September 16, 2011 § 1 Comment
I just finished my latest re-reading of Annie Dillard’s incredible Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, the third of which I have done over the past two years. Now I’m quite sure that Mrs. Dillard or her 1979 Pulitzer Prize winning book don’t really need any more compliments, (leastwise not from a fledgling graduate student) but that’s not going to stop me from praising this masterpiece of writing for its exuberance and beauty. Perhaps it may even spark someone’s curiosity who is unfamiliar with Dillard to take a chance and dive into one of the most life affirming texts I have ever read.
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a memoir of sorts, concerned with a year that Dillard spent living in the woods of Virginia as she observed nature around her and wrote. She is our tour guide, teaching us things about nature that most people would never suspect, from the egg laying habits of dragonflies to the best way to stalk a muskrat. Most of all, this is a book about being truly alive and letting life seep into every part of your being as you walk in this strange, beautiful world.
This book is wrapped up in the present, both as a moment in time and also as an idea. Dillard speaks of the present as a character, hurtling through space and time, trying to get us to notice its machinations before it disappears into the past. In chapter five, appropriately titled The Present, Dillard invokes the present with such verve that it is impossible to think of it in the same way again: “The present is the wave that explodes over my head, flinging the air with particles at the height of its breathless unroll; it is the live water and light that bears from its undisclosed sources the freshest news, renewed and renewing, world without end.” Elsewhere, she describes the present as a form of grace, constantly giving us a second chance, as newness is birthed every instant.
When we can learn, or attempt as in my case, to see the present as Dillard sees it, it opens up the store of the world’s beauty to us. Along with that beauty, however, comes the realization of the horrors of nature: death, violence and pain. Dillard does not shy away from these things, examining this decrepit world with the intensity of an investigative journalist searching for answers. In Intricacy shes firmly lands on the side of beauty, while in Fecundity she is shocked at the excess of death present on earth. Her answer to this dilemma comes in the final chapter, The Waters of Separation, in a declaration of life and mystery: “It is so self-conscious, so apparently moral, simply to step aside from the gaps where the creeks and winds pour down, saying, I never merited this grace, quite rightly, and then to sulk along the rest of your days on the edge of rage. I won’t have it. The world is wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous and bitter, more extravagant and bright. We are making hay when we should be making whoopee; we are raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain, or Lazarus.”
This world is both terrifying and glorious, the mystery lies in how these two things can be combined in such a paradoxical way, existing alongside each other without overwhelming the other. Which has the final word? Death or beauty? Perhaps, as Dillard suggests, the answer is not as important as we think, for here we are surrounded by both, yet never truly noticing either. Before we cede control to death and march on our way, let’s search for beauty: it’s very existence may change our minds about everything. Every beautiful or grotesque example that Dillard gives points us to a world that, although broken and run-down, is filled with glory bursting from its seams. This is the planet we inhabit—an extravagant mess—and it is begging for us to realize this.
January 7, 2011 § Leave a comment
“The world today doesn’t make sense, so why should I paint pictures that do?”-Picasso
I’ve recently taken up painting. For those who know me that may come as a surprise, due to my overall lack of ability when it comes to drawing or the visual arts. For me, however, it is merely another step forward in exploring and encouraging my creative and artistic spirit. I know I can’t draw, but having been recently inspired by abstract work from artists like Makoto Fujimura and Scott Erickson (painted paintings for Derek Webb’s recent instrumental work Feedback), I decided to try my hand at some abstract art.
Needless to say, I have learned a few things about myself and art already. Painting is difficult. Especially if you are trying to create something that is more than just slapping some colors on a canvas. Art, even abstract art, is not something done recklessly. You have to have a plan, and even if you deviate from that plan, if you sit down to paint without a plan, it doesn’t work well. It’s so important to know what you are doing and do it.
Being a perfectionist, painting can be deadly. Every line I paint that isn’t straight or that blends with the wrong color makes me wince inwardly. It’s been good for me to have to let go and realize that if everything had to be perfect I would never get it done. I just have to do the best that I can and be satisfied. Painting with acrylic is fairly unforgiving, especially when using a darker color. I can’t go back like I can with writing and fix my mistakes; I have to accept what I did. Painting forces you to take your time and make your decisions deliberately, something that is refreshing in this fast-paced world.
However, what I love the most is the peace that comes from sitting down and painting. There I sit, jamming to Girl Talk or Derek Webb’s Feedback and I let the colors cascade from the brush to the canvas. I juxtapose red and blue, I mix red and yellow, I create something new. And even if my paintings never touch anyone but me, I am confident that in exercising the creativity that comes from being made in the image of God I am constantly growing in a better understanding of the world and myself.
January 1, 2011 § Leave a comment
As far as I remember, Away We Go didn’t make a huge splash when it was released. This strikes me as kind of odd, due to the fame of both director Sam Mendes and co-writer Dave Eggers. You would have thought that this combination would have, at the very least, inspired the numerous indie/ postmodern twenty-somethings to come and check it out. Add to this the fact that John Krasinski (The Office) and Maya Rudolph (Saturday Night Live) are our protagonists and you would imagine the hipster cred of this film to be off the charts. Needless to say, when I sat down to watch Away We Go I expected a witty, ironic ride through the lives of a couple trying to find a place to raise their expected child. What I didn’t expect was a film filled with a tenderness and respect for the ups and downs of the human condition, but this is exactly what Away We Go delivered.
Krasinski and Rudolph play a thirty-something couple (Bert and Verona) who find themselves pregnant and, looking at their current residence, decide it’s time for them to find a better place to raise their child. The first half of the movie is largely played for comedy as they visit Arizona and Wisconsin, meeting some truly outlandish friends and acquaintances along the way. This changes with the second half of the movie, as they travel to Montreal to visit some old college friends and them to Miami where Bert’s brother has just been left by his wife. Suddenly, the film cuts right to the heart in a way that reveals the deepest struggles that we all have. Bert and Verona lay on a trampoline in his brother’s backyard and share some of their greatest fears and deepest struggles, and there I sit, seeing my own life and my fears reflected right back at me. I connected with them, in a way I haven’t connected with a character in a film in a long time.
This moment was so powerful because it revealed that not just Bert and Verona, but all these characters, like all of us, had baggage. Their lives were tossed and turned by life’s waves and they all had things that had influenced and changed their lives for good and bad. This is a profound truth about life, that no matter how much love our parents, friends and significant others give us we will have baggage. Our minds will have been messed with, our lives twisted around, sometimes by people with the best of intentions. Some people try to repress this, or offer up reasons for why their lives are so screwed up, like some of the characters at the beginning of the film. But others, like Bert and Verona, own their faults and move ahead, aware and unashamed of the people they are.
Every day we are faced with the choice to be authentic or fake. So often I opt for fake because it is easier to admit I have no problems, instead of picking up my baggage and carrying it with me. It’s been my experience that the only ways to begin to correct your problems and find peace in your messed up life is to admit that you do, indeed, have problems. Just like everyone else.
November 30, 2010 § 1 Comment
Note: This was originally supposed to be a guest blog somewhere, but the author of that blog never got back to me. So I thought I’d post it here.
“They are the most wonderful mystery, body and blood.”- Gilead, Marilynne Robinson
I remember the first time I took Communion at the Anglican church that I now attend. It was a revelation to me. It was a grave, joyful matter, and as I swallowed my bread dipped in wine I felt blessed by that bread and wine in a way that I never had before. It was more than just a way to remember, but it was charged with a certain energy because it was being taken seriously as a Sacrament.
Why hadn’t I ever experienced this before? Was it because my previous church was so afraid of appearing Catholic that we didn’t ascribe any significance beyond remembrance to Communion or is it a symptom of a deeper problem in many churches? Sometimes it seems as if there is a fear in the Church of using art or symbols that we don’t understand or can’t control because we don’t know what they will reveal to us. It seems to me that a lot of churches and Christians have carved out a canyon between art and symbolic actions and church and Christianity and then burned the bridge that spans this gap.
We have art and symbols to point us to deeper things. We have church and Christianity to point us to deeper things. It seems to me as if they are on the same team. Art, as mystic poet Kahlil Gibran puts it, is “a step in the known toward the unknown.” Good art can transcend the here and now and touch our emotions in ways that words can’t. Art, like God and his ways, is a mystery and that’s why it can show us God. It reveals things hidden and sometimes hides things already revealed forcing us to look deeper.
Another thing art and symbols do for our faith is to ground it in its sometimes forgotten physicality. As the great Creeds and Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 remind us, the Christian’s greatest hope is the bodily resurrection, therefore making the physical presence of the body very important. The symbol of Communion or making the sign of the cross, by involving our body, reminds us that the Christian faith is a faith that radically affirms our physical nature as being a good creation of God. There is no Gnostic split between spirit and flesh in Christianity. This is constantly reaffirmed when we taste the bread and wine and know that they speak of a deeper reality, of Christ’s body and blood. Our physical senses, by means of a physical symbol, are drawn deeper in a spiritual reality.
Artwork is Bonfires by Chuck Hoffman and Peg-Carlson Hoffman.
October 14, 2010 § 5 Comments
When Sufjan Stevens announced a new full-length album after several years of side-projects and silence, indie fans everywhere rejoiced. Here was Stevens, the poster boy for high-brow indie folk-rock, finally returning to blow our minds again. And if the critical and popular response is a barometer, The Age of Adz has either exhilarated you or confused the crap out of you. Departing from his usual orchestrated, quirky folk-rock, Sufjan has replaced the banjo and acoustic guitar with a dazzling array of electronic effects and dark, soul-searching lyrics, which in turn has alienated some of his old fans.
It seems to me, however, that this isn’t that radical departure that some have said it is. These songs are still packed with sound, except this time it is electronic noise, not layered guitar parts. Sufjan’s lyrics have also carried their dark side (John Wayne Gacy Jr. anyone?), but in the past the music surrounding this darkness has softened it, not intensified it. Yes, for those accustomed to Come On, Feel the Illinoise!, Michigan and Seven Swans, The Age of Adz feels like someone has replaced their best friend with a strange facsimile of him. But I think if they keep listening they’ll find that their friend has not been replaced, but only been changed by his experiences over the past few years. This is an album created from a deeply personal place, and while Sufjan does take inspiration from artist Royal Robertson (the album is named after one of his paintings) and his story, this album is more an exploration of Sufjan’s psyche than it is anything else.
To some this album may sound like a disaster, like it was created without form. To think that Sufjan, a meticulous musician if there ever was one, would have just thrown Age of Adz together without thought is a preposterous assumption. Now, some may say it is over-indulgent or pompous, but that doesn’t mean it is unorganized or sloppy. It is a chaotic, bewildering ride, but I think it is like this for a reason. What is Sufjan, who is an artist obsessed with making grand statements about life through his music, trying to say with The Age of Adz? This is the question before us as we listen to this confounding, glorious mess of an album.
Opener “Futile Devices” closes with the line, “And words are futile devices.” As the delicate music fades, we are abruptly forced into the harsh, electronic landscape that constitutes “Too Much.” I think this is a deliberate move on the part of Sufjan, and by forcing us to confront this new sonic texture he is placing the music/style of album above the “futile devices” of language. This isn’t to say that the lyrics don’t play a major role on this album, but that perhaps they play, and always have played, a subservient or complementary role in Sufjan’s music.
So onward we venture, into the noise that is The Age of Adz. There are big questions everywhere on this album, sometimes voiced very subtly. Sufjan is contemplating aging, fame, relationships and ultimately life and love and he’s doing this within the framework of the album. He’s asking us to concentrate, and in recent interviews, he has wondered if the album means anything anymore with people downloading music as much as they do.
“When I die, oh when I die, I’ll rot/but when I live, when I live, I’ll give it all I got,” sings Sufjan on the title track. The Age of Adz seems to embody tension throughout its running time. There is a tension between the electronic elements and the horns and strings, a tension between death and illness and life and love and a tension between Sufjan the artist and Sufjan the person. On “Vesuvius” Sufjan refers to himself in the third person with these lines, “Sufjan, follow your heart/Follow the flame or fall on the floor/Sufjan, the panic inside/The murdering ghost that you cannot ignore.” This is Sufjan revealing his thoughts to us, and possibly giving us a clue about his departure from his previous style of music.
It seems as if Sufjan is trying to follow his heart, answering his own question from “Come On, Feel the Illinoise!” of, “Are you writing from the heart?” On “I Want to be Well” Sufjan confidently declares, “I’m not f—ing around.” This comes as a shock to us, as Sufjan normally never uses profanity in his songs, but I think it is a necessary shock. It’s Sufjan letting us know that this album isn’t the result of him screwing around, but that it is a cohesive statement about life and his desire to live it in the right way. It is also fitting that this line comes right before the album’s 25 minute closer, “Impossible Soul,” an exhausting, overwhelming, yet truly triumphant song if there ever was one.
“Impossible Soul” deserves a blog post in its own right, which I will save for another time. The Age of Adz also deserves more than this slight write-up. It deserves your time, concentration and contemplation. There are parts that confuse me and that I don’t appreciate musically, but I think the musical vision that Sufjan is bringing to the table here is something that hasn’t been heard before. Is it the defining album of our time, as some of the more extreme hyperbole has stated? Is it even the best album of the year? We’ll have to see how well it holds up, but what I can say is that it will definitely be one of the most challenging and also most potentially rewarding albums of the year. So what is Sufjan trying to say? I think he’s asking us to filter through all the noise in our lives, mirrored in some ways by the noise on The Age of Adz, and find the meaning underneath it all.
October 12, 2010 § 2 Comments
“Questions are not scary. What is scary is when people don’t have any. What is tragic is faith that has no room for them.”-Rob Bell
Recently, I made a video for my Rhetorical Theory and Criticism class. We were supposed to take a quote and visual it. Above are both the video and the quote which I based the video off of. I think it’s a decent little video considering the equipment and time I had to do it. The music is England by The National. I picked a song by The National, because I wanted to capture a sense of longing inherent in us whenever we ask questions. We are asking questions because there is a hole in our knowledge, experience or emotions. This longing is something we should embrace.
List of questions (some are hard to see):
Who are you? Who is God? Why are we so afraid…of everything? What if you gain everything and then lose…? Are we just consumers? What if? What is truth? Is there truth? What is love? Who is my neighbor? What if nobody is ordinary? Why do we miss the glory?
I made the signs of out various newspapers, pieces of colored paper, a Sprite bottle, really anything I found lying around my room. Making the signs easily took five times as long as making the video.
August 4, 2010 § 2 Comments
The only reason I know about Jonathan Safran Foer is because I saw Everything is Illuminated with a friend at college last semester. It’s a shame that I hadn’t heard of Foer before. Although I’ve yet to read Everything is Illuminated the movie sold me on Foer’s creative characters and unique style. If it came through in a movie, it screams in your ear in his writing.
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is a novel, but it’s also so much more. Foer seems to sneer at typical literary conventions and introduces a myriad of clever, hyperactive ways to move the story along. There are illustrations, and a series of pages marked by a red pen to show the mistakes in a letter sent to one of the characters. There is color and life. Foer switches narrators every chapter, just to keep things interesting. The interesting thing about this is that it all feels so necessary as the characters try to make sense of what is happening in their world.
The novel takes place after and deals specifically with September 11th so in a way it’s not just the characters in the story trying to make sense of life, but all of us Americans. Foer’s writing plumbs the depths of a young boy Oskar, whose father died in the attacks, as he tries to cope with his father’s death. Even though I don’t often think about 9-11, Oskar’s story brought it all back to me. On two separate occasions I was near tears, which for me are almost never elicited by the written word. The story is so personal, yet so universal to all of us who witnessed those attacks.
Foer does an excellent job of bringing the memories back, but he doesn’t sugarcoat them or romanticize them. They are real things that carry real weight, not only for the characters in his story but for all of us. He deals with the real questions of life and death here. But more impressively, he does it with such tenderness that they don’t seem forced upon the story in some haphazard way of drawing a moral from his fable.
For a story about death it’s bursting full of life, from Oskar’s unrelenting quest to find the lock to the key he found in his father’s closet to the old man he befriends whose bed has so many nails in it that it has become a magnet. I can’t say much more about this book. It has everything you could want in a story without simplifying the hard questions. At the end, we still might not be better equipped to die, but we are better equipped to live.