Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Hello, Goodbye, Hello

I started this blog to have a somewhat safe place to practice my creativity, and then I avoided using it to do so. I have lots of excuses to avoid writing. Unfortunately, most of them backfire in the end because they are things like, "I'm exhausted from student teaching where I ask my students to write for me and exercise their creativity and become brilliant thinkers." What kind of terrible teacher is terrified of modeling this behavior?


Oops. Well, here I am putting out a new post, trying to erase a bit of my own hypocrisy. And in the vein of reducing hypocrisy, I've got a story to tell. This isn't a creative fiction story though, this is a real life, happening now story. That's the goodbye part of the title. The first hello is that I'm posting again after a long absence. The goodbye is that it's not a creative post like I try to do more frequently. Goodbye, pressure of only posting when I have a narrowly defined creative writing piece. Hello (number two) to a new kind of post that is even more vulnerable than before. Hello to a post about my own life.

I love diagramming sentences. I think it is a fascinating art. Sentence diagrams are like trees. They have a trunk of the simple sentence and beautiful branches that reach out to provide complexity and support the life of a sentence. My love for sentence diagramming began in junior high when my English teacher made us diagram sentences all the time. I mourned the loss of sentence diagramming assignments when I reached high school, but Mrs. Johnson had sparked a desire for me to pursue a career in English with all of those sentence diagramming assignments. She also sparked a desire for me to write. I began writing "creative" stories with friends of mine. I shared them on this beautiful thing called the internet. I am ashamed of my lack of imagination at that time.

But I kept growing. I got to high school, left behind the sentence diagrams, and began to read more. I read beautiful texts that only increased my passion for the language arts. I decided that I wanted to become a high school English teacher. I even worked it out with my own high school English teacher that I would take her job when she retired. I've been on that path ever since. I'm getting my masters degree now, and I'm only months away from graduating with my teacher's license. However, I hit the first snag in my perfect plan less than a year ago. Mrs. Maki told me that she couldn't retire at the end of this year.

I need a job.

I had several people from several different areas of my life just drop the idea of teaching overseas into conversations. I laughed them all off. You see, there is something else important about me that you should know: I have a personal relationship with the Creator of the universe, who happens to be my personal Savior. This is connected to teaching overseas because I've always been vocal about how much I loved Jesus and was willing to go to the ends of the earth for him. The big kicker is that I only said that loudly and frequently because deep down I felt I'd never be called overseas - especially if I was going to take Mrs. Maki's job.

Well, along my journey to take Mrs. Maki's job, I discovered a lot about myself and even more about my Savior. I realized that when the Word became flesh, he made the discipline of literature an avenue to know more about him. I began to seek him out in every text I read. I began to grow closer to him.

Then I started grad school. I was in an education program where I had a year of theory about the American education system, and the things I learned about this behemoth began to wear on me. There is no hope of me fixing this broken system, and I don't even want to try. I just want to teach in a tiny private school in safe, suburban America where I can share my passion about discovering Truth in texts with young, eager minds. God has a sense of humor; I got placed in a tiny rural public school that plays in the same league as my old high school. Many of the kids there are numb to learning, and it's an uphill battle to share my passion about Truth in texts.

I began to become cynical. The year of theory about a broken system had already started to pull me away from my passion of connecting truth in literature to real life, and teaching these kids who didn't want to learn exhausted me. Something was amiss. And to top it all off, people right and left were suggesting to me that I go teach overseas after I graduate. A storm was brewing.

It all came to a head one Sunday at church when I was talking to a girl from the youth group. (I've been a youth leader for years because I want to be a positive influence on young people, and I want to share my love for the Lord and encourage others to passionately pursue him.) This particular student told me she hated youth group, felt like she never learned anything, and thought that she should be teaching the junior high youth. I was sick to my stomach when I heard her words. Whether she meant it or not, her words implied that she had somehow arrived in her faith and rather than needing to be fed and grow more herself, she was capable of passing on some "get out of hell free" advice to younger people.

What appalled me most is that I realized she might be following my example. I'm not that old, and I feel I have the audacity to speak truth into younger people's lives. I don't know nearly enough of Jesus to have the wisdom for that. After months of denial about the call overseas, I got angry. How dare this girl think she's arrived in her faith and doesn't need to grow? More importantly, how dare I think that I can remain in my comfort zone and get enough of Jesus? I had absolutely no right to speak to this girl - or anyone else - again until I wholeheartedly chased after Jesus.

I've grown up in the same town my whole life, and I feel very deeply rooted in my community. I'm comfortable where I am, and I hoped to stay here forever. Moving out of state would be a big deal for me. I tried bargaining with God: maybe I could move to Denver? I have a lot of family and friends there. It would still be a big step, but at the same time pretty comfortable for me. Oh fine, how about Pocatello? I only know a couple people who live there... and one of them is my best friend. No, a different state isn't far enough outside of my comfort zone for me to depend completely upon the Lord.


Woah, that got deep. I hit depression on Wednesday after the initial thrust into this cycle, and it wasn't until Friday when I told the story to one of my closest friends (who had nudged me through the denial phase) what an exhausting week I'd had but that I was finally feeling at peace about that I realized what had happened. Kara named the five stages of grief through my week.

I have a list of schools that I am applying to, and all of them are outside of the United States. I'm terrified. I'll likely be terrified until I've been out of the country for a month or two, but in the terror there is also peace. And in the terror and peace there is also Jesus. What I care about most at this point is Jesus.

Let me add, I care a great deal about the student who made me angry last week, but she is not nearly as important to me as Jesus. I want to make that point abundantly clear: I'm going overseas to seek out Jesus. He gave me a unique set of gifts, some related to reading and writing, and mixed in there is a passion for young people to see and know more of him through my life as an example. I could never look any of my students in the eye again if I did not live what I believe and chase after Jesus. I do not want to set an apathetic example that appears to have arrived in her faith in order to give answers to everyone younger than me. I don't have all the answers. I do know who does, however, and I'm eagerly seeking him out to know more about him and who he has created me to be.

I'd love to come back from a teaching experience overseas and know more about my Savior to share him with the students at my youth group, but that brings me to the last important point I have to share. I'm chasing Jesus, and I care very much about my students. I'm chasing Jesus to a place with new students. It's hard for me to leave the ones here who I know and love, but how can I possibly go to invest in a whole new set of students and anticipate pouring into them as a teacher and abandoning them after a single year? I'm leaving for at least a year to find more of Jesus. I'm chasing him for the rest of my life. I don't know if I'll ever come back to Oregon. I don't know where I'll be in a year, but I know I'll be chasing Jesus. I don't know where I'll be in two years, but I know I'll be chasing Jesus.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Washed by the Water

I sat before another empty canvas and felt empty inside myself. Zosima wanted another. He was so patient with me, and so kind too. I couldn't tell him no. I didn't need the money. Why had I gone and bought this new canvas? Why had I bought the bright aqua colored paint and the deep sea green color? The brightness of the aqua fascinated me; something about the hint of green caught my eye when I had walked down the paint aisle this time. The wide canvas didn't quite fit on my kitchen countertop, but it rested there with the bright aqua and deep sea green bottles of paint resting on top of the canvas. I stared. I didn't like this method of inspiration. I walked away from the canvas and let it sit there for the next two weeks. I had to work around it to make my meals, but I chose to leave it awkwardly in the way rather than to touch it at all. I can't really explain the strange conviction I had when I went to move it aside the first time. I somehow sensed that if I leaned the canvas up against the wall where it was out of the way or if I tucked the bottles of paint into my cupboard with my other three colors, my painting career would be over.
That was a terrifying moment when the words "painting career" flashed through my mind. I still had my job waiting tables, and I wasn't ready to give up my meager paychecks just yet because they came with such regularity. The two checks from Zosima could cover my living expenses for almost a year, but they weren't regular income. There was no promise of another check - and there would certainly be no other check if I moved that canvas off my countertop before I filled it with paint.
I came home after work one night completely exhausted from the eight hour shift on my feet. I had also had a few nasty customers at my table, and I was ready to crash. I dropped my purse and my keys on the single chair in my apartment and looked at the canvas on my countertop. Everything within me wanted to put on my pajamas, brush my teeth, and crawl into bed, but the canvas held my gaze. I felt so angry that the canvas wouldn't let me go to bed, so  I grabbed the aqua bottle of paint and squeezed a massive amount of it onto the canvas. Cool paint covered my fingers as I rubbed them through the pool I had poured on the white space. I roughly pushed the color out to the edges with my open palms; paint oozed all around my fingers. I did it quickly and didn't care to cover every inch of white. Once the bright blue paint was inconsistently stretched across the white with gaps of blank canvas coming through, I picked up the bottle of sea green paint. I didn't even bother to clean the aqua paint of my hand, but flipped open the cap and squirted thin lines of green onto the bottom of the canvas, reaching up at different heights. My bright handprint jumped out from the paint bottle when I set it down, but my attention was now on the green squiggles on top of the still wet aqua paint.
The deep green and aqua didn't quite go together, at least they didn’t to match to me as I looked at them right next to each other on the canvas. The aqua was bright and excited, but the green was weighted and heavy. I couldn't figure out why I had decided to purchase the two colors at the same time, but I realized that I had never learned much about painting, and my first masterpiece was a total accident.
Frustrated with my perception that my talent was untamable, I smashed my left index finger into the first thread of dark green. Sandwiched between the aqua on the canvas and on my finger, a new color was born in a wide, waving stripe as I led my finger through the stream of green. It was still distinct from the blue, but somehow it looked less out of place. That doesn't look so bad, I told myself, Maybe I can do this painting thing. I only half believed myself, but nonetheless, I finished smoothing the next six squiggles of green into the blue background.
The blurry thick strands looked something like seaweed when I was finished. In fact, they looked a lot like seaweed, and I realized that something inside me had thawed enough from my last two paintings to let me paint life thriving in a deep, deep sea. My paintings weren't about regular income: they were reflecting something about my soul; they were telling my story, but I didn't know the end yet. Honestly, I didn't really understand the beginning. My first two paintings had come after powerful visions that I later connected to myself. I wasn't anywhere to be found in this underwater world on my third canvas. When that occurred to me, I realized that I also still needed to sign this new work, so I checked that there was enough blue paint in the lower right corner to allow my white signature to show up in the morning after the paint had time to dry.
Satisfied with that layer of paint on the canvas, I allowed myself to go to bed. That night I slept a deep and dreamless sleep and went to work with more energy than I remembered having in weeks. Before I left for work, I signed the corner of my painting and stuck the canvas in the window. I had a full day at the restaurant, and hardly thought about Zosima until I found the note from him when I got home that evening. Before I even opened the single sheet of white paper stuck in my door, I knew who it was from. When I opened the note I read in his thin slanted script, "I'll return for the painting tomorrow evening at 6pm. Z."
I checked my watch as I tried to remember what time I got off work the next day. It was a quarter to eight, and my shift had ended at seven. I was scheduled seven to four the next day and should be home before five; I would be there when Zosima arrived. A huge sigh left my lungs when I realized this, and I realized that I had been holding my breath since I noticed the note stuck in my door. I was still standing in the hallway, completely wrapped up in the terror of what Zosima's note might say to me. I thought he might be upset with me for not being there when he came. I thought he might have decided not to buy this new painting. I was filled with fear of rejection.
My insecurities in my painting didn't diminish through the next day at work; I still wondered if Zosima would like this one and had hours to anticipate his possible reactions. It would take years for my insecurities to fade away. When I finally did get home that night I spent a good deal of time pacing around my apartment before Zosima came fore the painting.
He knocked at 6:02, and I opened the door just seconds after his first knock. He greeted me kindly as he stepped into my apartment. I smiled anxiously at him before crossing to the window and pulling the canvas out. I carried it towards him facing out, trying desperately to read his facial response to seeing it up close. I'm not the best at reading facial expressions, but something about his look exuded paternal feelings when he looked from the painting to me. I could confirm that years later when I saw the exact same look on his face the day he held his son for the first time, but at the time I could only vaguely tell that he was happy with what I had created. Another thing that I thought I glimpsed in his face was an idea that he knew more about this story I was painting than I did. He had a check ready for me, and we traded his small piece of paper for my massive canvas as he told me, "I look forward to the next one, Abbie Smith."
"Okay." I still wasn't sure how to respond to his statement, but this time I knew there would be another painting. I knew now that I was telling a story as I lived it out, even though I wasn't anywhere to be found in that deep ocean scene. 

Sunday, July 22, 2012


It's difficult to translate it into English, because our culture doesn't have an equivalent. It means slave or bondservant, but those words still don't really capture the idea. You see, the doulos chose their way of life. First century Greeks valued their freedom as much as twenty-first century Americans, and yet they still had this word because there were people who wanted to give their lives in service to another. The doulos was a servant who liked their master enough to choose a life in their service.
The word "slave" has a pretty heavy negative connotation thanks to the horrors of the Atlantic slave trade, but in the first century culture, it did not mean you were dehumanized. It was still a human position, just one of humility and servitude.
The word "bondservant" just sounds archaic, but the "bond" part has some credit to it. The root word of doulos is the word meaning "bond" or "fasten," frequently with chains in the biblical contexts. I like the term "bondservant," but it doesn't carry the severity, the umph, in English.
Doulos is a permanent, willing humility to a designated other.
I first learned the word when I was a young and naieve eighteen year old putting together a paper for Senior Bible class. I was fascinated by the concept that James the Apostle, the brother of Christ, chose this title, doulos of Christ, to start his canonical letter. I decided I wanted to be a doulos of Christ too. I thought it'd make a pretty cool tattoo.
But I waited almost six years before actually committing ink to my skin.
A lot has happened in those six years.
A lot.
I just want to highlight a few things here, though. First of all, I want to explain why I chose to tattoo my body. In high school it was a cool thing to talk about doing, but I had the sense enough to think through the implications and potential complications for putting this mark on my body considering the life goals I had. I want to be a teacher at the same school I graduated from, and I know that some of the parents who send their kids there believe that tattooing yourself is a horrendous sin - based on their literal interpretation of Leviticus 19:28. Funny story, Leviticus 19:28 follows Leviticus 19:27. The same people who condemn me for having a tattoo wouldn't bat an eye at a male colleague who shaves. Those two verses are telling us something about the character of God when they're read in context. They are not a list of proof texts to pick and choose from according to our misconceptions of what God wants us to look like which are erroneously rooted in 1950s suburban white American culture.
The key text I had to deal with was not Leviticus 19:28, but 1 Corinthians 8 - meat sacrificed to idols. Paul told the believers that they had freedom in Christ, but they needed to be sensitive to their brothers and sisters who were not used to or yet comfortable with this freedom. If that meant an immature Christian told a mature Christian he or she was eating meat sacrificed to idols, the mature Christian had a responsibility to stop to keep the immature Christian from stumbling. So in my case, I knew I had the freedom to get a tattoo, but I also knew that there were immature parents in my teaching future who would not understand that freedom. Did I have a responsibility to refrain from getting my tattoo just because it would cause them to think I was a sinner?
I honestly had to wrestle with that because I didn't want to be discredited as a follower of Christ for getting a tattoo that labeled me as a follower of Christ… yeah, that happened. It was a big dilemma for me, but I talked to one of my Bible professors about it. He pointed out that Paul never encouraged Christians to pause their freedoms to keep their brothers and sisters immature. My refraining from this permanent and public declaration could be maintaining the immaturity of my brothers and sisters who might condemn me.
So I was going to get it. I wanted to have a permanent and public declaration that I was willingly giving my life to Christ. I asked my friend Angela to go with me, and she set up an appointment for me and asked if I had a picture of what I wanted. I searched online and typed the letters with the Greek font in Word. I even printed out the image I liked best in the appropriate size, but the night before I got my tattoo I realized I didn't want to be branded with those computer generated letters. I wanted a mark of ownership on my foot that represented the personal, loving relationship I have with my master.
Have you ever seen Toy Story? Andy has a personal, loving relationship with his toys, and he marks his ownership of them by writing his name on their foot. I wanted this particular name written on my foot. I didn't want a cattle brand; that's not how Christ works. I spent about half an hour writing and rewriting the Greek letters until I thought they looked perfect, and came up with the handwritten version of the tattoo you can now see on my foot.
It will always be there as a permanent and public declaration that I have an owner who loves me enough to mark me with his ownership and to allow me to be called his own. 

Battle Log: 1,932

This is the longest I've ever gone without communicating to our Command Base.

I was out in the field with some of my troops, but they were attacked and overtaken by the Apathy. I thought I could withstand. I thought I needed to be more concerned with Distraction, but it seems that I've been almost incapacitated by Apathy. It's been dripping in my wake. I discovered my quarters are covered with the fungus, and I've been breathing it in and out for almost a month now. All of my previous work is tainted with the haziness of unclear convictions.
I'm ashamed to say, but I hardly noticed how much time had passed since I had last communicated. I assessed my troops this morning and found that four of my brightest soldiers are completely paralyzed by the disease. I know I cannot revive them without first sterilizing the bacteria within myself. It's a painful decontamination process as the layers of my skin have to be burned off, but I'm anxious to feel the release of weight as the fungus is burned away along with the contaminated skin.

With the Apathy identified and addressed, communications with Command will resume their normal pace, and perhaps even accelerate as I look for ways to cure and keep my soldiers healthy. I can only perform the decontamination on myself, and I need help from the higher authorities to find solutions that can save those under my supervision. Apathy has been a nasty enemy, and I'm sure the battle is far from over. However, I'm happy to have the current culprit identified so that I can adapt my battle strategies accordingly. 

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Little Talks

"Did you just say the f-word?"
The catchy song continued playing, and I sang every word loudly when the chorus repeated the profanity. We both laughed.
"You know, my life goal is to get you to quote me saying that in a short story."
We laughed again as the quiet green countryside passed by the car windows. It may have been a lazy afternoon outside the old minivan, but inside we were belting out alternative music in between inside jokes and philosophical comments.
"I think I'm going to try to go a month only eating beans, rice, and broccoli."
"Why broccoli?"
"Well, I know in a lot of other countries people survive on beans and rice plus some local veggies. I figure broccoli is one of the healthiest, so I'll choose that one. Plus, I think I could eat that every meal without getting sick of it. I mean, it's so delicious, you know."
She laughed at my broccoli comment so hard that we swerved on the narrow highway.
"Watch the road!" I shouted, "Broccoli's not worth dying for!"
We laughed again and turned our focus to the cliffs rising up on either side of us. The highway created the flat black bottom of a vibrant green ravine. Every couple of miles we caught a glimpse of a tiny waterfall dripping down against the rock exposed among the foliage.
"This drive is so gorgeous."
"Let's go on a road trip every weekend."
"But seriously," I said after a pause, "Broccoli's got to be one of the best vegetables to choose if you're only going to eat one for a month."
"Why do you only need to eat one?"
"Well, it seemed like a good idea if I was going to cut out all other food other than beans and rice. It'd be kinda like a cleanse, but also a bonus because it's super cheap. With my savings, I'll take a creative writing class and write that story you're dreaming of - the one where you shout profanities. I can see it now, you're running through a meadow and shouting them with glee."
"You can't shout profanity with glee; you've got to use it appropriately."
"I'm sorry, you did not provide that parameter in your life goal."

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Love Note

Greg strutted from the grocery store with his fresh six pack of beer and unlocked his flashy street car parked in the handicapped spot. The six pack sat in the front seat next to him as he roared out of the parking lot, making his engine rumble the whole mile back to his house.

The neighborhood was eerily quiet once Greg silenced his engine. He slammed the driver's door after he got out, unaware of the peace he was disturbing. He swaggered up to the front door and turned the handle hard to let himself in. He was surprised to find the door locked. Sheila usually left it unlocked for him when he came home in the evenings. The beer bottles clinked in one hand as he fumbled for the keys in his pocket with his other hand. Once he got the door opened, he called out Sheila's name.

There was no response.

"Where are you?"

His booming question received no response.

For the first time Greg could hear the silence. There were no kids playing outside, no dogs barking, no lawnmowers running, and no wife making dinner. Greg made his way into the kitchen and looked around. Everything looked clean and put away. Even the table was cleared of its usual clutter except for a conspicuous envelope with Greg's name on it.

He snatched up the enveloped and opened it to find Sheila's wedding ring and a note inside. He didn't need to read the note to guess the message, but he watned to know any details as to the reason Sheila had left him.

I love you. Your behavior towards me has made it clear that you do not feel the same way towards me. I'm going to find somewhere I can be loved.

Greg sank into the closest kitchen chair and reread the note a dozen times. It didn't make any more sense to him the twelfth time than it did the first, but he kept rereading because he couldn't think of anything else to do.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Hush Up

Look up! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's not moving, so it can't be either of those. It's up above, and it's making sound. Let's listen in to hear what it has to say...

Speaking changes everything. The act. The words. The power. I wonder, do you know what your course words have done? Do you see how words brought up an Empire that brought down a Generation? Once we opened the gates of Auschwitz, how could we ever open our mouths again? Words are guilty of such horrors.

How can I steward them well, then? Carefully, I suppose. But, hush, can you hear? There's something lingering in the silence. Over there. Behind here. It's between the words. Listen close. It's soft; it's soothing. It cools the heat of the burning words.

Burning words, white hot words. What's the verb of that sentence fragment? Do you see how they still carry power? Did you hear the verb whispering in between the lines?

Go. Do. Think. Be. Create. Do you see how they command? I cannot command much of an audience, but what audience I do have I must speak to responsibly. I have these words, and I cannot toss them around lightly. They carry power and authority. I, the one who bears them, must do so thoughtfully. Can you imagine the ramifications if I threw words around with reckless abandon? Shirts would get printed with the word "wreckless" on them. Incidentally, this has already happened. I saw it on Wednesday. I saw a shirt that said, "Young and Wreckless." Absurdism begins to make sense in the face of these atrocities.

I wanted to cry.

Instead, I stewed on the idea that spelling is actually important. Grammar is actually important as well. When I'm tempted to use poor grammar, I think of Picasso. Have you ever seen any of his earliest works? The man was phenomenal in traditional art forms. He could paint in realism, impressionism, or pointillism  beautifully. After demonstrating proficiency in these recognized art forms, he broke free and began to paint outside the boundaries of accepted art. Virginia Woolf did something similar with the sentence. I am not Picasso or Woolf. I ought to demonstrate an exceedingly high level of proficiency with the English language before I attempt to break free from the bonds of grammar rules.

Do you know what the purpose of grammar and syntax is? The purpose of grammar and syntax is to facilitate effective communication. It's wise stewardship of words. Forming sentences well allows one to communicate most effectively. I'm not saying that every sentence should always be grammatically correct; I have a great deal of respect for Picasso and Woolf. Those great artists and writers, however, demonstrated an ability to communicate effectively inside and out of traditional boundaries. They were not breaking rules out of laziness; they created something new with intentionality.

But this blog was about silence to begin with. (Never start a sentence with a conjunction. Never end a sentence with a preposition.) Wasn't it?

Where do we go from here? Words have been abused. Grammar and syntax have been abused to the detriment of clear communication. Where do we go from here?

We go forward. We reclaim the words, and we use them responsibly. We craft our sentences with silence and intentionality. We complete our paragraphs, and we communicate thoughtfully.

Hush, did you hear something here?

Friday, April 6, 2012

Old School

Christina opened her eyes when her alarm croaked at 6am. Thank God it's Friday, she thought as she flung the covers off and rolled out of bed towards her closet. She pulled on her workout clothes and ambled into her parents mini home gym that shared the basement with her. She usually spent her time on the treadmill mentally going over what she needed to do that day. Normally her mornings were easy going before she worked her eight hour shift from noon to 8pm at a secondhand bookstore. However, this Friday she was working from 8am to 4pm because she had dinner plans with old friends from high school.
Christina's two best friends had both gone out of state for college when they graduated while she had spent a year at the local community college before settling in to her full time job selling books. Christina was a little self-conscious about seeing her old friends who had become such big successes in the six years since high school.
At work, her mind was constantly thinking about how she could hold her own in a conversation with a lawyer and a stock broker. When she made it home she went straight to her closet to find a suitable dress for the fancy restaurant Jane had picked out. Christina didn't spend a lot of money on clothes, so her selection was limited. She decided on her simple red dress which she usually wore to weddings and hoped her black dress boots weren't too casual for the high class dining.
When she stepped into the restaurant, she didn't immediately see her friends, but before she could ask the hostess anything, she heard someone bellow from the bar, "Over here, Christina!"
She turned to see Scott waving her over. She smiled and went to join him. His supermodel grin was wider than usual, and he held an almost empty drink in his hand.
"Don't know where Janey is, but apparently the reservation isn't until 6:30. I coulda sworn she said six. I've been hear waiting for you two to show up for nearly half an hour."
Scott's grin was unwavering while he spoke, and it occurred to Christina that she hadn't ever seen him drink alcohol before. That wasn't particularly significant, though, because they were only nineteen the last time they had spent time together.
Christina realizes she didn't know where to start a conversation with Scott, so she thought to break the ice by jokingly asking, "How's the stock market these days?"
Scott laughed in response. "It's a good think I’m great at my job, otherwise I'd be out on the street like half the guys from my office. I've only been at the Auburn Hills location a short time, but a lot of the old timers at my branch lost the company a lot of money in April and then lost their jobs in May. Boy, I'm glad I moved back here because those idiots make me look brilliant. If I'd stayed in California, I'd be the one without a job."
"Why did you come back last fall, Scott? I never heard the story."
"I couldn’t stand the liberals," Scott said.
Christian wasn't sure if he was joking or not, but it was the first time his grin dimmed. She raised her eyebrows and nodded, unsure how else to response. Back in their private high school, safe within the brick walls paid for by rich conservatives, Christina and her friends made jokes about liberals all the time. In their childish slang, "liberal" was a derogatory word. Christina considered herself an adult now, though, and hadn't used namecalling since high school. She couldn't tell if Scott was referencing their old joke or still genuinely believed liberals were trying to suck life, joy, and money out of American society.
Scott finished his drink unaware of the awkwardness he had brought to the conversation. Christina picked at her fingernails trying to think of something else to say to change the subject.
"I can't believe you've been here almost six months and we haven't seen each other. What have you been up to since you moved back?"
"Work, work, work," Scott said, "Making money doesn't leave much time for hobbies. Plus I've got a load of student loans to pay off. If I can keep up with this rate, I should be free of them in eight years. But that's boring stuff. What's been going on here while I've been gone? What are you doing these days?
"Well, not a lot has changed around here. I still work at the bookstore, and I lead a couple book clubs each month. I volunteer once a week to read to kids in grade school through the "Read to Me" program.
She had more she could say, but she felt odd launching into a list of hobbies when Scott seemed to have none.
"Wow, that sounds like a lot," Scott said, "What kind of books do you read in these book clubs? I haven't read anything for fun in ages.
Before she could answer, they both heard Jane call out their names. Christina turned her head in response and was immediately thankful Jane had recognized her because there was no way Christian would have recognized Jane. In high school, Jane was a plump brunette with sparkly blue eyes; the only feature the nearly three hundred pound woman with unnaturally red hair shared with the high school version of Jane was the blue eyes.
"Janey!" Christina reminded herself to smile before walking over to her old friend.
"Janey!" Scott echoed much louder and rushed to give her a hug, "So good to see you!"
Jane laughed, "Get off, get off. Let's go to our table."
Jane led the way to the back of the restaurant and Christina wondered how she already knew where their table was. Scott wondered the same thing and voiced his question to Jane.
"Oh, I talked to them when I made the reservations. They have another one of these restaurants in Boston that I go to all the time with the same layout. I got us the back room so we can be as rambunctious as we like."
 The next two hours crept by slowly for Christina as she fumbled through a conversation that seemed much more natural for Scott and Jane. Scott downed several more drinks and told jokes about the dumb hippies he worked with in California. Jane ate two meals and told jokes about the stupid liberals she went to school with in Massachusetts. Except for the drinking and overeating, Scott and Jane were exactly the same as when they were in high school. Their maturity level was stuck at age eighteen and they spoke with the same arrogance and disrespect of a know-it-all high school student. Christina had worried that she would be the one left behind when her two friends went off to college, but over the course of their meal Christina discovered that though she had stayed the closest to home she had changed the most. Christina chewed her food carefully and hoped that she wouldn't be caught in a confession that she cared more about people than companies. In the midst of the meal, her friends jokes that seemed so mature when they were younger because so few teenagers were politically minded were exposed as the hateful rantings they really were. Christina wasn't bothered by the fact that these former friends were unchanged politically; many of her political views were the same. The quirk in their conversation that made her skin crawl was that Scott and Jane never grew up.
When their meal finally ended, Christina jumped at the first opportunity to excuse herself. Scott and Jane protested that they still had dessert and drinks, but she found a reason not to stay.
"I'm volunteering at the library in the morning, so I should really get some sleep."
"I can't believe how much of your time you give away. Do you ever do anything for yourself?" Jane said.
"Oh, sure." Christina replied.
Jane's question was hollow, and Christina decided it was unnecessary to try to explain to Jane that volunteering was for herself. She warmly embraced her two old friends before she left the restaurant, but walked off the premises as quickly as her fancy boots would let her. It wasn't a dramatic exit, but Christina recognized that it would be the last time she would ever spend time with Scott and Jane. She remained convinced an hour later when she received Jane's text, "This was fun. Let's do it again soon!" Christina smiled in response to the text, but deleted the number from her phone nonetheless. She found Scott's number and deleted it too. Tossing her phone aside, she picked out Kate Chopin's The Awakening from her bookshelf and curled up to read it in her favorite chair.

Friday, March 30, 2012

I'm Not Hungry Any More

These are just rough drafts of my thoughts. I haven't figured out much concretely yet. Please keep that in mind as you engage with the content below.

Halfway through a midnight showing of The Hunger Games it occurred to me that I was participating in exactly what the movie condemns: consuming violence for entertainment. And I even paid ten bucks to do it. The premise of the books and movies is that the citizens of the Capitol oppress those in the districts in order to live a consumeristic lifestyle of excess. I live in America; by default I am an excessive consumer. Need I be excessive? With effort, I believe it is possible for me to consume less.
The content of the consumption, though, is, I think, a matter of greater importance. I was sitting in the movie theater watching children kill each other in the name of Entertainment. My ten dollar tithe to the god of Hollywood gained me admission to watch an artificial bloodbath. Does it make any difference if the blood is real or not? I used to think it was just fine to watch gore and violence as long as I knew the images were fake; not actors were harmed in the filming of this battle. But now I have a different question: Why would I want to be entertained by visual representations of people dying gruesome deaths?
When I first read The Hunger Games, I doubted the premise that humanity could come to the point of forcing children to kill each other. My cousin quipped that the Romans did something close in the Colesseum. I doubted his argument. Plus, I didn't think society could "devolve" to something like that. Especially after the Holocaust. I mean, hasn't humanity learned anything from history? It took me a while to catch the chronological arrogance of my thinking. People are people, and I am no better than Romans who tossed people into the Colesseum or Nazis who tossed people into ovens.
Somehow during the movie I realized not only would the premise hold up in a futuristic dystopia, but it functions in our society right now: I was participating in it.
What then? By the time I made it to my car at three in the morning I wondered if I would ever be allowed to go to a movie theater again guilt free. Could I even ever watch another DVD? What was it that really plagued me while sitting in the movie theater? The consumption of violence for entertainment.
I think.
I'm still not really sure because somehow I don't feel guilty reading the books. What's the difference? I see two significant difference. First, the consumption of a book does not contribute to oppression in the same sense the consumerism of Hollywood does. Suzanne Collins can write a book and publish it without the entanglement of materialism inherent in the movie business. Second, the words in the book have the power to provoke my own imagination and I can steward the images in my own head. Violence on the screen is imposed on me with no opportunity to filter what I receive.
It's important for me to clarify that sometimes we need the imposition of violent images four our selfish minds to break away from their default incurvature to engage with others in a positive way. Visual media is incredibly valuable in so many ways. I could never discount the power of movies or documentaries that offer a glimpse of life in poverty in order to give those with too much a chance to share. In some of these cases violence is necessary to accurately describe or portray the circumstances. Examples like Hotel Rwanda and Born into Brothels are quick to come to mind. Both of these films have violence and graphic content presented to move the viewer emotionally rather than to titillate or amuse. The fake killings in Hotel Rwanda created to represent real ones and the real brutality captured in the documentary Born into Brothels are not there for entertainment purposes. They are there to make a point. And, I believe, they are intentionally used not to toy with the emotions of the viewer, but to move the audience into action in response.
Any good work of literature moves the reader to respond, to somehow live differently. I think that good movies do the same. Maybe the movie represention of The Hunger Games  was just so good it moved me to stop watching violent movies for entertainment.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

An Open Letter to My Sister

I love you. Contrary to what a lot of my words and actions would lead people to believe, I love you a great deal. I do, though, find it very difficult to get along with you. I genuinely want to work on that, and as part of my effort to get along with you better, I here attempt to articulate my difficulty opening up to you.
I really value literature. You know that I like books, but it's really much deeper than that. You see, the Word became flesh, and it radically impacted written texts. The Creator of our amazing universe gave us language and texts as a form of communication. We both know this truth, but we have responded differently. I have devoted my life to search for deeper relationships between the textual worlds and the empirical one based on the understanding that when the Word became flesh and dwelled among us, the empirical world was forever changed. I strongly believe that texts are infused with power, and they ought to be used responsibly. They deserve respect, not abuse.
You once told me that you read to escape, and at that very moment I completely shut down emotionally and have not allowed myself to be emotionally vulnerable around you since (I'm not saying we haven't fought since - I have just been emotionally disengaged from all communication with you) because I consider reading as an escape to be such a horrendous abuse of a text. You are using a text to disengage with your life rather than respecting it as something capable of enhancing your ontological reality.
Now, as I'm sure you were quick to notice, my disengagement from you, an actual ontological person, is no better than your treatment of textual worlds. I admit my sin, and I ask your forgiveness. I won't even ask you to read any differently. All I ask of you is that you understand that when you disregard textual reality, it's a personal wound to me. You see, sometimes I feel like Mali, the gardener of the Sea of Stories. In Rushdie's tale, Mali's sole purpose is to care for all of the stories in the ocean. I feel a responsibility to care for texts, and when someone pollutes the ocean which I care for, and which also sustains me, I get sick.
I can't know for sure if telling you this will actually help you understand me any more, but I'm making an effort to remove any road blocks I have put up to prevent you from knowing me. For example, hiding the fact that I have a blog from you for over a year (and still hiding it from most of our family - again, I can't keep you from blabbing, but I ask you respect my wishes right now) kept a lot of who I am from you. My writing makes me feel incredibly vulnerable, and I have hidden it from some of the people I love the most because they are capable of hurting me the most deeply. You are capable of hurting me most deeply, Nini.
I know that there are many careless readers on the internet capable of stumbling upon my writing and abusing my text with only a surface reading, but I cannot think of a single human being who would wound me more by doing that than you, Nini.
And so, I hope, begins a dialogue. 

Monday, February 13, 2012

Cracks in the Ice

I stared at the blank canvases on display at the art store, but I wasn't sure how I would be able to fill one again. I awkwardly picked up one of the largest ones and brought it with me to the paint aisle. I stared at the rows of colors for a long time. I sighed. I knew I didn't have enough paint left at home to cover a second canvas, but I hadn't been seized by any new vision to express on the canvas either. I picked up a bottle of dark blue similar to what  I had before and two lighter shades of blue to go along with it.
Once I got my new supplies home, I laid the new canvas out on my floor just as I had done before. My few colors of paint sat next to me on the floor. Still, no inspiration struck as it had before. I was unsure when Zosima had asked for the second piece, but it was such a treat to have my heat on that it would have been stupid to refuse. My check would last a long time, but not forever. Plus, Zosima hadn't told me when he planned to return. I didn't want him to show up expecting a completed work only to find that I had only sat and twiddled my thumbs during his absence.
I glared at the blank canvas before me; it glared right back. Frustrated, I emptied the remainder of my first dark blue paint on to the center of the pristine canvas. I smeared it around to cover the glaring white. Once the dark blue reached the edges of the canvas I added more from the fresh bottle of paint to ensure that no white escaped my wrath. Next I squirted two purple patches that turned into oversized hands as I stretched the paint out with my fingers. I sat back and looked at the shadowy hands before me. I stood up and went to the kitchen sink to wash the paint off my hands. This one wasn't going to be finished in one sitting.

I left the canvas on my floor to dry that night, and the image of the hands haunted my dreams. They were my hands, and I was trapped beneath thick ice, running out of air, unable to break through. I tossed and turned in my bed for several hours before giving up on sleep and going into my kitchen to make myself a cup of tea. I wrapped myself up in a thick blanket as I waited for the water to get hot. I only had the stove light on, so the canvas wasn't well lit, but as I stared at it my eyes adjusted to the dim light and I again felt as though the oversized hands on the canvas were mine trapped below inches of unforgiving ice. I don't know how long I stared at the canvas before my kettle of water started to whistle. I fumbled with a tea bag, mug, and boiling water. With the soothing scent of orange peels and spices steeping in hot water, I walked towards the foreboding canvas. Why would I paint my own hands trapped beneath the ice?
Since I had finished the previous painting in one sitting and hid it from my sight, I hadn't had the previous opportunity to mull over what I was putting onto the canvas. I stared at the purple hands for a long time, slowly sipping my tea. My apartment got gradually lighter as the sun joined my early morning, and eventually I decided to shower and get ready for my day. I was scheduled for an extra long shift at the restaurant that day, but I still had several hours to kill before then. I got dressed and made myself a healthy breakfast reheated pasta leftovers from two days ago at work. I wasn't yet out of the habit of surviving off of free food from work. I turned my back to the canvas as I ate my pasta, slowly chewing each bite and not wanting to return to my painting. I didn't like it staring at me, so I childishly avoided it until I had to go to work. Waiting tables kept my mind off the canvas for twelve hours until I stumbled back into my apartment late that night. The purple hands were waiting for me. My keys clattered on the counter as I tossed them aside, and I squatted down near the canvas.
I couldn't leave it forever. But maybe I could leave it one more day.
I slept poorly again that night, and decided when I woke up that I needed to deal with the painting. I pulled out small selection of colors and sat down cross-legged in front of the canvas. The purple hands pushed out of a deep blue background, and I realized that the image didn't reflect the resistance my hands felt in my dream. I squeezed a small amount of white paint into my hand and an even smaller amount of light blue to mix into that. I smeared the colors together on both my hands and lightly began to touch the surface of the canvas. After an hour, most of the canvas was covered with a web-like design of faint blue and white. There were still a few cracks in the webbing where the hands gave resistance - cracks in the ice. I dipped a the same pen cap in a tiny puddle of white paint to scrawl my name at the bottom. I washed the blue and white off my hands and tucked the bottles of paint back into my mostly empty kitchen cupboards.
The canvas stayed where it was when I left for work, and it wasn't until when I got home from my shift that night that I placed the finished painting in the window just as I had left the first one where Zosima saw it from the street.
He was on my doorstep early the next afternoon. I didn't bother to think about how he would know I had the day off, but instead I opened the door wide for him to enter. He greeted me respectfully, and I crossed my tiny living room to the window where is new painting was hiding.
I walked it back to him, and he looked at it briefly before writing in the checkbook already in his hands. He handed me a check for five thousand dollars; this one had two grazing rhinos behind the text.
He picked up the painting and headed for the door. "Thank you," he said, "I look forward to the next one."
He left without giving me a chance to protest. 

Sunday, January 29, 2012


"I guess I can't keep putting this off forever…" Jessie fumbled with her keys as her words trailed off.
My ears perked up. She was going to ask me into her apartment. I knew it. Finally. I had waited three months. At the end of our numerous dates she had always only kissed me goodnight on her doorstep. I was kinda falling in love with this girl, and I didn't know if she was taking me seriously. In three months, even with occasional legitimate reasons to invite me into her apartment, she had dismissed me at the door or made me stay waiting at the street as she ran in to grab something she forgot.
I didn't want to push my way in, so I waited for her to invite me.
"Listen, Chuck, I really like you, and I don't want you to think that I’m crazy..."
I wanted to interrupt with an "I really like you too," but I knew I had to let her say her piece before she would let me upstairs.
"This is going to sound ridiculous, but I actually hate bells."
I literally bit my lip to keep from laughing. Jessie often said random things; it was part of why I liked her so much. She always kept me guessing, but I couldn't guess what bells had to do with me not being allowed in her apartment or why that should make me think she's crazy. Furthermore, these long pauses were killing me.
"Okay," I smiled, "I can hate bells too if you want."
"No, no, that's not what I'm saying. I just need you to know that before you see my apartment. Look, I really hate bells. I promise. But I can't seem to convince -. Well, I'll just show you."
She turned and opened the door to her apartment. I followed her up the three flights of stairs. She slowed down in front of the second door and put her key into the lock - I noticed her tiny bell keychain for the first time as she turned the key.
She really didn't prepare me for what I would see when she turned the lights on, but it's a good thing she told me that she hated bells. If she had neglected to tell me that before I saw her apartment, I would never have believed her.
Bells covered everything. Rows and Rows of bells lined shelves and desk space. Anything in her apartment that had a flat surface had at least one bell on it, generally several more. Tiny collectible bells. Hand painted porcelain ones. Shiny brass ones. State ones. Country ones.  Figurine ones. A series of Disney princesses covered an end table. A row of birds sprang out of the bells on one of her bookshelves.
"So do you hate all bells, or just the ones you don't own?" I couldn't come up with a better response.
Jessie gave an embarrassed sigh and walked into her bedroom. I followed. Her bedroom was decorated much more like I anticipated than the rest of her apartment; her CD collection lining an entire wall, and a bright green blanket casually draped across the end of her lint free black comforter. Two comfy looking chairs squeezed into a corner with a tiny table in between made the perfect reading space. A couple classy black and white photographs hung on the wall, but no shelves of bells cluttered the space. I notice, though, a single R2D2 shaped bell well displayed on her dresser.
"That's the only bell I don't hate." She gestured to R2D2 before sinking into one of the reading chairs.
I sat down in the other and waited for her to continue; she needed to explain this repulsive collection.
When I was a kid I saw this R2D2 bell in the window of a collectible shop and saved up for a month to buy it. R2D2 was my favorite character in all the Star Wars movies. My parents thought that I was enamored with collectible bells." She sighed before continuing, "Every birthday and Christmas after that every family member bought me a bell. They were from family, so I couldn't get rid of them. I put them all on a shelf in my room, and growing up my friends would see the shelf and assume that I liked bells. Soon all I was getting for my birthday or Christmas was a bell. If a friend went on a trip to a different state or country, they would bring me back a bell. It turned into a monstrosity of a collection before I was able to stop it. Even now I try to politely discourage people from giving me bells, but if they've been in my apartment they can't seem to resist." When she finished, Jessie bit her lower lip in that adorable way she always does when she's embarrassed and waited for me to respond.
"I guess I can't complain when my Nana sends me the fifty-second horrible tie next holiday."
Jessie laughed. "You don't think I'm crazy?"
"Why would I think you're crazy just because crazy people buy you bells? I mean who are these nutzos? Why don't they buy you CDs or music gift cards? Or apple lotion? Or chewy Chips Ahoy cookies? Or a million other things you love?"
I saw the tears start to pool up in Jessie's eyes, and for some weird reason I realized I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. I didn't care that she had a million bells, because I knew that I would never be responsible for giving her one. Each of those bells was a ringing symbol of pain that someone who claimed to love her didn't know her well enough to give her something she'd genuinely appreciate, and I could think of a huge list of things not remotely related to bells that I wanted to lavish her with because I knew they could make her feel loved. I wanted more than anything to make her feel loved, and I told her so.
"I promise to never give you a single bell for the rest of your life," I said as I leaned close as if to kiss her but whispered instead, "Unless it's a matching C3PO to go with R2 over there."
She laughed loudly; I love that laugh. "You know, no one even ever thought to complete the Star Wars collection of bells."
"Then it's settled. C3PO will be your last bell ever. After I buy him, we will formally announce to the world how much you hate bells."
"I've tried; it's not quite that simple. These bells are from family."
I couldn't quite read the look on her face, but I was determined to rescue her from this bell hole in which she was trapped. "Don't worry," I said, "We'll figure it out."