Whatever is Lovely

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
– Philippians 4:8
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I prefer to live my life in double-speed. My long legs are well-suited to covering twice as much ground in half as much time. My planner is generally full of meticulously-crafted schedules. I frequently book work back-to-back because the rush of being busy thrills me. Now, regular readers will recall that my need for speed (efficiency, rather, but that doesn’t rhyme) is problematic as a pianist: my propensity to rush often leads to decreased musicality. I do not tend to let myself linger in loveliness when demanding technical passages beckon me onwards. 
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IMG_3060Suddenly, though, my schedule is wide open: my work is shut-down and my social calendar is much less eventful. I still run to stretch my legs, but they no longer have to carry me anywhere beyond my front door. I am not alone in feeling that I’ll surely descend into stir-crazy madness, however, I am beginning to wonder if the sudden decrease in busyness may be liberating rather than limiting. 
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The other day while cleaning up, I discovered anew the wonder of blowing soap bubbles: such delicate, buoyant things! I spent a few minutes—which would previously have been wasted minutes—playing with them, marveling that such a simple thing has gone unnoticed in my life since childhood. Today, while stretching after a long run, I saw the world upside down. How much greener the trees suddenly looked! And how detailed the dust of the path which was at once beneath my feet and above my head.
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I have the time to just be, something I pridefully disdained before in my desire to stay busy. Madeleine L’Engle beautifully expresses the value and delight of this quiet, still, wondering time in the following:
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“When I am constantly running there is no time for being. When there is no time for being there is no time for listening. I will never understand the silent dying of the green pie-apple tree if I do not slow down and listen to what the Spirit is telling me, telling me of the death of trees, the death of planets, of people, and what all these deaths mean in the light of love of the Creator, who brought them all into being, who brought me into being, and you.”
– Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water
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If we embrace this slower time as being time, we may notice once more the small, lovely things that give life its color and order even in the midst of pain and confusion. Maybe our afternoon coffees will seem more flavorful, running errands more interesting, speaking with friends more precious. Maybe we will learn to be comfortable in silence again, to enjoy our own solitary company, and to find fulfillment even in apparent inactivity.
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I am reminded of Philippians 4:8, particularly the phrase “whatever is lovely.” Perhaps now we are given the gift of relative freedom from distractions and demands so that we can rediscover the lovely things we so easily overlook. More so, in noticing loveliness, perhaps we will rediscover how to love well.
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IMG_2909We love our lives and surroundings best when we notice small things with joy. I used to keep a running list of ordinary, lovely things in my journal. Perhaps it is time to resurrect this habit. After all, if you read poetry and stories by writers who deeply love their homes, you will find that they love them particularly: in the broken stair-rail, the sound of a parent coming home, the smell of lemons from a neighbor’s tree. We love well when we notice well.
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In the same way, we can use this time to notice each other, for the best lovers are the best noticers. I don’t mean lovers in a necessarily romantic sense; I simply refer to anyone and everyone who actively loves another person, be it friend, neighbor, family, or partner. The friend who is suddenly incredibly active on Facebook? Check on her, regardless of politics. The family member struggling in isolation? Do what you can, even if it means sitting six feet apart for a masked chat. The neighbor who sets out a “sharing table” and seems to have plenty? Add what you can and commend their kindness. 
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As you learn to notice lovely things and to recognize opportunities for love, take the time to notice yourself as well. These last months have forced me to recognize the good things I’ve allowed to become idols as, suddenly, they have been removed. Noticing this is hard—painful even—but it is allowing me to genuinely check in with myself spiritually, emotionally, and even physically. Notice how you are doing and what it is you are desiring. I realize this is easier said than done, but I entreat you to join me in the effort. And remember that noticing ourselves goes beyond self-care; it involves confronting the reality of our lives and loves and seeking to reorient them toward what is truly lovely, that is, worth loving.
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04276F07-9D93-4829-B0B5-429F78724B8CTo conclude, I leave you simply with the following words from my “About” Page: 
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“It’s the little things, after all, that make life so lovely. And that’s really what this blog is all about: finding the small, lovely things which testify to the enduring delight of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.”
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May we use this time not to avoid the ugliness of reality, but to also rejoice in truer loveliness with gratitude and hope.

The Word Kept: a reflection on John 1:1

“IN PRINCIPIO ERAT VERBUM”

The Latin for “in the beginning was the Word” is inscribed on the gates of my college at St. Andrew’s. Each day, I was reminded as I walked beneath them why I was studying, why I am a writer, and why I was in that particular place. After all, what is my vocation of writing and reading if not to better contemplate and communicate the Word Himself?

Now, far from the gates of St. Mary’s College, these words call out to me with a stronger voice. Even here, far from the libraries and authors I loved, the Word remains my companion and guide. Even in this dark season, the Word continues to illuminate my path, to be present in my thinking and my speaking. The darkness can not overcome Him, nor the noise drown Him out.

Amidst a continuous newsfeed of conflicting perspectives, in the heartbroken lines of my journal, and in the straining sentences of papers I no longer want to write, the Word endures as He has from the beginning and ever shall.

More beautiful yet, this Word is not separate from our confusion and suffering; He is not some divine-yet-impractical platitude nor a hollow prayer. Instead, He became flesh, entering into the world of noise and broken trusts to recreate it through proclamation and compassion, to suffer alongside us as assurance made action.

He is the first and final Word, the eloquence I cannot achieve and the work I cannot perform. Best of all, He is a promise of love fulfilled.

Two Poems for St. Andrew’s

When I moved to St. Andrew’s, Scotland to pursue my master’s degree, I was convinced that I would love that little town of stone and sea with my whole being. I was sure that falling in love with its historic ruins, its adorable streets, and its rain-purified air would be simple. Yet I found myself struggling to feel that the town loved me in return; I felt that it was too old and beautiful and historic to care much about insignificant little me and so I composed this lament in the darkness of its second winter:

Under your fast-burning, crystallised veil
I was convinced for a moment
That I was—
I am
—the only one you’ve ever loved.
But you sucked premature kisses
From my chapped lips
In cold plumes which vanished all-too-fast.
Ah. So you’ve been loved before.
All who came before and beside me
Have felt the same,
And you have been too-oft beloved
To love me alone
Unique.

And yet, one morning, the voice of the sea called me to the crumbling altar of the cathedral and forced me to my knees. In an instant, I fell into a long-sought love. In a sudden sunburst, St. Andrew’s sang its love to me in the dawning of a longed-for spring:

I followed a gentle roaring east
And, warmed by the first true morn in months,
I slowed my walk from its rushing stride
To the timid tread of a spring-time bride.

For this one moment,
Wind-rocked and still,
I felt the touch of an unseen warmth
And the strengthening sun
Burned bright my veil away…
And an untied shoelace brought me low
And made me a muddy homage pay.

 

“The Whole Earth is our Hospital”: Words when Words Fail

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For those of you who do not know, I am currently studying “Theology and the Arts” at the University of St. Andrew’s, Scotland. Most recently, my practical criticism class has been reading T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. As we finished our session on “Little Gidding,” the fourth quartet, my professor sighed deeply. Suddenly emotional, she told us emphatically that above any academic gain, she hoped that we would internalize Eliot’s poetry so that we can recall it in times of need. She suggested memorizing full passages, not to show off in seminars, but to comfort ourselves in times when our own words fail.

Little did we realize, but that class session was to be our last. In the past few days, the pandemic situation has escalated far beyond what any of us could have imagined and, today, the University sent the devastating news that our courses will be completely online and urged us to return to our homes if possible.

In the days leading up to this announcement, I was numb: expecting the worst, but hoping it would not be so. Words, which come so easily for me even in times of stress, ceased. Even my thoughts were unclear and I felt ironically trapped at the thought of leaving. As I often do in times of distress, I sought movement and height, climbing the spiral stairs to the top of St. Rule’s tower at the Cathedral and thinking of nothing more than measuring my steps and minding my head. At the top, I removed my battered, much-annotated copy of Four Quartets and began to read my favorite, “East Coker,” over St. Andrew’s.

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Not only was I indeed standing on “Old stone to new building” as Eliot writes in the first movement, but I felt that at such a height and in such an ancient place, I truly was glimpsing the cycles of time that he describes. I felt that I was gaining perspective and could truly believe—as the cold wind whipped my hair across my eyes—that “there is a time for building / And a time for living and for generation / And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane.”

The most heartwrenching, yet comforting words came in the fourth movement of “East Coker,” however. Indeed, I believe the Word enters into this movement. I will include the first and third stanzas, but encourage you to read the full movement or poem here: https://genius.com/Ts-eliot-four-quartets-east-coker-annotated

“The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart. . .

The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere. . . “

The phrase “The whole earth is our hospital” is especially poignant. How true this has become. And yet, our “wounded surgeon”—paradox though He seems—will not abandon us. He knows suffering.

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We cannot naively ignore the state of the world as sick, spiritually and physically. People are suffering illness and death, as well as selfishness and resentment. Disappointment is rampant. Eliot’s poetry timelessly engages such atrocities yet points to a Saviour who did not simply remove our self-made trials but entered into them alongside us as living and dying flesh. Being able to recall Eliot’s words when my own failed has been an unmeasurable blessing and one which, ultimately, drew my heart back to the Word who is both my beginning and end.

Certain Uncertainty: some thoughts and a song

In high school, I won an essay contest for arguing that uncertainty and hope were two sides of the same coin. I’m not sure I agree theologically since I now understand hope as the anticipation of things assured in faith. Still, it was a darn good essay for a 17-year-old, and something in its essence stuck with me through the past six years.

You see, I’m 5,000 miles away from everyone I love, studying in a graduate program surrounded by men with more degrees than a thermometer (I’d better learn to smoke a pipe), married couples with young children in tiny rainboots (seriously, my heart explodes every time), and people who seem to know exactly what they want in life. Or, more daunting, people who already seem to have what they want.

And even though I’m doing reasonably well, found a job that I love, and am living in a place I’ve dreamt of for years, the uncertainty of what comes next keeps me awake until the terrible hours of the morning. (Which, due to how far north I am, look more or less as dark as the terrible hours of the afternoon.)

The uncertainty is relentless. I’ll spare you, whoever you are, from reading my long lists of worries that have filled a journal cover-to-cover in record time. Instead, I want to leave you with another small original song. Perhaps it is odd to take comfort in my own words and music, but this song reminds me of earlier this year when things felt just as terribly uncertain, perhaps even more so.

And yet, here I am, six months later and still moving forward.

In the time since I wrote this, the lyrics have taken on richer meaning, deeper hope, and a more mature understanding that while everything feels uncertain, there is true certainty in hope. Unlike my high school essay, it seems now that uncertainty propels me back to my certain hope in Christ and the blessings He prodigally bestows on me even in the most lonely, frightening, and uncertain seasons.

It was a love song once but it has taken on a meaning beyond romance. Now, it is an expression of the hope which unites uncertainty and certainty. This hope, like a song, relies on moving forward through time toward its realization.

A Dream Deferred: A Reflection and a Resolution

“A Dream Deferred”

by Langston Hughes

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up 
like a raisin in the sun? 
Or fester like a sore– 
And then run? 
Does it stink like rotten meat? 
Or crust and sugar over– 
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags 
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

     Until yesterday afternoon, I deceived myself with the notion that I understood this poem, believing it to be a simple outpouring of despair in the face of disappointment. But an unfortunate fall broke not only my arm, but my innocent insight into Mr. Hughes poem. You see, I am a competitive pianist who practices for hours each day. Ever since I began piano before kindergarten, I knew that (alongside literature, of course) it would be my passion. I would not allow myself to play volleyball and such sports and remained the dorky kid who wore wrist guards whenever active, all in attempt to protect my arms and hands for piano. Who would have guessed that I would slip on an empty strawberry carton whilst making breakfast the week of a competition and the AZ Piano Institute camp? And who would have thought that three little words- “You busted it”, thrown out so casually by the surgeon, could be so heartbreaking? Certainly now I know the meaning of a “Dream Deferred.”

    But while a deferred dream may be painful to both body and spirit and I confess that I felt that my life ruined as scholarships, competitions, and accompanying gigs fell away before my eyes, there is hope and even purpose to be found in my accident and within the lines of Langston Hughes’ poem. Notice that he does not write anything definite; every line is a question, a mere speculation about the fate of a challenged dream. Failure is not fatal and we can choose how we respond to the obstacles placed in our paths to success. In my case, God blessed me with enough strength to drag myself up and use the time I spent practicing to begin learning a new language and read the books of the AP Literature list so that my ambition does not “crust and sugar over.” I have also been introduced to wonderful people to advise and inspire me, sharing left-handed repertoire for piano so that I now can enhance my musical ability rather than let it “dry up like a raisin in the sun.”

     Notice also the final two stanzas. These clearly indicate the overarching idea that there is a choice in the face of a dream deferred. Hughes simply states that a deadened dream may “sag like a heavy load,” burdening its bearer with regret and unfulfilled desire to the point where he or she is too bitter and weary to find a new path. I will readily admit that I am tempted to give up and sit at home crying into a bowl of ice cream for the rest of the summer, but I do not believe that is what Langston Hughes would have done. In contrast, the final line returns to the open-ended question: “or does it explode?” Even in the face of great obstacles, dreams may be realized, if in a different way than we initially planned, thereby “exploding” into a grander accomplishment than possible on a wide, smooth path, free of danger or difficulty. For instance, I had never even considered left-handed piano music, but with my right arm in a cast, I am forced to adapt and may emerge an improved musician. The question presented in these final lines demands an answer: shall we allow ourselves to wallow in the proverbial “Depths of Despair” when our plans are interrupted? Or, will we allow ourselves to acknowledge that though we may “walk through the Valley of the Shadow,” all hope is not lost?

     Finally, I leave you with one more of my inexperienced thoughts: A dream deferred is not a dream demolished, a dream destroyed, a dream devastated, or a dream defeated, all of which describe something completely and utterly annihilated and irreparable. Rather, a dream deferred, by definition, is nothing but a dream postponed. Interrupted? More difficult? Disappointing? Yes, but hopeless? Never.