Saturday, September 26, 2015

Old-Fashioned Virtue amidst Newfangled Technology



Cricket songs in full thrum and twinkling hosts of fireflies—that was the world I lived in as a child, until either the mosquitoes or my mother corralled me into the house. Then there would be stories with Dad, during which I would draw horses or a poor replica of the Dawn Treader—or whatever else happened to be the subject of the story. We had a Saturday night show or two that we would watch as a family; there were stints of Captain Kangaroo, Reading Rainbow, or Disney afternoons, and the occasional film. Yet, by and large, my childhood was spent out-of-doors, riding my bike, playing ‘pioneers’ or ‘office’ with my neighbour girls, drawing, or reading.
Screens entered my daily life in high school, when we obtained our first family desktop computer. I started typing out my stories and editing a magazine for some school fellows. When dial-up internet made it to our home, I stayed up until the wee sma’s instant messaging friends or keeping up long e-mail correspondences with comrades scattered across the country.
Some parts of my imagination were laid to rest about the time I began having a screen in front of me often. Playing ‘pioneers’ with the neighbours was abandoned and I sorely neglected my model horses. I began writing stories instead of acting out the plots I had read or thought up with my friends. This may have been a natural shifting point for my imagination, but natural or not, technology facilitated the change. I had taken a step away from tangible reality, putting up a screen between myself and a first-hand experience of  life.
I was—and admittedly, still am—drawn to that flickering blue light like a moth to a flame. Yet something in me rebels, too. I have tried, in recent years, to take a child-like step backward. Now I often take the screen from betwixt myself and the colourful, sparkling,real world around me. I have a cell phone—a flip phone—that I turn off when I don’t want to be bothered. I read real books and write letters by hand. My upbringing without much ‘screen-time’ resonates all these years later in what feels life-giving. Though work and leisure often involve some form of glowing technology, when I write by hand or take an evening walk, or when I make dinner or fix my car, I feel more alive.
Screens seem to eat away at imagination and ingenuity. Sometimes it frightens me how prevalent screens are—I can’t hide myself or my yet-to-come children from them. But I have learned that there are ways to encounter the tactile world without the screen-barrier. Though we live in a different age than the technologically limited one in which I was raised, when I have children, I still want them to know the smell of a rose before they see one on a tablet. I want them to learn to roller skate and ride their bikes; to love going to the library for good books to read together; to want to colour or draw rather than watch a cartoon; and to know that if they say “But I’m bored!” they can do chores, not watch television.
This does not mean shunning technology; it has its place as a useful tool. The fact that I can call home whenever I want to without long distance charges is wonderful. My computer aids me in all kinds of endeavours—from looking up recipes and getting driving directions, to listening to music or audio books. Still, I want my children to learn how to use a map before they learn to use MapQuest; how to play music as well as listen to it; how to cook by ‘eyeballing it’, as well as by measuring every last thing; and how to read out loud proficiently, by listening to others and by practising the art themselves. I would like to have a big enough piece of the out-of-doors to let my children run around. A place to try to catch a squirrel through their own inventiveness (as I amusingly watched my neighbour children attempt recently).


You see, my desire is that ages and ages hence, my children will send handwritten thank you notes for gifts, and that they will text to let me know they made it somewhere safely. I want to be part of raising inter-dependent adults—persons who can use common sense in taking care of themselves and their possessions, but who know they are part of the Body of Christ, the Communion of Saints. I want them to have ‘old-fashioned’ virtues and to know history as they walk among ‘newfangled’ technology and speak truth into the present.

*This essay originally appeared at HumanePursuits.com

Friday, September 18, 2015

Beauty in Things Not Seen



Would a flower of the field still be Beautiful even if no one saw it? This question has followed me to many swaths of alpine tundra this hiking season. I have gazed on lavender thistles, white marsh marigolds, and tiny forget-me-nots amongst a host of other hearty flowers. My hiking companions often set their sights on the cathedral arc of a mountain range, a sun-dappled emerald lake, or towering waterfalls. Whereas, I am enthralled by daubs of colour in every hue, painting slopes and stream beds as we wind upward, always upward. Tiny tufts of moss delight me; so do mushrooms of various shapes—brown, white, and poisonous red. While my friends want a wide angle view from the top of our climb, I am seeking to catch the golden mead of light in a buttercup.

But, no, the dichotomy is not so stark. My breath is drawn away by the soaring heights of snow powdered rock-rims. My eyes burn salty as I watch the footprints of the wind twinkling on the surface of a mountain lake. My friends bend down to frame their photos with tall clover and clusters of yellow-headed flowers, though they are soon lost in the grandeur again. I am being taught to see the bigger picture, to look up from the detail and see the vast whole—making me feel small and a bit frail. I hope I am helping others to see the details that piece together the whole, to see the points that paint the image we behold.

The mountains and lakes I have seen on my array of hikes have long been landmarks, have long looked as they now look. The minute white and purple flowers dotting the springy turf will only last a few days or weeks. They have bloomed on purpose for this season, this day. After they fade, those specific blossoms will never again be seen. Their children will rise up next summer, but this year's will be gone forever.

On one particular hike, I threaded my way through thickets and early summer snow to see a crop of white marsh marigolds. No other footprints marked the path I took, and I wondered if anyone else would see these lovely little flowers this season. Then I wondered what hordes of flowers existed that no one would see at all this summer. Various wildflowers would bloom in nodding hosts, remote and unseen by human eyes. They would still be beautiful, breathing their fragrance out as an incense of praise to their Creator. They would still dot the land with beauty, even if no eye beheld them. Their beauty would not be wasted, their plant-lives would not be in vain, because they would be blossoming. They would be doing what they were made to do, whether anyone noticed them or not.

Flowers have no cognisance of their purpose, no understanding of being or Beauty. Humans, do, however—we desperately want others to notice our existence, our efforts. Often, we feel like our work—our very selves, even—only have purpose when validated and praised by others. Yet, human beings are worth more than all the flowers covering the surface of the planet. We are valuable before we even start doing anything. Our intellect, looks, and work are not what give us worth or purpose or acceptance. Being fully human, what we were made to be, is our act of praise. Perhaps I should say it is our being of praise to the Creator.

We are given this span of life, ephemeral like the summer's flowers. We are given now—not the past or the future. We may never do something monumental and lasting for the eyes of future  generations to see. 'One day...' may never come when we planned to do this or that, or to be such and such. We have today. We have now. Let us give thanks in this moment. Let us love God now. Let us speak a true word of encouragement, of kindness, today. Not in neglect of the hope of tomorrow and a multitude of tomorrows to come—rather, as a point to live in the present, which builds a foundation for tomorrow and the days to come.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Wanderlust



All those golden autumn days the sky was full of wings. . . The wings and the golden weather and the tang of frost in the mornings made Laura want to go somewhere. She did not know where. She wanted only to go.

"Let's go West," she said one night after supper. "Pa, can't we go West when Uncle Henry does?"

. . . "I know, little Half-pint," said Pa, and his voice was very kind. "You and I want to fly like the birds. . .”1


Wearing long-sleeved flannel shirts and seeing snow geese—all glossy white with black-tipped wings—are among the signs that September has arrived in all her tawny glory. The incense of woodsmoke, the vaulted vibrant blue skies, and the slant of the afternoon sunlight all beckon me to come out and play. “Come West,” they whisper. And I do. I nose my car through fresh winds, snaking over mountain passes until I find a place to get lost in the wild and the beauty. Like little Laura, I ache to go West, to live freely. Free from schedules—the ever-pressing fist of time—and free from others’ expectations.

Familiarity feels like the level ground I need to leave behind on the hunt for paths that climb ever-upward. What is it that I long for, that I can’t get out of my blood no matter how often I hike until the stars wink open? The leaves of my favourite books rustle with the answer. I would never have believed just one of them; but when the overflowing shelves all carry me from an unassuming front door to wild lands, beasts, and men, only to arrive back at home, I take notice.

Home revolves around the familiar, the mundane. It is family and friends going deeper, butting heads, holding hands, reaching out, being still, being vulnerable. Though the familiar and intimate draw things out slowly and graciously, I often find myself like a ruptured seed buried in the earth. I struggle toward the surface, feeling the urge to keep pressing upward, though I don’t know why or what lies ahead.

Often I vacillate, wanting the routine and familiarity of the daily—yet restlessly craving the freedom and thrill of the untamed, the unexplored. I want to run away from all I have known and taste something wild and fresh. Restlessness, however, stems from dissatisfaction—named or unnamed; whilst imagination breathes life and satisfaction into the daily and the anomaly—the level ground and the arduous uphill climb.

How little I have learned from those tales of adventure—everywhere I turn, home is the way things end. Like Chesterton’s farm boy seeking a giant only to find he always lived upon one, or dissatisfied John in Pilgrim’s Regress, I suppose I will have to hike the whole globe ‘round to wind up at my own front doorstep, with my own mountains out the window.

“There are two ways of getting home; and one of them is to stay there. The other is to walk round the whole world till we come back to the same place. . .”2

Tolkien ends both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings with the Hobbits’ return to the Shire. To be sure, the quest challenged and forged those who dared to go on it—fitting them for both the scouring of the Shire and the honest work of rebuilding and guiding it. But it is the cosy hearth fires of home and the minding of one’s own garden that the Hobbits are about for most of their lives. The quest of the Ring made each character wiser, nobler, and deeper—fitting them richly for the quotidian tasks of Shire life. The love of home is worth leaving it and fighting for it, in order that others might have that very home, even if they are unaware of those who have gone to great lengths to keep it free, peaceful, and beautiful.

If our ancestors and those in our military have sacrificed what is most precious to them that we might have a home, why do we often fly from it like so many birds on the wing? It is not the familiar and comfortable that stop my ears and blind my eyes to the gifts I have here and now. It is my own sins that make me “grow old” as Chesterton puts it. Adventure sounds alluring, but the heights are so windy that tears blind us, the ground is rocky and hard to sleep on, the uphill climb makes our lungs and legs burn. Do harshness and denial make us grateful for our everyday gifts of running water and a comfy beds? Does the beauty of a new place resonate in our hearts because it calls to mind that which we first loved, the beauty learned at home?

How do we live on the level ground, the familiar and cosy, whilst still pursuing the upward trek of adventure and all its hardships? We need both. The adventure takes us far enough away to see that what we have been looking for is in our own gardens, as Dorothy says in The Wizard of Oz: “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won't look any further than my own backyard.”3 It took quite the journey for her to gain that perspective.

Some find home by staying there, but others of us must circumnavigate the globe all the way back to our own cosy Hobbit holes. It is a long journey, but perhaps when we land, we will learn to appreciate what we had all along, rather than taking it for granted—to see life abundant in the mundane, and beauty all around. After all, “there’s no place like home.”4



  1. Wilder, Laura Ingalls, By the Shores of Silver Lake (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers) 126, emphasis mine
  2. Chesterton, G. K., The Everlasting Man (Garden City: New York, Doubleday and Company) 11
  3. Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz (Directed by Victor Fleming and George Cukor. 1939 MGM studios)
  4. ibid

Friday, September 4, 2015

Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence




“Empty space tends to create fear. As long as our minds, hearts, and hands are occupied we can avoid confronting the painful questions, to which we never gave much attention and which we do not want to surface. 'Being busy' has become a status symbol, and most people keep encouraging each other to keep their body and mind in constant motion. From a distance, it appears that we try to keep each other filled with words and actions, without tolerance for a moment of silence.” 1
—Henri J. M. Nouwen

On a breezy, rainy evening a few weeks ago, I sat on my porch, thinking. It was too dark to read or write, too Beautiful to do anything but sit still in the ferocious gloaming. It was an evening empty of plans—a dangerous thing for one's thoughts. On such occasions, I tend to corner my thoughts and make them own up to what is lurking behind various fa├žades. This particular evening, I had a sore head, having hit a soft spot on a metal beam at work that day. Without warning, my thoughts strayed to the fear of my own mortality.


I have vaguely considered that 'one day' I will die, and I am not afraid of what lies beyond this life. . .But this was different. I came nose-to-nose with the reality that I am mortal, terminal. Fear bristled in my head, blossomed in my heart. Why, I could easily fall on the uneven stairs leading to my cabin and hit my head. I could be incapacitated for life—or even die. All it takes is a moment—a wrong step, not looking twice in my car mirrors—suddenly all of my vitality is shown its frailty.


Fear spread its talons in my thoughts, surging on to think of my parents, now in their sixties. My parents are not immortal. Tears pricked my eyes. I will not borrow trouble! I told myself. I began to tell God my fears, not to give them a rigid reality, but to name the fears so they could be defeated. Yes, I am temporal, I could die on my stairs or in my bathtub or whilst driving—but the possibility of death is not going to stop me from living. You may breathe a sigh of relief, I still plan to shower. . . And to walk to work, drive my car, and hike as I please.


Rather than allowing fear to paralyse me, I choose to let it galvanise me—to dare to live life. In the face of fear I have fresh appreciation for hearing my parents' voices, in giving thanks for my beating heart. I will not live in fear's shadow, I will not allow it to dog my steps. I will enjoy this evening's sunset, this summer's wildflowers, this hour of thinking and writing. Daily I take it for granted that I will awake in the morning; that my heart will keep beating—even if I forget that it does so and don't remind it to keep on. In this instant I am thankful for this organ that circulates my blood, that allows oxygen to flow to my brain so I can think of the right words to pen.


The fears and questions I often push down with daily tasks, with reading copious amounts of Harry Potter, with unceasing strains of music—these questions and fears surface in empty moments. I am the one who chooses the still evening on the porch, to sit under a tree on my walk and marvel at the burnished clouds. But I am not the one who brings to mind the thoughts, the fears. Those come unbidden. The fears of being alone or not being enough. The questions about why I chase freedom or attention from various individuals. Questions I cannot answer—like why I still crave sin when I know it doesn't satisfy. I would rather avoid “confronting the painful questions”, the craven fears—but if silence is part of my life, I cannot stop them coming.


It is here, in the stillness, that I disagree with one word in Nouwen's quotation: create. Empty space does not create fear, it only gives it the time and place to bob up in the stream of our thoughts. I can distract myself at work, around others, with my reading and correspondence—but not in the silence. Our culture is one that fears silence first, because from it, deeper fears arise. Yet how can any of us meet our fears head on with truth, with life, with hope if we suppress those petrifying questions? We must allow silence in our lives in order to know the fears and questions that motivate or manipulate our actions. Only then can we confront fear with truth and life. I find, indeed, that the antidote to fear truly is the perfect love of God giving me courage to live, to do, and to make room for stillness.


____________________


1. Nouwen, Henri J. M., Reaching Out (New York, Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group) 73

Cross posted at Conciliar Post and Humane Pursuits