Ink & Penwipers

Scribbles, screeds, speculations, and the occasional reference to Schrodinger's cat.

28 February 2004

Fic Update

Shadow Though it Be, Chapter 26

In which Elisabeth discusses the Agamemnon with Spike, death with Buffy, and African violets with Giles.


27 February 2004

An Acceptable Time

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. -- Collect for Ash Wednesday, BCP

I've hesitated to mention anything particular concerning Lent in my blog, because I have always in mind Screwtape's advice to Wormwood regarding his patient's spiritual advance: "Let him, if he has any bent that way, write a book about it; that is an excellent way of sterilising the seeds planted in him by the Enemy." I've been afraid that if I write anything about the sudden flashes that meet me when I am in church, or worse, if I encourage those flashes as things I can write about later for the satisfaction of edifying others -- then I shall have lost the good of them myself.

But there's another way in which I am almost driven to write these things so that I will remember them myself. My thoughts, like Keats's epitaph on his name, are writ in water, and if I don't write them I lose them. I often lament this as a failing of my own; but Wednesday when I knelt at the rail and the priest traced a cross of ashes on my forehead with the words, "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return," I felt, along with the comfort of which I will speak in a minute, a faint reassurance that I was not meant to hold a permanent impression -- that God remembers this, and that it is all right.

The Gospel text for the Ash Wednesday service was Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21: the text about doing your fasting and praying and almsgiving in secret, so that God who sees in secret will reward you. I must confess it did seem somewhat ironic that we should read this text and then go forward to receive a visible mark on our foreheads as a sign that we were Lent-observant. But as I think on it, it still fits. In the family of the Church, everyone receives the same mark. Everyone is expected to give alms, and there is not (or ought not to be) a distinction as to what those alms are. Everyone fasts: everyone knocks three times on the breast -- mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. And, as the sermon I heard emphasized, Lent is meant to be a time of joy: simple joy. It is meant to encourage us to see these matters of penitence and giving as things that bring a simple delight -- if only one can bring one's mind to it.

In this context, during an "acceptable time" such as this, I find I can do so. Most of the time I can't stand the thought of being counted second, of trading away my right to fuss and fume for my little-claimed right to bend the knee of my heart. In Lent I can accept being limited, and small, and subordinate, and mortal: there is a comfort in knowing that I will return to dust that I can't find at other times, like those times I wake up with some form of a panic attack and feel that death is imminent. Well, what if it is? It's already covered in the plan.

In fact, seeing that Lent is such a time of joyful labor toward Easter, it seems a shame to waste that time not laboring, not including one another in our mercy. Like Dante on Mount Purgatory, hearing both sorrow and joyful grace from all the souls he meets, I learn that it is a time of courtesy.

Which brings me to my link of the day: an article on Desmond Tutu's Ash Wednesday address. Desmond Tutu is my new hero. I won't say anything much more about him, because I am almost completely ignorant of where he comes from and what his connections are, but I will say that his daughter was ordained priest last month, to the great joy of many, and that what I do know of him is worthy of a great deal of respect. So, go read the article.

Meanwhile I will go away and celebrate.

18 February 2004

Book Notes, Political Notes, and General Griping

Book notes first. I have some new things to add to my to-be-read pile, thanks to Erica, so I thought I'd clear my have-read-many-times-and-meant-to-comment list.

George Macdonald. After recommending GMD on my LiveJournal, I felt the time was ripe for revisiting The Light Princess and At the Back of the North Wind, two of my favorites. A few years ago, I harbored a secret ambition to write a literary biography of GMD; he's a fascinating person -- squeezed out of the pulpit by hardliners, he supported a family of 11 by writing and lecturing and teaching nonstop for most of his adult life. Yet unlike Charles Dickens, he was sustained by a childlike sense of the fantastic and a sort of humble badger-likeness, not to mention a very strong wife. But I picked up a biography of Lewis Carroll a few weeks ago and saw in the endnotes that someone has already done a biography -- an academic one, other than the one written by Michael Phillips. So perhaps that's not in the cards. I'd love to write something about GMD -- that is, more than I've already done -- but his work is difficult to write about: reader-response criticisms, based as they are on doing things to the text, clash with Macdonald's stories, which tend to do things to me. His texts have an agency that literary criticism cannot quite neutralize. I could say something here about humility toward an author's voice, the old danger of heeding books on their own terms, and Chaucer's injunction to "taketh the fruyt, and lat the chaf be stille" -- but I won't. Suffice it to say that Macdonald's stories, as C.S. Lewis describes it, "baptize the imagination", and for that alone I recommend them. For people who would like (post-baptism) to try a little delicate criticism, I offer him as a very tough nut to crack indeed. He's just good all the way around.

Dante. Well, more specifically, the Purgatory, translated by Dorothy Sayers. I read somewhere in a poet's catalogue of translations of Dante that Sayers's rendering is "lamentable", or something like that, but that the introductions and comments are a treasure trove. The commentary is a treasure trove, and I happen to think the translation lovably awkward, like the puppy the family got for Christmas. It brings out a side of Dante that I associate most with Saint Francis of Assisi, earthy and humble. And Sayers herself makes no pretensions to equaling in English the sublimity Dante reaches in the Italian. So there. The Purgatory is my favorite so far of the Comedy; I haven't yet tackled the Paradise. I love the surface quarrelling and the deep, abiding hope and humility of the travelers.

E.L. Konigsburg. Konigsburg has always had my heart ever since I read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, but I recently had my heart stolen all over again by Silent to the Bone when I came across it in Borders the other day. I read the whole thing in the Borders cafe, wiping my eyes discreetly at the end, and promptly bought it. I finished it in the store, and I bought it afterward. I even briefly considered writing a letter to the author, but such letters usually die out in my notebook without ever being sent. (I suppose I should not complain therefore when I don't get as much feedback on my fics as I should like.)

I have plans to read the rest of Lady Julian of Norwich and to tackle John of the Cross for Lent. Virginia is planning something with Donne for Ash Wednesday next week, and it reminds me that it's been a while since I read him. Gotta love Donne.

In the political arena, I've recently posted a quote from C.S. Lewis followed by my own disturbed meditations here.

Physically, been feeling very yuck lately. I spent the weekend pretty much in bed, feeling puny and achy and cranky. My eyes feel as if little faeries have been punching them while I sleep; they feel bruised to the touch.

In fact, I feel rather bruised altogether. It must be winter.

16 February 2004

New Chapter Dance!

Shadow Though it Be, Chapter 25

In which pretty much everything hits the fan.


FB me, baby.

13 February 2004

Tolerance Rant Redux: Or, "She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me."

I started blogging in late August 2002, and I promptly used the opportunity to log my displeasure at the prevalence of the word "tolerance" as it is currently used. In fact, I hated the word, and I still hate it today. I mean, think about it: we use a word that historically means "desensitization" and "putting up with" to talk about a real and positive moral position. That position, as I understand it, is civility at its highest: a willingness to believe the best about people with whom we share virtually no opinions, no outlook, no background. Why on earth should we think it a good idea to call this civility by a name that by its nature congratulates the self for its social durability rather than describing a courteous movement between two people, two races, or two classes?

In the past, when I've aired this opinion, I've usually gotten one of two reactions: an awkward, sidelong look and a murmur, as if I've committed a mild faux pas; or fervent agreement and a look of relief, as if the other person had been treading a minefield and had suddenly found a safe zone. Neither reaction do I find particularly reassuring. In either case there's a scent of betrayal in the air; either I'm seen as a betrayer, or I feel myself to be one.

Because frankly, I've never fully associated the word with the Horrors of Liberalism that most of its detractors do. Even when I was rather socially conservative myself, I understood what was being said. I understood that it was an attempt to meet the dilemma that occurs when you yourself disapprove of someone else's moral position but have no right to browbeat them or attempt to change their mind. What shames me most in these days is that fewer and fewer people recognize that they do not have that right. If they knew them, they would cite Charlie Peacock's lines: You don't ask a drowning man/If he wants to be saved -- and conclude it their solemn duty to browbeat and harangue, or use other levers to guarantee an alteration in the other's objectionable behavior.

That's not what you do with other human beings. It's not about changing the other, it's about living with them. And I can't think of anything more treacherous to the spirit of that commitment than calling it "tolerance", as if the highest level of the Natural Law was putting up with people.

No, we need a new word. A word that doesn't, frankly, pander to the notion that giving people moral freedom is itself moral cowardice. A word that instead recognizes that that freedom is what makes our society possible.

It may be difficult to find a new word, not least because the concept of "tolerance" as a virtue has developed in response to mainstream norms, not those of crazy kooks. Racism, in the form of segregation, was once a mainstream norm. So was the subjection of women. No doubt, if the playing field were level, it'd be just as, well, just, to say that we ought not to force a change of opinion in people who don't want to let blacks eat in their restaurant. Or who don't think women have any business voting. Who has power to hurt? What is just? These are not easy questions. It makes yet another reason why we need another word. We need to talk about these things like the complicated matters they are, not gloss it all with some namby-pamby word that means "putting up with".

And we should, paradoxically, use simple words to discuss these matters: anger, love, justice, honesty, kindness -- as in, kind, family, behaving to others like the members of the human family that they are.

See, this is always what has been behind my hatred of "tolerance" as a virtue -- and so when liberals look at me funny, and conservatives think they've found an ally, I find myself slipping through the cracks, into some void of opinion that seems to make no difference. It's depressing. Hence my rant.

I shall go quietly to bed now.

09 February 2004

The Day I Went to Dealey Plaza

The first time I saw the NOVA program on the assassination of President Kennedy, I spent a sleepless night calling for my mother every half hour or so, until my father came in and told me angrily that I was twelve years old and to go to sleep. The next day he apologized and said that my first experience with that story must have been rather harrowing. Which was certainly true; and it developed into an obsession with the assassination, President Kennedy, the Presidency in general, and the general mystique of U.S. political history, in ever widening rings, as if a huge stone had been hurled into the pond of my consciousness.

Even years later, leafing through a new book on the subject at the library would be enough to keep me awake that night, ruminating on medical photos, gatherings of evidence, and the infamous Abraham Zapruder film. For me, the jury was still out on whether Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, or was a patsy in some ominous anti-American conspiracy. He was certainly the perfect patsy, what with his connections to Russia and his blatant Communist sympathies. He was also the perfect sort of psychopath who would act alone, if indeed he did. Oswald's leap into the limelight was only a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis, another shadowy piece of political brinkmanship. My parents were sixth-graders.

The Warren Commission's report makes up a thick paperback that I remember once checking out to a library patron via Interlibrary Loan; but I didn't read it, nor really did I seek too closely for information on the subject; Kennedy books, tangible tokens of my fixation, were as dangerous to stare at as the sun, like the object of a schoolgirl crush. So through the years, despite my obsession, I shared with most other people the ill-informed and uneasy sense that, for all the facts, for all the numerous pairs of eyes that witnessed the event, the American public is no further on in figuring out exactly what happened.

So a few years ago I went to Dallas to visit my best friend from college and her husband, and when she asked me what I wanted to do, I said I wanted to go to the Sixth Floor Museum. So downtown we went, ready to pay our good money to trundle around the top of the Texas School Book Depository, where you can see a mural of the Zapruder film (I'm told) frame by frame. Unfortunately, there was a huge influx that day of college football fans, and the entrance to the museum was glutted with them. We turned back, and decided that a free tour of Dealey Plaza was enough.

Dealey Plaza, it turns out, is quite small. The School Book Depository, while tall, isn't hugely impressive, and the grassy knoll hardly enough to have a family picnic on. In the cinderblock grotto next to the curve of the road (on which cars streamed quickly in a quite ordinary fashion), there were some loud-voiced people with a table full of conspiracy literature, and a bunch of mooks like ourselves wandering about in the January sun. It didn't seem at all prepossessing enough to hold that big an assassination. Nevertheless it had the glamour of history on it, and thinking about it now I also recall that thing of Thomas Merton's about guilty bystanders, especially when I remember all the people swarming around like jackdaws wheeling around a spot of roadkill.

It seems that somehow, even with so many people around to look and point and talk about it all after the event -- somehow none of that is enough, and we still don't know who shot Kennedy, or why, or what effect it was meant to have: what roots are at the bottom of that stark tree. But it is, in an exasperating way, enough to know that there are facts, which by the grace or wrath of Fortune may or may not be traceable to their source. It is, in fact, rather like the Passion and Resurrection of Christ -- another stark event with many looking on, pointing and talking, jeering and weeping, laying blame like dominoes from one end of the country to the other. And still it is quite possible either to believe or not believe that it happened as the various Gospels said it did -- Gospels who, when it comes to the Resurrection in particular, gabble and retcon (I love that word from fandom), and mix everything up, you know, the way people do who saw something incredible. This heterogeneity of narrative can be ominous for people who suspect their creed is no safer from the vagaries of human error in transmission than other things, but oddly I find it comforting to observe how complicated Christianity is -- a truly human thing, complete with a sense of simultaneous redeemability and utter frustration. And because wholly human, also wholly taken up into God's story, which is a litany of music and danger, catastrophe and eucatastrophe.

I have heard, from various people who have been there, that a visit to Palestine -- the Holy Land -- gives one (even if they have formerly felt no connection with it, religious or otherwise) a sense of almost palpable resonance, as if one has arrived home in some strange way, to this land so drenched with histories of dispute and honor, blood and milk, honey and bitter herbs. And yet I can imagine how small a place it probably seems, especially to a Midwestern American used to great distances and long horizons. The various landmarks are probably small too, unprepossessing, cracked and chipped in places, dusty; everything covered with the fingerprints of humanity, everything a bit scrubby. I expect I may go sometime, to Palestine, to be a guilty bystander in a place that has tugged at my consciousness for so long. At least I hope to. Next year in Jerusalem, as they say.

02 February 2004


I had a dream last night – make that several dreams – in one of which someone (my boss, of all people) quoted Gerard Manley Hopkins as we trekked through a wintry night: “Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!/Oh, look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!” Then he said something about the buzzing of many bees assuring us of the existence of one. I’m not sure what that was about, and it’s not anywhere in Hopkins’s sonnet. But I have to admit to being delighted to have a dream in which Hopkins is quoted.

It’s Candlemas today, aka the feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. This is the time of year in which the candles are traditionally blessed, which I found out last year when I went to St. Stephen’s Church in Monett to watch my friend Cathy in her first service as a deacon. Also, naturally, to worship and take Eucharist. And just as it was snowing last year, it is snowing today: the world is cold and bleak and crusted with white. Monett went on to suffer badly in the May tornadoes; I wonder what this year will bring? It’s times like these that I can’t help but feel sanguine – because, after all, it is my blood that is keeping me warm (that, and a space heater and a pair of fluffy socks).

Richard Adams, in Watership Down, one of my first loves in adult fiction, says that humans don’t really love winter: what they love is feeling proof against it. And though I think he’s right, I also think that there’s a real stark beauty and serenity in winter: safe from its dangerous cold, we can look out our windows and appreciate the brownness, the retreat, the death and waiting that are the earth’s unconscious ritual. That is, if we are safe. Too many people are not.

Yesterday I visited Renaissance Books with my roommate and a friend of hers from temple, and I’m definitely going back: it’s the sort of New Age bookstore that is clean and cheerful, with suncatchers in the windows and bells and jewelry and candles and naturally-made clothing. Also some very nice books, including a few on Hildegard of Bingen that I eyed for a while before turning away. I bought a string of light little bells tied onto a bright-blue silk cord, and two tumbled gemstones: a citrine and an aquamarine, in honor of Elisabeth – it is a funny thing how characters take on a life of their own, which I’ll get to in a bit – and Jessica bought some frankincense candles. Frankincense, it transpires, is a purifying essence; and perhaps it is for that reason that it makes up a large part of church incense. In any case it smells nice. Jessica gave me one of the candles to burn in my room, and I spent my day off today quietly reading: candle burning, snow falling, jasmine tea, gentle light of an overcast day touching things with cold illumination, like a Vermeer painting. It’s things like these that bring out the child in me: I hang my string of bells, and gaze at my Pretty Rocks, and sigh with contentment.

My sister sent me a book, my belated Christmas present: Jesus the Jewish Theologian, by Brad H. Young. I think I will enjoy it very much, and look forward to reading it. I lent my copy of Your God is Too Safe by Mark Buchanan to Virginia, and she liked it and passed it on to Cathy, so there will probably soon be much to discuss.

Today I also opened up the file to “Shadow” Chapter 25, but I’m in one of those downswings with the story; at bottom I’m still pleased with its existence, but today the whole thing seems rather insipid. Writing-wise, I mean; what Erica says about the reality of characters to their author and the internal dialogue that goes on between them is still vividly there. I remember one day when I was still in high school, having this sudden galvanizing conviction about the – I won’t say realness, that makes it seem schizophrenic – living wholeness of one of my original characters, as immediate as if he might suddenly walk into the room. As Sayers says through Harriet Vane, it makes you feel like God on the seventh day – you see it and it is good: not good like a polite smatter of applause, but good in the sense of being a positive thing, itself indeed, primed for completion if not already perfect, like the Letter to the Hebrews says of Jesus.

Of course, with Elisabeth it is slightly different; being a deliberate self-insertion and wish-fulfillment, she is born of a different water. But in the end it seems to wind up the same genesis story – I now no more think of her as me than I do my other characters who may be more me than I realize. Which makes me think that if we were created to create, then probably we should not worry about self-insertion in this sense. Does God worry that his creatures are too much Him? That they are some embarrassing embodiment of His own wish-fulfillment? Bah. As long as I am being true to my craft, I rather think I need not worry either. This is what writers understand about theology; they understand enough to wrestle and worry, and love their work enough to pet the worry to sleep.

I think perhaps it has stopped snowing.