to Venice, we would probably fly over the Alps.  After that began an agonized wait to find out if we actually had a window seat.  No.  The middle seat and the aisle seat.  But a sweet German lady who was supposed to have the window seat asked if she could have the aisle seat since she had a problem with her hip.  That landed me right next to the window in the front row of the plane.  The countryside of Germany was passing through in patches underneath the clouds, farmlands, little splotches of trees here and there, straight roads, and lots of lakes.   I fell asleep here and there, especially when there were too many clouds to see.  Then I woke up, and was inspired to look ahead.

“Oh my gosh,” I said to my aunt; “I see them!”

And I really did.  I could have recognized them anywhere, just from the pictures.  And I was concerned about cloud-coverage.  The Alps rose high above the clouds in jagged points, and my feelings towards mountains spiked up to a whole different level.

In the meantime, the flattened countryside suddenly gave way and we were above the Dolomites, which were in their turn snow capped and beautiful.  The clouds cleared, and we looked down into valleys with villages nestled into them, and rivers flowing down the mountains.  I felt like running to the emergency exit and parachuting out, finding the Swiss Alps, and living my own idea of a Johanna Spyri book.

So the plane flew on, and eventually we landed.  And eventually got a bus, which eventually made its way into the city, and we got the water bus, which eventually, after many stops and jolts, got us to Rialto, where we found a phone store (to buy a phone card)  not to mention the 3000 tourists crowding the bridge.  But finally we made our last stop off the Grand Canal, and a short Italian man made his way towards us and asked if we were the people staying in the apartment.  And we were.  We followed him through a confusing maze of squares and alleys, and in Santa Margherita we were at the apartment.

The further we walked into the city, the more I saw, increased my astonishment and my disbelief of what was happening.  Every time I leave the country I think: “This can’t possibly be happening to me.  Stuff like this doesn’t happen to people like me, to small people.” But God blessed me in measures beyond my belief, and here I am.  The place we’re staying has marble floors and steps, copper basins for the kitchen sink, Ionian pillars outside the doors leading to the courtyard… and a wall of glass that looks out into the courtyard.   Narrow, double doors into my room, and on the headboard of the bed is an elaborate, somewhat gothic piece, which includes a painting of Mary and Joseph and Jesus on their way to Egypt.  High ceilings everywhere, and the curtains are long, deep red.

There are so many different things in this room alone, so many different stories in each gothic or artistic ornament that I am still finding new things everywhere in this small space.

Last night as we were walking along some of the canals, I said: “It’s hard to believe we haven’t always lived like this, in a way.  I feel like we’ve always had the pizza, and the gelato, and watched the people go by.”  In a way it was true, but I think it was the feeling of comfort, of feeling like you could very easily get accustomed to a certain life style.

I woke up at 12:30 in the afternoon the next day (which is today).  For breakfast, on the terrace, we had coffee yoghurt (which is much better than it sounds) soft brown bread with apricot jam, soft asiago cheese, fresh peaches from the market stands down the street, and tea.  After walking around the city for a few hours, we came back and ate some more bread and cheese, with fresh cucumbers and tomatoes and peas also from the markets.  The peas we took out of the pods, and by the time we were finished had a whole bowl full of empty pods.  They were delicious.

I don’t exactly know what to expect from this trip.  I have a line from Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse running through my head that says: “Seeking means having a goal and being blind to everything else. Finding means having an open mind.”  And I think that’s what I want to have, is an open mind.  I feel like the more open I am, the more I learn.

I also know that stories lurk in very narrow corners, in a single corner, and there are many of those here.  It’s not so much the broad perspective, although that does serve for context.  But for a poem, or a story, very little is needed.  In the courtyard alone are probably about thirty or forty poems that could be written (but probably won’t be.)  Little things.  There are only so many words and images you can use contextually for a single poem.  This opens the horizons to a great measure.

In the meantime, I have felt so jet-lagged and exhausted that I’ve even begun to question my identity as a writer.  To walk into the churches and be shocked and stunned by the beauty inside is to feel an evaporation of the all the poor stories I ever had in my head.  It’s comforting to know that’s only a temporary feeling.  The inspiration usually hits later.

For those of you who are looking for updates on my trip to Venice, I’ll try to remember to take and post pictures.  I’m not a photographer, so excuse the quality and the angles and exposure.  At least you’ll get an idea of what it’s like.

I did order gelato last night in Italian.  It was an exciting moment in the life of Ruby Hopkins.

Buonasera!

In honour of a very dear friend…

On this day in 1874 G.K. Chesterton was born.  Throughout my life—ever since I heard his philosophy on magic from Orthodoxy—he has been one of my nearest and dearest companions.  I know he’s dead, but his thoughts and words are very alive to me, and I feel more of a camaraderie towards him as a friend rather than respect and admiration as a great person who has died.  He’s probably the person whom I quote the most—as I’m sure you’ve noticed—and my favourite author and hero.  So happy birthday, Chesterton.

 

“You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.”

 

“No one doubts that an ordinary man can get on with this world: but we demand not strength enough to get on with it, but strength enough to get it on. Can he hate it enough to change it, and yet love it enough to think it worth changing? Can he look up at its colossal good without once feeling acquiescence? Can he look up at its colossal evil without once feeling despair? Can he, in short, be at once not only a pessimist and an optimist, but a fanatical pessimist and a fanatical optimist? Is he enough of a pagan to die for the world, and enough of a Christian to die to it? In this combination, I maintain, it is the rational optimist who fails, the irrational optimist who succeeds. He is ready to smash the whole universe for the sake of itself.”