Half Cadence

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Performing in the beautiful St. Salvator’s Chapel, St. Andrew’s

An audio recording of this article is available here:

As an accompanist, one of my favorite things to do when a rehearsal needs some comic relief is to begin a cadence but stop before the final chord. Hearing a dominant chord ringing without resolution drives my fellow musicians insane. I revel in this small rebellion.

Usually, though, I cannot handle the aural discomfort either, and I surrender to the tonic chord. Especially with the added suspense of the unresolved preparatory chord, it is lovely when every tone settles at last into consonance. It’s like a period at the end of a sentence, a bow on top of a present, a fitting simile at the conclusion of a quippy blog post.

Unfortunately, a lot of times life is like an unresolved cadence. The more entrenched in adult life I become, the more complicated the world seems. As an aspiring poet, I allowed myself to lament this in verse. However, I am also a pragmatic soul who recognizes that, while angsty poetry can be beautiful, existential crises can only go on for so long and don’t generally make things better. Eventually, we simply must lay aside our journals and return to our work and relationships, no matter how uncertain we may feel.

Several times before, I have drawn on the two constants in my life—faith and music—to make sense of my situation, and this is perhaps why an unresolved cadence became such a striking idea. Musical analogy often makes clear to me what otherwise seems overwhelmingly complex. Well, right now, I am living in an unresolved cadence.

I cannot rush ahead to the resolution as, this time, I am not the one in control of the keys. Still, as dissonance strains toward resolution, I, too, must move forward in anticipation. Although many things are uncertain, I can sound out possibilities as I continue to work, pray, and hope toward my next steps.

I remember, too, the reality that there will always be tensions and unfinished cadences. Indeed, all of life—and especially the Christian life—is lived in the rest between chords and in the expectation of a final, perfect, triumphant cadence. For now, I suppose, just realizing that I am in a time of not-yet resolved tension is enough to sustain me.

Now, how about some poetry?

I rest in preparation of the final chord,
In the echo of a tonic held within—
Unresolved, hearing not what I strain toward,
Riding inverted waves again, again, again. . .

I rest in the plague of an unsung Amen,
A half-writ chorale lacking its last word.
Unsure of the tune, I struggle through the hymn,
Hoping against harmony for a radiant risen third.

I rest in a cadence not yet concluded,
Awaiting consonance beyond my skill,
Unhearing, all my practiced art denuded,
Trusting deafly to my own Composer’s will.

I rest in accented anticipation:
Untempered dissonance awaiting revelation.

Rejoicing in Repetition

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“And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.” – 1 Thessalonians 2:13

My current favorite song—“Shape of Love” by Passenger—keeps popping up in my Spotify playlists and I never skip it. Its opening chords make me smile no matter how many times it has played today already. Similarly, as I said in a previous post, I eat the same breakfast every day and have not yet grown entirely tired of porridge.

Often I run the same trail, and my legs rejoice at cresting its hill, no matter how many times I have done it before. Likewise, I have been known to pick a favorite café and show up every day in pursuit of a honey oat latte. (If you are ever in Gilbert, AZ, do visit Mythical Coffee, or Enchanted Coffee Bar in La Mirada, CA.)

And yet, while there are these things which I seem never to tire of, I am perpetually restless in my devotional life. From flipping open my Bible at random to reading straight through without really taking in its words, I am guilty of every single sin of inattention. For a theology student, this is an area of weakness, but for a Christian, this is critical. It should be deeply concerning to any Christian who grows bored in his or her engagement with the Word since it is that very Word which promises eternity. Yet, even knowing this, I never fail to fall behind in those “read through the Bible in a year” plans, and my hodgepodge hoping-the-right-passage-will-fall-open-in-my-lap plan is even less effective at holding my focus.

“And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.”

– 1 Thessalonians 2:13

For two summers as an undergraduate student, I did a study abroad trip in Cambridge, England, and was required to read the books of Ephesians and Colossians, respectively, every day for three weeks. This immersion method sounded tedious at first, but after only a few days, my natural craving for regularity kicked in and I found myself delighting in the Scriptures in a way I had been missing for years. Soon, I was memorizing passages without meaning to, finding new insights with each reading, and even discovering the value of comparing various translations and reading the books themselves in different orders.

Recently, however, I went through another Scriptural-drought. In bored surrender, I decided that I would just reread 1 Thessalonians every day, as well as pray my way through the great Puritan Prayer Book, The Valley of Vision. And, while the repetition at first seemed as bland as having my morning porridge without heaping spoonfuls of honey, I am slowly realizing the truth of the Psalms:

“How sweet are your words to my taste,
sweeter than honey to my mouth!
Through your precepts I get understanding;
therefore I hate every false way.”

-Psalm 119:103-104

Not only am I finding that I crave the sweet familiarity of the Word with each new day, but I am also rediscovering its nourishment. Each rereading, beyond merely bringing delight, grants new understanding which then develops into practical application, just as the Psalm proclaims.

Savoring a tenth rereading of Thessalonians this morning, I wondered why more believers do not practice this method and, indeed, why I was so initially resistant. I am now reminded of G.K. Chesterton’s words:

“Children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged . . . grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

– Chesterton, “The Ethics of Elfland”

We are told by Christ that we must become like the little children to inherit the kingdom of heaven (Luke 18:17). Perhaps we must repossess that childlike love for repetition without boredom in order to truly inherit the Word as well. Indeed, Chesterton attributes this virtue of children—to delight in apparent monotony—to their “fierce and free” spirit. Even and especially as grown-up Christians, however—as little children adopted by God through Christ Jesus—we ought to live in this Spirit of such ferocity and freedom, such strength and grace.

Indeed, this is the maturity of believers, that we experience afresh the joy and confidence of children, all while growing deeper and truer in our faith and understanding. We cannot grow in these without Scripture, and so, just as the sun insists on rising each day, we must steadfastly return to our morning routines—our daily porridge and honey lattes—and to our regular re-immersion in the Word, one book, over-and-over, at a time, all the while learning to pray:

“Form my heart according to the Word,
according to the image of thy Son,
So shall Christ the Word, and his Word,
be my strength and comfort.”

The Valley of Vision, “Christ the Word”

 

A Little Paper Reflection

IMG_3205Look at that massive stack of books with your little pink notebook on the top, open like the bud of a daisy and crawling with notes. Even those huge volumes by writers with high-brow names like Humphrey and Sacheverell did not grasp everything, nor succeed in having the last word on the subject.

Yes, even the most pompous, satisfyingly-thick, black-bound biographies have gaps in their scholarship and may fade into dust-gathering anachronisms. “Of the making of many books, there is no end,” after all.

But isn’t that comforting, in a way? And wonderfully liberating? If those authors you so admire could not write everything in 500 pages, why do you feel the pressure to do so in 20? Or 30? Even 60?

No, do not worry about saying everything. After all, your paper is only a small daisy in a vast forest of former trees, books upon books upon books that you can traverse by footnote but never fully explore.

But isn’t that exciting? After all, forests need flowers too, and you will never run out of trails to investigate, paths to forge.

So write what you can. Tend to your small bit of knowledge and watch it grow up among the leaves of books and the dust of authors past.

Theme and Variations

Not long ago (though it seems a lifetime), I wrote about modulations. The idea that the dissonance of post-college life would eventually resolve into normalcy was comforting; considering the modulations in music were consoling to me as I felt keenly the sudden transitions I experienced after four years of relatively little change. 

Several months later, I find myself facing another transitional period as I recently moved to Scotland to pursue my master’s in “Theology and the Arts.” Despite my love for this country and its culture, I was nervous: where would I fit in? Back in the States, I had clear roles, routines, and relationships. A creature of habit, I was overwhelmed to find seemingly everything changing, from my time zone to breakfast foods.

Just as a musical metaphor was helpful in reframing how I approached this past summer, I found that the same to be true of settling into a new place and new chapter. In-between, the key is modulation. Now, though, it is theme and variations. Theme and variation is perhaps the simplest musical form to explain: pick a melody or some other musical statement and repeat in different ways until it wears out its welcome. This compositional structure provides the basis for both smaller, stand-alone pieces (such as Mozart’s classic 12 Variations in C Major, K. 265, which most will recognize as “Twinkle Twinkle”) and larger works (such as Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations and Bach’s Goldberg Variations).

The trick to listening and learning such pieces is simply to memorize the key theme and then discover its subsequent incarnations. Indeed, this is the key to internalizing music of all sorts, for it is difficult to ever truly escape from themes and variations. For instance, during my sophomore year as a piano major, I was assigned a piece that was — so I thought — far, far beyond my capabilities. Near tears, I asked my teacher how on earth I was to conquer it. I could not imagine my hands becoming familiar with and even fond of this monstrous composition.

“Memorize it bit by bit,” was my teacher’s first bit of advice. “Start with the main themes and motifs and then find how they vary and develop.”

Learning this piece was a war won by small battles. Still, I came to know it better than any other, and, though it challenged me with every practice session, it became mine. The professor in the studio next door came to recognize that when he heard its opening theme, I must be at work. That daunting piece went on to earn me my first victory in the university’s piano competition and, more importantly, I found that I was able to play it with surprising joy.

Any modulation, be it a new piece or a new chapter in life, must be conquered the same way: Identify a theme, find its variation, and move on to the next. During my first weeks in St. Andrew’s, I have intentionally sought out the elements that I know to be essential themes in my life and, finding these (though in slightly different forms) I have felt more and more at home.

For example, throughout both high school and college, I was the on-call accompanist at my schools. This is a key theme that makes me feel as though I fit in, as though I have a clear role and am known for my skill set. So, as soon as I could, I introduced myself to the music directors at my new university and, within an hour, had several gigs lined up. As an organist and choral singer, I pursued and quickly found a church music ministry. My community of faith and worship during my undergraduate years was essential to my wellbeing and service. Fully aware of this and feeling keenly its absence, I immediately pursued a new position in the same vein, with similar yet diverse people.

Knowing the themes I relied on for normalcy back home, I ardently sought their Scottish variations, and with each new rendition of a continuing idea, I perceived the puzzle of my life falling more and more into alignment with what it ought to be. 

The same is true of smaller elements, of motifs. Themes, in music, are generally the larger building blocks of composition; they are the melodies that recur and are recognizable no matter their evolving ornamentation or transpositions. Motifs, however, are the smaller elements that, though often only a single chord or ornament, are sure to be felt if missing.

My motifs are running trails. Bookstores to sniff around. A coffee shop to frequent. Possibly a garden with a particular bench. Houseplants on my windowsill. Floral accents to everyday items. These seemingly unimportant things are the glue that hold the larger blocks — the themes — together in harmony. Again, similar to the piece I learned years ago, as soon as the small pieces are in place, the larger ones become more manageable. 

Motifs are often quicker to come than themes, making them the best place to start when feeling overwhelmed in a new place or new stage of life. It is so much easier to thrive in the grand scheme of things when the small details are tidy and familiar. Find them, these little things that bring you back to your senses. Love them and cultivate them and use them to string together longer melodies, making yourself at home again in foreign modes, unknown places, until these new-yet-familiar themes, too, become a part of your life song.

Consumption

I fear we are dying of consumption…

It’s 2019 and it seems that everyone seems has some sort of food sensitivity. (Someone recently suggested that I cut gluten, which nearly made me cry as I reached for another slice of bread.) Our nutritional awareness is becoming more and more acute and, on the whole, I’d consider this a generally good thing. The fact that we have the information and ability to choose what will best nourish our bodies is a blessing we ought not take for granted.

However, it is sadly ironic that this nutritional awareness only extends so far; what we choose to eat is important, but our discernment must not stop at physical consumption. Mankind, created in the Image of God, is rational, imaginative, and decisive. We are more than mere flesh. While it is vital that we steward our physical wellbeing, our consumptive wisdom cannot cease there.

In the Gospel of Matthew, when the Pharisees saw that Jesus’ disciples ate with unwashed hands, they were flabbergasted. (Finally, I get to use the word ‘flabbergasted!’) Calling the people together, Jesus says:

“Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” (Matthew 15:10-11, ESV)

And when his well-meaning but thick-headed disciples (sound familiar?) do not understand the meaning of these words, He continues to explain:

“Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.” (Matthew 15:17-20, ESV)

There is obviously a wisdom to washing one’s hands before eating, just as it is advisable to pursue bodily health. However, the greater weight of morality lies in what pours from our lips, revealing what is digesting in our hearts. What and how we eat is a minor issue; what we contemplate and communicate is much more dire. 

Due to one fateful bite of fruit (ironic, since we are discussing nutrition…), our hearts have a great propensity for evil all on their own. However, as with dietary choices, what we choose to feed upon has an incredible impact on what we crave. After all, I cannot have a cookie or cup of coffee without immediately wanting another.

These habitual cravings have potential for benefit or detriment. For instance, when I am daily in the Word and worshipping weekly with the people of God, I find that I am more prone to speak and live in truth and grace than when I forgo devotions for sitcoms and skip church on account of some other occupation. Not to be nasty, but anyone with a food allergy knows that eating that offending ingredient will lead to quite terrible, pungent results…on the other end… and it’s the same with our hearts as it is with our stomachs.

“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” (Psalm 1914, ESV)

How we speak and act is determined by what we hold in our hearts. Therefore, if we desire to proclaim the wonders of our Lord, serving as instruments tuned to His most glorious song, we must be cautious about what we choose to consume and contemplate. A devoted athlete will eat only what aids his ability. Just so, if we are to “press on toward the goal…of God in Christ Jesus,” as Philippians reads, we must be discerning about what we feed our souls. We must, like John the Baptist, be “filled with the Holy Spirit” above all else (Luke 1:15, ESV).

Philippians not only offers the charge to pursue Christ as an athlete pursues a prize, but a list of ingredients, if you will, to help in this aim. To best glorify our Lord in word and deed, we must train our hearts to crave whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy (Philippians 4:8, ESV).

My brother is allergic to nuts and, as such, my family has become hyper-sensitive to ingredients. Even seemingly harmless dishes such as a green bean casserole have been subject to scrutiny— and for good measure, as that dish nearly sent him into shock! As Christians, we are liberated from the law, but called to live in accordance with our recreation in Christ. That said, while it is not inherently wrong to enjoy aspects of culture, media, etc., we are expected to engage with heightened discernment.

Ultimately, the deciding factor for anything is: does this hinder or help my heart in its relationship with Christ? 

I recently saw an article about a celebrity who claimed something along the lines of: “My faith in Jesus is not a religion, but a relationship, so I can do whatever I want and He will still love me.” But, in actuality, the fact that the Christian faith is relational elevates it to an even higher standard.

The church and its members, as the bride of Christ, are united in the exemplar of marriage, and, as the only one worthy of complete and utter devotion, Christ has every right to be a jealous husband. While a Christian’s relationship with Christ is not a marriage of legalism, neither is it one of licentiousness. If we truly love and know Him, we will earnestly desire to keep His commandments. This is not because we must earn our salvation, but because, having experienced His love, we realize that He is deserving of our fullest affection. Being in love with Christ necessitates forsaking all hinderances. 

We love my brother, so we watch for foods that could be his undoing. If we love Christ, we must be constantly vigilant, ensuring that what we consume will pour forth in witness rather than worldliness. In all areas, what we choose to consume must not become a stumbling block to our devotion or to the consciouses of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

It is so easy to become complacent, to pursue relevance rather than righteousness. However, if we truly love our Savior, we must dwell on that which is glorifying to Him and will prepare us as His witnesses. In a culture ironically fixated on physical consumption while ignoring spiritual malnourishment, we must actively choose to satisfy our hearts in the Lord and to desire that which is pleasing to Him.

Modulations

A modulation is a “change from one key to another in a piece of music.” Seems simple enough. Often they are, and, being a rather lazy songwriter, I’m a huge fan of a common-tone modulation, where a single note is sufficient to transpose one key into another, often in a single beat.

Right now, though, I am undergoing a much more dissonant modulation: Some notes are familiar, some brand new, many just sound different than before because the chords have been inverted or augmented. Just as in a creative modulation in a piece of music, I can anticipate where the piece is going and can predict the new key, but in the meantime am kept in suspense as I play on and wonder how the music will work itself out.

As a composer, my biggest weakness is modulating. I wrote a rather lovely nocturne a few months ago, but let it fade away when I realized that it was stagnating in a single key. When I was challenged to write a cadenza for a Mozart piano concerto, I came up with one that stayed comfortably in the dominant key, but had to scrap it because it didn’t feature enough movement.

Modulations, in life as in music, are strenuous, and I envy those to whom they come naturally.

This summer is a time of modulation. In May, I graduated with a Bachelor of Music degree and in August I’ll be moving to Scotland to pursue a Master’s in “Theology and the Arts.” Right now, though, I am bouncing between familiar and unfamiliar. A week ago I was home, but found home to be different…too small. Now I am back in Southern California, but am housesitting and working rather than studying and living in an apartment with my best friend. My car is here as a little refuge. A few of my friends are still around. My favorite coffee shops never change, thank goodness.

But it is not the same.

There is a tension between these old-familiars and the new life that I am exploring. All of this, too, is tinted with the knowledge that I am leaving soon for a completely new experience. Soon, I’ll have to find a new coffee shop…in Scotland. All of the familiar things are tinged with the sorrowful knowledge that they will pass away and all of the new things are jarring, mundane though they might actually be.

Accidentals and augmentations.

I am doing my best to hold fast to the small things that keep me together: reading scripture with my breakfast, practicing piano at church, carting my ukulele anywhere and everywhere I go, posting ramblings to my blog instead of shouting into the void.

As I cling to these small rituals, I realize that this time of modulation is a blessing. When I discovered how to modulate in a song I wrote recently, it gave the entire final verse an extra kick of energy. While some notes might be held in dissonance, they do eventually resolve and settle into the new key. In the same way, though I am displaced now, this time will make settling into a new season even sweeter.

Furthermore, without modulations there is little room for development. I am quick to develop strong attachments to place, but if there is one thing I’ve learned from my extensive travels it is that although moving from place to place can be bittersweet, it expands one’s horizons exponentially. Learning to make a home wherever we are is one of the greatest lessons of life, and especially of the Christian life.

I remember the president of my university describing the Christian life as “in-tents.” As a lover of puns, this stuck with me. We are to pitch our tents and minister and grow wherever we may be, as “intense” as this process is.

Perhaps this can be expanded to include my modulation idea. Redeemed but not yet called to our final home, the Christian life is one of in-between, something which terrifies me. I like to be fully one place or another and find the transitions and tensions exhausting.

I am, once again, reminded of this passage from Philippians 3:12-16:

“Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold to what we have attained.”

Maturity, according to Paul, lies in knowing that our future is secure and holding fast to this hope in the uncertain in-between. To put it in musical terms: We have left the original key behind, so must continue onward through the modulation until we settle into the next key. 

As I dwell in this modulation period, I look ahead to the future, both in Scotland and beyond, and strive to think of the past only with gratitude instead of a futile yearning to return. Part of the maturity that Paul writes of in Philippians is also letting go of the past so that we might more freely move into the future. I will cling to the beautiful themes of loved-ones and old homes, but only insofar as they foster this future hope.

Listening to my own songs as I write this, I have to laugh. While they might lack modulation, the lyrics I penned a month ago possess wisdom that I did not realize I had:

“Babe, we’re in the in-between:
Young but grown, just wait and see—
And try as best we can,
Making our little plans,
As we grow and hope
And drive away down those winding roads.”

It’s a love song, of course, but the same hope I am singing to its recipient I am also conveying to myself and all those in my situation. We are in the “in-between,” caught in the craziness of being young adults. But ultimately, we must keep “running the race,” knowing there is a sure destination both in this world and the next. In the meantime, we can do no better than to learn what we can, hope as best we can, and move forward.

We can do no better than to find beauty and opportunity in the modulation, taking delight in surprising tonalities instead of shrinking in fear, and looking forward to the next verse of our life songs. Without modulation, there can be no great development and, while it will not be comfortable, it will be beautiful.  

So, the least I can do is to find a coffee shop that feels like home and pray for the best.

Method…Writing?

Method acting is a key point in my novel. One of the characters is an actor who has become “stuck” in the role that he last performed. He has lost himself into the character he was contracted to play. There are obviously a MANY problems that arise from this (many dark moments for this poor guy), but there is one lesson to learn for our benefit:

Method Creating.

First of all, to create art, you cannot always consider yourself an “aspiring artist.” If I had stayed in the mindset of “I’ll someday be a pianist” I would not have gone far as a musician. Instead, I learned, over many years of self-doubt that if you want to achieve something, you have to live into that dream now as if it is already reality. In much better words:

You have to live as if you already are what/who you want to be. If you want to be a great pianist, you have to live as if you already are one by practicing hard, humbly listening to both praise and criticism, and making original (even if not at first brilliant) artistic decisions. For too many years I worked my tail off and studied like mad, but was crippled by the thought that I had not yet achieved, that I was not yet the musician I wanted to be. In one sense this is true. I had and still do have far to go and we should NEVER stop pushing ourselves to be better or else our art (and, worse, our very selves as human beings) will stagnate.

However, you have to live and press forward with the conviction that you already are that musician (or artist) that you want to be, letting this motivate you to live up to your future vocation/goal in the present practice.

Oddly enough, I have never had a problem claiming to be a writer. To be fair, I probably should have more qualms about my claims to being a writer, for I am soooooooooo far from where I want to be. I don’t have a doctorate, haven’t published a novel, have not been invited to give guest lectures, etc.

But I am confident that one day I can reach these levels because I have already adopted “writer” as my current role. By living as a “writer” in the present, I am more motivated to actually pursue this goal than I would be had I remained an “aspiring writer” or “someday writer.”

So, I have adopted a sort of role even if it is not brought to total fruition yet, and my approach to my art is made the better for it.

What else can my poor method acting character teach us?

Surround yourself with relics.

My novel includes, to name a few, a Venetian mask, a violin, a huge volume of Sherlock Holmes, Italian postcards, red wine, a portrait, and about a million cappuccinos.

And I have all but the wine sitting beside me as I write. I can feel the characters speaking to me from their favorite curios. I hold in my hand the mask that the actor dons in a pivotal scene. I sniff the pages of the book another character read as a child. I drink the espresso one character conjures.

Through the little souvenirs I have gathered since the conception of this novel idea, I am able to enter into the realm of my story. I have adopted the role of writer, of creator, and, using tokens I have gathered from this world, am able to enter into another of my own making.

Give it a shot, maybe. What title/role would help you pursue excellence and dreams? And what little things can you surround yourself with to foster creativity and insight? Comment and let me know! I’d love to hear how your artistic life, dear reader, is thriving.

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Slight disclaimer: When I say to live into the role of what you want to be, I do not mean to adopt this as your identity. The character I used as the original example suffers this exact downfall and, let me tell you, it does not go well. Our full identity cannot be found in any temporal or merely-human characteristic and any “roles” must be held subject and united to the enduring identity promised in faith. (Indeed, though, this identity too is already given and, at the same time, yet to come, informing our lives in the present by assuring us of the future!)

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Final note: The novel featured in the photo at the top is AMAZING. Yet another reason to be excited about being a writer. 😉

Running for Perspective

I love to run, but unless I have a really good soundtrack or running buddy, abhor running on treadmills or tracks because I do not run merely for exercise, I run for perspective.

This is why I cannot run on a track only. After a while, I get bored watching the same people play the same sports on the field as I listen to the same playlists and circle the same route. I’m bored just typing this.

But if I run elsewhere… oh the perspective it brings! I might not get the maximum speed I could on a track, but I gain something infinitely greater: reflection, restoration, reminders…pretty much any nice word that starts with “r.”

Tonight I had an especially good run, following my usual route off of my college campus through several tunnels, past a lovely neighborhood, to a park with green hills, a creek, huge trees, and all variety of life.

As soon as I pass through the first tunnel, I feel a weight lift from my shoulders, as if I am shedding the pressures of college life. In leaving campus and feeling the powerful movement of my body in running, I remember there is more to life than the stress of a student.

As I pass the neighborhoods, I am comforted to look at homes. Actual homes with families and tacky Thanksgiving decorations. Homes where parents are returning from work and cooking dinner and children are shouting in play. It’s so peace-giving to see homes instead of dorms. One represents stability and comfort whereas the latter, though nice, is temporary and functional.

And then I reach the park. Its green fields open up before me like the pages of a well-loved book; Celtic music sings in my earbuds and I rejoice as if I am once more running along the Caledonian Canal in Scotland. An autumn breeze makes the boughs of a willow tree dance and the hanging leaves of another catches in my curly hair, ruffling it like a teasing brother. Birds sing in choruses on either side of the creek and dogs pant with the joy of a walk with their humans. The sky, a burnished orange, reminds me of home; Arizona’s sunsets always will be the most beautiful…

My heart is refreshed by nature. Perhaps I am reading too much Wordsworth (kidding- no such thing!), but as I drink in the evening air, I exhale poetry in gasping breaths. A thousand verses all bloom in my mind and I feel the rush of creative power in my muscles as I press onward.

I pass a young family, the son grumpy in his dress clothes and the parents beaming as they take the photos that will announce the coming of their second child. Only a half mile later, I pass a proposal and, when the couple and their loved ones leave, I run on a trail of rose petals. And, between these two golden moments, I see older couples walking hand-in-hand and elementary children racing their scooters. I find here a perspective; life goes on and wondrous things lie ahead with lovely little things in between!

Oh, there is a wealth of love and poetry in the air tonight! More than my small heart and mind can absorb at once! And so my run turns to dance and a smile lifts my face toward the sun, which has flickered into street lamps as dusk falls.

Another mile. No, two more. Hmmm… another. It is a sorrow to leave this glimpse of paradise. I smile at every passerby and they smile back. It’s easy at a park full of families and puppies and sunshine to forget the hardships of life; everything is gold-tinged at sunset here.

I set my face toward school once more, but with a lightness to my step that I lacked when first setting out. The longer I run, it seems, the freer I fly. I barely feel my feet touch the uneven ground as I race myself back.

Then, naturally, the poetic spell was broken as I almost stepped on a hawk. (It could possibly have been a falcon.)

Yes, you read that correctly. As I sprinted the final stretch of nature before reaching the pavement of campus, I had the misfortune (or was it?) of stepping within two inches of the largest bird of prey I have every seen up close. It flew- annoyed, no doubt- up and away, leaving behind its mangled dinner.

Too surprised to stop and take a closer look, I ran on, laughing aloud with sheer wonder and a little fear (after all, Wordsworth would say beauty and fear are often realized in the same experience). I probably should not have been so surprised, as I have met this hawk before, though I had never presumed to interrupt his dinner!

Thrilling with poetry and humor (and endorphins), I sprinted the last few steps back and with a pulsing spirit set to recording my run in words rather than statistics.

Readers, I encourage you with all my heart: when life feels overwhelming, run to a park. The exercise and perspective will do wonders for your spirit and imagination.

But watch where you step. 😉

Dystopian Reality

Dystopian novels have been “in” for several years now. The Hunger Games and Divergent were the most popular reads of my high school days. Brave New World, 1984, and Anthem were on the AP reading lists. I continue to devour Ray Bradbury’s work.

However, we forget the purpose of dystopian fiction, which is to warn and protect us from creating such futures in reality. Dystopian fiction remains fiction only so long as we read and heed these books as warnings, not merely as disturbingly entertaining tales.

While we continue to be shocked by the dystopian stories we read, we are at the same time allowing ourselves to fall into them. By labelling them as “fiction” we are separating them from our reality and from our future. We feel terror and disgust as we read them, but can easily brush them aside as “mere stories” once we close the covers.

Ray Bradbury once said,

“You do not have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”

As much as I’d like to say Bradbury is inerrant, I would like to alter this statement ever so slightly for the sake of clarity:

“You do not have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop believing them.”

As soon as we assure ourselves that dystopian societies are just monsters created by authors, they lose their power to prevent us from growing into such societies. The moment we begin to read these books as fiction, when we stop believing that such horrors and degeneration might be possible, is the moment we begin to descend into dystopia ourselves.

images-1.jpgIf children were to read the classic tale of Hansel and Gretel as merely a story that could not possibly have any truth to it, the preserving concept of “stranger danger” loses its impact. We cannot read this story to children without explaining its moral and begging them to heed its lesson.

In the same way, adults cannot read dystopian novels simply as futuristic fairy tales; we cannot consume them only for their shock and entertainment value. Rather, just as we would hope that children learn caution from Hansel and Gretel, it is our duty as responsible readers to learn an even greater caution from stories such as Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, and even The Hunger Games. 

It is of even greater importance now in 2017 than when these stories were originally penned, even if that was not long ago. We already have turned deaf ears to the warnings of these stories and are already reaping the consequences as we slip into dystopia.

Consider the following: 

images

 Remember the citizens of the Capitol in The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins? We were bothered by them for their selfishness, their vanity, their degenerate morality, and their obsession with entertainment. But are we equally concerned by such lifestyles in reality? Or do we shudder at them between pages and then act as they do in our own lives without even realizing?

download-2In The Giver by Lois Lowery, another YA dystopian novel, babies who are not up to standards are “released.” I remember my friends and I crying over this chapter in elementary school. Yet now so many former young readers champion the killing of the pre-born because of detected health problems, special needs, or simply because the child is unwanted. How can we justly promote in reality the things of which we once read with sorrow?

download-3Fahrenheit 451 is fairly explicit in its message (Bradbury makes no attempt at subtlety -bless him). Yet while we read of the death of literature, we retreat without a thought into cheap entertainment as soon as we finish the book. Worse, we ignore his clear warnings and are happy to glean our information through soundbites and social media blurbs rather than through thorough reading, considerate conversations, and serious thought. Are we, too, mindlessly “watching our stories” without discernment or contemplation?

fullsizeoutput_161Perhaps the most shocking dystopian novel I’ve read is Brave New World (Aldous Huxley). At least, it was shocking when I read it four years ago. Now, it feels rather ordinary. (Has the world really fallen so far in four years? Perhaps I am simply older and sorrowfully wiser.) As I read this book, I was horrified at the unrestrained sexuality of it; most characters sought only their own pleasure, cared nothing for relationships, and procreation was a thing of the distant past. But is this so far different from today? We find ourselves living in a generation that boldly protects promiscuity and demands consequence-free pleasure while conservative approaches to relationships are scorned as old-fashioned.

download-4.jpgAyn Rand’s Anthem centers on a character called “Equality 7-2521.” Everyone is equal, but, ironically, no one is free; every member of the society is equal to the extreme that none of them may differ from others. Today, are we perhaps striving for a dangerous equality like that of Anthem? We must certainly protect and value all people equally; however, Anthem warns against forcing equality of thought. Although we read this warning, do we follow it? The minute someone expresses an idea that we consider offensive, are we quick to aggressively silence him or her rather than admit that we all have the right to think freely?

I am not saying that everything in these dystopian novels will come true, but they are not nearly as far-fetched as they once seemed. Certainly I do not expect America to be divided into factions or our teenagers to be sent into battle against each other or for us to mate according to selection by governors. However, there are undeniable dangers to reading dystopian novels as fiction, just as there are dangers to ignoring the morals of fables and fairy tales.

We ought to read dystopian books as seriously as we read history books. It is said that “those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it” and so we diligently are set to studying history from the minute we enter school. We also are encouraged throughout our school days to read dystopian stories, but we must not be satisfied with reading them as mere fiction. Rather, we must read them with the discernment and diligence with which we study history. It is imperative that when we read dystopian books, we read with great awareness of their relation to reality so that we are not, like poor history students, doomed to live them.

 

Dear High School Seniors… (an open letter from a graduate)

Dear High School Seniors, class of 2018,

I just had a weird dream. Maybe to you it will sound like a nightmare, though. I dreamt that I was back at my high school with a neatly-printed, seven-class schedule full of the AP classes and electives that I thought I had finally finished years ago. About to enter my third year of college, though, the dream was sort of comforting. It was so vivid. I saw my high school squad, my regular lunch table, my favorite teachers, the familiar hallways… And I knew that, at the end of the day, I would return home to my mom’s cooking, my brother and my dad shouting at sports on TV, my dog’s waggling tail…

Enjoy it.

That’s really my only reason for writing this letter, to tell you to enjoy every seemingly-eternal moment of your final year of high school. You’re probably rolling your eyes at me right now, thinking your senioritis is already bad and you’ll have no fun aside from prom this year.

You’re wrong.

I had senioritis like crazy; in fact, I think I caught it my sophomore year of high school. But that is no excuse for letting your senior year slide by without working hard and making memories.

Study hard. You’re going to hate it and pray for the end, but study hard. You’re teachers have likely already told you that college is worse, but you’ll find that college can be surprisingly manageable if you push yourself in high school. You don’t have to load yourself with AP classes like I did (I said “work hard” not “stress yourself out”) but show up, take notes, turn in every assignment, and prepare for tests in whatever classes you do take.

Connect with your teachers. Not only is this helpful for getting letters of recommendation/references for your resume, it can be fun! Strange as it sounds, with each graduating class, teachers get senioritis too. Laugh at it and enjoy getting to know your teachers as more than just lecturers with red pens. One of my favorites brought us peanut butter and bologna sandwiches, swearing she used to love them in college. They were terrible, but it was a fun memory and I’ll never forget that literature class.

Stay connected with your friends. I admit that most of my high school friends have become just Facebook friends. I still care for them and pray for them and love seeing what amazing things they are up to, but I have only a small circle of high school friends that I still talk to regularly. Hang onto your best friends for dear life, but don’t stop making new friends just because it’s almost the end. Three of my best friends I did not truly get to know until my senior year and two of them I barely spoke to until the last three months. Still, we ended up becoming a #Squad. 😉

Go to prom…or don’t. I didn’t want to go to prom and to be honest, I did not enjoy the dance. If a loud, sweaty room full of screaming peers appeals to you, go for it. But one of the best nights of my high school existence was eating ice cream and playing board games with my squad after spending only twenty minutes at the actual dance. Either way, make memories and be safe. I know, I sound like a mom, but I had to say it.

Keep volunteering. Sure, you’re leaving and probably wishing you could be up and gone already, but don’t stop giving back to your school and community. Volunteer for choir council, set up for events, go on outreach days, help at tutoring. Don’t just do it to fill up hours on your service record, do it to leave your school a better place. Love it or hate it, your high school has been your home now for almost four years; show it and its members some kindness.

As you count down the days until graduation, try not to just breeze by, zoning out and wishing the seconds would go faster. In three years, when you’re about to head back to your out-of-state college, you’ll find yourself (almost) missing the days when the farthest from home you had to drive was ten minutes to school, maybe fifteen if you went for snacks afterwards.

Maybe you read all the way to the end of this letter or maybe your senioritis kept you from skimming past the first paragraph. Better, maybe you’re saving brain power for essays. Either way, just know that this might end up being one of the best years of your life. I sincerely hope that it isn’t the best year, because there is a vast, exciting world out there beyond graduation. But, I promise that if you keep your head in the game (High School Musical becomes cool again in college…no lie), this year will zoom by and, before you know it, you’ll be walking off the football field with your diploma in hand and your future ahead of you.

Have an excellent year, class of 2018! Finish strong!

Sincerely (and a bit nostalgically),

A class of 2015 grad