Thursday, September 5, 2013

Sometimes it's better to chase the setting sun

Sometimes it's better to chase the setting sun. It's better to pursue sun smeared clouds before the last light sinks below the rim of ocean and trees. Who knows whether it will rise again in the morning?

For now it slashes the billows of clouds with fire. It does not matter that Edison perfected the lightbulb and that life goes on after the sun gleam fades, and that behind me the Vancouver skyline glistens an echo to the sinking lights across the water. For now the sun's light is the only light that matters.

I had a sentence to write, and a comma to edit into a semicolon. There was a text to reply to and an email or two or three to send. I had a schedule to fill with a bit of this and a bit of that. I probably needed to check Facebook, because, you know, I'm kind of a big deal. And the fruit fly trap on my counter won't clean itself out; it needs me -

But no, I chose to chase sunshine and the way the rippling waves leap up to catch its beams and make them stretch long and then thin on the surface of English Bay. I chose to pursue the apocalyptic glimmer beyond the trees and power lines, drive down down the hill to an empty lot, and then clamber over rocks to meet the rising tide and sit on the edge of the sea. And then I took a photograph, or two or three (or eleven if we want to be exact) because I am of this generation that lives to document.

Imagine for a moment that this is the last sliver of light before spring, never to glow on the eastern clouds in the morning until mid-May. Imagine that the city's echo of lights are not there and that all the light before you is all the light there is with nothing but storm clouds at your back. Would you not have ignored the commas and the semicolons, the texts and the emails, even the fruit flies?

Sometimes it pays to pay attention.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013


I had no desire to displace a microcosm.

With slight movement of fingers curved to grasp I plucked a rock from the ocean's tide and dropped it in a gaping bottle. Three-hundred millimetres of seaside snatched from leagues and leagues of coastline is hardly a crime. I only meant to document the satin edge of a sanded pebble, to represent the glimmer of sunlight on a patch of slime.

Back at my kitchen table, with clash and clatter a universe in miniature poured from my water bottle to a plate sitting in the evening sun. It made no stirrings when I carried it up the hill, when I slung it among the books, pens and leftover hummus in my backpack. But now oh now it is no static stone.

It is occupied by clusters of gaping barnacles opening and shutting perilous mouths. Its surface breaths in and out and pulls and tugs at the train of seaweed trailing over jumbled horizons.

It sits in seawater teeming with translucent beings. They dart from shadow to shadow to spark of light chasing who knows what to who knows where.

I do not know where they go nor what I have done, moving this thing that looked so dead in the afternoon sun.

But move them I did and now I face the music. I chase after bits of light and patches of shadow with my pencils and brushes, I rub at graphite with my finger, scribbling scrawling shapes, dancing along precarious lines.

But how can pigment grasp the sheen of seaweed bathed in water? How can a stick of graphite snatch the movement of a barnacle's smile? How can any number of scribbles clutch an infinitude of sand?

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Half sick of shadows

It was Anne of Green Gables who first taught my nine year old self to love words.

It was Anne's performance of "The Highwayman" at the White Sands Hotel that inspired me to memorize portions of "The Highwayman" and perform it with great enthusiasm in the privacy my bedroom. And it was Anne's literary ambitions that fuelled the writing of my own poetry on all the beauties of trees blowing in ferocious winds under the moonlit skies, written in the illegible scrawls of newly learned cursive. I longed to be a writer, and a writer of the type who spends most of her time wandering in a daze through dewy fields waxing eloquent on the virtues of moonlight. This was a clearly pragmatic plan.

In the 1985 film of Anne of Green Gables, Anne's love for words open the first scene as she wanders through a forest, reciting words from Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott" to herself, "willows whiten, aspens quiver/ little breezes dusk and shiver..."

But with the shriek of "Anne, Anne!" she is brought from the heights of poesy to the depths of prosaic life replete with poverty, abusive guardians and three sets of squalling twins under the age of five to look after.

It is a rude awakening.

"The Lady of Shalott" seems a fitting subtext to Anne's life. The Lady of Shalott, the artist living on an island within sight of Camelot, whose only glimpses of that land are through mirrored reflections that she transposes into a woven web. Hers is a reality twice removed. Though she "still delights/ to weave the mirror's magic sights," on occasion delight is replaced with isolation and she sighs "I am half sick of shadows."

Half sick of shadows. Although she is present in the world, sometimes heard singing by "reapers, reaping early in among the bearded barley," hers is a shadowed existence so solitary and isolated that if she but look to the "water lily bloom"and turn to Camelot a curse will befall her.

And so it does when Sir Lancelot's image flashes across her crystal mirror. With a turn of her head towards the prospect of life beyond shadows, she carries out her final artistic act: she makes herself a bier upon which she floats dying down the river towards Camelot.

And that, my friends, is the plight of the artist who dares not only to see but to act in the world.

It is a tempting thing to be an artist, a creative type, who retreats from the world they take delight in. From Tennyson one gathers the impression that the ethereal realm of crystal mirrors and magic webs is where life is lived, and that dull prosaic world is the world that leads to death. But I disagree.

Anne and her friends act out the scene of the Lady of Shalott's death with comic earnestness, striving to leave through imagination the dull realm of harvests and spelling bees, gossip and housekeeping.

But reality in the form of a leaky raft catches up to them and a romantic river death looses its appeal when that river is full of weeds and the only Sir Lancelot in sight is an annoying boy from school. The Lady of Shalott clearly had it better, even though she died and Anne was merely helped back to shore by the annoying boy.

I think that I would tend to side more with L.M Montgomery than Tennyson in the matter of a life in the shadows. Though as a child I thought that the Anne books all about leading a vivid life of the imagination, I have come to see Anne's as an imaginative life rooted in reality and a sense of humour capable of sensing the dissonance between ideals and reality.

And because I am a grad school student, I simply cannot end a blog post about Anne of Green Gables and the Lady of Shalott without quoting at least one of my books from school. Currently I am reading a book by Roger Lundin called Believing Again.  At one point Lundin quotes the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer who writes in Truth that the artist and viewer of a piece of art "is never simply swept away into a strange world of magic, of intoxication, and of dream; rather, it is always his own world, and he comes to belong to it more fully by recognizing himself more profoundly in it."

Art, for Gadamer, leads not to an ethereal up-in-the-clouds state of poesy, but straight into the world of spelling bees, gossip and annoying people that Anne strives to escape. Art leads not to isolation, but to deeper engagement.

And so, please rest assured that I have forsaken my childhood dream of wandering impoverished through dewy fields writing adjective-laden poetry, occasionally flung into the depths of artistic despair by a rejection slip from a magazine. While I like to keep a strong hold on my adjectives and may on occasion delve into the depths of despair, my hope is that words and pictures charged with beauty will lead me towards and not from the everyday prose of life.

Monday, June 17, 2013


I've had Leah on my mind these days. Leah, the weak-eyed, mandrake-collecting woman of those ancient patriarchal days who marries Jacob because her father tricks him into doing so. Leah's story in Genesis looks like the inconsequential appendage to the greater romance of Jacob and Rachel - the woman Jacob falls in love with from first sight at the well while she tends her flocks, the pastoral beauty set up to be the heroine of a Shakespearian romance or modern romantic comedy.

It looks like Jacob and Rachel's romance is going smoothly after a brief(!) interlude of seven years of work. But then, right when echoes of wedding bells and eternal bliss are beginning to chime above the heads of the beaming couple, conflict bursts onto the scene with the anticlimactic line "When the morning came, there was Leah!" Now it is a story of mistaken identities and conflict uniting to prevent those destined to be together to live out their happily ever after. The elder sister appears in Jacob's bed the next morning, and Jacob and Rachel are yet another pair of star-crossed lovers setting the precedent for the love stories of millenniums to follow.

But unlike Romeo and Juliet, their stars do align with a bit of hard work and Jacob earns the hand of his first true love, their happily ever after only skewed by the continued presence of Leah in their household - no minor inconvenience indeed. But we all know that Leah is an afterthought, a hitch along the way. It is Rachel who is the true heroine of this story. Rachel is Cinderella and Leah is just one of those bothersome stepsisters trying to force themselves upon Prince Charming.

Just when it looks like Leah is destined to fade in the background in the style of Mr Rochester's mad wife locked up in the attic (do excuse the Jane Eyre is a book of marvellously wide-reaching applicability), God reveals himself yet again to be the "One who sees me" (Gen 16:13) as Hagar - another woman unloved by the patriarchs and scorned by their wives - describes him. God sees Leah with all of her cumbersome brokenness, sees that she is unloved, and graces her with children. He speaks into her context, entering into it. But Leah  responds to these children, these gifts of God, as a means to the end of her husband's love. Surely my husband will love me now is her mantra. Love is a competition and children no more than points in her favour.

And then the subtlest of turning points. At the birth of Judah, her fourth son, Leah rises for a moment to shine above her dismal circumstances. This time, she declares, I will praise the Lord. Something clicks and Leah seeks love from the heart of grace. But transformation can be a feeble thing and in just a few verses Leah is swept back into the competition for her husband's affection, offering him maidservants and trading in mandrakes to better her chances for gaining his love.

But this is not where the story ends, with Leah hopelessly unloved and conniving, striving to be the most beloved. Lately I have been reading Eugene Peterson's Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places. Those ten thousand places, I am beginning to understand, are human places, places where brokenness has a tendency to outweigh perfection. As Peterson writes, "God deals with us where we are and not where we would like to be." God meets Leah where she is, working out his promises through her. It cannot be coincidence that she comes up again and again in the genealogies vicariously through her son Judah, the son who inspired songs of praise from her heart. Judah, the son through whom God's promises to Abraham and Jacob are fulfilled. Through the line of Judah a messiah arises, a saviour who thoroughly enters into the circumstances of humanity and, by doing so, brings a hope that enlivens those very circumstances, those oh-so-very human places.

I can imagine Leah as a heroine in a modern movie, probably an awkward and lonely high school student. I can imagine the conflict she is flung into, how she feels herself to be unloved. And I can image the ending to this story, where somebody - most likely a vampire or a werewolf - notices her for her inner beauty or whatever it is that vampires notice, chooses her over all the other girls with clearer vision and she enjoys her own happily ever after.

The kindly vampire never does appear. But the God who sees her and you and I does, and not only does he see her but he also acts goodness to her and through her. And through her broken-heartedness we catch a glimpse of full-heartedness yet to come.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Take off those shoes

I once listened to a sermon by Timothy Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian in New York about justice. He said that justice happens when we allow our lives to be woven together with other lives and that when our individual threads weave under, over and around other threads they form, in the end, a beautiful tapestry. We can't just flop our lives beside one another. The tapestry then devolves into the kind of friendship bracelet the kindergarteners at my work delight to make: a handful of mismatched threads twisted together, held (feebly) by a haphazard knot.  

I attempted to read through the entire Old Testament and a textbook over the course of the last two weeks to prepare for a class I am taking this spring. One theme that jumps out at me again and again in my reading is the way that God enters the story of his people, how he weaves himself into the fabric of their lives so that he is the thread that undergirds and sustains Israel through all their brokenness and all their failures. 

He walks with Adam in the garden. He visits old Abraham at his tent. He calls to Moses from the burning bush and declares his power to the Egyptians through miracles. He leads Israel through desert lands, a pillar of cloud before them. He calls out to little Samuel in the night. He appears to a desolate and weary Elijah not through flame or disaster, but gently, through a whispering breeze. He speaks to them where they are at, through the symbols and images they will understand. Need I say more? 

Moses responded to God by taking off his sandals. This earthly topography God deigns to enter becomes holy ground, and all we can do if we see him rightly is to make like Elijah and pull our cloaks over our faces. 

And then the Incarnation happens. The logos that sustains all weaves even deeper, becomes part of the topography and the landscape by entering into genealogy, and by doing so, making that genealogy holy. This is holy ground we are walking on. 

I cannot help but be amazed when I recall the disciples taking off their sandals before Jesus in John's gospel when, at an evening meal, Jesus bends down to wash their feet. I may just be overzealous for repeated motifs and symbols due to my literary education. But I see a connection here. Moses, taking off his worn sandals where he stands alone with God in the wilderness. The disciples, sitting barefoot as their Lord stoops to wash their dirty feet. Shoes taken off before glory: glory in the flaming bush and glory in the act of the faithful servant who calls us to do for others what he does for us, to enter into their stories, weaving into their tales by stooping low and humble to pick up their dirty feet and wash them clean. 

Thursday, April 18, 2013


One of my assignments in a class on the Christian Imagination was to create a piece of art. I thought that those of you who are not in my Christian Imagination class (hey there Mom and Dad!) might be interested in seeing what I worked on over the semester and reading some reflections I wrote about it. Hope you enjoy!

To Wait 
Paul writes about cosmic waiting in Romans when he describes creation groaning for redemption, for a time when all truly shall be well. I am always more aware of that waiting in winter, when I long to see green once again. In the poem “Spring,” Gerard Manley Hopkins describes the beauty of spring and then asks a question: “What is all this juice and all this joy?” His response: “A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning/ In Eden garden.” Perhaps creation is not only an expression of incompleteness, a waiting for fulfillment, but also an expression of what we are longing for. I think that in Spring we gain a glimpse into “Eden garden,” when our longing for light and greenness is - in part - fulfilled. 

In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek Annie Dillard writes that “The gaps are the thing” (422).  As she expands, 
The gaps are the clifts in the rock where you cower to see the back parts of God; they are the fissures between mountains and cells the wind lances though, the icy narrowing fjords splitting the cliffs of mystery. Go up into the gaps. If you can find them; they shift and vanish too.” (422)
This painting is a reflection on the gaps, those places of stillness where with open eyes you can catch a glimpse of hope and of mystery. The beginnings of Spring are often first seen by peering into the gaps: the crack in the sidewalk where a weed grows, the bit of grass poking through last year’s dead leaves. In this painting I sought to communicate something of the hope that runs like a current below all the worn days. Hope bursts through the gaps, and beautiful things begin to grow there and foretell that more good things are to come. 

But we have to wait. Waiting was a significant component of creating this piece. I tried to intentionally incorporate techniques that required extensive drying time and many layers. The background involved layers of paint, paper, and fragments of text from Theo LeSieg’s children’s story “Please Try to Remember the First of Octember.” LeSieg’s story is a tale of waiting. A basic summary of the story is that the narrator is telling a child that all of their wildest dreams will come true on the First of Octember. There is a ship, the narrator declares, that sails “to Alaska, Nebraska and Sweden, making stops in Ga-Dopps and the Garden of Eden.” And, of course, it sails on Octember the First. Sadly, the First of Octember simply isn’t coming. In the background of this piece I sought to evoke something of the angst that accompanies weathered days spent waiting for something that seem to never come. However, the seasons do change, and by looking into the gaps I see a coming Spring manifested in the beginnings of weeds and wildness. 

Mingled with the groans of creation is a declaration that even a single weed growing in spite of all odds in a misshapen crack in the sidewalk is a beacon of hope that shines on the spirit and reminds us that even amidst winter’s gloom, hope beckons beyond. And as I peer through the grey mists and raindrops in search of hope, I say together with Hopkins, “Let them be left,/ O let them be left, wildness and wet;/ Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet” (Inversnaid 14-16).

Monday, April 8, 2013

To be a bird

What does it mean to be free?

We all seem to long for freedom, for the day when we can truly be. Literature - especially what was written by women in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries - seems to be full of images of birds in cages, birds that long to be released to live as they are meant to live, wild and free on the breeze. We long to live not imprisoned in cages, where our wings cannot realize their potential, but instead to soar through the sky, using our wings to their fullest capabilities.

But so often our enactment of freedom - and our perceived right to freedom - begins to emphasize not so much a longing to be who we are meant to be as a longing to do what we want to do. We begin to think that if we are free we can do whatever we want. And the bird that is trapped in the cage begins to believe it is her intrinsic right to live underwater and swim with the clownfish because that is what she wants to do. Freedom comes to be linked to desire.

In one of my assigned readings for the week I came across an interesting line in N.T. Wright's book After You Believe. He writes:
And, as with authenticity, freedom grasped too soon becomes an over-realized eschatology, a failure to realize how much work virtue still has to do to bring it to the goal. 
Perhaps we do not yet know what freedom is. Perhaps we do not yet know the conditions required for us to truly flourish and to truly use our wings as they are meant to be used. Perhaps we think we are primed for swimming when really these wings are for flying.

I am beginning to see freedom as inextricably linked with restraint. I came across a poem today that I wrote for a writing class years ago in one of my first years in university. Occasional awkwardness of phrasing aside, it served as a reminder to me today of how, in music, beauty is inextricably linked with restraint:
Mitten-robed, my hands run across knee caps
In frail attempts to ward off nervous cold.
As heart pounds through stomach, chest, throat, chill wraps
Me tight, while judges scribble words that fold
That beauty, that music into black lines.
Playing before me, she wooed a prelude
From that bleak black-white expanse, many times
Rehearsed to purge the imperfect, the crude.
I too sought to colour notes beautiful
Yet was vanquished by harsh reality,
Metronomes, memory. Wretched, truthful,
Notes, hung on jail-staves, taught me to see
How sweet, humble, how colourful the sound
Heard when hope from black and white is unbound.
 You cannot play the prelude properly until you submit yourself to the music, and to the knowledge that the composer was not a fool when he marked the page with dynamics, rhythm, metronome markings and all the rest. When we realize this, the notes will be liberated from the staff and notes will be transformed into music. So too is it that when we submit to our Creator, we truly learn how to soar.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Golden Days

These are the golden days, these early spring days when the sun clears the sky of rainclouds and pours through the wind in a beam of light that catches the piano keys and makes the air-dust dance.

These are the days when light falls gently through the branches of the trees in the forest and touches the patches of moss clinging to tree bark and the new green shoots beginning to awaken from beneath autumn's refuse of old leaves on the forest floor. Sunlight works miracles on colour. Light that is not diffused by low-lying clouds allows colours to reach our eyes unadulterated. And suddenly when the sun breaks through the clouds we see the brilliant golden green of the buds that reach to the sky from the tips of deadened branches. We see more clearly that the rare flower in the forest is beginning to bloom, and the shock of pink shocks the heart as we realize that winter is not forever.

Everything is reaching for the sun these days. Runners are overeager for it as they don shorts and tank tops - even though it isn't quite warm enough yet. I have a pot of hyacinths sitting in a south-facing window, and their stems are all pressed close to the window, blooms aching upwards for the touch of sun. I imagine that if the sun were not up high in the sky and instead somewhere root level, our world would look drastically different. All of us in creation ache towards the warmth and brilliance of sunlight.

I just finished writing a paper on a sonnet by Gerard Manley Hopkins, "That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection." In the poem, Hopkins suggests that through identification with Christ and the incarnation, we will be resurrected to reflect Jesus' light. He uses the image of an "immortal diamond" to illustrate his point. The diamond is immortal, it is strong, it is pure and it is a concentration of reflected light - reflecting the light of the source of all light, Jesus. Purged of impurity and polished to a multifaceted smooth surface, the diamond reflects the light source clearly and fully.

I am reminded a poem that was on my mind last year around this time in the Holy Week before Easter, John Donne's "Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward." In the poem, the speaker is riding a horse on Good Friday in the direction of the West. However, his heart longs to ride towards the East, towards the sun:
Hence is 't, that I am carried towards the west
This day, when my soul's form bends towards the east.
There I should see a sun, by rising set,
And by that setting endless day beget;
But that Christ on this Cross, did rise and fall,
Sin had eternally benighted all.
 The east is a symbol of hope, a symbol of looking towards the Son who rose to life and makes all things clear. Yet so often we are moved by other things to look towards the west instead, the west that only reveals a setting sun that beckons the coming of night.

Just as the sun is the source of all light, Jesus is the light of all lights. And just as the world is made new and even dust dances when the sun shines brightly on us, hope in Jesus scatters clouds. May we take flowers as our model and throw our heads back and reach up up towards the light of lights that we may begin to reflect something of his glory and by doing so, shine like stars in the sky.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Dying Worms

It is a truth universally acknowledged that in the spring when the rains fall heavy, worms will emerge from the earth and wriggle out from the safety of the lawns onto the harsh sidewalks where they will inevitably be squashed by the pedantic feet of five-year olds clad in rain boots.

Such was the tragic fact of life I had to explain to three kindergarten girls last week at the daycare where I work when they confided to me, eyes large with the horror of it, that there were many dead worms on the sidewalk as they walked from school to our centre.

"The worms were dead..." one said.

"Were they dried up?" I asked, clearly not paying attention because B.C.'s constant drizzle had provided no opportunity for premature death by shrivelling that day.

"No..." she replied, cringing.

"THEY WERE SQUASHED!!" interjected a constantly squirming nearby grade one boy with abundant enthusiasm and minimal awareness of the sanctity of worm life clearly experienced by the girls.

"I think Emily did it," a particularly blunt little girl added, at which point the eyes of the Emily in question began to grow even rounder than usual as her bottom lip hung open and began to quiver.

I quickly began to explain the universal truth mentioned above, that worms are known to find themselves  helplessly sprawled on the ground, where it is all too easy for an innocent rain boot to squish the very breath out of them completely by accident. It is no one's fault; it is simply the way this world works.

While my explanation may have to some extent appeased the guilt of Emily, I am not convinced that it eliminated all of the horror that the image of this elephant's-grave-yard of worm carcasses scattered along the sidewalk evidently evoked. And I cannot help but think that these kindergarteners may have done something godly that day as they recognized the uniqueness of those worms, and the tragedy of their lives lost.

In a lecture today a professor mentioned that one characteristic of Romanticism is a certain attention to particularity. Rather than categorizing worms and thinking of them as statistical casualties, each worm has uniqueness. And my reduction of the tragedy of worm death to a fact of life betrays an ignorance of the particularity of the individual worm (that may or may not have been) squashed by Emily's rain boots.

I suspect that Robert Farrar Capon is likely influenced by the Romantics when he defends paying attention in The Supper of the Lamb by saying that "Man's real work is to look at the things of the world and to love them for what they are. That is, after all, what God does, and man was not made in God's image for nothing."

These days as I walk down the sidewalks with head bent and shoulders hunched in futile attempt to hide from rain and cold, I am seeking to look at and love the particularities. It is easy to generalize February as a mass of grey, but perhaps I need to pay more attention to the particular shades of grey that weave among the falling raindrops. And ever-increasingly as spring grows nearer, I begin to see the unique bits and pieces of green that are beginning to poke their way out through the cracks, crevices, and hardened earth covered with faded leaves.

Friday, February 1, 2013

On Being Subversive

In his book After Theory, literary critic Terry Eagleton writes:
Because subjects like literature and art history have no obvious material pay-off, they tend to attract those who look askance at the capitalist notions of utility. The idea of doing something purely for the delight of it has always unsettled the grey-bearded guardians of the state. Sheer pointlessness is a deeply subversive affair. 
There is something about literature that feels dreadfully extravagant. The sheer complexity and length of time needed to decipher lines like "the wimpledwater-dimpled, not-by-morning-matched face" written by Gerard Manley Hopkins feel ridiculous in a context in which time is money, money time. Why craft words together, picking and choosing them like some outdated aristocrat choosing wine from the dusty shelves of their cellar? We live in a world dominated by oppression, selfishness, and need. Cannot those sacred minutes wasted on words be translated into minutes invested in helping others? Or at the very least, translate that time and energy into money, to be in turn translated into rent payments and a new sweater? Is it not an act of pointlessness to use my financially viable minutes not to work but to drown in the infinite interpretive depths of analyzing John Donne's use of conceits? I suspect that it is.

What does it mean to do something for the pure delight of it?

Perhaps delight leads us to justice. In one of my favourite essays - "Why Write?" - Jean-Paul Sartre writes about the power of literature to engage both the author and the writer into a rediscovery and formation of the world. He writes:
And if I am given this world with its injustices, it is not so that I might contemplate them coldly, but that I might animate them with my indignation, that I might disclose them and create them with their nature as injustices, that is, as abuses to be suppressed.
Although I may not agree with all of Sartre's ideas, I believe that there is something to be said about how, in the midst of the extravagancies of language a thread of justice points towards a better world, a world as it should be. When an author gives us the gift of a vision of the world we become participants in that world. We learn to encounter the other more deeply, which Sartre believes forces us to consider in what ways we are complicit in their suffering. And part of this means that we must notice the details, forget the bottom line, and live for a moment in the words of another.

I have tried on multiple occasions to uncover for myself a useful career. In highschool I had modest hopes of, oh you know, eliminating all illnesses from Africa, and maybe dabbling in eradicating world poverty while I was at it.  It was only by accident that I fell into being an English major. After university I still had high dreams of accomplishing just minor tasks like abolishing the sex trade in Thailand, among others (for those of you without degrees in analyzing words, this is an example of sarcasm...) And yet, I am continually drawn into this elusive realm of images and words.

Perhaps I have arrived. Perhaps I can be assured that words will translate into change, and that I can read them and love them knowing that this is a world infused with Word and that by focusing on words that point to the Word, I am, for now, doing something worth doing. Money might be time, but time is filled with more than dollar signs. It is filled with extravagant details, with people needing to be heard, and with glimpses of hope and beauty pointing to a day, one day, when we will each and every one of us will see the world - and one another - as they should be seen.

To end off this rambling tangent of my various and sundry attempts to justify my affection for words, I would like to refer to the words of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, referred to in a class I am taking about the Christian Imagination. Solzhenitsyn knew injustice having spent years in the Gulag of Soviet Russia. He knew materialism. And he knew art. Here are his words, taken from his 1970 Nobel lecture written:
So perhaps that ancient trinity of Truth, Goodness and Beauty is not simply an empty, faded formula as we thought in the days of our self-confident, materialistic youth? If the tops of these three trees converge, as the scholars maintained, but the too blatant, too direct stems of Truth and Goodness are crushed, cut down, not allowed through - then perhaps the fantastic, unpredictable, unexpected stems of Beauty will push through and soar TO THAT VERY SAME PLACE, and in so doing will fulfill the work of all three?
(Solzhenitsyn's entire lecture can be found here )

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Like A Child

Photos courtesy of various children in Santa Rita and Nueva Arminia, Honduras
I have a habit of lending out my camera to kids.

I know, it is not a wise choice to lend one's camera out to clamouring groups of budding photographers with sticky fingers and short attention spans. But I love the images that come out of it. Like someone who has just opened up the box of a brand new camera and is now trying to artistically photograph their feet and dirty dishes, children strive to document everything that is in sight, to capture everything that is the world within the camera lens. And unlike a new camera owner, they couldn't care less about artistic pretensions and the rule of thirds.

That is what I love about the pictures taken by children. They abandon conventions because, quite frankly they couldn't care less about the final product. All they care about is pressing a button, seeing a big flash, and then giggling at their little sister's face on the camera screen.

When I think about childhood photography, I am reminded of the passage in the Gospel of Matthew, where Christ says "I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven." It seems strange to me that Christ links children with humility. As adults, we sometimes have an idealized view of children. Children fit right in with sheep lying down their pretty cotton ball heads in brilliant green flannel board pastures.

But because I work in a daycare, I have no such delusions. I would never describe any child I have ever known or worked with as "bad." However I can not ignore their often blatant demonstrations of selfishness and meanness. Memories of children clambering for who gets to be first in line for the slide, or for the biggest piece of cake hardly corresponds with my understanding of humility. It is much easier for me to imagine kids asking together with the disciples the question "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?"

The seventeenth century poet Thomas Traherne describes described childhood as a state of wholeness and innocence. In the poem "Wonder" he describes his childhood self as "like an angel," full of "native health and innocence" and experiencing none of the harshness and all of the joy and goodness that is in creation. He describes the perspective of a child as one which is untainted by earthly affairs. For the child, "Harsh ragged objects were concealed, Oppressions, tears and cries, Sins, griefs, complaints, dissensions, weeping eyes, Were hid."

I am fairly certain that Thomas Traherne was not a childcare worker. I have seen too many "weeping eyes," "complaints," and "oppressions" amongst children to consider this an accurate depiction of children

But my thoughts return to childhood photography. Their photos are honest. They don't try to make things look better than they are, rearranging them to fit conventional rules of composition and playing around with lightening. Instead, their photos are dominated by cut-off heads, over-exposure and blurred lines.

When I first recalled Traherne's poem while writing this, I planned to use it as an example of how adults have a tendency to idealize childhood. However, I have changed my mind. Together with his depiction of children living in a state of wholeness and perfection, Traherne describes children as having a heightened awareness of the divine beauty around them. He describes children as seeing the streets as paved with gold as they are in heaven. He writes about how children are moved to wonder by material objects rather than avarice. And when they look to the skies, they are "oh how divine, how soft, how sweet, how fair!"

I see this wonder and sense of the divine in the pictures that children take. And perhaps this wonder is the key to their humility. Kids are so often awed by the immensity of the world around them, and are deeply filled with the awareness of their smallness in the face of such grandeur. When we grow older, we fashion ourselves as having the statures of giants. We seek to reach the heavens by building trembling towers upon shaky foundations of security in the material and by trying to fit ourselves into the composition others expect of us. But children, with their awareness of their smallness are enabled to see wonder in the skies, in the oceans, in the cities.

My challenge  is to dare to view the world today through the lens of a child. The streets with asphalt glistening in the rain are really paved with gold. The bridge that takes you across the river that is so long and wide that it must surely fall over the edge of the horizon like a waterfall is incomprehensible. And when you stare up at the mountains and the buildings that tower up to the heights of the heavens and the birds that soar in unison through the sky, you are so very small in comparison. It is a world so beautiful that it doesn't matter how you hold your camera, or how you set up the aperture. Every haphazard shot is a glimpse of glory.