Monthly Archives: January 2012
“Either everything will fall apart, or poetry will make everything alive again. It’s not going to stay like this.”
-Matthew Stein, Words from a Dream
January thaw in Houghton is a bit like a teaser trailer for the next highly anticipated movie – it may be weeks, months, years before the main feature is released, but it’s all you can think about until the moment the first screenings open.
Unfortunately, the season of spring can’t be leaked online, it cannot be interviewed, and there’s never an exact release date, especially in western New York. Spring may come as early as March or as late as June. All the snow may disappear overnight, or there may be a period of uncomfortable indecision where snow boots and a t-shirt may be a compromise.
The thaw is cruel as well as kind in its winter reprieve – it will haunt you until the first daffodil breaks through the crust of slush on the grass and the temperature stays above fifty for more than two consecutive weeks. It also allows you to carry on through winter with some optimism. You will dream of fresh air, the cloudless sky, of sitting in the grass with bare feet while listening to peepers sing to their mates. Spring is a siren; a trap; the very best strain of seasonal disease. She infects and she lingers and she overwhelms you with a sense of security and warmth. She leaves no lasting damage, only seamless transition. You don’t think of winter, you only think of tomorrow and the breaking of a new day, just like this.
The thaw is just a sampling of the real thing, but in the State of Perpetual Winter, you cling to what you can get without complaint.
The afternoon air is registering at 56 degrees Fahrenheit. Proper steps must be taken:
- Exchange a sweater for a long-sleeved t-shirt.
- Slide open the storm windows to let in an ozone and grass-laced breeze.
- Slip off ski socks and slide into flip flops.
- Ignore remaining snow drifts and icicles hanging from gutters.
- Listen to the animals waking and scratching, to the birds twittering unseen in the trees.
- Feel the warmth of the noon sun on face.
Close eyes, breathe deep. Exhale, repeat.
I am no fool – I will not miss an opportunity to bask in the gloriously soothing glow of mid-winter sunlight. There may be snow on the ground, but if it smells like spring and you can comfortably walk about with only a light jacket, there’s a sign of hope. There is an end in sight; there is affirmation that winter is neither the conclusion nor the stopping point… that there’s something more than this, something yet to come.
Reminders of this truth are everywhere. One that sticks prominently in my mind is the Disney animation for the 1919 version of Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite. The underlying message is that destruction is a natural part of the flow of life. Despite what may happen or what forces may lash out and seem to tear the world apart, there will be renewal. There will be dawn and life and growth and light.
Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain took me a longer time to figure out, but it’s along the same lines. We have death and decay, and in a sense without it the world could not progress. If you only have growth and expansion, you face overwhelming surplus. Living forever on earth can only be accomplished by being a part of other living things; by feeding the earth in death. There is death, but it leads to new life and afterlife and ultimately a better existence. Death is not a means to an end but a means to a new beginning. Time is a cycle, time offers repetition.
I’m at a time in my life when this idea is showing up more frequently and an in more obscure ways. Celebrating my twenty-first birthday this summer, I found myself facing the death of my childhood, but through it finding the excitement of finally growing into adulthood. I had to say farewell to the benefits and joys of adolescence, but was then able to step forward into a brand new light of legality.
Graduation is the expiry of my formal education, of my time in this place with these aims, but without the end there would never be a new beginning elsewhere, utilizing the knowledge I have garnered here. (You can read more about my feelings on senior year here).
In just over seven months, I will be getting married. There has already been an ending to our “dating” relationship when we felt we had reached the preparedness and commitment to quest on to marriage through engagement. Soon, we shall face the termination of our lives as solitary individuals, but without this surrender we can never be together, bound in matrimony, united until physical death do us part. Some people try to accomplish this without sacrifice, but it’s not the way the cycle is supposed to function. An end brings a new and more wonderful beginning.
The end of a day brings the promise of a rising sun, and the falling snow brings hope hinted at by a welcome thaw. It’s an offering of grace.
Without winter, we would never know spring.
A typical last-semester of senior year: Friends sitting around a table in the cafeteria, laughing over an issue of the Drawing Board, talking about the session of senior seminar they just vacated, poking at the limp, flavorless vegetables on their plates and gnawing at leathery Sodexo pot roast. Pointing out the perspective students standing awkwardly at the cafeteria stairs, trying to look belonging but given away by the familiar purple folder clutched underneath their too-hot plate. Snow turns to rain out the large windows overlooking the quad, and the lunch rush leaves for their afternoon classes. The friends, blessed with relaxed schedules, recline and continue to share stories and memories, going around the table for another few minutes.
“Well, next fall SPOT, we’ll….”
“Just another Christmas Break, you know?”
“It’s been forever since we did coffee. Soon?”
“Sure, but it’s not like we’ll never see each other again….”
The table grows quiet as everyone, regardless of the separate conversations they were carrying on, lets the weight of the words settle over the group in a heavy layer of realization.
This is the last. There won’t be any more after.
When senior year of high school flew by, I wasn’t surprised. I had grown up with the people who sat at the desks next to me, many of whom I loved and many of whom I would not miss. I was ready to leave my birthplace, my origins, and prepared to blaze new trails and see new things and continue to learn and grow and open my eyes and take my first real steps into the world. It was a feeling of branching out, not parting ways. There wasn’t a pain in leaving as I knew at some point that we’d all be back. We all had common origins. We would have to return. And if we didn’t, it was for good reason.
The beauty and frustration of Houghton College is that it is a place that filled me with unrealistic expectations and a set idealism. I will always have hot meals available and a local coffee shop where the barista knows me and my order before I even step up to the counter. I will always have my friends within a ten-mile radius, and they will be available to talk and spend time at any hour day or night. I will get to be taught by experts in every field of my interests and spend time at length in their tutelage and friendship. There are enough jobs for everyone to earn some money, even at minimum wage. There is no need for police and there’s a preconceived notion that doors need not be locked and no one will ever steal from your bag. We are not spoiled by perfect weather, but there are warm beds to sleep in winter and when spring eventually wakes, she is the very essence of joy. There is no sound of the freeway, and skyscrapers and office buildings are replaced by pine boughs stretching towards an open sky. My commute to class is through the woods, crossing a weaving, burbling creek and smelling the moist dirt beneath the trees and feeling whispers of hushed wind through spreading branches.
We may feel a million miles from elsewhere, but this is home. No one really needs Wal-Mart when you have thirteen-hundred acres of woods, rivers and fields.
Only four brief months, and I’ll be like Truman, crashing my boat into the edge of my man-made sphere and climbing the skyward stairs towards the exit. When I finally get brave enough to sail to new horizons, harsh reality will tear through my sails and deconstruct the dream I created. It’s just plaster and paint. That’s not the sky.
I’ve spent four unbelievable years feeling like Houghton and Ohio were the only worlds that existed. I’ve known better all along, but it didn’t hit me until the other day that this is my community. This is the first place I’ve made a home all on my own. I bustle through to the post office; grab my mail and then a cup of coffee, running off to my next meeting and waving hi to the familiars on the sidewalk. I met my first boyfriend and found my last “forever” love. I won and lost and got published and was rejected and learned to build a thicker skin. I slept and I woke and I lived.
My belongings fill my apartment, my art on the walls, my baking in the oven and my favorite foods in the fridge. My blankets on my bed and clothes in my drawers. My lights that glow on the deck and my card telling everyone Cleveland, I love you peeking out from the door into the night.
My footprints are locked in the ice on the stairs.
My car leaves a dry spot on the driveway.
I tell them to come in, and I close the door behind them as they leave.
My key fits into the door.
My hand turns off the lights.
So short a time, and another’s belongings will fill this home. The smell of someone else’s cooking and the hanging of someone else’s art. Someone else’s mail will fill my box and someone else’s body will inhabit my usual seat in Java. They will find rest in my bed and a seat at my table. They will look out my windows and watch my birds and feel my floors beneath their feet. They will watch movies on the squeaky futon and have friends over and make a place and fill the empty space I will be forced to leave behind.
As much as I never thought I’d admit it, it will inevitably be a space that is cut from my heart.
In less than a year, I’ll find a new space and start a new life with a husband, my best friend, and we’ll make a new place ours, together. There’s already so much of him in this house.
While Ohio is a first and foremost,
this has become a home.
In a few months, we’ll throw our caps and be spread like scattershot into the many corners of the world – yes, truly the world. Houghton becomes a place of origin, like a womb from a second birth, the birth of adulthood. We’ll all have this place in common, but it will be home no longer once we have left. There’s a good chance we will not see each other again – not all of us. And as much as it hurts to think about the distance, it’s the way it’s supposed to be.
We can’t live in isolation forever,
but we can live well here while we still have the chance.
You beautiful creature.
Houghton, I love you
“Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book. And then there are book which you can’t tell people about, books so special and rare and yours that advertising your affection feels like a betrayal.”
Torn between these two feelings, I cannot contain my affection for John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. How can a book about two teenagers with cancer not be about cancer? Simply, it’s not. It’s about two teenagers and how they love, how they live, and how cancer is a part of the equation but it’s not what really matters.
It’s about not being afraid of death, but understanding it.
It’s about fear, pain and love.
It’s about forcing the veil off the deceived face of optimism, but not resigning to depressive failure. It’s not all going to be alright, but it’s not the end. It’s part of how it’s all supposed to be.
It’s about a second chance and few steps back.
It’s about the choices we make to take advantage of opportunities that are set before us. It’s a reminder that life isn’t fair or perfect, but it’s consistent. Everything that lives will die, some much sooner than others. But it doesn’t mean a momentary life is worth any less than one drawn out.
It’s about letting go but not giving in, taking baby steps when we lack the strength to move mountains.
It’s about not letting what you want to feel or ignore interfere with what is really a movement of the heart. Ignorance is bliss, but love can be the sweetest cause of pain. It’s about willing to choose who may someday break your heart and loving them in spite of it.
“Some people don’t understand the promises they’re making when they make them,” I said.
Read the book.
It’s always easy to live up to our own expectations when no one is requiring anything of us.
We can happily sit for hours on end, dabbling away at whatever craft or hobby we choose and at the end of the day, as long as no one was hovering over our shoulders or thrusting deadlines at us over a cup of lukewarm coffee, we are pleased as punch at whatever we spewed out. Day complete, we move on to whatever activity was waiting for the evening, and the next day we start it all over again.
Occasionally, demand and requirement can produce some stellar work, mostly because of our inane desire to please everyone and impress people with our style, finesse and output. We want to make ourselves objects of interest, and we constantly seek approval from the people around us. In contrast, there is that person, and we all know at least one, who does whatever they choose without fear or thought as to repercussions, consequences, or an awareness of other human beings in the world they inhabit. Once and a while, they will part the swaths of greasy hair hanging over their eyes and acknowledge that ah, yes, someone is breathing the same air and, oh please, won’t you pay some attention to the quiet, brooding hell I’m raising? For the most part, however, they exist solely for themselves in a space too small for anyone else to occupy; an emotional washer/dryer box in which they can sit and imagine and have their own club with no grown-ups allowed.
Between these people and our generally individual nature, in the end we are creatures of self. We have grand ambitions and hopes and goals and lofty expectations. If we divert even a little energy to focus and become brooding and speak in internal monologues all the time, we will produce work that we will read at parties or set as our desktop wallpaper or give as gifts with the attitude of blessing the world with our brilliance.
If we were smart or clever enough to stumble across humility, then maybe we’d just keep it to ourselves.
Chances are, if we’re honest, we can admit that this detached work for no-one-but-us is perhaps not the masterpiece we envisioned. When placed side by side with those who are making millions of dollars doing professionally what we’re doing in our parents’ basements and corner coffee shops, our grand endeavor s will probably seem a bit like a child’s finger painting of a dog or a horse or whatever that blob with legs could be. We’ll put it on our fridge, swelling with pride, oblivious to the fact that it’s only there to make us feel good about ourselves. People may comment on the colors or the design or express “how sweet it was that you did this all by yourself”. In reality, no one will take us seriously.
The root of the problem lies in the face that we are lazy and scared stupid.
Our first taste of laziness can be easily confused with creativity. Usually sometime in early childhood, age five for example, we discover the joy of doing what we want, conveniently when we should be doing something we’ve been asked to do. We start having homework assigned and our parents ask us to clean up our toys or make our bed. In those times, we are suddenly overwhelmed with creative overload – we want to go outside and do somersaults in the grass or color a picture or invent some new language to speak with our best friend. We vanish for hours on end, causing panic and angry parents and dinner growing cold. Once they find us and scold us and see what we’ve been up to, they are generally still sore but they praise our ingenuity and ask where we got that idea. From this occurrence, a spark ignites in our tiny brains and we see the full spread of potential before us. We call it “creativity”, but that’s just a convenient cover. In actuality, it is laziness and lack of desire to do mandatory tasks that creates a path for diversion. Eventually, when we’re old enough to have gotten tired of the charade, we usually just give up our artistic creative streaks and admit we just don’t like to work.
Laziness is easy to understand, but scared stupid? That’s a pretty harsh assessment of our situation, don’t you think? To illustrate this point, I’d like to bring up the Biblical parable of the talents (bags of gold). There are a bunch of guys who are servants. One day, the head of the house comes to them and gives them each an amount of money based on their skills. Then, the man leaves for a long business trip. Meanwhile, the first two servants invest their money and earn back double what they were given. Wall Street, here they come. The last guy gets cold feet and panics and buries his share in a hole in the ground. After a long time, the master returns and wants his cash back. The smart young men who made a profit turn over the goods and are rewarded for their quick thinking and wise actions. The last guy, knees quaking, wobbles up to the master’s table and shoves the dirty bag of gold towards him. He admits that in fear he did nothing with the money because he knew the guy was demanding and hard. For his foolishness, he was thrown out of the house and left with nothing.
The last servant could have taken some sort of action. Knowing that his master was demanding, you think that would have spurred him to action of some kind, even if that meant fleeing the scene and having some gold and the authorities on his tail. But because he succumbed to his fear of critique and demand, he was scared stupid. Numb to all action or initiative, he ended up looking like a complete idiot and babbling excuses rather than really take responsibility for his actions.
All of this is to say that we are afraid of criticism. We’re dead afraid of being told that our work isn’t worth anything; that people don’t like it; that we’ve wasted our time and energy and emotions for a useless end product. We would much rather live in childish ignorance without a concept of quality or alternative viewpoint than to strive to be better or risk growing from hearing less-than-perfect praise. When that fear shuts us down and meets the laziness we’ve been fighting, laziness takes both qualities and reduces us to passive layabouts who would much rather scramble to meet a deadline last minute than try and produce quality work now.
It’s easy to write when there’s no grade involved and when no one is peering over your shoulder to get a glimpse of your word count. It’s easy to be proud of your words when someone isn’t trying to look at them before they’re finalized and certain. It’s easy to tap out three-hundred pages of the fan fiction to the Twilight series, but when a professor asks for a semester of writing in a genre of your choice?
That’s a feat that seems nearly impossible.
But I didn’t come three and half years to get lazy and scared stupid now.
I’ve got writing to do.
In my relatively short life at not quite a quarter of a century, I have known a lot of people from many different walks of life.
I’ve known people who were single for life, married for more than sixty years, divorced. I’m friends with people who are and associate with gay, lesbian, transsexual lifestyles. I have met people of many different professions from many different countries all over the world. I’ve known the poor, the rich, the middle class. I’ve met brilliant thinkers and simple-minded artists. I’ve met people who were blind, deaf, paralyzed, suffering from illness since birth. I have known people, one being my wonderful fiance, who almost didn’t make it into this world – but God has given us the miracle of their being.
Many of these people have lifestyles based on choices. Choices make up the foundation of who we are, with exception to those with illness or naturally-occurring circumstances.
In short, I’ve seen a lot in the time I’ve been alive.
Death is something I’ve known quite frequently. Mostly family, but many family friends and distant acquaintances and politicians and celebrities have passed away in the time I’ve been alive.
However, whenever death is purposefully brought upon a person too soon, it’s not a part of the natural flow of life. It’s not how God intended for death to occur. When choice and death are combined, they are unnatural and they tear the world apart.
Suicide starts by being about one person, but the shock wave of it spreads to everyone involved… anyone who has ever known them.
I shook their hand, I embraced them. We shared meals, we shared words, we shared time.
And just like that, they are gone.
In my life, I’ve had at least three people who I have personally known, a couple better than others, who have committed suicide. Just a few days ago, a distant acquaintance I met while in college. While I know emotional and mental factors play into why this final, heartbreaking choice is made, I will never understand why that conclusion is an option to so many. Especially for Christians, I can’t figure out how they can worship a merciful, loving God and still submit to their own crushing depression and cut off the gift he has given them. But every time it happens, it sends ripples through the circles of people in their life. Even though we only met once, we ALL feel it.
I pray for the family dealing with this tragedy. I pray for his wife of less than two years. While I didn’t know him well and I don’t understand why, I can feel the weight of loss and my heart goes out to those nearer who feel it so much more.
Requiem æternam dona eis, Domine,
animas omnium fidelium defunctorum
ab omni vinculo delictorum
et gratia tua illis succurente
mereantur evadere iudicium ultionis,
et lucis æternae beatitudine perfrui.
Grant them eternal rest, O Lord.Forgive, O Lord,
the souls of all the faithful departed
from all the chains of their sins
and by the aid to them of your grace
may they deserve to avoid the judgment of revenge,
and enjoy the blessedness of everlasting light.