And then there’s that other thing…

Well the reality of the situation is that after four months in Italy I’m returning “home” and sometimes I think I’m just dusting my hands and saying, “well that’s that,” but really it’s much more than that.  I keep thinking: “and then there’s that other thing…”  One more reason why I can’t wait to go home, one more reason why I’m reluctant to leave.  It’s always an area of interest, when your heart feels so torn and beat up about something.  An area of pain or suffering, perhaps, but adding yet another layer to life and as a writer I can’t help but say: “I hate that this is happening to me, but I love that this is happening to me.”

Honestly, there are going to be problems anywhere you go.  And I’m not raining on anybody’s parade here, I’m just saying.  You go to a place thinking that it’s as emotionally easy as looking at a photograph of that place.   Then you go, you meet people.  Not only do you eventually have to leave them, sometimes they leave you, and they leave you forever, and you’re left grieving for them in a place foreign to you, feeling more alone than ever.  Because of your turmoil, the place begins to be a special place to you.  You develop a way of living.  You become accustomed to certain things (for me, the church bells ringing all the time, the pigeons, and these huge keys for all the doors) and then you find that you have to leave all of this behind, to practically start over.

Life is all about “continual beginnings” and “habitual fresh starts” as J.R.R. Tolkien would have it.  But I think it’s a matter of realizing that it is a “fresh” start.  You don’t pick up right where you left off, when you come home.  You start exactly as you find yourself in that moment.  And if I may be allowed to quote Tolkien again….  “How do you pick up the threads of an old life? How do you go on, when in your heart, you begin to understand, there is no going back?”  We live too much in the past.  We experience one thing, and instead of accepting what it has been, we go back to try to experience the same thing again, but it never works like that.  Nothing is the same, and you are left feeling empty and dissatisfied with yourself and everybody else.

And in a sense this is going into the idea of home more than the idea of being abroad.   I love home.  It’s a crazy place filled with love and stupid fights about who gets the last piece of pie, and tons of people, not just siblings but aunts and uncles and it’s this time of year, Christmas, that I get to enter back into that circle of family, that just keeps stretching with more births and marriages.

But I find that when I am dreaming of home, I am dreaming of my home in Cleveland.  When I realize that I no longer live in Cleveland, I am dreaming of the old house in Pittsburgh, where we had fires in the winter and out of my window at night I could see the stars, and in the morning see a damp, dull light fingering its way through a bleak sky.  I loved those mornings.  And it’s a harsh reality to remember the summer before I went away, the summer we moved (again) into a house where I was never at home in the literal sense.  And this is nobody’s fault, it’s just the way it was.

What is important in coming back? Things are never as you expect them to be.  They always end up being different.  Here I am filled with nostalgia for my old homes, and yet I have the spirit and the joy of those old homes waiting for me in this new house.

Sure, life is hard.  And I’m not saying that lightly.  (Well, I am, but I’m not saying it thoughtlessly.)  I have a few brutally hard things running through my mind.  The things that keep me up at night. Yes, life is hard and it’s something to accept and something to deal with.  And also I have been reading Thomas Watson’s “All Things for Good” and he has been laying particular emphasis on the fact that some of the best things come from our difficulties and our sufferings.  God is constantly nurturing and growing us, growing us to him, always.  He’s not stomping on our heads or starving us or deserting us entirely or leaving us to die.  The simple fact that everything is, in the end, for our own good is in itself a hard thing to believe and accept, but once you can accept it, it frees you from so much fear and worry and doubt.

I have learned so much while I have been here.  I love so many things, I will miss so many things.  But this is wonderful about the human capacity to love and appreciate—there are even more things for me to love and develop the further I plunge into life.  And really, even though “going home” seems to imply a sense of safety and security, it feels more like an adventure right now, almost like home is a place I’ve never gone to before.

And I cannot, absolutely cannot resist quoting Wendell Berry as my closing thought: “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.”

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Of Primroses and Books

On this warm Spring day, my primroses are dying.

I killed them.

I really did, because I didn’t water them. And now I’m sitting calmly writing about it while their drooping leaves are draping themselves over the pots.

I should take care of my flowers.

I used to think  I would be a horrible gardener, because whenever I went outside I would most likely read and not attend to the earth.  At other times I think I would make a wonderful gardener, because I love feeling the dirt on my hands, and tending the flowers and herbs.

I admire people who garden.  When I’m gardening, I usually think: “I wonder how many pages of such and such a book I could have covered,” or, “I wonder how much I could have written in a blogpost or a story or an essay.”

I’m sitting here writing about all my faults, all the while neglecting a comparison essay on Darwin and Marx…

There’s been a thought in my mind that I’m sure has been there for my whole life, but has been experiencing micro-evolution, and has been growing with me.  It is the idea of a holistic life.  I do know how to cook, I know how to write, and I know how to play piano.  But I also know how to read, and that seems to send all the other things into the water.  I read when I’m supposed to write, I read when I should cook, and sometimes I grow impatient when I’m playing the piano so I go read instead.

As a writer, I have become convinced of the importance of “being accomplished” as the Jane Austen prigs would say.  I’m not saying that I have to know French, German and have “a general knowledge of all contemporary languages,” or that I have to play the piano incredibly well, or that I need to be able to paint screens and embroider cushions.

But I do believe in experience.  I believe that experiences form the most poignant stories.   That’s why true stories grip us.  When Gene-Stratton Porter writes about birds, insects, and nature in fiction you appreciate it all the more because she was, in fact, a naturalist.  The same goes for any author who describes the way a drawing or portrait is done, if he has a knowledge of art.

Beatrix Potter’s stories are charming because she wrote and illustrated them, and because she kept many of the animals she writes about as pets.  Arthur Ransome wrote and illustrated his own works as well.  And we mustn’t forget J.R.R. Tolkien, whose illustrations for the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings lend a whole new perspective into the work.  They are truly beautiful, and you know that this is exactly what he wanted things to look like.

Historical literature is a wonderful thing, let me tell you.  But what makes it so interesting?  That the writer has knowledge enough of history to know what he’s talking about in fiction that he knows how to write. (We’re talking about the good historical fiction here, yes? Yes.)

What I’m trying to say is that fiction is always more interesting when it’s not just a romance where people talk back and forth about how they can’t live without each other.  (By the way, I think that romance in literature is biblical and sometimes, depending on the context, necessary, but I think it needs to be well-mixed with other elements.)  Fiction is always more interesting when there’s a law intrigue (Bleak House by Charles Dickens, for example) or when there is an art theme (A Girl With A Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevelier) or when there is historical background (Les Miserables by Victor Hugo.)  But if you think about it, all these books have many, many other elements combined.  In order to have a variety of characters, there must be a variety of characteristics.

Imagination is a beautiful thing, but imagination also tends to go overboard. (I always tell myself that I can’t write stories about Switzerland until I go to Switzerland… but maybe that’s beside the point.)  Imagination tends to make things out to be more than they really are.  The problem with mine is that it tends to blow up a circumstance—one I’ve never been in— like a balloon, and then make the character respond as I would imagine they would respond, not taking the time to see the character as a real person with their own personality.

This is why the study of life is so important to those who are going to write.  I know I’ve said it before, but I like to say it again because it sounds nice and studious and thoughtful.  I would like to have a general knowledge of art and drawing and painting… Then I could draft my illustrations and have some other painter who’s good at the thing paint them.

It’s always nicer reading a book where the mother is cooking something and you know that the author knew how to cook because of the way he describes the food, lovingly, in a way, and thoughtfully.  He knows what he’s talking about.  I’m guessing Dickens didn’t cook because the way he approaches food is rather indifferent.

Chesterton is another matter.  If he didn’t know how to cook, he certainly was passionate about his food (see here Chesterton on Cheese) and that fact alone makes the meals described in his books more interesting to read about.

Then there is the aspect of music.  I love music.  I play piano, but not like I should.  Every day I sit down to play and I think: “Good heavens, I wonder why I’m so sloppy.” I shouldn’t be surprised when I never really practice.  I know enough about music, the history of music, genres, and composers to appreciate it in literature.  The First Violin, by Jesse Fothergill, is not very well known, and the romance is a bit sentimental  but I was able to appreciate the many musical aspects of it because I was introduced previously to Beethoven and Bruckner and others.

The thing of it is, people don’t appreciate books that were written by unintelligent and misinformed people.  Perhaps the majority of America love Stephanie Myer, but I have to wonder if she really knows what love is.  Awhile ago there was a rumor that J.K. Rowling was a witch.  If she was, then we know that Harry Potter was truly penned from the heart.

All this gets back to the idea of a holistic life.  It is not enough to imagine myself doing the gardening, or cooking a meal, or painting a picture.  It is not enough to simply read about them.  Even on a small scale, it is enough to experience.  This is because sight, sound, texture, smell, taste… these are all part of it.  I love the way the air tastes around the basil and oregano plants.  I love the way it feels to play Chopin passionately.  I love the way the paints swirl together while your mixing colors for a picture.  I love the way bread dough feels under my hands.  You cannot experience the feelings that come as natural consequences of these activities through reading.  You must do them.

The Voices of My Life

There are so many voices of my life.  They inspire me, they clear my head, they make me feel.  I absolutely love music.  Today I was doing some Algebra on the couch with Tirzah…. I had my headphones in, and I was singing along with all four movements of Beethoven’s fifth symphony… and pretending I knew how to conduct.  I did it because the music enthralled me.  I made her laugh, partly because I couldn’t hear myself sing and probably sounded very sharp through the — ahem — shall we say difficult passages.

There is another song that inspires me to the -enth degree.   Listen to it.

I cannot tell you… how… amazing that is to me. How wonderful.  As Bugs Bunny would say, “I have goosebumps, on my goosebumps.”

I realized that music like this song and Beethoven’s fifth form the voices of our lives.  I mean that they are the most inspirational—the ones we listen to over and over and over again.   The voices of our lives… it sounds beautiful, but it also does not imply that they are good voices.

In the beginning of the Silmarillion, in the thought of Iluvatar, the Ainur spun him a melody that was glorious.  Together they created a chorused that pleased Iluvatar.  But Melkor, one of the highest Holy ones, had it in his thought to create his own melody, and not follow the one that Iluvatar had instructed.  Therefore, he began to spin and weave, and the theme was no longer melodious, and the Ainur sensed a powerful music being played.  Melkor’s self-will was great, and he challenged Iluvatar to a duel of Melodies.

“Then Iluvatar rose, and the Ainur perceived that he smiled; and he lifted up his left hand, and a new theme began amid the storm, like and yet unlike to the former theme, and it gathered power an had new beauty. But the discord of Melkor rose in uproar and contended with it, and again there was a war of sound more violent than before, until many of the Ainur were dismayed and sang no long, and Melkor had mastery.  Then again Iluvatar arose, and the Ainur perceived that his countenance was stern; and he lifted up his right hand, and behold! a third theme grew amid the confusion, and it was unlike the others. For it seemed at first soft and sweet, a mere rippling of gentle sounds in delicate melodies; but it could not be quenched, and it took to itself power and profundity. And it seemed at last that there were two musics progressing at one time before the seat of Iluvatar, and they were utterly at variance.  The one was deep and wide and beautiful, but slow and blended with an immeasurable sorrow, from which its beauty chiefly came.  The other had no achieved a unity of its own; but it was loud, and vain, and endlessly repeated; and it had little harmony, but rather a clamorous unison as of many trumpets braying upon a few notes. And it essayed to drown the other music by the violence of its voice, but it seemed that its most triumphant notes were taken by the other and woven into its own solemn patter.

In the midst of this strive, whereat the halls of Iluvatar shook and a tremor ran out into the silences yet unmoved, Iluvatar arose a third time, and his face was terrible to behold. Then he raised up both his hands, and in one chord, deeper than the Abyss, higher than the Firmament, piercing as the light of the eye of Iluvatar, the Music ceased.

Iluvatar told Melkor that no one could invent a theme that did not have its uttermost roots in himself, and he threw him out.

There are voices in our lives, and not necessarily songs, that are like Melkor’s melody.  They bring discord, they are loud and violent, making more noise than anything.  But there are voices in your head that inspire you to do good, to think wonderful things, voices that turn your head to all things wonderful and beautiful, voices that bring you back to the center of everything: to the Creator.  These voices are things that guide you, that influence you.

So then there’s the bad voices. What a clever discrimination—the good voices, and the bad voices.  Well, what would you have said? For these bad voices, I cannot name any one element of intellectual study or cultural products because it changes for each person, depending on their strengths and weaknesses.  But we must be wary of what our Voices are.  We must be ever so careful… and we must always ask if it matches Iluvatar’s melody, to use the metaphoric image.

Just remember the three aspects of Iluvatar’s melody… Truth, beauty, and goodness.  This famous guideline doesn’t say happiness, or sorrow, or non-violence, or violence… but if it fits into those three aspects, it is probably a beautiful and wise Voice.