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 Lesson in Time

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I posed for this picture without really putting much thought into the words on the wall. Right now, I am where I want to be: at home, writing in my favorite spot with snickerdoodles in the oven. At the same time, though, I am still caught in the in-between. This weekend, I will visit a dear person and place in California. Two days later, I’ll return home to Arizona for a day. Then, I’ll turn right back around and fly to the UK for another semester. I am everywhere and nowhere, yet the words “You are right where you are supposed to be” ring true in my ears. 

“How can this discontent in-between be where I am supposed to be?” I wondered (not for the first time) as I sat down at the piano this evening. I struck the opening chords of Chopin’s Barcarolle in F-sharp Major, Op. 60, and let muscle memory take over. As I played this familiar piece, I found myself struggling as always with timing; despite grueling hours with a metronome, I still slow down in the bits I really love and skim over the more treacherous passages.

My life (as is so often the case) parallels my musical practice. Before returning to the United States for Christmas, I remember praying that my month at home would feel at least as long as my grueling month of final papers and exams. I hoped so desperately that the unpleasant days before my departure would speed by and that my equal time at home would somehow slow down. Yet, predictably, my final month of the semester felt like an eternity and now—although I feel like I’ve barely touched down—I am preparing to leave once more. Try as I might, I cannot alter time.

Similarly, a superficial manipulation of speed does not improve the music I produce. While it might allow me to linger in lovely passages and rush through nasty technical bits, my inability to keep time destroys the beauty of balance. In his Barcarolle, Chopin writes gorgeous lines that my hasty fingers destroy in their race to the finish. He also includes glorious melodies that my romantic soul savors in excess. Unchecked, I easily make a lopsided, sentimental mess of one of the greatest works of piano literature.

The mantra that “music is in the silence between the notes” is attributed to Mozart, Debussy, and Miles Davis. While its origins might be murky, the quote itself—much like the literal writing on the wall in my photograph—rings true. Without the proper placement of sound and silence, there can only randomness and noise. Music, then, is made by ordering these contrasting elements within time.

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.”
– Ecclesiastes 3:1

Music, like earthly life, is a temporal art. Both are worked out and made beautiful in time. Although I grew to despise the metronome that revealed my faulty counting, it taught me to work through difficult passages and to not cling to smooth phrases beyond their allotted pages. Whether playing an exquisite harmony or a grating dissonance, I was right where I needed to be within the piece and in time. Only by realizing that time is the basis for musical movement and beauty could I begin to submit to the metronome, the composer’s writing, and—ultimately—to the proper engagement of sound and silence, dissonance and harmony, ease and struggle.

In the same way, though I resent the travel schedule that hastens my departure from home, I am thankful, for it is one of the beams that measure my days. In the dissonance of not only being in my early twenties but also moving between continents, I too-often fear that I am not where I am supposed to be. However, while the place may not always be ideal, the timing is perfect.

“O LORD, make me know my end
and what is the measure of my days;
let me know how fleeting I am!”
– Psalm 39:4 (ESV)

As in a well-composed piece of music, I may struggle with technique or indulge in romanticism, but I cannot skip ahead or return to before. Instead, the order and beauty of the music depend upon recognizing that the present is always moving yet always where it is meant to be in time. In this musical, mysterious way, I am always exactly where I am supposed to be. 

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.

Medium Cappuccino with an Extra Shot of Awkward Please

My roommate once described me as “Stephen King trapped inside a Disney princess” and I think that sums up my personality nicely, though I would prefer to substitute Bradbury for King as I am not quite that dark… I am, however, a strange combination of intensity and flowery joy. I enjoy spending dark nights practicing pipe organ in a church and sunshiney days playing my ukulele. I am equally at home in concert black and colorful sweaters.

Now, if you’ve read my blog at all, you know that I have a deep, undying affection for coffee shops. You also probably know that I love making small talk with baristas, mostly to be friendly but also in the secret hopes that I can charm my way to an extra shot of espresso or double whipped cream. My Disney princess side comes out in full force the minute I enter a coffee shop. Enormous eyes and friendly smile? Check. Voice slightly higher than normal? Check. Kindly questions and well-rehearsed coffee jokes? Double-check.

Well, a few weeks ago, my Stephen-King-Ray-Bradbury side took over. I crossed the threshold of my beloved Costa Coffee and, as I re-imagine the scene, I am pretty sure that lightning flashed behind me.

Still, I ordered my usual and prepared to banter.

“Chocolate on top of your cappuccino?” asked the barista.

“Of course!” I reply cheerily. “Does anyone ever say no?”

“You’d be surprised.”

“Huh,” I said. And at this point, I think my King-Bradbury side smothered my Disney side and held her at knifepoint. I said nothing for a moment as the two natures battled it out.

King-Bradbury won.

“You know,” I said as the barista reached for the chocolate sprinkles. “In prison…”

(Internally, my Disney side was begging my dark half to stop: “NEVER START SMALL TALK WITH PRISON WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” she sang, accompanied by a chorus of horrified woodland creatures.)

“In prison,” I continued. “That’s how they determine who is and is not a psychopath.”

(King-Bradbury chuckled as the Disney princess gave up and covered her sidekicks’ ears to keep them from hearing what came next.)

“And if they say no,” I went on. “If they don’t want chocolate on top of their coffees, well…it’s the chair.”

Silence.

Two shocked baristas gaped at me for a moment.

Stephen King and Ray Bradbury enjoyed a hearty chuckle and high-fived each other.

Finally, one of the baristas laughed nervously.

I took my coffee and left.

And, logically, I know that the baristas thought nothing of it after I was gone. I mean, I can’t be the only person to mention the electric chair while ordering a coffee, can I? But every time I step into that café, a little tiny nagging voice chants and mocks me as I order my cappuccino and my Disney side tries with all her overly-chatty might to compensate for the slip.

The Philanthropist

He began the fall in wealth,
His arms hanging heavy with green, new-money
Made in spring.
It was the cash that grows on trees:
Easily spent and easily made,
Budded by summer and
Minted by the gold-standard sun.

Investing at Autumn’s asking,
He lays a few leavings in her chill-bone hands
But scatters the rest in splendour
As on her bridal path.
He takes care to appear choosy,
Particular and piecemeal as
A widow with her mite,
Though he is secretly as prodigal as his creator
As wistful as a lover,
Plucking a piece at a time from his boughs
And sending it off,
Hopeful as a love letter,
Yellow as a first rose,
And dancing in girlish spirals
on its way down.

Down, down, down to the banks.
A copper here.
A penny there.
Soon he will rest.
Soon he will lay down his last life
And wait half-dead in winter’s retirement.
But for now,
As a bird feathers her nest,
He lines the road with dew-damp gold,
Lavishing heaven’s riches on earth
For a few more weeks, if not
For Eternity.

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.

Maybe it’s Because of Winn Dixie

I’m reading Gone with the Wind again for what is somewhere between the fourth or seventh time. It seems that anytime I am between books, unsure what to read next, or feeling unsettled, I turn (second to my Bible) to that enormous novel for no better reason than that it is a darn good story.

But my relationship with Gone with the Wind has grown to run deeper than just loving its tale of hard times, moral dilemma, and, of course, gumption. I first read Gone with the Wind as a stressed-out sophomore in high school. I saw its spine in the school’s library and, although my Kaplan AP study guide glared reproachfully at me, I could not resist cracking it open and reading its first page.

“Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.”

Talk about an intriguing opening line! In it, Margaret Mitchell’s beautifully direct yet alluring voice is already clear and called me to continue deeper into the story of Miss O’Hara. And, though AP exams were looming, I rationed out a chapter each night in the copy that now is bedraggled and overread and never far from my bedside table.

My freshman year of college drove me back beneath the covers of Gone with the Wind. Once more, the story swept me away and restored my own sense of gumption. Like Scarlett, I was able to “square my small shoulders” and boldly face the world. Again and again, each spring semester I found myself returning to Tara and Atlanta and the fascinating courtship of Scarlett and Rhett Butler.

Once I began traveling internationally, I downloaded a Kindle edition so that I could continue my annual reread. The novel has been a constant as I’ve flown around Europe, studied in the UK, and hopped between Southern California and Arizona during long, uneventful summers. Now, it is keeping me company during a grueling layover in Amsterdam as I head to Scotland to begin my postgraduate studies.

In reflection, I’ve known and loved Gone with the Wind far longer than I even realized; in fact, you might say that I was introduced to it through a mutual friend. At a party a week ago, I was suddenly anxious. There were too many people, too many colors, too much noise. And I had too much to do, too many unfinished chores and unpacked cases waiting at home. I wanted to sink through the floor and cry. But then I found, nestled on a bookshelf, a copy of Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Winn Dixie and felt the tension diffuse as if I’d sighted a dear friend with whom I could enjoy comfortable silence even amidst the chaos of the party.

So I sat down and, as I did many years ago, began to read. Opal and Winn Dixie and the Preacher greeted me with welcome arms and I felt companionship in their worries and homesickness. And as I read on, I remembered that in the pages of this children’s story, I was first introduced to the novel that has come to dominate my adult reading life.

Reading Because of Winn Dixie, now and as a child, brought a sense of calm when I needed it most and, I think, planted the seed that eventually led me to Gone with the Wind. So I suppose all this is really a thank-you letter of sorts— to Margaret Mitchell, for her epic novel, and to Kate DiCamillo, for introducing us. Dear authors, your words have been friends to me in so many places and stages; I only hope to inspire others to read them and, one day, to have my own stories shelved beside them.