The Death of Small Things

The hardy hope of winter
Sends its root deep
To wait out the darkness
Below the snow-chilled ground, and
Emerge, victorious, at the coming of spring.
Its regent the Christmas ever-green;
Its sign the fragile snow drop,
Each betiding - Life!
Life beyond death,
And joy beyond despair.

Rest for now, sleepers,
But - you'll yet wake,
And there will be the radiance and
The light of a new day.



I set down my book about the history of antitrust enforcement and think, "There are no simple goods. Everything is complicated, and the mark of a keen mind is the ability to weigh each instant in the balance, now going one way, now going the other, in order to walk that fine line."

I pick up Mary Oliver's Felicity and think, "But perhaps some things are simply good. Camaraderie among old friends, the fragrance of evergreen Christmas decorations, and a hand to hold along an uncertain way. The things that we have to pause for a long moment to see at all, because everything else is weaving frantic patterns around us, earning its reputation for complexity through sheer busyness."

What I love: to sit with a friend watching a historical fixture one last time before it goes away; to walk the streets of New York City with the dearest of sisters taking in the beauty of the holiday decorations; to feed great baked goods to everyone I hold dear until they're practically begging me to stop; and to stand still long enough to see the iridescence of a magpie's tail feathers and to hear the raucous call of the red-wing blackbird.



Idly, a single leaf falls,
Lazy in the arcs it traces,
Down down down.
Idly, I watch,
Lazily letting the grief begin to seep
Down down down
But not quite yet
It will come in its time.
Living, dying: who am I
To stop what is decreed?
We are fragile, soft.
When the color fades,
Will we live again?


Making Peace

I sit in the half light of a rainy Sunday morning. The only other wakeful beings nearby are the cat, who shifts occasionally but otherwise sleeps, and the dog, represented only by distant clicking of claws on hardwood. It is as though I were in a cocoon of rain sound and greenery with all the soft comforts of the familiar.

I love this solitude. It's rich and soothing and nourishing to my soul. I celebrate each element that makes it up, marveling at how they all flow together into the perfect space. This is the peace of the world, for a few precious moments.

I have always known myself to be someone who enjoys solitude. Even when the solitude is less peaceful, for it is not all Sunday mornings with books of poetry, open journals, and mugs of coffee.

What I have been less comfortable with acknowledging about myself is the huge, black abyss that I've locked up into a closet, that Dementor of Dementors, which is my loneliness.

Supposedly - so I've read - people who report feelings of loneliness are likely to consistently do so throughout their lives, regardless of whether they are indeed alone or are surrounded by a tight-knit network of close, long-term relationships. That is a bleak thought indeed, but it also shines a light on the chaos of thoughts and feelings that swirl around the void.

No one can be the solution to loneliness. I think we can get into some incredibly destructive relationships believing otherwise, believing that this or that person is somehow staving off the darkness and filling the void with their presence. Loneliness is not shaped like a particular person. It is a greedy mouth that steals and feeds on joy, that thrives most when we try to pretend it's not there.

I don't want to dwell too much on the beast, but that last line brought to mind the image of Ungoliant, when Melkor brought her into Valinor and set her upon Laurelin and Telperion. She drained the life-giving sap of the two trees and belched forth black vapors, turning their light to darkness - and still, she craved more.

But where is the light then? What glass filled with the light of Earendil can I hold up to blind the foul, ravenous creature when I stumble into its lair?

I think it's a slow and patient process. No, no person can fill the void. For one thing, relationships, however good in their time, do not last forever, and sometimes what seemed like it could hold the darkness at bay threatens to unlock it and unleash it, stronger than ever.

But only if I tie my value to that and think that I am not worthy of friendship and connection. Only if I lose sight of the love that I have for those close to me and the love that they return.

I think the process is one part speaking truth to the darkness and one part a sort of quiet acceptance, practiced consistently in the present, of the uncertainties of life. If friends leave for other places, perhaps our relationship will change and the ties will weaken, but I am glad for them, for the possibilities that have opened up. And I am open to new relationships, new possibilities for myself. I do not lose what I have gained; I simply celebrate what has been and reach out for more.

To be clear, I do not advocate accepting the darkness. I agree that there are some nights into which one should not go gentle. I think it is meant to be subdued. But perhaps not with rage, save for righteous wrath - Samwise drives the sword deep into Shelob's belly, Ehud slew the gluttonous Moabite king Eglon with a dagger to the bowels - which is a rapid deliverance that still cannot undo the years of suffering that preceded it. What we are to accept is the circumstances that might otherwise be cause for grief, recognizing that they are not a reflection of ourselves or our value, but simply one out of the many parts of a life in which, for all its abundance and beauty, we will experience loss.

That is the fire, to me, of those sweet words, "Behold! I make all things new." The healing of the pain of separation. To know, deep down, that you are not alone and never will be.

In the meantime, however, we must make do with what is given to us. And what has been given to me today is love, friendship, joy, a little bit of grief, and the sweet, gentle music of this peaceful Sunday morning.



On broken feet
We make our way
By friends:
At their loss.
By family:
At their choices.

Yet though we limp
Through the pain
To be felt,
Our eyes,
Their vision
By tears,
Look up:
The stars remain.
We are blessed by their light.


Sabbath ii

Sometimes I laugh at my cat when she sits and she cries before the only closed door in the entire house.

Sometimes I stop laughing, pause, and wonder if I haven’t been guilty of doing that myself.



I, grasshopper, jump from word to word
And thought to thought
Clumsy in the confusion of a million neurons
Untangling themselves to send off
A cacophonous delirium of fireworks.
They are celebrating Independence Day,
As we gather together to recognize
The birth inherent in all separation:
For I?
I am rent asunder.
We begin life anew.


My Body Rests in Hope

For the days when you wake up and wish you hadn’t;
For the days when you can’t wake up because you never fell asleep;
For the days when it feels like everyone is a million miles away
(Even though they’ve been sending you support at every turn);
For the days when you’re afraid to go out in public because you can’t stop crying;
For the days when you’re so proud that you’ve held it all together
And then a second’s loss of concentration sends you spiraling back down;
For the days when you can’t rewrite the narrative no matter how hard you try;
For the days when you spend twenty minutes on a simple task
Because you can’t organize your thoughts long enough to get it done;
For the days when some ray of light breaks through,
When a thousand fireflies light up a cornfield on a hot summer night,
When a touch, a word, a look, a kiss, the soft brush of a cat’s tail
Help you lift your head a little higher and help you see a little clearer;
For the days when the world is right, and you don’t have to try,
And you know that you are strong, you are loved, you are wonderful
(Even if the feeling is fragile and every step is a step of faith):
I know. I’ve been there. We can do this.



I think the dead are tender. Shall we kiss? --
My lady laughs, delighting in what is.
If she but sighs, a bird puts out its tongue.
She makes space lonely with a lovely song.
She lilts a low soft language, and I hear
Down long sea-chambers of the inner ear.

We sing together; we sing mouth to mouth.
The garden is a river flowing south.
She cries out loud the soul's own secret joy;
She dances, and the ground bears her away.
She knows the speech of light, and makes it plain
A lively thing can come to life again.

I feel her presence in the common day,
In that slow dark that widens every eye.
She moves as water moves, and comes to me,
Stayed by what was, and pulled by what would be.

{Theodore Roethke}


Of Hedgerows and Husbandry

(This was written while in flight back to the U.S., and I've only just gotten around to posting it, hence the somewhat odd temporal placement of verb tenses and that sort of thing.)

In our travels of the past few weeks, Katrina and I have had the opportunity to observe numerous hedges and hedgerows (evidently there's a difference) scattered through southern England and along the border with Wales. There are many features of the English countryside that would appear alien to anyone familiar with American rural life (see also: public rights-of-way that cut directly up someone's driveway, within three feet of their house, and into their back pastures, through which one is perfectly entitled to walk without fear of being charged with trespassing), but the hedgerows are among the most immediately distinctive.

They close in over narrow lanes, making them seem even narrower, and provide both shade and protection from or obstruction of the winds and breezes. They act as fences and habitats, depending on the creature. And they are astonishingly complex, upon taking a closer look. Far from being an untidy jumble of plant life--although they can become that under certain circumstances--they are arranged according to a particular design and require maintenance and care to become what they are.

I was sufficiently intrigued by them to pick up a copy of English naturalist John Wright's A Natural History of the Hedgerow, which provides a much closer look than I've managed in one paragraph, and it's my airplane reading, en route back to the U.S., hence why I'm thinking about it right now, while pausing to write this.

One of the things I found interesting about them in a casual observation was the way that branches had been woven together and back in, trained to grow up, but not out, and forming a relatively impenetrable barrier. (Seeing it, I'm better able to make sense of a scene from Howl's Moving Castle, wherein Sophie Hatter frees a dog caught in the hedge - I don't think we typically have bushes thick enough to trap dogs here, but it's not hard to see how it might happen in some of the thicker bits of a stock-proof hedge.) Wright details numerous ways of laying hedges, some regional, some more attentive to the materials at hand, but they all involve some measure of skill and, perhaps most importantly, patience. It takes approximately ten years from the initial planting of trees before a hedge can be laid, and the hedge will have to be re-laid in successive decades if it is to be well-maintained.

I suppose I'm a little too irresistibly drawn to moralizing from these things, but I've been thinking about the kinds of processes that are involved in life maintenance. A life may be lived haphazardly, allowing each day to come and go without giving much thought to how it's being conducted or where it might be going. Or there may be a patient, ongoing work of care: establishing healthy patterns, practicing good communication, evaluating relationships and goals and activities.

I made a somewhat nonsensical comment earlier about hedges becoming what they are, and I think that's one of those odd constructions that gets to a more complex notion of what it means to be anything. I am human, and without any particular judgments on how other people choose to exercise their humanity, I might think that there are better and worse ways of being human. In both cases, the only way to get closer to the extremes is through purposive or neglectful repetition of specific behaviors and ways of interpreting or thinking about the world.

Hedgerow maintenance requires attention, care, knowledge, and wisdom to do it well - and repetition. You can't do it once and expect that all will be well forever thereafter, although a once-well-tended hedge may endure for a while before it starts to break down. The work that you're doing is to build toward something, certainly - there's a notion of what the thing ought to be, that you are shaping it toward - but the work itself is done in the present on the thing as it currently happens to be. You can't work with resources that aren't there. You also can't will a flourishing hedgerow into existence merely by wistfully contemplating what it could be. Again, the work happens now, with what there is.

Hopefully the connections between how one maintains a hedgerow and how one maintains a life are fairly obvious. If not, then I suppose I shall simply say that attention, habits, self-evaluation, and patience are all vital ingredients to the process of building a life. If my metaphor holds and if you happen to think, as I do, that the best kind of life provides some benefit to others as well as the self, then let me add this: that the strongest hedgerows also offer a vital habitat in which many species find food, shelter, and protection. And for those of us who enjoy observing both great lives and great hedgerows, they happen to supply an unending variety of interesting details that only become richer upon closer inspection and could preoccupy a happy nerd for a very long time.



Smoke signals and semaphore
Are the means I use to speak to you,
As though we stood, each of us,
Atop two distant mountain peaks,
Lonely watchers in a wasteland,
And attempted to break the spell
That deadens our dry tongues.
But what would we say if we said at all?
How do I transform the way a feather feels,
Brushing against the skin,
Into a language that will span the gap?

Perhaps if we managed
We’d find in fact that
The moment of connection
Left us lonelier than before.
When I imagined what I did not have,
I could not be bereft.
And now, if the silence falls,
And the words fail?
How shall I ever cross that hollow void
Within myself?


Getting What You Want

Once upon a time, I was twelve years old, using our free dial-up internet to look at Oxford and Cambridge’s websites, probably after reading about them in a novel. I tried to figure out how the college system worked and even had some preferences for which one I’d want to be in, but was attuned enough to my family’s circumstances to know (after a glance at the scholarship page) that I would probably never be able to afford that dream. It stuck around somewhere, but as I applied to various colleges and universities, I figured it wasn’t happening and that would be that.

It was only in the process of transferring from community college, as I checked out the study abroad catalog at Penn, that I realized there was actually a way to do it. It didn’t hurt that the program requirements were among the most stringent, at least as far GPA went, so I could satisfy my internal need to accomplish something meaningful if I did get in. Of course, as the four or five regular readers of this blog and myself already know, I eventually ended up going to Cambridge to study for six months and was deliriously happy even when I wasn’t (i.e. while smudging all of the underlines in my Abelard text with tears because I just could not understand what, precisely, I was supposed to be getting out of it after spending many hours on one or two paragraphs). I pointedly didn’t take pictures of many things, just so I’d have to spend time smelling, hearing, and seeing every detail into memories that would linger in greater potency.

I think that it’s unusual that we get precisely what we want. I say this as someone who has rarely formed more complex ambitions than “survive” and “don’t grow up to be like Mom,” but I think even for people who have a detailed notion of what they want and can aim themselves toward that, the results are never going to be exactly that, because there are too many other variables. It’s also possible that we may find out that what we think we want isn’t what we want at all.

There’s no terribly original thought behind this post. I just happened to be thinking about that experience in contrast with most of life, where I think the truer way to satisfaction is to follow the Innocent Smith model. Smith is the strange and wonderful hero of Chesterton’s novel Manalive. The title comes from a telegram he sent to an old school chum, and this with no context whatsoever: “Man found alive with two legs.”

It’s meant to be a sort of wondrous announcement, to wake others up to the marvel that Smith himself (and I do think Smith is meant to be a somewhat parodied but semi-autobiographical figure for Chesterton, if only because he writes elesewhere with such naive jubilation in apple trees bearing apples and sunrise happening every morning) has discovered.

In the course of the story, we find that Smith’s realization has led him to take some very unusual steps. For example, he is found to be a bigamist, romancing different women and then eloping with them, never mind that they all turn out, in the end, to have been his wife, sent off somewhere to work as a secretary or lady’s maid precisely so that he could then find her and make off with her. On another occasion, he is caught attempting burglary, breaking into a house via an attic window, but, after all, it’s only his own house that he’s breaking into.

What Smith is attempting is the quiet revolution (though maybe not so quiet in his case) of wanting what you get. The satisfaction of attaining a goal or dream is great and deep, no doubt about that. But there is a great deal that we cannot control or know, and if we mean to find delight in the less earthshaking moments, then contentment is far more consistently rewarding. That’s not to say that we should settle or stop dreaming; rather, as in all things, there’s a balance to be walked if we wish not merely to weather the “low” points between attainments, but rather thrive in them.


Hazel Dormice at the Devil’s Jumps

Let us go then, you and I, to walk over hill, over hill, to the steady tramp of tired feet, to the adventures sought by tired feet, let us go, let us go! The way unfolds before us like a serpent in its winding, the way stretches out before us like a carpet unrolled, the way falls before us and we feel as though to go another step forward would be to walk at last right into the sky—our breath caught and let go, released in the disappointment of knowing how close and yet—

Physics. If only I could calculate the variables, we might leave the ground, but it’s an impossible task, one that I can’t do alone, and you’re not interested, you’ve already moved on to some other distraction more interesting to you than the question of how we might fly through the clouds so I’m left grasping for rainbows when the sun has left for warmer parts and the rain falls thick and grey.

The first attempt: Somewhere between the hedgerows, I thought I spotted a grey fox. He winked at me, he climbed a tree, how could this be? A fox in a tree? That was the first impossible thing before breakfast, and I believed it because it was real, but full English breakfasts weigh heavy on one’s stomach, so my thought balloons were not enough to carry me away on the breezes that blew, achoo achoo, on the breezes that blew me away (from -?).

The second attempt: There was a kite, and quite a kite there was. His head was white, and his tail was red, and his wings were spread to fly, no to float, to drift yet stand still, he was quite remote, and I dreamed that I caught him with cobweb reins, but he would not be harnessed, not this kite (how he hovered!), he quickly recovered and broke the thin thread, so I gave up and said my farewells to the chap, I bade him the happiest riding the wind, abiding the while my fate on the ground.

The third attempt: a puff of breath was all that it took to mail a thousand dandelion seeds to a thousand destinations (or maybe just one), much to the chagrin of those who have no souls with which to pay homage to their cheerful yellow faces. I made those tufted sailors into Horcruxes with the murder of a slug on the path, a spider in the bath, and myriad other tiny creatures, too small to avoid when their way intersects mine. And so I go, I go, aloft shall I go, but the flight is with sorrow, I alight with sorrow, for the magic is heavy and my bones are hollow and you do not follow, not this, not the line of thought that led me here now, to the point at the end where I fly over the hilltops. Gone is the blossom, it was carried away.


Going Places

A year ago, maybe more, in the muddle of misery that was foreclosure law and the frustration of unanswered job applications, the need for an escape was more obvious. There were plenty of reasonably good things in the present moment, but I think we need goals and destinations to structure our actions from day-to-day, or we end up drifting. At least, that has been true for me. To get myself beyond that particular period and to give myself something to look forward and live forward to, I proposed a return to England.

It was a logical destination. I’ve always hated the idea that there might be a high point in one’s life that one could never really top, like people who peak in high school and spend the rest of their lives daydreaming about when they were captain of the football team, even as everything else about their adult life is deeply unfulfilling. It bothers me for two reasons: one, that I don’t like to think that there may be nothing better to be had out of the future, and two, that it’s simply impossible to recreate the conditions under which we may once have been incandescently happy. Perhaps three, and related to one, my life has generally trended upward, from a difficult, emotionally perplexing childhood to a differently difficult but somehow kinder adulthood, so I have historically felt that there were very few moments in my past that could feasibly be seen as an improvement on the present or possible future.

But all that aside, if you asked me when I’ve felt most perfectly at home, in alignment with my goals and hopes and temperament, I would have to say when I was studying at Cambridge. It wasn’t necessarily the easiest experience, but the positive far outweighed the negative, and the memories I formed quite deliberately have remained impressed in my mind with a strength rarely attained.

And yet, it has been four years. Memories, even strong ones, may fade a bit. I think I’m becoming less of a romantic, but I hope that’s a trade off for the better, if I may be a bit less naive as well. I’m not working at a job that is essentially awful - although somewhere Dan is wondering about the veracity of that statement, since I’ve been crying to him all week about how much work has been stressing me out. In short, my motivations for this particular trip that I’m taking are less clear to me and less immediate and urgent than they were when the whole plan was conceived.

I’m looking forward to spending two weeks with Katrina, and I’m happy to see Andy after seven years, and it will be pleasant, I think, to take after some of my favorite English (by birth or resettlement) authors in wandering long footpaths. I could certainly use the vacation after a rather long and occasionally exhausting  six months. But right now, on the eve of traveling, as I pause before plunging into  the last bits of packing, cleaning, cat petting, and so forth that must be done, I can’t help but feel as though some of my thoughts on travel, on the purpose of this particular trip, and on the general destination have changed.

I don’t need to escape. “Here” is rarely perfect, but after the first running of the gauntlet, I’ve had a fairly gentle time of it. I don’t particularly romanticize England anymore, I think, although as a lifelong Anglophile this may be a relative statement. I’m aware that it’s not a perfect place either, and whether I’d make the effort to move there, like I once hoped and strived to do, well, I don’t know. I suppose if the opportunity presented itself, although they rarely seem to be so promiscuous as to land in one’s lap. But it’s a comfort to know that after such a long time of feeling uprooted and misplaced, that perhaps there is a sort of home to be had here, for however long that might be.

Regardless, in less than 48 hours, I’ll be in hot pursuit of magpies and the best grilled cheese in the world. Fortunately, I think Katrina is already resigned to her fate, or this would be a very long trip indeed.


Axis Sphere and Saying Grace

My vision is limited - as a narrator, I write only myself with an even passably clear notion of the full, vibrant range of desires, motives, causes, and so forth that shape me, and I am most likely unreliable, for as much as I need to hide from the world, so too I may find it necessary to hide from myself. Most often, it seems, those things that would cause me shame were I to look on them with unflinching directness, but sometimes too the joys that would require an unbearable trust or a painful realization.

But that’s not the path I meant to wander down with my opening statement. I am less concerned about the limits on my ability to know and speak myself. More concerned about the limits on my ability to know and speak someone else, whether to myself or in translating them to a third party.

Even when the universe of shared experiences is richly populated, we are aliens to one another. I can at best project what you may be thinking and feeling based on my own experiences or on what I’ve been taught by various means to believe would be a rational response. But I can’t really know it, and even at the best of times, we may be on two entirely different planes. You are you, distinctive and unique; I am I, likewise but in my own way.

Sometimes, most times, that’s okay. We only need enough to get by, and no more. But there are occasions when the mismatch between two or more people’s worlds isn’t so easy to disregard. Friction attends the fault lines, as well as misunderstanding, hurt, blame, betrayal, and confusion. Then the story I narrate must be written with greater care, delicately navigating a fraught space. But this is not done in isolation and without tools.

To take but one example, this is the beauty of gratitude. In the infinite tangle of actions and words, we choose selectively to attend to this set, rather than that set, and we extend thanks for that which is excellent and praiseworthy. Whatever else may be true, this is also true: that I see what you have done, intentionally or unintentionally, that in some way touches me, and I thank you for it. Not ignoring any harm you may have done, but attending for the moment to the more important reality, and blessing it and you for the fact of its existence.


Part 46

Take me down the line of your face
With permission from the gods
I will explore this newfound territory
Wherein your flesh and animation meet
A land of possibility if the winds are fair
A gentle brush, a quiet word, leaning in
All preface to another thought.


The Enough of Here

This is the sacrifice made for comfort and security. That the midnight hours hold fewer uncertainties, fewer monsters that sit on your chest until the feelings leak out in sentence fragments and extended metaphors.

Once upon a time, she said, this was as necessary to me, as natural to me, as breathing. (She coughed on her own cigarette.) And now? It takes effort. Why do it, after all, when so many other things are easier? To indulge passivity and glut oneself on the empty calories of pointless pleasure. Listening, watching, protecting always protecting, holding one's arms close to one's sides, one's hands in one's lap, always aloof with every muscle tensed lest there be accidental contact (horrors!), but greedily gobbling up the product of other people's thoughts, actions, passion.

They told me they could see me being famous one day. I knew it would never happen: I would make sure of it. Because they thought they thought I wasn't lazy, that my love was an unquenchable fire, that this would be enough to make the whole world burn. We were all wrong. Them for speaking nonsense, me for not believing it.

Brick by brick by brick by brick. This is how we build the world. One tweak at a time. One unkind word, one loving touch, one act of faith, one gesture of goodwill, one rude hand gesture, one private moment of scorn. 

They tell me these don't really matter. That no one person can truly be responsible for making the enormous change. Perhaps that's true. But I am not responsible for the whole world. I am only responsible for my piece of it. And here there are July peaches sweeter than sunshine, a red-tail making love to the wind, two people with alien views shaking hands in mutual respect, a willingness to blossom into a yes when the warm winds of opportunity awaken the buds on the branches, and the gentleness of fingers like vines intertwining.

How do I how do I how do I? How do I not? Everything is dirty, but not everything is unclean. It waits only for the rain to give us our Sunday faces, scrubbed and shining, strange bride for a stranger groom. I'll marry you, humanity, but that doesn't mean a thing on the wedding day. It's all the other days that count: the days of plowing, fertilizing, planting, hoeing, weeding, picking, cooking and canning, even the days of rest, when we set aside our joyous labors (not joyous for the sweat, but joyous for the life they sustain) to abide with one another. 

They told me we were not for each other, and perhaps that's true. But all that's irrelevant now: I've been born into this love, I've tasted the candied lemon peel apple butter spice of it, and there can be no turning back. Therefore, onward, as long as our feet can hold us (and perhaps if they get us to the highest peak before they give out, we'll roll down the hill a ways further on).


I Have Heard the Silence

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves
And blood at the roots
Black bodies swingin' in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin' from the poplar trees...

The past sometimes seems like one mass grave, in which we have buried alike both our triumphs and our most shameful secrets. As Longfellow said in the poem I quoted not too many posts back, "Lives of great men all remind us..." There have been many great men and women throughout history, who made good decisions in the face of tremendous pressure and pain. There have been moments of joy, when daily trials were set aside for the serious task of celebration. In the everyday carnivals of human existence, we revel in life not in spite of, but because of our deep recognition of its brevity and the potential reach of darkness.

I have wondered recently, as I've listened to Billie Holliday's famous lamentation, "Strange Fruit," just what it is that we're seeking to accomplish when we dig in that grave of history and set before ourselves its most tragic victims. Say what you will about justice, but there is a point beyond which it becomes more complicated. Justice means something in the present to the living. I cannot deny that this is a space in which we can and should seek to break the cycles of oppression and to obtain justice for those who are suffering, whether directly or indirectly, at our hands. But what justice can there be for those who are dead or for those who are yet to come?

I think this is an essential part of being human: that we must, to borrow Wolterstorff's image, sit on humanity's mourning bench. It is not justice that brings us to this place. It is something humbler, but no less vital to our survival. It is our willingness to share not only in joy, but also in suffering.

I'm hesitant to draw on the image, but it seems that the power of Jesus's crucifixion was that if he were the son of God, it was not incumbent upon him to suffer, neither the sorrows nor the pain nor, in the end, the death of being human. But by humbling himself to share in that grief, he became both the promise and the fulfillment of the words he himself had spoken: Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

I am not Jewish or African-American or Vietnamese or from one of any number of colonized nations. My family is Swiss and German and maybe a little French going back for practically as far as we have last names to trace these stories by. We have not been subject to genocide, slavery, lynching, persecution, exclusion, or exile. I am, for all intents and purposes, untouched by the legacy of victimization that sought to dehumanize or annihilate groups deemed inferior. Quite the contrary, my white skin is a mark of participation in, if not the actual abuse, then the benefits wrested from their suffering.

But I hope that by sitting here on the mourning bench, dwelling on and grieving over their pain, acknowledging the injustice of all that has been done, that should never have been done whether remediable or no, I may (not to draw grandiose parallels between myself and the son of God) honor them and, in recognizing and respecting their humanity, perhaps reveal in them some small part of the dignity that was concealed in what we have done to them.

It is not enough, but Wolterstorff concedes this too. There are things that our words and our best intentions and our fiery proclamations and soberest policies cannot touch. For those moments, all we have to offer is our being present and open to the pain, sharing in this terrible, wonderful Eucharist, whereby we drink the blood and eat the flesh and somehow, limping our way toward grace, may yet be made whole.


A Word from the Collective Superego

In beginning: what we believe matters. It has consequences for how we behave and what we prioritize. That is not in question.

But there's this urban legend that someone is dirt if they don't have the right ideas. As if no one has ever changed their mind in the history of the world. As if you've never been wrong in your life.

I'm guilty of this kind of thinking too. But I try, when I'm being my better self, to disarm contempt and speak less from hate of the idea incarnate and more for love of the person or, failing that, the truth.

If you've treated everyone well and lived uprightly, I don't think history will care what your private convictions are. At least some of them were good enough that you've done your part to ensure that the world was a better place.

If you've been a crappy person but passionately defended beauty, truth, compassion, and justice, then I appreciate your attempts to spread those ideas, but you've got this all mixed up.

And I get it: half of our lives happen in a world made out of words - social media, text messaging, email - or abstract realities that we can't touch much less change - like the tv shows and movies that everyone is always telling me I should watch. So we get this notion that it's the abstract things that really matter.

"Please sir, can I see your ideology?" Not: "What's the last thing you did for someone that was reasonably selfless?"

People are often wrong. They believe things we can't sympathize with. They vote in ways we don't understand. But we're also complicated and redeemable. Some of us suck, but it isn't always the ones you'd expect. All of us suck some of the time, and that's why we have to have grace and humility: for ourselves and for each other.

I'm pretty sick of divisiveness and tragedies compounded by contempt, mischaracterization, and misunderstanding. It's possible to respect each other, even if we don't share the same beliefs. Maybe it's time we put our energies toward healing the rifts, rather than making them wider.


Books of 2017

2017 was an excellent year, in terms of reading material. Themes included: solid book club selections, an ongoing interest in the ethical and psychological aspects of a culture in war as manifested in World War II, reading everything Sebald ever wrote, and as many of the books on this list of works dealing with race and ethnicity in America as I could access. With regard to fiction, my primary interest was in reading books by authors of other cultures, especially African and Asian, although I obviously did not confine myself solely to that - and happily so, as Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behavior was perhaps one of the most enjoyable books I read this year.

The book that totally stumped me (and toward which I hold a small grudge), was Naguib Mahfouz's The Mirage. I reiterate that if anyone can explain to me who the protagonist sees at the very end, I will be very grateful to you, because I have no idea and couldn't be bothered to figure it out. On the other hand, I was utterly delighted by the magical absurdity of The Master and Margarita, and I would heartily recommend it to anyone who has enjoyed the 19th century Russians and might appreciate their somewhat more modern counterpart. The Underground Railroad was a subtler variation on the style of The Master and Margarita, using fantastical elements to bring into focus a much more serious and pervasive reality (and was so good that I got a copy for one of my sisters for Christmas).

Just Mercy was deep and heavy, but not without hope or a willingness to challenge stereotypes: perhaps the best kind of medicine for these divided days. Meanwhile, The Color of Law and White Rage were a burning challenge to ideas of helplessness and refusal to take responsibility for the systematic oppression of specific groups of people. On the subject of divided days and timely reading, American Nations was an eye-opening explanation of one way of understanding political and social divides through the cultural heritages of different U.S. regions (and might be a good place to start before reading Hochschild's Strangers in Their Own Land, which fell a little flat for me, but which I appreciated nonetheless, especially for its portrayal of the individual nuances that arise at the intersection of the personal and political, but also for some of its challenges to liberal/coastal ways of characterizing that world).

Book that made me cry the hardest: The Book Thieves. I've read so many books at this point surrounding World War II, though not a great many about the Holocaust. As a lover of books, I have always felt as though my collection were somehow a manifestation of my interests, goals, and desires taken shape in the world. Add to that the historically unique and incomparably precious nature of the books and collections involved, and I found this account devastating. As though it were not enough to destroy the physical bodies of the Jews (and political dissidents, but primarily here Jewish communities), but further, the conditioned, specific, cherished means of communicating their culture to another generation, if it might survive, were dismantled, dispersed, looted, disrespected, and in some cases, destroyed. If you wish to systematically obliterate not persons, but a people, this is the means by which you would do it. It feels heartless to say that in the face of the statistics on millions of lives struck down, I have little emotional response, and yet the loss of so many books touched the note of grief; but it somehow brought the enormity of the Holocaust home to me in a way that those numbers couldn't. (Although I will say that some of the later parts of Austerlitz were similarly affecting.)

Finally, the poetic essays of Mary Oliver, the stripped down, yet astonishing beauty of Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, and, my forever favorite, the "fiction" of W.G. Sebald struck some lovely notes in the midst of an often (mentally or literally) heavy reading load (e.g. The Origins of Totalitarianism, which I've already gone into in other posts and therefore will not revisit here).

In the past, I think I've tended just to post the list without any comments, but beyond simple self-aggrandizement, I would love for this to open up conversations with other people about books they may be interested in reading or what they've thought of some of the items on the list, or to inspire someone to read something new. So please, consider this an invitation to ask or comment!

2017 (in order of completion):

Luzerne County: History of the People and Culture - Dr. Paul J. Zbick
Event: A Philosophical Journey Through a Concept - Slavoj Zizek
Just Mercy - Bryan Stevenson
Eichmann and the Holocaust - Hannah Arendt
A Brief History of the Crimean War - Alexis Toubetzkoy
One Summer: America, 1927 - Bill Bryson
On Violence - Hannah Arendt
Austerlitz - W.G. Sebald
A Book of Common Prayer - Joan Didion
Journeys of a German in England in 1782 - C.P. Moritz
The Road to Little Dribbling - Bill Bryson
Upstream - Mary Oliver
The Old Ways - Robert MacFarlane
Havana: A Subtropical Delirium - Mark Kurlansky
Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer - Charles Marsh
The Purity of Vengeance - Jussi Adler-Olsen
The Utopia of Rules - David Graeber
The Absent One - Jussi Adler-Olsen
Strangers in Their Own Land - Arlie Russell Hochschild
The Underground Railroad - Colson Whitehead
The Road to Wigan Pier - George Orwell
Small Wonders - Barbara Kingsolver
Nine Parts of Desire - Geraldine Brooks
The Bean Trees - Barbara Kingsolver
The Greater Trumps - Charles Williams
African Philosophy: New and Traditional Perspectives - Ed. Lee M. Brown
The New Jim Crow - Michelle Alexander
Death of a King - Tavis Smiley
Utopia for Realists - Rutger Bregman
Hero of the Empire - Candice Millard
Fire Shut Up in My Bones - Charles M. Blow
Germans Into Nazis - Peter Fritsche
The Master and Margarita - Mikhail Bulgakov
American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures in North America - Colin Woodard
Miss Lonelyhearts & The Day of the Locust - Nathanael West
Ways of Dying - Zakes Mda
Flight Behavior - Barbara Kingsolver
The Return of Don Quixote - G. K. Chesterton
Never Caught: The Washingtons' Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave Ona Judge - Erica Armstrong Dunbar
The Two Cultures - C.P. Snow
Gilead - Marilynne Robinson
Science & Government - C.P. Snow
They Can't Kill Us All - Wesley Lowery
The Mirage - Naguib Mahfouz
On the Road to Babadag - Andrzej Stasiuk
Train to Pakistan - Khushwant Singh
The Book Thieves - Anders Rydell
The Haunting of Hill House - Shirley Jackson
Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich - Norman Ohler
The Turn of the Screen and Other Stories - Henry James
The Origins of Totalitarianism - Hannah Arendt
White Rage - Carol Anderson
The Trouble with Reality - Brooke Gladstone
Tears We Cannot Stop - Michael Eric Dyson
Hannah Arendt: An Introduction - John McGowan
The Snow Leopard - Peter Mathiessen
The Door - Magda Szabo
A Paradise Built in Hell - Rebecca Solnit
The Color of Law - Richard Rothstein
A Lesson Before Dying - Ernest J. Gaines
Castle in the Air - Diana Wynne Jones
The Emigrants - W.G. Sebald