(like the brown of your eyes and hair)
was never really yours.
My arms and elongated nose were owned before --
fragments of jigsaw
in the rough art assemblage whose end we are.
Sometimes I don't know where we live
or whose voice I still
hear and remember
inside my head at night. In darkness and in love
we are dismembered,
so that the fact of our coming to at all
becomes a morning miracle. Let's number
our fingers and toes again.
Do I love you piecemeal
when I see in your closing hand a valve-flower
like a sea-anemone,
or is it our future I remember, as the White Queen
remembered her pinpricked finger? All of you
that's to be known
resides in that small gesture.
And though our days consist of letting go --
since neither one can own
the other -- what still deepens pulls us back together.
When hardship comes good neighbors often reach out to help. And often that means bringing over a casserole. That’s a tangible and practical gesture — people have to eat, after all — but it’s usually also a signal, a somewhat clumsy way of saying and showing that we’re here for you, and we want to help even if we’re not entirely sure what we can do.
But who gets a casserole? That’s the brilliant question that church historian Heather H. Vacek says led to her book Madness: American Protestant Responses to Mental Illness. Vacek recently responded to John Fea’s terrific regular feature “The Author’s Corner,” describing what led her to write this book:
I’m curious about how religious beliefs shape practice, and in particular, how Christians respond — or fail to respond — to suffering. Working as a student chaplain at a state mental hospital a number of years ago, I realized Christian reactions to mental illness seemed more complicated than, for example, reactions to minor surgery or cancer treatment.
Early in my research about the history of Protestants and mental illness, I began to frame this reality with the question, “Who gets a casserole?” Thinking about typical modern congregations, it appeared individuals and families navigating cancer diagnoses were much more likely to receive support in the form of casseroles than those navigating acute or chronic mental illness. If Protestants profess to care for the well-being of bodies, minds, and souls, why did those living with mental illnesses often receive minimal attention? I found myself curious to know if the different reactions to mental and physical illnesses had always been the case, and so I set out to uncover Protestant responses throughout American history.
Vacek’s book looks like a fascinating exploration of that subject. Her research seems to have supported the general sense she gained from her work as a chaplain — confirming that, usually, those suffering from physical ailments get a casserole, while those suffering from mental illness are not regarded as meriting such warm neighborly support.
Her question — “who gets a casserole?” — also offers an insightful approach to a host of other topics beyond the important subject of mental illness. It can help us to better understand the unspoken limits of our neighborly impulses.
Americans — as a whole, and not just the Protestant subset Vacek focuses on — are generally willing to help when confronted with neighbors in new and urgent need. That’s good! But, unfortunately, there are limits on who it is we’re willing to help. Not everybody is perceived as casserole-worthy.
In discussing the stigma associated with mental illness, Vacek suggests two factors that tend to make us perceive others as undeserving of our casserole:
Both rising confidence in humankind’s ability to solve problems and the persistence of theological notions that connected mental maladies to sin deepened stigma and linked mental maladies with weakness and deviance, making Protestants reticent to respond.
Those we regard as sinners reaping the consequences of their sins are not seen as deserving help. But neither are those whose problems threaten our confidence in our ability to solve problems. In other words, we’re likeliest to want to help victims we perceive as unambiguously blameless and whose problems are unambiguously fixable.
The latter point is particularly interesting. That family who lost their home to fire, flood or tornado faces a hardship that we can clearly understand and that we know how to fix. They lost their home, so we can build them a new one. And once we do that, their problem will be fixed and we won’t have to worry about it anymore. But people whose problems are more chronic or enduring, whose problems don’t have such an obvious and final fix, are less likely to get a casserole.
Think, for example, about the way we tend to discuss the poverty of the “underclass” as something too vast and incomprehensible to ever be fixed. (That’s not true, but addressing such poverty would involve more effort and more resources than the relatively simple logistics of rebuilding after a tornado.) So the poor don’t get a casserole.
Or think about how both of these factors come into play when we’re confronted with neighbors in need due to physical or developmental disabilities. On the one hand, we’re willing to help them because they’re perceived as blameless. But when such help is unable to simply and completely fix the problem, we grow stingier, beginning almost to resent their stubborn refusal to be fixed. Thus something like the Americans With Disabilities Act was initially met with a great deal of popular support, but in the years since has become the focus of a backlash.
I’ve long thought about the way that stigmas of supposed sinfulness shape the reprehensible zombie lie of the “undeserving poor” that stunts American life. Poor people who are perceived as anything less than moral exemplars are constantly being condemned as unworthy of a casserole. But now Vacek has me thinking of how that other factor may play a role here — our reticence to respond to problems that aren’t quickly and conclusively fixable.
These things are tied together. Quite often, problems are complicated and intensified due to our refusal to deal with them because of supposed moral stigma. Consider the financial crisis of 2008, which ground the global economy to a halt and threatened to cast us all into a second Great Depression. As the implosion began, there was a clear and obvious solution to contain that crisis — a moratorium on foreclosures, an elimination of debts (in a word, Jubilee). That wasn’t some bleeding-heart liberal idea, but simply the most urgent pragmatic measure to mitigate the unfolding economic disaster. But that didn’t happen. The very idea of it, instead, gave birth to the tea party movement and a resurgent politics of resentment that — like the harm of the Great Recession — continues to this day. Our insistence that those with underwater mortgages weren’t morally deserving of our help made their problem exponentially more difficult to solve, and that difficulty in turn made us even more reluctant to attempt to solve it.
Day 8 of 31 : "Engineers are our enemies!"
Suggestion from a Super-Patron Patreon supporter.
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Because it’s homecoming this weekend at my alma mater, the school’s mascot — i.e., a kid in an Eagle costume — came to the chapel service today to accompany the announcements about the weekend’s events.
The mascot arrived early, standing off to the side during the lovely opening music, which was a short set of worship songs performed by members of the school’s gospel ensemble. One of the students in that ensemble played the violin for the final song, gorgeously blending with the group’s gospel-inflected arrangement of a popular praise chorus. I looked over and saw the mascot slowly swaying to the music, lost in the moment and raising their arms/wings in worshipful reverie.
For a few minutes, that student in the Eagle suit was simultaneously: A) having a sincere encounter with the sacred, while B) wearing a giant foam bird head, leggings, feathers and oversized fuzzy Eagle feet.
The mascot left after the homecoming announcements, and then I went up to speak. It’s a bit of a blur, but I hope that the end result may have been something like that sublime and ridiculous moment that kid in the Eagle costume had during the prelude. Did I babble, rush, stammer, and swallow the important bits while staggering awkwardly through way too many points about way too many things in a litotical, elliptical mess? As usual, yes. Of course I did.
But I think maybe while I was up there tripping over the fuzzy, oversized feet of my silly costume, there may also have been a few moments where the students gathered today might’ve encountered something reverent or holy, meaningful or challenging or even, perhaps, true. I hope. Maybe.
In any case, it was a real honor to have had that opportunity and to experience the gracious hospitality of Eastern’s chaplain, Joe Modica, and to get to see some old friends and old mentors who still mean a great deal to me 25 years after graduating.
Day 7 of 31 : "Isn't it strange, to create something that hates you?"
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If you only have time to read one translation today, read Pound's; but if you have a breath more to read two, start with the first translation by Witter Bynner, and then read Pound's. What images, what impressions do you get from the former vs the latter? Are there particular wordings that seem more or less effective in conveying the speaker's experience?
( 'A SONG OF CH' ANG-KAN' trans. by Witter Bynner )
THE RIVER-MERCHANT'S WIFE
trans. by Ezra Pound
While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead
I played about the front gate, pulling flowers.
You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,
You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.
And we went on living in the village of Chokan:
Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.
At fourteen I married My Lord you.
I never laughed, being bashful.
Lowering my head, I looked at the wall.
Called to, a thousand times, I never looked back.
At fifteen I stopped scowling,
I desired my dust to be mingled with yours
Forever and forever and forever.
Why should I climb the look out?
At sixteen you departed,
You went into far Ku-to-en, by the river of swirling eddies,
And you have been gone five months.
The monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead.
You dragged your feet when you went out.
By the gate now, the moss is grown, the different mosses,
Too deep to clear them away!
The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind.
The paired butterflies are already yellow with August
Over the grass in the West garden;
They hurt me. I grow older.
If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang,
Please let me know beforehand,
And I will come out to meet you
As far as Cho-fu-Sa.
For more translations of the poem in question, see Other Translations of 'A River Merchant's Wife", and A. W. Allworthy's review of 'the New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry', ed. Eliot Weinberger, which discusses Pound's translation of this poem in the context of translations by William Carlos Williams and David Hinton. If you have any particular favorite translation to recommend, or one you've done yourself, please share in the comments!
VCON (Vancouver’s Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention) is the very first convention I ever attended. For twenty three years, it’s held a very special place in my heart
And I’m never going there again.
VCON is a great convention. It really is. It’s a small, friendly con that’s usually held every October and if you’re in the area while it’s on, I highly recommend that you go check it out.
The reason that I’m choosing not to go back has nothing to do with the quality of the convention or its people. It’s because the con is simply not what I thought it was. I’ll explain.
Like other cons, the social heart of VCON is the hospitality room. A place where you can sit down, eat hot food, sugary junk and during the evening/night hours, have a beer or three.
Hospitality is where I hang out with my geeky brothers and sisters. We stand around in our Star Wars tshirts, drinking cider and odd flavoured ale and argue about bad movies. We discuss which celebrities would make the worst Doctor Who. We make the same dumb jokes every year and we love it.
Last Friday night, I cleaned myself up in my hotel room, grabbed my con badge and excitedly walked to hospitality. But while entering, I was met with something I’ve never encountered before. A nice volunteer was standing at the door, asking me for photo I.D. to prove that I was over eighteen and thereby, of legal drinking age.
“Seriously?” I asked. “I’m… I’m forty two years old. You honestly think that I might be under eighteen?”
The volunteer proceeded to do her job and she insisted that I show photo I.D. Photo I.D. that I simply had not brought to the convention.
“You’re kidding, right? I mean, come on.” I said to the volunteer who looked exasperated and let me in.
As I sipped my cider with my friends, I complained about the rule of carding absolutely everyone, no matter how old they looked. Everyone there, argued that the rule must be obeyed.
I started to rethink the situation and came to the realization that I was an ass to the poor volunteer at the door. She had been told to do a job and (going by her facial expression and the fact that she let me in) I made her feel stupid for doing that job. I had accidentally shamed her into breaking the main rule that she’d been told to enforce. I would have apologized, but by the time I’d realized this, it was later in the night and she was no longer standing at the door. At any rate, she was right and I was wrong. I still thought that the rule was a stupid one, but should never have reacted as though it was all the volunteer’s idea. What I should have done, was respect her decision and realize that I should have my freakin’ I.D. with me at all times, anyways.
The next night, I’d decided to respect the stupid rule. Not enough to stop calling it stupid, just enough to stay out of hospitality. I hated the idea of missing two of the three VCON party nights, but that’s what I get for not having photo I.D. with me.
On Saturday night, I found myself looking for my wife, Danielle. In my quest to find her, I poked my head into the open doorway of hospitality and quickly scanned the room like I was The Terminator and she was Sarah Connor.
“I’ll need to see some I.D.” Said the volunteer standing next to me.
“Oh, I’m not drinking. I’m just looking for Danielle.” I responded.
Using her hands to gesture to the room, she replied with authority, “You need to show me I.D. or you can’t be in this room.”
Even though this was a different lady than the previous night, I had no trouble transferring my guilt from the way I’d treated the first volunteer. I decided that THIS time, I would be respectful and politely follow the rules.
“I understand. It’s no problem. I’ll just leave.” I said with a friendly smile. Besides, I’d already surmised that Danielle was not there.
As I was walking away, I overheard the volunteer say to someone else, “Well, that was rude.”
Now hang on a second. Rude? Last night, I would have agreed with a comment like that, but this time? Rude? Really? This cannot stand. I turned around and spoke to the volunteer.
“I’m sorry?” I asked with one ear tilted toward her to show that I was completely ready to hear her next words, clearly.
“You also don’t have a con badge.” Was her response.
Crap. I had forgotten my con badge back up in my hotel room. I’m usually so good about making sure that I have it on me, too.
“Oh, it’s in my room. I’ll go get it now.” I said with another polite smile, as I turned and left.
By the time I’d reached my hotel room, I’d decided that I was done with VCON forever. Not in an angry way. Not in a “Fine! I’m taking my ball and going home!” way. I had simply realized that VCON wasn’t and isn’t what I’d always thought it was. Before I explain what I mean by that, let me lay down some points, to drive home how incredibly stupid, the stupid rule really is.
1. As I mentioned earlier, I’m forty two. It’d be great if I could pass for a teenager, but I can’t. Like… at all.
2. I’d been coming to this very small convention for twenty three years. We all know each other’s faces. Even though I don’t know Saturday’s volunteer, I’ve seen her face over the years. I’m sure she’s seen mine.
3. I’d mentioned that I wasn’t drinking and that I was merely looking for Danielle. Which brings me to point four…
4. Notice how I’d said to the lady “I’m just looking for Danielle” and not “I’m looking for my wife“? That’s because Danielle was the con chair. The leader. The boss. The head of the entire convention. In fact, she’d been the con chair for ten years. Now, I’m not expecting special treatment because my wife is the con chair, but if the guy who can no longer grow a head of hair is claiming to be old enough to drink and is the husband of the person running the entire convention, he’s *probably* not some teenager scamming you.
(Note: Danielle is not responsible for the creation and execution of the stupid rule.)
5. I was last year’s Author Guest of Honour (last weekend I tweeted “artist GoH” but it’s actually “author”). Again, I’m not expecting special treatment, but if you open up last year’s program book, there’s a photo of me in it.
6. I designed and drew VCON’s mascot (The Robotter) nine year’s ago. This means that if I’m a scamming kid who’s under eighteen, I would have been around eight years old when I created the thing that is on everyone’s VCON tshirts, tote bags and mugs. That’s pretty impressive for an eight year old.
Now that we can all see how incredibly stupid the stupid rule is, let’s cover exactly why I’m not going back.
Here is what I thought to be true…
VCON is my family. My home. It’s where I belong. Where I’m definitely part of the group. The people there have my back and I have theirs.
Here is what I learned…
VCON is a convention. A damn good one. However, it is not my family, my home or some special group where we’ve all got each other’s backs. They *will* kick any member out of the heart of it, if they can’t provide proper I.D.
Now, I know a lot of you are reading this, rolling your eyes at me and inwardly calling me whiny. And you’re right. I’m being exceptionally whiny. But at the risk of sounding overly dramatic… my heart is broken.
You see, VCON hasn’t done a single thing wrong. The stupid rule legally covers VCON’s back and keeps them safe from being fined or worse. The stupid rule is only really stupid amongst friends and family. Amidst a business, it actually makes perfect sense. VCON is not wrong for not being my family. I’m wrong for believing that’s what they were, for all these years.
The reason that I’m not going back there is because I’m hurt and embarrassed. I’m embarrassed that I could misunderstand what a convention was, so badly. A convention that was being run by my own wife. Most of all, it was embarrassing at the time. Humiliating even. I felt like I was in the cafeteria at high school and I’d sat down at the cool kids table with a big, dumb grin on my face, thinking that I was one of them. But then I was informed that I most certainly was *not* part of that group and I had better take my lunch tray and leave.
If this was the result of one overzealous volunteer, I wouldn’t care. But on Friday night, a handful of VCON regulars/concom argued with me for a long time about the importance of the stupid rule. That means that this is not one person’s opinion. This is not a mistake. This is not an anomaly. This is VCON. But as I’ve said, this is simply a convention being a convention. I’m the one who misunderstood.
So to sum up, I wish VCON all the best and I honestly hope you get a chance to check them out. I promise you’ll have a lot of fun, surrounded by good people.
Just bring your I.D.
With the fall leaves, I finally wrap up four months of travel and two wonderful Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrator (SCBWI) conferences. I’m delighted to be spending the rest of the year right here in Denver.
As a participating agent at the two SCBWI events, I enjoyed doing several read-and-critique sessions. I read participants’ opening sample chapters, then sat down with each writer for a one-one-one discussion.
While doing these critiques, I made a big discovery: I repeatedly wrote the same three comments in the margins. Three beginning-writer mistakes that if resolved could significantly improve the writing.
Here they are:
- Less is always more. Why say “a grin wiggled and danced across her face” if “she grinned” would suffice?
- Beginning writers often try too hard with language. If you are always trying to include a perfect turn of phrase in every paragraph, then when you really need one, it won’t stand out. Here’s an example:
The breeze danced across my face, brushing my skin like the gentle tap of a woman’s fingertip, caressing my skin like a kiss.
It’s too much, and it’s all clumped together in one sentence. Even if the writer split it into several sentences, it would still be overkill for a scene moment in which all the reader needs to know is that there’s a breeze.
- Anchor the reader in the physical space of the scene setting. I see lots of dialogue coming from a disembodied voice floating around in the ether of scenes that lack physical descriptions to solidify who is speaking and from where.
That’s it! Three easily solved craft issues that can make you a significantly stronger writer.
Tomorrow, improbably, I’ll be speaking in chapel at my alma mater. It’s the annual alumni chapel service and I guess Bryan Stevenson and Shane Claibourne, etc., weren’t available, so now they’re probably trying to figure out how to set up a three-second delay on the podium mic.
Seriously, though, this is a real privilege. The weekly chapel service at Eastern has always been entirely voluntary. Students don’t have to go, but they do. The auditorium was usually full back when I was a student there, and these days, apparently, they’ve outgrown the auditorium and hold chapel in the gymnasium. Gulp.
The theme for their chapel services this month is “What is the gospel?” That seems like it should be an easy question for us Christian types, and particularly for us evangelical Christian types who are all about sharing the gospel and spreading the gospel and preaching the gospel.
If you’d asked me that question when I was a gung-ho member of my church youth group as a teenager, I’d have been fully prepared to offer you a succinct, tidy answer. That answer likely would’ve involved me drawing something like the Navigators’ “Bridge to Life” illustration explaining the Good News that you were damned to Hell because God hates your sin, but that you could still be saved because God poured out all of God’s infinite hate onto Jesus instead of you, making possible the impossibility of divine mercy and allowing you to go to Heaven instead of Hell. The end.
Or I might have told you some variation of the same thing based on the Wordless Book I’d learned to use teaching VBS and Child Evangelism Fellowship classes, or the Four Spiritual Laws we’d trained in for Evangelism Explosion, or the “Romans Road” we’d memorized in Sunday school. I was primed and ready for someone, anyone, to walk up to me and ask, “What is the gospel?”
But no one ever did. This was a source of enormous frustration. It was also a source of enormous relief, because we’d often go out to proclaim our answer at people who hadn’t actually asked that question and that interaction tended to be excruciatingly awkward and anxiety-inducing for all involved. We knocked on doors. We stood on street corners. We passed out gospel tracts on the sidewalk or the boardwalk. It never went well.
Most people avoided us, correctly suspecting what we were up to. Those who initially failed to recognize that clearly looked trapped, annoyed, or frightened when they realized what they had walked into. “Oh, no, not this” their tightening eyes said when they realized why these polite young people had knocked on their door. They had been mentally prepared to maybe buy a few bars of band candy, not to encounter earnest strangers telling them they deserved an eternity of torture — somehow managing to smile as they said it. The sidewalk downwind of us would be littered with tracts dropped from the hands of those who had accidentally made unwary eye contact or who had gambled, and lost, hoping that we might be handing out fliers for a concert, or a new restaurant, or maybe a car wash for some worthy cause.
Sometimes the encounter could be redeemed by someone who maintained their composure enough to handle it with class. That happened once when we were doing “beach evangelism.” That meant passing out gospel tracts on the boardwalk in Asbury Park until everyone was saved or until we ran out of tracts (always the latter). I gave a tract to Marie Castello outside of the Temple of Knowledge. She said “Thank you,” in a way that reminded us all that this is the proper thing to do when a stranger offers you something, and she gave me a business card. Having learned a lesson there, I thanked her, and fled.
At the time, I regretted my failure to be more assertive and more aggressive in insisting that she listen to our message of salvation. Remembering this now, what I regret most is that I didn’t keep that card. Or ask her to sign it for me.
See, Marie Castello is kind of a legend in New Jersey. She’s the Madame Marie that Bruce Springsteen sang about in “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy),” and she was an institution there on the boardwalk – offering “Readings & Advice” at her Temple of Knowledge booth from 1932 until her death in 2008. When she died, flags in Asbury Park were flown at half-staff in her honor.
I left the Temple of Knowledge that day back in 1984 or ’85 without ever seizing the chance to tell her how Jesus bridges the chasm between sinful humans and a holy God. I didn’t stick around to explain that she could be saved by praying the prayer in which she tells God the three things God apparently needs to hear us say to complete the transaction of salvation. I never gave her the answer I had back then to the question “What is the gospel?”
And that means — according to the logic that compelled us to go out there knocking on doors and passing out tracts — that she may have died unforgiven and unloved by a holy God who is incapable of tolerating sinful humans. And if that’s true, we believed, if she never prayed that prayer and told God those three things, then Marie Castello is now suffering an eternity of conscious torment in Hell. And we were supposed to believe she deserved that.
One of the many problems with all of that was that it required us to believe that Bruce Springsteen is greater than God. And even those of us who are from New Jersey don’t quite want to say that’s true. We will concede, if pressed to do so, that the Boss is mortal and finite, fallible and flawed (see, for example, Human Touch). So we know that Bruce Springsteen cannot be capable of a greater love and a greater mercy than God is capable of.
If there is a God, then that God, being God, must be capable of a greater love than any mortal. If there is a God, and if that God is not monstrous, then that God must be capable of loving Madame Marie at least as much as Bruce Springsteen did.
All of which means that I no longer answer that question — “What is the gospel?” — the way I would have answered it as a teenager back in church youth group. I no longer believe that the starting point of the gospel is our separation from a monstrously holy God incapable of love without demanding payment in blood. I believe that the starting point of the gospel is Jesus. And the ending point, too.
So tomorrow, when I get up there to talk about “What is the gospel?” I’m going to talk about Jesus, the central figure of those books we call “Gospels.” And I’m going to suggest that one way of answering the question “What is the gospel?” is to look at the sequel to one of those books, the book of Acts, which shows us what it looks like when Jesus’ followers start living the gospel. So we’re going to talk about Pentecost and about Philip in Samaria, and Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, and Peter and Cornelius, and anybody there who reads this blog will easily recognize that I’m recycling much of the same stuff I’ve written about here for years.
Anyway, regular posting here tomorrow may be interrupted a bit, but it should resume Thursday. In the meantime, I have to go whittle what seems to be a 50-minute talk into the allotted 25 minutes. This will likely involve cutting most of the jokes. Tomorrow, when I hear my voice start to get shaky, I will nervously reinsert all of those jokes, leaving out everything else before rushing through the ending. (That’s the pattern, at least. I’ve heard myself speaking in public before and that’s usually how it goes.)
( Clark Kent smiled at another crisis averted, completely and blissfully unaware that he had just changed the entire future of the universe. )