Category Archives: Life

The Great Iconoclast

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Images of the Holy easily become holy images- sacrosanct. My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence? The Incarnation is the supreme example; it leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins. And most are ‘offended’ by the iconoclasm; and blessed are those who are not. But the same thing happens in our private prayers.
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All reality is iconoclastic.
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-C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
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Language and Perception

One moment last night can be described in similes; otherwise it won’t go into language at all. Imagine a man in total darkness. He thinks he is in a cellar, or dungeon. Then there comes a sound. He thinks it might be a sound from far off-waves or wind-blown trees or cattle half a mile away. And if so, it proves he’s not in a cellar, but free, in the open air. Or it may be a much smaller sound, close at hand-a chuckle of laughter. And if so, there is a friend just beside him in the dark. Either way, a good, good sound. I’m not mad enough to take such an experience as evidence of anything. It is simply the leaping into imaginative activity of an idea which I would always have theoretically admitted- the idea that I, or any mortal at any time, may be utterly mistaken as to the situation he is really in.
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Five senses; an incurably abstract intellect; a haphazardly selective memory; a set of preconceptions and assumptions so numerous that I can never examine more than a minority of them- never become even conscious of them all. How much of total reality can such an apparatus let through?
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-C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
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This could pass without comment, and for the most part, I will allow it to do so. I read this passage, this morning, for the first time. I am sure subsequent readings will reveal other facets, but for now, two things strike me.
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One moment last night can be described in similes; otherwise it won’t go into language at all.
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Someone whose writing I greatly value and respect feels the same restrictiveness of language that I do.
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Five senses; an incurably abstract intellect; a haphazardly selective memory; a set of preconceptions and assumptions so numerous that I can never examine more than a minority of them- never become even conscious of them all. How much of total reality can such an apparatus let through?
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Yes. Just… yes. If I could remind myself of this constantly, I would, and if I could teach others one fundamental rule for interacting with each other and the world, it would be this.

Five things

My delightfully contentious blogging friend, Sharon, recently posted 5 things that she had run across recently that she wanted to discuss with people: 5 things  that I’d like to talk about.  Shaking people up and making them think is an excellent action and very necessary to the growth and health of individuals and society. It’s hard work, thinking, and sometimes we have to have a fire lit under our toes to make us do it.

However, Sharon and I see eye-to-eye on a lot of topics from the love of God to issues of feminism (yes, I am a feminist. I promise it’s not a bad word if you understand what it means. Ask me!). I’m pretty sure she and I would come down on the same side of any of those discussions, and some of them involve listening to people or reading things that would only make me angry. Given what I said above, about thinking, I should probably put forth the effort.

The truth is, I am weary, physically and mentally. I feel a little guilty, that little voice in my head is calling me “coward,” but this time I am giving myself leeway. 2013 was a bit of a marathon for me. I need to recoup. I’ve barely been here for the month of December, and my friends on e-mail probably wonder if I have fallen into a sinkhole.

So, somewhat selfishly, I asked Sharon to share something different.

I feel that the best response to her kindness would be to post five things that have made me feel better over the past few weeks.

Wolverine the Musical

Ok, so, yes, I discovered this a while ago, but I still return to it when I need a good laugh. Glove and Boots!

Origami Masks by Joel Cooper

Mask inspired by ancient statuary, shaped from folded paper.  All I really have to say to this is ‘holy raving Jabberwoky.’ I love making masks, but artistry like this is beyond me. I love it!

http://mynewspress.com/new-tessellated-origami-masks-by-joel-cooper/

The American Chestnut

I am a plant-nerd, so I care about such things. Feel free to roll your eyes at me and move on.

In the early 1900’s, a blight from Asia was accidentally introduced to the U.S.A. Over the next 30 or so years, it all but obliterated what was then one of the dominant trees of our Eastern forests, the American Chestnut. I won’t bore you with details, but the result was catastrophic to humans and wildlife alike.

In 1983, the American Chestnut Society was formed. Since then they have worked with the few remaining American Chestnuts and the blight-resistant Chinese Chestnut, attempting to breed an American Chestnut tree that can survive the blight. Recent progress has opened the possibility of my seeing American Chestnuts growing in our woods in my lifetime.

In a world where many of my favorite native plants and animals are under serious threat, where exotic-invasives, pollution, and thoughtless development present seemingly insurmountable obstacles to my local ecosystems, the prospect of an actual victory is like a lantern in a cave. It makes me so happy I could cry.

Stranger in a Strange Land: Ender’s Game, its controversial author, and a very personal history, by Rany Jazayerli

This article is somewhat controversial, and very long, but thoughtful and worth the read. I discovered it through my brother and it made me think, but in an encouraging way, and I will tell you why.

There are a lot of issues wrapped up in this. How people change over time, how it is not wise to condemn everything a person says or has ever said because part of it goes against your own views or beliefs, that the most important part of anything said or written may lie in the interpretation rather than the intent, and that people are flawed. Jumping on the rage-button really is counter-productive. It circumvents thought.

But what I found encouraging is something of a rabbit-trail.  I am flawed. Yes, I know, everyone is, but I live with my flaws daily and sometimes they loom very large in my vision. This article reminded me of something that is, I think, important for writers to remember:

I and my work are two different things.

Maybe my flaws will manifest in my work. That does happen. Hopefully my strengths will,  too. But maybe, God willing, people who read my work will find things there, hopefully good things, that transcend me, my flaws, and even my strengths. Writing depends on the reading. There’s cause for fear. Fear of being misunderstood runs deep in me. But not all misunderstanding is bad, I guess. There is encouragement in that thought. ‘

 

Finally, I give you the singing light:

Sometimes we just get lucky and catch the light. I wish I had a better copy of this picture on hand. I may try and update it later.

Singing light


Christmas in the Trenches

Public Domain Image by Vera Kratochvil http://www.publicdomainpictures.net/view-image.php?image=16260&picture=poppy-flower
Public Domain Image by Vera Kratochvil

My last offering is one that I have not known for very long, but I have heard of the events on which it was based. The character of Francis Tolliver is fictional, but the event he describes is real. Words fail me at this point, but the song speaks for itself. Merry Christmas to All, and God’s blessings especially on all who, today, face war, persecution and strife. 

Christmas in the Trenches,

by John McCutcheon
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My name is Francis Tolliver, I come from Liverpool.
Two years ago the war was waiting for me after school.
From Belgium and to Flanders, to Germany, to here
I fought for King and country I love dear.
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‘Twas Christmas in the trenches, where the frost, so bitter, hung.
The frozen fields of France were still, no Christmas song was sung.
Our families back in England were toasting us that day,
Their brave and glorious lads so far away.
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I was lying with my messmates on the cold and rocky ground,
When across the lines of battle came a most peculiar sound.
Says I, “Now listen up, me boys!” each soldier strained to hear
As one young German voice sang out so clear.
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“He’s singing bloody well, you know!” my partner says to me.
Soon, one by one, each German voice joined in harmony.
The cannons rested silent, the gas clouds rolled no more
As Christmas brought us respite from the war.
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As soon as they were finished and a reverent pause was spent,
“God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” struck up some lads from Kent.
The next they sang was “Stille Nacht.” “Tis ‘Silent Night’,” says I,
And in two tongues one song filled up that sky.
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“There’s someone coming toward us!” the front line sentry cried.
All sights were fixed on one long figure trudging from their side.
His truce flag, like a Christmas star, shown on that plain so bright
As he, bravely, strode unarmed into the night.
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Soon one by one on either side walked into No Man’s Land.
With neither gun nor bayonet, we met there hand to hand.
We shared some secret brandy and we wished each other well
And in a flare-lit soccer game we gave ’em hell.
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We traded chocolates, cigarettes, and photographs from home.
These sons and fathers far away from families of their own.
Young Sanders played his squeezebox and they had a violin,
This curious and unlikely band of men.
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Soon daylight stole upon us and France was France once more.
With sad farewells we each began to settle back to war.
But the question haunted every heart that beat that wondrous night:
“Whose family have I fixed within my sights?”
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‘Twas Christmas in the trenches where the frost, so bitter, hung.
The frozen fields of France were warmed as songs of peace were sung.
For the walls they’d kept between us to exact the work of war
Had been crumbled and were gone forevermore.
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My name is Francis Tolliver, in Liverpool I dwell.
Each Christmas come since World War I, I’ve learned its lessons well.
That the ones who call the shots won’t be among the dead and lame
And on each end of the rifle we’re the same.
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© 1984 John McCutcheon – All rights reserved


Advent: Go Tell it on the Mountain

Here is my next-to-last offering this year. Like several of the other carols I have highlighted, I first heard this version on the “Home for Christmas” album.

This African-American spiritual was first transcribed by John Wesley Work Jr., a choral director, songwriter, and a collector/compiler of folk music, slave songs, and spirituals. It was first published in Folk Songs of the Amer­i­can Ne­gro in 1907.  J. W. Work Jr. was from Nashville Tennessee, taught at Fisk University and directed and promoted the Fisk Jubilee Singers.

The version I fell in love with was recorded by the incomparable Odetta Holmes. The words differ a bit from those recorded by Work Jr., but such is the way of folk music. It is more wandering, but still rich with imagery.

Go Tell It on the Mountain

Go, tell it on the mountain,
Over the hill, and everywhere.
Go tell it on the mountain,
That Jesus Christ is a born!

In the time of David,
Some called him a king.
If a child is true-born
The Lord will hear him singing.

Go, tell it on the mountain,
Over the hill, and a everywhere.
Go tell it on the mountain,
That Jesus Christ is a born!

When I was a sinner,
I sought both night and day.
I asked the Lord to help a’me,
And He showed me the way.

Go, tell it on the mountain,
Over the hill, and a everywhere.
Go tell it on the mountain,
That Jesus Christ is a born!

He made me a watchman
Upon a city wall,
And if I am a good soul,
I am the least of all.

Go, tell it on the mountain,
Over the hill, well a everywhere.
Go tell it on the mountain,
That Jesus Christ is a born!

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Music copyright to Odetta Holmes, 1982

Listen Here


Advent: Don Oiche ud ImBethil

I first heard this song on the Bells of Dublin album by The Chieftains. The album is well worth purchasing as a whole. It holds quite a variety of songs, but this one is, I think, the most beautiful. In fact, I have never heard a version of this song that I like better, though nostalgia might have something to do with that.

My research, so far, has turned up nothing of this song’s origins. Its roots go deep into history, and if anyone has traced them back, I would love to know.

I cannot vouch for my Gaelic spelling, or the accuracy of the translation, but the words of both capture the quiet but thrilling joy that I associate with the birth of my Lord.

Don Oiche Ud I mBethil

I sing of a night in Bethlehem,

A night as bright as dawn.

I sing of that night in Bethlehem,

The night the Word was born.

The skies are glowing gayly,

The Earth in white is dressed.

See Jesus in his cradle,

Drink deep in his mother’s breast.

And there on a lonely hillside

The shepherds bow down in fear

When the heavens open brightly

And God’s message rings out so clear.

“Glory now to the Father

In all the heavens high,

And peace to his friends on Earth below!”

Is all the angels’ cry.

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don oíche úd i mBeithil

beidh tagairt ar ghrian go brách

don oíche úd i mBeithil

go dtáinig an Briathar slán

tá gríosghrua ar spéartha,

‘s an talamh ‘na chlúdach bán

féach íosagán sa chléibhín

‘s an Mhaighdean in aoibhneas grá

ar leacain lom an tsléibhe

go nglacann na haoirí scáth

nuair in oscailt gheal na spéire

tá teachtaire Dé ar fáil

céad glóir anois don Athair

i bhFlaitheasa thuas go hard

is feasta fós ar talamh

d’fheara, dea-mhéin síocháin

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Music Copyright The Chieftains, 1991.


Advent: Balulalow

My past three entries have been somber, at least in tune. I confess, I am partial to the minor keys and the slow, haunting melodies, so there will be more of that sort. I do have some variety in my tastes, though, and the quicker and more cheerful tunes and songs are sprinkled through my playlists. I highlighted this one last year, but I enjoy it enough to re-post it, and it should break up the monotony a little. At least, I hope it will.

The words are attributed to three brothers in the 1500’s: James, John and Robert Wedderburn of Scotland. According to Wikipedia (I fear I haven’t the time for more in-depth research than that), these brothers re-worded numerous secular (and presumably bawdy) ballads to give them a more pious bent. The title of their work is, apparently, Ane Compendious Booke of Godly and Spirituall Songs collected out of sundrie partes of the Scripture, with sundrie of other Ballates changed out of prophaine sanges, for avoyding of sinne and harlotrie, with augmentation of sundrie gude and godlie Ballates not contenit in the first editioun.

I can’t read that title without wanting to laugh. The rendition by which I was first introduced to the song also makes the laughter bubble up in me, but more from joy than amusement. How can we not rejoice at the memory of our Savior’s birth? Thank you, D, for introducing me to Balulalow as sung by The Oreilly Consort with vocals by Lisa Edwards. You may purchase the album, A Celtic Christmas, here.

Balulalow

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I come from hevin heich to tell
The best nowells that e’er befell.
To you thir tythings trew I bring
And I will of them say and sing:

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This day to you is born ane child
Of Mary meik and Virgin mild.
That blissit bairn bening and kind
Sall you rejoyce baith hart and mind.

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Lat us rejoyis and be blyth
And with the Hyrdis go full swyth
To see what God in his grace hath done
Throu Christ to bring us to his throne.

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My saull and life stand up and see
Wha lyis in ane cribbe of tree.
What Babe is that, sa gude and fair?
It is Christ, God’s Son and Heir.

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O my deir hart, yung Jesus sweit,
Prepair thy creddill in my spreit!
And I sall rock thee in my hart
And never mair fra thee depart.

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O I sall praise thee evermoir
With sangis sweit unto thy gloir.
The kneis of my hart sall I bow
And sing that rycht Balulalow.

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I come from hevin heich to tell
The best nowells that e’er befell.
To you thir tythings trew I bring
And I will of them say and sing:

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This day to you is born ane child
Of Mary meik and Virgin mild!
That blissit bairn bening and kind
Sall you rejoyce baith hart and mind!

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Listen here.


Advent: Away in a Manger variation

When I was growing up, I learned three tunes for “Away in a Manger.”

Two of these versions are fairly common, but I have only ever heard one rendition of my favorite. It is from an album you will hear me reference more than once in this series. It is “Home for Christmas,” and it is a compilation holiday album produced by The Book of the Month Club back in 1982. Individual tracks can be found on other albums, but the whole is tough to find. You can learn more about “Home for Christmas,” and listen to most of it here: The Basement Rug

“Away In a Manger,” as sung by Jean Redpath and Lisa Neustadt, is a very different song. Instead of being mild and sweet (sometimes too sweet for my tastes), it is haunting. You can buy their rendition here, on the Shout For Joy album.

Away in a Manger
by unknown writer, misattributed to Martin Luther

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Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,

The little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.

The stars in the bright sky looked down where he lay,

The little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.

The cattle are lowing, the poor baby wakes,

But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.

I love thee, Lord Jesus. Look down from the sky!

And stay by my cradle till morning is nigh.

Be near Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay

Close by me forever, and love me, I pray.

Bless all the dear children in thy tender care

And take us to heaven to live with thee there.

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Listen here:  Away In a Manger, sung by Jean Redpath and Lisa Neustadt

Even with the poor quality of the recording (taken from an album loved nearly into nonexistence), if this doesn’t give you chills, I will be very much surprised.


Advent: O Magnum Mysterium

Anyone who knows me personally knows that I love Christmas. Not the commercialism, insanity, or kitsch associated with it, but the time with my family, the music and carols that I like (usually not the ones heard in department stores), the food, the warmth, the giving and the sparkles.

My ideal Christmas is simple, intimate and serene. I like time to contemplate the birth of my Savior and its surrounding events, and I like time spent with kith and kin.

In the spirit of this kind of Christmas celebration, I decided to have my own little Advent Countdown on my blog. As music is one of my favorite aspects of this holiday, I will post some of my favorite carols through December 25th. I wanted to do this daily, but time simply will not allow. Therefore, I will confine myself to three posts a week, plus one extra for Christmas Eve. This leaves me with a lot of beloved songs un-shared, but perhaps I can make this a yearly tradition.

May these posts bring you joy!

First, a song that I grew up with, one that captures some of the Great Mystery that surrounds the world we live in. Creation is strange and familiar, patterned and unpredictable, lucid and murky.

O Magnum Mysterium

by Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611)

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O magnum mysterium
et admirabile sacramentum,
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum
jacentem in praesepio.
O beata Virgo, cujus viscera meruerunt
portare Dominum Jesum Christum.
Alleluia!

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Translation:

O great mystery
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord
lying in a manger!
O blessed is the Virgin, whose womb
was worthy to bear Lord Jesus Christ.
Alleluia!

There is a more extended version of this song to a different composition, but this is the version that moves me the most. Just listen to the following performance by New York Polyphony:

Video © New York Polyphony

For more beautiful Advent music, visit Patty Mitchell’s blog Oboeinsight and her Advent Series. Her starting choice is one of my all-time favorite songs of any kind, Veni, veni Emmanuel.


Writer’s Dirge

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To create a thing,
to hold it,
to read it,
to see it,
and never to know it.
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The dread word stands in my way.
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“Impossible.”
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Only if I could forget it, forget myself, forget every pen-stroke, key-stroke, moment of inspiration and frustration; only then could I know this thing as itself.
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I have the misfortune to be inside, looking out; never outside, looking in.
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Perhaps readers envy the intimate knowledge writers have of their own work. When I was younger, I might even have been guilty of such misunderstanding.
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Now I know better.
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I am too close to the canvas to ever see the picture. No amount of earthly time can give me the distance I need because the picture itself is indelibly engraved in me.
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Never  will I walk up to a shelf, see a title or a cover that interests, lift this story up, and judge it as the thing it is.
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Knowing a thing too well can mean not being able to know it at all.
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The implications are overwhelming, ironic, and inescapable. I cannot know my own work save in brief glimpses through the eyes of others.
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That is how it is, and how it must be, and I must accept it and continue.
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The joys of writing and the chance of giving something precious (as many books have been to me) to someone else, are far greater than this little shard of horror. But there will always, I think, be a part of me that is sad that I cannot split myself in two and read, as only a person other than me can, my own work.
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It is not that I think my work great, or that I worry it is bad. I have spoken of that already. It is my simple desire to know it.
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I want to write a book, and read it too. But I have discovered a sad truth of writers.
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The stories we can never read, are our own.
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