Reaction… And Dreams

“O, what good is it to live

With nothing left to give

Forget but not forgive

Not loving all you see?

O, the streets you’re walking on

A thousand houses long

Well that’s where I belong

And you belong with me

Not swallowed in the sea.”

~ Swallowed in the Sea by Coldplay

There are some songs, like this one, that just hit a spot in you.  I can’t explain why they do this, but they slap you in the face, and they make you think: “There’s a lot of people in this world who have less and have lost more than I have. What can I give to them?” Because even if you run out of physical, tangible things to give away, there are always gifts in your mind and your heart, if you have taken care to become that kind of a person.  And you realize soon that nothing is about you, that there is a tie you have to other human beings, an inborn ability to help them, to become their brother and sister, so that if we had a correct picture, you would see the whole of humanity stumbling up a mountain, and every person would be holding someone else’s hand, or pausing to bind up each other’s feet. Idealistically.

But I have to interrupt my own thought, and I have to put it to rest, and realize that before we can paint that picture, we must have the model.  Unlike a mirror, which falsifies its object by showing the exact opposite of what it sees and makes you believe it’s not, the artist would paint exactly what he saw, exactly what was there, with no pretending on the part of the subjects. The problem with dreamers is that we tend to dream of the results instead of how we get to them.

Because we are not naturally good.  When I see a person who looks absolutely perfect, I remind myself: “Well, I bet they pulled their sister’s hair and scratched their brother when they were two.  Those sinners!” And then I laugh.  And then I blush, maybe, because I realized that I did that, and then I want to go hide so no one can see me because I think that they can see all my memories of all the horrible things I’ve done. But a line from a Muse song comes to mind: “I choose to hide from the All-Seeing Eye.” And I shrug my shoulders, thank God for his mercy and forgiveness, and trudge on.

I think the greatest lie in humanity is the lie that people tell themselves when they say: “I am alone.” And the lie that says you were meant to be alone.  If only we were not deaf, we could hear each other’s voices, we could hear the birds, the wind, and we would realize that there is something out there, and then we would reach out our hands and still not feel anything, except a sense of fullness and satisfaction.  For when you open your heart, you open it to a great danger, and that danger is that something might enter it, and when something enters it, everything you know, your whole life, all your plans, become the bits and pieces of a smashed monument: for when your heart is open, you no longer have the heart to live for yourself.

Songs like this make me want to create.  They make me want to capture a quiet moment, a meaningful moment, and show it to the whole world.  They make me want to catch images in my mind, and plaster them to the walls of my mind so that the force of their meaning will always be with me, staring me in the face wherever I go, and I will remember most of all that picture of humanity climbing the hill.

What Changes The World

There is a rather large, bulging problem that is about to burst through our culture and overtake the world.  The problem has many aspects to it.  Humanism.  Marxism.  Darwinism. Pantheism. Atheism. Socialism.  The underlying issue is that people in societies around the world are drifting further and further away from truth.  It’s happening in our government, politics, literature, music, art.  Anything that defines our culture.  But the worst part of it is this.  Our culture is shaped by smart people who know what they want, and our culture is made up of people who are blindly following the smart people around, because they think the smart people are wise.

But there is a difference between being wise and being smart.  Wisdom is founded in truth; smartness is founded in how quickly our brain functions, how we size people up, our intuition.

Our presupposition is that truth is something external, something that’s not found inside ourselves.

Napoleon didn’t change the world.  He wanted to, but he only ended up changing France, really.   Darwin changed the world.  Marx changed the world. Voltaire changed the world.  Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, all these philosophers changed the world by their influencing thought.

Many of these philosophers had a problem.  They did not believe that truth was external.  They looked inside themselves for the answer.  It reminds me of when G.K. Chesterton talked about the Hindoo saints.  Their eyes were closed, looking inward.  The Christian saint’s eyes were opened wide, looking for truth without.

Now, I need to say something about Darwin here, because I listed him as one of the greatest influences.  You may say that he was looking for truth externally, because he was studying the natural world.  The thing about looking for truth internally is saying: “I will explain truth, what I think truth is.”  Which is what Darwin basically did with his ideas.  He used evidence to explain his ideas (granted he explained the evidence against his ideas.)  But the Christian saint who is looking with eyes wide open for truth externally is looking for something that is not explained by him, but is explained to him by the source of Truth

Changing the world does not begin with finding one good person and getting him into government.  It starts with making influences that will make better people.  It doesn’t start with a general who thinks he might be able to overrun the world and rule it.  That ends in chaos.

No, changing the world starts with our literature, our music, our art.  If you want to change the world by being a politician, that’s fine.  But do something that influences the young generation.  We need to be a generation producing books, music, art, philosophies, that point to ultimate truth, so the next generation can be better.

We can’t be the people blindly following the smart people around.  We have to be the smart people.  And even if you’re the follower, be a smart follower.  Be smart enough to resist the flow of culture.

But don’t be proud.  Pride is what makes us fall, pride is what leads us away from truth, down our own path.  Remember that life every is a struggle, a fight.  It has its moments of bliss and joy, but overall, we are struggling for what is right.  We are fighting the world, the flesh, the devil, and the fight never ceases, especially in this reformation of our culture.

We must go through some of the pain of learning.  I would like to say now that we’ve become pretty stupid people.  Here we have a wonderful brain and only use a small fraction of it.  The temptation is to use less and less of it.  But let’s take care of our bodies and our minds.  It’s not easy, it’s hard.  We don’t feel like doing these things.

But really, we live in an education driven society where no one learns anything.  Let’s change that, please.  Love learning, love studies, love the hard, laborious work.  It will do you good in the end.  It doesn’t matter who you are.  You don’t have to be a rich city kid who always got straight A’s in school.  You don’t have to be a grown up.  It starts now, with whoever you are, and however old you are.

But just remember something.  We can only know the extent of something to an extent.  Learning is a frustration.  It takes faith to learn, so if you have any, expect to use it.  We will never know the full extent of something.  But as long as these other smart people are shaping our culture, we have to be just as smart to counterbalance them.  We must be strong, confident, courageous, but we must be humble, accepting the fact that our bodies are finite, that our minds are limited, that we can’t know everything, or know everything about everything.

Just remember it starts with the books.  The latest song.  The newest painting in the art museum.  That’s where you start.  Be a painter, an architect, a writer, a musician and reform our culture.  That’s where it starts, with ideas.

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.

Turkish Rugs

I want to be a Turkish rug.

Because I am saying it now, it probably seems ridiculous to you.  After all, why would I want to be a rug? Even metaphorically speaking?

I often amuse myself by looking at questions in my science book before I read the material.  It amuses me because it shows me how reading one or two paragraphs can teach me so many things.  The phrase “I want to be  Turkish rug,” acts like the science question.  It makes no sense now, but after you read my post it will, and I hope you will want to be a Turkish rug with me.

I was reading about Edmond Dantes apartments in Rome in The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas.  It talked about the rugs, the tapestries, the paintings, the vases, and everything else.

“Of course,” was the first thought that came to my mind.  The description didn’t surprise or astonish me, because everything was relative.  It is not surprising that some of the best composers were German, because of Beethoven, Bach, Mendelssohn, Strauss, Brahms, Schubert, Schumann.  French silks, Egyptian cotton, Indian spices.  The best glass is, of course Venetian glass.  Dutch cabinets are quite common, and Arabian horses are said to be the fastest.  All well-plotted and planted gardens must be English.  If you wish to describe a richly woven tapestry or carpet, it will probably be Turkish. None of these things surprise or shock us—they are all in their element, especially when put together.  It is only right that they should go together.

Let us look at the reverse of the Count’s room.  The hovel.

A broken table, three-legged chairs with pieces of rotten wood replacing the missing support.  The floor is of dirt, pieces of soiled rags are stuffed in the cracks of the walls.  Rain drips from the roof, but there are no buckets to place under it.  The children are hardly dressed, the wife has greasy hair and filthy clothes.  The husband sits at the table, head in his hands.  A rat investigates a broken cupboard, but there is no food.  A piece of yellowed canvas stretched over a smashed window pane.  Rivulets stream under the door and gather into a puddle underneath the table.  The walls are stained, the ceiling is of rancid straw.

This is the way I imagined the poor man’s house in The Idiot.  I do not remember his name, but it was not surprising to me.  When his poor, ragged clothes were described, it was only right that he should live in a hovel.

But could you imagine the bright, rich, warm Turkish rug in this hovel?

Or could you imagine the dirt floor in the apartment of the Count?

Those two things are startling, when you think about it.  If I walked into the hovel, I would not gape in astonishment at the natural surroundings.  But if the Turkish rug were there, I would be puzzled, confused.  Likewise, the Count’s room would only surprise me if I saw that he had a dirt floor, or a thatched ceiling.

It’s because the Venetian glass and the Turkish rugs, the rat and the broken window are all relative.  When the glass and the rug are by themselves, they stand out.  When they are put together, they compliment each other.  It is the same with the rat and window, but in a more repulsive sense.  Yet, if the Venetian glass was set by a broken window, the thing becomes confusing, as does the rat on the Turkish carpet.

The latter combination does not fit, and does not belong.  It never will.

If this world were our hovel, then I would want to be the Turkish rug.  The bright, cheerful element that lifts the utter depression of the place, and shocks and surprises the onlooker at the same time.  But it is a good sort of surprise and curiosity.

“Where did this rug come from?” they would ask.

But I would never want to be the dirt floor in the count’s apartments.  I would want to replace the hovel with a mahogany table, French paintings, Venetian glass, Roman marble floors.  I would want to make it into the count’s apartments, but I would never want to be the stain on the beautiful.

Hitler was a stain on the beautiful.  He destroyed many of the carpets and smashed the Venetian glass, reducing the spectacular elements of the room to more like that of a hovel.

But I am determined to be a Turkish rug, and I want my friends to join me in this.  Be something outstanding, be as startling and shocking to the world as the rug in the hovel.  Remember that the world is watching you.  It will not be surprised if I revert to being the dirt floor—in fact, it might feel a little less uncomfortable if all things remain in their own elements.  “Leave Heaven to itself, and let the world be, though it is a hovel.”  But I cannot do that.  If the world is a hovel with all its proper elements, how can those who enter have any idea of a salvation from such a life?

So I want to be  Turkish rug, or the Venetian glass, or a German symphony, or an Indian spice.  Join me.

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.

The Night My Daddy Played Me To Sleep

On the way home from a vacation in Delaware yesterday, I got through a good middle portion of Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot.”  I only just thought of this correlation between something in there and something I was feeling almost a week ago.   Dostoevsky had gone into a description of a certain feeling that “the Idiot” or Prince Myshkin felt before an attack of epilepsy.  Before the utter darkness descended upon his mind and soul, a bright joy would flood through him, and everything would be intensified, so that he felt an overwhelming gladness.  That does not do justice to what the author was getting across, but it says something.  This feeling lasted about half a second, then the fit would seize him, and he would be plunged into the fit of epilepsy.

Last week I was trying to go to sleep.  It had been a long day, and I hadn’t slept well in awhile.  But for the life of me, I couldn’t sleep, yet I was too tired to get up and do anything.  I lay there for a long time, and I felt like I didn’t have the strength to fight against a darkness that I felt was creeping over my mind.  One might call it depression.  Probably the result of not enough sleep.  We were going to leave the next day for Delaware where, before we hit the beach, dad had a concert at a Presbyterian church in Wilmington.  I felt depressed and closed in by life, almost suffocated by it.  I wanted to be free of something – but I couldn’t quite grasp what it was I wanted to be free from.  I didn’t know – and that was half that darkness – not knowing.  So I lay there, becoming more and more depressed, and feeling more and more trapped and sleepless.  The windows in the room were open, and after about an hour or two I heard music from far away (it sounded like) coming in through the window.  I listened for awhile, and realized it was daddy, practicing for his concert.  Some of the songs I had never heard before – I didn’t even know he had written them.  But I heard him playing and it calmed me.  It distracted me from darker thoughts and made me think about the music.   Then after awhile he played a song he wrote called “Credo,” which has a Latin sounding theme.  I listened to him sing, and actually thought about the words.

I don’t remember exactly how the verses go, but the chorus is like this:

“Hallelujah! His love is all around me

In love he sought and found me

His death my victory

Hallelujah! His Spirit breaks my fetters

His Word is Truth, His Truth has set me free!”

Well that struck a note.  “His spirit breaks my fetters…” and “His truth has set me free…” Talk about God’s timing!  I realized I didn’t need to be bogged down with life and the fear and hardships that come with it.  I had been called to something higher than that, something more holy.  I had already been set free from my bondage – what I was feeling then was an illusion.  There were no fetters, I was not in a prison.  I was free from this world of sin because Christ died for me.

“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)

That verse is my freedom right there.  Because of his great love for me, because of his choice, I have been freed from this bondage of sin and darkness, from the judgement I deserved, and I have been given a higher calling, something more beautiful, utterly pure and holy.

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.” (Phil. 4:8,9)

These subjects of thought point out my way for me.  They show me how I should act, what I should say, where I should go.

Daddy was singing the chorus again.

“His death my victory…”

“His Word is Truth His Truth has set me free…”

“Rejoice in hope…” (Romans 12:12)  I was meant to rejoice in hope… There was hope.  A pervading light in the midst of the gulf of darkness.  And in that light I was meant to rejoice.  It was my Hope.  It was and is and will be my salvation, for that Hope is Christ.

And now looking back, Dostoevsky’s description of what the Prince felt before his fit of epilepsy almost exactly describes what I was feeling.  There came a great joy, a complete contentment and peace.  It did not mean that trials or trouble were absent or far away, but that I felt the freedom of the Spirit.  And yet, even my freedom was the sweetest bondage.  I was free of the world of sin and darkness, yet I was a slave of light and righteousness.

And in the midst of these thoughts, my daddy played on… and on.  I listened to him until he stopped, and I felt quiet and serene. A heaviness came about me, and a few minutes later I was plunged into a deep sleep, with those very thoughts on my mind….

“His Spirit breaks my fetters…

“His Word is Truth, His Truth has set me free…”